My brilliant plan to tap Mammon for a lead wasn’t only a bust, but now I knew that my business woes were currently common knowledge among the Strange. Worse, I hadn’t managed to find an angle to get ahead of the papers setting me up as a snitch.
More unsettling was the fact that all of this was in motion, and Mammon wasn’t in the loop. The guy practically oozed schadenfreude instead of sweat when it came to hearing about the misfortunes of others, which meant that he wasn’t holding out. He genuinely didn’t know anything even hinting upon Muriel’s ongoing scheme.
So how did Uriel know? Granted, being Death meant that he was the NSA to Mammon’s FBI when it came to being on top of information, but for the pawn shop Demon to come up empty meant that either Muriel was more canny than I had given him credit for, or Uriel wasn’t playing completely straight with me.
But that was traipsing too freely into full paranoia, so I shook the thought loose. That line of thinking would only lead into a bullshit DaVinci Code style circlejerk of second-guessing myself. Not helpful.
No. Uriel was on mission, and not staking me out as bait. He didn’t have all the facts, either. I knew he was holding certain things back, but he had told me enough to get on with. Being reluctant to share certain details was an occupational hazard of The Covenant, even if he had become the theological equivalent of Switzerland. The rest was up to me. That thought wasn’t any more encouraging, but it did at least give me a path to try to follow.
Next item on the list: if I couldn’t get an address on the Angel, the next logical step would be to figure out how to deal with him when he eventually took a more direct swing at me.
I was going to regret it, but I had to hit the library. I turned left and cut up an alley, already practicing the speech I’d use to placate the head librarian, all while realizing it was probably a lost cause. She and I had what you might call a “tense” relationship. Okay, that’s too weak. I believed that lady would stay mad at me until the stars all winked out.
Shocking, I know. I’m so lovable, otherwise. But I wasn’t going to learn anything on my own, and since everything I did from here on out was a risk I figured adding one more onto the inbox wouldn’t automatically choke it to uselessness.
It was around the halfway point of the alley when the itch between my shoulder blades began. You know the one. It’s the hairs raising up on your neck, the gooseflesh on your arms, or the overwhelming sense of eyes on your person. It’s the sixth-sense alarm that sounds when you’re being followed or tracked. Every single thing that lives and breathes has this internal klaxon that sounds to one degree or another. For you drabs, there’s an entire medicinal industry dedicated to turning the volume down on it, but you still experience the sensation nonetheless.
Sure, it’s a bit more of an accurate Doppler radar for we preternatural types, but you’ve felt it before at one time or another. So you can dig on what I’m saying when I tell you that my Spidey-sense was well and truly tingling. Alert! DEFCON ONE! Incoming!
My internal dialogue followed suit. “Danger, danger Will Robinson!”
My internal dialogue is a fan of the classics.
After a few more yards, I could hear the footfalls of someone attempting stealth without the actual training for it. The alley hit a four-way where a cross-passage intersected, and I rounded the corner on my right. I fetched up against the wall, and waited. Sure enough, only a few moments passed before another figure also rounded the corner.
I burned a flicker of power, bit down over the pain, and moved faster than anything short of the spooky side of the street could react reasonably to. Grabbing my stalker by the front of his clothes, I whirled, and slammed him against one of the walls. I’d get in the suckerpunch, maybe a quick soccer-worthy kick between the legs, and then run as fast as my wounded body would let me. I was in no shape for another prolonged fight, but I wasn’t about to let the goon follow me, either.
My fist cocked back, but I stopped short after getting a good look at the guy. It was the vodka-and-barbecue asshole from earlier that I had side-stepped on the street! But now that we were face-to-face, I got treated to a heinous body odor that was only barely masked by the smoke and booze funk.
I kept my fist up as a visual indication of my irritation, and shook the guy with the hand still holding him.
“What the hell, dude?” I barked. “What is your damage? Following people down alleys? I’d be well in my right to just blow your idiot head off!”
It was an empty threat. The gun was still at home. He didn’t know that, though. Ahhh, bless the psychological impact of Concealed Carry laws.
I pushed him against the wall again, and stepped away in case his bell wasn’t rung as much as I assumed. It would be a fine thing for me to claim victory only to learn that he hadn’t forgotten his own firearm. I was ready to pump another dose of Hellfire into my limbs if it came to that, but I would only be able to manage a flash in the pan in my sorry state. Any more and I risked keeling over from exhaustion. It would have to be enough.
Instead of pulling a weapon, the guy only smiled at me.
I say smiled, but really it was more like his lunacy seeped out through his dirty pores and attempted to emote a happy expression. He was crazy thin, with straggly blond hair, and red-rimmed eyes that were open way too wide for someone playing with a full deck. His clothes were obviously cast-offs cribbed from what the donation centers didn’t want, and they were covered with patches of soot and burn holes.
“It’s you!” he frantically whispered. “You! At last!”
He giggled, and hugged himself like he might fly apart. Yep. Wack-job, top shelf.
I laughed along weakly, and took another step back while he was preoccupied. “Yeah! It’s me! Hooray! So, this was fun, but I’m just gonna go, okay?”
“No!” he screeched. He shook his head so violently that beads of perspiration flung from the filthy locks. “No no no! You! You don’t understand! You lit the wick that began the blaze! The prophecy was told to me, not by words but by your faceless eyes in the knowing dark! Careful destined words seared into my mind and dreams of pain!”
“Oooooooookay,” I offered, while continuing my careful retreat. “Prophecy. Eyes without a face. I get it. You like Billy Idol. Me too. I prefer ‘Rebel Yell’, though. I’m glad we had this talk.”
The snark wasn’t putting a dent in this guy’s psychosis. He grabbed his head, and stared at something I was sure was only visible through the use of recreational pharmaceuticals or cranial trauma.
“You know you know you know,” he babbled. “You must be given tribute and praise! I’ve done what you asked of all mankind! Forgive me! I take a searing piece of each work into my weak flesh, because it makes me feel closer to your light. It cleanses, it strengthens.”
He turned fevered eyes toward me, and reached out, palms up. His hands were a mass of blistered and burned skin, like a wax doll left too close to a furnace; all red and striated pink-white where it wasn’t blackened and gray. It was a miracle that he hadn’t lost them to rot, let alone maintained any use of them.
“With each holy place, I am doing your noble work!” he hissed through clenched teeth. He shuddered, and his seething gave way into off-kilter laughter.
“You?” I asked, putting it all together. “You’re the one … the one that’s been torching the churches?”
His head almost snapped off his malnourished neck with nodding. “Yes yes yes yes yes you know you know you know ME!” he crowed. He practically started dancing a victory jig.
The backhand I dealt him cut off his celebration mid-cheering.
He spun a full circle before landing at the base of the wall in a shocked, mewling heap.
“You are fucking kidding me!” I shouted. “Know you? You have been the goddamn bane of my existence, you complete dick-basket! What the actual fuck is wrong with you?”
His expression was pathetic. Tears filled his eyes, and the fresh trickle of blood from his cracked lips went completely ignored in his surprise.
“Y-y-you showed me!” he pleaded in a stuttering wail. “In Austin! You sh-sh-showed me! I did what you asked of m-me! I was to carry th-the flames outward!”
“I didn’t ask a damn thing of you, psycho! And now I’m public enemy number one on both sides of the law enforcement line because you traded your happy pills for a zippo and a nervous breakdown? What is this? Try-outs for ‘America’s Got Pyro Talent’? You’re a friggin’ bargain Iggy Pop with a strike-anywhere fetish! Fuck you!”
I launched a kick at his midsection, but it only caught air as he scrambled away with a yelp of fright. He quickly got to his feet, and his buggy eyes tracked me while he shuffled to keep out of arm’s reach.
“Why?” he whimpered. “I thought you would be pleased!”
I followed, trying to close the distance. “I’m ecstatic!” I said with mocking appreciation. “I’m so fucking happy! Let me show you how much by going UFC on you, and then dropping your bloodied church-burning ass off at the police precinct!”
He dodged another blow, hopping back a few more steps. This routine kept up for a few more feet, at one point switching our relative positions in the alley. My back was to the exit, his back the way we had come. As he continued evading, I watched as his expression melted from hurt confusion into giddy comprehension. His mouth formed a near-perfect circle, and he jumped clear of me by a good seven feet up the alley.
“Oh! Oh! I get it!” he laughed. “Oh oh oh! Yes yes yes! You are wise! Yes, wise! No wonder you are angry with me! I was unfinished! The work so far has been unworthy! Unworthy and incomplete!”
I stopped in my tracks. “Uh. What?”
“Unfinished! Sloppy! The sketch when you deserve a masterpiece! Oh yes! Yes yes yes you are worthy and benign! Even the pain that you give to me has purpose!”
My mouth dropped open at the sudden realization of what this urban Rasputin was getting at.
“Now, wait a minute,” I tried.
“What is it to cleanse the structure and not those that give it purpose? Thank you, Lord! Thank you for teaching me! I will add their cries to my own!”
Without another word, he turned and began sprinting up the alley. I snarled, and quickly took up the chase, but evidently insanity is a great boost for anyone interested in breaking Olympic records. The loony fire-bug quickly outdistanced me.
My limbs were already screaming at me from sleep-deprivation, injury, and the toll even using a trickle of power exacted on them. I felt like I was trying to do the hundred-yard dash through a pool filled with pudding and failure. He rounded the far corner, dashing onto the next street, and it was all I could do to even see that much. Within moments, he was gone, and I had no bloody idea which direction he had gone.
I sagged against the alley wall, and kneaded the spot in my back where my guitar had beaten against my lower muscles during the run. That would leave a fine bruise.
Fuck my life. I had no location on Muriel, no fix for the rumor mill, and not only did I fail to capture the real arsonist when he was right in front of me, but apparently I had just inspired him to quit the slacking, and kick things up a murderous notch. The next arson in Houston would require a coroner on the scene.
How long had the guy been keeping tabs on me? Did he know where I lived? He must, given how we had crossed paths twice in one day. Angel problems, police problems, and now who just happens to show up? Bozo Burns-all the Burninator Bum. Was he a lone nut, or was he another piece in the game of Candy Land-meets-Cape Fear that Muriel was playing?
Way too many coincidences, and way too many marks in the “lose” column, and the day wasn’t even half over.
I collected myself, caught my breath, and left the alley. At least I knew who the guy was, now. Putting word out on him through Mammon would at least be something to settle things between us. After that, the guy would be finished before he could cause any real damage. I would just have called the department hotline, but it wasn’t like the police would believe me if I put that tip in.
The Mammon service would have to do. I couldn’t waste more time dicking around with the human torch, so I’d swing back by the pawn shop in the evening before practice. I was too tired to follow through right then, and there was still the next item on the to-do list to tackle; potentially the most important one where my chances of survival were concerned. My feet turned towards the best route that would take me back home. I would grab my motorcycle, get over to the public library, and hopefully find some answers about this damn guitar.
“When the Man Comes Around”, “Nine Shot Sonata series”, ©2017 Xero Reynolds. Please do not reproduce without permission.