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Ok, so I'm posting this chapter again, clean this time. This is the Greg chapter, if I'm not mistaken. Please feel free, dear John (if you are indeed still managing this site) to remove the first, botched attempt at uploading this. Or indeed remove all of it. Again: I do NOT have the copyright for any of this.
THE ORANGE OF MISERY AND DELIGHT
Johnny Dancer looked like a sleazy guy. His shirt was untucked and lunch-stained, his pants were rumpled, his cologne was cheap and pungent and his cheeks were unevenly shaved. More than that, though, there was something around his nervous eyes, his crack-knuckle twitching hands and his jumpy, insincere grin that made him look like he spent an inordinate amount of time in grimy stairwells trying to look up women's skirts. At one time Johnny had tried to dress well and mind his manners, but it seemed that no amount of grooming could remove his ineffable porn-store miasma. He eventually quit trying.
"I'll have a cheeseburger with the vinegar fries, and my buddy here wants a bowl of cheerios, no milk, no spoon," he told the waitress.
"Still breakfast time," she replied, with the finality of an uncaring God. "Can't get no cheeseburger yet."
"Aw, c'mon!" Her visage was immobile. "Oh, all right, I'll have the hash and eggs. Oh, and I'm gonna move over to that table over there? But keep me and him on the same tab, got it?"
She nodded, with a bland look of insulted intelligence. Johnny's breakfast companion said nothing, just stared down at his hands.
"Billy? Hey Billy, look here. Look Billy. Billy." The other man eventually raised dull eyes and met Johnny's gaze.
"Billy, I got some cheerios coming for you, okay? And when they get here, I'm going to go away for a while. Not too long. I'll be back. But I'm going away. First I'll go over there," he said, pointing furtively at an empty table. "Then I'll go around back, but I'll come back for you, understand me? You just wait here. Wait. You stay here until I get back. Understand? You understand me? Billy?" Johnny nodded, and Billy nodded back at him. Johnny had no idea how much Billy understood moment by moment, but he had learned that if given a big bowl of cheerios, the silent man would slowly eat them one by one. Depending on the bowl, it could keep him occupied for up to an hour.
A little time passed. Billy stared at his hands, breathed through his mouth, now and again moving his head to point at the shiny sugar dispenser or the gold foil ashtray. Johnny drummed his fingers, looking at the front door of the diner, the side door, the counter, the clock. He was worried that his contact might turn up while he was still sitting with Billy, but he was also pretty sure that if he moved before the cheerios arrived, Billy would just get up and go to the new table with him. He didn't want to be seen with the big man. He didn't want to queer the deal.
Their breakfasts arrived.
"All right!" Johnny said with false eagerness. His fingers continued to drum on the table.
"Something bothering you?" the waitress asked, sounding like she couldn't care less.
"Just quitter's jitters," he said with a grin, tapping the ashtray. He'd quit smoking five years ago.
She plopped down their food and, once he saw Billy was engrossed in his cereal, Johnny got up and moved.
Ten minutes later, his contact arrived. He'd been told to watch for a blonde Englishwoman in black clothes. She'd been shown a picture, so she went straight to his table.
Although it was cloudy, she wore sunglasses. Her straight hair was cut in a short, severe bob. She wore no makeup. She had on a black leather car coat and she kept her hands in her pockets.
"Mr. Dancer," she said by way of introduction. "You have what I need?"
"Oh hi! Hi, you must be Agnes. Yeah, have a seat, I'm just finishing my breakfast."
She remained standing.
"If you don't mind, I'd like to complete our transaction. I've been on a plane a long time."
"Oh. Yeah, uh, okay." He took another bite as he stood, then wiped his hand on his pants. He was surprised to find that he was taller than she. Her coat made her look bigger, somehow.
"Yeah, it's right out back." He turned to the waitress, who was reading a racing form behind the counter. "I'll be back soon," he said. She nodded without looking up.
Out back was a 1990 Chevy with tiny dents in the hood and roof. He'd bought it up north after a hailstorm. It had a "For Sale" sign in the back that had been there so long it was faded.
He glanced around before popping the trunk.
"As you can see, lots of trunk space for whatever you need," he said for the benefit of anyone who might be listening in. He was still looking this way and that. Inside the trunk was a small suitcase, and inside the suitcase there were guns.
"Okay," he said in a lower tone of voice. "I think this is everything you need. SPAS-12 pistol grip shotgun; a Walther P-5, and an AMT Automag. Though I gotta say, I'd recommend a smaller gun. You ain't exactly got hands like Michael Jordan…"
"The AMT was supposed to be chrome," she said.
"Well…" he rubbed his chin uncomfortably. "Well, I know you asked, but I figured that was a preference, not, like, a necessity. This one's a good gun, it's untraceable…"
"I won't take this one. Get me a chrome AMT. I'll call you in 24 hours to arrange to pick it up."
"Jesus lady, don't get your panties in a bunch…"
She turned her gaze from the guns to his face, and suddenly the chill of the day was nothing next to the chill in his heart.
"Mr. Dancer: The less time I have to spend in your presence, the happier I will be and the healthier you will be. Do I make myself clear?"
He had to gulp and force himself to reply. "Crystal clear," he whispered.
She reached into an interior pocket of her coat, causing him to flinch back half a step, but she was only producing an envelope. She opened it, counted out part of the money within, and handed him the rest.
"I'll pay you for the third weapon when you produce one that is appropriate."
"Sure," he muttered, still unable to tear his eyes away from the black pits of her sunglasses.
"I will contact you soon if I need any further ordnance, such as hand grenades or a sniper rifle. That way you can have them ready when I come to get my chrome AMT."
"Hey lady, if you're looking for much more than this, you're gonna be disappointed."
"I bet you say that to all the girls."
She took the black AMT out of the suitcase and dropped it in the trunk with a thud. Johnny nervously picked it up and looked for a rag to wrap it in. She closed the suitcase and walked away without a backward glance. The price of the case hadn't been in the deal, but Johnny didn't argue.
"Sheesh, what a bitch," he muttered as he went back to the diner. Billy was nearly done with his cereal. Johnny's breakfast had been cleared away.
Lenora Washington felt an ache in her bones. This wasn't uncommon: Any time the weather changed, she felt the grind and heard cracking noises in her knees and hips, in her elbows and shoulders and in her hands especially. Not so much in the ankles, but she figured they were so swollen that the bones stayed in place naturally.
It was half past nine. She'd just gotten off work. She was having a cup of coffee and giving her feet a good soak. Soon she'd have breakfast. She'd planned on vacuuming the house and doing her laundry, but after cleaning all night she didn't know if she'd want to keep going. Going straight to bed at ten in the morning was sounding better and better. On the other hand, if today was like the last couple days, she'd just go to bed and lie awake, fretting about the Man Who Walked Through Walls.
-Ever have one of those days where you just can't get to sleep?- she thought to herself-the punchline of an old third shift joke.
Her wry half-smile faded as her thoughts shifted to -That bastard reporter.-
The article hadn't been a big one. If she'd found the girl alive, it would have been a bigger deal, would have gotten on the front page at least. Probably over the crease. Or if the girl had been more important, which still meant white or middle class.
-I should be grateful she didn't look like that fool Jean Benet,- she thought, moodily stirring her toes and her coffee. -What they call "high profile." Get me on fuckin' "Hard Copy" and shit. No thanks.-
The kind, sympathetic face of the Man Who Walked Through Walls flitted across her mind. She shuddered.
Her name didn't appear until the next to last page, far at the bottom of the article. "Mrs. Rowlands wanted to thank Leona Washington for all her help. 'Without Leona, we never would have found my baby, no matter what them cops say.'"
-Thanks a load,- Leona thought. -Your gratitude may get me killed.-
The Man Who Walked Through Walls had visited her the first time she'd gotten in the paper for helping out. That had been a better time: The boy had been alive. He'd just gotten lost, and had kept getting more lost while the cops were busy sweating one of his suspicious neighbors.
That article had called her a "psychic." They'd gotten her name wrong, but she was in the background of one of the pictures.
She'd felt great. Her co-workers all gave her new respect-even her boss looked at her differently for a while. She had to put up with people asking her to get in contact with the King, but overall she'd been very pleased.
Then one day she'd come home and there had been a stranger in her home. White fellow, going bald, friendly eyes and a mild little smile. It's always scary when a stranger shows up in your house, but he knew the secret words-the words her teacher had said were handed down from the Loas. He claimed they were from Atlantis.
They'd had a conversation about magick, and about how much it frightened people even when it was put to good ends. He said he had her good, as well everyone else's, firmly in mind. "It doesn't take people long to turn ugly and suspicious, even towards people who are helping them. 'The oldest and greatest fear is fear of the unknown,' right?"
"Personally, I'm pleased as punch that you were able to get that little boy back alive. That's great. But next time you want to do a good deed, please-be a little more circumspect. You know? A little more quiet."
He'd had a briefcase with him, and he'd given her pages and pages of documents about "psychics" and "witches" and "shamans." All of his stories ended badly. Most with violence, usually one-sided violence against the "warlock."
"We don't want to see stories about psychics on the front pages of reputable Memphis papers any more," he'd said, getting to his feet. "It's better for you, for me, for other people with special skills-and most of all for the ordinary people who want to get on with their lives and don't give a fig about magick."
She stood as well, reaching out to shake his hand. He took a firm grip, yanked her forward and struck her across her face-a hard, backhanded slap. His thick wedding band hit her cheekbone and raised a welt that lasted a week.
"The next time you come to our attention, they won't send someone as nice as me," he said. Then he opened the door to her closet, walked through it, and was gone.
Since that time, she'd been careful. Any time she used her powers to clarify the past for herself, she clouded it for others. The police might vaguely recall some old black woman asking questions, but they couldn't quite remember a face or a name. Even the parents had their memories shifted, if not erased outright.
This time though, she'd been careless and tired. The power wasn't coming to her as freely as it used to: Her teacher had never warned her about that. Maybe it was because he hadn't lived to be as old as she now was. Maybe a site, even a powerful one like the Palace of the King, could go dry eventually. Most likely someone else was stealing its mojo from her. She knew she really ought to be looking for a rival adept on her turf, but the notion of going back there during the day, when it was so crowded… it just drained her of all her will and motivation. Especially when she had better things to do than waste her strength on some pointless magickal duel. Things like finding lost children.
But with limited power she'd had to make tough choices. Protect herself, or find the child? The child of course, the child. Then, whose memory to jinx? The reporter, who endangered her most directly? The cop? The mother, who knew her best? She'd hexed the reporter and the cop…
(the real menaces, the ones with power, the two white men)
…and had sworn the mother to secrecy. But not, apparently, with much effect.
She stirred her coffee and decided the vacuuming could wait.
It was a slow work day for Brian Novak. That was good and bad both. It was good in a practical sense. He was waiting for a very important phone call, and he did not want anyone to be around when it came. He did not want to have to be guarded in his speech before a witness, in addition to being guarded towards Nan, the woman who was going to call any moment now. Any moment.
It was bad because there was nothing to distract him from the wait.
The moments ticked by for Brian Novak, owner and sole proprietor of Clarity Video Productions, and the phone did not ring. He sat, and he waited, and he thought. He thought about sorrow and joy and the color orange.
-Yellow and red are different,- he thought to himself, -But they are contiguous. The point at which they connect is the color orange. Orange is not red and not yellow, but it is closer to red than yellow and closer to yellow than red.-
He had thought this hundreds, possibly thousands of times before.
-Sorrow and joy are different,- he thought, -But are they contiguous? Yes, clearly they are because we can go from one to the other and if you can get from A to B -- from red to yellow or to sorrow from joy -- then clearly, obviously, they must be connected. What, then, is the connection between joy and sorrow? What is their 'orange'?-
Brian had spoken to people about this question, though not very often because he was a shy, quiet man with few intimates. Most of the people he'd asked had said that "calmness" or "indifference" or even "boredom" was the connection between joy and sorrow. Brian accepted that this was, perhaps, a route between. One could be happy, then bored, then miserable. That was a path, it had a name, it was understood and that was fine.
But there was another way. Brian knew it was possible to go from total joy to total misery in an instant. He knew it. Getting the Birthday Tape had only confirmed it--confirmed it and cemented his dedication to plumbing this mystery.
Working in video, Brian had gotten to know some odd people. Video is a big field, and growing, and there are odd people in every business -- odd bankers, odd plumbers, odd retail sales associates. But video, being a business that dealt with evidence -- with captured experience that could be replayed and examined -- seemed to attract more odd people than other fields. Or perhaps it was only that the evidentiary nature of the field made oddness that much easier to discover, or share.
Brian himself knew that his fascination with the border between happiness and its converse would mark him as odd in the minds of many people, even many people in the video business. That was one reason he was a shy, quiet man with few intimates.
However, one of his odd video fellows had given him the Birthday Tape.
"Man, you won't believe this shit," he'd said to Brian. "Makes 'Faces of Death' look like 'Toy Story.'"
"What's on it?" Brian had asked.
"Play it and see."
Brian had played it, and he had seen.
The Birthday Tape had been made in 1995 in a hospital in Houston, Texas. (Texas was home for Brian's odd colleague.) A man had taken a video camera into the obstetrics ward while his wife was in labor, and had filmed her giving birth to their first child. The child died in the delivery room.
Apparently the man (whose name Brian did not know and whose face only appeared a few times in the footage) had rented the camera, and had left the tape in it when he returned it. Brian's associate surmised that he had been "too shell shocked" to erase it.
The man narrated the entire tape, up to the point that it became clear something was going wrong with the delivery. Then he said nothing while the doctors and nurses worked, their faces showing frustration, exhaustion and fear, and then he dropped the camera when the doctor said "It's wrapped around the baby's neck…"
The mother started to make a sound when the doctor said that, a keening, wailing sound that rose and rose. The father dropped the camera, the picture swirled blue and shook when it hit, and there were just a few blurred moments of the mother's face before the camera got knocked over and turned off.
When Brian had seen "The Blair Witch Project" he hadn't cared for it--partly because, as an AV professional, he could recognize parts that had obviously been edited, despite the narrative claim that it was all raw footage. But primarily, he couldn't suspend his disbelief in Heather Donohue. He knew very well that when people were in a state of intense, active misery, the last thing on their mind was documenting it.
The Birthday Tape taught him that.
Brian had watched the tape over and over. He'd tweaked the audio. He'd slowed down the video. He'd gone frame by frame. He'd run enhancement programs, trying to amp up the resolution on the key frames. But there was nothing he could point to and say "There, that's when they go from being delighted to being horrified."
It was very frustrating. He'd looked for other Birthday Tapes, and for similar video documents, but nothing else had what he was looking for, nothing really had the orange of misery and delight. He'd come close: By 1999, word of his tastes had gotten around, and he was offered a tape entitled Nan On Coke for the bargain price of $1,000. (He'd given the man $550 and ten bootleg pornos.) It was a tape of a woman snorting cocaine and then realizing she was being taped. Watching her expression change from ecstasy to anger had been informative, but still not quite right. He couldn't say why: He suspected it was because her joy was alloyed with guilt, fear and shame.
Eventually he had tracked down Nan Butler and asked her about the tape. She'd denied everything. She'd also called him a bastard, and other bad things. But eventually they'd reached an agreement.
Brian Novak had tried to be generous with Nan Butler. When the victim of blackmail realizes that getting rid of the blackmailer is less trouble than paying out, said blackmailer is in trouble. In blackmailing Nan, Brian had been careful to make sure she felt that doing what he wanted was the lesser of two evils.
In fact, he had only asked her for one thing. Granted, it was a big thing, but he had made it as easy as possible. He'd made the plan. He'd made all the arrangements. He promised to give her all his copies of Nan On Coke (a promise he did not intend to keep). He'd even given her money. But she hadn't agreed until he made it clear and apparent that doing this one thing for him would remove her from his power forever.
"Nan," Brian Novak had said, "Look. The only thing I have on you a drug binge, right? Eventually the statute of limitations on that is going to run out, but that won't help you if the tape finds its way to your employers. So that's a threat, yes, it's a danger. But if you do this for me, we will be partners in a crime together. Once that happens, I can't turn you in--if I do, you'll just roll over on me and we'll both suffer. Neither of us wants that. Now you're in my power. If we do this together, we'll be in each other's power. I can no longer threaten you without putting the gun to my own head as well."
It had taken some doing but she could not escape his logic. He had thought it out well, just as he had thought out the ramifications of his research into emotional color.
It had, at some point, occurred to him that all the footage he had -- inadequate as it was -- was of the transition from happy to unhappy. It was his hope that the opposite conversion would be more illuminating.
So he needed to watch someone go from being dreadfully miserable and afraid to being blissfully happy. To keep the experiment clean, the both emotions should be pure -- uncomplicated by side-notes like guilt or suspicion or self-aware anticipation. That kind of simplicity argued strongly for a child.
He would make a child unhappy by kidnapping it, then make it happy by letting it go. A simple plan, on the surface.
The phone rang. He picked it up with eager fingers.
"Yes?" he said.
"It's done," Nan replied.
The apartment that Johnny Dancer shared with Billy was not very large: Two bedrooms, a living room with barely enough room for Johnny's TV set and Billy's piano. Billy didn't seem to mind the cramped space though. He didn't seem to mind many things: Just the few things that bothered him a lot.
One thing that bothered Billy a lot was belts. Brown leather belts specifically made him cry, but only when they weren't in somebody's pants. Slip them through the loops, tighten the buckle -- he was fine. But as soon as it was out, hanging limp, he'd start to whimper, then sob, eventually wailing in pure terror.
Johnny figured this had something to do with all the straight line scars on Billy's back. The lines were jumbled up, like a thin pile of pick-up sticks. They went from his shoulder blades down to the backs of his thighs. The greatest density was on his butt. Almost all of them had gaps--holes in the scars from where they stretched while he grew. The oldest ones were barely there at all, but if Johnny had to guess, he figured those marks were made over the course of years.
He had no idea who'd beaten Billy so badly. Probably whoever had castrated him.
Johnny wasn't even sure what Billy's real name was. The first time he'd seen the big man, it was in a nasty dive bar--a place that didn't have a sign out front but was known to everyone as Burt's. Burt's was the kind of place where the patrons got a lot of laughs out of a big retarded guy.
The only thing Billy could do was play the piano and sing. He never talked, but he could sing if he was playing the piano. He was pretty good at both, too.
Johnny had never heard the phrase "idiot-savant," but he was living with one.
The fact that Billy could play piano and sing wasn't what caught Johnny's attention. Johnny noticed something that no one else had, at least as far as Johnny knew. Johnny had noticed that Billy's songs always meant something.
For instance, whenever anyone asked Billy who he was, he'd walk over to the piano, start banging on the keys and launch into "It's nine o'clock on a Saturday…" -- "Piano Man," by Billy Joel. The barflies and bastards down at Burt's had named him Billy Joel.
Johnny had noticed that no matter what Burt asked him to play, Billy would play "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer." One of the bottle-blonde, mascara victim hags would always ask him for Elvis songs, but for her he'd only sing "One Man Woman."
But what had caught Johnny's attention was this: Whenever Johnny walked into Burt's, Billy would play "The Great Pretender." At first he thought it was just a coincidence, but it got his attention. Because no one else had guessed. Johnny's ex-wife, his friends, even his old mother--none of them picked up that he wasn't the real Johnny Dancer. But this nameless, homeless, friendless moron had seen right through him in seconds.
Johnny figured that was worth something.
So Johnny had brought Billy home and got an old upright piano, and after two nights of nonstop playing ("Piano Man" and "The Great Pretender" over and over) he'd gotten the lock on the lid fixed. He'd locked up all the guns in his bedroom and kept his collection of "Hustler" hidden there too.
It wasn't until he'd brought Billy home that he saw the scars, or found out that when he started whimpering for no visible reason it meant he had to go to the bathroom. That was also when he found out someone had cut off the poor sap's balls. Johnny wasn't about to take a closer look down there, but a nurse he'd hired to help him manage the kid (and Johnny couldn't help but think of Billy as a kid) had said it was a pretty ragged, shabby job of cutting, too.
After he figured out the deal with Billy and belts, Johnny had hung one on the end of his bed's footboard to keep his new roommate out. With the doors closed, it generally worked. Billy seemed pretty content: Calm at least. Johnny figured Billy was way better off with him than with the fuckos at Burt's, or with whatever psycho had sliced on him before that.
At first he'd just felt sorry for him, but in time, he realized it made him feel good to be helping this poor sad sack. Maybe everyone else thought he was slime, but Billy needed him. That was all right.
Plus, it didn't hurt that Billy's musical intuitions never failed.
When the two of them got home, Jimmy unlocked the piano, Billy sat down and started playing.
"Ooooh yes, I'm the Great Pretender…"
"Billy," Johnny said. "Hey Billy, listen. Listen up, buddy. That women I was with, remember her? The blonde woman in the black coat? Remember that woman? The yellow hair? What's her song Billy? Can you play me her song?"
Billy's fingers stopped, the came down again, playing a chugging rhythm. Johnny recognized it, but it wasn't until Billy sang "Hangman, hangman…" that he placed it as the old 'Zep song "The Gallows Pole."
-That ain't good,- he thought to himself.
"Thanks Billy. Thank you. Now, can you tell me why she's here? The gallows pole woman… why's she here, Billy?"
Again, a pause, then a song from Genesis. (Billy always seemed to like Top 40.) "Just a Job to Do," Phil Collins' song about a hit man from the 1980s.
"Who's she here for Billy?" Johnny was hoping the fat man would play a song he'd never heard, a song for some anonymous shithole he'd never met. Hell, "Hail to the Chief" would be fine with him, just so long as Johnny didn't have to get involved.
"The Mississippi Delta was shining like a national guitar…"
"Fuck," Johnny said out loud. The song was "Graceland" by Paul Simon.
Lenora Washington's song.
"I'm Agnes Flynn. I phoned in an order earlier, and I'm here to pick it up."
"Oh yeah," the man behind the counter replied. "We don't get a lot of calls for .50 caliber at all, and most people figure a round that big has enough stopping power without getting it hollow-tip." He looked her up and down. "Look, I gotta ask: You're getting these for someone else, aren't you?"
She locked her eyes on his. Her expression didn't change, but he broke out in a cold sweat even before her careful reply.
"I'm going to be the one firing them. But yes, I am getting them for someone else."
* * *
Lenora was sound asleep, dreaming something incoherent about a school bus with teeth, and a white paper bag full of little black watch faces, when she heard a pounding on her door. She sighed, rolled over, waited for the knocking to stop, wondering if it was the same person who'd called earlier that day. Just like then, she waited, always hoping this ring would be the last. After ten rings, it had worked with the phone.
When the woman started leaning on the door buzzer, and she got up with a grunt and a sigh.
As soon as she looked out the window, she knew. The woman on her doorstep could only be there for one thing. Lenora toyed with the idea of just not answering the door, but not seriously. No point in delaying the inevitable.
"Lenora Washington?" the visitor asked.
"C'n I come in?"
Lenora rolled her eyes and stepped aside.
The woman looked crazy--sad-crazy and hard up. "I'm sorry to bother you Ms. Washington, but I'm desperate. I need your help, and I heard… I heard that you can… that you…"
Lenora pursed her lips, thinking -I'll let this pushy bitch into my house, I'll get out of my warm bed, but I'll be damned if I help her when she can't even ask for it.- But, as with the doorbell and the phone and the other crazy sad women, she gave in.
"You heard I find children."
The woman nodded, distracted--not even grateful.
"So I guess you lost one?"
The woman opened her purse and spilled out a fist full of photos--mostly dingy-looking home pictures of a scrawny, finicky-looking boy, mixed in with a few posed school pictures that had better colors and stiffer smiles. Both women sat, and Lenora started looking.
"Jeffery," the mother said.
"Uh huh. You gone to the police?"
"Oh, the police," Jeffery's mother said with a roll of her eyes and a toss of her head. "They won't do nothing yet."
"How long he been missing?"
"Four hours now."
Lenora raised her eyebrows.
"Just four little hours?"
"He's not where he's supposed to be!"
"And you're running for a 'psychic' already?"
"I spent two hours all around where he was, looking. He wasn't there. Then I spent two hours at the police station, not getting any help. So now I'm here. I can't afford a private detective," she said, with a defiant jut to her chin.
"But me you can afford?"
The woman deflated. "I heard you didn't charge nothing."
"Just who you hear so much about me from?"
The woman looked uncomfortable. "She made me promise not to say."
"Oh that's just fuckin' great," Lenora said, slapping her hand down on the edge of the table. "I made her promise not to say and she doesn't see any value to that, but you got to have a conscience and not tell on her. Shit. If I get a promise from you not to tell anyone, and that's if I help you, how I know that you won't be like her and break that promise as soon as you feel like it?"
Jeffery's mother just stared, confused.
Lenora sighed. "Oh fuck it," she said. "Where you see him last?"
When she realized Lenora was going to help her, it was like a dam had burst behind the woman's mouth. Out came a flow of information--who Jeffery was, why he was so special, his favorite foods, where he spent his days, what he was interested in, how he did in school, all about his daddy… the only thing Lenora gave a damn about was the woman's name, which was Francine Kirsch.
While Lenora was changing out of her nightgown, the phone rang. She picked it up, and it was Johnny Dancer.
"Hey Lenora? I got some bad news for you."
Agnes Flynn was jetlagged, and that annoyed her. She was supposed to be pure, unfettered lethal grace, smooth and controlled and utterly aloof. That didn't quite go with being jetlagged and cranky and having stiff, shooting pains in her knees (a souvenir from her field hockey days in school). She reached inside herself for the comforting numbness, but the kill chill of her job and avocation seemed to have shrunk during the course of a long Memphis day.
Then Agnes saw a grey Oldsmobile pull into the Graceland parking lot, and the sweet uncaring, the lovely cool cold welled up in her. Was that it? Yes! Her target.
Lenora Washington didn't look very impressive.
Agnes had spent some time thinking about how she'd do it, running lines over in her mind.
"Lenora Washington? Your time has come."
"Lenora Washington? The Sleepers send their greetings."
"Lenora Washington?" Then just BANG.
She thought about how she'd react if Lenora ran, or tried something stupid, or begged for mercy, or tried to attract attention.
She spared a moment of irritation for that dumbfuck gun dealer who couldn't even get her a chrome AMT. She had the Walther holstered in her pocket, and it was okay, but it didn't complete her right arm the way a big gun would. It didn't make the chill inside keener and harder and more inexorable. It would do for Washington, but for the others on her list she wanted a properly imposing weapon.
She got out of her car and followed the black woman towards the back entrance of Graceland. Agnes knew it would be smarter to kill her in her home, not in her place of power, but smarter wasn't better. It would also be smarter to gun her down with a sniper rifle, but then her victim wouldn't see her eyes, hear her voice, wouldn't know she was being executed and not merely killed.
Agnes needed for it to be impersonal, but still intimate.
The executioner caught up with her victim and could feel the chill spreading up from her heart, out through her eyes, down into her hand and the grip of the gun…
The black woman turned to look at the blonde.
"What you want?" Lenora gruffly asked. Agnes almost smiled: This was going just right.
"You were warned. You ignored the warning. Now you have to die." She waited, perfectly cool, heart humming inside like a taut bowstring.
"Can I have a cigarette?"
Agnes narrowed her eyes. This was unexpected. Maybe there was more to Lenora Washington than met the eye.
Slowly, Agnes nodded, produced an unopened pack of Marlboros and handed them over.
"How about a last meal?"
Agnes was partly annoyed that this woman understood her so well, and partly proud that her role was so clear. She knew both feelings were contrary to the ice she was supposed to be, but she couldn't help it, she hadn't fully executed her emotions yet.
"Within reason," Agnes said grudgingly. Lenora nodded, asked if the Denny's down the road was all right.
In the Denny's, Lenora ordered a Grand Slam breakfast. While they waited for it to arrive, she said "And how about a final request?"
Agnes glared. "You're certainly well-informed."
"When I see a woman in black, wearing sunglasses at night, driving a white Mustang and telling me it's time to die… well, it ain't that hard to put the pieces together."
Agnes nodded. "So you know running won't do you any good?"
"I'd just die tired. I ain't a fighter, so I ain't gonna fight you either." She shrugged, and made a little grimace with her wrinkled lips. "Hell, I'm old. I just want to do one thing before you do me in."
"Your last request."
"Yeah. I want to find this boy Jeffery Kirsch."
Agnes shook her head.
"Sorry, no dice. You must understand, I'm here to kill you for playing Fairy Godmother to those lost tots."
"That's pretty cold, if you don't mind me saying."
"We look at the bigger picture, Ms. Washington. A few lost children is sad: But a world full of people butchering their superstitious neighbors because everyone is scared shitless of 'black magic' is a disaster. Your rash actions, no matter how well intentioned, don't just put you at risk: They put me at risk, and everyone else who has an interest in the secret arts."
"I've heard this speech before. So, I'm a bad person because I did good things too openly?"
"Secrecy is essential. Almost everyone understands that," Agnes said, thinking of the other people on her list.
"Okay then: How about this? You let me find the Kirsch boy, and I'll sweeten the deal for you."
"'Sweeten the deal'? Ms. Washington, there is no 'deal.' For someone so apprised of my role and purpose, you don't really seem to get what's in store for you."
"Oh I understand. You're gonna kill me, working on the assumption that people will pay less attention to a murdered 'psychic' than to one who's trying to keep her work secret."
"Trying with little success, it must be said."
"Yeah, okay, with little success. But what if you could take my screw-ups and erase them?"
Agnes gave her a stern look.
"I know you have power over memory, but an awful lot of people have read those newspaper articles…"
"No, this is better. A 'rational explanation' for how I found those kids, with no recourse to magick or psychic powers or UFO spacemen. Something that will make everyone doubt the next psychic or wiccan who makes claims to special powers. How does that sound?"
Part of Agnes wanted to just shoot Lenora under the table and leave, but she knew that thought came from outside her inner ice, that it was a weak personal desire and not the deeper impulse of something more detached and powerful and infinitely more real.
"What are you thinking?"
"I find the Kirsch kid. You help me. You execute whatever pervert is responsible. I write a confession stating how I kidnapped him, and the other kids I found. I admit to the crimes. I found the children, not because I'm psychic but because I took them in the first place."
Lenora's meal arrived, and Agnes was quiet as the waiter set it down.
"Do you think that would really fool anyone?" she asked.
Lenora shrugged. "It gives people an excuse to think what they were going to think anyhow. That's better than an accurate psychic dying under mysterious circumstances, now ain't it?"
"It's not my decision," Agnes finally said. She stood and turned towards the pay phones. "I'll be back. Don't go anywhere."
"…just die tired," Lenora muttered, taking a sip of coffee.
Agnes dialed a great many numbers and had a brief conversation. Then she returned and said "All right, let's go. I've got some other errands I still have to run before I get to you: That should leave enough time for you to find the child and fake the evidence."
"Don't I get to finish my last meal?"
"Not when you've got a stay of execution."
Mattias | profile | Apr 27, 07 | 3:20 am
Fixed up this and the other chapters. Yes, I'm still managing this site. :)