HELLCAT

HELLCAT

by

Jake Parralta

 

It wasn’t easy being the basement whore. She just barely got by, living on bad dope, cold burgers and seething hatred, down in the locked basement under Augie’s Bar and Grill. It was nightmare dark down there and cold, too, like a wet Navy blanket. When it rained, and it rained all the time, the water would seep in and irrigate crops of dark, rotten-smelling mold and the rubbery fungus that thrived on the concrete walls. Not that it mattered much to Maya. She never went near the walls. Most of her time was spent doing business under the yellow halo of a 100-watt bulb. Her office was the filthy mattress that Augie had thrown down at the foot of the stairs that came down from the bar.

Starting with Augie, she pretty much hated everyone on the planet. And if there were people from outer space, she stood ready to hate their creepy asses, too. She hated the father she’d never seen and the mother who had given her up to Augie to cancel a drug debt. She hated the endless parade of johns. She hated Augie’s thugs and the singers she could hear on the jukebox. She didn’t know jack about politics, but she hated the President and the Congress and the cops and the lawyers and everyone else, from seniors down to babies. She hated everyone she had ever seen, and everyone she’d ever heard of, and wished like hell they were all dead. In a perfect world, she would be the only person and dope would grow on trees, with full syringes hanging down like fruit from the branches.

On the bright side, there was a shower and a toilet that was good for one flush a day and, periodically, one of Augie’s thugs would bring her down some food and her dope. The arrangement was simple: as long as she put out, she got dope and she got to go on living. If it wasn’t for her dope, she’d have never made it through the first few months of being a whore. Dope was all she had. It was her friend and family and she thanked God for dope. Just to stay on the safe side and keep the dope coming in, Maya always played it smart and gave equal thanks to the Devil, too. Just in case. Sometimes she thought maybe she should be praying to Augie. When you were a sex slave, imprisoned in a gloomy, rat-infested basement, it was hard to tell who your benefactor was.

Sometimes, though, the dope wasn’t all that great. Augie would get a deal on some crap they couldn’t sell on the streets and she would pay the price. One evening she was laying on her mattress, feverish and twitching and wondering if she was fixing to die, when she started seeing shit. At first it was the usual stuff: the flying babies and the sailboats on the walls and the rats that foamed at the mouth. And then, the big man suddenly appeared at the foot of the stairs. It was weird.

No matter how ripped she was, she always heard the blast of noise from the bar whenever the upstairs door opened up and another john came staggering down. But not this time. When she first saw the big man, he was stepping off the last stair like he had just stepped in from out of nowhere.

This was one big, creepy john. He wore a funny, old-fashioned suit, gray with pin stripes and wide lapels and one of those Frank Sinatra style hats. For a moment, he towered over her, blotting out the glare from the light bulb. But then, instead of dropping his pants like everyone else, he just sat down on the stairs without saying anything. He was right where the light crashed into the gloom and she couldn’t see his face, even after he pushed the hat back on his head. Something fell on the floor at his feet and Maya saw that he had dropped a little satchel down between his feet. There was a hollow, reverberating clunk sound and it was then that she saw the guitar, cradled like a child in his arms. As she watched, he reached around his guitar, pulled open the satchel and cautiously stuck his hands down inside inside of it. Slowly, he pulled something out. Something that looked like a double handful of something squirmy. Maya couldn't be certain in the dim light, but it sure looked like he had let it go - whatever it was - and she kinda thought something dark and slender had gone sliding under the stairs.

"You watch yourself," said the man abruptly. "There's a butt viper loose in here. Be best if you keep it puckered up, if you know what I mean."

A butt viper? Maya asked herself, what the hell was a butt viper? That didn’t sound too good.

She told herself, oh yeah, she was bad tripping again. There really wasn’t anyone there. There just couldn’t be. On the other hand, he was right there, sitting on the stairs. Either way, keeping her mouth shut seemed like a damn good idea.

The man didn't say anything either. He just kind of leaned over the body of the guitar and rocked back and forth, staring at her all the while. She still couldn’t see his eyes or face because the shadow from the hat brim fell over it like a black veil. All the same, she knew he was staring at her, sizing her up. She could feel it. It was just like when she was shoplifting and she could feel all those invisible eyes watching her.

Finally, the long silence got to her. She thought up something to say and found the nerve to say it.

“Well,” she asked, “are you gonna bone me, or what?”

He chuckled, but that didn’t prove anything. When you started seeing things, hearing things was right around the corner. And it wasn’t a funny sort of chuckle, either. It was about as humorous as a hungry tiger purring in your face. “No thanks,” he said. “Strictly business.”

His voice was raspy and angry and deep and she knew that even if he wasn’t really there, this was still not a nice person.

“Let me give you a heads up,” she said, trying to sound a little bolder than she felt. She sat up on her mattress and tried to preen her stringy blonde hair with her grimy fingers. “Augie only allows one kind of business down here and that’s boning me. It costs twenty dollars in advance and you got twenty minutes to get on, get off and get out.”

He said, “I ain’t too worried about Augie. Tonight, Augie dies.”

Now, that was interesting. Maya swung her legs around underneath her body and sat on them. “Yeah, right. And who is gonna kill him? You?”

“No,” he said. “Not me. The way this plays out, your hating is what kills Augie.”

That was funny. Like she was going to kill Augie, the psycho of the neighborhood. But she didn't laugh. She told him, "Do you think that if I could hate Augie to death that I would be down here putting out for sailors? I'm not sure whether you're really here or not, but either way, you better get the hell outa here, Mister."

“And there’s some other people that need killed, Maya. You know who they are.”

“Like, everyone that ever walked into this shit hole bar?” How the hell did he know her name? She scooted back, to get a little farther away from him. Even Augie didn’t know her name. They called her things, but not her name. She told herself, yep, this guy was either the result of too much bad dope, or maybe not enough good dope.

“You’re so full of hatred that it’s turning into something real,” he said. “You’re like a pot that’s fixing to blow its lid and boil all over into the fire.” He ran his hand up and down the neck of the guitar a couple of times. He touched it with love, like a real man would touch his woman on her arm, or leg. He plucked a couple of strings, did a quick little strum, and then picked at the strings again. It made her feel jumpy.

“You’re crazy, man. Who the hell are you?”

He played a quick string of notes on the guitar that came so suddenly and unexpectedly that Maya felt a sharp thrill, like when she was a kid and they used to blow in her ear. It made her shiver and catch her breath. That guitar had a way of making her feel stuff.

“Oh, I got lots of names. My real name was John Lowe. But the people called me Hoodoo Johnny and Lowdown John and some other things. But we ain't talkin' about me. We're talkin' about the chance of a lifetime for you, Maya. You know you’ve been dreaming about killing these no good bastards. You know you gotta get up out of this basement or die. This is your chance, girl. Don’t let it pass you by.” And then the tune picked up, turned into something that was strangely warm, as if she were standing close to a fire. She felt soft inside, kind of gooey, even. It was easy music to sway with and if she hadn't been sitting on her legs, she would have tapped her toes.

As suddenly as he had started, he quit playing the guitar, leaving Maya a little angry and wishing he’d finished the damn song he started. Sharply, she said, “In case you didn’t notice, I’m a junkie and a slut and I don’t even weigh ninety pounds. I can’t kill anybody."

He said, “There’s ways, Maya. There’s ways. But I’m gonna give Augie one last chance. You go on upstairs and tell him I said to let you go. But it’s your last chance, too. You gotta convince him for both your sakes.”

She didn’t give a damn for the way that sounded. She was starting to really, really hope that this bastard wasn’t real. “I ain’t allowed upstairs”, she told him, flat out. “No how, no way. And if I go up talkin’ like that, he’ll have Cold Mike beat the shit out of me. Or, worse. The last time I went up there, Augie got pissed and they had a one-dollar special on me. And he said I better never, ever go back up.”

“Oh, you’ll be going up,” he said. “You’re gonna follow me because you’re full of hating and I’m like a magnet for hate. Truth is, Maya, you been wanting to go up these basement stairs since Augie put you down here. And there ain’t nothing in this world that’s gonna stop you from going up these stairs.”

Without another word, he slung the guitar around his back, then turned and started walking up the stairs. Again, she never heard the door open, never heard the blast of music or the laughter from the bar upstairs. He was suddenly just gone, the shape of something huge that merged into the darkness when he was six steps up the stairs.

Maya got up off the mattress and threw her one and only raggedy-ass dress on. She had no idea where her flip-flops were, so she followed him up the stairs barefooted. She had to see him in the light. She had to know if he was real.

 

Augie was drawing a draft beer for Bookie Joe with his back to the bar when he realized the basement whore had come up the stairs and into his bar. He had such a feel for everything that went on in his bar that he knew instantly what she had done and didn't even bother to turn around and see. Calmly, he finished filling the glass, and then, because he hated Bookie Joe, he spit a big glob right into the foam. Then he turned around to glare at the little bitch.

Sure enough, it was the basement whore. She was standing at the bar, staring at him in a wild-eyed, weird kind of way. Obviously, she was totally screwed up on the drugs. Otherwise, she sure as hell would have never had the nerve to come up the stairs without his say so. And she sure as hell would have never had the nerve to stand there staring at him like that. He wasn’t the type to stand for much disrespect from a cheap little slut.

"Whatcha doin' up here, bitch? Didn’t I tell you a couple of weeks back to never come up here again?" he asked.

"That stuff you gave me today. That was some bad shit. I'm messed up really bad, Augie."

"Don't blame me," said Augie. "I don't make the shit. Here, take this beer over to Bookie Joe. He's at that table over by the door. When you get back, you and me are gonna have a little talk. And you better have some good reason why you came up here."

When she was gone to deliver the polluted brew, Augie went down to the end of the bar where Cold Mike was sitting. Cold Mike was his best dog, even if he wasn’t too bright. Augie always kept two or three thugs around on Saturday night, mostly to watch the doors and keep the trouble down. With his customers, there was always something fixing to happen.  He had to keep a mop in the corner just to mop up the blood so people wouldn't be dancing in it. He had already used it a couple of times and it wasn’t even ten, yet. Tonight, he had Posey -- a smaller guy who excelled at knifework -- guarding the front door. Cold Mike was stationed at the other end where he was supposedly supposed to be keeping an eye on the little slut and taking the money for what she was doing down in the basement.

"You need to keep your eyes open," he told Mike. "Now we got the basement whore up here running around with the customers."

Cold Mike looked up in surprise. He’d been squinting, trying to read the paper under the little gooseneck lamp on the bar that lit up the cigar box where he kept the whore money. "Huh?"

Augie almost slapped him. "You let the basement whore out of the basement and all you can say is, 'Huh'?"

"That door is still locked, Augie. No one has been down there yet, tonight. I got the key right here, see?" He tipped the cigar box to show that it held only the key and no money yet. If the boys were randy tonight, it would be full of twenty-dollar bills by closing time.

The basement whore had delivered the glass of beer to Joe, who had gotten his fat hands up her dress and felt her up for free, and she was now walking back towards Augie and Cold Mike. Augie pointed at her. "See yourself, butthead. Basement whore. Up here."

The hood jumped up from the barstool and quickly took the three steps to the basement door he was supposed to be guarding. He shook the knob, vigorously. "It's locked, Augie. See for yourself."

"Okay, so the bitch locked it behind her on the way out."

"Let me take her out to the alley for a couple of minutes. I'll get her straightened out."

"And then she won't be worth a shit for the rest of the night. I’ll take care of her. But if it happens again, maybe it's gonna be you who gets taken out to the alley. By me."

Turning away, Augie walked over to meet the whore in the middle of the bar. He put his arm around her shoulder and escorted her to the table in the corner that no light ever reached. It was reserved for business, and it was usually dirty business, because that was the kind of business that went on in Augie’s Bar and Grill.

It was a den of thieves, gangsters and outright killers and, even though he was getting past his prime and was never going to hit the big time, Augie was by far the worst killer, thief and hood of them all. Augie was proud to run the kind of place where a cop could pick up an envelope, or a businessman could arrange to have a rival removed. No one had to worry about having some dirty deal overheard, because no one would talk. Some of the biggest jobs in history had been planned at the very same table he took the basement whore to. And more than a few murders, too, since it really wasn’t against the house rules to kill someone at Augie’s Bar and Grill. What the hell, there was a big dumpster out back and Augie’s brother ran the garbage company.

"Take a seat,” he told her, as he kicked one of the chairs out from the table for her. “To tell you the truth, I can't remember your name right now."

"Maya."

"Right. You wanta drink, Maya?"

"Yeah, but I ain't old enough. I'm old enough to be a slut, but I ain't old enough for a margarita."

Augie turned and shouted at Gilda Johnson, the old lady who rented the apartment above the bar. "Hey, Gilda, bring me one of those margarita wine coolers. And a glass."

Gilda was semi-respectable. She usually paid her rent and, in return for drinks, helped out behind the bar. But mainly, she never seemed to notice when the boys planned a job or finalized a drug deal at her kitchen table. When Gilda delivered the drink, Augie had her do the pouring, not because he was polite, but because the basement whore had the shakes like he had never seen.

He let her take a sip or two, then he laid it on the line. "You know you're not supposed to come up here," he told her. "I already told you that, a dozen times. Now, I look around and here you are. Did you wanta piss me off, or something?"

"I dunno, Augie. I think that was some bad dope you gave me. I was seein' some weird shit, man."

"That's gonna happen now and then,” he explained patiently, as he would to a child. He figured that as a druggie, she should know that. “It's still no excuse to break the rules."

"I was scared.” She was still shaking and, now, nearly blubbering. “I seen this man. He was like playing the guitar. I mean, it was like he was right there, you know, just like you are right now. His said he was John Lowe. I followed him up the stairs to warn you about him, Augie, but he ain’t up here, now."

From behind him, Augie heard someone suck in some air. Like someone had been suddenly surprised. He realized that Gilda had not returned to the bar, and instead, she was pretending like she was cleaning the next table so she could eavesdrop on his private conversation with the basement whore. Augie turned around in his chair and glared at the nosy bitch. Gilda turned quickly and headed back to the bar, muttering something incomprehensible under her breath.

Some more customers were coming in. Some of them rolled with a pretty rough biker gang.  Augie got a piece of every drug or gun deal that took place in his bar and those no good bastards weren’t above screwing him out of his cut. He decided to wrap up the business with the whore so he could keep an eye on the bikers. He had been going to play it like Mr. Niceguy, but now there was no time for that.

Augie turned back to Maya. “So you’re telling me that there was somebody down in the basement playing a guitar?”

“He told me to tell you something.”

“And he told you to tell me something. Right,” said Augie. “What was it he told you to tell me? Make it quick. “

“Just don’t get mad at me. I’m just saying what he told me.”

“Okay, Maya. What did this guitar playing man tell you to tell me?”

“He said it was your last chance. He said for you to let me go.”

That was a good one. If he had been the kind of person who laughed, that would have set him off. But he knew laughing was for losers, people who had no control. But even so, he had to admit that he kind of admired the little bitch for having the nerve to try and pull something so stupid over on him. It was the kind of scam that only a druggie would dream up. Only a druggie would be stupid enough to think he was going to buy a boatload of crap like that.

“Nice try, Maya. And you’re right,” he said. “That musta been some damn bad dope if you think I’m gonna buy that line of bullshit. Now, finish your drink and get your ass back down in the basement. There’s a ship coming into the port later on, so it'll be a sailor kinda night."

“I can’t do it, Augie. I don’t wanna be a whore no more. Besides, if that big guy ain’t up here, he must be still down there. I think he’s the devil. No shit, I really do.”

“It was funny for a second,” he said. “But now I got customers coming in and I don’t have time for your bullshit. So, get your scrawny ass back down the stairs or I’m going to knock your fucking teeth out and throw you down the stairs like a sack of garbage.” Augie stood up to let her know the little tea party was over. It was time for her to get down in the basement, hike up her dress and spread her scrawny legs and make him some money.

Maya stood up, too, but very slowly. Augie wasn’t surprised that he had just scared the crap out of her. She knew what he could do if he wanted and she knew he was just about to go off on her.

"Like a sack of garbage," she repeated, sort of mindlessly.

"And here’s something else to think about. The next time I catch you upstairs, you stupid bitch, I'm gonna hurt like you can't even imagine. I swear, I’ve had enough of your crap. But you'll live, even after I get through with you. And I guarantee you won't be sneaking up the stairs any more.”

The basement whore gulped down the rest of her wine cooler and put the glass down on the table.

“John Lowe said I’m full of hatred, you know. Full of it. Full of hatred!” She turned quickly and moved to the door, just like a dumb little slut, trying to have the last word and then running back to her basement.

“And I say you’re full of shit,” said Augie. Nobody got the last word on him. “Now, get your ass back down to the basement and get ready to suck some serious sailor dong. You dumb bitch.”

 

The first john down the stairs that night was Bookie Joe. He was a twice a week regular and a sick and vicious creep. He was a biter who also liked to pinch her really hard during the pawing part. Worst of all, it looked like he wanted to play "Margo" tonight.

“Whenever I say ‘Margo’, you’re gonna yell,” he told her as he kicked off his pants. “Oh, yeah.”

“You don’t gotta bite me, Joe. I’ll yell all you want.” He’d already pinched bruises on her and slapped her a couple of good ones during the process of getting her out of her dress and down on the mattress. The foreplay was over, now came the rough stuff.

“Nope,” he said as he dropped down on top of her and kneed her thighs apart. “It’s gotta be real yells.” He grunted, wheezed and lurched around until he was in her and then began his undulations. He nipped her ear, then whispered in it. “Take that, Margo!” And he bit her hard, right where her neck started turning into her shoulder.

Maya yelled. Her outcry was short and sharp, the kind of screech that would carry a long ways. Above Joe’s grunts, she could hear Augie’s footsteps creaking across the floor towards the jukebox. Probably, he was going to turn it up, but she never knew. Sometimes, he would turn it off so they could all hear her yelping and howling and get a good laugh out of it.

“Oh, you’re liking it, huh, Margo! You filthy little bitch, I know you love it!”

Again, he bit her in the same place. She heaved up, trying to roll out from under the jerk. The bastard bit again and ground his teeth into her bare flesh and she gave him his twenty-dollar yell and a couple of dollars more. Above, Augie turned the jukebox way up.

Joe was becoming inflamed. Three times her weight and twice as strong, he soon forced her into a quick rhythm of pain. He humped, said “Margo” and bit. She yelled, recoiled and pleaded, then he humped, said “Margo” and bit. They did it over and over until she was yelling as much as he wanted.

“Gotcha beggin’ for it, huh, Margo? Like the rough stuff, huh, Margo-bitch?”

He was taking an endlessly long time, wheezing, panting and soaking her all over with his slimy beer sweat. And biting, again and again. Her wounds burned where his sweat smeared over them and finally, there was nothing to do but close her eyes and endure as she just kept yelling and just plain hating the bastard. Every time he bit her, she hated his guts ten times more. He was drawing blood, now.

Suddenly, Bookie Joe froze on top of her. He froze solid, just like someone had clicked his remote and put him on pause.

Maya was surprised. He was right between a hump and a bite when he suddenly stopped rocking on top of her. He was completely still for a few seconds. Then, all at once, he sucked in a big breath and arched his back a little.

“God damn you,” he said, “you better get your finger outa my ass!”

“I don’t have my finger up your ass, you rotten creep.”  Jeez, that was a disgusting thought! Besides, he was holding her arms down so she couldn’t claw his eyes. “Maybe something you poked up there is pooching out, you sick fuck.”

“Ouch! Stop it, you bitch!”

“It’s not me, stupid!”

“Uhhh! It just went in deeper,”  he reported quickly. With a pig like grunt, Joe did a push up and got some of his weight off of her.“Last chance, Margo! You take whatever it is outa my butt, right now!”

It was the weakest threat she’d ever heard. She could tell that the pain was taking away his breath. Nothing hurt quite like taking something up a dry browneye. She knew that from experience. She told him, “I ain’t Margo.”

“I’m telling Augie,” threatened Joe. “I’m getting my money back. Now take your finger out of me, or your gonna be in a lot of trouble.”

Inside, she felt him instantly shrivel up. All of a sudden, things were looking up. “Can’t you see you’re holding down my arms?” Bookie Joe looked down. She saw in his face that he realized the truth of what she’d said. He was the one in a lot of trouble. A big drop of sweat rolled of off the tip of his nose and fell like a drop of acid rain on her cheek.

“Then what – what’s up my ass? It's like it's moving around in there.” Just like that, he was way past being mad. Now, he was sounding uncertain and scared, like a hurt child.

“How would I know what you poke up your butt? Maybe it’s a rat. There’s some big ones down here, Joe. Half of ‘em got rabies. I see ‘em under the stairs, foaming at the mouth every time I get dogged.”

Joe raised up a little more and then instantly came back down, shrieking in her ear. “I can’t get up! Aaaaah! Jesus, it’s holding me down! Please!”

This was too weird. But Joe gamely fought the pain and, as he tried to raise up again, he did a little better and took most of his crushing weight off off her. Maya took advantage of the opportunity. She dug her elbows into the mattress and pushed with her heels until she had scooted completely out from under the sweaty bastard. She kept scooting until she was completely off of the mattress. “Serves you right,” she said when she was safely away from him. She was enjoying this. She didn’t know what the hell was happening, but whatever it was, she’d been waiting a long time for it.

“Can you see what it is? It’s like a hook or something. Maybe it’s a mattress spring. Oh, gawd,  a mattress spring!”

Maya giggled at the thought of Joe with some kind of mattress spring twisted up his ass. Damn right she wanted to see what it was. She stood up and got to the side of the mattress where she could take a look. He was still on the mattress, kneeling on all fours over the space she had vacated only a moment ago. “There’s something there, “ she told him. “But it’s not a mattress spring. That mattress doesn’t even have springs. It’s something else.”

“Something else? Like what?”

The pig was almost ready to cry.

Maya looked closer. It looked like a garden hose was coming out from under the mattress and slowly inching up between Joe’s lardy butt cheeks. She told him straight up, “Something like a fat tube is coming out from under the mattress and crawling right up your wazoo, Joe. You’re fucked, man. Wow! It just keeps going in and in and in.”

“It hurts,’ he said. “It really, really hurts. I can’t hardly move or breathe it hurts so much. I think – I think I’m gonna need some help, miss.”

A minute ago, she was "Margo". Now, she was "miss". That was funny. Maya backed up till she was halfway to the wall. She just knew something really bad was fixing to happen. But she took comfort, because deep inside she knew it was going to happen to Joe and not her. “Well, boo hoo Joe. I’m glad you’re - - -

Joe cried out. Pain was twisting his face up.

“- - - hurting, you bastard. I hope - - -

Joe shrieked and made his move as she spoke. He lurched up to his feet and tried to pull loose, turn and run, all at the same time. He took two steps towards the stairs and then was jerked up short like a puppy on a choke chain. He screamed. And it was louder than she had been screaming.

“- - - I hope whatever crawled up your butt eats your stinking guts out!”

Joe’s next scream tore up his vocal cords. From the way he clawed at his heaving stomach, it was quite clear to Maya that the slithering tendril of shadow from under the mattress really was eating his guts out. And taking big bites, too. He threw back his head and screamed again, but it was hoarse and bubbly sounding. Nothing like that last one. Maya knew that no one upstairs would pay any attention. The jukebox was way up and they were used to hearing screams from down in the basement. Even if they heard something, they would think it was her and just have a good laugh and make some bets on it.

Slowly, as he reached for the stairs he would never climb, Joe’s quivering legs gave way and he sank first to his knees, and then collapsed face down on the floor. Joe was a heavy man, but the thing under the mattress began reeling him in like a carp. He did a funny little prone buck and wing on the concrete floor as he tried to swim away from his death and his agony. He made no progress. Then the thing suddenly yanked him back another two feet and Maya could hear a wet, sucky sound as stuff inside of Joe was being ripped up. The breaststroke he was doing turned into spasmodic, futile jerks as he was pulled backwards across the floor towards the mattress. His tongue was hanging out, and a drool of blood trickled from his parted mouth and left a moist trail on the concrete. Maya watched him like a pay-per-view movie. He started shriveling up and actually began to get smaller, like he was deflating. There was no more screaming, now. The only sound in the basement was his death gurgle and a kind of crunching sound from inside of him. It, whatever “it” was, was eating him.

Suddenly,Maya felt a cold presence. It was tough to take her eyes off of the cool spectacle of Joe’s death, but she looked up and saw that the devil was back, standing behind her, just outside of the circle of light.

“Them butt-vipers can sure mess a man up,” said John Lowe. “They eat into you and then they turn around and crawl out the way they came in. Kinda turns ‘em inside out like a sock. You’ll see.”

“Joe’s dead, ain’t he.”

“One down.”

“And who in hell is ‘Margo’?”

“His mommy.”

“I'm not surprised. You’re the devil, ain’t you?”

“Not exactly,” said John Lowe.

“How come you won’t step into the light so I can see you?”

“I’m not real in a strong light. That’s a hundred watt bulb up there. Most I can take is a forty-watter.”

“Right. So, if I shine a flashlight on you, you’ll die?”

Hoodoo Johnny gave a little laugh and snort. “You got to be alive before you can die,” he told her. “Now, don’t you think it would be a good idea for you to run upstairs and tell Augie about Joe?”

Maya looked back at Joe. Sure enough, the thing was crawling out of him now, going back the other way, and kind of sucking him out of his own butt hole. His head was gone, sucked into his chest, and his arms were disappearing fast into his shoulders. The snake thing was sliding back under the mattress. It was a hard thing to look at and she couldn’t really see it when she looked at it directly. It was like one of those smoky shadows you see out of the corner of your eye: your eye sees it, but your head never catches up to it. The only thing sure was that it had a lot of spines. Most of them had little stringy strands of meat and other bloody pieces from the inside of Joe stuck on them.

“No way,” said Maya. “You’re the one that let that snaky thing loose. You go tell him about Joe. If I go up there one more time, he’ll kill me.”

“You gotta go back up, Maya.”

“No, I don’t.”

“This has to play out, Maya. I wish it didn’t, but it does. And the way it plays out is you go back upstairs.”

“Nope,” she said. “I’m going to lay back down on my mattress and wait for the next john to come down the stairs and bone me. And I hope that butt-viper crawls up his ass, too.”

He was chuckling again as she laid down on her old familiar mattress and closed her eyes. It felt like there was broken glass crunching around inside her skull. If she could just get some sleep before the next john came down the stairs, she had a feeling that she would wake up and not be dreaming anymore. Unless, of course, she unpuckered in her sleep and the butt viper did to her what it did to Bookie Joe. She heard the guitar start playing. It wasn’t too bad at first. But then, it seemed like it moved to corner her.

The tune was bluesy, but fast and angry sounding underneath, like a far off thunderstorm, or a cop siren on the other side of town. Just listening to it kind of made her sad and scared at the same time. It made her feel anxious and she started to want something she couldn’t think of, something she wanted as much as dope, but it wasn't dope. It was worse than jonesing for her dope. It was more like she was missing something that was missing from her soul, something that made her hurt because she could never have it. The music was making her understand that that she could never have anything, ever, in her entire life, no matter what. She threw her hands over her ears, but they didn't stop the music. It was playing right inside her brain.

The hurt it caused inside her grew and just kept on hurting her worse with every pick of the strings. Even her bones were aching from the onslaught of the guitar music. Every note he played dug open a wound. Every note hurt like a stab from a hot icepick.

She took it for as long as she could, but in just a few seconds, she knew she was going back upstairs. All the pain of her whole life was falling down on her, over and over again.  She couldn’t breathe down there. There was an ocean of pain in the basement and there was no way she could swim out of it.

“You’re bad,” she told him as she struggled up the first step. It was hard to even breath. The music came at her, thick and hard like pounding, smothering waves. It was making her moan inside her brain.

“Yes, I am,” he said. “Very bad. And as long as you’re up there, you tell Gilda that Hoodoo Johnny knows what she put in the dumpster.”

“Tell her yourself,” she shouted from halfway up the stairs. “Augie’s gonna kill me as soon as he sees me.”

“No, he won’t,” he promised. “You’ll just wish he did.”

That was a fucked up thing to say, but she couldn’t even think about it. She had to get away from the pain in the basement. She turned the knob and opened the door to the bar. She shoved it wide open and ran like hell into the music and smoke and neon haze.

 

 

 

END OF PART ONE




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