Connor rubbed his aching eyes. Even with the energy drink, it was grueling to stay up through the night. It was a little over an hour, after the caffeine had worn off, that his mind turned back to the little bag of meth in his pocket. He tried to convince himself that it was too much of a risk with Liz in the car, but he was an inch from giving in. The fatigue and need to stay awake were mingling with the all-consuming desire to take a bump, and were slowly overpowering his logic.
Finally he decided to get out of the car. Some fresh air is all I need, he reasoned, and if I need some crystal at least I won’t be doing it right next to her. The night air felt crisp against his skin as he closed the door as quietly as he could. If Lizzie noticed his escape, she didn’t acknowledge it in any way.
“Nice night for a walk, don’t you think?” Connor had taken only three steps from the car when a throaty baritone voice spoke somewhere behind him.
He turned his head to try to see who was speaking, but in the darkness he couldn’t tell where the stranger was. Frustrated, he dismissively said, “Sure, it’s fine. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
“Maybe not too great of an idea moving so far from your comrade though, eh? Never know when something’s going to jump out at you!” The voice was deep, but it had an edge that cut deep into him.
Turning completely around, Connor still couldn’t make out where the man was. There were no outlines against the stars to betray the speaker. “Look, mac. I can’t tell if you’re trying to have a pleasant conversation or incite an assault, but I’m a bit busy so why don’t you just scram off to whatever freakshow you were headed to.”
“Headed to? Where else would I be going? I come to these crossroads every few years, just to check.” Looking down, Connor could clearly see an intersection of dirt roads beneath his feet. Had it been there before? “And imagine my surprise to see you here! So full of need and want.”
A chill ran down his spine as he recalled the hollow-eyed man’s warnings. When exactly was the witching hour? Connor squinted, but there was still nobody there to see. “Who are you?”
“Why ask a question you don’t care about, Mr. Donnelly? What’s important is what I can do for you. I’m your last chance for escape. Nothing else can save you from what’s coming for you -not your red-headed friend in the car, not the blonde vixen; not even that meth in your pocket- but I can. You’ll be scot-free, safe and sound. That’s a guarantee.”
Connor’s neck tingled like a live wire. “Sounds like a pretty raw deal for you. What do you stand to gain from such generosity?”
“Oh, I’ll gain plenty, just accept the terms. Better decide fast, though, the clock’s running out.”
Connor thought he saw a hand reaching out to him. He tried to see the man connected to the hand, but movement on the ground distracted him. Insects were showing up in epic numbers all around him.
“Make a choice, Connor.”
A hand was shaking him.
“You’re running out of time, Connor.”
The bugs were crawling into his mouth, eating him from the inside.
There was no escape, every step he took was on a carpet of bugs in a room full of bugs on a planet made of bugs.
He awoke with a start, his arms almost flailing into Lizzie. His heart was pounding like it was beating out a bass line that was echoed by the saxophone of his short, stoccatic breathing. His voice was a high pitch trumpet line that completed the jazz trio of anguished worry as he said, “Huh? What? Where’s the crossroads? Where’s the Daunatori?”
“You’re safe. It’s like I said, it’s still having to hitchhike its way up here. We’ve got some time.” Her eyes were glowing intensely. Connor was unsure what he looked like right now. He could feel the bags under his eyes pulling like lead weights into his cheeks and he knew his clothes were disheveled. His best guess was that he looked about as good as a wet cat.
“You don’t think it can really hitchhike, do you?”
“Stop being such a fucking moron, Connor.”
“Sorry. Not a lot of sleep. I’m not exactly firing on all cylinders right now.”
“Well snap out of it. If you wanna find Leyla, we got work to do.”
Lizzie stepped out of the cruiser and began to saunter up towards the tiny collection of tin cans that made up the little trailer park. The place looked sadder in the daytime, which was saying a lot. A faded, peeling sign marked the outside of the park, clearly indicating that at one point someone had tried to make an effort at making this place nice.
The trailers themselves were a mix of mobile homes and RVs, none of which were new or even in good condition. Roofs sagged, panels were missing, windows were broken, and those were just the ones Connor could make out from the car. He got out and trotted up next to Lizzie. She was already putting on her cop face, the normal jovial good nature bleeding out into an expression of stoic seriousness. She put on her sunglasses, mirrored aviators, and the effect was complete. Connor had always told her a cop wearing aviators was like a queer man wearing a feather boa: it probably happened in real life all the time, but it sure felt trite when it did. She had told him to fuck off.
They reached the address Liz had scribbled down about halfway into the little trailer park: a mobile home that had originally been an ugly tan. The morning light streaming through the few scraggly, long neglected trees illuminated the remnants of it almost lovingly. Each spot of sun caressed the blackened char and singed metal siding of what had been Laura DuCaine’s home. All that was left was the burned out carcass of a place that Connor was still having trouble picturing Leyla in. Even having been to her apartment, knowing how messy she was, he couldn’t imagine her living in a tiny single wide with her parents or maybe just her mom, Laura. That’s assuming her mom was Laura, but, even going the other way, this didn’t seem like Leyla’s scene. The thought of the flames lighting up this tiny, cheap piece of tin and fiberglass like it was a porcelain doll made him shudder.
“Hey! What are you doing there?” Connor turned to see a woman in her mid forties with dark hair and blue eyes coming out of another mobile home across the way. She was dressed in sweatpants and a ratty shirt that had more holes than fabric. It might have been a pretty sight except the dame’s best years were behind her. She was overweight and obviously hadn’t thought about her skin or hair in years. She came up to the pair with an anger that bordered on paranoia.
“Ma’am, do you know what happened to this house?”
“It burned down about twenty years ago now.”
“And the people who lived here?”
“Dead. They died in the fire.”
“Was one of those people Laura DuCaine?”
The woman’s eyes went wide. She started to look from side to side. “Who the hell are you?”
Lizzie quickly flashed the badge so that Laura wouldn’t see where it was from. She gave an annoyed look at Connor when she saw that he had done the same. “Ma’am, I’m Detective Elizabeth O’Shea.”
“And I’m Detective Stan MacKenzie.” Liz’s eyes were two staring bullets ready to shoot him in the head.
“I’m Tanya, Tanya Knox.” The overweight woman said, still visibly nervous.
“We got a report about someone matching Laura DuCaine’s description, and were just trying to establish a timeline of her whereabouts.”
“Is she in trouble?”
“Just the opposite.” Connor chimed in. “She was a witness to a theft, and we think that she can identify the burglar. The owner of the property is putting up a pretty large reward if she can.” Liz looked livid. Her face was clearly saying, ‘shut up.’
Tanya looked at both of them and considered for a moment. “I guess you’d better come inside.”
Tanya shuffled off, Connor and Lizzie following closely behind, to her trailer. The inside was a cautionary tale of what happened when you forgot where your dumpster was. The mobile home was lined wall to wall with knick-knacks, empty boxes, and stacks of paper. There wasn’t much rhyme or reason to the sundry possessions of Ms. Knox. Snow globes mingled with plastic kazoos, which sat precariously on cookie jars. The paper was a mix of newspaper and mailers and store catalogues all haphazardly arranged in piles on the tables, counters, and even the floor.
They at least combined with the boxes to make a nice, segregated look to the open floor plan of the trailer: it was separated between habitable space and uninhabitable space, with the latter taking the lion’s share of the small single-wide. Tanya moved between a couple of large stacks on a small path that beat a trail into the habitable zone, wherein a large recliner and a tiny sofa made up what some might call a ‘living room’ but really felt more like a dying room. The air was thick with the smell of cat urine and moldy bread. Connor and Lizzie unenthusiastically cleared some magazines from the tiny couch and sat down at Tanya’s prompting.
“So you think you know where Laura is? If you find her, keep it quiet. There are folks around Miller that still think she had something to do with that trailer burning down.”
“Why would they think that?” Lizzie was in full on cop-mode now.
“Probably the fact that she disappeared after it happened. They never found her body inside, just her mom’s and her step-father’s. Some people say she was angry at them, so she murdered them. That’s nonsense if you ask me.”
“You knew Laura?”
“Yeah. We were best friends in school, back in the day. At least we were until she decided she wanted to enter that beauty contest.”
“She was a pretty girl?”
“Of course, but her looks weren’t ever good enough for her. She would spend hours at the mirror, plucking an eyebrow or brushing her hair. Always she would point out to me some little flaw. She would tell me, ‘Look at this freckle, Tanya! The judges will never pick a girl with this freckle.’ Or, ‘Can you believe how terrible this bump on my nose looks? A lot of girls get a nose job before a pageant to make sure their noses are perfect.’ Always I told her that she was being too nit-picky. She never did believe me.”
“But she won?”
Tanya smiled, her eyes wistful. “She won.” She was in a different world, a place where she was still young with her whole life ahead of her and not some overweight hoarder in a trailer park so cut off from the world people probably wouldn’t even find her body when she died. “But we had stopped talking months before that. There was no point hanging out with her, she just obsessed over herself the whole time. I stopped visiting, then she stopped participating in class. Soon she was just that aloof, pretty girl. I remember hoping that she would snap out of it once the beauty pageant was over. I even went to her place after to congratulate her. I guess her obsessiveness had paid off. She was more beautiful than ever, but we still didn’t talk much. There was too much distance between us, and she wanted to talk about getting ready for the state competition. Then there was the fire shortly after that, and I never saw her again.”
“Do you think she started the fire?”
“I don’t, no. I can see how people would, though.”
“Her step-dad was always the definition of a jerk. I know for a fact he would hit her every once in awhile, never anywhere it showed.”
“Did he ever molest her?”
“I couldn’t say. She never said anything about it. It wouldn’t surprise me if he did. Anyway, it just got worse once she had won the pageant. The step-dad lost his job, and he blamed it on her. He kept saying that it was her fault. I remember this one night, just two or three days before the fire, he pulled her out of the trailer by her hair. He was trying to kick her out. He kept saying, ‘You’ve cursed us! You’ve cursed us, you stupid cunt! You went to those crossroads at the witching hour, didn’t you? Now we’re all fucking doomed.’”
Connor felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. Lizzie interjected into Tanya’s story, “Crossroads at the witching hour?”
“Yeah, you know they say that if you stand at the crossroads at the witching hour, you can meet a very special traveller. He’ll make a deal with you: anything you want, one wish, in exchange for your soul.”
“I guess so. It’s not a legend exclusive to Millers’ Crossing, lots of places have it. But this town has always been on a crossroads, so I guess the superstition about it runs deep.”
“So Laura’s step-dad accused her of selling her soul to the devil to win a beauty pageant?”
“Yeah. Most folks in this town believe he was right, too.”
Lizzie raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Well just look at this place. There used to be a little mill here. That’s why it was called Millers’ Crossing. It shut down the day after Laura won the pageant. Within five years the building had withered and crumbled so much that only the foundation remains. The town itself is the same way. A ton of folks left, and all the houses they abandoned all collapsed, leaving practically nothing behind. It’s never been a big place, but, the way things are going, it’s not going to be a place at all in another couple decades.”
“So you believe him too?”
Tanya looked around like she was talking about things that were forbidden. “I think it’s easy for a girl to get so hung up on her looks that she’d do anything to perfect them. Like I said, I saw Laura after the pageant. She had always been beautiful, but there was something … different about her. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I don’t know if she sold her soul, but she certainly did change, became something unnatural.”
“Do you know anywhere she might go if she was looking to hide out? Would she come back here?”
“No, she would never come back to Millers’ Crossing in a hundred years. Folks around here would probably stone her if she did. I honestly don’t know where she’d go. You’d have to ask someone who knew her a hell of a lot better than I did.”
“Thank you for your time, Mrs. Knox.” Lizzie shook the woman’s hand. Connor just nodded at her. They walked out with very little ceremony back to the car.
It wasn’t until they were at the cruiser that Liz grabbed Connor and shoved him up against the door. “You impersonate an officer like that again, and I will have you a pair of bracelets so fast you’d think we were goin’ steady.”
“You were doing it. She wouldn’t have spoken to you if she knew how far out of your jurisdiction you are.”
“Yes, but I am a cop, Connor. And I take it personally when someone pretends to be one who isn’t.”
“Okay, I’m sorry.” Connor was starting to see little, white spots on his vision.
“Not to mention it’s a crime, and I’m supposed to arrest people when I see a crime in progress. Capiche?”
“Yeah, I got it.”
She let him go. “And by the way, don’t use MacKenzie again for anything. That’s the name of some super-cop back in the city. Apparently he gave Romsky and Lennon a tip that almost nailed them Terence the Chopper.”
Connor looked down and to the side. He could force himself to conceal a lie, but there wasn’t much point to it right now. “Yeah, remember when I said I was on Terence’s shit list?”
Lizzie hit him in the arm hard. “You stupid motherfucker! I ought to arrest you right now and let Joey and his vultures pick your bones clean.”
“Like I said, I’m sorry, okay.”
“Get in the fuckin’ car before I leave you here.” She muttered all the way back to the driver’s side. He didn’t catch much other than ‘son of a bitch’ and ‘fucking pain in the ass.’
Connor gave her about twenty minutes to calm down before he finally spoke up again. “So what do you think of Tanya’s story?”
“Any other case and I’d be calling in a psych eval, but with this one… I don’t know. I mean, this girl Laura does look exactly like Leyla, so maybe she wished to live forever or something.”
“Makes about as much sense as everything else in this lousy job.”
“You could call Charise. Maybe she could at least tell you if it was possible.”
“That dame is gonna be tired of hearing my voice before this is all over.” Connor pulled out the ‘crazy’ burner. Charise answered with her customary greeting before Connor responded, “Heya, doc, it’s Connor again.”
“Mr. Do … Connor! I don’t have anything more for you yet. I do have some interesting sources lined up, though. I’m getting a copy of a rare microfiche emailed to me from Belarus this morning. It should give me some more information to work with.”
“Thanks, Charise, but I’m actually calling about a different kind of crazy this morning.”
“And what would that be?”
“Um. Is it possible to sell your soul to the devil?”
“You mean like in Faust?”
“Sure, let’s go with that. Can it be done?”
“Many texts indicate that such a thing is possible. Why? Are you thinking of making a deal with a demon?”
“No, I think a friend might have.”
“Hmmm … male or female?”
“Well, the popular thinking among occultists is there was a rash of such activity in the middle ages. What the church called ‘witches’ were actually girls who were selling their souls to gain fantastic powers. We usually call them ‘Hell Bound’ or “Devil’s Concubines” to distinguish them from druidic and paganistic practices in Europe at the time, which of course have nothing to do with satanic worship.”
“Hell Bound? So you’re saying they do exist?”
“All I can tell you is what the research points out. Sadly a lot of the ‘telltale signs’ from the time, most notably in the Malleus Maleficarum, are either cruel and unusual or would hardly stand out in modern society. Hold on, let me go pull it out.”
“What kind of stuff is too cruel?”
“Oh, you know, tie her to a log and throw her in the lake to see if she floats, that kind of thing. On the other end of spectrum, fornication, licentiousness, and sloth are all signs of a Hell Bound, but that covers a lot of people. Oh! Here. Does she have a ‘witch’s mark?’”
“A witch’s mark?”
“Yeah, like a strange mole, or a growth, or even a funny scar.”
Connor suddenly felt really dizzy, like his body had left the earth and was orbiting in space. “Yeah, she’s got a scar.”
“Well, it’s still circumstantial, unless you want to stack one hundred stones on her, but it does seem to fit the evidence.”
“Yeah, great. I don’t suppose there’s any way to find a Hell Bound?”
“Well, they supposedly have to dance naked under the light of the full moon, but who’s to say that wasn’t just wishful thinking on the part of the writer?”
“Okay, thanks, doc.”
“No problem. I hope to have something more on your curse later today.”
“Hey! Could a, um, Hell Bound have put the curse on me?”
“Doubtful, unless she wished for the ability to curse people. They’re not witches, as I said before; they’re just women who usually are driven by desperation. A curse would be very bad for a Hell Bound, though.”
“Well, if they die, they go straight to hell. So a death curse would probably be the most frightening thing imaginable.”
“Right. Okay. Thanks for the tip.”
“Don’t mention it, Connor. Try to stay alive out there. I’m working as fast as I can.”
He clicked the phone call off and stared numbly at the screen. It all fit: the scar that scared her half to death when it was brought up, the slovenliness, the bouts of lust, the drugs, even her looks. Leyla was a Hell Bound. “I can’t believe I ran with her for two and a half years, and she never thought to mention the whole ‘sold her soul’ thing.”
“I’d imagine it’s a hard topic to ease into. Though I gotta say, Connor, you really do know how to pick ’em.”
“Yeah, I really oughta just find a nice girl and settle down, get a house, and have two and a half kids.” He was feeling sarcastic and cynical, and it bled out into his tone.
“Maybe not that far, but maybe reign it in from the hellions you’ve been dating. I mean there’s a fine line between ‘down for anything in the bedroom’ and ‘down for anything up to and including selling your soul.’”
“You are very wise, Detective. Clearly I need a more thorough screening process. Maybe I’ll issue a questionnaire before the date starts. One question only. Have you sold your soul: yes or no?”
“I might just start running a background check for you. You clearly have the worst taste in women. When are you gonna start picking girls with real jobs like office manager or lawyer?”
“Or cop?” Connor knew it was out of line, but he was feeling reckless and stupid.
Lizzie blushed, her freckles blending in as her skin began to match her hair. “One of these days I’m just gonna shoot you and put you outta my misery, Connor Donnelly.”
“Oh come on! Maybe I’ll adopt the MacKenzie alias, and we can be cops together! After all, Stan’s doing better in his career than I am. He’s a super-cop. I’m just a nobody with three different flavors of death trying to find him.”
“Fuck off, Connor. Oh, and also, no fuckin’ dying! I have not done this much driving for you to die to this shit. If you die, I’m gonna’ have Charise find a way to raise you so I can kill you myself.”
“Awww, that’s so sweet, honey.” Lizzie was about to insult him some more, but one of the burners in Connor’s pocket started ringing. Pulling it out, he recognized it as the number he had given Francis at the pawn shop. He pressed the talk button. “Hello?”
“That’s me. Heya, Francis.”
“You told me to call if that partner of yours showed up?”
“I did. Wait, are you saying she’s there?”
“Can’t say for sure, but I think so. There’s a really pretty girl here asking about things related to you.”
“I’m a few hours outside of town. How long do you think you can keep her there?”
“I’ll just tell her I need time to get the info she wants and that she should come back in three hours. Are you sure you’ll be able to be here by then?”
“Of course. I’ll see you then, Francis.”