Admittance to the world premiere of Night Birds was by invitation only, yet it didn’t stop the hordes who gathered around the movie theater to gawk at the celebrities attending. The air crackled with energy and anticipation. For three blocks surrounding the iconic Majestic Cinema, the city took on a carnival-like atmosphere. Street vendors hawked everything from T-shirts to Italian ice. Savory aromas of roasting chestnuts, hot pretzels and sausage and peppers drifted on the cool evening breeze.
Nick gave up trying to find a parking space near the traffic-choked theatre. He parked in a closed dry cleaner’s lot and sprinted three blocks to get to the theater on time.
A handwritten sign hanging over the ticket booth window announced the public midnight showing of Night Birds had been sold out. Still, long lines formed for advanced ticket purchases.
Police directed traffic at the busy intersection by the theater. More uniformed officers stood on the sidewalk guarding a line of wooden barricades which separated the premiere guests from the onlookers.
Nick pushed through the crowd toward the theater entrance. A woman screamed out, “Nick”. He turned in the direction of her voice. More women waved and yelled to him from behind the barricades. The commotion drew a group of reporters. They rushed over, snapped pictures and shouted questions. He recognized Janis Ford in the fray.
Nick jogged along the barricades to escape the press.
“There you are.” Ebony grabbed Nick’s arm.
He felt the pressure of her long, curved nails through the sleeve of his leather jacket.
“C’mon, sweetie. You’re a star. You don’t have to wait in line.” She led him around the corner of the theater building into an alleyway. Halfway down, a stocky man stood in front of a metal door. His shoulders extended a good inch past the doorway on either side. Squinting at Nick, he nodded to Ebony and then opened the door. The movement exposed the 9mm Glock holstered beneath his suit jacket.
The door opened into a long hallway with closed doors along either side. The corridor ended at the massive lobby inside the front entrance. The theater, recently restored to its original splendor of the early nineteen-hundreds, featured an enormous chandelier that hung from the high, gilded ceiling. Its dazzling array of lights reflected in the polished marble floors.
Celebrities and VIPs mingled in the lobby, the men dressed in tuxedos and the women in glittery evening gowns. Their dress shoes shuffled and clicked on the shiny floor. Laughter and the clinking of glasses echoed through the lobby. Small round tables dotted around the front entrance held trays of canapés and pyramids of champagne-filled glasses.
Ebony pressed her cat-like claws into Nick’s arm. “Over here.” She led him to a table on the left side of the lobby. “Sit,” she said. Her eyes flashed an eerie yellow-green.
Rich, red velvet cloth draped the table. Behind it, copies of Nick’s book and poster were displayed inside a glass concession case. Rachel leaned on a brass-trimmed wooden lectern with a thick, open book displayed on top.
“What is all this?” Nick asked.
Rachel smiled. For a split second a black skeletal shadow hovered beneath her skin and her irises gleamed red with black slits for pupils. “You’ll sign your novel and then I’ll direct the women to sign this book in order to join your fan club.” She winked at Nick, her upper and lower eyelids flicked together. “Each page has an invisible contract. They’ll sign away their souls and open more portals for Mr. Ruby’s demons.”
“Later, you’ll draw the ticket for your big date.” Ebony pointed to a large barrel-shaped metal cage filled with ticket stubs. It sat on the gleaming glass counter which ran the length of the wall behind them. A black-carpeted, square platform and microphone stand stood next to it.
“Don’t try anything stupid,” Rachel hissed into his ear. “We’re watching you.” Her long, forked tongue flicked Nick’s cheek.
An identical corridor, on the other side of the lobby, mirrored the one he had entered. The tall, wooden, double doors leading into the movie theater were closed. Nick stood and walked toward the opposite corridor.
Rachel hurried after him and grabbed his arm. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“I gotta piss. Do you mind?”
She hesitated, then loosened her grip. “Hurry up.”
The men’s room was a long, narrow, room with urinals and stalls lined along one tiled wall and sinks on the opposite mirrored wall. Nick ran to the end of the room and looked up at the only window. His fingers gripped the tile sill as he climbed up on a covered radiator to peer outside. Even if he could manage to squeeze himself through the tiny window, a heavy steel grate covered the outside.
A toilet flushed, startling him. He jumped down as Lee Woods exited a stall. Woods stopped short when he saw Nick.
“Trying to escape from all those girls out there, Nick?” Lee sneered. He sauntered to the counter and admired his image in the mirror, smoothing his hair with his fingers. He took a small spray bottle from an inner pocket and misted his rock-hard pompadour. “Wanna spritz, Nickie boy? Or do you prefer your cave man look?”
“Shut the fuck up.” A demon-fueled rage simmered inside Nick at the mere sight of Woods.
Lee stepped sideways. “Big night, huh? Of course, tonight I’m the main attraction, not you.” He pulled another smaller bottle from his jacket pocket, tilted his head back, and squeezed a drop of liquid into each eye. “Fuck! Damn, that burns!” He squinted at his reflection. The whites of his eyes turned bloodshot and tears rolled down his pale, powdered cheeks. He laughed and looked at Nick. “I gotta look all broken up about my murdered costar and lover.”
“You’re an asshole.” Nick splashed cold water on his face and then pulled paper towels from the holder to dry himself.
Lee chuckled. “I’m glad Bethany the ice bitch is dead. She was a drag. Did you at least get to nail her the night of the cocktail party?”
Nick grabbed Lee by the jacket collar and cocked his arm back.
“No! No! Not in the face.” Lee shielded his face with both hands and ducked his head down. “My nose isn’t healed from the last time.”
Nick wasn’t sure if the tears flooding from Lee’s eyes were real or from the drops. He released his jacket and shoved him into the counter.
Lee grabbed the edge of the sink for balance. “Ruby said after tonight he’d hook me up with some hot models. I’m gonna convince him to let me kick your ass in public! I’ll be the new king of the bad boys.” He jumped backward as Nick lunged for him.
“Problem, gentlemen?” Ruby glared at them from the doorway, his arms crossed.
“This big turd was trying to climb out the window, Mr. Ruby,” Lee yelled.
Nick punched Lee in the stomach as hard as he could. Lee made a gurgling sound, doubled over and stumbled backwards. He landed on one of the urinals.
“Enough, Mr. Tera.” Ruby walked over to Lee. “Compose yourself, Lee. Remember your role tonight—grief-stricken over Bethany’s death. Now, get out there and act.”
Lee struggled to stand and yanked at the hem of his jacket. He limped to the door with his arms crossed and pressed against his stomach. “You gotta let me kick his ass, Mr. Ruby.”
Ruby opened the door and pushed him outside. “Do as I said. I’ll have a reward for you.”
Fiery heat radiated from Ruby’s eyes as he turned and faced Nick. “What’s this about climbing out the window, Nick?”
“I was only trying to open the window. I’m burning up from the rushes of heat,” he lied.
Ruby studied him through narrowed eyelids. “That’s to be expected. Artie’s excited about his date. He should calm down after tonight, for a while.” He glowered at Nick. “Of course, if you were trying to climb out the window, your loved ones will pay.” A black haze swirled on the mirrored wall. A splattering of liquid sounded and ribbons of bright red streamed down the silver surface.
Ruby smiled, baring his pointed white teeth and then exited.
Nick turned away from the blood-drenched mirrors and rubbed his sweaty face. Panic welled up in his throat and he sucked in deep, rapid breaths to calm his racing heart and trembling body. Artie stirred inside of him, sending a new shock wave of intense heat throughout his body. He had to find a way out of this nightmare before Artie took complete control of him and forced him to murder an innocent girl.
Nick signed his books and posters while Ebony hovered over his shoulder. Rachel escorted the girls to the lectern. With a wicked smile, she handed each a silver pen and instructed them to sign a page in the fan club book. Ruby’s plan to capture millions of souls via the Internet had failed. Yet tonight, the ancient-looking book would steal hundreds of women’s souls and offer as many demon portals.
Anxiety coupled with feverish heat and red-tinted vision plagued Nick. The pen shook in his hand. His self-control weakened each time one of the demons surfaced. One minute he envisioned stabbing the young girls who lined up, mooning over him with wide, innocent eyes; the next, he felt horrified and sickened by the thoughts.
Across the lobby, the guests chatted in small groups and sipped champagne. Lee Woods wiped tears from his eyes and looked soulfully into a young brunette’s eyes. She touched Lee’s hand. Nick regretted not re-breaking his nose in the bathroom when he had the chance.
Ruby stepped onto the platform next to him and tapped the microphone sending a series of hollow, metallic raps throughout the lobby. Everyone turned. The vibrant chatter dulled to a low, expectant murmur.
“Before we start our main event, the world premiere of Night Birds, we must draw a ticket and see which lovely young lady has won a date with our infamous horror writer, Nick Tera.”
Nervous titters and excited giggles swept through the crowd of young women gathered near Nick’s table. The double line of women snaked around the lobby, out the entrance and overflowed into the plaza in front of the theater. Ebony turned the crank on the metal cage. The ticket stubs tossed and tumbled inside, mimicking Nick’s stomach.
Ruby motioned to the cage. “Mr. Tera, please do the honors.”
Ebony stopped turning the handle and opened a small door as the tickets settled inside the cage.
Nick reached in and pulled out a ticket. He glanced at it before Ruby snatched it. Turning to the expectant sea of female faces, Ruby bellowed, “And the lucky winner is, number seven-eight-two-five.”
It wasn’t the number on the ticket. A chilling inner voice told Nick that Artie had preselected a girl. Voices swelled as the contestants checked their stubs. Ushers repeated the numbers to the crowd gathered outside the lobby.
A squeal rang out. “That’s me!” A hand holding a ticket flew up in the center of the crowd.
The crowd shuffled aside, revealing a slender, young girl with long blond hair making her way toward the platform. She ran the last few steps and presented her ticket to Ruby.
Ruby jammed her ticket into his pocket. “Congratulations, my dear. What’s your name?”
“Kathleen Sommers. Everyone calls me Katie.”
“Katie. A splendid name.” Ruby shot a sideward glance at Nick as he took the girl’s hand. A surge of photographers crouched, their cameras poised. “Katie Sommers, meet your dream date, Nick Tera.” He placed the girl’s hand into Nick’s.
Nick gaped at the petite girl. She looked like his Katie might have looked at age sixteen, only instead of green, this girl’s eyes sparkled a bright sky-blue.
She peered up at him between a center-parted curtain of pale blond hair. “Hi, Nick.” Her smooth cheeks flushed pink.
“Hello.” He squeezed her hand, involuntarily. The demon’s red haze veiled his vision, turning her hair a deep, strawberry color. An image of her naked body bathed in blood flashed in his mind followed by a shudder of anticipation. Bursts of camera flashes interrupted the sadistic thoughts. Nick loosened his hold on Katie’s hand. She smiled, her glossy lips framed perfect teeth.
A reporter asked, “Katie, how does it feel to win a date with Nick?”
She clasped her hands together under her chin and bounced on her heels. “I can’t believe it! I’m so excited—I could just die!”
Ruby waved his hands, signaling the end of the photo shoot. “We’ve given the press your itinerary. I ask our media friends to allow these two some private time. There will be photo-ops throughout the evening. Nick and Katie, enjoy your romantic evening.” Ruby bowed his head and made an elaborate hand flourish. Applause filled the lobby.
Nick excused himself from Katie and grabbed Ruby’s arm as he strutted away. “Please, you can’t do this. Look at her. She can’t be more than eighteen, if that.”
Ruby smiled. “The contest rules clearly stated twenty-one or older. Besides, I thought you liked them young, like Stephanie.” He leaned closer to Nick. “Call me in the morning. I’ll arrange the clean-up.”
Ruby nodded to Rachel and Ebony and then walked to the theater doors. Raising his arms high above his head, he boomed, “Ladies and gentlemen, please enter the theater for your exclusive showing of Night Birds! And be sure to stay seated after the credits, I have a special announcement about Nick Tera’s upcoming movie.”
The guests filed into the dimly lit interior of the theater. Reporters flocked after them, shouting questions and snapping photos until the ushers closed the massive, double doors.
The press and young women who had lost the contest were ushered out the front entrance. Nick paced in a circle around Katie as the lobby emptied. She texted on her phone.
She grinned and asked, “Where are we going, Nick? I’m posting everything on Facebook.”
Rachel slid an arm around Katie’s shoulders. “It’s a surprise. We have a limo waiting on the side of the building.” She nudged Katie toward the corridor where Nick had entered. “Go on.” Slithering around to Nick’s side, Rachel whispered. “Walk. If you keep Artie waiting any longer, we’ll be mopping up blood on the lobby floor.”
Something hard pushed against his arm. Rachel slid a long, sheathed knife inside his jacket sleeve. Her eyelids twitched in a reptilian wink. “A party starter.”
“I’ve never ridden in a limo.” Katie said as she trotted alongside Nick.
He watched Ebony close the fan club book. With his heart pounding, he darted to the lectern and ripped the book from her hands. The force sent Ebony stumbling backwards and she fell against the glass counter.
She scrambled to her feet and screamed, “He’s getting away!”
Nick sprinted across the lobby to the opposite corridor.
“Wait for me!” Katie ran after him and grabbed his sleeve.
“You won’t get far, Nick.” Rachel’s high heels banged on the marble floor close behind. Nick knocked over tables as he ran, sending avalanches of champagne glasses and hors d’oeuvres crashing to the floor. Rachel shrieked. Her scream ended abruptly when her forehead hit the marble floor.
A neon exit sign shone at the end of the long corridor. The hundred feet looked like a mile. Nick ran faster, dragging Katie on his arm.
Twenty feet before they reached the door, it opened and a tall man in a dark suit blocked the doorway. Nick stopped short and grabbed Katie’s arm to keep her from falling. The man scowled and slid his hand under his jacket. A door swung open next to Nick. Hands pulled him and Katie inside. The door slammed behind them and a lock clicked.
Nick froze until his vision adjusted to the darkness. “What are you doing?”
“Trying to help you, asshole.” Janis Ford jerked her head to the left. “Follow me. Hurry.” He hesitated, but then heard a heavy weight slam against the outside of the door. They followed Janis through another door. She locked the second door behind them and then hurried around a corner into a dark hallway.
“This is part of our date, right?’ Katie asked, breathless from running. “My friends said they might do some cool, horror stuff.”
Ignoring Katie, Nick glared at Janis. “Where are you taking us?”
“To the walkway the movie ushers use.”
Nick stopped and gripped Janis’ shoulder. “You’re leading us into the theater where Ruby is? I knew I couldn’t trust you.”
“Ruby has all the other exits guarded. It’s the only way out. It’s dark and the curtain will hide us from view. It leads to the front of the theater. Next to the screen there’s an exit. My van’s parked outside.”
She slipped through a doorway with a black wall on one side and a satiny red curtain on the other. Dim yellow lights recessed in the floor gave a faint, eerie glow to the long, dark corridor. The narrow ramp sloped gently downward.
“Stay close to the wall and be quiet,” Janis whispered. The soundtrack from the movie vibrated around them as they crept down the walkway.
They finally reached a metal door with a red exit sign glowing in the darkness above it. Janis grabbed the knob.
“Shit, it’s locked.” She dug inside her shoulder bag with both hands.
“Let me try,” Nick said. He shook the long knife from his sleeve and pulled off the sheath. The curved, wooden handle felt good in his hand. The light from the sign bathed Katie and Janis in a red glow. Artie’s murderous thoughts bubbled in his mind. He squeezed the knife grip and fought the urge to plunge the long blade first into Katie and then Janis. A blood-curdling shriek from the movie filled the theater followed by a deafening crescendo of ominous music.
“Where’d you get that?” Janis whispered.
Nick forced himself to focus on the lock. “Never mind.” He worked the skinny tip inside the keyhole while he jiggled the door handle. The lock clicked. He eased the door open and peered outside. A white van with The Entertainer’s logo printed on its side stood parked in the dark alley. The three rushed out. Nick tossed the knife into a pile of cardboard boxes.
They all crammed into the front seat. Janis started the ignition and flicked on the headlights. Two men ran toward them. One aimed a gun and fired. The bullet pinged off the edge of the van’s roof. Katie screamed and pressed her face against Nick shoulder. Janis ducked her head, shifted into reverse and floored the gas pedal.
Nick leaned out the passenger window. “Watch out!” A man ran toward the rear of the van.
“If he wants to play chicken with a six-thousand-pound van that’s his problem.” Janis pressed harder on the gas pedal. The van shot backwards down the long driveway. The man leapt to the side of the alley, flattening himself against the brick wall as they sped by. The rear of the van ran over a police barricade, bumped across the sidewalk, and then swerved into the busy avenue. Brakes screeched and horns blasted. Katie screamed again. Janis spun the steering wheel and shifted into drive. She raced up the street, zigzagging through the downtown traffic.
Nick pointed to a side street. “Make a right. My car’s two blocks over.”
Janis jerked the wheel to the right. The van rocked and its tires squealed as it rounded the corner. Seconds later, she pulled into the dry cleaner’s lot and jammed on the brakes.
Nick jumped out. “Thank you, Janis.” Katie slid her legs out. He pushed her back inside and slammed the door.
“What about our date?” she called out.
“There is no date.” Nick leaned into the open window. “Janis, take her home, please?”
“No! We have a date. I won. It’s on my Facebook page. What’ll I tell my friends?” Katie’s face scrunched into a pout and tears welled in her eyes.
“Shut up, Blondie. Keep quiet and I’ll buy you an ice cream.” Janis nodded to Nick. “What are you going to do?”
“End this once and for all.” Clutching the thick book under his arm, he sprinted to his car.
The demons battled for control of his mind and body. A furious Artie cursed and clawed at Nick’s insides while the other demon tormented him with surges of heat. Not wanting to wait for the elevator, he ran up the stairs two at a time until he reached his apartment. He slammed the door and locked it. His cell phone rang, and he saw Victor Ruby’s name displayed. Rushing to the fireplace, he pushed the button to ignite it, opened the glass door and tossed the heavy book into the fire.
Small yellow flames licked at the leather binding. The book writhed as flames took hold. Growls and shrieks rang out. Then, a whooshing sound as the flames enveloped the book. Thick, black smoke billowed from the flames and reeked of sulfur.
Nick ran to the bedroom closet. He pulled his gun from the top shelf and then sat on the edge of the bed. Gulping in deep breaths, he squeezed his eyes shut and pictured a line of Chris’s suicide note; There’s only one way to break a pact with the devil. He knew now that Ruby had Talon murder Chris before he could kill himself. Suicide would destroy the demon’s host. He didn’t want to kill himself, but he had run out of time and options. Katie’s face flashed in his mind. Without his body, Artie couldn’t kill Katie, or anyone else. It was the only way he knew to save her. If Ruby owned his soul, there was nothing he could do about it now.
Sweat trickled down his forehead, stinging his eyes and dripping down his neck. His hand shook as he jammed the gun under his chin. The barrel tip skidded across his wet skin. Cursing himself for not pulling the trigger, he wiped his sweaty palms on his pants legs and repositioned the gun.
His cell phone rang. He jumped and jerked his finger on the trigger. The close gun blast deafened him on one side. Plaster, dust and debris rained down from the ceiling. It was Ruby calling. He flung the phone on the floor and stomped it with his boot heel. It still rang. Kneeling, he hammered the phone with the butt of the gun until it lay in pieces on the carpet, silent.
He sat back and braced his back against the side of the bed. Tears and sweat streamed down his cheeks. His left eardrum throbbed from the first shot and he needed two hands to steady the gun under his chin. The phone rang. He stared at the crushed battery and plastic splinters ground into the carpet. Ruby’s voice boomed from the shattered speaker. “You won’t die tonight, Nick. But Katie will.” Ruby’s laughter filled the room.
“No!” Nick pressed the gun to his right temple. Searing heat from the handle burned his hand. He dropped it on the carpet. Thin wisps of smoke rose from the gun. He crawled closer, covered his hand with his shirt tail and grasped the handle. The hot metal scorched the material. He let go. The gun barrel glowed bright red and then dull white. It dissolved into a puddle of molten metal.
Nick collapsed on the carpet staring at the melted gun. Enraged, Artie scratched and tore at his insides. The pain and incessant heat felt like it would either rip him to shreds or burn the flesh from his bones. Rage grew inside him. The room turned a deep crimson color and his right arm lunged out, his hand flat on the floor. His fingers inched along the carpet until they touched the cold, familiar steel hidden in the shadows under the bed. He gripped the handle of his grandfather’s fillet knife. Raising to his knees, he grinned at the long, razor sharp blade, threw back his head and laughed. His maniacal whoops grew louder, ending in a triumphant shriek.
Nick willed his hand to drop the knife but instead his fingers tightened in a white-knuckled grip around the handle. He tried to pry the knife from his right fist with his left hand, but only sliced his fingers on the blade. His muscles strained as he forced his left arm to bend his right arm and angle the knife toward his heart. He heaved his body into the long blade.
He lay in a silent vacuum, his vision blurred by a deep red veil. Artie’s voice commanded, “Stand up”. Nick crawled to the bed and pulled himself up, leaving bloody smears on the white sheets. Cradling the knife in both hands, he staggered out of the apartment and then rode the elevator down to the parking garage.
He steered his car with one hand along the familiar route to Katie’s apartment. In the other, he clutched the knife. Tremors of excitement rippled through his body as he listened to Artie’s hushed promises of the bloody pleasures to come.
“Stop where you are!”
“He’s got a knife.”
“Drop the knife! Do it now! Put your hands behind your head.”
Spinning red, yellow and blue lights blinded Nick. Footsteps pounded nearby. Four policemen surrounded him on the lawn outside Katie’s apartment, their guns leveled at his chest.
“I said, drop the knife!”
Confused by the command, he looked down and saw a fillet knife clutched in his right hand. A slick red liquid coated the blade up to its hilt. He flung it into the grass.
The cops edged closer. “Get down on your knees. Put your hands behind your head.”
Ragged breaths caught in his throat. He spun in a circle, the constant strobing of multi-colored lights slicing through the darkness made him dizzy. His clothing felt heavy and stuck to his body. He ran his hands down his torso and stared at the red covering his palms. Blood soaked his shirt and pants.
A police officer’s silhouette stood in Katie’s open doorway. Nick stumbled toward him. The officer aimed his gun, ordering him to halt. Nick stopped a few feet from the door. Under the fluorescent kitchen light, puddles of red shone on the white linoleum floor.
“Sparkling like red rubies. Rubies. Ruby.” His giggles turned to screams and then raw sobs. “Ruby. No. No. Oh, God, no. Not Katie. No. I killed her.” He collapsed to his knees, rubbing his bloody hands over his face and through his hair.
Rough hands grabbed his arms, yanking them behind his back and then forcing his head down into the moist, cool grass. A loud click. Hard metal cuffs bound his wrists together. Katie’s voice screamed from far away, “Nick, no!” Her voice sounded tinny, a memory replaying in his mind accompanied by the vision of the silvery glint of a knife blade. He rolled onto his side. Katie’s screams faded into Ruby’s sadistic laughter.
“No. Please. No.” He sobbed as he rolled onto his back and dug his fingernails into the dirt. Two cops stood over him, staring down at him.
“Sonofabitch looks like he took a bath in blood.”
“You saw that poor girl.”
The toe of a shiny, black shoe jabbed Nick’s side. “Did he pass out?”
“Get the EMTs over here. Damn, I hope we don’t have to carry this bastard. Better get some gloves on.”
Their voices faded, overpowered by Ruby’s, “Evil won. Katie’s dead. Evil won. Katie’s dead. Evil won.” The singsong rant played over and over.
Numbness crept over Nick as the realization of what he had done penetrated his daze. His limbs turned leaden. He couldn’t move or open his eyes. Breathing became too much effort. He begged God to let him die and slipped into a deep, silent, black pit.