Nick opened his eyes. A tiny gold cross dangled inches above his face. His gaze followed the delicate chain up to Katie’s neck. She leaned over him dressed in her nursing uniform.
“I didn’t mean to wake you. I was checking your temperature,” she said. “Your fever’s gone.”
“What time is it?” he asked.
“A few minutes before seven.”
He struggled to sit up. “I have to drive you to work.”
Katie gently pushed on his shoulders. “No, you need to stay here and rest. I called a cab. It’ll be here in a few minutes.”
“I’m sorry,” he closed his eyes and sank back into the couch. “I’m so sorry.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about. You’re sick. I wish I could stay and take care of you, but I couldn’t find anyone to cover for me on such short notice.”
“No. You go to work. I’ll be fine. I just need to rest.”
“I fell asleep waiting for you to get out of the shower last night.” She smoothed her hand through his hair and smiled. “I thought you’d drowned in there. I tried to check on you, but the door was locked.”
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
“Stop apologizing, you’re allowed to get sick. Apparently, you don’t like to be fussed over,” Katie said. “I made hot tea and toast. It’s on the coffee table.” She walked into the kitchen and returned with a pitcher and glass. “Drink some water. You’re probably dehydrated.”
“Thank you.” He pushed himself into a sitting position and gulped down the water.
She refilled his glass. “The coffee pot is set up, push the button if you want coffee later.”
A horn beeped outside. Katie glanced out the front window. “There’s my cab.” She kissed Nick’s forehead. “I’ll call later to check on you. Feel better. Love you.”
A wave of relief washed over him when Katie closed the front door. He picked up the water pitcher and drained it dry. Easing himself up from the couch, he walked to the bathroom to urinate. Katie had draped his clothes over the shower door. They were still soaking wet. He wandered into the kitchen in a daze and slammed the lid closed on the case of knives.
Across from the kitchen, a flashing orange light on his printer caught his eye. It signaled an empty paper tray. He didn’t remember printing anything. He hurried to the laptop and cleared the screen saver.
As he read the text on the screen, his heart beat sped. These weren’t his words.
The story began with a man peering into a woman’s window and fantasizing about killing her. He was someone the woman knew, and she let him into her home. From the detailed descriptions, he knew immediately the female character was Katie and the setting, her apartment. He scrolled quickly over the graphic paragraphs detailing how the man attacked, tortured and then eventually killed her. Each bloody knife thrust was described in gory, yet gleeful, adjectives. The torture scene continued for pages.
More pages described the blood. The scent of it, how it pooled on the white linoleum kitchen floor and splattered across the walls and the furniture. Pools of blood glimmered like huge rubies on the white tile floor. Nick’s stomach quaked. Had he eaten anything he would have vomited. He selected all the text and hit the delete key. He kept punching the key long after the page was nothing more than a blank window and a blinking cursor. Shaking, he slammed the laptop closed.
Ruby’s card lay on the desk next to his wallet and laptop. Everything had started after he read the phrase on the back of the card. He stared at the card as if it were an insect. He flipped it over. The back was blank.
The computer’s digital clock displayed seven-thirty. He ran to the kitchen and called Stephanie.
“Hey,” she answered. “I’m in line at Starbucks, what’s up?”
“I’ll be there at eight when the office opens. I have to see Ruby,” he said.
“I don’t know what his schedule is today. I’ll call you when I get into–”
“No! I’m leaving now.” Nick ended the call even though Stephanie was still talking.
He rushed to the bedroom and dressed. He knelt on the floor and strained to reach the fillet knife under the bed. His cell rang, he jumped up and ran to the kitchen to answer it.
“I called Mr. Ruby. He’s at the office now, but said he’d be leaving in a few minutes. He’ll be gone all day,” Stephanie told him.
Nick hit the end button as he ran to his desk, grabbed his wallet, keys and Ruby’s card. On the way out the door, he scooped up his grandfather’s knife case.
Nick stormed past Stephanie at her desk and strode straight to Ruby’s office door. He grabbed the handle, but it wouldn’t turn. He banged on the door. “I have to talk to you. Now!”
Stephanie held the phone to her ear staring at him. “Please hold.” She pressed a button on her console. “Nick? What–?”
He leaned across her desk. “Where is he?”
“Mr. Ruby left ten minutes ago.” She rolled her chair back.
He banged his fist on her desk knocking over a pen holder. “Where did he go?”
Stephanie stood, her eyes darted from Nick to the outer door. “I, I don’t know. He didn’t say.”
He moved around the desk, blocking her path. “Call him. Tell him I need to see him.”
“Okay. I’ll tell him . . . if he calls in.”
“What do mean if he calls in? Don’t you have his cell number?”
“Then call it. Now. Let me talk to him.”
“I’m not supposed to call his cell unless it’s an emergency. I’ll get in trouble—”
Nick grabbed her arm. “This is an emergency. Call the sonofabitch.”
“Nick, you’re scaring me.”
He released her arm and took a step back.
Stephanie’s hand shook as she dialed the phone. “It’s ringing,” she said.
He snatched the phone from her hand and listened. “Damn it. His mailbox.” He paced as far as the phone cord would stretch while he waited for a signal to leave a message. “This is Nick Teravelli. I have to see you today. It’s urgent. Call me.”
Stephanie jumped as he slammed the receiver down.
He continued to pace around the waiting room, rubbing his hands over his face.
Stephanie stood frozen in place, gaping. “What’s wrong Nick?”
He whirled to face her. “The other night, you said Ruby had Chris killed. And that you had seen and heard stuff. What did you mean?”
“Uh, I, I don’t know. I was drunk. Upset about Chris.” She cowered against the wall as Nick loomed over her.
“What was it you saw and heard?”
She cringed and shielded her face with her hands when he raised his arm and reached for hers.
“I wasn’t going to hit—” He ran his raised hand through his hair and sighed. “I’m sorry, Steph.” He backed away and sat on the corner of her desk.
“I only meant stuff like Ruby always called Chris horrible names. And how they fought all the time.” Stephanie’s voice quivered and tears shone in her eyes. “Now he makes horrible jokes about Chris’s death.”
“When Ruby calls, tell him to call me right away, understand?”
Nick opened the door to leave. “What time did he say he’d be back?”
“Late. After five.”
He sat in his car in the parking lot of Ruby Promotions, next to the empty space with a sign that read Victor Ruby, CEO. If Ruby wasn’t returning until after five o’clock, he would have an eight hour wait. Yet, he didn’t know who else he could turn to for answers. He slipped Ruby’s card from his wallet and examined the back. Blank. The strange words that he read had to be related to what he experienced last night.
He remembered standing by the bed holding the knife. It wasn’t a dream, yet he had felt like a horrified observer, trapped within his own mind and body, unable to control either, and forced to watch as his own hand stabbed Katie to death. The business card fluttered in his trembling hand when he thought how close he had come to plunging the blade into Katie. Then he remembered the filet knife. “Shit. I left it under the bed.” He had locked the case of knives inside the trunk of his car to get them out of the apartment. He needed to retrieve the knife.
As he slid Ruby’s card back into his wallet, he saw Joseph Cullen’s card. Ruby said Cullen recited the Latin phrase all the time. Cullen must know something. Nick straightened up in the driver’s seat and turned the ignition. He had wanted to pay Cullen a visit after the way he’d treated Katie at the VIP party. Old man or not, if he had to, he’d beat the truth out of Cullen.
Nick eased the Mustang into a space in front of a rundown, six-story brick tenement. He climbed out of the car and checked the address printed on Cullen’s card. It must be a mistake. A famous author like Joseph Cullen wouldn’t live here. Tall weeds grew up through the trash-littered, narrow strip of dirt that posed as a lawn between the sidewalk and the building. Obscenities, initials and symbols were scrawled in spray paint across the building’s red brick facade.
He pulled on the horizontal steel bar to open one of the grimy double doors. The rusty protest of its hinges echoed inside the dank-smelling entrance.
As his eyes adjusted to the dim hallway, he found a row of doors to his right and a metal staircase to his left. A bank of mailboxes faced him on the narrow wall separating the hall from the stairs. Some of the mailbox doors were missing and most had no names. The box marked 3-C sported a shiny black label with J. Cullen printed in raised white lettering.
Nick took a few tentative steps down the hallway. Cigarette butts littered the worn mosaic tile floor. Beer cans, food wrappers and other trash drifted into piles in the corners and a foul-smelling puddle lured a cloud of buzzing flies. The first battered metal door had no identifying numbers. The second door had a tarnished gold 1-B on it. Cullen’s apartment number, 3-C, must be on the third floor.
Nick sprinted up the staircase. The second-floor landing and corridor looked equally as filthy as the first. A sour, vomit-like stench hung in the air. Down the hall, behind one of the closed doors, a man and woman argued, their angry shouts punctuated by the piercing screams of a baby.
Footsteps descending above him drew his attention. Clear acrylic stacked heels attached to skinny white legs walked down the third-floor staircase. The woman stopped a few steps above the second-floor landing where Nick stood. Excruciatingly thin with stringy hair, she wore a wrinkled, red mini dress. Her dull blue eyes studied him cautiously.
“Looking for some action, honey?” she asked.
“No.” Nick climbed the stairs, staying close to the wall to keep his distance from the prostitute.
“Ah, don’t fly away, pigeon,” a deep male voice called from above. His laughter boomed in the hollow stairwell.
The woman turned and looked up the stairs. “Crazy ass freak!” The loud clopping of her plastic heels on the metal steps faded to light taps as she descended. The sound disappeared with the metallic squeal of the bar on the front door.
The laughter stopped. A slim, grey-haired man in a navy-blue bathrobe stood at the top of the stairs. His robe appeared hastily tied, gaping open above his waist and revealing a thick mat of gray chest hair. The hem grazed his bony knees above pale shins. Although his hair looked unwashed and stuck out at wild angles, Nick recognized him immediately.
“Cullen!” Nick yelled. “I came to talk to you.”
“How nice.” Cullen spun around on his bare heels and sauntered down the hallway. “I don’t wish to talk to you.”
“Wait!” Nick ran up the remaining steps and followed Cullen down the hall. “I met you at the VIP party. I’m Nick. You told me to call you.”
Cullen stopped. “I said call, not come to my home.”
“There’s no phone number on your card, only this address,” Nick said.
“Exactly. So, when someone tells you to call them and gives you a card without a phone number . . .” Cullen’s voice trailed off and he waved his hands above his head. He turned and faced Nick. “Besides, I distinctly remember giving my card to your blond lady friend.” He flicked his tongue between his thin lips and gave a lewd grin. “The luscious nurse.”
Nick lunged at him.
“Don’t step on my bread crumbs!” Cullen shouted, pointing at the floor. Nick stopped, his fingertips grazing the collar of Cullen’s robe. He looked down at the floor and saw crumpled balls of paper money scattered among discarded liquor bottles and trash. Denominations of twenty and fifty dollars were visible on some of the bills. The money trail led down the hall and into an open doorway.
“Bread crumbs? You mean the money?”
“Money is bread crumbs for my little birds.” Cullen spun around and disappeared through the open door.
Nick followed, stepping over the trash on the floor, but then stopped in the doorway. The apartment’s interior was dark and the only sound, a steady, rhythmic, whirring noise he couldn’t quite place. Odors of cigarette smoke and stale liquor barely masked an ammonia stench of urine. Thin rays of sunlight sliced through openings in the bent slats of the window blinds on the far wall, illuminating the gray haze of smoke hovering in the air.
“What is it you want, Nick?” Cullen called out. “I’m a busy man.” He giggled. It disintegrated into a low, growling sound which made Nick’s scalp crawl.
As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw Cullen seated in an upholstered chair a few feet away to his right. “What do you know about the writing on the back of Ruby’s business card? He said you recite the words every time you start a new book.”
A click and then a small flame illuminated Cullen’s face. The glowing orange ember on the end of his cigarette bobbed when Cullen spoke. “Drink?” He held up a liquor bottle and wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his robe.
“No. Tell me what the phrase on the card means.”
Cullen hoisted himself from the chair. He drained the bottle as he walked toward Nick. “What do you think it means?”
“Ruby said it was an old Latin quotation. Something about opening your mind to inspiration. But that’s not true, is it?”
Cullen brushed past Nick and tossed the empty bottle out the front door into the hallway. It hit the floor with a loud clunk and rolled across the tile until a pile of trash swallowed and silenced it. Cullen crouched down and peered around the edge of the doorway. “Pigeon? Is that you?”
“The girl left, Cullen. I heard her go out the front door.”
“They always come back. They can’t resist my bread crumbs.” He cackled as he plucked a balled-up bill from the threshold. “See? One hundred. They know they have to come closer for the bigger crumbs. Then, I—” He made a quick snatching motion in the air with his hand.
“You sick sonofabitch. Tell me what those words on the card mean.”
Cullen stood and skirted around Nick into a small kitchen across from the living room. He flipped on a light switch. Nick recoiled in disgust. Hordes of cockroaches scuttled across the counter tops and floor. They burrowed under stacks of dishes crusted with the molding remains of unidentifiable foods. More roaches tunneled into the putrid-smelling mounds of garbage which had overflowed the trash can and spilled onto the floor. Cullen appeared oblivious to the crawling landscape surrounding him. He opened a cabinet door above the stove and selected a Jim Beam bottle from the well-stocked shelf.
He strolled to the living room and flopped into his chair. The bare bulb on the kitchen ceiling threw a harsh yellow light across the foyer into the living room. With the exception of the chair Cullen sat in, stacks of white paper covered the floor and the furniture. Some piles nearly touched the ceiling. An old computer monitor flickered on a desk in one corner of the room. Text appeared on the screen line by line as if someone were typing it. The steady whirring sound came from a printer next to the computer. It spat out sheet after sheet of paper. The collection tray full, the excess pages fell in a disheveled heap on the floor.
“Stay away from my books!” Cullen shouted. “You came to steal my ideas, didn’t you?”
“I don’t give a damn about your books, or you.” Nick stood over him with clenched fists. “Tell me about the words.”
“Tell you what? About the demons?” Cullen’s voice cracked. He let out a shrill cackle, higher pitched than his previous laughter. “So, Victor told you it was an old Latin quotation!” He doubled over in his chair, shrieking with laughter, clenching his stomach and the whiskey bottle.
Nick shook Cullen by the shoulders. “What does it say? What does it do?”
“Have you tried saying it out loud, Nick?”
“Y-yes, only once.”
“Ah, only once. Well, Nick, once is all it takes. Mammon, father of all lies, he is clever.”
“What the hell are you talking about? Who’s Mammon?”
Cullen stood and paced around the tight maze of paper stacks. “Victor Ruby. Also known as The Devourer, fallen angel, Lucifer, Beelzebub, the Son of Perdition, the Great Deceiver, and my personal favorite, Ol’ Scratch.” He dragged on his cigarette and cocked his head sideways to peer up at Nick. “You’re not very informed for a horror writer, Nick. How about we just keep it simple and call him Satan? Or perhaps, you’d prefer the devil?”
“You’re telling me Victor Ruby is the devil?”
“No, Nick.” Cullen winked. “We’re telling you Victor Ruby is the devil.”
Cullen’s body shivered and convulsed. His head twisted at an odd angle atop his neck and his shoulders and hips jerked in violent spasms. His bones shifted, stretching Cullen’s skin as they poked beneath it with dull, clicking noises. His arms twisted and writhed at his sides like two thick snakes, into positions human arms couldn’t form. Cullen’s mouth opened; stretching wider and wider, as if invisible hands pried independently at his upper and lower jaws. A chorus of voices, some deep, some shrill, some in odd-sounding languages, screamed obscenities. All of the voices joined together and screamed simultaneously, “Hail Satan!”
Heart pounding, Nick backed toward the open door. “You’re fucking insane.”
Cullen leered at him with glittering red eyes. Nick stepped back into the hallway.
“Wait.” The voice sounded tired, hoarse and old. “I’ll tell you.”
Nick inched his feet across the threshold.
Cullen collapsed into his chair. His eyes glassy, but no longer red. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead and upper lip. “The phrase is from an ancient satanic ritual. Sumerian devil worship. An invitation for demons to enter your body. To allow them to see through your eyes, use your mind and hands to perform whatever disgusting depravities they wish.” Cullen took a long swig of whiskey. “Of course, ol’ Victor has his people ready to clean up the mess. He prefers his demons have access to free and prominent citizens. They can do the most damage that way.” He swept a limp arm in the air. “And in return, you get all of this.”
Nick recalled finding himself at the foot of the bed, clutching a knife. He shuddered. Something vile and evil had controlled him. Had he been possessed by a demon? It had taken every ounce of his will to suppress the overwhelming desire to kill Katie. And the disturbing writing on his computer screen, he hadn’t typed those words. He glanced over at Cullen’s printer. The steady hum had stopped. A red light blinked on the front panel.
“They write my books for me now.” Cullen struggled to his feet. “They need my body for . . . other things.” He placed a new ream of paper in the empty tray. The whirring sound resumed. More sheets cascaded in rapid succession and joined the chaotic paper carpet covering the floor.
Nick stared at him. “I only said the phrase once. I’ll never say it again. I’ll burn the damn card. That will stop it, right?”
Cullen shook his head. “Too late. You opened a portal in your soul. Victor has so many souls trapped in hell. The worst of the worst. He’s promised them a way to wreak havoc on earth again. We’re their fleshy puppets. Their means to inflict pain, to rape and to murder. You can’t stop them, Nick. They wait and overtake us when we are weak. They slip into us during our anger, exhaustion, fear . . . even in the throes of an orgasm.” Cullen trailed off into laughter. His hunched shoulders shook, and he clamped his hand over his mouth to muffle the piercing squeals. “They use your vices against you. Mine are women and alcohol. First, it’s one or two demons, but then others follow. Soon a never-ending deluge of filth floods your soul and controls your body, your mind, your will. They’re relentless. They’ll find a way into you. They always find a way.”
“Why would Ruby turn people he can make money with into criminals?”
“Why does a snake bite?” Cullen made a snorting sound. “Victor doesn’t care about money. He thrives on creating chaos. And if one of us is destroyed in the process, so be it. He has a thousand others to take our place. The demons have tired of my old, worn-out body. But, now they have you, my younger, stronger replacement.”
“How long have you been . . . possessed?”
“Ever since I signed with Ruby. I wanted best-selling books, fame, money, and women. Especially women, after my wife . . . left me.” Cullen bent and picked up his whiskey bottle.
“There’s got to be a way to stop it.”
The weariness in Cullen’s eyes faded leaving a hard, red-tinted gleam in its place. A gruff voice bellowed from deep within him. “Get the hell out! I have work to do.” He shuffled to a closed door between the living room and kitchen. As he opened it, Nick glimpsed a woman’s body draped across a bed. Streaks of dark red stained the sheet hanging over the edge of the bed. Cullen slipped inside and slammed the door. The lock clicked.
The woman’s sudden, raw scream jarred Nick. His dry throat contracted, and his heart raced. He banged on the door with his fists. “Cullen! Open the door!”
He backed up and then lunged forward, heaving his shoulder into the door. Searing heat scorched his shirt sleeve and burnt his skin. His feet lifted off the ground and his body hurled backwards. He landed in the kitchen doorway, his head slamming against the door jamb. He lay dazed, terrified by the unseen force that had flung him across the room.
He scrambled to his feet and bolted out the front door. He saw the top of the blond prostitute’s head. Her pale, bony arm snaked through a gap in the bars of the railing. She stood on the steps below straining to reach the wadded balls of money. Nick kicked some of Cullen’s bread crumbs closer to the railing as he rushed past. The girl snatched them up and stuffed them into the neckline of her dress.
“Get out of here! He’ll hurt you,” Nick yelled. He ran past her down the stairs.
“Wait!” the girl called out.
Nick paused on the second-floor landing and looked up at her.
“You’re cute. I’d do you for half price.” Her cracked lips parted in a lop-sided smile, revealing stained teeth.
He ran down the remaining two flights of stairs. Shoving open the front door, he gulped in the fresh air. Sunlight hurt his eyes. He jogged to his car, relieved to find it still intact where he had parked it. After several attempts, his trembling hand finally fitted the key into the ignition and started the Mustang. He threw the gear shift into drive and floored the gas pedal. A fantail of smoke and gravel flew from the rear tires as he sped away.
He drove to a more familiar neighborhood. At a corner gas station, he found a lone, operational pay phone. Dialing 9-1-1, he anonymously reported a murder in progress at Cullen’s address. When the dispatcher asked for his name, he hung up and prayed the police would hurry.
Nick drove around the city in a daze, trying to process what he had seen and heard at Cullen’s apartment. He finally pulled over on a small side street and parked. A neon sign beckoned to him. It flashed Do Drop Inn.
It was dim and cool inside the shot-gun style building. A long bar ran down one side and empty tables and chairs lined the other. A handful of middle-aged men sat at the far end of the bar under a cloud of cigarette smoke watching a baseball game on a large screen television.
Nick sat on a stool at the other end, near the front window.
“What’ll it be, honey?” The woman behind the bar smiled at him as she ran a rag across the lacquered bar top.
“Bud. Bottle.” He peeled bills from his wallet and laid them on the bar. The woman returned and placed a coaster and an icy bottle of beer in front of him. She picked a five-dollar bill from the stack. After ringing the sale on the cash register, she placed his change on the bar.
“We got lunch specials if you’re hungry.” She offered a folded paper menu.
She leaned forward displaying a maze of crinkly lines radiating from the deep crevice where her breasts slammed together inside her tank top. “Let me know if you change your mind. Big Dave’s a decent cook.” She nodded her head toward a pass-through in the wall at the end of the bar. A large man in a white tee shirt with a bandanna tied around his bald head flipped burgers on a grill. The bartender turned and strolled to the other end of the bar. She plucked a burning cigarette from an ashtray and turned her attention to the television.
Nick checked his cell phone. Ruby hadn’t called, but there was a voice mail from Katie.
“I didn’t want to call and wake you in case you were sleeping. Hope you’re feeling better. I changed my rules. It hasn’t been 24 hours, but I couldn’t wait to tell you. My answer is yes, I’ll move in with you. I love you. Call me when you get this.”
He put his phone down on the bar and cradled his head in his hands. There was no way he could allow Katie to move in with him now. He picked up the phone and called Stephanie.
“Ruby International Promotions. How may I help you?”
“Has Ruby called in yet?”
“Nick? No, not yet. But if he does, I’ll—”
He ended the call.
“Ready for another?” The bartender stood smiling in front of him. Sunlight from the front window turned the white-blond frizz on her head into a misshapen halo. He finished the first beer in one long gulp and nodded yes to another.
Rush hour traffic crawled. His mind muddled after hours of drinking beer in the dim bar. Nick cursed, slammed his foot on the brake and sat through another red light. The trek was painfully slow. At ten past five he finally staggered into the elevator in the lobby of Ruby’s office building.
The outside office door stood open. Stephanie was gone. He went straight to Ruby’s door and pounded on it. “Ruby!” No answer and the door was locked when he tried the knob. He punched the door and then stumbled around the reception room kicking over chairs and cursing.
Ruby’s door swung open, startling him. “Problem, Mr. Tera?”
“You never called me back!” Nick shouted. He followed Ruby into his office.
“You’re obviously drunk and also confused. I don’t answer to you, Nick.”
“Your card. Your damn card with those damn words.” Nick grabbed Ruby’s silver business card holder and dumped the cards onto his desk. He shuffled through them, frantically turning each one over, but all of the backs were blank. “The words. I know what they do.”
Ruby sat and clasped his hands behind his neck. He grinned, showing white, perfect teeth.
“Damn you! You fucking sonofabitch! You think it’s funny? I almost killed Katie last night!” Nick lurched across the desk and took a swing at Ruby’s face. Before his fist could make contact, a sudden pressure on his chest shoved him back. He landed hard in the chair facing Ruby. The chair didn’t move, and the impact knocked the air from his lungs. He struggled to catch his breath and stand but couldn’t move. Something held him in the chair.
“Having trouble with your inner demons?” Ruby sneered.
Nick gasped. “What the hell is happening to me? It’s true, isn’t it? Cullen’s not crazy. Y-you are the devil, aren’t you?”
“So you talked to ol’ Joe?” As Ruby stood, his body grew larger and taller until he towered over Nick. The skin on his face and hands deepened from his normal ruddy complexion to a fiery red with the texture of coarse-grained leather. Horns sprouted through the skin on his forehead and spiraled outward and then upward until the pointed tips scraped the ceiling. “So, I have you to thank for Cullen’s arrest today.”
Nick stared, stunned by the apparition before him. Words tumbled from his lips. “Cullen’s a twisted pervert. I had to stop him. He lures prostitutes into his apartment and . . . and kills them.”
“Everyone has their vices, Nick. I don’t judge people.” Ruby’s voice thundered inside the office. “Of course, with Cullen in jail, or a mental hospital, and Slaughter dead, I’ll be expecting so much more from you.”
Nick tried to stand, but invisible hands held him tight to the chair. The air temperature rose. His nostrils burned when he inhaled, and his skin felt as though he were inches from an open fire. “What the hell do you want from me?”
“The same thing I want from all my clients. To honor your end of the contract.”
“Honor? You lied about the words on the card.”
“I didn’t lie. You were inspired, were you not?”
“Inspired to torture and to murder.”
“Well, if you want to split hairs.” Ruby chuckled as he moved around the desk. “I kept my end of the contract. You’re a published author. A rising star in the literary world with more money than you’ve ever seen in your entire pathetic life. That is what you wanted, isn’t it?”
“Not like this! Forget the book. Take back the money, the car and the damn apartment. Just make whatever it is inside me stop.”
“It’s too late. You signed a contract.”
Paralyzed in the chair, Nick stared up at the horrific creature looming over him. The heat radiating from it dried the sweat pouring from his forehead before it reached his eyes.
“The contract. All that fine print. I sold you my soul?”
A rumble grew deep inside Ruby’s chest and exploded from his mouth in deafening peals of laughter. “This is always my favorite part. The devil took my soul! All of you humans are the same.” He walked back to his chair and sat. “Your precious little souls.”
Nick blinked his eyes. Ruby had transformed back into his human form.
Ruby leaned forward. “Screw your soul. Why would I waste so much time and effort for one soul when I can use you to get thousands. Maybe millions.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Listen.” Ruby waved his hand toward his computer station. A steady ding, ding filled the room. “Do you know what that sound is, Nick?”
Nick shook his head.
“It’s the sound of lust-struck women joining your fan club. We posted it yesterday on your website.”
“You’re going to take their souls?”
“First their minds and bodies, eventually their souls. Of course, it’s only an experiment. He’s bound me by certain rules.” Ruby glowered up at the ceiling. “But the Internet is a marvel. The ability to reach out and influence so many. I’m not certain if an impersonal electronic signature is enough. There’s still that elusive human element missing. The minuscule piece of DNA left behind as a hand holds pen to paper.” Ruby lit a cigar and leaned back in his chair, smiling. “It’s a numbers game, Nick. He has so many, and I have so many. All I need to do is tip the scales in my favor.”
He thought of Tara bragging how she’d joined his fan club online. “What happens when they join this fan club?”
“Ideally if they express enough desire, one click of the mouse and they’ll be mine. They’ll be emailed a membership with a phrase inserted. Not too worry, there’s also plan B, a bit slower than I’d like, but workable. They sign up and we send them a slick little package in the mail. Very Madison Avenue. Glossy. Full color. The Nick Tera official fan club packet. They’ll receive your signed photograph, a coupon toward the purchase of your books or poster. And a membership card with a secret phrase.”
“The same phrase you gave me?”
“There are many phrases, Nick. Once they recite the words, another portal opens. Another opportunity for one of my poor, tortured souls to take human form again. Eventually, the world descends into chaos. And, I am the ruler of chaos.” Ruby waved his arms in the air as if directing an orchestra. “Chaos is a beautiful rhapsody. I’m its conductor.”
“I won’t have any part of this.”
“You will play a big part in this, Nick. I chose you.”
“Why? Why me? Was it my book?”
Ruby grinned and tapped his cigar into the ashtray. “Your book? Hardly. Horror writers are a dime a dozen. There are hordes of amateurs clamoring to be published. Ah, don’t pout Nick, your writing is acceptable, and even if it were pure drivel, I have a staff of professionals to rewrite it. I didn’t choose you for your writing.”
“You’re a handsome young man, Nick. You possess both sex appeal and that certain X factor. I knew you’d attract female fans. Slaughter was supposed to lure in the females. But who knew a writer would outperform a rock star? You also expressed genuine desire. And despite your Catholic upbringing, I sensed you have a conflict with God. Am I right?”
“No, you’re wrong. I believe in God.”
“Do you remember your answer when I asked you if you were a Roman Catholic?”
“I said yes.”
“No. You said you were raised a Catholic. I bet you began doubting God’s existence when your mother became ill. When she died, you must have been furious at Him. Disillusioned. All your prayers unanswered. How could God let this horrible thing happen? Does He even exist?”
Nick strained to move in the chair. He couldn’t break the invisible ties that lashed him down. “I still believe in God.”
“Of course, you do. The same way you once believed in Santa Claus or the Easter bunny.” Ruby scraped his long nails across the desktop as he gathered up his business cards. He stacked them neatly into the holder. “When’s the last time you went to church? And carrying boxes of cannoli to a charity event doesn’t count.” Ruby’s upper lip rose exposing long, pointed teeth.
“How do you know about that?”
“Relax, Nick. My instincts about character are excellent, however I can’t read minds. I hire people to investigate my prospective clients. Standard practice.”
Nick’s mind reeled. “Janis Ford?”
“She’s one. The girl was devastated when I didn’t choose her. Her writing is excellent, but she has no physical appeal. Too plain to attract a male fan base. But she’s proven herself useful.” Ruby blew out a long stream of cigar smoke. “Her jealousy has motivated her to dig deeper into your personal dirt.”
“I don’t have any dirt.”
“Well, maybe nothing the tabloids are interested in publishing. Your frequent school yard fights told me you have anger issues. Quite a temper. And all those amorous encounters you had as a teenager. You were a horny little bastard. I liked that. You possessed the tendencies necessary to become a tabloid sensation.”
“I was a kid then. I’ve changed.”
“Really? I think you’ve merely buried those traits. Perhaps the right demon can bring them out again.”
“You have to stop this demon from possessing me. I can’t live my life knowing this evil can overtake me at any time.”
“You mean Artie?”
“Artie. Arthur Mosley. A wretched little man. Product of a broken home, abusive childhood, no friends, the proverbial loner, blah, blah, blah.” Ruby chuckled. “A thin, sickly character. Socially, he was a train wreck, especially with women. Impotent as well. But Artie turned it all around. He really made something of himself.”
“Made what? He’s a sick, sadistic–”
“There you go again, Nick. Judging. I applaud the success Artie achieved. The challenges he overcame. He started out with a cheap pocketknife slaughtering stray cats. Sloppy at first. But with practice, he became quite the artist with his blade. Ask the women who rejected him.”
“I can’t. He murdered them.”
“A rhetorical question. The point is, Artie rose above the crappy hand his Creator dealt him. Had they known of DNA evidence in his time, they would have connected him to dozens of killings. Sadly, he was convicted of only one murder and never received his due credit for the rest. They executed poor Artie in the electric chair.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Well, Nick, you tell me, what is the devil supposed to do?”
Nick licked his dry lips. “The devil presides over the souls damned by God in hell.”
“So, that would make me, what, God’s pit bull? That doesn’t sound like much fun. Think about it. If that were true, wouldn’t that put me on His side? Keeping the damned confined in an eternal prison?”
“But that’s—” Nick stammered.
“Yes, yes, I know, that’s what you learned in catechism class. But, it’s not true. I seek ways to reward damned souls. The endless torture, eternal flames, the screaming, the wailing and gnashing of teeth, it gets old after a few millennia. He allows me to roam the earth. Free will, you know. This is my playground. I want to share it with the other condemned souls. At the risk of sounding cliché, I wish to create hell on earth.”
Nick pushed against the force holding him. It relented and allowed him to move.
“Don’t try to attack me, Nick. You’ll only get hurt.” Ruby waved his hand. “Run along home. Get yourself sober and cleaned up. You look like shit. I have a book signing scheduled for you tomorrow at two o’clock.”
“Book signing? I don’t care about my book.” Nick shifted forward in his chair and gripped the edge of Ruby’s desk. “Please, I’m begging you. Make the possession stop.”
“I have my obligations. Promoting you, as well as a host of damned souls. It’s a delicate balance. Artie is so excited to have a body like yours at his disposal. Strong, good-looking and able to attract women. The opposite of everything he was in life. The poor bastard had to sneak in while they were sleeping. It was the only way he could approach a woman. Sad, don’t you think?”
“What it is, is a real dilemma for me. Artie is fascinated with Katie. I hate to disappoint him.”
Nick jumped up and leaned across the desk. “You bastard. Leave Katie out of this. She didn’t sign a contract, I did.”
“So selfish. I ask you to give up one little thing. I’ll give you all the women you want, plus wealth and fame.”
“So, I end up like Cullen? A twisted, murdering pervert living in some rat hole?”
“That’s Joe’s choice. I’ve given you everything you wanted. I even tried to rid you of your personal albatross at the VIP party, but Katie only drank enough champagne to get a nasty tummy ache.” Ruby’s lips twisted upwards and he winked at Nick.
Nick’s eyes widened. “You poisoned Katie?”
Ruby shrugged. “Poisoned is such a strong word. I only made her ill. She’s holding you back. If you had dumped her like I advised, Artie wouldn’t be fixated on her now.”
“You’re the fucking devil! You have the power to stop it—Artie. I-I’ll stay away from Katie. Just promise me you won’t let him take over my body again.”
Ruby drummed his nails on his desk. “So noble, Nick.” He stood and let out a long sigh. “I’ll see what I can do. Stay away from Katie. She should be safe.”
“No. You swear to me. She has to be safe or I won’t do anything you ask.”
“Yes, you will. Of course, if you want to initiate a pissing match with the devil, we can go that route. It would be a pity to see your poor, old grandmother run over by a car on her way to church, or your scrappy little brother have a fatal accident in the boxing ring.” Ruby’s voice trailed off into ugly sounding laughter. “There is another reason I chose you, Nick.”
“What?” Nick spat the word between his clenched teeth.
“Your sanctimonious diatribe about good always having to win over evil. You pissed me off. You made it personal. Now I’m going to prove to you that evil will win.”
Nick sat slumped in his car in the Ruby International Promotions parking lot. Dusk settled over the city and the last wave of rush hour traffic hummed around him. Was he really possessed by a demon? Would he end up like Cullen? Until today, the surreal images he’d witnessed only lived in horror films; products of a writer’s imagination, confined to a screen with no chance of becoming reality. The hazy hours he had spent drinking inside the dive bar offered a brief respite and dulled his senses. But seeing Ruby transform into a seven-foot beast had shocked Nick into sobriety.
His cell phone rang, and Katie’s picture displayed on the screen.
“Hi, how are you feeling?” she asked.
He rolled up the driver’s window to block the noise of traffic. “Not good.”
“You sound exhausted. Listen, I get off work in fifteen minutes. I asked Julie to drop me off at your apartment.”
“No!” He held the phone away and drew a deep breath. “I-I mean, I don’t want you to catch what I’ve got.”
“It’s probably the same stomach bug I had last week. I should be immune.”
He wished it were simply a stomach flu. “Maybe, but I feel like crap. I just want to sleep.”
“Have you eaten anything? I could pick up soup for you on the way.”
“Please, don’t bother, babe. I’m not hungry.”
“Did you get my message this morning?”
Morning seemed like a lifetime ago. “Oh, yeah. You’re gonna move in. That’s great.”
“You don’t sound very happy about it.”
“No, I’m sorry. You’re sick. I remember how God-awful I felt.”
“I meant to call you when I got your voicemail, but I must have passed out.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come over?”
“Positive.” He forced a short laugh. “I prefer to be alone when I’m puking.”
“Okay.” Katie sighed. “Call me later. Hopefully you’ll feel better tomorrow, and we can make plans for me to move in.”
He could hear the disappointment in her voice. “I hope so. Yeah.”
“I’ll sort through my old nursing books tonight. Maybe I can sell some or give them away. It will be less stuff to have to pack.”
Katie chuckled. “You’re obviously too sick for conversation. Get some rest. Love you.”
“I love you.” Nick swallowed hard. “So much.”
He threw the phone into the passenger seat. Last night he had vowed never to lie to Katie again. Not only did he lie, but Ruby was forcing him to break up with her. How could he tell her she couldn’t move in? He longed to hold her, to salvage some sense of normalcy. But he couldn’t risk being near her for fear a depraved murderer would take over his body. He banged his fists on the steering wheel until his hands hurt. “How do I fight the devil?”
The traffic had thinned, but it still took Nick forty minutes to drive to Katie’s apartment. He coasted slowly past her building. Her kitchen and living room lights were on. Knowing she was safely at home made him feel better, although his stomach knotted at the thought of her packing. He would have to lie again; find a plausible excuse why she couldn’t move in with him until he could figure out a way to rid himself of the demon, and Victor Ruby.
He continued his meandering drive past his family’s restaurant. His grandmother’s church group sat around the large table by the front window. Nick wished he were back working in the restaurant.
The light turned green and he started to turn left to head to his apartment when the tall spire of Saint Michael’s church caught his eye. On an impulse, he veered right, swerving across two lanes and cutting off a yellow cab and a small sedan. The taxi driver yelled, “Hey watch it, moron!” and leaned on his horn as Nick turned into the church parking lot.
The front entrance of the church was locked after dark. The pastor, Father Santore, left one side door open, close to the Rectory, so local parishioners could enter after hours.
It had been over two years since Nick had stepped inside the church. Even when he walked his grandmother to Sunday mass, he waited in the outer vestibule or on the front steps, much to her very vocal disappointment.
The heavy, wooden door swung shut behind him with a muffled thud. About a dozen people sat scattered in the front pews close to the altar with their heads bowed in prayer. None looked up when he entered. The dimly lit air smelled of incense and burning candle wax. Tall stained-glass windows lined both sides of the huge cathedral. They looked a drab, opaque gray at night. In the sunlight, the bible scenes depicted in the glass blazed to life and bathed the smooth stone floors and plaster walls in mosaics of colored light.
The silence in the church calmed him. A quiet so deep, it felt as though a thick blanket covered his head and shielded him from the noise of the city outside, as well as the din of his own thoughts.
He reached over to dip his fingertips into the holy water font mounted on the wall, and then hesitated with his hand poised above the glass bowl, wondering if the blessed water would burn his hand. He plunged his fingers in anyway. The water felt cool on his skin. He made the sign of the cross as he genuflected by the corner of the altar and turned down the side aisle. The leather soles of his boots made a soft, scuffling sound on the polished floor. He walked until he reached an arch-shaped niche midway between the main entrance at the back of the church and the altar at the front. A rack of votive candles stood in front of the alcove, next to a confessional booth. A familiar spot he had visited often before his mother died.
The single kneeler in front of the votives creaked as he knelt, the sound echoed up to the vaulted ceiling. His mother’s candle burned brightly on the bottom row of the gold filigree rack. He reached out and touched the glass holder. The name ROSE was printed in black marker on the glass in his grandmother’s handwriting. She insisted on printing her daughter’s name on the candle holder and Father Santore had allowed her to do so.
The candle’s straight, black wick peeked above the top of the glass holder. His grandmother must have replaced it today. She’d touch a new candle’s wick to the dying one and then replace it in the glass holder. The flame never died.
The array of tiny, flickering flames mesmerized him. Each one symbolizing a spark of divine light fueled by a loved one’s whispered prayers. The tiers of candles climbed upward like bleachers in a football stadium. The last two rows at the top held tall pillar candles. Behind the votive rack, a statue of Saint Michael the Archangel stood on a stone pedestal inside the alcove. As a boy it had been Nick’s favorite statue. Unlike the other saintly-posed statues, Michael’s face held a fierce, defiant expression. Dressed in armor and brandishing a long sword, he stood guard over the votives.
Nick bowed his head and prayed, repeating the same words over and over in a silent, desperate, chant. Please, God. Please help me. He took a deep breath and tried again. God, help me find a way to remove this demon from me. Victor Ruby’s scowling face interrupted his prayers, followed by the chilling vision of his transformation into the devil and his mocking words about Nick’s wavering belief in God.
It’s true, Nick thought. I hated You for letting my mother suffer with cancer. I prayed every day for You to cure her. When she died, I stopped believing. Nick opened his eyes. “I’m a hypocrite,” he muttered. “Running back to God because I’m scared.” He wondered if God was laughing at him, too, the same as the devil.
The sound of the confessional door opening and then closing distracted him. An old man shuffled past, up the aisle and then exited through the side door. Nick looked up at the three lights on top of the confessional booth. The priest’s white light shone above the center compartment. Green lights above the two doors on either side indicated they were unoccupied.
Nick stood and entered the closest door. As he knelt, a small door in front of his face slid open, revealing a tight lattice-work screen back-lit with soft yellow light and a shadowy silhouette of the priest on the other side.
He automatically recited the words he had memorized in elementary school. “Bless me Father, for I have sinned.” He paused. “It’s been a long time since my last confession.”
The priest answered in a hushed voice, “May the Lord, Jesus Christ be with you, my son, to help you confess your sins. Begin whenever you are ready.”
He didn’t know what to say. His sins seem trivial now, angry thoughts or speaking the Lord’s name in vain. His worst sin had to be losing belief in God. Should he admit to the priest he questioned God’s existence? Or ask the priest how to fight off the devil and remove the demon inside him? Certain the priest would label him a mental case who drifted in off the street, he decided to simply confess his sins. Once he confessed, the priest would bless him, and the blessing might expel the demon.
Nick cleared his throat. Invisible hands closed around his neck and choked off his voice. He coughed, gasped for air and rubbed his throat.
“Are you all right, son? Take your time,” the priest said.
Red-hot claws dug into his flesh and tightened their grip around Nick’s neck. He couldn’t breathe. His heart raced until he feared it would burst. The cramped space grew sweltering hot and the warm yellow glow behind the screen glared a deep, sinister red. Everything inside the dim space took on a red cast, as though he were looking through blood-stained lenses. He fought back the urge to scream obscenities at the priest behind the wall.
He jumped to his feet, jerked open the door and ran up the aisle to the exit. He glanced over his shoulder to see if the priest had come out of the confessional, but the center door remained closed. He paused with his hand on the door handle and stared at the holy water. The blessed water might suppress the demon raging inside him.
Yelping in pain, he yanked his fingers from the water. Clouds of steam rose from the font as the water bubbled and hissed. It turned from clear to crimson, boiled up and over the edges of the bowl and streamed down onto the floor. Blood-red puddles writhed and sizzled on the stone floor around his feet. Nick heard a creaking sound. Father Santore stood outside the door of the confessional. The priest craned his neck and squinted in his direction. Nick ducked out the door.
He vaguely remembered the drive to his apartment. By the time he exited the elevator and walked to his door, the choke-hold on his neck relented and the red haze obscuring his vision cleared.
A white envelope hung, taped to his front door. He ripped it off as he entered. Inside, he found a note from the building manager telling him the mirror in the bedroom had been removed and the ceiling had been patched and painted. It said they left the balcony doors open to air out the paint fumes.
Nick crumpled the note in his fist as he walked into the bedroom. Covered in a fresh coat of white paint, the ceiling looked naked and huge. Whether the mirror hung on the ceiling or not, no longer concerned him.
He looked at the rumpled sheets he and Katie had made love on last night. Lifting her pillow, he buried his face in the soft folds and breathed in the faint, sweet scent of her.
Throwing the pillow down, he walked into the living room, flipped on the television and lay on the sofa. The low murmur of a newscast provided background noise. The flickering images on the screen blurred. None of it held his interest. Last night he’d made love to Katie a second time on the floor by the fireplace. Afterward, they’d laid naked on the big throw pillows and made plans for their future together.
Tears coated his tired eyes. Through the liquid blur, a familiar image on the television screen jolted him upright. He watched two police officers escorting a handcuffed, wild-eyed Joseph Cullen to a patrol car. Cullen wore the same ratty, navy blue robe. His hair stuck out in absurd, greasy points and he had something red smeared on one side of his face. One of the cops pushed down on Cullen’s head as he put him into the back seat of the police cruiser.
Nick turned up the volume. The camera panned to a male reporter standing on the sidewalk in front of Cullen’s building.
“. . . has been taken into custody. Police have not said what Cullen is charged with, if anything. He appeared to be in shock and had blood on his face. We don’t know if he was injured or if the blood belongs to someone else. Minutes ago, an ambulance arrived and EMTs rushed into the building . . .”
The scene switched to a female news caster sitting at a desk.
“That was correspondent Ed Davis earlier today at Cullen’s residence where this bizarre story began. We have since learned from police sources that Joseph Cullen has been charged with first degree murder. The identity of the victim is being withheld, pending notification of the family. Stay with us for complete coverage of this breaking story.
For those of you who don’t know, Joseph Cullen is the best-selling horror author, known as the king of horror . . .”
Nick muted the television and slumped back onto the sofa. His call to the police had been too late.