/ Language: English / Genre:antique

The Minotauress

Edward Lee

HELL'S BITCH IN HEAT... Seething, slavering, and insane, it cringes, not wanting to slip forth from the noxious, bloated belly of its abyssal mother until the most hideous sexual atrocities beckon it from Hell's hot bowels: the dread monstrosity of unfathomable beauty and the most vile horror--revulsion and desire incarnated into one... PREGNANT TO BURSTING WITH ABOMINATIONS UNTOLD...Atop the moon-drenched hillock sits the leaning manse, surrounded by ancient graves rich with the bones of witches, and amid the dense cricket-choruses of these ghastly twilight deeps, it stalks, thrashes and prowls, its nipples gorged with evil, its loins a frenzy of Luciferic lust... RITES OF REDNECK PASSAGE...Behold Balls and Dicky (of THE BIGHEAD fame) as they embark on their first sociopathic epiphany teeming with down and dirty redneck whores, occult science, corpse-sex, and scatological gross-out the likes of which would make the BTK Killer faint. These boys think they're bad...but are they bad enough to face-- THE MINOTAURESS Edward Lee's latest novel of irredeemable harder-than-hardcore horror...

THE MINOTAURESS

Edward Lee

THE MINOTAURESS © 2007 by Edward Lee

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: Wendy Brewer, Dave Barnett, Bob Strauss, Matt Johnson, Dustin La Valley, Monica Kuebler, Mark Justice, Tom Moran, Monica O'Rourke, Erik Wilson, Jeff Funk, Minh, Nanci Kalanta, Terry Tidwell, Michael Pearce, and Paul Legerski.

For Mike Anthony and Michael Kennedy.

Let's see you make THIS into a movie...

THE MINOTAURESS

PROLOGUE

The mansion looked haunted, and was even rumored to be, though in truth the things which prowled its narrow halls at night, and occasionally peeked out the dark, heavily draped windows, were all too corporeal. The only ghosts here lurked in the mythic obsessions of the mansion's elderly owner. Since the old gentleman had occupied the house—some forty years—not once had a guest stayed the night... even though, in a sense, he'd had many guests... if you chose to call them that.

The mansion loomed from a desolate hill surrounded by high but sickly trees and other vegetation which seemed jaundiced, even deformed, this due—according to further rumors—to countless marked and unmarked graves that pocked the proximal land. And to nod toward an elemental cliché, there was an Indian scourge here in 1642, where Governor William Berkley had ordered armed colonists to slaughter over a hundred Powhatans—most of whom were women and children. These unfortunate natives were then buried unceremoniously in a trench beside a brook which ran less than fifty yards from where the mansion's foundation would one day be lain. Periodically, over the next two hundred years, this land was additionally chosen to be the convenient resting place for lynching victims and the worst of condemned criminals, and more interestingly, there was a small fenced graveyard to the east of the house which included the bodies of eleven young women hanged for witchcraft by remnant Puritans in 1689. This graveyard, of course, was officially unconsecrated and so, too, were all of the unmarked graves amid the property.

The old man liked unconsecrated graves.

In fact, that's why he'd bought the house.

««—»»

The mansion itself? Three stories but narrow, a tower with a garret at the north corner, great bow windows, parapets, a circular tympanum of stained glass above the front door's stone arch whose glittering mosaic depicted the face of Alexander Seton—the only alchemist in history to successfully transmute lead into gold. Sloping dormer windows topped the mansion's twin wings, and behind these windows more obscurely notorious likenesses could be viewed: stone busts of Count Cagliostro, Dr. Edward Kelly, Emmanuel Swedenborg, and Gilles de Rais. Tin gutters lined the friezes which framed each story, and paired flues sprouted from several chimneys, like horns. Iron cresting rimmed the top garret, and sometimes, in the garret's oculus, candlelight could be seen.

The mansion, like the land it sat upon, was a cliché, but then so was the old man who owned it. He craved seclusion and antiquities, black moonlit nights, and the paneled rooms within full of the most forbidden books.

The old man believed in those books, because he knew that the only true force in existence was faith.

««—»»

"Oh, dear," the old man muttered when he saw that the pallid naked girl had shat herself. It happened on occasion; at least half of the girls were heroin addicts. Morphine derivatives routinely caused constipation, but when the owners of said clogged intestines were terrorized enough, it would all come out at once.

The rich smell rose up in the room, like fog. The old man gagged.

Oh, God! He rushed to the door and called up the stairs: "Waldo! Come down here, quickly, please!"

I'm a scholar and a celebrated antiquary, he reminded himself. My station in life exists on too high a level to clean up... accidents such as this.

The old man looked genteel, like a retired professor or perhaps the owner of a high-end clothier's. Bald on top but neatly thick gray hair below the pate, a long but trimmed goatee, a Lord & Taylor white dress shirt and smart black slacks. Seventy years old but with eyes keen and bright as a teenager's—bright in their hunger for knowledge and their passion for life, and the things he was certain that awaited him after life.

He was working in the basement just now, though he referred to it as the temple, for in a manner of speaking it was—indeed, a place of revered travail and worship. Facsimiles of Doric columns were present, and six arched doorways lined three of the brick walls; they'd been monumentally difficult to install, given the specifications. Each door showed stains of old brown blood and housed a single, pointed iron spike.

Several books lay opened on various reading-tables, the one he perused now being Tephramancy, by Christoff Deniere, Glastonbury Abbey Press, 1539. For those unaware, tephramancy was an occult science which involved the use of the ashes of burned human body parts as an activating ingredient of particularized metaphysical rituals.

Footfalls clunked down the stairs, the door squeaked open. Waldo Parkins had to duck to enter the basement—er, the temple. He could've been a college senior linebacker... that is if he could raise his IQ enough to even get into college. The old man thought of still more clichés when he'd first engaged Waldo's services as manservant. It would've been better had he been named Igor...

He'd hired Waldo less than a year ago—from local stock—for youth brought the physical strength that the old man had lost. Digging graves and hefting bodies was harder than it appeared, and besides, all great warlocks had apprentices. Where would John Dee have been without Edward Kelly? the old man considered. Indeed, Waldo's 6'4" frame and accommodating musculature fit the bill just fine, that and the ever-crucial weak-mind. See, the weak-minded were much easier to control—yet another cliché. Every thirteen days, the old man revitalized Waldo's Subservience Charm, whose ingredients and procedure he'd obtained while Slate-Writing one Candlemas Eve in a successful attempt to achieve otherwordly discourse with a long-dead French witch named Marguerite Lamy. Ms. Lamy had been burned at the stake in 1534 for casting spells upon the more comely nuns of the Convent of St. Brigitta and inducing them to consort with incubi.

"What'cha need, sir?" Waldo beamed. "I was upstairs packin' yer bags like ya tolt me." The boy paused, sniffed. "Whew! I smell Number Two... "

The old man winced when he noticed more feces oozing from the unconscious girl's buttocks. By now, so much had escaped her bowels that it looked like a long brown tail. "I'm terribly sorry, Waldo," the old man fidgeted, "but as you can see, our friend here has... had an accident, and I'm afraid I just don't have it in me to... "

Waldo smacked a grin. "Don't wanna clean up her shit, huh, sir?"

"Precisely. So if you don't mind... "

Waldo didn't mind at all, proof of the Subservience Charm's potency. He leaned over and scooped up the excreta in his bare hands, with no more concern than if he were scooping up popcorn. "What'cha want me to do with it, sir?"

Good Lord...  The old man opened the iron hatch on the back wall. "In the crematory, if you please."

Waldo flapped the excrement into the fiery hatch, and continued doing so until it was all up. The old man fervently sprayed a can of Renuz-It Apple Cinnamon Home Fragrance around. Waldo whistled "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses," then, as he happily mopped up the smears on the floor.

"Now I'd like you to wash her, please," the old man directed. "These girls are just so foul."

"Yer wish is my command, sir," Waldo chuckled. The old man shook his head.

Metal links clinked; Waldo yanked on the pulleyed chain and watched the morbidly naked girl rise in the air, her wrists being cuffed to one end of the chain. Beneath her dirty bare feet the broad-shouldered manservant slipped a washtub. Then he cranked on the faucet, hosed her down, soaped up a car sponge, and began to suds her off.

Gad, thought the old man. The girl was appalling, pudgy flesh the hue of vanilla ice cream, cellulite-dimpled, and peppered by needlemarks and scabs from abscesses. Her buttocks could've been two twenty-pound sacks of flour pushed together, her pubis a great swatch of dull brown hair that had begun to grow traceably down the insides of her thighs and trailed up to her navel. A preposterous tattoo across her belly read LOVE DEPOSIT in large cursive letters.

Waldo seemed rapt whilst thoroughly sudsing the caramel smears out of her rump's cleft. Fat, expansive breasts hung unevenly, and one nipple was as big around as a coffee cup's rim, the other but a small puckered oval. The navel looked like a deep finger-hole in raw dough.

The old man busied himself by arranging the retractors and saw, and securing the proper crucible. He'd already done this once before but he did it again nonetheless, to distract him from the vision of the unwholesome human hulk hanging from the chain. Next, from an armoire, he inspected the glittering surplice which he would wear during the rite: a simple black-dyed cotton smock stitched with sundry gemstones. The stones were worthless to a jeweler, but to a sorcerer?

They were more valuable than a bucket full of Faberge eggs.

The power of faith, the old man mused.

Content, he turned—

"For goodness sake, Waldo!"

Waldo was kneeling now, performing fastidious cunnilingus on the suspended girl. The majora looked like a slice of baloney—the "cotto" kind—folded in half. At the old man's objection, Waldo glanced guiltily over his shoulder.

"What on earth are you doing?"

Waldo's brows rose. "Well, sir, I'se eatin' me some hair pie. It's a right fun, it is." Waldo's eyes widened in concern. "Ya wanna take a lick, sir? Bet it's been a whiles since ya et a splittail's gash, huh?"

"Oh, for goodness' sake!" the old man repeated, appalled. "Waldo, she's a prostitute! Do you have any idea how many filthy, immoral men have ejaculated in her orifice?"

"Orif— Oh, you mean her joy-hole? Well, I guess quite a number but... so what?" His grin flashed back. "Say, sir, can I fuck her in the graveyard and bleed her some, like ya let me do with that last gal?"

"No, no, that was an oblatory rite, this is for a materialization... ," but now the old man was getting a headache, and it was with further distaste that he noticed what Waldo had been doing while his tongue had ranged the abominable folds. His trousers were open, his hand wrapped around his penis which, like the rest of him, was overly large. This was one unfortunate side-effect of the Subservience Spell: accelerated libidiny.

"Please, Waldo, try to focus on your task. Don't succumb to diversions of the flesh."

Waldo's broad shoulders slumped. "Sorry, sir... " He stood up and forced the unsated erection back into his trousers. But suddenly a confusion lit in his eyes. "Sir? What'cha need the splittail fer if you're goin' on yer trip in the mornin'?"

"That's the surprise, Waldo."

"Surprise?"

"Yes. Now that you're done washing our sacrifant, you can go back upstairs and finish packing my bags, and when you're done with that, you can pack your own. You see, Waldo, I've decided to take you to Toledo with me."

Waldo's face brightened in delight. "Aw, shucks, sir! I'se always wanted to go to Ohio!"

The old man groaned. "Spain, Waldo. Toledo, Spain. There's a broker of sensitive collectibles there, and I see him every year at this time. You've worked hard during your time under my employ, so I thought you'd enjoy a trip overseas."

"Shee-it-yeah, sir!" Waldo rejoiced. The boy's twenty-six years of redneck oblivion had never taken him across the Russell County line. "You're a super-cool boss, I'll tell ya!"

"Actually, Waldo, I'm morose, narcissistic, and boring, but thank you for the compliment." In truth, though, it was not any impression of reward that urged him to take Waldo along. This particular excursion would require him to venture into some of the cryptic city's back alleys which more and more were being overrun by a ruffian element. This year his broker had procured for him a blasphemous 15th Century codex supposedly owned by one of Vlad Tepes' concubines—Canessa—a prostitute and sorceress who had, at Vlad's order, infiltrated a Wallachian monastery and cast, among other things, a Bloodlusting Hex on all of its monks. The hex had proved a whopping success, turning the monastery's contingent of faithful friars into Satan-worshiping madmen who wound up draining the blood of several dozen local children before a tribunal from the Holy See had condemned them and ordered the monastery razed. The codex was a book of intercessions said to conjure a demon named Baalzephon. The old man would also be visiting another dealer—his ossifist of choice—to purchase the pelvic bone of one Saint Radegunde, whose tomb in Poitiers, France, had been plundered by professional grave-robbers-for-hire. The bones of saints, especially those known to have displayed stigmata, were of great value to occultists; when powdered or tinctured they could be used very effectively in smoke-divinations and automatic-writing trances.

"Run along now, Waldo, and when you're done with the packing you'd best get to sleep. It's a long drive to the airport in the morning."

"Hot dog, sir! You kin count on me!" And then he turned for the stairs. "I'se going ta Spain... !"

But before the young dope could fully exit the room, something sparked in his feeble brain. "Er, wait, sir. If I'se goin' with ya on yer trip... who's gonna keep an eye on the house and all yer val-yer-bulls?"

"That's a good question, Waldo, and very astute of you." The old man's hand bid, first, the hanging girl and, second, the implements on the table.

"Ooooooh. I git it... "

"Um-hmm. And thank you for cleaning up the excreta."

Waldo's jaw dropped. "The what?"

"Just go finish packing."

Waldo tramped back up the steps, hooting more exuberance.

Sniffing apple-cinnamon now, the old man upped the crematory temperature and donned a plastic apron and gloves. That's when the dowdy drug addict regained consciousness. Her sty-flecked eyes fluttered, then shot open to show dulled whites. Dazedly she looked at the old man, then looked around to see herself suspended from the chain. She looked back at the old man and shrieked.

The old man winced. He deplored loud, sudden noises. "Please, miss. You won't benefit at all by that."

"You old fuck!" she protested. "You skinny piece of old shit!"

These protestations did not carry the typical southern accent the old man was used to; instead, it sounded more like Jersey or the Bronx. "Flattery will get you nowhere," he quipped.

"You tricked me! You were supposed to be a twenty-dollar trick! You-you-you... " The dull eyes blinked in the pudgy face. "You knocked me out!"

"I congratulate you on your perceptivity."

She wriggled uselessly on the chain, which only caused her to sway back and forth, pendulum-like. A pendulum of ungainly human flesh with a LOVE DEPOSIT tattoo on a belly busted out with stretchmarks from untold trick babies. "You spinach-chin motherfucker! I knew I shouldn't have gotten in the car with you! You look like my motherfucking grandfather, you dick-suck ass-lick psycho shit-suck ass-bag piss-slit ASS-motherfucking-HOLE!"

"You speak with the eloquence of queens, my dear."

"And-and... you fucked me already, didn't you, you gray-haired bald shit! My pussy doesn't feel right! You fucked me while I was knocked out, didn't you, you sick cock?"

The old man couldn't resist. "Young lady, I'd sooner admit my penis into the drain-hole of a ghetto dumpster than admit it into that horrific morass you call your vagina."

She paused in an attempt to comprehend his words, then gave up. "Just let me go, you shit-dick!"

The old man chuckled. "I would estimate that such an event presents a very low order of probability."

Her pasty bulk kept swinging. "Where're my clothes!"

The old man's fine leather shoes tapped across the room's cement floor. He opened the hatch of the Ener-Tek IV crematory, showing the rows of white-hot liquid-propane nozzles kicking out 2,200 degrees.

"Regrettably, your attire was consigned to the flames... along with what I would approximate to be your last dozen or so meals."

The girl shrieked again, so shrilly this time that the cords stood out in the old man's neck.

"Oh my God you crazy sick piece of shit! You're going to burn me alive!"

"Please, miss. I can't implore you more deeply. Be quiet. And, no offense intended"—the old man shook his head ruefully—"but your accent is killing me. And don't despair. I've no intention whatever of burning you alive," and then he closed the hatch.

Her terror dropped down a notch, her flip-flopping on the chain retarding. She blinked repeatedly, cogs turning in the spoiled brain. "Look, look—lemme think. Er, look, mister, I'm sorry I called you bad names—"

"Bad names?" The old man couldn't help but be amused. "That's putting it a bit mildly, I'd say. Your language could stop the Devil in his tracks—"

"Look, look, listen... " For the first time, her eyes appeared half-enlivened. "I'll do anything you want, no shit. You ask any of those guys at the truck stop and they'll tell you I suck better cock than any girl working. I'll give you the best nut of your life—just let me go."

"Please... "

"You wanna piss on me, shit on me?"

"I should think not."

"Oh, I get it, you're one of those guys. You want me to shit on you—"

The old man grimly recalled the sheer volume of the feces that was now reduced to ash. "Trust me, miss, even if I did desire to be so debased, I'm sure you're not up to it at the moment."

"All right, all right," she hurried, desperately assessing possibilities. "I'll tongue your asshole and suck your balls at the same time—how about that? Or—hey!—I'll put my big toe up your ass and sit on your dick. Think about it, mister. I can really do that."

The old man groaned. "Really, miss, I've no interest in your debauched delights, I assure you. Your being abducted by me and my associate is an example of ill-fortune, I'm afraid, but such are the pitfalls of your profession, hmm? There's a fair share of disturbed people out there, and, plying this trade of yours, you could fall victim to any one of them: psychopaths, rapists, the sexually monomanic, the mentally ill. But at least you didn't fall into the clutches of one of them. Instead, consider yourself privileged. You've fallen into the clutches of an eccentric antiquary who also happens to be a sorcerer of some authority."

She squirmed more on the chain now, but then stalled. "Sorcerer? You're into, like, satanic shit, devil worship and all that?"

The old man's bushy gray brow rose. "Indeed."

"Well that's great because I've got five kids back at the projects. Shit, man—I'll give 'em to you if you let me go. I mean, you satanic guys sacrifice kids all the time, right? And, shit, one of the little fuckers is only a month old. You can drink his blood. That's what you guys do, isn't it? Drink baby's blood and use it for rituals and shit?"

Oh, such a sad refrain... The old man pushed the girl toward the second of the six arched doorways. This was possible because the chain's ratcheted pulley was fixed to an overhead track which branched off to each door.

"What are you doing, you fuckwad!"

"Your time has almost been expended, my dear," he told her in a kindly voice. "I'd advise you to spend these last moments in prayer, because one thing I can tell you beyond all doubt is that in the course of my studies I've verified that there is indeed a God in Heaven and a Devil in Hell, not that I suspect any amount of repentance on your part could save you from meeting the latter... "

"You cock-lick dingleberry-eating piece of fuck!"

The old man re-opened the crematory's hatch.

"I knew it! A lying old shit-heap motherfucker!" she railed. "You said you weren't gonna burn me!"

As aforementioned, the wooden door in each archway had been fitted with a sharpened iron spike. The old man, next, grimaced when he placed both hands against the girl's flaccid breasts and pushed.

She tensed, then convulsed, gargling blood when the spike exited the hollow of her throat. The pale belly sucked in and out in horror, causing the atrocious LOVE DEPOSIT tattoo to sort of undulate. Her last words, though barely intelligible due to the puncture, were as thus:

"I never should've left Atlantic City... "

The retractors were out and ready; there was only the minor problem of separating the sternum from top to bottom. For this he used a simple branch-cutter. The sickle-like blades first cut up into the outer solar plexus, then eight or ten strokes on the tool clipped a reasonably straight line right up the sternum. The task never required as much strength as one would surmise, but that grisly clipping sound never failed to unnerve him.

The girl continued to tremor on the spike, blood seeping out nicely. She was still in a sense alive, and perhaps she even heard the old man when he said, "Have no fear, young lady. I'm not going to burn all of you, just your noxious heart," and then he applied the cardiac retractors and began to crank her rib cage open.

PART ONE:

ADVENTS

ONE MONTH AGO

(I)

It was a fine summer day when twenty-year-old Richard "Dicky" Caudill dragged two large plastic bags across Main Street, as he did every day, into Pip Brothers Laundromat. This was July 24th, 1991, six full years before Dicky would meet his death by having his spinal column torn out of his rectal cavity at a place called Wroxeter Abbey. The official cause of death filed by the Russell County Sheriff's Department would be "Death by traumatic mutilation via an unknown mode," but there were plenty of folks who knew full well that he was actually killed by a legendary monster called The Bighead, but that was another story. This would occur in the future, of course, as Dicky was alive and well just now, and what he had in the preposterously depressed town of Luntville was something many didn't: a job. Hence, the large plastic bags he was dragging into the laundromat. Dicky was fat, with a buzzcut, a symptomatic dopey redneck. The Caudill family went back a ways; in fact, his great, great, great grandfather was a Confederate general in the Civil War who had supposedly sold his soul to a demon named Anarazel, and who then allied himself with an industrialist named Harwood Gast... but that was another story as well. He also had another blood relative named Thibald Caudill: yet another story.

Dicky's T-shirt showed a flowing American flag and the words TRY BURNING THIS FLAG, FUCKER! but in truth he wasn't much of a patriot. A number of Luntville's young men had joined the Army and some of them had gotten maimed or killed in some place called Bosnia and right now there was this other war going on in one of those nutty sandbox countries called Iraq and the news was dubbing it Desert Storm. There was no way Dicky was going to go get his fat ass shot up in some place like that just for a paycheck and benefits. Besides, he already had a job.

And, to say it for the third time now, in a terribly undisciplined narration, he was dragging those two big plastic bags—the first two of many—into the laundry when he stopped at the door at the sound of footsteps. He looked up and saw a wiry fella with long hair, black goatee, and jeans coming down the sidewalk. The snapping footsteps came from a pair of beaten rawhide boots. The fella was wearing a John Deere hat, and he was eating what appeared to be chicken nuggets from a Wendy's bag.

Dicky blinked. Is that...  "Balls?" he called out. "Tritt Balls Conner?"

The wiry fella stopped and stared, then his unpleasant face turned up in a sneering smile. "Dicky Caudill! Well shee-it my drawers!"

"I ain't seen you in, shee-it, two years I'll'se bet."

"That's 'cos I just got done doin' two years, in the county slam."

"Shee-it. What fer?"

Balls ate a few more nuggets. "Cop was hasslin' me one night, so's I'se beat his ass fierce, I did," Balls bragged, but actually this was a bold-faced lie. He'd received the two-year sentence for stealing a woman's purse in a Giant food store parking lot, but before he'd run off with the purse he'd felt up the woman's ten-year-old daughter. "Got out two days ago."

"Where's ya livin'?"

"My Daddy's house in Cotswold." Balls eyed a redneck woman probably in her forties walking into a pawn shop two storefronts down. He rubbed his crotch, thinking it might be fun to fuck up her hair with his sperm. "He died whiles I was in stir, some disease I never heared of called hepatitis," but he pronounced the word as "heppa-tat-iss."

"Dang, Balls. I'se sorry ta hear it."

"Fuck," Balls gruffed. "I'se glad the fucker's dead. All he ever done was beat my ass and lock me in closets whiles he was fuckin' a bunch'a whores. I done inherited the house'n all the shit in it, not that it were much."

It needs to be mentioned now that Balls and Dicky had been friends in their early teens, both having attended Clintwood Middle School, and they both would've gone to the same high school had they not dropped out in the seventh grade. The two went back a ways in a history of petty crime, willful auto-sexual malfeasance, and entry-level redneck hooliganism.

"So's what'cha doin' now?" Dicky asked.

Balls stood hands on hips. When a young pregnant woman rolled a baby carriage by across the street, he spat. The woman was Hispanic, and he thought it might be nice to cornhole her on her hands and knees and then pull out just in time to send his load into the carriage. That would serve the bitch right for violating immigration laws.

"Fuckin' pepper-belly immer-grints," he complained. "Their men take all our jobs fer cheaper, then all's they do is keep their women knocked up shittin' out them little spic babies'n goin' on welfare. Ain't right."

"No, it ain't."

Balls continued to eye the young woman. "Like ta squeeze the milk outa them fat tits, I would." He slapped Dicky on the back and laughed. "Bet it tastes like tacos!"

Dicky laughed out loud. "Bet it does, Balls! Bet it does!"

"But you ask me what I'se doin', I'se beatin' the street lookin' fer a job."

"Dang, man. Ain't much in the way'a work here these days. Most places're closed up, ‘cept the Wendy's."

"I know me that," Balls snapped and pointed at the pregnant Hispanic. "'Cos of them. Hard-workin' American fellas cain't git no work 'cos they take all the jobs."

"Most of the gals work in the sewin' shops, and the fellas work in the meat-packers," Dicky informed.

Balls pointed down to the corner, to the Wendy's. "Even that place is full up with 'em. I'se asked fer a appler-kay-shun, but the spic manager jabbered somethin' at me shakin' his head."

"Ain't right, man, just plum ain't."

"What about that Jiffy Lube? It still here?"

"Yeah, but it's closed, and I heard the drug store don't hire ex-cons. But, ya know, Pappy Halm still owns that Qwik-Mart next to the Greyhound stop. Maybe he's'll give ya a job."

Balls frowned. "That old dog turd? No way. He caught me shopliftin' Neccos when I was a little kid, so's he told my Daddy and, a'course, my Daddy beat the shit outa me'n stuck a lit cigarette in my bag. So's then I went to Pappy Halm's house that night and shit on his car, and ya know what?"

"What?"

"He caught me doin' that, too. Called the poe-leece fer that one. My Daddy had to pay a fine on account I was a minor'n then he beat the shit out'a me again and sat my bare ass down on top'a the wood stove to teach me a lesson."

"Gawd dang!"

"Anyways, I need me a job to tide me over fer a month so's I kin eat, but after that I'll be just fine."

Dicky scratched his head. "What's happenin' in a month?"

Balls smiled again, the smile like a sneer. He lowered his voice. "I gots me a big score."

Dicky's jowls drooped. "A score as in a heist?"

"Sort of."

"Dang, Balls. You just got done gittin' outa the joint. Whys do somethin' that could git'cha right back in?"

"It's a shore thing, Dicky, but I gots to make me some kind'a money till then." He looked more intently at Dicky. "You got a job?"

"Dang straight," Dicky was proud to state. "I'se a... maintenance man."

"Maintenance? What kind?" but Balls pronounced the word as "kand."

Suddenly, Dicky was less enthused to talk about his position of employment. He kicked one of the plastic bags. "I do laundry'n stuff, cleanin'-up work."

"Yeah? Fer who?"

"Just a... a place across the street."

Balls looked across the street. He saw a liquor store, a thrift shop with a CLOSED sign, an ice-cream parlor with a CLOSED SIGN, another place whose sign read simply RELAX AT JUNES, and a shoe store with a CLOSED sign.

"Laundry, you say?" Balls questioned, confused. "Where ‘cross the street needs laundry done?"

Dicky shuffled his feet. "Aw, just a place, but the pay ain't bad—five bucks'n hour under the table."

Balls raised a brow. "Righteous," but then he squinted across the street again. "So's... where do you work?"

"The place that says Relax At Junes," Dicky finally admitted, trying not to blush. "Ain't nothin' I brag about much. See, it's really a massage parlor. Ya pay twenty bucks fer a massage, then if ya tip the gal another twenty, she jerks ya off."

Balls shook his head. "Hail, a buck's a buck, I guess, but... " Balls squinted at the laundry bags. "Dicky, I still don't git the laundry part. Laundry? From a jack shack?"

Dicky opened one of the plastic bags, and out wafted a rich, stifling yet readily familiar scent that was turning into a stench.

"Ho-boy!" Balls exclaimed. He stepped back, fanning his hand before his face.

The bag was stuffed to bursting with white wash cloths. Dicky continued, "See, after the fella blows his load, the gal wipes it up with one'a these rags... "

Balls scratched his head, befuddled. "Hail, Dicky, I'se smelt cum before, shore, but I'll be damned if I don't smell some shit in there too."

Dicky smirked. "Yeah, well, see, Balls, if ya tip the gal an extra twenty, she'll stick her finger up yer ass whiles she's jerkin' ya."

"Yer shittin' me," Balls replied. "Them gals workin' there... they ever lay any of that finger-action on you?"

"Fuck no!" Dicky assured his pal. "I don't want nothin' goin' up my asshole! I ain't no queer," and with that, Dicky stuffed the rags back down into the bag—with a bare hand—then twirled the bag closed again.

"Dicky, you just put'cher hand in a bag chock full'a cum-rags," Balls pointed out.

"Aw, shee-it, I ain't grossed out by touchin' 'em none. My Uncle Wally always said a little nut never hurt no one."

Balls reflected on the information. "Why would yer uncle tell ya that?"

Dicky faltered. "Oh, uh, no reason. Just somethin' he said once," he quickly excused.

Now Balls chuckled a bit. "So that's yer job, huh? Warshin' cum-rags from a jack shack?"

"Well, uh... yeah... "

Balls slapped Dicky on the back again. "Great job, Dicky-Boy!"

"Shee-it." Embarrassment drew tight lines in Dicky's corpulent face. "I knows it's a dumb-ass job, Balls, but, see, it's only temporary. You remember Randy Turcot?"

Balls sat down on a bench and struck a Thinker pose. "I know I'se heard the name—oh, yeah! That lowdown scumbag used to drive that shiny black El Camino ‘round'n was always pickin' up the few decent-lookin' chicks in town. Anytime I'd git somethin' goin' with a splittail, he'd come along in that hot rod of his and next thing I knowed, the girl's ass was in the seat next to him. Always hated that cracker. He'n his brother used ta jack deer on my Daddy's land, and I'se swear one time he sugared one'a our tractors. I hadda mind ta kill him, I did... "

Dicky snickered. "Well, some player beat'cha to it 'cos about a year ago he went ta Pulaski to buy dope'n the dealer pig-stuck him in some alley and took his green. Bled out right then'n there."

Balls' eyes beamed, and he hooted. "Well ain't that just grand! Dicky, that's the best news I heard in years!"

Dicky nodded, continuing, "And that shiny black El Camino of his? I bought it off his daddy 'bout six months ago, and been fixin' it up somethin' fierce."

Balls looked astonished. "Shee-it, Dicky, that was the fastest car in the county's what I always heard."

"You heard right, but, see, it throwed a rod ‘fore Turcot got shivved and that fucked the engine'n trannie all up. I done rebuilt the engine with what I make at the jack shack, but the trannie's blowed. Gotta get a new one and, see, I cain't just use any ole trannie, it gots ta be a M-22 Rock Crusher, and that's twelve hunnert bucks. But once I got the bread, I'll be droppin' that trannie in myself'n then I'll be drivin' the fastest car in the county, and that's when I kin git me a real job."

"What the fuck's a fast car got to do with a real job?"

Dicky sat down on the bench, whispering giddily. "Runnin' ‘shine, man. Runnin' ‘shine. Snot McKully'n Clyde Nale got more stills in these parts than anyone, and they'se always hirin' fellas with fast cars to run the hooch ‘cross the state line to all them dry counties in Kentucky. They won't hire ya if ya ain't got the wheels, though, 'cos, see, you gotta have a rod that'll outrun the ATF boys and the state pursuit cars. But with my 427 ‘Mino and a Rock Crusher? I'll blow the doors off anything on the road."

Balls nodded, eating a few more chicken nuggets. "I don't doubt it would, Dicky."

"And McKully's runners make a hunnert cash a day and that's only drivin' one run."

Balls was thinking again... "And with a partner helpin' ya out you could make two runs a day, and split it with yer partner... "

Dicky's expression soured. He could smell shit just as well as anyone. "Just 'cos we growed up together'n all that don't mean nothin'. You want me to cut you into my deal? You gots ta bring something to the table, brother."

Balls put his arm around Dicky. "Way I see it, Dicky-Boy, is you need somethin'—a $1200 transmission—and I need somethin'—a job fer a month—"

"Why just a month?"

"I tolt ya," Balls reasserted. "In about a month, I got this score—a big score—but I don't wanna eat garbage till then."

Dicky hemmed and hawed. "Well, dang, Balls, I don't want to see ya starve but I ain't gonna be able to run no moonshine fer six, eight months at least. Workin' this job?" Dicky pointed to the bloated plastic bags. "That's how long it'll take me to git up them twelve hunnert bucks."

Balls had a very characteristic grin: like a weasel's face morphed into the face of guy who sells "Rolexes" from the inside of a raincoat. "Just you listen, friend. I'se walkin' back to my Daddy's place now but you be sure ta meet me at the Crossroads at midnight tonight, ya hear?"

Dicky looked confused. Had Balls given up working him for a cut of his future moonshine-running job? "The Crossroads? What fer?"

"Fer a coupla beers"—Balls winked—"and fer you ta pick up the twelve hunnert bucks I'm gonna give you ta git that new trannie," and then Balls' boot heels snapped down the pavement as he headed for the side road out of town. He was tossing chicken nuggets from the Wendy's bag into the air and catching them in his mouth as he proceeded.

Well ain't that some shit? Dicky thought. Then he sighed and dragged the big plastic bags into the laundry...

(II)

Now I know how Roquentin felt in Sartre's NAUSEA, the Writer thought. The Greyhound rattled as it soared scarily around the backwoods bends. He'd gotten the seat in the very back—it was his karma—which even the bums didn't want. Used condoms had been stuffed in the window crack, while on the floor lay several used hypodermics.

The Writer had vast experiences on Greyhounds; he needed to travel, to follow the call of his Muse, and this was the cheapest way. Besides, he needed to see. He fancied himself as a seer, and, hence, a seeker.

And what was he seeking?

The verities of the human condition.

It was a very real world—and often a beautiful one—on the other side of those panoramic windows complete with the plaque that read PULL RED HANDLE UP TO ESCAPE.

The bus stank. That was the only part he could never get used to. It was the smell of life, yes, and in a sense the smell of truth—indeed, of verity!—which was what the Writer craved beyond all else. Most people had personal mottos, like: Another Day, Another Dollar, or Today is the First Day of the Rest of My Life, or Every Day I'm Getting Better and Better in Every Way. But the Writer's motto was this:

How Powerful is the Power of Truth?

Not a motto as much as a universal query. It was the fuel for his existence... or the excuse.

The truth of what I write can only exist in its stark, denuded words, he recited to himself. Black ink on white paper... and the million subjectivities in between...

It was all he lived for as an artist, and most would credit him with having a noble goal.

Nevertheless, the bus stank. They all did, of course, but this was the worst. It was a smell he'd tried many times to delineate with words, and the best he could come up with was this: unwashed hair-oil mixed with unwashed armpit mixed with unwashed prostitute's vagina mixed with something vaguely sweet.

It was that sweetness he could never isolate and identify. Candied papaya chunks? Figs? Crystalized ginger?

It was something like that but like wasn't good enough. Not being able to define the smell was one of the Writer's innumerable failures, and though he viewed failure as something more important in his field than success, it was a particular failure that would always infuriate him.

He joggled in the seat as the bus rocked on. A woman of indeterminate race sat next to him, and she must've weighed three hundred pounds. The side of her arm pressing against his possessed the same girth as the Writer's leg. Every seat on the bus was full—naturally. Off and on, he tried to read, either Visual Thinking by Rudolf Arnheim, or The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. by George Steiner, but whenever he opened either book, the woman—as if prodded by a Pavlovian trigger—pulled out her one-pound bag of pistachios and started eating, quite noisily. Between the eating sounds, the overall not-quite-definable stink, and an encroaching claustrophobia that made him feel like a Girondin Royalist stuffed behind an oubliette during Robespierre's Reign of Terror, the Writer was at his wits' end. He looked at his watch, a Timex Indiglo, and saw that it was 6 p.m.

God knew when they'd be in Lexington.

On the plastic seatback in front of him, someone had magic markered: THE PERFECT MATCH: YOUR WIFE, MY KNIFE, and in worse script just below it: GANG BANG ALL WIMMIN TO DETH AND KILL ALL WHITE PEEPLE, NIGGERS, JEWS, MUZLUMS, INDIUNS AND SPIKS!

Curious, the Writer thought. At least the Asian-Americans can rest easy...

The massive woman next to him had stopped eating and fallen asleep, her maw agape below the sagging face. The Writer couldn't resist; he extracted his Sharpie and applied a graffito of his own: NATURE, THOUGH AN APPEARANCE, IS NOT MERELY THE IMMANENT MIND'S ISSUE OF CONSCIOUSNESS BUT A MANIFESTATION IN ITS OWN RIGHT OF A SUB-TOPICAL SPIRITUAL REALITY.

There, the Writer thought.

Just then the threat of a potential symbology pressed to his face like a clammy hand. My watch! the thought, unbidden, occurred to him.

But why would he think that?

He looked again at his Timex Indiglo. On the back it read "8-Year Battery," and he knew he'd bought it eight years ago. Hmm, he thought.

What could that mean?

Time's up, he guessed.

Like when the narrator of that Bergman flick says "At midnight... the wolf howls." Did it mean something pontifical? A deep-seated literary allusion that was clear only to the most astute?

Or was it just pretentious poop?

The intercom crackled, then the driver's voice boomed, "Next stop, Luntville."

The Writer had never heard of the place, and was glad of that when he looked out the window. It reminded him of that show he'd seen on cable about an Appalachian family: rusted trailers, dilapidated houses that were visibly leaning, cars up on blocks. Many houses had CONDEMNED signs on their front doors while obviously still occupied. The road wound through wild woods with vast breaks of scrubby farmland pocked by tractors scarlet with rust. When they passed another ramshackle house, the Writer noticed an entire family sitting vacant-faced on the bowing front porch: an older man in overalls sipping clear liquid from a jar, an obese woman with a masculine face pulling leaves from a bag of Red Man, a teen daughter in cutoffs and stained white bra smoking something from a glass pipe, and a dirty tot sitting naked on the bare wood, shuddering as if from Parkinson's.

White Trash Gothic, the Writer mused.

Eventually the road drained into what was apparently the main drag of a township, this Luntville. Closed storefronts lined either side. The driver swore in some kind of an accent when the street's only stoplight turned red; the bus squealed to a halt like a train slamming its brakes.

No vehicles were seen in the perpendicular lane.

Then the thought sparked, a delicious aesthetic fire in the Writer's head. WHITE TRASH GOTHIC! Suddenly he wanted to cry out in joy.

That's my next book!

Hence, on the Greyhound bus, no less, his next creative calling had struck, a veritable lightning bolt of the truth that was his aesthetic blood. He'd left Ipswich on this self-same bus three days ago and prayed he'd leave his writer's-block as well. But a new book idea had never occurred to him.

Until now.

Oh my God... It will be my most genuine novel... I'll win the National Book Award!

In a split-second, then, like a death-flash, the entire novel appeared before his mind's eye...

Moments later the bus roared into the front of a convenience store. A tiny sign on a streetlamp read GREYHOUND DEPOT: LUNTVILLE.

One old man with a beard and white hair hobbled down the aisle. The Writer grabbed his two carry-ons and followed him, after, of course, the arduous task of asking the behemoth next to him to get up so he could squeeze by. The woman's walrus face fixed on him; she had a Big Dipper of moles on her forehead.

"I saw you writin' that dirty shit on the seat," mouthed the walrus-faced woman. Green pistachio-mush was caked between her inordinately large teeth.

"It's Wilhelm Leibniz," the Writer replied. "Pluralistic objective monadism."

When he tightrope-walked by, the driver said, "I thought you were going to Lexington," but the man pronounced the word as "Rexington." He was Asian-American.

"I've experienced a creative advent, a new variance of my Muse has arrived," the Writer replied. "And, I'm sorry to point out, your bus is too fetid."

The driver's slanted eyes looked cruxed. "Fetid?"

Someone from the seats cut in, "He means your bus stinks!"

"Oh... "

Next, a passenger with a more distinct voice appended, "Yes, it smells like B.O. mixed with the smell of dried apricots. You know, that uncanny way you taste the smell right as you're eating one? The sapor?"

The Writer stared back as if into a glittering chasm. The person who'd made the simile was a gaunt-faced man with spectacles and a slight malocclusion of the jaw. He looked about as happy to be on the bus as the Writer had been.

Thank you, sir! the Writer thought and hopped off the bus.

The Greyhound tore off in a deafening roar mere seconds after the door had flapped closed behind him. The Writer felt siphoned within a dervish of dust and noise; a final glance at the bus showed him a smear of faces, like apparitions, inducing him to recall Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro." Like petals on a wet, black bough...  The old man who'd gotten off with him fell down from the roaring vacuum drag.

The Writer helped him up. "Are you all right, sir?"

"Blammed dink driver!" the old man railed. "Bet'cha he was VC, I shorely do! Wants to get back at us fer blowin' his shit country up'n that Ho Chi Minh fucker!"

"Actually I think he was Japanese, but then... we blew their country up too."

The old man waved an irate fist in the air. "And I just had me some Hin-doo doctor at the hospital in Pulaski tell me I gots some blammed disease called dye-ur-beetees."

"Oh, sorry to hear that. Type 1 or 2?"

A cockeyed glare. "How the fuck do I know? I tolt ya, the fucker was Hin-doo, could barely understand his swami jabberin'... . A'course, maybe he wasn't Hin-doo on account he didn't have one'a them dots on his head. What's that make him, then? A fuckin' A-rab?"

"I'm sure I don't know, sir."

"And looky there!" the old man continued pitching his fit. "I'se in a swivet, I am!" He pulled up a pant leg to show a swollen ankle purple as an eggplant skin.

Ew, the Writer thought.

"Swami fucker says I ain't got no cirkalayshun no more on account'a this dye-ur-beetees ‘so's if I wanna live, I gots to have my fuckin' feet cut off! And ya knows what else? Says I gots ta pay him to do it! Eight hunnert bucks, and the fucker had the balls ta tell me that's the poverty discount!"

The Writer's heart went out to the old man...

Rheumy eyes peered back below bushy white brows. "You ain't from ‘round these parts, are ya, boy?"

"No, sir. I'm from—" but then the Writer faltered. I'm the man who came from nowhere, he answered in thought. He picked a random city in his head. "I'm from Milwaukee."

The old man tensed. "Same place that fella in the news is from?"

"Pardon me?"

"It's been on the blasted news the last three days straight!"

I've been on a Greyhound bus for the last three days straight...  "I hadn't heard. Something happened in Milwaukee?"

"Dang straight. Cops caught some fella with dead bodies in his apartment, had cut-off heads in the fuckin' refrigerator. Said there was even a head in a lobster pot! One'a them homo fellas, probably chugged more cock than I'se chugged moonshine. And he hadda pair'a cut-off hands hangin' in his closet."

"How... macabre... "

Now the old man seemed to give the Writer a disapproving once-over. "What's a city boy like you doin' here?"

"I'm following my Muse, I guess you could say."

"The hail?"

"I'm a speculative novelist," the Writer said. "I infuse relatable modern fiction scenarios with charactorial demonstrations of the existential condition. Allegorical symbology, it's called, rooted in various philosophical systems."

The old man smirked. "Fuck." Next, the rheumy eyes shot down to the Writer's sneakered feet. "Where'd ya git them shitty shoes, boy? K-Mart?"

The Writer was surprised. "Actually, yes."

"Well, they look like shit, son, and if you're a writer then you must have money—"

The Writer laughed.

"—so's you just come ta see me. I'm a mile off County Road One, take a left at the deadfall, the big ‘un. Jake Martin's the name, and I'se the best shoemaker in the county just as sure as rabbits can fuck. Just you come to see me fer some real shoes'n I'll give ya a deal."

The Writer was waylaid by the stunning irony. A shoemaker... soon to have no feet... "I'll be sure to look you up."

"You do that," and then the oldster began hobbling away.

"But if you could spare a minute, sir. Where might I find some suitable lodgings?"

A big black vein beat beneath the purple ankle. The bony hand pointed somewhere unfixed. "Ya might try Annie's bed ‘n' breakfast couple miles yonder, and then there's the Gilman House, but a fella with money like you—a writer—ain't gonna wanna stay there 'cos it's a shit-hole full'a dirty cunts." The bony hand pointed down the street. "Alls they charge is ten bucks a night so's how good kin the rooms be?"

That's my kind of price... "Thank you very much for your time, sir."

"Shee-it," the old man hobbled away, waving his arm.

My first significant verbal exchange with the local populace, the Writer realized. A block down he noticed a row of stores, most showing CLOSED signs, but one—PIP BROTHERS LAUNDROMAT—looked open for business because a young fat man with a buzzcut was dragging large plastic bags inside. The man didn't look happy yet the Writer couldn't have felt more relieved. Three days on a Greyhound, or three minutes—it didn't matter. An obligatory sanitizing was mandatory, and all the clothes he wore right now would have to be washed. Twice. More closed shops stood across the street from the laundry but one establishment (whose sign read merely RELAX AT JUNES) appeared to be open, for a man in a plaid shirt and cowboy hat exited the front door wearing quite a grin. A moment later, a woman in cutoffs and large breasts straining a halter came out the same door, then sat down on a bench to smoke. Did she inadvertently sniff her finger? Peculiar, thought the Writer. But what he noticed first was the misspelling on the sign. I should tell them, he considered. It needs to be possessive.

At the next intersection stood a Wendy's fast food restaurant, with only a few customers observable in the windows. He'd never been to a Wendy's. Someone had told him once that this chain served square hamburgers. Why not rhombuses? the Writer questioned the prejudice. Why not cordiforms and dodecagons?

Down the street in the opposite direction he spotted a rundown tavern. Thank God, a bar... No writer worth his ink didn't drink. Hemingway, Sartre and Beauvoir, Poe... Then he noted the tavern's wooden sign: THE CROSSROADS.

How curious...

The Writer couldn't count how many taverns he'd happened upon which bore the same name. It was a name rich with allegorical promise, and he liked that. He needed to be surrounded or even besieged by it...

But profound allegories can wait a moment or two, he prioritized. He needed some cigarettes and some food. Then, contemplating what the first word of his new novel would be, he grabbed his bags and trudged into the Qwik-Mart.

"We're closed," snapped the old crank of a proprietor behind the counter.

The Writer rechecked his 8-year-battery Timex. "Really? What kind of convenience store closes at 6 p.m.?"

"This one!"

The old crank had the face of an elderly Heinrich Himmler but wore overalls and a long sleeve shirt, and one of those visors like bankers wore in days of old. The Writer thought: Mr. Drucker, in Green Acres...  There was a cane with a dog's head propped behind the counter.

"I don't mean to be an imposition, sir," the Writer began, "but I've just traveled a considerable distance in... less than savory conditions, and I really need some cigarettes and food. It would only take a minute of your time."

The old crank made a psst! sound, flapped a hand, and belted "Fuck! Go ahead! Ever-one else's shittin' on me today! Why not you too?"

An amiable old chap, I'll give him that. The Writer grabbed some instant coffee, sugar, and Saltines. The dinner of champions... Besides, he'd read somewhere that these three ingredients were primarily all that academic horror writer H. P. Lovecraft consumed for the majority of his career. (And what he hadn't read was that these same three ingredients had probably been the cause of the colon cancer that had killed him in 1937.) Back at the counter he asked for a carton of cigarettes as well, then withdrew his credit card from the velcro pouch he wore around his ankle whenever he traveled.

"You gotta be shittin' me!" the old crank wailed. "Does this look like New York City?"

What could I expect? He stooped again to retrieve cash from the pouch.

The register bell dinged as the proprietor rang up the sale. He looked as though he'd sipped straight lemon juice. "You must be the Writer I keep hearin' about."

The Writer stared, disbelieving.

"Word gits around. And I seed you just got into town, but if you got a sliver'a brain in yer head, boy, next thing on yer to-do list should be gittin' out of town."

The Writer was astonished. "You recommend the place that much... "

"Ain't nothin' but white trash'n immer-grints here, son. Meth-heads, drunks, fat cows on welfare, and enough dirty little kids that if ya put 'em all in the same place at once, the stink'd open a crack in the earth bigger'n the Grand Fuckin' Canyon. I got more crackers comin' in and out'a here tryin' to shoplift than to buy anything."

"So business has been better, I presume."

"Fuck. Today I got this one trailer cow named Sadie Fuller givin' me a ration of shit 'cos I won't sell her dog food on her food stamps, then I'se said ‘Sadie, you ain't even got a fuckin' dog,' and she said ‘I know, but I'se got eleven kids, and the money I'se save feedin' 'em dog food leaves me with more to buy steaks, then I'se trade the steaks fer moonshine.' Can ya believe it?"

The Writer struggled for response. "How... tragic."

"Aw, fuck, that ain't what I mean, ya moe-ron! Half the fuckin' population's on welfare! ‘N by the time a little girl's got some hair on her slit, her daddy knocks her up so's they kin git more food stamps! Only folks who buy anything in my store're the fuckin' wetbacks 'cos they'se the only ones who work! I sell more cans'a refried beans'n haller-peener peppers than I sell fuckin' Three Musketeers! What ever happened to America!"

This guy's more racist than the shoemaker, the Writer figured. "Paradise... lost, I'd say. The proverbial American Dream is just an illusion behind a prevarication."

The proprietor cracked! his cane on the floor. "Don't know what the fuck you're talkin' about but at this rate, it'll take me ten fuckin' years ta pay this place off! I'll be fuckin' eighty! What I fight the war for?"

"So... you're a World War Two veteran?" the Writer asked, if only to divert the sour conversation.

"No, Korea. The big one. We'se could always tell when we was in enemy territory anytime we found a pile'a shit."

The Writer looked bewildered. "I... "

"If the shit smelled like cabbage'n fish, we knowed there was commies nearby."

"Sounds very tactical to me... "

"Eisenhower should'a fuckin' nuked the whole kit'n caboodle. Fight my ass off fer my country and this is what I get. Redneck bitches who've been pregnant so many times their bellies look like fuckin' accordions, and enough dirty, snot-eatin' little kids ta fill a goddamn football stadium! Half of 'em got squashed heads 'cos their mommas live on corn liquor!" The proprietor snapped his dentures. "But I'll tell ya, boy, the minute I pay this shit-house off, I'll open me a new one in Agan's Point. Ain't no welfare trash there, and no pepper-bellies. You heard'a Agan's Point, ain't'cha?"

"Uh, no," the Writer admitted.

"Figures!"

The Writer finally got his change. He looked at his purchases on the counter. "Would you mind putting those in a bag for me, please?"

"Jesus ta pete!" He jammed the items in the bag. "Fifty cents!"

"For the bag?" the Writer protested.

"Fifty cents! What I look like, fuckin' Santa Claus?"

The Writer sighed and put two quarters down. This is too much work...

"The fuck you doin' here anyways?" Suddenly the proprietor's glare took on a scrutinizing gleam. "You writin' a book about this dog's dick of a town?"

"No, no," the Writer hurried. "It's a societal abstraction. The place is a symbol for a notion, or an idea that suggests a profundity."

The old crank cracked! his cane again and laughed. "I don't know what the fuck you're talkin' about but you oughta put me in yer blammed ‘dickerlus book. I can be the unfriendly old codger who's lived in town his whole life'n warns the main character ta get out. A stock character's what they call that, ain't it?"

The Writer rose an involuntary brow. "Indeed it is... "

"There's yer fuckin' symbol, boy. Me. I'm the fuckin' notion!"

"Intriguing," the Writer said and almost laughed.

"Now get outa my store, and if ya got a sliver'a brain, get outa town."

The Writer fled the Qwik-Mart as if fleeing killers.

That was something... and I've only been in town a few minutes. On the street, he lit a cigarette and stood for a minute in a studied daze. What a rush—profound yet... indefinable. He figured that first kick of nicotine-drenched smoke had to be as good as the opium Thomas de Quincey smoked when he wrote "Sighs from the Depths." Next, he walked down the vacant road, to the Gilman House Motel.

««—»»

The Writer rented his $10-per-night room—Room Six, the imperfect number, according to the Bible and the Koran—from a stout, fiftyish woman with a face uncomfortably similar to Henry Kissinger's. "Oh, you must be the writer!" she enthused the instant he came through the seedy doorway. This continued to perplex him. The shoemaker with diabetes told people I was here? Impossible. He didn't talk to anyone...

Much to the woman's delight, he paid a month in advance. "Oh my word! I'll give you the best room in the house! We've never had a bestselling author stay with us before."

The Writer smiled modestly. He didn't quite have it in him to point out that of all his dozens of published books, he'd never even come close to hitting a bestseller list, but of course, he wouldn't have wanted to. He despised all that was commercial, like Faulkner. The art of writing could never be about money. It had to be about the struggle for true art.

"Is that one'a them newfangled computers I keep hearin' about?" she asked of his second carry bag. He had associates who had solicited this new, corruptive technology, with things called RAM and kilobytes and five-inch floppies. My God! What would Samuel Coleridge think? "You can make revisions on the screen!" one peer, a frivolous high-fantasy writer, had celebrated. "No more Liquid Paper!" The Writer had calmly informed him that he'd own one of these infernal contraptions over his dead body. "The day I allow technology to come between my Muse and the sheet of paper is the day I hang myself at the foot of T.S. Eliot's grave. Indeed, the New Age of Creativity is becoming... pun intended... a Wasteland... " Liquid Paper and white-out tape were as crucial to the writer as oil paints were to Peter Paul Rubens. If there were no metal type bars striking a piece of paper rolled over a rubber platen, then it wasn't art one created, but something sorely less. Bells needed to ring! and keys needed to snap! The carriage needed to zip! back and forth as the writer's Muse fired from his mind to his fingertips and poured like blood onto the page. Without any of that?

Folly, the Writer knew. A lie...

"No, it's a typewriter," he told her. The woman's name, not surprisingly, was Mrs. Gilman, and it was the "Mrs." part that sent a bolt up the Writer's spine. He knew it wasn't compassionate but he couldn't help it. Some man actually married her—that face, Henry Kissinger. "I keep it well-lubricated so it doesn't make a lot of noise. I hope no one's disturbed."

"By some noise?" The woman huffed a laugh like Aunt Bee on Andy Griffith. "You could probably tell this ain't exactly a flourishin' town, sir. I mostly rent by the hour, if ya know what I mean. A gal's gotta make a livin' just like anyone, hmm?"

The Writer wasn't disheartened. It was just more reality to nourish his Muse. Prostitution was certainly an integral facet of the human condition, and he thought at once of the monumental play by Sartre. My book needs to be REAL...  "I understand completely, Mrs. Gilman."

Her voice lowered. "And if ya choose to indulge... ya might wanna wrap it, as they say."

"Oh, I won't be indulging, Mrs. Gilman. As an artist, my perceptions need to be keen. Angst from abstinence is converted to creative enlightenment."

What Mrs. Gilman dubbed The Best Room in the House was easily the worst room the Writer had ever checked into. Cockroach corpses lay scattered like broken brazil nut shells, and when he peeked under the bed, his vision was greeted by a petrified rat belly-up, little legs stiff in the air. The small, iron-railed bed had a great dip in the center, as if previously owned by someone who weighed half a ton. Peeling wallpaper was patterned by smoke-stained tulips and, in places, dirty handprints. Every handprint tells a story, he considered. A genuine Philco radio sat on an exhaust-blue dresser, though the Writer doubted he'd be opening any of the dresser's drawers. There was also a fan festooned by strings of dust, a metal waste can with, of all things, G.I. Joes on it, and a put-it-together-yourself writing desk and chair that had stickers on them reading DART DRUG. More dust-strings rounded the room's corners.

Not exactly a "Clean, Well-Lighted Room," eh? he ribbed himself and had to bite his lip not to laugh.

Get it?

A peek in the bathroom showed a rusted, claw-foot tub, a cracked mirror (was that blood in the cracks?) and—wouldn't he know it?—used condoms floating in the toilet. Mrs. Gilman was fluffing the pillows on his bed when he came back in, and that's when he noticed some irregularities on the wallpaper. Someone had drawn a bull's eye over the waste can. A yard back was what appeared to be a crayon mark on the floor. Closer inspection showed him lines of some dried starchy substance in or near the bull's eye.

My God, the Writer thought. Target practice...

"It ain't a fancy room, sir," the husky woman said, "but it's got... "

The Writer pointed a finger and smiled. "Character. It'll do fine, Mrs. Gilman."

"And if there's anythin' you need, you just come see me."

"Thank you. You're very hospitable."

From a pouch on her frumpy dress, she withdrew a plastic bag of something. "Try some. They're delicious!"

The Writer paled. It was a bag of dried apricots. "No. Thank you."

"Hope you enjoy your stay!" She beamed. "My goodness! We gots a real live writer stayin' with us!"

"Goodnight, Mrs. Gilman."

She left but stuck her head back in. She pointed to the clap-trap writing desk. "Oh, and you kin put'cher typewriter right there," but of course she pronounced typewriter as "tap-ratter." "You got a wonderful view!"

"I'll do that, Mrs. Gilman."

Finally she left. Wonderful view? He looked out the window and winced. It was a junkyard that extended back to a scrawny woodline. Old car hulks lay on their sides, and between two, a mangy dog was defecating. He kept convincing himself that the environment was a creative necessity. Henrik Ibsen would've LOVED this room. He could've written a sequel to "The Wild Duck" here...  So if it was good enough for Ibsen, it was good enough for the Writer.

But the "view" would have to go. He pulled down the stained shade, then immediately saw some graffiti. IF THE SUN REFUSED TO SHINE, I WOULD STILL BE LOVING YOU— LED ZEPPLIN, some redneck had scrawled. The Writer winced again. He whipped out his Sharpie and wrote HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE—J.P. SARTRE.

There.

White Trash Gothic, the words ran round and round his head. The daze of his creative bliss returned as he set up his typewriter. It was a Remington Standard Typing-Machine No. 2, from 1874. He'd spent several thousand dollars refurbishing it. Many great writers had used this same model: Samuel Clemens, Joseph Conrad, Henry James. In fact, when Clemens aka Mark Twain had been the first fiction writer to officially submit a typed manuscript to a publisher, that manuscript had been prepared on an identical machine.

Hot water from the sink was sufficient for his instant coffee, and he arranged his ashtray in a nearly religious ceremony. He took one bite of a Saltine, frowned, then put the whole box in the G.I. Joe trash can when he read that the Sell By date was June 1980. The idea of taking it back and asking for a refund simply wasn't serviceable.

Music, he thought. Very light...  He turned on the old radio:

"... in Milwaukee on North 25th Street, Building 1055, Unit 213, a gruesome scene unfolded before... "

"... may have evaded police for the last five years... "

"... when the employee of a chocolate factory was arrested by Milwaukee Police after a naked boy in handcuffs reported his abduction and... "

"... confessed today that he lobotomized and even cannibalized many of his unsuspecting victims... "

What a world, he thought. Between the news of this serial killer, he stumbled upon unacceptable country and western and, worse, hard rock. His stomach hitched when he heard, "I'm a freeeeeeeeeeeee biiiiiiiird... " Would he throw up in the G.I. Joe garbage can? Finally he found some layered violin work.

He creaked back in the chair and sighed. Ahhhhhh. Archanglo Corelli, Concerto #8...

Now, the Writer was ready.

He carefully rolled in a sheet of Eagle-brand 25-pound bond paper, and typed:

WHITE TRASH GOTHIC

CHAPTER ONE

He put his finger on the T key. It was unbidden, just as it needed to be. My Muse is flowing. Now... write the first sentence—

There was a knock on the door. Oh, for pity's sake! he whined. His Muse collapsed.

"Yes?" he answered testily. Then he blinked and gulped.

A voluptuous girl with hair the color of corn silk stood hip-cocked and grinning in the doorway. Bare-foot and bare-legged, she wore a faded denim skirt and a painfully tight pink T-shirt that read LICK BUSH IN ‘92!

"Hi!" she said, naturally pronouncing the word hi as "Haa!" "I'se Nancy. My ma tolt me you was here."

"You're... Mrs. Gilman's daughter?"

"That's right."

Staggering, he thought. Not only did some guy MARRY the woman who looks like Henry Kissinger, but he had SEX with her as well... But by the looks of this girl, she didn't get any of her mother's less complimentary genes. "Ah, well, it's very nice to meet you, Nancy, but, wow, I'm very busy... "

"Oh, I'll only be a sec, see—" She cocked her hip to the other side, offering a blushing smile. "I gotta question, but... shucks, you might think it's dumb... "

Oh, for pity's sake! But he felt he had to be a gentleman and a positive role model. "No question is petty or without value, Nancy, except for the question stifled by reluctance."

"Huh?"

He sighed. "What's your question?"

She rose up on her tiptoes for one bounce. "Can I blow you?"

The Writer was waylaid. "What?"

"Oh, and I mean fer free. We'se don't git busy ‘round here till later noways—"

Mrs. Gilman... tricks out her own daughter...

"—and, gosh, I got this hankerin' ta suck yer willy on account of you're a famous writer—"

The Writer rolled his eyes. "Really, I'm not that famous—"

The insides of her knees rubbed as she cocked her hips back and forth, with the Naughty Schoolgirl grin. "See, I don't want ya ta think I'm trashy—"

"Oh, I could never think that!"

"—but, see, I'se'll just be all twisted up if I don't gets a chance to taste yer cum... "

The Writer glared. "Why on earth would you... "

"Just wanna know if a writer's jism tastes like regular."

This is bombast... But still, he considered the proposition for a blazing moment. After all, Stephen Crane's greatest creative influence had been a prostitute, and then he'd gone on to write The Red Badge of Courage and "The Open Boat." The Writer couldn't deny his gentility, a refinement born of erudition. "That's quite an offer, Nancy, but I'll have to turn it down. You must understand—abstinence is crucial to the aesthetically inclined. Like boxers."

She was a redneck Venus alive in his doorway. "You shore?"

God in Heaven, would you PLEASE go away! Your body's KILLING me! "Really, Nancy, I'd love to. You're a very beautiful young woman, but—"

Her grin widened, showing perfect teeth, a rarity in these parts. "And I gots me a beautiful cooter, too. Fellas always say so. Wanna see?"

"Oh, no, really—"

She hitched up the denim skirt. The Writer glanced down.

He wanted to cry. It looked like fresh sourdough with a curl of pink taffy: a flawless sex-tart. My God... "I can say with authority, Nancy, your cooter should be displayed in the Louvre. Nevertheless, I'm terribly busy. Another time, perhaps."

Her cringing pose loosened. "Oh, all right. But you'll at least autograph my tittie, won't'cha?" and then up came the pink T-shirt.

The Writer slumped, and extracted his Sharpie.

The breasts were comely—firm and full of the vitality of youth... and ruined by tattoos. The right was a Smiley Face—black curve for a mouth, two circles for eyes, and a big pink nose—while on the left had been branded a great eagle and the words FREE BIRD.

The Writer could've groaned. How could you vandalize yourself like that? "Which, uh, one?" he asked, pen poised.

"Smiley!"

He scribbled his signature right over the "eyes."

"I cain't wait ta show my friends!" she squealed.

Terrific...

She gave the Writer a big wet kiss, running her tongue between the seam of his lips. My God... She just licked my lips with the same tongue that's licked UNTOLD dirty, hayseed penises...

"Just you git back to work now!" she said cheerily.

"Yes, yes, thank you. Have a great... night... "

"Nightie-night... "

The Writer closed and locked the door, leaning against it in the exhaustion of his ire. The realization didn't set well. Men will inseminate her tonight... over MY signature. Flustered now, he returned to the desk, lit a cigarette, and stared at the page in the Remington.

««—»»

Hours later, he was still staring at the page in the Remington. Now the page looked like this:

WHITE TRASH GOTHIC

CHAPTER ONE

There was a knock at the door.

Writer's block again! he screamed at himself. It's HER fault!

The ashtray had become a pyramid of butts. Through the walls he could hear muffled and distorted sounds: creaking, giggles, rapid footfalls and doors slamming. A whorehouse, he chided himself. I'm trying to write the most important American novel of the Twentieth Century in a whorehouse... He'd believed the grim reality of the place and people would alight his deepest creative visions—to saturate every page with human truth, but...

Just another subjective desert, a terra dementata not worthy of artistic interpretation. Or perhaps he was being too hard on himself. It was only his first night.

I pray God...

He needed to convert this experience into the genius of a Bergman film, with the insights of a Steinbeck novel, and the imagery of a Stevens poem.

He needed... something...

He opened the smudged shade before him, to be looked back at by a desolate night. A lopsided full moon hovered over the junkyard. He cracked the window to let in some air, then without conscious impulse looked at his watch.

It was midnight.

Outside, a wolf howled.

The Writer got up from the desk and sighed. I need a drink, he thought. Then he turned out the light and left the room.

(III)

Dicky stopped in his tracks at the Crossroads' front door. He looked up at the moon and could've sworn he heard a wolf howl. There ain't no wolves here... I hope... Inside, the loud bar was milling with ex-cons, fugitives, ‘shine-runners, alkies, and sundry redneck scum. Dicky felt at home. When he scratched his nose, he took an inadvertent sniff and almost gagged. Dang! Dicky had neglected to wash his hands after dragging the last of the clean rags back to the massage parlor. The redolence of old sperm and excrement seemed imbued on his palms. He wended through the overall'd mass to the bathroom and scrubbed up. Probably wastin' my time. Balls is talking big bullshit sayin' he's gonna give me the green fer my new trannie. On the wall someone had written: THE BIGHEAD'LL GET YOU IF YOU DON'T WATCH OUT, but Dicky scoffed at the backwoods myth. Beneath it someone else had written, much more recently, THE EMERGENT EVOLUTION OF NATURE DEVELOPS BY ELEVATING LEVELS OF SPACE AND TIME THROUGH MATTER, THE END RESULT OF WHICH EQUALS GOD.

Dicky read it as best he could, got a headache, and left the bathroom.

Doreen, one of the bar's working girls, attempted to entice potential customers by playing Nine Ball with herself. She leaned over extra-long to take shots, allowing her low-cut top to droop so that anyone looking could see her breasts, but nobody ever looked. Poor stupid gal just don't get it, Dicky thought. Her breasts dangled like two stuffed white socks, with a cow teat at the end of each. Another prostitute, Cora Neller, was rack-skinny from meth—and from the booze she chugged to take the edge off when she didn't have meth. Her legs looked like flesh-covered dowel-rods sticking out of her cut-off jeans. When she sat down and crossed her legs, patrons often groaned, for there was so much gap-space inside her cut-offs that her vagina could be fully viewed: flaccid lips surrounding a scary black hole, like a hundred-year-old man's agape mouth. "Hey, Cora!" someone yelled. "Don't'cha git too close to the pool table. Someone's liable ta mistake ya fer a cue stick!" The whole bar ripped laughter; in fact, Doreen laughed so hard, her dentures fell out and landed in the corner pocket. "Fuck all'a ya, ya queers!" Cora shouted back. "You's kin all suck my Daddy's ass-hair!"

"Yeah!" someone shouted back, "like you been doin' since you was four!"

This was the cream of the crop at the Crossroads.

Dicky plopped his girth on the stool right next to Balls.

"Hey, Balls."

"Shee-it, man. Yer late. Thought ya lost yer confer-dance in me."

"Naw, after I'se got off work 'bout six, I hadda take me a long nap—"

"Shee-it. All that hard work warshin' cum-rags at the jack shack's got Dicky all wored out, but you ain't gonna have to work there no more." Then Balls cracked a sneering smile and slapped Dicky on the back.

"You got it?"

"I tolt ya I'd git it, didn't I?" Balls slipped an envelope over—a fat envelope.

It took a few minutes but Dicky counted the money, his hands trembling. "Well shee-it in a picnic basket, Balls! I just cain't believe it!" There was twelve hundred dollars in the envelope, in mostly ratty fifties and twenties.

Balls nodded. "So's when'll you git'cha that new trannie?"

"I'll pick it up tomorrow'n have it dropped the next day."

"And then the day after that, you'n me'll be runnin' moonshine, right?"

"Right!"

"As partners." Balls shot Dicky a solemn glance. "Right?"

"Dang right, Balls!" Dicky was nearly crying in his joy. All that money in his hand? What a fine friend Balls was, and not three days out of the poky. That brand-spanking-new M-22 Rock Crusher would make his motorhead dreams come true. A 427 El Camino with a radical trans was just the ticket. That fucker will fly...

Dicky simmered down, as some logic seeped into the conversation. "Hey, Balls... If you're flat broke after gettin' out'a the joint... how'd you come up with twelve-hunnert bucks faster than shit through a buzzard?"

Balls grinned. "Aw, now, don't you worry 'bout that none, Dicky-Boy." Balls snapped his finger at an ancient barkeep in suspenders. He wore a ballcap with a patch that read: LIQUOR IN FRONT, POKER IN BACK. "Hey, bartender! I gotta stand on my head'n flap my balls ta git a pitcher in this joint?"

The barkeep frowned his way over. "You look like a con, son. I gots ta see some green first."

"Shee-it," Balls muttered through his grin. He snapped a twenty down.

Then the barkeep noticed Dicky. "Aw, shee-it, Dicky, I didn't see ya walk in. Damn shame what happened at yer place."

Dicky scratched his head. "My place?"

"Yeah. June's jack shack. Ain't that where ya work?"

"Uh, well... "

"I guess ya ain't heard. 'bout seven o'clock, some fella walked in there and knocked the place over."

"Ya don't say?" Balls offered.

"Shore as shit," the keep replied. "Took the whole week's till, he did."

Dicky was astonished. "Yer shittin' me. Man, I was workin' there myself earlier."

"The fucker had a big gun too, and terrorized the livin' shit out'a all them poor girls. Made 'em all strip nekit so's he could gander their pussies'n tits."

"What a scumbag," Balls offered. "World's goin' ta shit, I'll tell ya."

The keep nodded in earnest. "And before he left, ya know what he done? He put his gun to poor June's head and made her stick her finger up his ass'n jerk him off."

"The lowdown bastard!" Balls offered.

"I cain't believe it," Dicky lamented. "And he cleaned the place out?"

"The whole week's till, like I said. Two grand's what June tolt me. Then he got clean away."

"Well, shee-it, with all them girls workin' there, they must've got a good description of the guy."

"Nope," assured the keep. "Dirty som-bitch were wearin a Wendy's bag on his head with eye-holes cut out. Don't that beat all?" and then the keep walked off to get them a pitcher.

Wait a min... Dicky's head slowly traversed on his fat neck to look right at Balls. "You?" he whispered.

Balls' grin flashed like a switch-blade in the sun. He nodded, and gestured his waist. He pulled his T-shirt up for just a second, and stuck in there under his belt was a big-ass pistol, a Webley .455.

"Jimminy Christmas, Balls!"

"Shhh. Some piece'a work, huh? I knew my Daddy'd be good fer somethin' one'a these days. See, this piece under my shirt's about the only thing he left me worth more than a pack'a butt pimples."

Dicky leaned over, keeping his voice low. "You pulled a heist in broad daylight?"

"Why ya think they call me Balls?"

The keep returned with their pitcher. Balls filled two mugs and slid one to Dicky. "Cheers, buddy."

Dicky raised his mug with a great pumpkin grin. "To our new partnership! Man, we are gonna make some money whens I get my rod on the road!"

Their glasses clinked.

Three fat young men with buzzcuts sat on the other side. "Hey, ya old putz!" one shouted to the barkeep. "Git us another pitcher, and don't make us wait till we're old as you. And also give us an order of Redneck Steak Tenders."

The barkeep smirked. "Comin' right up... "

Balls seemed cruxed. "Hey, Dicky... what the hail's Redneck Steak Tenders? I ain't never heard'a that."

"Cheapest thang on the menu."

"Yeah? Well why not we'se git us some? I'se love a good steak, ‘specially if'n its cheap."

"Naw, Balls. Trust me." Dicky pointed to the keep, who threw a handful of soda crackers onto a paper plate. Then he shot a dash of A-1 Steak Sauce on each cracker. "There ya go, fellers," he said to the fat brothers.

"Awright!" one reveled.

"Yeah, I'se thank I'll pass on that," Balls said.

The barkeep wandered back over, and pointed up to the TV. "You boys been listenin' to this crazy shit on the TV? This feller in Wisconsin?"

"Naw," Balls said. "Ain't really seen TV fer a while."

Dicky rubbed his chin. "Ya know, I think I did hear somethin', some crazy guy or some such."

The keep leaned forward. "A serial killer they'se callin' him. Name's Dahmer, a queer-boy from up north. Kilt lots'a dudes they say."

"Kilt 'em?" Balls asked. "How?"

"Some'a the worst shit you can imagine, son. He'd go inta one'a these faggot bars and start swish-talkin' with some feller, and a‘course, the feller thinks he's gonna get a fudge-packin' like they do but, see, what this Dahmer dude did was slip mickeys in their drinks ta git 'em all disorientered, then he'd take 'em back to his place."

"Yeah?" Balls goaded. "And then he fudge-packed 'em?"

"Aw, yeah, he shore did but not ‘fore doin' a shitload'a sick shit first. Lotta times he'd just plain kill 'em, and then pack their fudge. And other times he'd cut parts off 'em, and then he'd cook it and eat it. Cops found heads in the fridge, body parts all over the place, pair'a ears in a bread box."

"Shee-it!" Balls exclaimed.

Dicky smirked with distaste. "And you say he et parts of these fellas?"

"Damn straight. Admitted it. Ate a fella's whole bicep, he did, and some leg-meat cut right off the bone. Broiled it. Ate some'a their brains too."

"Fuck!" Balls exclaimed.

"And ya gotta figgure, if he ate brains, and he was queer, you know damn well he must've eaten some'a their peckers, too."

"Bet he slapped 'em right down on a grill'n cooked 'em like hot dogs," Dicky speculated.

"Bet he did," Balls added, intrigued.

The keep wagged a finger. "But that ain't the worst, boys. Some'a these fruiters he'd pick up? He'd drill holes in their heads, to take the fight out of 'em so's he could butt-fuck 'em all night long—sometimes fer even days—and the feller couldn't do nothin' about it."

"Jay-sus," Dicky remarked.

The keep gave a curt nod. "Just goes ta show, boys. The devil comes in all shapes'n sizes," and then he wandered back to his beer taps.

Balls and Dicky stared up at the TV.

"Damn," Balls muttered. "He drilled holes in their heads. That's some cool shit, ain't it?"

Dicky looked aghast. "Cool? Balls, that's some right sick-in-the-head shit is what that is."

Balls raised a brow but said nothing, still staring up at the TV.

"But ya know what I don't git, Balls?" Dicky ventured. "What's a fudge-packin' murderer got to do with cereal?"

"Hmm. Don't rightly know. Maybe that's what he fed these fruiters after he took the zing out of 'em with the drill."

A voice to their right cut in: "Actually a serial killer is a modern law-enforcement label that's used to differentiate from mass-murders and spree killers. The individual will kill a series of persons, generally over an extended period of time, functioning normally in between victims. It's not uncommon for serial killers to work everyday jobs, own homes, and even have families."

Balls and Dicky looked over at the guy who'd related the information: a clean-cut guy with brown hair, glasses, and a white shirt—a nerd. He was drinking beer by himself.

"But ain't they all crazy?" Balls asked.

"Sometimes but not exclusively. Some serial killers even have high I.Q.'s. The frightening part is they tend to not stand out. The average serial killer is typically a white male in his twenties or thirties, and he commits his crimes, often undetected for years—like Ed Gein or Henry Lee Lucas—to live out a deep-seated sexual fantasy born in some mode of dementia."

Balls leaned over to Dicky. "Wow, this fella knows some big words."

"That he does—"

The guy continued, "The term was dubbed by FBI Agent Robert Ressler in the ‘70s, during the plethora of national news coverage about Ted Bundy, who raped and murdered women and children in at least five states. He's right up there with Gein and Lucas, the Green River Killer, John Wayne Gacy, but this guy here—Dahmer—he may wind up being the most grotesque of the bunch."

"Dang," Dicky said. "There's some fucked up folks in this world."

Balls leaned over, to face the guy in the white shirt. "Hey, buddy? You seem to know a lot 'bout this kind'a stuff. Any idea why they do it?"

"They all have essentially the same answer," the guy said. "They do it because, to them, it's fun."

Balls leaned back down, thinking.

"Fun? Fuck all that shit, man." Dicky was growing ill at ease. "Eatin' folks, drillin' holes in their noggins—shee-it. Let's not talk 'bout it no more—it's givin' me the willies. Just let's us think about all that cash we'se gonna make when we's runnin' ‘shine in a big block 427 with a Rock Crusher trans."

"Yeah," Balls said, but he seemed preoccupied now.

"And weren't there somethin' you was gonna tell me tonight?" Dicky reminded.

"Huh?"

Dicky lowered his voice further. "You said you had some score next month."

"Aw, yeah. Early September, right." Balls shook out of his bizarre daze. "It's pretty righteous and a shore thing. In fact, it just might be so good that we won't have to run no ‘shine after that."

"The hail?"

"Dicky-Boy," Balls whispered. "This score could be so big that neither'a us'll have to worry 'bout cash again. Ever."

"I don't know, Balls."

"Bullshit, Dicky."

"A heist, ya mean?"

"Well, yeah, kind of. And it's risk-free, man. Now don't tell me you ain't in with me."

"Shee-it, Balls. It's your score. Ya don't have to cut me in."

Balls looked taken aback. "What'cha take me as? We'se partners. And we'se'll need yer ‘Mino to pull the U-Haul."

"You gotta U-Haul?"

"No, but I will once I steal me one. Only a fool'd pass this up. You wanna be a fool?"

Dicky hemmed a bit. "Risk-free, you say?"

"Damn straight... "

Dicky's shoulders lowered. "All right, tell me about it... "

They huddled closer, Balls whispering. "The score's about this old guy named Crafter, gotta old house ‘tween here'n Crick City, but it's like way out in the woods somewhere."

"Crafter," Dicky chewed on the name. "Ain't never heard of him."

"That's 'cos the guy's, like, a loner, don't go out much. And he's got a real fucked up first name, too," and then Balls took a slip of paper out of his wallet and read off it. "Ephriam Crafter. Ain't that somethin'? Ephriam? And he lives off some place called Governor's Bridge Road—"

"Oh, I heard me'a that road," Dicky said, kindled. "Used ta drink beer on the bridge'n throw the bottles off."

"Well that kicks ass, Dicky, that you know where the road is and, see, this guy Crafter? He's like a collector of ‘spensive stuff, like antiques'n old paintin's'n jewelry but, like, real old jewelry that we could fence in Pulaski or Roanoke. Big, big money in this house, Dicky."

Dicky hadn't been terribly enthused in the first place, but now he just frowned. "Some score, Balls. A fuckin' B&E? You'll git yourself caught, you will, or worse blowed away. Ever-body's got guns in this county, man."

Balls' eyes were glittering he was so torqued up. "No, man, 'cos, see, the guy won't be home, and he's got no wife or kids or anyone else in the house. Beginnin' of every September, he goes out'a town fer a coupla weeks—Spain, he goes to, wherever that is. So's the house is empty. All we gots to do is knock the place over'n fence the haul ‘fore he can git back ta report it missin'."

Dicky gave a strained expression. "I don't know, Balls. Ya could still git caught a mite easy. If this guy Crafter tolt ya he goes out'a town ever September, then he'll know it's you who done the job."

Balls was nearly giddy in excitation. "That's the best part, Dicky. I don't know the guy from Adam. Never met him, never talked to him."

"Then how you know so much 'bout him?"

"This guy tolt me, see?"

"This guy?"

Balls nodded. "'Bout a year ago this newbie con named Bud Tooler got dropped on our cellblock. Biggest, dumbest cracker you ever saw, and the poor rube got sent up twennie-five years on a rapo. Raped some gal in the back of a Good Humor truck, he did, after knockin' her out'n takin' the cash box, and the big cracker wouldn't'a even got caught ‘cept you know what he did? He went back to the truck a few minutes later and stole a box'a Tastee Pops."

"Shee-it!"

"The splittail were still unconscious but someone seed him takin' the fuckin' ice cream!"

"Fuckin'-A, man! That's dumber'n dogshit!"

"Yeah, man, fuckin' Bud Tooler, biggest dumbest rube you could ever meet'n yer life. Fucker's got dick fer brains."

Dicky joined Balls in some laughter, but then calmed down and squinted at a thought. "Hey, Balls? What's this rube Bud Tooler got to do with this old Crafter guy?"

"I'se tellin' ya, Dicky. See, Tooler had a job fer years, cuttin' this guy Crafter's lawn'n doin' his hedges'n shit, so's that's how he knowed that the guy goes away first week'a every September. And one time Crafter's sink got stopped up so's he let Tooler into the house ta fix it. Only time in all them years Tooler ever got asked in the house were that one time, but one were enough. He got a gander at all kinds'a ‘spensive shit in there. So's after that Tooler got ta thinkin' he'd knock the place over himself when Crafter went on his next trip but then he got busted on that Good Humor rapo last week'a July," and, of course, Balls pronounced July as "Joo-lie."

"Hmm," Dicky murmured.

"Yeah. Hmm, brother."

"Crafter, you say his name is?"

"Yeah, man. Crafter. Ephriam Crafter and he's got a million bucks'a shit in his house just waitin' ta be cleaned out. If'n we don't pull this job, we'd be dumber than Tooler fer goin' back fer that box'a Tastee-Pops, am I right?"

Dicky's mental gears spun as best they could. "Ya know, Balls? Just you might be right 'bout that."

"So's it's settled, partner. Tomorrow you git'cher new trannie. Then till the first week'a September we'se rake in some cash runnin' shine. And after that—" Balls raised his beer mug again—"we' git pig-shit rich when we knock over Ephriam Crafter's house on Governor's Bridge Road."

"I'se'll drink ta that!" Dicky celebrated and clinked mugs.

They split another pitcher as the tavern's din rose. All the pool tables were full, and there wasn't an empty seat in the house. Doreen was seen slipping out of the men's room—deftly replacing her dentures and wiping her mouth—and then a second later a man came out as well. Meanwhile, Cora Neller had seen fit to get up on a table and dance, but when she pulled up her top—showing death-camp breasts—she got booed down.

Balls remained excited about his new business propositions, especially Crafter's house, which he knew in his heart was a done deal. But something else, on the periphery of his psyche, was bothering him.

"Hey, Dicky. ‘Member when we was kids'n every so often we'd go over ta Mrs. Houser's house'n look in her winder'n watch her brush her hair nekit?"

"Aw, yeah!" Dicky recalled, a bit tipsy now. "And then she'd do jumpin' jacks and bendin'-over exercises whiles we was watchin'!"

"Yeah, and ‘member how we'se always had the idea she knew we was watchin' but she never did nothin'."

"Yer right, yer right! And then we'd beat off whiles we was watchin'!"

Balls nodded. "Yeah, yeah, and we'se were all pissed off 'cos we was too young ta squirt."

"Aw, yeah, man, we couldn't wait fer our peters ta start kickin' out juice like the older boys—"

"And like in them old porno mags we found in that ravine behind the old Dart Drug." Balls peered intently at Dicky. "We knew that jism came out'a peckers when we saw that. ‘Member?"

Dicky searched his not-very-elaborate memory. "Yeah! They was in a old suitcase! So's we'se crawled down that ravine thinkin' it was full'a money from a bank robbery or somethin' and thens we busted it open'n it was stuffed with old porno, and each page had some fella squirtin' a big ole load in some skanky chick's face or tits."

"Um-hmm, and that one mag had pregnant chicks that guys was fuckin' and comin' on, and we couldn't believe that shit—"

"Oh, yeah!" Dicky's memory began to chug.

"—and then that other mag with mostly black fellas with cocks on 'em like chunks'a radiator hose and they'se was cornholin' all these little skinny white junkies, and fer the life'a us we couldn't figure how somethin' that big could go into somethin' that small—"

"Man, I'se forgot all about that, Balls!"

Balls lowered his voice. "And do ya remember that last mag in the suitcase, Dicky? That one we figgured must'a been from the '50s on account it were black'n white?"

Dicky's yap fell open as he searched his mind...

"‘Member that? It were these big brawny guys fuckin' the stuffin' out a bunch more junkie girls, and these fellas was spittin' in the gals' mouths'n blowin' their noses on 'em, and all kinds'a groaty stuff, and then one guy had his fist up a splittail's snatch coupla inches past the wrist, and then another fella stuck his whole foot in a girl... "

Dicky suddenly blanched at the recollections of pornographic imagery. "Aw, yeah, now I ‘member. The mags with guys fuckin' girls and gittin' blowed were fine but that last one like ta turn my stomach. Made me fuckin' sick, it did... "

Balls seemed focused on some inner impulse. "But'cher forgettin' the last page, Dicky. ‘Member the last page'a that black'n white mag?"

Dicky stared, then gulped.

"Had that fella with, like, a Beatles haircut stickin' a pistol barrel right up that girl's beaver, and theres was some blood comin' out her."

"Aw, man. That were some disgustin' shit, man. Didn't turn me on none, that's fer shore. It even killed my hankerin' ta beat off."

"Well that's just it, Dicky. Average person's probably of a mind that that sorta porn ain't fer no one but folks sick in the head."

Dicky gulped again, nauseated. "Fella'd have to be sick in the head ta git boned up lookin' at shit like that. A gun stickin' up a gal's bloody pussy? Shee-it."

"And, fuck, Dicky, we weren't no more'n ten years old when we'se found that old suitcase. But ya knows what? When I gots home that day... I did beat off, and I did on account of that last picture. Sick as the shit was, I had a boner somethin' fierce, I did, and once I got ta thinkin' 'bout that pistol in the gal's cooze, I beat off like there were no tomorrow, and even now, after all them years, I still got that picture locked in my head, and if'n I think about it, I get wood."

Dicky stared at him.

"So's I'm startin' ta think there's somethin' wrong with me, ya know? That I'm the one sick in the head."

This was getting too deep for Dicky. He scoffed, "Aw, shee-it, Balls, ferget it. Ain't nothin' but a picture of a bunch'a fucked up junkies."

Balls nodded with some contemplation. "Maybe, but gettin' back to what I was sayin' first? 'Bout Mrs. Houser?"

Dicky smiled, for this image was much more appealing than the previous. "She had tits on her bigger'n our blammed heads. And ‘member that hair-pie she had?"

"Yeah, yeah, I know, but here's somethin' I never tolt ya," Balls went on, serious. "It was after me'n you dropped out'a that shit-hole junior high they bussed us to in Clintwood. Me'n you didn't see each other much after that 'cos we'se was workin' fer our Daddys, but, see, I kept goin' back ta Mrs. Houser's place at night ta jerk off whiles lookin' at her nekit, see?"

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. I were thirteen, fourteen years old by then, and lemme tells ya, my dick was kickin' out some cum by that age... "

"Yeah, me too," Dicky hastily added. "I was shootin' it five, six feet at least."

Balls frowned. "Yeah, yeah, but, see, I went up there one night'n I was all boned up to begin with 'cos I'd been thinkin' about that picture'a the gal with the gun up her snatch, and then I get to Mrs. Houser's winder figgurin' I'll have me a good ole yank watchin' her doin' them bend-over exercises, but'cha know what?"

Dicky stared back. "What?"

"I look in that winder—"

"Was she nekit? Was she?" Dicky prodded.

"Oh, she was nekit, all right, and so was the fella in there with her, but, see, Mrs. Houser, she was tied up, her ankles'n wrists was tied ta each corner of the bed, and she hadda gag in her mouth... "

Dicky's drunken eyes bloomed from the intrigue.

"And it was a big black fella in there with her, and this fella hadda cock on him like a tennis-ball can painted black is how big it was."

"Fuck," Dicky whispered.

"And he was layin' a right hard hand on Mrs. Houser, punchin' her in the breadbasket'n bitin' her belly'n tits, and he were slappin' his open hand across her pussy so hard it sounded like a horsewhip."

"Yer shittin' me!"

"Naw, not a bit, Dicky, and then he got ta slappin' her across the face, too, then he'd punch her up some more and then put a piller ‘cross her face'n press down fer, like, a long time, man, and then he'd take it off'n slap her awake again, and in between all this rough-housin', he'd fuck her a whiles with that giant cock'a his, then he'd stop'n bite her tits'n belly'n crack his hand to her pussy, like that, startin' the whole deal alls over. So's I'm thinkin' this fella busted inta her house ta rip her off but figgured he might as well rape the livin' shit out'a her ta boot."

"Fuck, yeah. Must'a been what he was doin', I'd say."

"Uh-hmm, so's this voice in my head tells me ta run back to the house'n call the poe-leece'n tell 'em Mrs. Houser's bein' raped."

"Did the cops catch the black fella?" Dicky asked.

Balls paused, ruminating. "Naw, 'cos, see, I never called 'em. Just as I were about to run home, this other voice in my head tolt me ta stay... "

"Shee-it, Balls!"

"I know, man. That's low-down, but that's what I did. I stayed at that winder'n watched this guy fuck Mrs. Houser all up, and after a bit more fuckin' with that giant cock'a his, he sat on her belly'n wrapped a belt ‘round her neck'n started chokin' her. She started flip-floppin' on the bed'n her face started turnin' pink, and this black fella's tightenin' up that belt with one hand'n strokin' his pole with the other, so then finally he gits his nut'n squirts it all over her face, and I swear, Dicky, it looked like an ant-eater pukin' Elmer's Glue, it did, and it was right then when I had me my own nut, and it's like the best nut'a my life, Dicky, watchin' this bad shit happenin' to Mrs. Houser. I cummed all over that winder."

Some silence stretched by, then Dicky blinked through something like dread and asked, "Balls, what happened next? Did that big player kill her?"

"Nope, but that's what I thought shore were gonna happen next. But ya know what he did instead? Shee-it. He untied her'n took off the gag, and then she gives him a big sloppy kiss'n says, ‘Oh, baby, that was great! I love you so much!'"

"Well I'se'll just shake the shit out my drawers!" Dicky honked laughter. "So's she were one'a them kinky splittails who likes rough fuckin'."

"Guess so," Balls assumed. "The whole time, the joke was on me. Shee-it, I thought he was killin' Mrs. Houser, but ya know what? Just as soon as I kin see that they'se just playing around, I squeeze the rest'a the snot out my dick'n and start ta zip up when I look back in the winder, and there ain't no one there. I figgure they both went to the kitchen're somethin', after all that hard hobknobbin'."

"Must'a been," Dicky concluded.

Balls shook his head. "I turn around to go back home but that big black fella's standin' right behind me, and Mrs. Houser too, both nekit as jaybirds."

"What'cha... what'cha do, Balls?"

"Tried ta run, a'course, but that guy's hand landed in my hair and yanked me back like I was on a tow-line. He chicken wings me, see, holdin' me a dang foot off the ground, I'se swear, and he says, ‘Just you watch, white boy,' so's I look and I see Mrs. Houser on her knees at the winder, and ya know what she's doin'? She's lickin' my fresh nut right off the shingles beneath the sill."

"Aw, man! That's some groaty shit!"

"Shore is, and once she's done eatin' all my load, she come over all grinnin' and she pulls down my drawers'n starts playin' with my peter whiles she's sayin' ‘This little shit'n his friend've been beatin' their little-boy dicks at my window for a coupla years, they have, the dirty little fuckers,' and then she starts suckin' my peter, boy, and by now the black fella's got one hand 'round my neck, and whiles Mrs. Houser's suckin' my tool ta kingdom come, he whispers in my ear: ‘I'm a-gonna snap yer little white neck right when you come, kid, and then I'm gonna whup your dead white ass till there ain't nothin' left but a mud hole,' and when he said that Mrs. Houser starts suckin' harder'n faster and, see, I'm more shit-scairt than I ever been in my life—"

"Bet'cha were, Balls... "

"—I'm all cryin' and shakin' and fuckin' terrified, but ya know what? And it's the strangest part of all, but even in spite'a bein' scairt shitless, my fourteen-year-old peter's rock hard."

"Shee-it, man, ya'd think it'd be limp as a dead man's dick—"

"Yeah, that's what ya'd think, but I still had me the hardest boner ever. Anyways, in another second, I have me another nut'n this one goes right down Mrs. Houser's throat'n then she just starts gigglin' and lickin' her chops like a mutt with a bone."

"And-and... what 'bout that black fella?" Dicky asked. "Did he snap yer neck?"

Balls frowned. "No, ya A-hole! If he'd snapped my neck, I wouldn't be sittin' here tellin' ya the story, would I?"

"Uh, oh. No," Dicky said.

"The black fella lets me go'n starts laughin', sayin' ‘Git on outa here, kid. You've had yer fun for the night. Don't be peepin' in folks windows no more. You're liable ta get shot.' I beat feet out'a there so fast I think I must'a run a mile in ten seconds, I did, but damn near every step'a the way I could hear them laughin' at me... "

Dicky stared through the next pause. "Shee-it, Balls. That's some story."

"Yeah, a fucked up story... and the mores I think about it," Balls cerebrated, "the more it tells me that I'm fucked up. That there's somethin' wrong with me."

Dicky's dim eyes fluttered. "You? Sounds ta me like the one there's somethin' wrong with is Mrs. Houser." Then he gave a nitwit chuckle. "Wantin' ta get beat up by black fellas'n eatin' jism off a wall don't sound exactly normal ta me."

"Naw, naw, Dicky," Balls complained with some aggravation. "You ain't gettin' what I'm sayin'. It ain't about her—all women eat cum off the wall'n like ta get beat'n fucked by black fellas with giant dicks, just 'cos they'se all low-down dirty whores. I'm talkin' 'bout me. When I thunk she was really gettin' murdered... I stayed at the winder ta jerk off! And even now, most times when I'se havin' a wank... I'se still think about that picture of the guy with the Beatles haircut jamming that gun up the gal's bloody pussy. If'n I look at Playboy—shee-it. That don't turn me on none at all. I think about the girl with the gun up her snatch. I don't think about regular stuff, I think about fuckin' girls up, and ya knows what? I don't care! If someone really was murderin' Mrs. Houser, I still wouldn't call the poe-leece. I'd be standin' at that winder beatin' my meat anyways."

Dicky's eyes rolled in the fat face. "Dang, Balls. You're one fucked up piece'a work," then he slapped Balls' back and laughed.

Balls smirked over his beer. "Beats the shit out'a me why I'se always think about shit that makes ever-one else sick."

Dicky's simple gray matter couldn't handle these subjectivities. "Aw, man, you's're just drunk—forget 'bout all that."

"But I'se serious, Dicky. Average dude looks at a hot splittail, he thinks ‘man I'd love to hump that hot bitch,' but I think ‘man, I'd like to piss up her ass whiles I'm pushin' her head in a wood-chipper or string her up by the neck buck nekit and beat off whiles I'm watchin' her twitch.'"

Dicky just shook his head, in queasy disbelief. "Balls, as long you ain't really doin' it, it don't matter much 'bout thinkin' it. Now this crazy talk'a yours is damn uglier than my grandma's ass when she had all them bed sores. We gots cool shit comin' our way, man. We got ‘shine ta run and that old guy's house ta knock over, and money to be made! And we'se only twennie! We'se gonna be bird-doggin' chicks'n bangin' beaver whiles our wallets're full'a cash. So forget 'bout all that other shit—" Dicky smirked up at the TV—"it's that dang homo psycher-path stuff on TV's got you all fucked up."

Balls shrugged uneasily. "Yeah, I guess yer right," and, of course, he pronounced right as "rat."

Dicky's girth rose from the stool. "I'se gonna go contribit to the Luntville water supply. Why'n'chew order us up another pitcher?"

"Shore... "

Dicky wobbled off. When Balls ordered another pitcher, he and the keep looked up at the television at the same time. It was a commercial: "Try the new Abiciser!" an attractive blond in a red bikini enthused. "If you don't have abs like these in thirty days, return it for a full refund!" and then the camera zoomed in on her flat, bare belly and slit-like navel. There was even some camel-toe printing against the bikini bottoms, the sight of which caused half the men in the bar to woop.

The keep chuckled. "Wouldn't mind fuckin' that ‘un till she's seein' stars, huh?"

Balls shrugged. Shee-it, I'd rather yank her intestines out her asshole with a gaff pole, then cut off her head'n fuck her neck...

The commercial ended, replaced by still more gruesome news of this ghastly killer in Milwaukee. "... when police first entered the apartment, they arrested Dahmer immediately after noticing a pair of severed hands wired together, hanging in a closet. Later, according to hazmat and fire officials, the partially dissolved remains of at least one victim were found in a fifty-seven-gallon industrial drum full of corrosives. In the bedroom, several more body parts were discovered lying on top of Dahmer's bed, which had been covered in plastic dropcloths... "

Dang, Balls thought. He just couldn't figure it. When he glanced right he noticed that dullard in the white shirt still sitting there, looking up at the TV. "Hey, buddy? They say anything 'bout what caused him ta be that way?"

The guy in the white shirt seemed thrilled that someone was talking to him. "Well, one forensic psychiatrist from John's Hopkins has already labeled Dahmer as a sexual-sociopath."

Balls smirked. "That must mean he's crazy, right? Only a crazy person could pull shit like that?"

"Actually, no. Some killers of this ilk display psychopathic symptoms, but that's not the case with this Dahmer man. While it's true that a number of serial killers become inclined toward sexually motivated homicide due to catastrophic childhoods rife with neglect, perversion, sexual abuse, and battery, others have had a childhood experience that would be deemed as normal. The verdict's still out on Dahmer, of course, but it is interesting. Experiences and observations, particularly in the formative and adolescent years, often have a dramatic impact on a young mind, which all leads to transitive behavior in adulthood. Naturally, negative experiences and observations will have a negative impact. So where does that leave the serial killer who enjoyed a positive childhood indoctrination?"

"Huh?"

The guy in the white shirt raised a finger. "There's just as much evidence that proves environment need not have any bearing on certain mind sets. In other words—and this is just one of the current theories—a certain percentage of these so-called serial killers are possessed of no psychological defect and experienced nothing deleterious while growing up. They become serial killers in adulthood simply because of a genetic predilection."

"Huh?" Balls repeated.

"It's an innate impulse, just as it's an innate impulse for a dog to chase a rabbit. These men, these monsters of the modern world, become serial killers purely and simply because it's in their nature."

To Balls, the dissertation was barely comprehendible, but he understood enough. Like a dog chasin' a rabbit... It's in their nature...

Further discourse was then severed when the barkeep re-appeared with another pitcher. Dicky returned presently, and noticed an immediate reversal in his partner's previous preoccupation with morbidity.

"Ya knows what, Dicky? I feel a shitload better right now."

"Well that's dang great, Balls."

"And it's 'cos'a that guy over there," and he pointed to the guy in the white shirt, who was lighting what was likely his twentieth cigarette of the night. Balls slapped a five down on the bar. "Barkeep! Get that Poindexter-lookin' dude in the white shirt over there a drink on me."

"Comin' right up."

White Shirt looked flattered. "Much obliged."

Balls raised his mug. "Here's to our natures... "

Dicky raised his. "And here's to makin' money!"

White Shirt raised his. "And here's to providence"—he winked—"and I don't mean Rhode Island... "

PART two:

EPIPHANIES

ONE MONTH LATER

(I)

Snot McKully had stump-grinder breath and teeth the size and color of lima beans; he was technically the man who owned one of those old manual drills—properly termed a "brace" drill. Not the kind that worked like an egg-beater; instead, it was shaped like a squared-off U with outward protrusions. The bit was set into one protrusion, a bearing'd palm-wheel was fixed on the other. The manufacture's name—Stanley—could still be detected beneath the tarnished steel, and locked into its chuck was an 8-inch long double-twist auger bit, 3/8th of an inch wide and, anyway, the sequence of events that led up to the instance of Tritt "Balls" Conner cranking that bit into the girl's head was multifarious and rich.

It belonged to Snot McKully, and it was made back when elbow grease was more accessible than electricity.

The idea had simply "occurred" to Balls when he'd seen the drill lying by the main fermentation tung. An epiphany?

Yes.

The tool was a psychic totem of sorts, the Angel of Dementia that whispered into Balls' ear just as surely as Gabriel had whispered into the ear of Christ's mother Mary.

This took place exactly one month after Balls had met up with Dicky in front of Pip Brothers Laundromat two days out of the clink, and given Dicky the money for the Rock Crusher transmission... and in a sense, the affair was an epiphany for Dicky as well. That El Camino was now probably the fastest car in the county, and this is why he and Balls had been hired immediately to run illegal liquor from local stills into the "dry" sectors of Kentucky. It wasn't much of a work ethic but at least they were making money. The car, purely and simply, had gotten them the job.

Here's how it went...

««—»»

When Balls and Dicky got out of the ‘Mino, the barefoot and overalled bulk of Snot McKully rose from a wood table on which he appeared to be playing checkers with himself. Snot wore a straw hat; his face, within an untrimmed beard, seemed inflated and red at the edges. Balls thought of a balloon with eyes, mouth, and nose drawn on, and rimmed with Brillo. McKully sneered, showing the aforementioned lima-bean teeth when the ‘Mino pulled up.

"Don't talk shitty to him now, Balls," Dicky warned. "Snot don't take no shit, and remember, he is payin' us... "

Balls' eyes darkened below the John Deere hat, his black goatee tightening in some resentment. "Shee-it, Dicky, he's got tits bigger'n his wife's, and he ain't payin' us what we'se worth."

Dicky seemed nervous, a trait that had been growing on him since he and Balls had become "partners" in this venture of commerce and  other less-seemly ventures. "Yeah, well, Balls, ya know, a hunnert a week just fer five twennie-five gallon runs ain't bad—"

"It's piss, Dicky. Clyde Nale lets us haul a hunnert gallons per run. Why not this guy? Don't never let a man take ‘vantage of ya. That's the first thing I learnt my first day in the joint," and then Balls, Webley .455 stuck in his belt, walked determinedly across the clearing which housed McKully's largest operational still.

Balls liked the smell of a backwoods still: the sharp vapors of the diamond-clear liquor itself, and that tinge of burnt corn. Piles of corn lay about, and pyramids of empty gallon jugs. Coils of copper tube hopped from one tank to another, and beneath the main tank a hefty fire crackled.

Beside a chicken coop, a '64 Ford Fairlane station wagon sat up on blocks, its hood up. A man who looked like a 100-year-old version of Larry on the Three Stooges was idly scraping rust off the battery terminals with a stiff wire brush. A dirty little girl, early teens, filled plastic jugs with moonshine from a large drum standing on props. Greasy blonde hair hung over her face. Skinny legs and arms but a distended belly told Balls she was dirty in more ways than one. Beside her, a mangy baby sat into the dirt, in brown-stained diapers. When it began to cry, the girl leaned over and poured some moonshine into its mouth. "There, there, Little Snot, jest you have a nip. It'll settle ya down," and then she went back to filling the jugs. But Balls' crotch stirred a bit when she'd leaned over, the baggy overalls drooping below her chest. Balls saw nipples like cherry tomatoes.

Dicky's belly jigged when he trotted up. "Howdy there, Mr. McKully!"

McKully glared. "Boys. Yer early. I like that," but he pronounced like as "lak."

"A‘corse we'se early," Balls said. "'Cos we'se efficient'n reliable. Gotta be ta be the best ‘shine runners in the state."

McKully thumbed closed his left nostril, tilted his head, then fired a streamer of discolored mucus upward, and damn if he didn't hit a sparrow sitting on a limb. The bird chirped in surprise and fell, and as it tried to shake off its new, ungainly hood, McKully squashed it under his bare sole.

"We'se supposed ta be impressed there, Mr. McKully?" Balls laughed. "Killin' a pissant little bird?"

McKully jabbed a finger so hard into Balls' chest, Balls almost fell backward. Dicky winced, thinking Aw, no, Balls, now what'cha have to say that fer?

"I could tell even ‘fore you got outa the car that you got-cher dander up, boy," McKully's voice vibrated. His atrocious breath seemed to hang like fog. "I ain't got time fer punks—"

"Aw, no, Mr. McKully, Balls, see, he were only jokin'," Dicky jabbered.

"—and if you two baby-blowers are the best shine-runners in the state, I'll grow a square asshole and shit a television," McKully finished. He fired more snot out a nostril—he did that a lot; that's why they called him Snot—then he turned and lumbered back to the table. "You boys are fired. Get out'a here."

Dicky looked apoplectic. "Aw, jeez, sir, don't do that—"

"I don't like yer buddy's attitude," McKully said. "Never did. Bad attitude means trouble in this business. I don't need fellas with bad attitudes. I just need fellas who're bad."

Dicky frowned at his friend. "Come on, let's git. You done fucked this all up."

"Dicky, trust me... and watch," Balls assured. He strode cockily to McKully's checkers table. "That's a right fucked-up of ya, Mister McKully."

Just as McKully would sit back down, he turned with a surprising agility and jabbed that big dirty finger right back into Balls' chest, smudging his t-shirt which read THE THREE COMMANDMENTS: TITS, CLITS, & ICE COLD SCHLITZ. "Well I don't rightly give a fuck if that's fucked up'a me, boy. I don't like yer face, so's I don't want-cha workin' fer me no more. Now git off my land"—McKully jabbed the finger yet again—"and if you don't like me jammin' my finger in ya... then do somethin' about it."

Balls grinned, hands on hips (a favorite pose). His eyes flicked down once very briefly in the direction of that big Webley pistol sticking in his belt.

McKully laughed. "And don't think I don't see that gun there, boy, but do I look worried? You go ahead and make a move. I'll bitch-slap you with that gun in less time than it takes me to spit. Then I'll pull yer dick off'n give it to my daughter's baby fer a fuckin' pacifier."

"Come on, Balls!" Dicky called out from safe distance. "Let's just go... "

The seat creaked when McKully sat back down.

Balls didn't move. "Just tell me man to man, sir, why you let us run but twennie-five gallons'a shine per run when Dicky's ‘Mino'll hold a hunnert jugs easy?"

McKully wasn't even looking at Balls. He made a checker-move. "It's 'cos you guys ain't got the nuts."

Balls leaned forward, hands still on hips. "Uh, what's that?"

"You fellas ain't bad enough. Bad as in down'n dirty. That kind of bad. Get it?"

"No, sir, I shore as shit don't 'cos, see, me'n Dicky here? We'se the baddest motherfuckers in these here parts, and that you can take to the bank."

McKully waved a hand. "I couldn't take it to the fuckin' toilet," but he pronounced toilet as "toe-lit." "Talkin' it's one thing, boy, walkin' it's another. Shee-it, any asshole with a fast car can outrun the cops on these roads, but I need runners who can do the whole job."

"The whole job?"

"Yeah. Like when the shit hits the fan, I need boys who're willin' to do anythin' to get out of the jam and leave no witnesses."

"Aw, hail," Balls began. "Me'n Dicky, we'se can do—"

McKully's fat hand shot out to silence Balls' protest. He moved another checker. "I need fellas who'll kill." McKully grinned up with the pale green smile. "Boy? You ever kill a man?"

"Shee-it, Mr. McKully. I'se killed me plenty'a men."

"Yeah? How's about women? You ever kilt a woman?"

"Aw, a bunch of times," Balls said, but in truth, at this particular point in Tritt "Balls" Conner's existence, he'd actually killed no one. He'd raped some girls, sure—but they were all asking for it anyway—and he'd jacked out a number of fellas for their green, and he'd even mugged a few old ladies. But the act of murder was one crime not yet on his list of achievements.

Snot honked another nose-shot of snot. "I think yer fulla shit, boy. But I'll'se give ya the benner-fit of the doubt. You lay a good ruckin' on a gal, and I'll hire ya back."

Balls scratched the top of his hat. "A... ruckin'? What's that?"

McKully glared up as if offended. "Shee-it, boy! Yer from the south'n you don't know what a ruckin' is?"

Balls didn't know what to say. "I'se lived my whole life here'n did two years in the Russell County slam, and I ain't never heard'a no ruckin'."

The obese moonshiner seemed disgusted. "Kids," he muttered to himself. "All right, I'll'se tell ya. A ruckin' is when ya snatch yerself a perfectly inner-cent woman and just fuck her all up'n then kill her, fer no reason. That's what a ruckin' is, son."

"Oh," Balls said.

"So that's my deal, boy. If you kill a perfectly inner-cent splittail, without so much as battin' an eye, and real down'n dirty-like, a real hardcore job... then I'll give you'n yer fat buddy a hunnert gallons of ‘shine to run four days a week... and quadruple yer pay."

Balls shrugged nonchalance. "I'll go do it right now and you'll read about it in the paper tomorrow—"

Snot McKully belted a laugh. "Naw, naw, punk. You do it right now, wheres I can see ya do it. I needs you to show me the ruckin' so I know ya got the nuts fer it."

Balls blinked. "Uh, well, okay but... where's I gonna get a splittail?"

McKully whistled. "Pumpkin? Pull that skinny gal out the coop'n drag her over."

Like an automaton, the teenaged girl with greasy hair loped over to the chicken coop, baggy overalls flowing around her frame. She opened a wire-covered hatch, and suddenly Balls thought he heard a muffled mewling sound.

The fuck's he got in there anyways? Balls wondered. Dicky looked grimly on from the El Camino.

From the coop, out flopped an emaciated woman, nude, and with a black rat's nest for hair, wrists and ankles tied. She mewled through a gag of what appeared to be a pair of very soiled men's shorts. Her eyes were huge orbs of terror in the thin face, and she was so skinny her ribs were deep grooves in paste-white flesh. She was ankle-dragged into the center of the clearing by the young blond girl.

"There's yer splittail, son," McKully said.

"Who the fuck is it?" Balls asked.

"Just some gal—an inner-cent gal we caught walkin' through the woods. Had no choice but ta nab her. Cain't have her tellin' the ATF I got a still here, ya know?"

Balls frowned at the trembling, skin-covered skeleton. "She a creeker or somethin'? How she get so dang skinny?"

"Aw, we caught her over a week ago," McKully explained. He took a slug of his own panther piss from a clichéd glass jar. "Couldn't make my mind up what to do with her so's I stuffed her in the chicken coop. Ain't fed her nothin' 'cos I didn't want her shittin' in my coop." McKully fired yet another nose-loogie off to the side, a big one. The young blond girl was already back to filling more jugs, unconcerned by the event taking place.

"Well, boy?" McKully grinned. "Got the belly fer it, or don't'cha?"

"Shee-it... " Balls ruminated on his thoughts, and then it occurred to him that he didn't give jack-fuck about this unfortunate soul at his feet. Innocent? Absolutely! But could Balls really kill her—kill her down and dirty-like? Could he lay a genuine "ruckin'" on her?

Balls' epiphany was now at hand.

"Dicky! Come gimme a hand!"

"Uh, uh, well—"

"Just come on!"

Dicky moseyed over, hands in pockets.

Balls shook his head when an inadvertent glance showed him the baby eating McKully's jettisoned splat of mucus. These really are some crackers here, he thought. Then he whipped out his Buck knife and snapped! it open. He straddled the emaciated woman and cut off her gag.

She wheezed like a kazoo. "Jaysus, Mary'n Joseph lemme go my God please lemme go! I ain't gonna tell no one 'bout the still I'se swear!"

"A‘corse yer not, honey," Balls said.

Starvation had melted her breasts down to nippled flaps. "Cut me loose I'se beggin' ya! I weren't doin' nothin' but walkin' through the woods! Please please please cut me loose!"

Balls cut the rope binding her ankles.

"Oh God bless ya bless ya bless ya!" she wheezed. "Nows cut my hands free'n git me away from that evil man!"

"Shore, baby," Balls said, but then he sat on her belly with his back toward her face. "Dicky! Spread them walkin' sticks wide as ya can!"

The woman shrieked, her body writhing in the dirt beneath Balls' weight. Dicky reluctantly grabbed her ankles and, struggling against an expected resistance, spread her legs.

A great mound of bristly black pubic hair sprouted at her crotch.

"Dang, Dicky. Looks like a hunk'a sod, don't it?"

"Uh, uh, yeah, Balls, it shore does but, ya know, maybe we shouldn't be doin' this," his friend suggested. "She ain't done nobody no harm. This ain't right."

"‘A'course it ain't," and then began cutting down there with his Buck. He inscribed the knife tip around the hairy triangle. Now the woman was really screaming, and Balls found that he liked that sound very much. It seemed delicious and warm and delectable.

Just like the sugar rolls my grandma used to make...

You could say it was with considerable craft that Balls skinned the woman's pubic mound. He held the ragged triangle of fur up for McKully to see, then flung it away. Blood poured from the wound as if from a bucket, and now the woman, all eighty or so pounds of her, managed to buck so hard, the reflex lifted Balls a good six inches off the ground.

"Dang," Dicky muttered.

Balls faced Snot McKully. "Down'n dirty enough fer ya?"

McKully waved a hand. "Aw, that ain't nothin'. I've scalped gals' pussies before, lots of times. That's the kind'a shit I was doin' fer fun when I was a kid."

"Well I'm glad you said that, Mr. McKully, 'cos I'm just warmin' up," and then Balls strode over to the jugging table. A side glance showed him the young blonde now sitting on the ground with her baby, offering it one of those cherry-tomato nipples. The baby sucked like someone at the bottom of a milkshake.

"You shore ya want yer daughter and the baby watchin' this?" he asked McKully.

McKully just waved a dismissive hand.

Balls grabbed a jug of moonshine and strode back over. Now the woman was sort of pinwheeling in the dirt, her screams grinding down.

"Dicky, git me some rope out the ‘Mino."

Dicky stood in half-shock. "What'cha, what'cha need that fer?"

"Just git it!"

Balls uncapped the jug, then—SPLAP!—dumped a plume of 200-proof grain alcohol on the woman's scalped pubis.

The woman shrieked so loud even Balls jumped back a foot.

So he wants a ruckin', huh? Down'n dirty-like, huh? Balls spotted something near a pile of broken planks next to a fermenter: an old-fashioned brace-style manual drill. He snatched it up, not realizing that he'd just been touched by something called innovation. He rolled his eyes walking back to the scene, noticing now that the blond teenager was back to filling jugs, while her baby was playing with the pubic scalp.

Balls straddled the girl again. Her combination of kicks, flails, and screams filled the clearing with a unique dervish of pandemonium. Balls found that he enjoyed the aural effect. "Dicky! I needs ta get this ‘ho simmered down. Sit on her knees."

Dicky frowned but did as he was told. Now the poor girl was pinned to the ground. Balls put a knee on her cheek, squashing her other cheek into the dirt, and then he started cranking away on the brace-drill. It was tough going at first. That auger-bit turned like a barber pole, making a sound sort of like a meat-grinder, and when it finally ate through her skull, he cranked it into her raw brain about an inch. The girl's screams were extraordinary; they sounded more like a bad wheel bearing than any mode of human protestation. But once that bit sunk in an inch, the screams abated, and her maniacal flailings digressed down to a steady, low-grade convulsion.

Balls and Dicky stood up, looking down. Balls smiled. "That shore took some spark out of her, huh?"

"Ya done drilled a hole in her head," Dicky observed with a roiling gut. "But she ain't kicked the bucket. Where'd ya learn that trick?"

"‘Member 'bout a month ago we'se was in the bar watchin' 'bout that Dahmer fella? He took the zing out'a some'a his victims the same way—said so on the news. Figgure if it's good enough fer him, it's good enough fer me, and see?" Balls gestured an opened hand to the convulsant girl. "Works like a charm."

Dicky made every effort to keep his eyes from lingering too long on the girl. Her eyes looked up at them, darted back and forth, and her lips moved but uttered no sound. All she did was lie there and tremble. The 3/8th-inch hole in her head effused surprisingly little blood.

Now the baby, however toothless, was gnawing on the pubic scalp like hairy jerky.

Dicky's eyes beseeched Snot McKully. "How's that fer a ruckin', Mr. McKully?" hoping the fat moonshiner was satisfied by the demonstration.

McKully inspected the unfortunate girl from his seat. "Ain't bad but I've seen better."

Balls guffawed. "What? You think I'm done? Shee-it," and then Balls grabbed that battery brush from the old guy who looked like Larry, and was sitting on the girl's stomach. He tweezed a nipple between his fingers then began to vigorously scour at the flesh with the brush's stiff, iron bristles.

"How's that, baby? Feel good?"

The girl's convulsions heightened again, and Balls found that the sensation against his crotch was pleasurable indeed. When the first nipple had been essentially scoured off, he proceeded to the next. All the while, the girl never uttered a sound. She simply convulsed.

Balls brought his lips down to the bleeding abrasions and began to suck.

Dicky could only wince. "I think ya done rucked her up enough, Balls... "

"Naw. Ya kiddin' me?" Red-mouthed, then, Balls got back up and grabbed the rope that Dicky had brought from the vehicle. McKully watched raptly as the girl's ankles were tied to a nearby tree. Then Balls cut another length. "Git in the ‘Mino and start her up, Dicky."

"Whuh—what?"

"Go on!"

Dicky shuffled back to the El Camino and started up the hefty 427 big block.

Balls made a noose out of one end of the rope and secured it around the girl's neck, then secured the other end to the ‘Mino's trailer hitch. She was still alive but beginning to bleed out.

"Okay, Dicky-Boy! Let the clutch out! Slow!"

The ‘Mino's engine revved once, then Dicky slid the Hurst into first. The car chugged forward a few inches at a time, eventually taking up the rope's slack, and when there was no slack left at all, the girl's emaciated frame stretched fully out and rose from the ground.

"Keep goin', Dicky!" Balls called out over the engine-noise. "Nice'n slow!"

The girl's eye bugged, her frog-belly-white face going first pink, then heather- blue. Her tongue stuck straight out, then—POP!—a vertebra in her neck gave way. Dicky kept inching the ‘Mino forward while the neck stretched like a column of pale taffy. Balls clapped, amused, when the neck stretched out past a foot. The baby watched with a mild curiosity, until—

POP!

—her head snapped off and her body thumped to the ground.

"Good job, Dicky! Shut ‘er down!"

McKully nodded approval. "Gots to admit, boy. That there was a dang fine ruckin'."

Balls cut the corpse's ankles free with the Buck, then shot McKully an exaggerated look of dismay. "Well, I'se hope you don't think that's it, Mr. McKully. You don't think I went ta all this trouble to call it quits ‘fore I have me some real fun, do ya?"

"Well, seein' that you just scalped her pussy, drilled a hole in her skull, and popped her head off, it don't look to me like there's much more you can do."

"Shee-it," Balls grinned.

Dicky leaned against the ‘Mino's tailgate, his face going ever paler as he watched Balls flip the corpse over and part the very dead legs.

Balls dropped his jeans and found an erection hard as a glass-cutter sprouting from his groin. He got on his knees, spread the corpse's buttocks, and spat. When his penis sunk in, his eyes rolled back in the most potent wave of ecstacy, and he proceeded to hump the lifeless rectum with gusto. Aw, shit, that's good...  His grin flashed back to McKully, who was actually raising a brow. "See, Mr. McKully, there cain't be no doubt in yer mind that we can do the job, see? I'm fuckin' a headless corpse in the ass, after all. That sounds pretty down'n dirty ta me."

"I ain't denyin' it, son."

"I mean, I want'ja to know that I walk it like I talk it."

"That you do... "

"I wouldn't want you ta have no reservations 'bout me'n Dicky not bein' bad enough ta work for ya."

"Ya done proved yer point, son," McKully said.

Yeah? Balls thought, and then on the next stroke, his orgasm stunned him. His own rectum felt like it was trying to take a breath as his penis dumped a half-dozen big belts of sperm.

Balls gulped and collapsed on the corpse's back, exhausted, and at once he felt the full force of his epiphany and the ultimate revelation of his newfound calling...

That was the best nut of my LIFE...

He pulled his jeans back up, then dusted off his hands. Now his grin toward McKully sharpened to a cunning glare. "Down'n dirty enough for ya, Mr. McKully?"

"I'd say so."

"Hardcore enough?"

"All right, boy, now don't git cocky. I just done admitted ya proved me wrong. Yer badder than I thought. Yer hardcore."

"Good," Balls gloated. "So's just you watch this... "

Even McKully looked appalled now. Balls kneeled back between the corpse's legs and spread the buttocks wide. Then—

"Aw, no, son!" McKully objected. "Don't do that! Ya done proved yer point!"

Balls wedged his face right into the corpse's ass-crack, guttering muffled laughter, and then planted his lips in a tight circle around the sullied rectum...

And sucked.

He sucked hard, good and hard.

Of course, the girl hadn't been fed in a week, so there wasn't much in the way of fecal matter down there, but there was plenty of pasty, tacky, revolting stink, and there was plenty of something else as well: Balls' semen.

Balls sucked it all out of her ass right into his mouth. McKully, Dicky, the blond girl, and even the baby stared open-mouthed.

Balls rose. He picked up the severed head, then spat his own sperm into the dead girl's lips.

He cast the head aside and grinned right at McKully.

"Now that, Mr. McKully, is how Tritt Balls Conner puts a ruckin' on a gal."

(II)

This is how much of his new novel the Writer had completed in a month's time:

WHITE TRASH GOTHIC

CHAPTER ONE

There was a knock at the door. When Nikoff Raskol opened it, he

That was it. The Writer stared at the lone page in the Remington Model No. 2, dismayed. One and a half damn sentences in a month? Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in three days! But when the Writer scrutinized that sentence and a half—really just one independent clause, and a prepositional clause, he saw no falseness in it. Time means nothing to true art, he reminded himself. He was one of a privileged lot: a full-time fiction writer. Percy Shelley didn't rush Prometheus Unbound, and Eliot didn't rush Prufrock...  And wasn't it Flaubert who said that not only was it the author's luxury to spend the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon taking it out, it was also his obligation?

Yes, the Writer was certain of it.

"That's enough work for today," he talked to himself and stood up and stretched. He lit a cigarette, opening the shade to let his gaze plummet down to the moonlit junkyard. Small animals which he presumed were rats scurried about the debris, and he could swear the dog defecating next to a junked car was the same dog he's seen doing the same his very first night. A bum staggered about, then plopped down by a heap of trash, opened a bottle of something. After several chugs, he tilted his head, vomited, then continued to imbibe.

Real life, the Writer thought with some satisfaction. Ideology reduced to material elements and physiological addictions contrary to the ethereal pursuit. Biological mechanism versus determinism...

Of course, the word "addiction" was subject to interpretation.

He went to the bathroom, then, and considered his use of the name Nikoff Raskol—the protagonist for his novel—and wondered if it were too obvious a reversion of Dostoevsky's protagonist in Crime and Punishment, the greatest fictional work of existential enlightenment in the history of the written word. Might critics think it trite? The Writer urinated mightily. No. Of course not. Great painters often paid homage to their contemporaries by ingeminating authoritative themes. He flushed the toilet and smiled, knowing beyond all doubt that White Trash Gothic would herald him as the Dostoevsky of the modern age of literature.

He turned on the old radio, which always drifted off the only classical station he could find. "Jaysus WANTS you to drive fine cars!" an evangelist trumpeted, "because it's Jaysus who rewards the faithful so long as you remember the importance of charity and leave those fine cars to the church in your wills!" The dial pushed through static, then he caught a snippet of moody slide guitars and a man singing, "I will fuck you until you die, bury you and kiss this town goodbye!" The Writer winced—Gracious!— finnicked further, then stumbled on insipid hard rock and some sports stations before he found the following manic voice-warble, asserting, "I could be Raskolnikov, but Mother Nature RIPPED me off!"

Portents in the wind, he thought, emboldened by the coincidence. Surely it's a sign of Dante's Sisters of the Heavenly Spring, whispering their approval in my ear...

Then:

I deserve a drink!

He left and locked his room, only to turn into a burst of commotion. "Gimme that, you ‘ho!" a chubby blonde girl in holey lingerie snapped at a chubby brunette in holey lingerie: "Fuck you, Irene! It's mine!" and, of course, she pronounced mine as "man." The pair were playing tug-of-war with a box about the size of a box of aluminum foil. The Writer squinted, noticing the words AS SEEN ON TV! printed on the box.

"It ain't yers!" wailed the blonde. Her breasts and a belly of baby fat bounced. "It's both ours!"

"Well I'se usin' it now, so's you kin grow a dick'n blow yerself!" but then both girls looked with alarm at the Writer. Their eyes shot wide and their argument abated.

"Shhh!" whispered the blonde. "It's that famous writer fella! Mrs. Gilman said she'd kick any girl out the house if'n we disturb him."

"Oh, you're not disturbing me," the Writer ingratiated them. "But harsh words and un-civil gestures are no way to solve a disagreement. What is that, anyway?"

The blonde handed him the box, which the Writer took after a quick visual surveillance of the large and mostly visible breasts buoyed up in a lacy brassiere. Then he frowned uncomprehending as he turned the long box around in his hands. NOT AVAILABLE IN STORES! it claimed. The top read WONKO KITCHEN PRODUCTS: THERM-O-FRESH FOOD SAVING SYSTEM! It was one of those kitchen gadgets for keeping leftovers fresh for longer.

In the Writer's head he made a rare departure from his avoidance of profanity: Why the fuck are two backwoods hookers fighting over THIS? though he didn't feel inclined to ask. "Flipping a coin seems the most fair manner by which to solve your discrepancy, hmm?"

Both girls begrudgingly nodded.

The Writer produced a quarter. "You call it," he said to the blonde and flipped.

"Heads!" the blonde snapped.

"Aw, you poop-eater, Stacy," sniped the brunette when the Writer caught the coin and showed heads. She thumped off to another room.

The blonde had won the box. "Thanks!"

The Writer figured it out: She must have children, and wants to stretch her food budget by saving leftovers.

"So what'cha write about, Mr. Writer?" she asked in a bouncy enthusiasm.

The Writer tried not to groan. "Fluctuations of the human condition in an ever-evolving—or de-volving age. I symbolize the tenets of post-Sartrean existentialism in the lives of characters in fiction."

She looked crosseyed at him. "Is that, like, havin' folks in a story that's made up do real things like what folks in real life experience?"

"Well, actually, yes."

"Aw, cool! So if'n ever ya wanna fuck me 'cos ya got someone in a story fuckin' an' you cain't remember what that's like, just you knock on my door. And all I'se'll charge ya is ten bucks!"

The Writer was flabbergasted. "Uh, well, I just might do that if I need to reflect that aspect of the human condition in my work."

"Good! ‘Bye!" but, of course, she pronounced ‘bye as "baa!"

Depressed now, the Writer left the house and proceeded at once to the Crossroads, to drink with the gusto of Hemingway...

(III)

Needless to say, McKully rehired Balls and Dicky, upped their twenty-five-gallon runs to a hundred, and quadrupled their pay—and with the jaded event came the actualization—the epiphany—that would forge the true meaning of their destinies. They ran liquor for another man, as well, a man named Clyde Nale. What they each earned on a weekly basis was a fair shake of money, solid remuneration for two young dropouts in an economically wasted town. Balls and Dicky, hence, were a unique pair in Luntville: they were successful.

But Balls, since the genesis of his epiphany, wasn't satisfied with one-dimensional success...

That night, the El Camino cruised smoothly down dark, winding roads. They'd just finished dropping off a load of moonshine in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and now it was time to relax. Each had a beer between their legs and a smile on their face.

"Dang good day, Dicky," Balls remarked, his long hair billowing in the breeze from the open window.

"That it was, Balls," Dicky replied.

Balls went to wipe a booger when Dicky wasn't looking, but after doing so his fingers touched a small pile of odd plastic strips under the ‘Mino's seat. The hail? "Hey, Dicky? What're these here funny thangs?" and then he held one up. "Come ta think of it, they look familiar... "

"Huh?" Dicky replied, squinting over.

"Oh, I know what these are," Balls finally said. "They're Flex-Cuffs, ain't they?"

"Oh, yeah... "

Balls nodded in the moonlight as the stars streamed by the open window. "The bulls used these things on us whenever they'd transport convicts to another block." Next, Balls' lips pursed. "But, Dicky... What'choo need Flex-Cuffs fer?"

"Aw, see, my Uncle Marty works the state penn, he brings home boxes of 'em. It's always good ta have some in the car in case ya need ta pole-tie a deer. It's the fastest way ta truss 'em up if'n you're out poachin'."

Balls thought about that and found the idea to be quite innovative. But then, in a mental jag, it wasn't a deer he saw pole-tied in his mind's eye, it was a naked woman. Or better yet, Flex-Cuff her wrists'n hook 'em over a broken branch-end stickin' out of a tree. Then git ta workin' on her nice'n slow with the manual drill, right in the breadbasket...

Dicky was chuckling. "Shee-it, my Uncle Marty's got it made workin' up at that place."

"The state slam?"

"Aw, yeah, man. Decent pay and benner-fits, plus he's kin git a blowjob anytime he wants and alls it costs is a quarter."

Balls thought about that, eyes thinned. "Oh, you mean from the female cons on the women's block."

Dicky paused for a number of moments, then blurted. "A'course! What'cha think I meant? From dudes? Shee-it."

Balls wondered but dismissed it. Suddenly he was thinking what it would be like to stick a spoon down a woman's throat in order to make her vomit while simultaneously engaged in the act of intercourse...

"But'cha knows what?" Dicky blathered. "I was thinkin'. Since we'se been runnin' ‘shine? I'll'se bet we make more scratch than dang near anyone in all'a Luntville."

In Balls' mind, he was now making the woman drown in the vomit... "Huh? Oh, yeah, Dicky, I'll bet we do, buts ya know we'se'll be makin' even more real soon. You ain't fergot 'bout Crafter's house, now have ya?"

Dicky thought behind the wheel. "Aw, yeah. That fella on Governor's Bridge Road."

"Right. And it ain't but a couple'a days ‘fore he goes to Spain."

"Then we'se'll really be loaded, after heistin' all that fancy jewelry he's got."

"And other stuff, too, like really old statues'n furniture. Bud Tooler tolt me Crafter even had dinner plates made'a gold."

"Shee-it!" Dicky whispered.

"Yeah, man. So what's our schedule lookin' like?"

Dicky put on his Thinking Cap, which took a while. "Uh, let's see, I'se think tomorrow we got a full run for Clyde Nale, and day after a run'a piece for McKully'n Nale. And day after that... we'se off."

"That's dandier than a double-blowjob from underage twins, Dicky-Boy. So's figgure night after tomorrow, we do the job'n fence the shit in Pulaski the next day."

"Solid."

Dicky drove on through the wooded night, thinking sweet thoughts of all that money they'd have soon. Balls' thoughts, however, remained not so sweet. Now he dredged up the delicious memory of that rucking he'd pulled at McKully's, and recalled the accelerated intensity of his orgasm when he'd sodomized the hill girl once she was headless. He focused on the recollection, like a scientist focusing a powerful microscope, and he re-lived the rush he'd gotten whilst scalping her pubis. He relished the remembrance of the minute and indefinable sound that the battery brush had made when he'd been scouring off her nipples...

And a moment later his maladapted synapses were firing impulses into his libidinal system, and in less time than it would've taken him to say the word "pathological," his penis thudded within the confines of his jeans, painfully erect.

As he luxuriated in these thoughts, he was pap-pap-papping his homemade blackjack into an opened palm...

"What's that?" Dicky inquired.

Balls blinked out of his distraction. "Huh? Oh, this? Ain't nothin' but my jack. Found it in a box'a junk at my Daddy's house. I made it myself when I'se was a little kid, I did. Alls ya do is screw a fishing weight inta the top of a screen-door spring, then ya wrap it up in ‘lecktrical tape." Pap-pap-pap. "Kind'a neat, I'd say. Figgure I'll carry it ‘round in case of a emergency."

Dicky's corpulent face screwed up. "What'cha need a dang blackjack fer when ya got that big ole pistol in yer belt?"

"A quiet-type of emergency, Dicky."

"Oh... But, hey, you ever really use it on anyone?"

Balls' cheeks billowed as he scoffed. "Shee-it, Dicky, you kiddin' me? I'se jacked dozens of fellas out with this here jack, and a lots of 'em was really big fellas too, I'se kin tell ya. Some turd give me a hard time? I just pop him one in the noggin and he's lights out. Then, a'course, I take his green."

"Wow," Dicky responded, impressed.

Naturally, everything Balls had said was a lie. He'd never struck anyone with his homemade blackjack—only neighborhood cats as a child.

But now? Since his epiphany?

"Where we at now, Dicky?" Balls asked. The 'Mino was cruising through another drab, rundown little town. Most shops stood closed, and no other traffic could be seen.

"Waynesville. Don't'cha worry none, Balls. Won't be more'n ten minutes'n we'll be pullin' inta the Crossroads."

Now, for some unidentifiable reason, Balls scanned the streets more intently, as if looking for something in particular... When they turned a corner, though, he saw a small, dented sedan parked in the front lot of a Peoples Drug Store. It was the only car in the lot, and in the back sat several young children. A haggard fortyish woman with a beehive hairdo was walking away from the store carrying two bags.

"Pull inta this drug store, Dicky. I gots ta pee."

Dicky frowned. "Ya cain't wait ten minutes?"

"I ain't peed in two or three hours, man, and I'se already done drunk a six-pack. My piss-bag's full, brother. Just pull in."

Dicky did so, then Balls jumped out, but instead of heading toward the store... he headed toward the sedan. He leaned over and smiled into the back seat, where three little girls sat huddled.

"Howdy, girls! What'cha all doin' this fine night?"

The little girls exchanged wide-eyed glances, then one peeped, "We'se havin' a pajama party so's my ma's gettin' us some sodas and cheese doodles."

"Well, that sounds like a lot'a fun!"

Just then the woman rushed up to the car. "Who're you? What'choo doin' talkin' to my kids! Just you get out'a here!"

"Aw, ma'am, I'se was just sayin' hi," Balls replied and—smack!—hit her right in the forehead with his blackjack. She collapsed, instantly unconscious, while the little girls in the backseat burst into a round of ear-piercing shrieks.

Balls whipped out his penis and wasted no time in relieving the volume of his bladder. He fired the hot, yard-long stream right into the back seat, swaying back and forth across the horrified little chipmunk faces. The little girls shrieked like referee whistles.

Balls zipped up quick, snagged the woman's purse and a bag of cheese doodles, then jogged back to the El Camino.

"Holy shit, Balls!" Dicky yelled when his cohort jumped back in. "What the fuck?"

"Drive, Dicky! Drive!"

Dicky dumped the ‘Mino's clutch and pulled a 450-horsepower hole-shot out of the parking lot. Tires screamed, rubber burned, and the engine's roar fractured the night. Dicky careened out, then lead-footed it off the main drag.

Balls cackled laughter.

"Jaysus Chrast, Balls! You just jacked a lady out and peed on her kids!"

"Yeah. Cool, huh?"

Dicky's face darkened with rage. "Someone could'a seen! What if a cop drove by when you was pullin' that stunt?"

"Aw, shee-it, Dicky. The parkin' lot was empty and there weren't another car on the street. Relax."

"Relax?"

Dicky sped as far away from the incident as he could without dumping the car. Within minutes they were cruising through more winding, dark roads through the woods.

The dashboard lights tinted Balls' grinning face. He rooted through the woman's purse, snatched up some bills, then threw the rest out the window. "Dang! That beat bitch had sixty bucks on her."

"Fuck, Balls!" Dicky continued to bellow. "What the FUCK did'ja do that fer?"

Balls shook his head. "I don't rightly know, Dicky. It just come inta my head to do it. ‘Sides, I had ta pee bad and I'se thought it might be interestin' to do it on them little girls."

"Interestin'! We could get throwed in jail fer that! And you's on fuckin' parole anyway!"

"Aw, ferget it." Balls busted open the bag. "Here. Have a cheese doodle."

"I don't want no fuckin' cheese doodle!" Dicky glared in disbelief. "You are crazy, man! Crazy!"

Balls sat back, munching contemplatively. "Naw, Dicky. I ain't crazy." He smiled out the window, into the endless night. "I'se just followin' my nature... "

(IV)

The Writer left the Crossroads—fairly drunk—in the vicinity of midnight. Just as he shuffled across the gravel parking lot, he was given a start by a sudden avalanche of noise, a great, clamorous chugging that reminded him of one of those ridiculous four-engine powerboats pulling up to a dock. But this was no boat, it was a vintage black El Camino. The Writer sighed in relief when the engine racket severed. It should be against the law for cars to be that loud...  Two figures disembarked amid the shadows. The Writer heard some quick redneck dialect: "Aw, shee-it, Dicky! Yous should'a seen their faces when I'se was hosin' 'em down with my kidney juice! Oooo-eee!" Then the figures entered the bar.

Kidney juice? the Writer thought.

The moon watched him through gnarled trees when he took the narrow road out of the woods to the main street. Did he hear a wolf howl? No. Power of suggestion. Crickets trilled in a palpable throb; he thought of old Tangerine Dream records. Damn. Cigarettes, he reminded himself, and turned with some trepidation toward the Qwik-Mart. Out front a man in a suit and tie was getting into what appeared to be a Rolls Royce; the Writer immediately noted that the man had inadvertently placed his wallet on top of the car when he'd extracted his keys, then forgot to reclaim it when he got behind the wheel. He backed out and began to pull away, and the wallet slid off the car onto the pavement.

"Hey! Wait!" the Writer called out. He jogged over. At least a dozen credit cards and various ID's had slid out of the wallet as well. He scooped them all up and jogged over. The car idled at the exit, a man looking out.

"Yes?"

"You left your wallet on the car and it fell off."

The debonair-looking driver frowned at himself. "I must have left my wits at home today. How stupid of me."

"Some of your credit cards slipped out but I picked them up," the Writer said, and handed it all over to the well-groomed older man.

"Honesty is such a rare commodity these days. You're one of a choice few, and you have my thanks." Then the man handed the Writer a $100 bill.

"Oh, really, sir, I couldn't—"

"Take it, with my compliments... " The man's face seemed to darken as he smiled. "What a tenuous power... The power of truth... "

The Writer stared as the Rolls Royce drove off.

The comment unnerved him, even though he knew it to be sheer coincidence. But then his shoulders slumped as he headed back for the store. A lone credit card lay in the parking lot. Damn, I missed one. The Rolls Royce was long gone now. He pocketed the card and resolved to call the 1-800 number on the back tomorrow.

In the store a tall young man with a shaved head was buying several cans of refried beans and jalapeno peppers. He wore a swastika earring, and had a tattoo on a bulging deltoid which read: ARYAN NATION. Was the man whistling "The Sound of Music" when he left?

"You again," the visored, old proprietor greeted. "The Writer."

"It's good to see you, sir."

"Shee-it. You 'bout done with this fancy book'a yers?"

I've only written one and a half sentences...  "It's coming along. Rome wasn't built in a day, you know."

"Rome, huh? My brother fought the Germans in Italy. After they up'n killed everything that moved, they went on leave to fuckin' Rome. Said ya needed a clothespin on yer nose to fuck the whores."

"How... elucidating," the Writer remarked.

The proprietor snorted. "Said the whores in Rome were the hairiest whores he ever done seen. Even hairier than the krauts."

"Hmm. Hirsute prostitutes... "

The proprietor frowned. "Said they had so much hair under their arms you'd have thought they had the Black Panthers in a fuckin' headlock."

The Writer stood speechless.

"Ya ever read the shortest book ever written?"

"What's that?" the Writer had to ask.

"The History of Italian War Heroes!" and the proprietor slapped his knees and guffawed out loud. Then he began walking toward a rear door.

"Uh, sir?" The Writer raised a finger. "I was going to buy something, and I'm rather in a hurry... "

The proprietor glared. "I gotta take a shit! Do ya mind? Or I guess ya think that 'cos you're the customer, I gotta shit my pants 'cos you're rather in a hurry! Fuck!"

The man's cane tapped the floor as he disappeared.

I love this place, the Writer thought. He browsed the aisles, and took several Three Musketeers to the counter. A small television squawked next to the cigar rack. The Writer's eyes bloomed...

"Don't throw those leftovers away!" spoke an animated voiceover as a Donna Reed-looking housewife dumped a plate of food into a kitchen wastebasket. "Now you can save hundreds, even thousands of dollars a year with the amazing, new Therm-O-Fresh!" Now the housewife emptied another plate of food into a plastic bag. "You can freeze it, you can boil it, you can microwave it! Now your leftovers will taste as fresh as the day you bought them when you use the Therm-O-Fresh Food Saving System!" The housewife slipped a plastic tube into the bag, then pushed a button on a machine about the size of a box of aluminum foil. The plastic bag collapsed, as the tube sucked all the air out of it. "The Therm-O-Fresh patented one-touch vacuum instantly removes all the air from your valuable leftovers, then seals the storage bag in seconds." Next the edge of the bag was placed in a groove on the machine which heat-sealed it shut. Donna Reed was amazed.

That's the thing the two girls were fighting over at the motel, the Writer realized.

"Keep nuts, cookies, pretzels, even potato chips fresh as the day you bought them! The Therm-O-Fresh System includes five specially-designed jars with air-lock tops that you can use over and over again!" Now, the housewife stuck the tube into a valve of some sort on top of a jar full of popcorn. "Watch what our patented lifetime-guaranteed industrial-strength vacuum does to this popcorn!" She pushed the button and the popcorn collapsed like magic in the jar. "Not available in stores! Call now while supplies last! Get the patented Therm-O-Fresh Food Saving System for just four easy payments of $49.95. That's right, just $49.95! And if you call within the next ten minutes, you'll receive a year's supply of patented Therm-O-Fresh vacuum bags absolutely free!"

"Ain't that some shit?" the proprietor returned, glaring at the TV. "Fuckin' Red China's buildin' a hunnert nukes a day to shoot at us, and all we're makin' is a bunch'a fuckin' Chia Pets'n these goddamn Cabbage Patch dolls'n some fuckin' shit called Windows 3.0! What's the country comin' to?"

"I couldn't hazard a speculation," the Writer said, "but I would like a carton of generic lights."

"Fuck! You could at least buy Marlboros... "

When the old crank rang up the purchase, the Writer handed him the $100 bill from the Rolls Royce guy.

"Do I look like the fuckin' U.S. Treasury? I cain't break that!"

Now the Writer fumbled with his ankle-wallet, and put down a twenty.

"Shee-it." The proprietor slapped the change down on the counter.

The Writer sighed. I come in here every week...  He slid two quarters over. "And a bag, please."

"Jesus! One dollar!"

The Writer winced but paid nonetheless. "Have a pleasant evening."

"A pleasant evening? You shittin' me? My hemorrhoids itch so bad I could run a fuckin' cactus through my crack!"

The Writer took long strides out of the store, just as a half-dozen Hispanics entered. The old man could be heard in the background even after the door closed. "What is this? The fuckin' Alamo?"

The Writer contemplated Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury as he walked back to the Gilman House. How clever of the Mississippi Nobel Prize winner to title his novel from a line in Shakespeare's Macbeth. The Writer recited the ironic lines with each step back to the whorehouse: Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing...

Indeed, the "idiot's" view of the world proved the most truthful...

The previous chorus of crickets was absent now, leaving dead-silence to hover through the night. At the front drive, he noticed Mrs. Gilman's mailbox hanging open; three long boxes were inside along with several envelopes. He gathered it all up and went inside.

"Well, hey there, Mr. Writer!" greeted—if a bit loudly—Mrs. Gilman behind the check-in desk. "How was your nightly walk?" but naturally she pronounced the word nightly as "nat-lee."

""It was wonderful, Mrs. Gilman... "

Three chunky prostitutes in lingerie stood up at the desk as well, a redhead, a blonde, and a brunette. They all had big silly grins on their faces.

"You mean yer nightly walk home from the bar, huh, Mr. Writer?" jibed the red-head.

"I must confess," the Writer chuckled, but only now did it occur to him that he must reek of beer-breath.

"Probably lookin' to git lucky," said the blonde, "but the Crossroads ain't no place to git lucky. All them skanky gals they got up there?"

The brunette batted her eyes. She would've had a great smile were it not for the missing incisor. "Right here's the place to git lucky, ‘specially fer a handsome, rich writer like you."

The Writer sighed. "Really, I'm not that—"

"What's all that?" Mrs. Gilman asked, pointing to the parcels under his arm.

"Oh, the mail. I noticed the post box was full when I was walking up."

All three of the younger girls perked up when they noticed the three long boxes under his arm. "Any'a them boxes fer me?" asked the red-head. "Or me?" added the blonde. "I'se expectin' somethin'." "Me too!" exclaimed the brunette.

"Well, let's see," and the Writer began to read the address labels on each box. "Nyna Rhodes... "

The red-head's hand shot up. "That's me!"

"Anita Gonzales... "

The brunette beamed.

"Beatrice Mullins."

The blonde raised her hand, bouncing up and down. The Writer distributed the boxes, then gave Mrs. Gilman the rest of the mail. "Probably just bills for you, Mrs. Gilman."

"Like death'n taxes," but then she paused. "‘Cept I don't really pay no taxes to speak of. But I reckon I'll be payin' lots more once this Arkansas shyster gets in the White House. Kin you believe the news says he's gonna win?"

"I'm an apolitical writer," the Writer said. "I have no opinion... "

The blonde and red-head ran up the stairs with their boxes, excited as children who'd just been given a surprise. The brunette remained, however, opening her box at the desk. "Oh, I just so hope this is it!" she gibbered.

The girl squealed with delight. The Writer did a double-take. The box read WONKO KITCHEN PRODUCTS: THERM-O-FRESH FOOD SAVING SYSTEM.

"I'se gonna go use mine right now, I am!" she celebrated and scampered up the stairs.

"These girls," Mrs. Gilman said, shaking her head with a smile.

The Writer looked hard at her. "Mrs. Gilman? Why on earth would girls such as these spend two hundred dollars apiece on those—"

The phone rang, truncating the rest of the Writer's query.

"Oh hi, Doris, dear! And how are you today?"

The Writer could feel a long conversation coming so he drifted upstairs. He counted thirteen steps to the landing. What would happen if, say, tomorrow I walk up these same steps, but there are fourteen? And the next day fifteen? And sixteen the day after that?

It must be a slow night; very few bedsprings were heard, but he did hear someone say "Who's your daddy?" but he was sure it was a woman's voice.

He passed a door half-open, unconsciously looked in, then gaped.

"Haa! Come on in!"

It was Nancy, and the reason for the Writer's gape was due to the fact that Nancy was sitting hunched on her bed, one hundred percent naked. Oh, dear, he thought.

Her perfect breasts, however badly tattooed, depended from the pose; she was leaning over painting her toenails. Every contour of her physique seemed to exist without perceptible defect. Redneck paragon... A physical pattern of excellence. Shakespeare could write a pastoral verse-sequence about her, in octosyllabic couplets...

"How do my toesies look?" she asked, then stuck her long legs out.

"Preeminent," the Writer droned.

"Does... that mean good?"

"Yes." Like slow syrup, his gaze drooled down the legs to the adorable bald triangle of creases betwixt them. Even inclined on her elbows, her stomach showed not even an inkling of a ridge.

Though touched upon previously, it must be stated in full now that the Writer was—and had been for a number of years—a self-imposed celibate. It was the sexual angst he craved, that strange edge of need unrelieved. He knew that it's what his Muse demanded: to stare into the promise of la petite-morte only to have it sift through his fingers like so much proverbial sand. Monks did it, priests did it, even Jesus Christ did it, and the Writer figured that if he could imitate just one facet of them, then his writing would be charged by the same verity that charged their systems of faith. But even in his abstinence, however, he was allowed to look. As a Writer, he was a seeker, and hence, a seer. If the human self was the only thing that could be known and therefore verified, everything that that same self saw was verifiable as well.

His penis swelled in his pants to the extent that it felt like a hamster that had died and entered rigor mortis.

"So what'cha doin' tonight?" she asked, rocking her feet.

His teeth ground as the realities bled through the ideal. The atrocious tattoos turned her into a desecrated icon. His autograph was still in plain sight above the "Smiley Face" with a nipple for a nose.

"I was doing my Dylan Thomas imitation," he said.

"Huh?"

"Drinking a lot."

She giggled. "Oh, I heard you hang out up the Crossroads." Her eyes went wide in a hopeful recollection. "I gang-banged ten fellas there once fer ten bucks a piece. Next time you're there, look fer the dark spot by the corner pocket. That's me."

The Writer stood speechless.

"So who's this villain yer talkin' 'bout? His name's Thomas?"

Whuh... "Oh, no, not villain. Dylan. Dylan Thomas. I was making a quip. He was arguably the century's greatest poet in the English language—he wrote Deaths and Entrances. He was what they call a ‘biblical symbolist.'"

Nancy's angelic face showed recognition. "I gots me a step-brother who plays cymbals—and drums, too."

"No, no, Dylan Thomas' best verse juxtaposed the exuberance of faith in God, with the cruciality of our need to redeem ourselves for our sexual sins."

Her peaches-and-cream tits bounced when she giggled again. "Oh. I guess I'se need ta read him!"

"But I was actually joking in my preliminary reference. He was a big drinker," the Writer explained. "I'm sure it was just an excuse for his alcoholism, but he would regularly contend no matter how much alcohol he consumed, he could prevent himself from getting drunk merely by thinking."

"Thankin'?" the prostitute queried.

"Yes. He believed that alcohol accelerated the quality of his creativity, so he would drink but by the force of his mind, not allow himself to get drunk." He was also an oaf and an oddball, who died from alcohol poisoning, but the Writer neglected to mention these facts.

"Just by thankin'," Nancy uttered amazed.

"Oh, yes. The human mind is quite a powerful thing, the sheer force of will."

"But'cha know?" Her face lit up. "I'se kin do somethin' with my mind! Wanna see?"

All those beers were finally sinking in. The Writer was wobbling a bit in place. "Uh, well, I really should be go—"

"Just you watch!" she advised, and adjusted her pose. She leaned up on her arms, and parted her creamy thighs with her knees bent over the bed's edge. "Watch my titties'n cunny... "

Well, I know what titties are, the Writer thought. And I presume that "cunny" is a vaginal reference...  "Um, sure."

Nancy closed her eyes and leaned her head back. A delectable pink tongue glazed her lips, and she began taking slow, deep breaths though her nose. She was obviously concentrating on something with great focus. The trim stomach moved slowly in and out and, next, she was moaning ever so lightly.

The Writer's gaze switched from her breasts to her crotch, then back to her breasts. And what breasts they are, he had to note. His drunkenness began to struggle with his stubborn celibacy, as his loins began to percolate quite like a coffee pot. His gaze fixed on the nipples, pink as her tongue and roughly the size of silver dollars but then—

Hmm...

The nipples began to increase in size, a fascinating transformation, like a dried sponge dropped in water, until they'd grown to a circumference of the bottom of a soup can. Even the breasts themselves seemed to gain girth, blood vessels presumably dilating by the command of her brain. Could he even see the gentle blue ghost-lines of veins pumping more blood into the coveted tissue? My God, the Writer thought. And not only did the areolae grow in circumference; they also grew in depth, until they stuck out like pink macaroons.

And when the Writer looked between her legs—

Gracious!

The pea-sized clitoris has transmogrified into a drunkard's nose.

"There!" Nancy celebrated. "How ya like that?"

"You are woman not only of description-defying beauty, but one also of applaudable talent."

She unconsciously tweezed her papillas, which were now the size of those mini-marshmallows, strawberry-flavored, of course. "And I'se done it just by thankin.'"

"Proof of the mind's power, indeed," but the Writer had to keep wincing away from the tumid attributes.

She grinned coyly. "Wanna know whats I was thankin' 'bout?"

"Uh, well... "

"I was thankin' 'bout you fistin' my cunny'n jerkin' yer peter off on my stomach, I was. Then just rubbin' all that warm cum all over my skin... "

"My, oh my... "

Now her bare foot trailed up the inside of the Writer's leg, and suddenly the toes were wriggling like an old Magic-Fingers over his crotch. The Writer felt his penis urp up an instantaneous effusion of pre-ejaculatory fluid.

"It's a real slow night," she pointed out. "And I ain't got another trick fer another half hour... "

The Writer knew an embarrassing wet spot was surely forming against his pants. He stepped back, careful not to stagger. "Really, I must be going."

"Aw, yeah," she said, disheartened. "Guess ya gots to git back to work on yer book—"

"Yes, yes, but have a good n—" and before he could bid her a good night, a side-glance showed him something familiar on her dresser.

It was a Therm-O-Fresh Food Saving System.

Very slowly, the Writer's gaze lolled back to the young prostitute. "Hey, Nancy. Why do you have that Therm-O-Fresh machine?"

"Aw, we'se all have one," she told him, nonchalant. "They're fer—" but then, of course, the phone rang.

The Writer groaned.

"Oh, hi, Grandma," Nancy said cheerily into the phone. "Naw, kind'a slow tonight, only had three tricks so far, and two of 'em were blowjobs. But then there was this one fella comes in sometimes'n pays me fifty ta put it in my backside... Oh, yeah, but you'n ma was right—this is a great way ta make a livin'. I'se so happy I took yer advice."

The Writer retreated from the room and closed the door.

His entire groin throbbed. How many years had it been since he'd masturbated? I cannot, I MUST NOT allow myself to succumb to primitivistic lust! he ordered himself. In order to be the best writer I CAN be, I must deprive myself of this volition-stealing vice, just as Salvador Dali accelerated his creative visions by depriving himself of sleep... There was too much stimulus around here, all these pretty prostitutes. I don't need to see any more of them tonight.

Just as he would enter his room, the plush blonde from downstairs exited the adjacent room with a look of need on her face. Grapefruit breasts sat in fishnet bra-cups like dainty hammocks.

"Beatrice, isn't it?" the Writer recalled.

"Yeah, but see me'n Anita gotta share a room'n right now she's got a trick. You mind if I use yer bathroom?"

What could he say? It won't take long...  "Of course, Beatrice. Come right in."

He watched the white rump bounce in see-through, black panties, and when she turned, the dark tuft of pubic hair was all-too-apparent, poofing out the sheer material of the front.

She giggled. "You kin watch if'n ya want," and then she strode briskly into the bathroom.

There was no logical reason to want to watch a woman go to the bathroom; nevertheless, the Writer—much to his displeasure—was hijacked by the primitive male curiosity that was probably a mental mechanism similar to that which causes people to peer at car wrecks or dead animals in the road. After a few moments of deliberation, and as delicately as possible, the Writer stepped into the bathroom.

What is— he began.

Beatrice was not sitting on the toilet as one might expect. Instead, she lay on the floor, and jutted her shapely legs in the air in order to slip off her panties. And she'd brought something with her, but the Writer had been too busy visually assaying her physique to take note of that fact.

She'd brought her Therm-O-Fresh Food Storage System.

Just the unit itself, not the bags or jars. And she'd already taken the liberty of plugging it into the outlet where the Writer kept his electric toothbrush.

"A gal kin save a lot'a money with one'a these," she said, on her back and with her legs widely spread. She'd already liberally lubricated her vulva as well as the machine's vacuum tube with saliva, and now, as she explained, she gingerly worked the tube into her vagina. "Most all'a us got one now. See, whenevers we'se a week late on our period, nine times out'a ten"—of course, she'd pronounced the word times as "tams"—"it means we'se knocked up, so's we use the machine ta git 'em out ‘fore they git too big. Ya git 'em early and I'se swear they ain't no bigger'n a popcorn kernel—ya know—before ya pop it. Mrs. Gilman showed us hows ta do it—only tricky part is ya gots ta git the tube right up inta this special place called a—dang—I'se cain't remember. She called it a servo? Or was it a servik—"

Outraged, the Writer offered, "Your cervical canal?"

"Yeah!" she beamed. "That's it! Ya gots ta git the tube up in that'n then push a little," and all the while her fingers manipulated the tube until—

"Uhh! I gots it!"

The Writer watched appalled, face sagging, as Beatrice turned on the Therm-O-Fresh vacuum machine. It hummed like a old-style aquarium pump, then seemed to admit a faint whine as if encountering resistence, and then—

"There!" she announced.

In an eye's wink, the tube filled with blood. Beatrice turned the machine off, extracted the tube, and got up.

The Writer's face continued to sag in uncomprehending horror. The girl detached the other end of the tube, then held it over the sink. When the tube failed to empty, she blew into its clean end and—

splat!

—something jettisoned into the sink, along with a modest spatter of blood.

"There it is. See?" She plucked something tiny up with her fingers and placed it in her palm. The Writer only ventured a second's glance, saw something like a blood clot with a disturbing configuration. A human spitball, he thought.

"Costs a lot less than goin' to a doctor," the blonde continued, "and it sure beats the hail out'a the hanger. And best part of all is it don't hurt none... "

The Writer gasped at a well of blood running down her thigh.

"Aw, that ain't nothin'," she assured. "The bleedin' stops right away. I'll just stick ta blowjobs'n ass-fuckin' tonight, and I'll'se be good as new tomorrow." She flapped her hand into the toilet, flushed it, rinsed the sink out, and then gathered up the machine. "Some'a the gals keep theirs—"

"Kuk-kuh—keep?" the Writer gasped.

"Yeah, they'se keep 'em in a jar'a alcohol. Jennie's got like almost twennie, and some of 'em are bigger than chickpeas. Oh, and, Marcy"—she giggled, shaking her head—"she even names hers. Ain't that just the silliest thing ya ever did hear?"

The Writer could only stare, utterly obfuscated.

"Well, thanks! Good luck workin' on yer book!" and then Beatrice bounced out of the room, pantiless and quite content.

The Writer collapsed on his bed, and prayed for a dreamless sleep.

(V)

Dicky pulled up in front of the ramshackle house left to Balls by the latter's departed white trash, walking shit-heap of a father: gray wood planks and a canted roof. Jeez, Dicky thought. The place sat back in the woods at the end of a quarter-mile drive, quite remote. Dicky smelled woodsmoke, however, and something cooking that smelled damn good. I'se could use a little somethin' in my breadbasket, he acknowledged. Today they'd be driving a hundred miles into Kentucky and back again. When he stepped onto the porch, it creaked to the point that he feared his sheer weight might snap the planks. He knocked and the knobless front door swung open.

"Hey, Dicky-Boy! Come on in! Beautiful mornin', ain't it?"

More floorboards creaked when Dicky's bulk entered. Balls sat at a kitchen table, reading over mail. "Shore is, Balls. Beautiful mornin' ta be runnin' moonshine."

"Yeah, man. Fer Clyde Nale today, right?"

"Yeah. He's a dang sight nicer'n Snot McKully."

Balls seemed to be addled by the mail. "Shee-it my drawers. Ain't nothin' good never comes in the fuckin' mail. Probation shit, bill-collector shit, and a bunch'a fuckin' bills my Daddy never paid. No wonder there ain't no ‘leck-tricity."

"Dang. Sucks."

Balls flapped another letter down in disgust. "And a county property tax bill! Four hunnert bucks! Fer this shit-house?"

"What'cher dander up fer, Balls? You'll have that and a shitload more once we make this run for Nale'n then clean out Crafter's place."

"You's right, Dicky," Balls calmed down. He cracked a laugh. "The fuck I care!" One last piece of mail remained, an ad flier. Balls squinted at it. It was a special offer for something called the Therm-O-Fresh Food Saving System. Balls just shook his head and threw it out, along with the rest of the mail.

Dicky sniffed the air, looking to and fro. The woodstove was off, and the thirty-year-old oven was dead. "I smell somethin' damn fine, Balls. What'choo cookin'?"

"Out back, Dicky. I'se steamin' a pot'a crawdads. Gotta creek out the woods that's loaded with 'em."

"I ain't had me crawdads in a coon's age!"

Balls rose and cracked his hands together. "Well then let's go eat 'em, then get on our way to Clyde Nale's. ‘Sides, I gots one last chore ta do outside ‘fore we leave."

But when Dicky turned toward the back door, he stopped. Clothes were strewn about—clothes that clearly did not belong to Balls. A pair of drab brown slacks, a brown hat that said WENDY'S on it, and a shirt with a WENDY'S patch as well. There was also a pair of panties and a bra.

"What the hail? You gotta chick here?"

"Sort'a," Balls said and smiled.

Dicky noticed something else now. Some stains of some kind darkened the floor, and there seemed to be a minor litter of some little... curly things. One thing more: a pair of pliers and a ballpeen hammer.

Dicky stooped, picked up one of the curly things. "Balls? The fuck? This is a toenail!" he exclaimed and dropped it at once.

"Yeah. I'se pulled 'em out with the pliers, ‘long with her fingernails, the little hosebag."

"Who?"

"One'a them illegal immer-grints," Balls sniped. "Big-tit jibber-jabber bitch she was. Last night after you's dropped me off, I walked down the drive to check the mail'n the bitch is walkin' up the main road. Guess she just got off a shift from Wendy's, and I'se sure she got the job 'cos she works tax-free under the table fer cheap, so's good Americans don't git hired."

"Yeah. More likely as not," Dicky agreed. He picked a wallet up off the floor.

"Only had a couple bucks on her, the bitch. Probably on her way ta buy tamales or some shit."

In the wallet Dicky found a green laminated card that read RESIDENT ALIEN, THIS DOCUMENT CERTIFIES THAT MARIA SUAREZ IS REGISTERED WITH THE U.S. IMMIGRATION & NATURALIZATION SERVICE AND IS PAYING TAXES IN ACCORDANCE WITH FEDERAL LAW. Dicky, however, wasn't really much of a reader.

"Anyways," Balls went on. "Last night I'se checkin' the mailbox'n she walks by'n starts cussin' at me a mile'a minute, she did, callin' me all kinds'a nasty things, fer no reason at all."

"The dirty bitch," Balls offered. "What she call ya?"

"Shee-it, she called me a hola, and a buenos noches, and—" Balls paused to think back. "Aw, yeah, and she called me a cómo se llama usted! Can ya believe that shit?"

Dicky shook his head. "Bitch's got no right to be talkin' ta you like that." Dicky blinked. "But, Balls? What's all that stuff mean?"

"Aw, shee-it, Dicky, I don't speak Spic, but ya know damn well it was bad. Probably motherfucker, cocksucker, asshole—shit like that."

"Yeah, I'se sure yer right." But then more of his observations sunk in. "So... did'ja kill her?"

"Naw, but I'se put a ruckin' like you wouldn't believe on the ‘ho. Assed her four times, I did'n in between I worked on her with the pliers, pulled her ears off'n shit and collarboned her with a ballpeen so's she couldn't move much whiles I was rearrangin' her shit with my peter—oh—and I knee-capped her too with my Daddy's big Webley." Balls pointed to the inordinately large pistol sitting on the table.

"Fuck, Balls." Dicky blinked again. "So, if ya didn't kill her... where is she?"

"Out back," Balls replied and led the way.

Birds chirped cheerily when they stepped into Balls' shitty, overgrown back yard. Some old appliances lay on their sides along with a wasteland of empty whiskey bottles. Looks ta me like Balls' daddy did hisself a tad'a drinkin', Dicky reasoned. There was also a pile of dirt a couple feet high, next to a collapsed cord of wood.

A wood-fire crackled faintly in the middle of the yard, over which hung a big can of crawdads attached to a hook.

"Smells great, don't it?" Balls said. He took the can down with an oven mitt on which had been embroidered GOOD MORNING SUNSHINE! He drained the can, then emptied it into a bucket to cool. Steam poured off the pile of bright-red crustaceans.

Indeed, they did smell good, but Dicky was curious now. He looked about the yard. "So, Balls... Where's this immer-grint chick?"

"Right over there." He pointed to the pile of dirt.

Dicky walked over, half-reluctant. Ooo, he thought when he looked on the other side of the dirt pile and saw a shallow grave. At the bottom lay a naked Hispanic woman with no ears. Both knees looked like plops of raw burger, and her arms lay shuddering at her sides, barely mobile. When she saw Dicky, she began to quake, her eyes widening as if to fire out of their sockets.

A terrified voice twisted out as if by pressure. "Ayúdeme! Por favor!" Her shrieks hitched up and up. "Aquel hombre es loco! En nombre de Dios, ayúdeme!"

"Shee-it," Balls sputtered down at her. "This is America, honey. Ya gots to speak American if'n ya wanna be understood."

"Pleese! That man—heese crazy!"

"There ya go bad-mouthin' my friend again," Dicky chided her.

Horror and pain bloated her face. "Heese loco! Hee-elp—él es un malo hombre!"

Dicky heard footsteps, then saw Balls appear with a shovel full of red-hot coals from the camp fire. "Let's see if'n this puts a hair up yer ass," and then—

FLUMP!

—Balls dumped the coals right on her feet.

The woman lurched six inches off the bottom of the grave, emitting a scream now that sounded like her throat tearing.

"Noisy little dickens, ain't she?" Balls chuckled. He returned with another shovelful and dumped it on her belly.

The next vocal protests sounded more animal than human. In the grave, she jerked and jigged and flipped and flopped.

"A reg-lar Mexican jumpin' bean!" Balls bellowed.

The last shovelful went on her face, and the woman's screams descended to a low, fleshy grind.

Balls looked back down and seemed to disapprove of something. "Dang. Not quite as spek-tacka-ler as I'd'a thunk," and then he started dropping in pieces of cordwood—

THUNK, THUNK..THUNK... THUNK!

—until the hole was mostly full. It could be said that the laugh which exploded next from his throat had a devilish treatment to it, as he squirted half a can of lighter fluid into the grave and watched the flames gust.

"Dang," Dicky commented, stepping back from the heat.

"That should be a lesson to ya, la kookoo-ratchah!" Balls yelled down into the pit. "Don't talk shitty to Americans in America!"

All that came from the grave now were a few fading mewls.

Balls slapped Dicky on the back. "Come on, partner! Let's eat us some crawdaddies on ours way ta Clyde Nale's."

"Sounds fine ta me, Balls," but as they walked away, Dicky took a final uneasy glance back at the crackling grave and the corroding mewls that seemed to issue off its smoke. Yessir. That dude really IS crazy...

Balls grabbed Dicky's arm, as if alarmed. "Dicky!"

"What?" Dicky snapped back, alarmed himself. "What is it, Balls? You hear someone comin'?" The sudden surprise left Dicky one tremble short of emptying his bowels in his pants.

"Naw, but is that... " Balls sniffed the air, intent on something critical. "Is that... an-cher-ladas I smell cookin'?" and then he roared more laughter as he and Dicky went back in the house.

««—»»

Balls and Dicky loaded their hundred-gallon run into the ‘Mino's back deck, then snapped the tarp down over the entire load. Each gallon was sold to the middlemen aka "distributors" in Kentucky for fifteen dollars, after which they were marked up and sold to the consumer. Dicky and Balls got a buck for each jug they delivered, and it was also their duty to bring back the purchasing price, minus their cut, and give it to the "manufacturer," who in this case was a tired, skinny, whiskery guy in his fifties named Clyde Nale, the Number Two moonshine producer in the county. But it was solid bread that social rejects like Dicky and Balls were earning, so one had to at least give them the benefit of the doubt for having a work ethic. No welfare for these industrious young men...

"We'se loaded up'n ready ta roll out'a here, Clyde," Dicky called over to the man who checked a thermometer in a cork float by the main vat. Various other "staff members" came in and out of the hidden clearing, engaged in their tasks: jugging, shucking, stoking the big fire beneath the vats. Clyde Nale lumbered over to them, straining as if he had bad knees. He wore a floppy canvas hat and a stained jumpsuit like a mechanic. Shee-it, Balls thought, about to get in the car. One cracker after another in these parts. He was ready for something new, and after tonight—After we'se empty out old man Crafter's house full'a val-yer-bulls—he just might get it.

"Don't leave just yet, boys," Clyde spake, wiping his hands off on his chest. "Got a Hock Party goin' on up the house, five-dollar ante. You fellas are in, ain't'cha?"

Dicky's mouth took a configuration as if he'd just tasted something wholly unpleasant. "Naw, Clyde, thanks, but we'se wanna git this run done."

But Balls had paused at the car door. "A what party?"

"Hock Party, son. It's a roarin' good time, it is," Nale tried to entice. "Five bucks a head? Come on, boys. Ya got touch'a the kike or what?"

"I'd like ta see me this Hock Party," Balls spoke up, always curious and willing to broaden his life's fund of knowledge.

"Balls," Dicky complained. "Let's just git—"

"Winner gets half the pot," Nale prodded, "and the pot's up ta damn near a hunnert."

Balls liked a good gamble. He whipped out two five-spots and pushed it to Nale. "Come on, Dicky. Like it or not, we'se in. Let's check it out."

They followed Nale up the short road to his weathered, gray farmhouse, and before they were even there, Balls could hear something of a commotion around the back. Balls asked Dicky aside, "It's—what?—a spittin' contest, right? Which ever fella spits the farthest wins?"

Dicky smirked. "No, Balls. It's not... that... "

Clyde Nale just laughed.

But Balls saw what it was a moment later as he came around the house. Tarnations... This is some show!

A barefoot girl with lank-brown hair so greasy it looked like black udon noodles sat tensed in a fold-down lawn chair. Probably thirty but beat. She was skinny yet with what looked like ample breasts pressing the front flap of the standard farmer's overalls she wore. Twenty feet in front of her was a line drawn in the dirt, and behind the line stood roughly twenty hillbillies of all ages and sizes. They were taking turns...

"Come on, Jedder!" someone yelled.

"Give it'cher best spit!"

"Open wiiiiiiiide, Ida, honey!"

The hayseed with the unlikely name of Jedder stepped to the line, took a few moments to loudly clear his throat, then hauled back and spit in the air.

The girl sat, head craned back and wincing, eyes squeezed shut. She stretched her mouth wide open.

"Aw, fuck!" Jedder's expectoration hit the girl's upper arm. Balls, meanwhile, took note that the girl's overalls were daubed by dark spots which, on closer examination, turned out to be wads of phlegm.

Balls turned to Clyde Nale. "You mean—"

"First fella to get a loogie right in her mouth gets a blowjob from Ida and wins half the pot."

Groaty, Balls thought. But I LIKE it. "And the chick gits the other half."

Nale smirked as if slighted. "Naw, son. The house gits the other half. Ida gits paid in free moonshine. A hardcore alkey's what she is."

"Dang, Clyde. Who's got a touch'a the kike? A gallon'a shine don't cost you more'n few bucks to make."

"Not a gallon, a pint," Nale corrected, shaking his head.

"Shee-it," Balls chuckled. "That's low-down... ," but, he finished in thought. I LIKE it.

Nale clapped his hands, rallying. "Come on, fellas! Drag up some dark ones! Make it fun!"

Alas, many slang-forms existed which were much more interesting than such clinical terms as "expectorant," "sputum," and "congestion": Loogies, Goobers, "lungers," Irish Oysters, Chest Pudding and, the author's personal favorite, Redneck Custard. This is what the next four dutiful contestants went to exerted and quite audible efforts to cull from their lungs, each with the verve of racing dogs waiting to chase that rabbit. One by one, then, they took their turns... spitting...

"Aw, shit... "

"Dang... "

"Ain't that a kick in the dick?"

"Closest one yet! Chew see that 'un, Clyde?"

Regrettably, three of the next four "shots" arched short, splatting Ida's thighs or shins, while the fourth creamed her cheek.

"This ain't horseshoes, Tucker!" Nale guffawed. "Nice try, though," and, of course, he pronounced the word nice as "nass."

Balls watched, arms crossed, reflecting to Nale, "Ya know, Clyde. That's harder'n it looks, I'll'se bet."

"You bet right."

"If'n a fella does manage ta drop one in her pie-hole, seems right he should get ta fuck her instead'a settlin' fer just a blowjob."

Nale cast an admonishing glance. "Son? Would you wanna fuck a hill girl covered with hillbilly spit?"

Balls chewed the question. "On second thought... "

"Yeah."

Nale clapped harder now—it was Dicky's turn. The hesitant, overweight rube stepped to the line, then feebly cleared his throat.

"Come on, Dicky!" Balls encouraged. "Dig up a deep one, boy! Make yer mamma proud!"

"You's heard him, Dicky!" Nale appended. "Pretend yer diggin' fer clams... "

Dicky's throat grated a few more times until he had a mouthful of something substantial enough to give it the All American Try, then—

P-tooie!

But, lo, Dicky's effort fell a yard short of Ida's feet; the crowd cracked up laughing.

"Aw, Dicky! Ya wussy," Balls complained.

The girl, however, lolled her head dismally toward Nale. She looked exhausted as if she'd just climbed a tree with a knapsack full of bricks "Fer fuck's sake, Clyde. We'se goin' on the sixth round... "

"Cain't back out now, Ida," Nale scolded. "You's the one who vollern-teered—the boys'll spit till there's a winner. Just be glad you wasn't poor Verna coupla weeks ago." He looked to Balls. "Was windy that day. Fuckin' party went on four hours, it did, ‘fore Jimmy Jack Wallace finally put one in. Verna didn't have a dry spot on her. Had ta use a squeegee ta git all the hock off." Then Nale nodded sternly. "Your turn, son."

"All's right, lemme show non-hockin' lightweights how ta spit inna gal's mouth."

Balls posed at the line, and dredged up a deep one.

P-tooie!

The crowd hushed as Balls' expectoration—which looked like a mouthful of condensed cream of asparagus soup—arced high in the air. All eyes rose up, then trailed down, like spectators at a tennis match.

Splap!

The formidable aggregation of "Chest Pudding" landed right in Ida's left eye.

"Close!" Nale barked. "But no cigar!"

The girl, with an understandable expression of disfavour, scooped the matter out with a curled index finger and flapped it away.

"Shee-it," Balls muttered. "Almost got ‘er in there."

"Balls, let's just go," Dicky implored. "This shit's grossin' me out, and, ‘sides, we gotta long ride ahead'a us."

"Yeah, guess'n yer right." Balls shook his head, chuckling, at the phlegm-pelted girl. "It's a good thing she ain't standin' in a steel drum 'cos by the time this here party's over, she'd be belly-deep in hock."

Balls' comment had been overheard by a cocky, gaunt redneck who stood hunch-shouldered. He had severely bucked teeth and hair like that Carrot Top guy only brown. "You thank so, Led Zepplin?"

Balls smirked at the implication about the length of his hair. "Yeah, I do, toilet-brush."

Buckled teeth showed through a grin. "Just you watch... "

This gentleman's effort to disgorge some suitable wares came louder and longer than anyone yet. It sounded like someone trying to pull-start a boat motor that wasn't quite turning over. Nale informed, "Billy-O's no slouch—he's won four times in the past. Seems he's always got himself a cold or the flu or some shit."

"Ya don't say?" Balls replied.

Now, Billy-O's cheeks were stuffed as a squirrel's full of acorns. He eyed the seated girl twenty feet away with the focus of a dart player. The stuffed cheeks seemed to throb, then he slowly leaned back, held a moment, and shot his head forward:

Kuuuuuuuuuuuuur-HOCK!

It could've been an ice-cream scoop full of brown yogurt that launched from Billy-O's mouth. He'd lined up straight and wisely put a high angle on it, and his follow-through?

Perfect.

The shivering wad fell right smack dab into Ida's mouth.

The crowd roared in applause. Ida, eyes thinned in disgust, leaned up, moaning. The mass just sat there in her cranked-open mouth, and just as she was about to spit it out—

"There's no hooch if'n ya do that, girl!" Nale warned. "You know the rules. Ya gots ta swaller it."

Poor Ida's shoulders slumped. Her eyes squeezed shut so hard, her face reddened. Then—

gulp...

More applause rose in the yard.

Nale nodded in pride, and happily turned over half the pot to Billy-O. "Good job, son. See ya next week."

"Yeah, man!" The skinny cracker pocketed his winnings, then strode rather bow-legged toward a none-too-pleased Ida. "Now I'se gonna have me my blowjob! Git ready, Ida! Here comes dessert!"

All the boys gathered round to watch...

Nale walked back to the ‘Mino with Balls and Dicky.

"Hard workin' boys deserves ta let off some steam," the elder man said.

"Dang straight," Balls agreed.

"‘Course, there was that one time when we'se caught a squatter gal millin' ‘round the yard stealin' corn, so's we tored her clothes of'n slapped her up some, then each fucked her'n afters that we slapped her up some more'n each gave her one in the tail."

"Only proper. Any gal who steals deserves ta git the blocks put to her," Balls pitched in.

"Yeah, but after we'se was all done puttin' some spunk up her dirty ass... you know what we done next?"

"What's that, Clyde?"

Nale smiled grimly. "We tied her to the chair."

Dicky looked perplexed, as he often did. "Tied her?"

"Shore did, and what else we did is we forced her mouth open with a wooden peg"—Nale clapped and hooted—"and then we all just took ta hockin' in her mouth one after another fer a good half hour, we did. I'll tell ya, boys. That was fun. Then ‘fore we let her go, we each fucked her one more time, and ya know what? That squatter gal never stole corn from me again."

"I'll bet she didn't, Clyde!" Balls joined the man's laughter.

The idea appealed to Balls, very much so. And to Dicky? Well, not so much.

Nale's tone took on a serious edge. "Fun'n games aside, boys, you's both be careful after ya drop off yer run. Ever now'n then coupla creekers other side'a the line'll wait till a runner's offloaded his hooch'n picked up the cash, then they'se'll try ta bushwhack 'em on their way out."

Balls grinned. "Ain't no one gonna bushwhack us, Clyde, 'cos if'n they do?" He pulled up his shirt, showing the old Webley .455. "They'll whistle when the wind blows."

"I like fellas who're prepared ta git tough when they'se gotta." Nale winked. "See you boys tonight."

Dicky still looked a bit pale as he and Balls approached the car. "Shee-it, Balls. We didn't need ta stay fer that shit. ‘Member, after we git back from this run, we'se gonna hit that guy Crafter's house."

"Relax, Dicky. We got it all covered. I kind'a enjoyed that Hock Party—good, clean fun, ya know? Shee-it. When fellas in the city git together, they watch fuckin' football on TV. Cain't think'a nothin' more boring than that. And ya know what else? When that last loogie fell in the ‘ho's yap... I don't mind tellin' ya I got a bit hard."

Dicky stared. "Jaysus... "

They double-checked the tarp covering their load, then started to get in the car.

"Hey!" a voice whined. "You fellas! Wait up, will ya?"

Balls and Dicky turned to see Ida scampering down the hill after them. Her overalls looked polka-dotted with phlegm. She carried a pint-jar of moonshine with her.

"Aw, what's she want?" Dicky complained.

The stalwart girl caught up, huffing, and asked, "Kin you fellas give me a ride to town?" and, of course, she'd pronounced the word ride as "rad."

Balls peeked down into a formidable cleavage. "Well I don't see why not."

"Ain't no way, girl!" Dicky complained. "You ain't gittin' in my damn-near mint condition 1969 El Camino all covered with hock!"

Balls' right brow rose. "He's got a point there, hon," he said to her. "But now if ya throwed them snotty overalls in the back and rode nek-it, then that'd be fine."

Ida sighed. "Awright... ," and she began to peel off the sullied garment.

Dicky and Balls got in.

"Shee-it," Dicky griped. "What'cha go'n do that fer? She probably stinks worse'n a dog's ass."

"Aw, that ain't very neighborly of ya, Dicky," Balls replied with some mirth. "But I wouldn't mind havin' me a gander at her tits'n cooter, ya know?"

"Shee-it... "

Balls whispered, elbowing his friend. "And just ya watch. Ten ta one I talk her inta givin' us each a blowjob."

"I don't want my dick in her mouth, Balls. It's dirty as a cat box."

Balls chuckled. "Dicky, yous need ta relax. We got time ta make our run and hit Crafter's house aaaaaaaaaand get blowjobs from this alkey hosebag. Bet'cha I kin talk her inta it." He slapped Dicky on the back. "Life's fer livin', man! Ya gots ta go with it."

When Ida slid in next to Balls on the ‘Mino's long black bench seat, she did indeed smell something roughly akin to a dog's ass. But what she was sporting in addition to her nudity were two pleasingly distended breasts and nipples like pink baby pacifiers. Yet there was something else rather distended about her as well.

Her stomach.

"Thanks, fellas," she obliged and quickly closed the door. Her hands trembled as she unscrewed the jar of clear liquor and took a good hearty chug. Then she leaned back, sighing. "Aw, fuck, yeah. That hits the spot... "

Balls marveled at the physical proof of the girl's fecundity, not that he knew what fecundity meant. "Well, dang, girl. I'd say you shore as shit got yerself a bun cookin' in that oven down there."

"Aw, fuck, I know. Somebody preggered me up fierce'n I don't even know who," she replied. "Figgure I'm four or five months... " Her breasts vibrated nicely when Dicky turned over the big 427 and got on the road. "Just what I fuckin' need, huh? At least my food stamps'll go up. Gots me three crumb-snatchers already."

Now Balls was gazing appreciably at the amble outgrowth of black thatch between her legs.

Her hands shook a bit less now, when she took another hit off the jar and smacked her lips. Balls thought oddly of all that high-octane alcohol mixing with that skinny dude's hock and semen...

Dicky leaned over behind the wheel, shooting her an alarmed glance. "Say, honey, you ain't supposed ta be drinkin' if'n yer knocked up, ya know? It fucks the kid up whiles he's growin' in yer gut."

Ida cast back a look of skepticism. "Aw, that ain't nothin' but a bunch'a what my mama used ta call codswallop. She drank ‘shine whole time she were pregnant with me, and I turned out all right."

Balls shot Dicky a quick smile.

"You don't mind if I sort'a... feel yer belly, do ya?" Balls asked next.

Ida frowned, then shrugged, letting the liquor take the edge off her need.

Balls smoothed his hand over the stretched, white stomach and popped-out bellybutton. That's what I'se call a belly FULL'a white trash, he thought. In his demented mind's eye, he saw himself fucking her hard as someone plungering a toilet, trying to bop the little critter's head with his knob. I'd give it a face full, I shore would. He wasn't sure but he thought he could actually feel the blood in her belly beating. Next, he asked, "Well, hon, ya know that's a damn fine set'a jugs you got hangin' on ya. How's 'bout if I have me a feel?"

"Shore, go ahead," she said with no interest in the least.

Balls plucked the meaty, pink nipples, then squeezed. The breasts cumulatively felt like hot water balloons. "If I, like, sucked 'em... would milk come out?"

"Oh, yeah, it don't stop when you're pregnant all the time," she informed.

"Well... how 'bouts if I take me a suck?"

Ida rolled her eyes. "Aw, go ahead. You's are givin' me a ride, after all."

Dicky frowned aside as Balls leaned over and planted a lip-lock on the left areola. When he applied some hard suction, the papilla swelled up like a salty gumdrop, and then—

There she blows...

Hot milk eddied out and filled his mouth. Was it his imagination or did it taste like it had been cut with moonshine? He switched back and forth, letting it all trickle down his throat. South of the belt, things began to stir.

I got me a load ta bust, he realized, and then he unbuckled his jeans.

"What'choo thank yer doin'?" came her immediate objection.

Balls answered in complete honesty. "I'se whippin' my dick out so's you kin suck it."

"I ain't doin' no such thing!" Now she was getting nasty. "What kind'a girl you think I am, anyway?"

Again, Balls answered in complete honesty. "You're a creeker fuck-dump who lets twennie rednecks spit in her mouth fer a pint'a hooch. In others words... you're a whore."

"Yeah? Well, whores get paid, asshole, and I don't see no money in yer hand," she sniped back.

Balls didn't like to be called asshole. That's what his father had called him damn near every day of his life.

He tapped her in the head with the blackjack, which put her lights half out.

"Find a clearin', Dicky," he ordered. "And pull ‘er over. Ain't no splittail calls me a asshole'n gits away with it."

"Aw, come on, Balls," came Dicky's wearied reply. "Just push the ‘ho out the car'n let's go."

"Nots till we put a ruckin' on the bitch. Now... Pull over."

Dicky groaned to himself and slowed the ‘Mino. Meantime, Balls sucked a nipple into his mouth, waited till more milk flowed, then bit down hard. Half-unconscious, Ida shrieked. Balls chewed alternately, as if on tough steak, then, for formality, he let his front teeth clip down on the inverted nub of navel. The girl sort of vibrated from the pain. Balls was trying hard to bite the nub clean off but he never quite got there.

The Camino chugged into a small clearing off the road.

"Just leave her here'n let's git on our run," Dicky practically begged. "You've rucked her up enough."

"Shee-it," Balls muttered. He opened the door, grabbed a handful of greasy hair, and dragged her out of the car.

Here we go again, Dicky thought to himself. He watched Balls drag the girl into the woods until they disappeared.

(VI)

It was the most satisfying dream of his life...

At first.

As the Writer lay back naked on the bed, the activity commencing about him could only be called a "Seven-Girl Tongue-Bath." Hot tongues and sucking mouths ranged his flesh. Any errant glance showed him beautiful bare butts in the air, breasts in his face, swollen nipples brushing his lips. Wedges of smooth white flesh shifted all around him as these voluptuous servitors constantly traded positions to lave every square inch of his body—er, almost every square inch. His groinal area was deliberately neglected, to only incite him more.

What a great dream, he thought in the dream.

"Okay, girls," spoke a hot, syrupy voice. "Let's really work him over now... "

Bedsprings squeaked as his group of lovely attendants changed positions yet again, but this time it seemed as though they were assigned locations, and as this ensued, the Writer noticed Beatrice, Anita, Nyna, and several other of Mrs. Gilman's working stable, along with last but not least, Nancy.

Fuck, the Writer thought in a rare departure from his avoidance of profanity. Beatrice sucked his tongue. Two more girls sucked each of his nipples. Hot hands pulled his knees back toward his shoulders, and next thing he knew his right testicle was in Anita's mouth, while his left was being suckled by Nyna. A sixth girl slowly and very wetly laved his anus, and Nancy...

Sucked his dick.

It was Naked Twister, and the Writer sufficed as the mat.

Somewhere, a clock struck midnight...

And beyond the window... a wolf howled.

Every sensation of pleasure that his physicality was capable of feeling was stimulated and, hence, let loose. It built up from the Writer's brain to his groin, making him abstract that his penis was something like a Super Giant oil pool that had just been tapped. One eye managed to glance between both of Beatrice's sensational breasts just as Nancy was pulling an upstroke: the Writer's penis was so stuffed with lust-driven blood that it looked alien, it looked so much bigger than what he was used to seeing that he thought, Where did THAT hoagie come from?

Then Beatrice adjusted her position to suck his tongue more intently, and the view was severed. It was just luxuriant pillows of flesh now...

I'd like to see D.H. Lawrence write about THIS...

The sucking grew more precise at every area, save for his penis. Nancy had withdrawn the Mouth That Would've Launched a Thousand Ships. Though the Writer couldn't see, he could feel, and what she was doing now was clear: she'd made a tight ring with her thumb and index finger and had taken to stroking the spit-lubricated shaft with a finesse that seemed to draw every nerve-charged sensation in the Writer's body slowly to the vicinity of his groin. A handjob, he thought, executed with the adeptness of Dali's brush-strokes in SUEZ, or the prosecraft of Gore Vidal... Then, an even more titillating sensation blossomed at the very tip of his member. Holy smokes, that's good, he thought. Whatever it is.

"Time to take his business," Nancy announced next and began to shuck that spitty "ring" up and down much faster.

The Writer's entire body clenched; he was at the brink—one more shuck—then—This makes aesthetic celibacy worth it!—he was there.

That's when he heard a sound that seemed suspiciously similar to an old aquarium pump. Two and two were put together quite quickly, and in a lurch he pushed Beatrice off and looked down appalled to see Nancy slipping the vacuum tube to her Therm-O-Fresh Food Saving System several inches into his penis just as his ejaculation unloosed. Sperm filled a foot of the tube in one second, then the machine continued to suck. Beatrice sat on his neck to pin him down, while Nancy chuckled in a manner that was witchlike. She kept the tube in long after the Writer's orgasm had ended. Clicking was heard next, as if someone had turned the machine's motor to High, and then the Writer trembled in place, feeling more than mere sperm being hoovered from his reproductive tract.

"Yeah, now we're gonna take all'a this fucker's business," and all the girls laughed after that. Quite like witches.

The tube was kept in place for what seemed hours, and finally, when he was let up—amid still more echoic, witchlike cackling—the Writer looked down in the most abject horror and saw that the tube was actually dozens of feet long, and full of blood and pinkish testicular pulp.

Oh my God! Oh my God! the Writer lamented, and when he reached down to feel his scrotum, he found himself holding an empty sack...

That's when he woke up.

So convincing were the details of this dream and the clarity of its imagery that the first thing he did once his mind started clicking was reach down to his scrotum. Thank God, he thought when his testicles were still in evidence (not that, as a celibate, he actually needed them for anything). Then he groaned, thinking, What a TERRIBLE dream! Obviously it was just a spurt of Neo-Freudian symbology. The more desirable the woman, the more effectively her desirability emasculates men, he knew. A drifting hand told him with some distaste that the dream had been of the "wet" variety—his first in years.

A guillotine blade of sunlight carved into the room from the gap in the shade; it lay directly across his eyes, firing a headache of legendary proportions. I'm SO hungover, he realized. Last night at the bar he'd consumed much—probably as much as Dylan Thomas on a good night. He moaned out of bed in his underwear, preparing to head for the shower, when something caught his eye...

It was on the shade over the window.

Someone must've been in my room last night, he thought, but then rejected the conclusion when he found the door locked.

A new graffito, however, had been added to the others on the shade. It read as thus:

You live alone. You

dial your number by mistake

and someone answers.

It appeared to be written in the ink of his own black Sharpie, and—Hmm. Is that my handwriting? He thought so. The haiku was properly seventeen syllables and possessed the correct five-seven-five beat. Ultimately, though...

Why would I write that? he wondered. Well... Faulkner wrote parts of THE FABLE on his wall. Why can't I write a haiku on a dirty shade?

The problem was he didn't remember writing it. And if he'd written that?

The Writer scratched his shorts.

What else might he have written that he didn't recall?

He rushed to the Remington Model No. 2 and fixed his eyes on the page that had been hanging out of the platen for a month.

WHITE TRASH GOTHIC

CHAPTER ONE

There was a knock at the door. When Nikoff Raskol opened it, he espied a baleful purview of imprecations, an apophysis of dolorous spiritum—perforce: the Nietzschean Abyss. He'd dreamed of utter blackness, of dripping sounds, and screams, and it was all those things that he found himself looking at beyond the transom of his solitary motel room. The blackness that was somehow fulgent, in which traversed the fallow masses with faces like poultices and acuminated grins. His heart beat in mordant rubato when the gracile hand—certainly that of some outerworldly woman—reached out from the festering clough and took his own. He thought of light's absence in the flesh, he thought of ataxia undiluted.

Indeed, he thought of lost worlds.

The hand tightened about his. He was beseeched by eyes wide and lambent as diminutive moons, and the voice resounded as if from the highest precipice of the earth, to offer, "Come. Come with me... and see... "

Nikoff Raskol, then, followed her out of the room into the living dark.

The Writer's mouth fell open in a gag of joy. He nearly collapsed. "It's brilliant," he croaked. "It's Francois Truffaut and Thomas Hart Benton and James Joyce all rolled up into one, with a pinch of Sartre and a dash of Hegel. It's Descartes' proof that the mind is independent of the body, and Locke's affirmation that the test of truth is the comparison of thought and fact!" Tears formed in the Writer's eyes, and he fell to his knees. "My God... It's better than the opening of Kafka's Metamorphosis... "

The Writer was charged now, he was kindled by a creative fire that in all his years of writing had never burned him so intensely. His writer's block was over now. This was the leap that had hoisted him over humanity's hurdles to drop him headlong into the rich, hot blood of his Art. Now, the rest of the book was as easy to see as his own shadow.

Dylan Thomas was right, the thought arrived quite like an epiphany. I wrote this last night—the finest opening of my career—and I was DRUNK!

He showered and dressed, his mind reeling in the exuberance that comes with sheer genius. He knew that he could sit right down this instant and keep going, probably bang out thirty or forty pages by tomorrow.

But he didn't do that.

Instead, he went straight to the bar.

To celebrate!

(VII)

Dang, the old ones take fer-ever ta git their peter's off! Cora Neller thought, mouth stuffed. She looked munchkin-faced there on her knees in the little cubby outside. It was next to the room where they stored the beer kegs. She knew that's what they kept in there because she blew the beer-delivery guy every Tuesday when he was filling the next week's order. At least the beer-guy always came quick (just with a bit more volume than she cared for) but the old barkeep whose name nobody knew? The old fuck's probably seventy! she suspected. Bet I'se been tootin' his old pipe twennie fuckin' minutes! Nevertheless, she continued to suck because the old stick slipped her free drinks every so often, and looked the other way when she cruised the bar for johns. His penis wasn't stuck in her mouth, it was sort of just laying there as she drew her lips back and forth over its ancient meat. She thought of a rubber full of pudding but covered with raw chicken skin. Keeping her mouth full of a sufficient ration of saliva was a problem, too. Cora was a meth-head and clinical alcoholic, the former being her vice of choice, but it had the regrettable contraindication of debilitating the activity of her saliva ducts. In addition—and at less than ninety pounds—she didn't eat much. Poor nutrition equals poor saliva production. And, if truth be told, Cora consumed more calories in human semen per day than in food.

"Jaysus, Cora," the barkeep's voice creaked from above. "This is damn near the worst cock-suck I'se ever had. My fuckin' dead grandmother could blow me better'n you."

She wanted to bite down on the sodden tube of flesh but thankfully thought the better of it. Don't piss the old fuck off, she warned herself. 'Cos if'n you do he's'll never let'cha turn tricks here again...

Anyway, as aforementioned, she was a meth-head and a drunk. Way she worked it is she'd play the bar till closing, hitting up the tighter customers for ten-dollar blowjobs and booze. Doreen, the other bar-whore, got fifteen, the little shit. But Cora would get shit-faced to take the teeth out of the meth-withdrawal, then after closing she'd score. The kick in the ass was that prices were going up now. Fuckin' inflation! she thought, still chugging away. A bag of Snort was fifteen bucks now, and Ice was twenty. It's that fuckin' George Bush, she knew. Keepin' us good junkies down. First Reagan and then THAT asshole! Cora wasn't terribly politically minded, of course, but she overheard the bar-talk all the time. There was some new guy going to run for President next term—a Democrat—and not only was he from the South, he was handsome. Hilton? she quizzed herself. Naw, it's Clinton! she finally got it. I shore hope he wins. She'd seen him on TV once, and she knew in a glance that she'd clean out his pipes any time he wanted, and for free even.

"Aw, shee-it, Cora!" the barkeep griped and slid the floppy penis out. "It'll take you a hunnert years ta git me off." He turned around quickly and next thing poor Cora knew, his withered ass was in her face. There were moles on it that looked like hairy Raisinettes. "Just give my asshole a tonguin' whiles I jerk off."

Cora was appalled. "Aw, come on! That ain't right!"

"It's that ‘er no booze, sweetie. Yer choice."

Cora sighed, then thumbed open the crease-ridden crack and began to lick.

"Yeah. We'se finally found somethin' you do right," said the keep, naturally pronouncing the word right as "rat." Cora's face felt as though it were trying shrink behind her skull. To make the circumstance worse, the barkeep wasn't much for washing, nor—as she could now attest firsthand—was he particularly thorough about the manner in which he wiped. She could hear his masturbation, a sound like someone flapping a raw steak repeatedly on a table.

Her tongue roved through a creamy glaze and other less seemly debris. Bumps of some kind, too, seemed to encircle the puckered anus. In actuality, they were rectal warts, but it was all for the best that Cora didn't know that. At any rate, this was just a day in the life of a backwoods whore. No big deal. And as she continued, she did find solace in one consolation: ‘Least I won't have ta taste the old fucker's dick-snot.

Just as Cora had thought that, the barkeep spun around and jammed the now three-fourths erect penis into her mouth where he deposited an appreciable amount of semen.

"Ummmm... That's the ticket. Not a bad load fer an old man, huh, hon?"

Cora's eyes locked shut and she leaned back and let the penile slime slide down her throat.

"From now on, we'se'll do it that way ever' time, Cora," he informed, buckling his trousers. "Now I'd best git back inside. The Harkins boys'll set fire to the bar if'n their mugs're empty more'n five minutes," and then he loped back inside.

The smirk on Cora's face felt like a clay mask that had been baked on. Like that familiar emblem denoting drama: one smiling mask tilted next to one frowning. Cora was the frowning one, and probably would be for a while. The smell coming off her lips made her tempted to cut off her nose.

She stood up and dusted herself off. The knobby knees on bone-thin legs looked like banged up faces. But at least some drinks were covered now. It was still early, but with a little luck she'd be able to pull a couple of tricks before last call, then she could score some snort or ice.

She jerked her head at the sound of crunching gravel. Headlights swept the trees behind the bar, then in rattled an old beat-to-holy-hell pickup truck the color of tomato juice. It parked clumsily along the back, pulling a U-Haul trailer.

Please! Cora begged the Fates. Be a young guy!

An old guy got out of the truck: workboots, overalls, and a plaid shirt with sleeves and collar buttoned. His face was nebulous: another old generic redneck. His boots crunched up toward the rear entrance.

"Well, howdy there, darlin'!" came a spirited greeting.

Cora tried to sound as spirited, "Hey, there! My name's Cora! What's yers?"

"Lud. Pleased ta meet'cha."

Cora tried to stand cutesy-style, hoping the barkeep's ass-smell wasn't wafting far off her lips. "Ain't never seen you here before."

"That's 'cos I ain't never been. Not much inta drinkin' establishments, but, see, each year I'se take a road trip from Maryland ta Georgia'n back, tryin' ta bring folks ta the call."

"The call?" Cora had no idea.

"God's call, hon—"

Aw, FUCK! A holy roller...

"—and I ain't et all day so's I were hopin' I could git me some food ta go. They serve food here, hon?"

By now, Cora's interest had grown non-existent. "Well, they gots burgers mixed with deer meat that's real good."

The old man's eyes sparkled. "That couldn't be dandier. I'll get me a ta-go burger'n be on my way—but, hey?"

Cora was about to go back in. This old Bible-thumper ain't gonna want a ten-dollar cock-suck...

"I ain't in that much of a hurry," he continued. "What say you tell me what'cher doin' out back here all's by yer purdy l'il lonesome?"

"You ain't gonna be interested, mister," she said. Why not just go and say it? "I'se lookin' fer a fella who wants ta pay me ten bucks ta suck his dick or twennie—no, fifteen—fer a fuckin'."

The old man's face lit up with enthusiasm. "Is that all? Well, my word, hon. I'd say you got yerself a deal. In fact, as purdy as you is? I'll pay ya forty."

Cora's heart fluttered. He called me purdy! And, boy, had she gotten this guy's number wrong. Some holy roller, soliciting prostitutes. But Cora nearly had tears in her eyes. Not only had the old goat complimented her—an event quite rare in her life these days—but she hadn't bagged forty bucks on a solo trick... ever.

"Well, let's go, sugar!" she said and grabbed his large, work-callused hand. "We'se kin git cozy in yer truck'n I'll'se make yer balls clap together they'll be so happy."

The old man laughed good naturedly. "But the trailer's bigger inside, and I'se got a bed back there. That okay with you?"

She gave his crotch a rub and hugged him. "Anything you want," and—wouldn't you know it? She'd pronounced the word anything as "enna-thang."

This man—Lud—pulled a metal latch on the trailer's door up and out. From a loop on his belt he produced a metal flashlight, and even the most inept reader now will deduce that said flashlight would soon be introduced to the back of Cora's skull.

Whew! the emaciated prostitute thought when the trailer door swung open. It smelled gross inside.

"Take a looky, hon," the man said and shined the flashlight in, but when Cora leaned forward to do so, one big callused hand came around the side of her face and sealed her mouth shut.

Inside, she saw a naked woman bound, gagged, and disturbingly motionless. In the flashlight beam this woman's skin looked gray as modeling clay.

Also in the trailer lay two severed legs and two severed arms. And a case of Shasta Cola.

When Cora screamed, of course, the sound was stifled by the old man's hand. Then she heard his voice, which seemed echoic, like in a movie where gods were delivering dialog.

"God gave us brains to determine our purpose by His will, sweetie, and he is a mite forgivin' God. Hear me now, and ‘member that we'se all been born in original sin since Eve bit that blammed apple, which covered the world with darkness and were took over by the fallen angel Lucifer. But God, see, is the light we'se use ta see through that devilish darkness."

The man's grip held Cora off her feet. She reeled in the air, useless breath gusting into the rugged palm.

"Put yer trust in the Lord, hon. Though you's shore as heck a harlot'n mighty sinner... I shall redeem thee... "

(VIII)

The Writer felt as competent as Samuel Johnson when he sat at the corner stool. The bar around him hustled and bustled in the usual redneck chicanery though this did not distract the Writer from his relevant ponderings. The book, he thought. The book will be brilliant. No, he still did not remember writing that devastating opening passage last night, but that was fine, too. Niccolo Paganini wrote Moto Perpetuo in a drunken blackout... and that's the best violin piece in history.

My novel, the Writer felt sure, will be the fictional equivalent. White Trash Gothic...

Rednecks clacked balls at the table, sinking impressive shots. In the corner more rednecks howled at a wrestling match on TV. One man, with a hairlip and mullet-style haircut griped, "Fuckin' Sting! Rips off the Nature Boy again!" and then he bit a chunk out of his beer mug. Doreen, the prostitute with breasts like stuffed socks, waltzed out of the men's room and spat something on the floor. A man in a cowboy hat soon followed. Several brothers giggled as they engaged in a slap-fight.

Fascinating human interaction on a sub-societal level, the Writer thought. It would all go into the book...

Because it's real.

How powerful was the power of truth? His book would be the literary definition.

Yet another redneck sitting across from him was scratching a steel plate in his head. When the Writer glanced down at an ashtray, he noticed several teeth sitting in it, like big pills. "No, lie," the barkeep was explaining to some patrons. "Licked my ass clean, she did. Then swallered my nut like a champ. She ain't like Doreen, who spits. Fastest way ta tell a gal's got no class is when she spits out yer cock-hock." "Dang straight," someone consented.

Yes. Fascinating, the Writer thought.

An errant glance at the TV overhead showed him still more coverage of this Dahmer man in Wisconsin. "... was only eighteen years of age when he committed his first mutilation-murder in the township of Bath, Ohio, in 1978... "

Him again, the Writer thought. He had little interest. Evil was relative, and the evils of the world were not what his book should be about.

Not the evils. The verities.

He smoked and drank, quite contentedly sorting the nomenclature of his literary bullshit, when an overalled old man with a button shirt took the stool next to him. "Howdy," he said.

"Good evening, sir," the Writer replied.

After the man ordered a carry-out burger and soda water, it looked like he was about to say something more to the Writer when the redneck with the plate in his head blared, "Hey, Doreen! Don't'cha know a whore ain't got no class if'n she don't swaller the nut!"

Other patrons hooted. Doreen showed him her middle finger and stuck out her tongue, which was smeared with semen.

"Ye of little faith," the old man muttered, shaking his head.

"I don't think Saint Matthew can save any of this crowd," the Writer said.

"Hmm." The old man seemed impressed. "Then who said this: ‘Thy faith hath saved thee.'"

The Writer stalled over his cigarette. "You've stumped me, sir."

Did the man chuckle? "Interestin' choice'a words!"

"Pardon me?"

"Aw, nothin'. But I'll'se give ya a hint. He was the best writer of the Gospel authors."

An uncanny bar conversation. "I'm not an expert on Scripture, but... " The best writer of the four Gospels? Then the Writer smiled. "Saint Luke, of course."

"Good! So see? Ever-one can be saved... with faith."

The Writer considered himself an existential Christian which, depending on interpretation, could be viewed as contradictory. He didn't feel like talking now, though. He felt like thinking. About his book. He caught himself staring at one of the billiard games, and suddenly found himself with tunnel-vision. It reminded him of Kant's Eight-Ball Theory, the landmark philosophical tenet that disproved the constancy of causality.

"What'choo thinkin' 'bout, son?" the old man asked. "Looks like yer contemplatin' the whole universe," but he'd pronounced universe as "you-ner-vorse."

In a sense, I am, the Writer surmised, for his novel would surely define an elemental fragment of it. "Well, sir, you probably won't have any idea what I'm talking about, but since you asked... I'm thinking about the laws of cause and effect. That pool table there, for instance. When the cue ball hits the eight ball, is the cue ball really the cause? And is the eight ball necessarily the effect? The most sophisticated intellectual thesis says no."

The old man gave a knowing nod. "Just as six plus six don't ness-ur-sarah-ly equal twelve. But one thing it always equals is six plus six. What'cher talkin' 'bout, son, is Immanuel Kant's Eight-Ball Theory."

The Writer's jaw dropped.

"Aw, yeah, I'se know. You's thinkin' what's this old backwoods rube doin' knowin' 'bout that sort'a stuff, but the truth is, son, I'se been a student'a philoss-er-fee fer about forty years. And as fer Immanuel Kant, I gotta hand it ta the Prussian dingbat. He were a screw-loose, shore, but probably the greatest metaphysical thinker in history, ‘cept fer maybe Descartes or Hume, and a'course, Aquinas."

The Writer almost fell off his stool.

"Me, though? I'se go more fer Kierkegaard: man cain't escape the dismal-ness of his exister-ence without the presupper-zishun'a free will fer a higher duty."

The Writer still sat stunned; he was a big Kierkegaard fan. "He espoused that all truth is subjective and unlike space and time, which are merely shaded forms of intuition. And when you combine that with Kant's theorem on God—"

The old man astonishingly took the words right out of the Writer's mouth: "That logic proves the exister-ence of God because mather-matics equals logic, when you mix that with Kierkegaard's proof that truth is subjecter-ive, then what do ya got?"

"Incontestible evidence that God exists and means to lift humans from their naturalistic existence into a heavenly essence where salvation is achievable."

"Good, good, son," the old man sanctioned. "You sound like you knows almost as much 'bout philosser-fee as me—"

I LOVE this guy! the Writer thought.

"—and ain't it a dang shame that yer average dupe don't care no ways 'bout any of it? We gots the Sooner-ees'n the Sheer-ytes killin' each other over who's the proper descender-ent'a Muhammad, we gots the Or-ther-dox Serbs killin' the Moos-lim Bosnerians 'cos fer five hunnert years it were the Moos-lim Bosnerians killin' the Or-ther-dox Serbs, and ya gots the soul-dead commie Buddhists killin' the anarchistic friggin' Buddhists 'cos they cain't even decide who the first friggin' Buddha was."

"It's madness," the Writer agreed.

"Even when they'se got the proof right there in the works'a Kierkegaard'n Kant. The Great Tribber-layshun is shorely on its way."

The Writer nodded, astounded. "Yet even Sartre in his existential atheism proposed that salvation was attainable through an objectification of morality."

Now the old man seemed to scoff. "Aw, son, that may be fine'n dandy but chew do yerself a favor'n fergit about that fat French fag. He wouldn't'a had nothin' ta write about noways if'n it weren't fer Kierkegaard'n Kant. He was dang near a teller-oller-gist!"

The Writer laughed along with the old man.

"There ain't nothin' out there, son, ‘cept fer the notion'a sacrifice—"

"The sacrifice of accepted morals for a higher morality in itself," the Writer added.

"A'course, son, and any pea-brain kin see that."

The Writer couldn't help but continue to be waylaid, and he thought, in a rare departure from his avoidance of profanity, This old fucker might be right. He probably DOES understand philosophy more precisely than I do.

"The name's Lud, by the way," the old man said, offering his hand.

The Writer shook it, stating his own mysterious name, then offered, "Sir. I'd consider it an honor to buy you a drink."

"Well now, son. That's a mite generous'a ya but I'se surprised ya offered."

"To buy you a drink?"

"Based on the fact that we'se both probably smarter than anyone else in this whole blammed state, and considerin' what we just got done jackin' our jaws about, I knows what you are."

The Writer was baffled. "Sir?"

"You's a Christian existentialist."

Amazing...  "Well, yes, that's actually what I've always thought of myself as."

This old man—Lud—nodded. "That's what you are. But what am I?"

The Writer focused. "A Christian empiricist?"

The old man frowned and flapped a hand. "Naw. Come on, son. You's kin do better'n that."

"A Christian solipsicist?"

The old man tossed a shoulder. "Closer."

The Writer pointed his finger like a gun. "A Christian phenomenalist!"

"There ya go!" the old man cracked. "So if I'se a Christian phenomenalist, then that means I'se already done took Kierkegaard's existential leap of faith, right?"

"Of course."

"I'se already pree-ser-posed my empirister-kul free will to acknowledge the sacrifice I'se gotta make—includin' a rejection'a traditional morality—in orders ta attain my grace before God'n Christ on High. That's why Sartre was chock full'a dog-doo, son. Existence don't precede essence unless you accept the essence offered by the God Kant and Descartes already done proved exists."

"I understand," the Writer said. "But what's this got to do with me buying you a drink?"

"'Cos I don't imbibe! Ta reach God, ya gotta be like God. My body's a temple'a the Lord, therefore, son, I don't drink."

The Writer laughed. "You really are an amazing man, Lud."

"It's just more'a the Eight-Ball Theory if'n ya think about it hard enough. If there ain't no cause'n effect, it's like, say, you leave yer house'n go somewhere else, then you go to a pay phone ta, say, call a friend'a yers? But'cha dial yer own number by accident."

The Writer's skin began to crawl.

"And someone answers," Lud continued. "And the fella who answers is... ?"

The Writer gulped. "Me... "

"Right. Since truth is subjecter-tive, and morality ain't constant 'cos it ain't nothin' but a abstraction... who's ta say that couldn't happen?" and then Lud ordered another soda water from the keep.

That's almost impossible, the Writer thought in a creepy rush. What he just said... is like that haiku I wrote on the shade last night when I was drunk...

Now Lud scoffed, pointing up to the TV where more news blathered on about the serial killer. "This up here ain't nothin' but naturalistic evil. It's okay ta reject socially grounded morality when it conflicts with God's laws. But ya have to turn it into somethin' else which follows Kierkegaard's rule. This fella up here— He dang shore didn't do that. If what'cha do don't change yer purpose ta somethin' that serves God, then ya ain't nothin' but a pissant acker-lye'a the devil."

It's unbelievable how deeply this man can COGITATE, the Writer thought. He was even... mildly jealous.

"It's a dang good thing fer men like us ta run inta each other'n talk above the masses, ain't it?"

"Yes, sir, it is."

"Ain't nothin' more important than findin' yer purpose as defined by God," and the old man pronounced the word defined as "duh-fanned." "Nots many folks do that no more—don't care, none of 'em. Alls they'se care about're these dickerliss rock stars and the next John Truh-volter movie."

"You're absolutely right," the Writer agreed. "Especially when the proof is right there. Truth is subjective, therefore God transcends truth empirically by offering salvation through sequent purpose."

"Um-hmm. And I knows I found my purpose, son. It's by helpin' others—sinners mind ya—find theirs, and—" The old man made a mocking smile. "I say, how long does it take fer these fellas here ta cook a burger ta go? I'll'se be back in a minute, son, and we'se can talk a few minutes more ‘fore I gotta be on my way. See, ya gots ta excuse me, unless I wanna die like Tycho Brahe." The old man smiled through a pause. "Ya know who Tycho Brahe was, son?"

But the Writer was already chuckling. "The famous Danish astronomer and philosopher who refined all of Copernicus' discoveries. Brahe died because he couldn't get to the bathroom fast enough, and his bladder ruptured."

"Good, good. Now where's the pee-pot in this heck-hole?"

"Back there, sir," the Writer pointed.

"But let's me tell ya a joke first," Lud said. "Ready?"

"Ready."

"What'cha reckon Sartre said a second after he up'n died?"

"What?"

"‘Oops. I gone ta Hell!'"

Both men laughed so uproariously that every redneck in the place gaped at them. Then Lud slapped the Writer on the back and loped to the rest room.

I still can hardly believe it. I've just had the most elucidating intellectual conversation in my life... and it was with a redneck in his sixties who looks like Uncle Jed on the Beverly Hillbillies... The Writer ordered another beer, still marveling at the coincidence.

But then there was that other coincidence, too, wasn't there?

The haiku, he thought, that I don't remember writing but I MUST HAVE. When the barkeep wasn't nearby, the Writer whipped out his Sharpie and quickly scribbled on the bar:

You live alone. You

dial your number by mistake

and someone answers.

It was uncanny how Lud used an almost identical abstraction to compare to Kant's Theory of the rejection of causality.

Incredible. A completely explicable coincidence, yes, but still...

Incredible.

The barkeep brought over another beer. "Who was that wacky codger?"

That wacky codger probably understands philosophy better than most professors and theologians. "Just some man passing through."

"He the one who ordered a burger ta go?"

"I believe so."

"Well I'se hope he don't mind a little possum meat mixed with the ground beef."

The Writer was only half-listening. "Uh, possum? Really?"

The barkeep sputtered. "Jeez, fella! I'se just jokin'!"

The Writer feigned a smile. He subconsciously felt for change in his pocket. "Say, is there a pay phone on the premise?"

"Don't rightly know where the premise is, fella. What's that? Some restaurant in Pulaski?"

The Writer sighed. "Is there a pay phone here, sir?"

"Oh, shore." He pointed. "Right out back. If'n ya see Cora, tell her the ice in her drink's meltin'." The barkeep astonishingly pronounced the word ice as "ass."

"I will," the Writer agreed and headed for the back door.

Why not? he asked himself. He knew it was stupid but... so what? He believed in portents, or at least he liked to think so...

Or was it just more self-absorbed bullshit?

Nightsounds throbbed out back. The only vehicle parked in the narrow access was a beat-to-holy-hell red pickup truck with a U-Haul on the back. And beyond that? A fathomless forest.

His fingers poised before the payphone just before they would drop in change. Someone had scratched into the chrome plate over the coinbox: THE BIGHEAD WAS HERE. He'd seen that a lot lately.

The coins fell and he dialed the number to his room back at the Gilman House.

"Hello?"

It was a peppy woman's voice.

"Uh... Is this room Six?"

"Naw, it's room Three." A pause. "Hey! I reck-a-nize yer voice! Yer the Writer, ain't'cha?"

Dimwit! I dialed the wrong number! "Uh... yes, actually... "

"This is Nancy! Haa!"

"Hi, Nancy," he greeted, trying not to groan. "I apologize for the intrusion. I seemed to have dialed incorrectly."

"Aw, that's okay. I'se always like talkin' ta you. Somethin' 'bout yer citified voice... " A giggle. "Gits me all runnin' with honey... "

The Writer sighed. But it would be rude to just hang up. "So... How has your night been?"

"Suckin' dicks'n takin' no names, as my grandma used ta say. I'se in between jobs right now. But—kin you believe it? Coupla hours ago? A fella from Waynesville paid me thirty dollars ta give him a enema... . And earlier another fella had me stick a Ken Doll in his butt whiles I blowed him—and he even brought the doll hisself! Lots'a fellas inta havin' stuff done ta their rears, I'll'se tell ya. But they all say they's afraid to ask their wives to do it 'cos they might think 'em queer."

The Writer was speechless.

"Tonight I had me my reg-lar foot guy 'bout seven but he's gone, so's I'se just sittin' ‘round till my next appointment. Got me a four-top at midnight—some real randy fellas—lawyers," but, lo, she'd pronounced the word lawyers as "lah-yuhs." "They'se from Pulaski'n they comes ta see me ever week 'cos I give 'em some good butt-play. They'se rich; they'se pay fifty apiece and ain't none of 'em comes much—just li'l dribbles mostly, not like some'a these guys who come so much it's like someone stompin' on a large-size tube'a toothpaste."

The Writer was boggled. "That's... wonderful." Ken Doll? "I've got to run now, Nancy. But I'm sure I'll see you tomorrow—"

"Oh! Oh!" she interjected. "Wanna know somethin', Mr. Writer?"

The Writer hoped his frown could not be detected through the phone line. "Sure, Nancy."

Her voice turned rich and warm, like a delectable broth. "I'se had a dream 'bout you last night... "

Was that... a portent? "Really? Well, I'd love to hear all about it but I've got to—"

"I dreamed you was fuckin' me fierce, and, like my Daddy used ta say, I come like a cement truck with no brakes! And then... then... You'n me, we had a baby!"

"Oh, wow," the Writer babbled, disturbed now. "But I've got to—"

More precocious giggling that was somehow unpleasant and erotic simultaneously. "But'cha knows what? The baby didn't have a baby-type head. It hadda li'l bull's head."

"Yes—oh. Talk to you soon—‘bye!" and then he slammed the phone down. Bull's head? Jesus! My existence is definitely preceding my essence right now. He dropped in more coins and this time dialed the right number.

"Hello?"

A man's voice.

The Writer held the phone to his ear, eyes wide as if propped open by toothpicks. "Is this... "

"Room Six?" the voice snapped testily. "Your room? Yeah. You dialed it, didn't you?"

The Writer gulped. "Who... are you?"

"For Christ's sake. If you don't know who this is, why are you calling me?"

The Writer, of course, recognized the voice as his own.

But I do not believe in doppelgangers, he told himself at once. "I called... because... well, it was an exercise in abstraction, I suppose."

He heard his own voice laugh at him.

"What a load of shit! Buddy? I wrote the haiku on the shade last night, not you."

The Writer gulped a rock.

"And I'm glad you called. I'm working on the novel. I'm shaping it up pretty well, if I might say so."

This is impossible...

"One thing, though. The title sucks. I'll change it to something more serviceable."

Impossible or not, the Writer was outraged. "You'll do no such thing! The title's great! It's better than Grapes of Wrath!"

"Oh, man. You really are fucked up with all that literary ballyhoo. White Trash Gothic? It's pretentious shit. You need something that's symbolic and enlightening at the same time."

"You leave my title alone, you!" the Writer bellowed.

"Don't worry about it. When you get back this morning... you'll see."

The Writer stared. "This morning... What, the motel? I'm coming back tonight, not this morning."

"Negative."

The Writer took deep breaths now, and counted ten. "I'm hanging up because this is impossible."

"It's existentially impossible, you're damn right. But I hate to tell you this, pal, existentialism is a no-dick philosophy."

Anger locked the Writer up in rigor.

"It's just an excuse for smarter than average losers to justify their existence. Social basket cases like Sartre and Kierkegaard and Heidegger and fuckin' Camus—"

"I would never say fuckin' Camus!" the Writer almost bellowed.

"—and all those other socially paralyzed misfits."

The Writer steeled himself. "I'll ask you again... Who are you?"

"Jesus, man. You're a published novelist, aren't you?"

"Of course!"

"And didn't you graduate from Yale's English Lit Department with a 4.0?"

The Writer bristled. "Harvard," the word ground out of his breath.

"Did you every really read Conrad, or did you just skim the Cliff Notes?"

This was mortifying. "You're impossible, so I'm hanging up," he informed the phantom voice but now—

The line was dead.

The Writer was left to stand, phone to ear. He could see his own reflection, however scratched, in the chrome box-face. Calm down, he told himself. This is just an alcohol-induced hallucination, nothing more. I'm simply going to go back to my room and go to bed. There's no doppelganger there, no "double," no metaphorical twin. This is just job-stress and too much drinking...

But he did decide to have one more beer before he left. His ruminations, however, stalled him before he could go back inside. Nancy having a sexual dream about him last night was disturbing, of course, because he'd had one about her as well. But that was coincidental, and, as good-looking as she was? Who WOULDN'T have sexual dreams about her? The bull's head on the baby? Now that duped him; the Writer hated Greek Mythology. But it was the hallucinotic phone-voice that puzzled him more. It came from MY subconscious so... how come I don't get it? It was clearly a reference to Joseph Conrad, the acclaimed English writer whose Heart of Darkness proved perhaps the greatest fictional work of applicable modern nihilism ever written, not just the dark heart of Africa but the dark heart of Man.

What could that... have to do with...

Then the Writer recalled his own personal favorite of Conrad's: "The Secret-Sharer."

The story of a merchant sailor, and the man sleeping in the bunk above him... is himself...

His better half...

THUNK-THUNK-THUNK-THUNK-THUNK! he heard next, and jumped at the start.

It sounded like someone kicking a metal door, and beside him, indeed, was a metal door which appeared to be a walk-in refrigerator room for beer. But—

THUNK-THUNK-THUNK-THUNK-THUNK!

It wasn't coming from there. It's coming from... , and the Writer turned his head toward the back lot.

That U-Haul?

Gravel crunched as he walked over, measuring careful steps to off-set his drunkenness. Probably another hallucination, he deduced, but he almost shrieked right after he tapped on the U-Haul's door and was immediately answered by:

THUNK-THUNK-THUNK-THUNK-THUNK! and also a muffled squeal.

Someone gagged, kicking and screaming...

He jerked around at the sound of more crunching footsteps. It was Lud, carrying a shuck-and-jive smile.

"There ya are. I was wonderin' where ya got to, son. And can ya believe it? My carry-out burger still ain't ready! Thought I'd come out fer some fresh air whiles I wait—"

"Sir!" the Writer exclaimed. "I think there's someone being held against their will in the U-Haul!"

The wise old man chuckled. "An ab-duck-sher-un, huh? Son, you been watchin' too much'a the news all 'bout that crazy homer-sex-shul fella up north. Ain't nothin' in the U-Haul ‘cept a billy goat I'se driven up ta my sister's place in Crisfield."

The Writer's heart beat down in relief. "Oh, thank God, Lud. Guess I'm a little drunk now—I thought sure I heard a human in there."

"Looky here, son. I'll'se show ya," and then Lud withdrew a flashlight and opened the U-Haul door.

CLACK!

PART three:

ACTUALIZATIONS

(I)

Dicky and Balls returned from their run for Clyde Nale at about 10 p.m. that night. They drove back from their Kentucky distro point with silent smiles on their faces—smiles not so much stemmed in the fact that they'd earned solid money but instead in the knowledge that tomorrow at this time—with any luck—they'd be sitting on much more money. They had no way of knowing that the most paramount actualization of their lives was about to unfold—in fact, they didn't even know what actualization meant.

They stopped back at Dicky's house briefly for a beer, then got back on the road. It was a Van Gogh night blooming overhead. Moonlight dusted the winding asphalt like queer frost. Eventually Dicky broke the content silence as the ‘Mino barreled onward.

"What time ya figure we should get ta Crafter's house?"

"I reckon we'd best wait till midnight," Balls said and, of all things, he'd pronounced the word midnight as "mid-nat." "I'se like that time. The witchin' hour'n all."

"Shore. It ain't far ta Governor's Bridge Road, so's what'cha wanna do fer the next two hours?"

Balls rubbed his hands together. "After a hard day'a runnin' shine? I'd say we'se could use a coupl'a cold ones at the Crossroads."

Dicky nodded and drove on. It sounded cool to him, and why not? After transporting illegal liquor across state lines and laying a momentous "ruckin'" on an innocent woman... that's Miller Time.

Ah-ha...

Attentive readers will recall Ida, the unfortunate and very pregnant volunteer at Clyde Nale's Hock Party, and they will likely be curious as to what happened to her (while less attentive readers or, more regrettably, readers now interminably bored by a convoluted narrative structure, won't care), but as previously conveyed, poor Ida was dragged naked and barely conscious from the ‘Mino before Dicky and Balls had proceeded to Kentucky. After all, she'd called Balls an "asshole," and this was not a prudent thing for a woman to call him. So Dicky had pulled into a convenient wooded clearing—as were rife in these parts—and Balls wasted no time restricting her mobility. Her wrists he'd Flex-Cuffed together and then lashed to the base of a tree while her ankles had been separately cuffed and tent-staked to the ground in a manner which forced her legs apart. The naked woman was now an awesome sight to any practiced sociopath: skin white as proverbial parchment and beaded with cold sweat, eyes bugging, black pubic thatch strained and pushing outward below the five-months-pregnant belly. Balls took several more chugs off those swollen breasts, marveling at the flavor and texture of the sweet, liquor-tinged milk.

"Dang that's good!" he celebrated. "Dicky, you needs ta take a hit. Ain't nothin' like it."

Reluctant as ever, though, Dicky declined but did find the attendant imagery stimulating enough to extract his member and masturbate.

Meanwhile, Balls weighed some thoughts. So taken was he by Ida's milk-gorged breasts and conical nipples that he knew he just had to give her a good old fashioned Tittie Fuck, but, alas... .

Her stomach was too big to accommodate the required position.

Dicky's face twisted up as his own belly jiggled during his act of masturbation. He stomped his heels twice, grunted "Uh!" once very loudly, and ejaculated onto a tree. The viscid emission seemed to resemble a proofreader's mark for New Paragraph.

It was a satisfying climax for Dicky. He shucked the last of it out, then flapped some spillage off his hand. When he looked toward Balls, however—

"Aw, come on, Balls! Ya don't need ta be pullin' more'a that crazy shit! We gots ta get on the road!"

Balls wouldn't hear of it. "Just keep yer shirt on, Dicky. This tramp's set'a knockers are just so primo, I ain't gonna be happy till I have me a Tittie Fuck. So that stomach on her's just got ta go... "

See, while Dicky had been slaking himself, Balls had gone to the car to fetch the Stanley-brand manual brace-drill that he'd used so effectively on that scarecrow with tits at Spit McKully's not too long ago.

When Ida caught her first dazed glimpse of the tool, her semi-consciousness broke and then she heaved against her bonds to scream so loud every bird within a quarter mile lifted off from the trees.

Balls was horny—a "gittin' right down ta business" kind of guy. No drama, in other words, no drawing out the anticipation like taffy just for fun. He knelt and promptly put the end of that 8-inch long double-twist auger bit right into the little kernel of Ida's popped-inside-out navel and began to crank on the drill...

Her screams corroded to deep, annoying howls as she watched the bit's barber-pole-like action. Balls twisted fast and hard, and in only seconds the bit had churned down to the chuck.

"See what'cha git fer callin' me a asshole?" he pointed out.

Ida shuddered, back-arching as if to snap. Only one simple line of blood leaked out of the wound, running straight down one side of the tremoring belly. When Balls reversed the long bit back out—

"Holy Moly, Dicky! Would'ja lookit that!"

—Ida's vagina expanded spectacularly and then her womb spontaneously miscarried, expelled a five-month-old bloody mess right out onto the ground between her legs. Balls glanced uninterested at the glistening pile of fetus, umbilicus, and placental mass.

The obstructing stomach, now, was gone. Balls yanked off his jeans, straddled Ida's vibrating chest, and got down to the task...

So much for the flashback. In a movie, for instance, the ploy would be much more effective than when executed in narrative prose. As for Ida and her gored child—it was a boy!—their corpses were left as they lay, food for the night varmints that would surely be along. And Balls' orgasm?

It had proved just dandy.

But the event was long behind them now, at 10 p.m. All Balls could ponder was the loot that surely awaited in the house they would soon be breaking into. Not just cash and jewels, but priceless antique furniture and old paintings and sculptures, a veritable treasure trove. But then—

"Fuck me and my dead Daddy ta boot!" Balls cursed and smacked his thigh in anger.

"What, Balls?"

"Aw, shee-it, I plum fergot! We need a blammed U-Haul ‘fore we'se knock over Crafter's house."

Dicky scratched his gut. "Uh... yeah, I'se guess yer right, less'n ya wanna just go fer smaller stuff'n put it in the back. We'se'll cover it with the tarp."

"Naw, naw, Dicky. There's ‘spensive furniture'n shit in the house. That's what  Bud Tooler tolt me."

"Well... maybe we'se should just say ta hail with the furniture, just go fer the jewels'n silver. Furniture's a pain in the ass."

Balls shook his head, disgusted. "Naw, naw, Dicky, ya don't understand. This ain't just reg-lar furniture. It's hair-looms. We'd make a killin' hockin' it all to the antique dealer's."

"Wow. Hair-looms... "

"Yeah, man, but—damn. Where we gonna find a U-Haul ta pinch at this hour?" Balls asked aloud just as Dicky pulled the ‘Mino into the back lot of the Crossroads...

They both stared astonished at the object now lit up in the ‘Mino's headlights: a beat-to-holy-hell red pickup truck with a U-Haul hooked to the back.

Dicky said in a hush: "Dang, Balls. You must be cyclic."

"Dang straight. Now you just pull right alongside that pickup... while's I hitch that U-Haul up ta our back bumper... "

««—»»

It was a shame about the fellow in the white shirt. Lud had enjoyed the man's conversation to no end. Not quite sure what to do with him now...

But ole Lud knew he'd think of something that would help the man find his true purpose in life—his Kantian actualization of self and the Godly heart within his existenz.

Lud finally did get his carry-out burger (which, by the way, was composed of fifty percent ground beef and the rest a combination of ground possum and deer), and now it was time to get back up to Maryland and return to the business of his work for God on High. He paid his tab amongst the tavern's riffraff and exited out the back door with his bagged burger.

Well ain't that a fine how-do-ya-do? Lud thought, stopping in his tracks. His beat-to-holy-hell red pickup truck was still there, but the U-Haul connected to it was missing.

Indeed, God worked in strange ways. Lud was not thwarted, for the U-Haul could not be traced to him. But I wish I could see the look on the face of whoever stole it, once he opens the back.

Lud got in the truck and drove away.

(II)

Was it a dream? The Writer wasn't sure, rocking and becloaked in spongelike blackness. He was dreaming of a stench—something gone to rot—and the stench, somehow, was proof of existentialism's utter failure as a true philosophy. There was no Kierkegaardian "leap of faith," no confrontation of existence to unveil essence. It was all just rotten meat...

In the dream the Writer struggled against bindings at his wrists and ankles, and could only make choking sounds when he tried to call out, for a gag had been tied through his teeth. All the while the darkness jostled around him. He considered his symbolic function in the dream: he the human intellectual unit straining against the strictures of a naturalistic environment. Can't move, can't see, can't speak. My God, I'm like Kafka's "Hunger Artist!" My free will has been suppressed!

And, hence, so had his innate impulse to seek actualization. In the dream, the Writer, now, was a living symbol.

Which, of course, was all bullshit. There was no philosophical symbology, for God's sake. There was no meaning that existed behind objective truths. Nor was the Writer in the grip of a dream. He was in the back of a stolen U-Haul and he'd been knocked unconscious and tied up by a psychopath who, in years to come, would be dubbed by the police as "Mr. Torso." This, however, he could have no way of knowing yet, nor could he know that said U-Haul, by an ironic happenstance worthy of Jean Paul Sartre's "The Wall," had been stolen yet again by two more psychopaths named Balls Conner and Dicky Caudill.

The Writer would find out in due time what the rotten smell really was...

(III)

"Dang," Dicky complained at the traffic light that would take them onto Governor's Bridge Road. "What's that fuckin' smell?"

Balls leaned his head out the ‘Mino's window and sniffed. His lips puckered within the redneck goatee. "Shee-it, Dicky. Damned if I know." He narrowed his eyes through a rumbling pause. "You thank it's comin' from the U-Haul?"

"Naw. Probably a deer're somethin' died in the woods. But nows that ya mention it... I wonder what's in the U-Haul... "

The light changed, then Dicky turned the ‘Mino onto a forest-lined road which seemed to plummet.

"Didn't feel like there were much in it when I'se hitched it up ta our ball," Balls offered. He sniffed the air again and made a face in the dashlight-tinged dark. "But it don't make no difference what's in it. We'se'll dump it all at Crafter's house ta make room fer what we pinch."

"Yeah," came Dicky's sophisticated concurrence.

The narrow road could've been an abstractive esophagus which was swallowing them into darkness that just kept getting darker. The night was digesting them. Balls snuck a crotch-squeeze when Dicky wasn't looking. For some reason the recollection of cranking the manual drill into Ida's pregnant gut still had him all hot'n bothered. I'se gonna have to do that again, he told himself. Drillin' pregnant chicks in the belly's a damn sight more fun than playin' cards. "Man, Dicky, I'm chompin' at the bit ta see what Crafter's got. How far ya thank his house is?"

The ‘Mino slowed at the conclusion of Balls' query. The headlights illumined a barely visible turn-off, and there stood a mailbox peppered with buckshot holes. E. CRAFTER read the little sign atop. Dicky grinned. "Here we are, brother."

They pulled in to find themselves driving up a steep incline through woods even more dense. An owl hooted, and they could see fireflies dotting the forest on either side. Finally, then, the road emptied at the top of a massive hill, and there sat the house. Dicky idled the car toward the front door, then cut the big engine.

The nightsounds amplified, engulfing them. Balls and Dicky stared upward.

"Shee-it," Dicky muttered.

"You got that right."

The house stood as a narrow, three-story ruin that looked like it might fall over. The paint had long since blistered off its plank walls, showing only weathered gray wood. A front porch, if you wanted to call it that, had actually collapsed at one end, while the screens that had once enclosed it hung in tatters. The many trees around the house were gnarled, overly twisted, and appeared to be dying.

Balls shook his head. "This place makes my Daddy's shack look like fuckin' Graceland. What a dump."

"Ain't no one been livin' in there fer years by the looks of it. Your buddy Tooler was pullin' yer leg."

"Guess yer right but—shee-it—Bud Tooler? Man, he was a straight up guy, had his head on straight. Ain't no reason fer him ta lie or git his info so fucked up."

Dicky smirked. "Head on straight? I thought you said this guy raped a chick in a Good Humor truck'n got caught 'cos he went back ta steal ice cream cones."

"Tastee-Pops," Balls corrected. "You know, the things that push out the cardboard tube? But, yeah, I guess Tooler's full'a shit."

They both got out before the monstrosity of a house. The moon glowed a sickly mucus-yellow right behind it. Balls passed Dicky a flashlight. "We gots ta have a look anyways, I guess."

"Cain't hurt."

Balls looked over his shoulder. "Aw, but let's empty the U-Haul first."

"Shore."

When Balls unfixed the latch and swung the U-Haul's door open—

"Holy fuck!" Dicky yelled, gagging at the stench.

It slammed Balls in the face like tear gas. "Smells worse than a pile'a dead buzzards in there—"

The first thing they noticed was a woman's leg right by the door. Balls grabbed it, expecting to pull out a dead woman.

Instead, all he pulled out was a leg.

They he pulled out two severed arms and another leg. All of the limbs were beginning to decompose.

"That there's some fucked up shit, Balls!" Dicky exclaimed.

"Ya gots ta be shittin' me... "

Then Dicky gulped. He shined his light into the back of the haul. "Balls. Ain't just arms'n legs in there."

"Huh?"

"Looks like three bodies too."

Balls shined his own light in and made the same observation. Two women and a man, it appeared, all bound and gagged. Balls took a breath against the stench and hauled the first woman out by the ankles.

"Fuck."

The body flopped to the ground. A brunette in her twenties apparently, cut-off shorts and a halter. She would've been a looker... if she hadn't been dead for several hours. Her skin had turned to the hue of spoiled cream, while the undersides of her arms and legs were a disturbing purple-black.

"That there's a waste'a prime splittail," Balls related. He pulled the corpse's top up to gander the breasts and blue nipples, just for good measure. "But I'se wonder what the fuck's this all about."

"Looks like we picked the wrong U-Haul ta rip off," Dicky offered. "Shee-it, I thought it'd be full'a old junk or something. Instead, it's full'a dead bodies."

"Not quite dead," a muffled voice floated out from the dark compartment.

Dicky and Balls nearly keeled over.

"The fuck!" Dicky yelled.

Balls hauled the next body out onto the ground.

FLUMP!

A man in a white shirt and glasses sluggishly churned on the ground, wrists and ankles twisting against rope bonds. He'd managed to half-remove his gag by the force of his tongue. Balls whipped out his Buck knife and cut the gag fully off.

"Thank God!" the man wheezed.

"You look familiar," Dicky remarked.

"Yeah," Balls added. "Shee-it, you're that dude hangs out at the Crossroads. Barkeep tolt me you was a Writer."

The Writer nodded, face smudged. "That's me, and thank you for rescuing us."

"Us?"

"There's another woman inside. I think she's still alive."

Balls yanked out the third occupant of the U-Haul.

FLUMP!

"Dang!" Dicky railed. "It's that bar ‘ho—"

"Cora!" Balls finished.

All ninety pounds of her squirmed in the dirt. Her eyes bugged above her gag, which Balls, too, cut off.

"Balls! Dicky! Ya saved us from that awful man!" Her voice shrilled. Balls, Dicky, and the Writer as well all flinched at the tenor of her voice. Nails across slate would've been less annoying.

"What man?" Balls asked.

"Some old philosophical psychopath named ‘Lud," the Writer said. "He conked us both out behind the bar, then tossed us inside. But... when this happened, the U-Haul was hooked up to a red pickup truck."

"It was until we stolt it," Dicky said.

The Writer peered. "Why... would you steal it?"

Balls was wholly aggravated by this new monkey wrench. "We stolt it ta clean out that house," he pointed upward. "But lookin' at the dump now, I doubt there's anything inside to steal."

The Writer took a long look at the Crafter house. "Interesting."

"What's that, Writer?" Balls snapped.

"Well, did you ever read ‘The Purloined Letter' by Edgar Allan Poe?"

"No."

The Writer frowned. "The moral of the story is that things of the most value can be effectively hidden in plain sight. That house, for instance."

"What about it, Writer?" Dicky urged.

"From the outside, indeed, it appears to be an abandoned dump. But aren't the windows curious? They look brand-new. Why install brand-new windows in an uninhabitable hulk?"

Balls and Dicky peered. Then they cut the bonds at the Writer's and Cora's ankles, hoisted them up, and they all approached the leaning house.

"Damn if he ain't got good eyes," Dicky said, studying a bow window with his flashlight. "It does look brand-new." He squinted at the corner. "Some winder company named Lexan."

The Writer laughed. "It's not a company, it's a composite material—bullet-proof glass, in other words. It's indestructible, which proves even more curious. Lexan windows are as effective as iron bars, and very expensive. The owner of this property obviously wants people to think it's not worth breaking into, yet he installs Lexan to insure that they don't."

Balls muttered, "Indestructer-able?" and then the Writer jumped back and Cora shrieked when Balls pulled the big Webley pistol from his belt. "Ain't nothin' indestructer-able if'n I say it ain't!"

BAM!

Everyone jumped an inch, and Cora shrieked even more annoyingly loud. When the smoke cleared...

"Dang," Dicky muttered, scratching at the window pane. The big bullet barely scuffed the surface.

"Looks like the Writer's right," Balls admitted.

Then Cora shrieked again.

"Shut up, girl!" Balls yelled.

"L-look! There's a face lookin' at us in the next winder!"

They walked over, if a bit cautiously. Balls shined his light.

"Ain't no face. It's a—"

"A bust," the Writer said.

"Bust?" Dicky scoffed. "Ya mean like titties?"

"No, no... "

The curtains of every window in the house had been drawn but this one sported an overlooked gap, and in the gap, indeed, a face peered out. A marble face.

"Think of it as a statue head," the Writer said. "It's propped up behind the window, for decoration." When he looked closer, he went "Hmmm... "

"What'choo, hmmin' about?" Balls demanded.

"It appears to be Italian marble. Very expensive."

"Well hot dog!" Balls hooted. "Tooler weren't lyin'!"

The Writer said, "But even more curious is the brass plate beneath the bust. It says Phillipe Marquand, 1674-1728. Marquand, if I remember correctly, was a famous French medium who is said to have been able to communicate with the dead."

Balls, Dicky, and Cora all gaped at him.

"And this, over here," and the Writer led them up the front steps onto the ruined porch. "I almost didn't notice it, due to the torn screens. Shine your light up there, sir."

Balls did, and almost gasped.

Above the front door was a half-circle composed of ornate stained glass.

"It's called a tympanum. See the face?"

They all squinted further.

"Well, dang if'n he ain't right," Cora said.

"Don't that beat all?" Dicky added.

The mosaic formed a face below which ornate letters read ALEXANDER SETON.

"Who the fuck's he?" Balls asked.

"The most notorious of all alchemists," the Writer explained. "In 1604, Seton is said to have turned lead into gold."

"Bullshit," Balls scoffed, but after another moment of staring at the puzzle-piece face, he turned away.

The Writer smiled, amused. "Looks like the house you gentlemen picked to break into... belongs to a dedicated occultist."

"Occult?" Dicky asked, a spike in his voice. "You mean, like, devil-worship'n shit like that?"

"Um-hmm... "

"Fuck this, let's leave!" Cora shrieked again. "And, Balls. Come on! Untie my hands!"

"I'd appreciate the same," the Writer said.

"Stay here, both'a ya," Balls ordered, and took Dicky down off the porch out of earshot.

Dicky's bulbous face was pink with stress. "Shee-it, Balls, this caper's gone all fucked up."

"Tell me about it, Dicky. Just our luck to rip off a fuckin' U-Haul that's gots two people in it who can identer-fy us."

"And this fuckin' house, man. What's this guy talkin' 'bout devil-worshipers' turnin' lead inta gold'n shit? I cain't make heads'ner tails'a this."

"Neither can I, Dicky." Balls rubbed his hands together. "But at least we'se gonna make a score. You heard that Writer dude. Italian marble," but—oh, goodness, he'd pronounced the word Italian as "Eye-taller-un." "Bet Crafter's house is et up with it, so's we'se gonna take it off his hands, and shit knows what else's in there."

"Yeah, man, shore, but—" Dicky cast a fretting glance toward the porch. "What we gonna do with them two?"

"Well, I reckon we'll make 'em help us load the U-Haul, and then I reckon we'll kill 'em."

(IV)

The Writer found his existential resolve being tested, yet at the same time he found he had passed the test. The fact was, by the greatest fluke, he'd been accidentally commandeered by two redneck thieves in the process of committing a criminal act; hence, his future looked rather dim, for more than likely once the criminal act was completed, these two characters would have little choice but to dispose of him.

On spiritual grounds, the Writer was... okay with that, for he'd lived a full and aesthetically enriched life. His only regret?

I'll never be able to finish White Trash Gothic...

"Those two crackers are gonna up'n kill us," Cora whispered to him.

"Believe me, miss. Even the most brief reflection has illuminated me to that probability."

Suddenly, the skinny wreck of a girl looked doleful. "Ya know? I gotta step sister turns tricks up in bumfuck South Dakota where the meth is all over the fuckin' place and cheap. She tolt me I could come up there'n turn tricks with her'n we'd have a great time, man. But I never went." She looked around, more at the predicament than the location. "Shore as shit wish I did."

"Let's look at the glass as though it were half full, not half empty, Miss," the Writer advised.

"Whuh—what glass?"

The Writer sighed. "Let's not give up hope. We may be able to get out of this."

The skinny girl frowned. "What we gonna do?"

"It seems logical to me that for as long as we make ourselves useful to them, we extend our lives, and in that time... an opportunity for escape may strike."

She fidgeted in place. "Aw, man, I fuckin' hope so 'cos if I don't get me some crystal soon, I'll start throwin' up my brains... "

The comment shocked the Writer. "Let's, uh... hope that doesn't happen."

"That's what jones-ing from meth feels like, man. Ya start upchuckin'‘n it feels like yer brains're gonna fly out'cher mouth, and ya wish they would 'cos it's so bad, ya wish ya could just up'n die."

"Ah... how regrettable... "

As the Writer tried to think of a possible solution, something nicked his attentions: the door-knocker. It had been mounted on the ornate door's center stile, an oval of tarnished bronze depicting a morose half-formed face. Just two eyes, no mouth, no other features. He at once considered the potential literary symbol: Man, human features eroded by a corrupt universe, leaving him speechless. The existential mask...

"And who was that awful guy who knocked us out in the first place?"

The Writer blinked away the abstraction, feeling spiritually drained. "Oh, the old man at the bar, ‘Lud? He's a Christian phenomenalist, if you can believe it."

"Huh?"

"Shhh. Here they come."

The one called Dicky trudged up the porch steps, poker-faced, while the one called Balls... came bearing a long, stout piece of polished wood.

"Step aside, Writer. I'se gonna bust that front door down with this here hickory pick-handle. It's one'a the few thangs my shit-head Daddy left to me that weren't worth less than a rummie's shorts." Balls poised the handle with authority. "Oughta have that door open in 'bout two swipes."

Forty swipes later, and after an undo cacophony, the door finally split down the middle. The Writer winced at the noise, then winced harder when he noticed tufts of hair sticking out of Cora's armpits. He couldn't decide which was more annoying.

"Jaysus!" Dicky exclaimed. "That's one tough door!"

"Shee-it," Balls muttered. He sat down against the porch rail, to rest after the exertion.

"More of the same," the Writer offered. "The deception of appearances: a security door on a house that looks worthless." The Writer looked directly at Balls. "You might want to pause to take heed."

"What'cha mean?"

The Writer shrugged. "Expensive windows and an equally expensive security door? The owner may well have more precautions waiting inside."

"Ya mean like maybe a security guard or somethin'?" Dicky's pea-brain speculated.

"Sure. Or some other counter-measure."

Balls wasn't affected by the possibility. One hand hefted the pick-handle, the other hefted the pistol. "Here's yer counter-measures, Writer. Now... Inside. You two first."

The Writer and Cora led on, Dicky and Balls backing them up with flashlights. One of them flicked a wall switch but nothing happened.

"Shee-it. Crafter must'a had the ‘leck-tricity turnt off."

Flashlight beams crisscrossed over the ornate foyer and sitting room, carving slices of more statues and busts, and brooding faces that seemed to scowl at them from framed paintings.

"This place is creepy as shit!" Cora whined. "And... I need some meth!"

"Shut up," Balls told her.

"There are plenty of candles," the Writer observed of the many globed candle sticks along a spacious fireplace mantle and various wall sconces.

"Daggit!" Balls complained. "I ain't got a lighter."

"Me's neither," Dicky admitted.

The Writer sighed through a cringing hope. "Well, it just so happens that I do and, Mr. Balls? I would be forever in your debt if you'd cut my bonds. Naturally I give you my word I won't try to escape. I'd be more than thrilled to light all these candles and—to be perfectly honest, sir?" The Writer's shoulders slumped. "I'm dying for a cigarette."

Evidently Balls appreciated being addressed as "mister" and "sir." He snapped open his Buck and cut the Writer's lashes.

"You have my unflagged gratitude."

Balls grinned, showed the pistol again. "Any funny business and I'se'll blow a hole in yer back bigger than Dicky's head."

The Writer nodded. "I have virtually no doubts as to your credulity."

"I like the way he talks, huh, Dicky?" Balls noted.

"Dang straight. Must'a gone ta collerge."

"Harvard," the Writer elucidated. "Not just any college." He lit a cigarette, then proceeded to light the candles about the sumptuous room.

"Do mine now, please!" Cora pleaded. She was hopping up and down with her back to Balls, showing her lashed wrists. "Please, Mr. Balls, sir! Pretty please!"

"Shut up," Balls smirked, then rammed his bootsole against her rump and sent her toppling across the room. "And quit whinin' else I'll sit on yer face'n shit in yer mouth while's I'se crankin' holes in yer belly with my manual drill."

Dicky blurted a laugh.

Once the Writer had lit a dozen or so candles, all eyes roved the sitting-room, in awe.

Someone said, "Shee-it my drawers."

The room's candle-lit darkness seemed alive with glittering. Several chandeliers hung overhead, catching the light, while from nooks and shelves sat more crisp-cut crystal. Many of the candlesticks were of silver and gold, and much of the furniture—hundreds of years old—was inlaid with more shiny gems. Even some of the Iranian throw rugs were stitched with myriad gemstones.

"It's all of Crafter's hair-looms," Dicky whispered.

"Just like Tooler said was here... "

Even Cora, dragging herself up with her hands behind her back, looked stunned at all the treasures about the room.

"This Crafter man," said the Writer. "He's quite a collector." He stooped to inspect a William and Mary table, and several armoires and rare-wood chairs. Many pieces were crafted from inlaid satinwood, mahogany, and teak. Half-tables and vase stands sported neoclassical motifs and fine hand-carved traceries. A serpentine settee that should've been in a museum sat mid-room, and along the walls were window seats with scrolled arms and tiny servant bells dangling. "Most of the furniture's Hepplewhite and Sheraton. There's a fortune in this room alone," and next the Writer perused more of the busts and paintings. "Hmmm."

"What's that, Writer?" Balls asked.

"Just like outside. Alexander Seton and Phillipe Marquand are in appropriate company. Two different portraits of Cagliostro, one of de Sade, busts of Ludwig of Flanders and Cristoph Vocolai—all well-known practitioners of the occult arts: satanism, black magic, sorcery."

Balls frowned through the following hush, which was then severed by still another loud whine on the part of Cora, "Let's get out'a this shitty place! It looks haunted."

Balls pointed a finger. "Cora. If'n ya say one more thing, I'll punch ya in yer peter-sucker."

"But—"

WHAP!

Balls' fist smacked Cora right in the lips. She squealed and went reeling.

"That means keep it shut."

Dicky's big pumpkin face looked around with some apprehension. "This joint is kind'a creepy, Balls."

"You, too? Shee-it," Balls smirked. "I don't give a rat's dick 'bout a bunch'a paintings'n statue heads. Let's git ta work, and you—" He reached down toward Cora. "Git off yer ass and help."

Cora lay dazed and bloody-mouthed at the foot of the fireplace. She kind of flopped there with her hands behind her back, but then Balls grabbed one of her tit-flaps through her halter and, using it as a handle of sorts, lifted her to her feet.

Cora squealed again.

"Guess we should check the rest'a this floor, then look upstairs."

"And out back, too, I'd advise," the Writer said, peeking out a heavily draped window. "Looks like a garage in the back property and, well, naturally a creepy-looking graveyard."

"A... graveyard?" Dicky muttered.

Balls' glare seemed to even take the scowling portraits aback. "I don't care 'bout no graveyards or no creepy houses. All's I want is a nice paycheck fer a night's work. Dicky—you and the Writer go check outside—" The girl mewled when Balls pinched her nipple and twisted hard. "I'll keep an eye on this stringbean with a pussy, and check the rest'a down here."

Cora opened her mouth to object, then thought better of it. "Come on, Writer," Dicky said and shoved the Writer toward the back door.

They both stepped out into the night. The moon was so bright they scarcely needed their flashlights. Now's my chance, the Writer realized. I can brain this ignoramus with my flashlight and head for the hills, but then he laughed to himself. Who am I kidding? I'm a writer. Writers don't have balls like that...

"So's yer a writer, huh? What'cha write? Like, books'n shit?"

The Writer gave his stock answer. "I'm a speculative novelist. I infuse relatable modern fiction scenarios with charactorial demonstrations of the existential condition. Allegorical symbology, it's called, rooted in various philosophical systems."

Dicky nodded with approval. "That's what I thunk. I read a book once, see? They made us in school. It was kind'a dumb though. A retard watchin' golf balls or some shit."

The Writer nearly howled. Absalom, Absalom!

They wended through tilted gravestones, some with crudely etched dates going back to the late 1700s. Toward the rear of the yard, near the treeline, a newer building, like a garage, grew larger.

"Maybe Crafter's got a bunch'a fancy cars in that there garage," Dicky speculated.

"Perhaps. But what do you know about this man Crafter?"

"Nothin'. Just that he's some old weirdo who's got a house full'a ‘spensive junk."

"I wouldn't call him merely an old weirdo." The Writer looked at Dicky. "He's an old weirdo who also happens to be a student of the black arts."

Dicky remained silent. When an owl hooted, he flinched. The garage was unlocked. They both went in, flashlights beaming. No cars were in evidence, but there was a riding lawn mower, various tools, and a dozen tanks of liquid propane. "Check that barrel there," Dicky ordered in a feeble attempt at authority. "Might be full'a gold or jewels."

Greedy of filthy lucre, the Writer quoted the first letter of Timothy. He pried off the barrel's lid and found it curiously full of—

"No gold or jewels, Mr. Dicky. Just... salt."

"Salt? The hail?"

"Not table salt, either." The Writer tasted it. "Uniodized. It doesn't snow this far south, does it?"

"Naw. Why's the old coot gotta a barrel full'a salt?

"I couldn't guess. And that's quite a load of propane. I didn't see a grill out back anywhere."

Next the Writer looked in a metal can.

"What'cha got there? Jewels?"

The Writer shook his head. "Try dead frogs."

Dicky looked in. "Yer shittin' me!"

The can was full of petrified bullfrogs. The Writer noted an even odder anomaly. "It looks like all of their toes have been cut off. Then they were just tossed in here to die."

"Shee-it... "

Another can was full of desiccated newts, all missing their eyes. "Eye of newt, toe of frog," the Writer's voice echoed in the dark.

"This is right fucked up. We'se leavin'."

Back outside the Writer combed his light behind them. "Let's go look at those graves."

"The fuck for?"

"I detect an incongruence."

"Huh?"

The Writer smiled and walked over. "How curious... "

"A half-dug hole? Big deal."

Indeed, there were several areas in their proximity that had been dug down to about a foot, trenches, in a sense, about six feet long.

"What's that on the ground? Cement?"

"Crude cement. It's called tabby," the Writer explained. "You know what this place is, Mr. Dicky? It's an unconsecrated graveyard."

"Shee-it... "

"The more normal stones in the area have dates from the 17 and 1800's, but these... "

They weren't grave markers at the foot of each trench but simply splotches of old cement in which someone had inscribed a name and date with their fingers. "Back in the day, common criminals were buried in unconsecrated ground. Relatives would come in later, pour some quick tabby and render an inscription. Look at this one."

An old finger-scrawl in the cement read ELSBETH - 1689.

The Writer eyed Dicky. "Or I should say, common criminals and witches."

"Fuck... "

"Or warlocks. Anyone accused of soliciting the Devil."

Dicky gulped. "Witches'n warlocks are buried here?"

"It would seem so. And... what on earth... " The Writer strode off several yards, to the edge of the woodline. He aimed the flashlight down.

A simple wooden post stuck out of the ground about two feet, and nailed to it was a crucifix.

"A cross," Dicky observed.

"Not just one cross... " The Writer shined his flashlight to either side. The entire woodline had a similar post and cross every six feet or so. It's almost like a fence... of crosses. A... barrier...

"If Crafter's a satanist, how come them crosses ain't upside-down?" Dicky made a surprising query.

But the Writer didn't answer, for now he noticed something else. "How do you like that?"

Dicky looked down. "What's that? A line'a sand?"

"A line of salt, Mr. Dicky. Let's follow it."

Flashlights down, they followed the line of salt which oddly ran unbroken just inside the cross-mounted posts. In a few minutes they were in the front of the house, and could see the salt and crosses continuing on.

"The salt and the crosses completely encircle the property," the Writer said. He lowered the light to the driveway which, too, was crossed by a line of salt. "Now that's interesting."

"I'se don't get it."

"Ancient metaphysics, Mr. Dicky. Salt was once more valuable than gold, and it eventually became a favorite constituent in alchemy, divination, and spells."

"Spells," Dicky intoned with some trepidation.

"This Mr. Crafter fellow seems to have deliberately enclosed his property with two powerful totemic symbols."

"Totemic," Dicky intoned.

"And to respond to your previous query, I suspect the crosses aren't inverted for that very reason. Between the salt and the cruciforms, Crafter seems to be covering his bases."

Dicky made yet another astute remark. "A magical fence?"

The Writer nodded, impressed. "I think so."

"To keep bad stuff from getting in?"

The Writer lit another cigarette, and sighed smoke as he looked down at more crosses and salt. "The crosses are facing toward the house, Mr. Dicky. So it would seem that Crafter's intentions are just the opposite. He wants to keep ‘bad stuff' from getting out," and then they both slowly turned their gazes back toward the house.

««—»»

"We'se gonna be rich men, Dicky-Boy," Balls enthused when the Writer and the more globose redneck went back inside. Balls already had several boxes full of gold and silver gimcracks set aside on the William and Mary table. "The dinin' room alone's chock full."

"Cool," Dicky tried to sound excited.

Balls caught the downcast tone of voice. "‘S'matter with you?"

"Aw, nothin'. Just kind'a weird outside."

"The premise is surrounded by an occult barrier," the Writer baldly stated. "Crafter obviously has some overtly ritualistic beliefs."

"Don't know what'cher talkin' 'bout, don't care," Balls ignored him. "Now git yer writer-ass in gear ‘fore I start kickin' it. Find a box and start loadin' it up with ‘spensive-lookin' loot."

"Where's Cora?" Dicky asked.

Balls pointed to the other side of the room where, in the candlelight, Cora could be seen lying unconscious. "Punched her a tad too hard last time she started runnin' her yap again. Leave the ‘ho be. She'll just get in the way."

They made several trips to the U-Haul, depositing a few of the valuables from the dining room, but back inside, the Writer suggested, "Shouldn't we check the rest of the house first? Since you gentlemen are thieves, it might be more efficient to identify the most valuable booty initially, and that's just one reason."

Balls paused, carrying in a silver service tray. "One reason? Gimme another?"

"Well... to discern beyond all doubt that the house is, indeed, unoccupied."

Balls and Dicky traded uneasy glances but then Balls scoffed. "There ain't no one else here, Writer. My buddy Bud Tooler tolt me so."

"So this Mr. Tooler—his knowledge of the house is unimpeachable?"

Balls shot the Writer a funky look, which would be the first of many such looks. "What? Peaches?"

"What if this Mr. Tooler happens to be incorrect?" the Writer posed, "and there's someone upstairs right this very moment, calling the police?"

Balls and Dicky traded another uneasy glance. "He's gotta point there, Balls," Dicky said.

But Balls shook his head. "Look, Crafter ain't married and he ain't got no kids or reller-tives. I'se know for a fact there ain't no one else in this house."

Just then, quite loudly, a television clicked on upstairs.

"This is CNN Headline News," a woman was saying, "and this is Lynn Russell reporting on all of the nation's up to the minute headlines. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, today alleged serial-killer Jeffery Dahmer was arraigned on six counts of capital murder... "

Balls pulled the other two aside, into a dim hall beside another door with, of all things, a cross on it.

Now here's a cross INSIDE, the Writer reflected. Crafter's obviously no Christian, so why would he mount a cross on THIS door?

Balls and Dicky weren't the least bit interested. All of their faces glowed eerily in the candlelight.

"Keep yer voices down," Balls whispered. "There's someone upstairs watchin' fuckin' television. Whoever it is... we gots ta get rid of 'em so's we can finish the haul."

"But who is upstairs?" Dicky whispered after huddling closer.

No answers were forthcoming.

All the while, the Writer considered: How can a TELEVISION be on when the power's cut off? But he did not give voice to this curiosity.

"Yer buddy Tooler fucked up," Dicky sniped. "Crafter didn't go to fuckin' Spain. It's probably Crafter hisself sittin' upstairs, waitin' fer the police."

Against the wall, a mahogany stand inlaid with crisp amethysts stood with a phone on top. The Writer picked up the phone and listened. "No dial-tone. Crafter probably did go on this trip of his and had his phone turned off. So whoever is upstairs couldn't have called anyone."

"Good thinkin'," Balls said. He tiptoed across the expansive sitting room and straddled Cora. He slapped her face several times till she roused, then pressed a palm across her lips. ""Shhh. Not a word. Someone else is in the house, upstairs... "

He helped her up and led her back to the hall.

Cora's objection was a whining whisper. "Someone else in the fuckin' house? You're fuckin' shittin' me! We gotta get out'a here!"

"Only person goin' anywhere is you," Balls informed her. "Upstairs."

"My fuckin' ass," Cora illustriously stated.

Balls' face set. "Listen, Cora. I'll'se make a deal with ya. We needs ta know what we're up against, so you go upstairs and take a peek, see who's up there, then come right back down. You do that, and I'll untie yer wrists and let'cha go." Then Balls cocked a brow. "And if'n you don't do that, I'll cut'cher head off and piss out'cher mouth, then I'll scalp yer dirty pussy'n wipe my ass with it next time I take a corn-shit."

The Writer had to chuckle. "Not exactly an affable alternative, hmm?"

"Shut up." Balls whipped out his Buck knife and flicked it open, eyeing Cora.

Cora sighed. "I should'a never offered that old man a blow job back at the bar." She blinked, took a deep breath, then began to walk very slow up the plushly carpeted steps.

From upstairs, they could hear the TV channels being changed. CNN switched off, replaced by some man with a German accent saying, "But... this room has other qualities—in 1436 it was here that Prince and Princess Von Hart had their throats cut while they were sleeping." A woman's voice: "Their throats cut?" The German man: "Yes, madam, but that was in 1436. Will you excuse me?" and then the channel switched to a baseball game, "David Cone has just won his next shut-out for the Yankees! What another tremendous acquisition by George Steinbrenner, folks!" and next, a commercial, "Not available in stores! Call now while supplies last! Get the patented Therm-O-Fresh Food Saving System for just four easy payments of $49.95. That's right, just $49.95!"

The Writer rolled his eyes.

Then the TV switched off.

Had Cora been discovered by the unknown sentinel? Balls pulled out his pistol, and Dicky very courageously suggested, "Fuck it, let's just leave her, Balls. We'se can git out'a here while Cora's still upstairs."

"No way, Dicky. You seen the loot in this joint. We ain't splittin' till our kick is full up."

The three of them waited, pinned by shadows against the wall. A clock ticked somewhere. The Writer noticed again the other door behind him, with the cross on it, and without thinking he opened it. Cinderblock steps descended into darkness, and an awful smell assailed his nostrils.

"Shee-it, what's that stink?" Balls complained.

"It's coming from down there, presumably a basement."

Dicky saw the cross. "Just like the ones outside goin' ‘round the whole yard."

"It's interesting," the Writer reflected. "An occult afficionado... using crosses as some kind of transitive emblem."

Balls shot the Writer a funky look. "Close that fuckin' door. The stink's pissin' me off."

The Writer quietly reclosed the door, then went back to listening for any noises from upstairs. Then—

Tiny footfalls were heard padding fast down the stairs carpet.

Cora ducked around the hall. She looked more perplexed than anything.

"Well?" Balls asked. "You see who's up there?"

"It's a gal, weird-lookin'," the addict-prostitute enlightened them.

"A gal? Old, you mean?"

"Naw, don't thank so." Cora's eyes thinned. "And she looked weird 'cos she was all, like, black."

"A colored gal, you mean," Dicky presumed.

"Guess Crafter's got a maid," Balls supposed.

The Writer frowned.

"Naw, naw," Cora insisted. "I mean she was all black and wet. Like she been painted with black paint. And she was buck nekit."

Balls sighed. "A nekit woman painted black, huh? Shee-it. What else could I expect from a meth-head? You're seein' things, ya asshole."

"I am not!" Cora objected, almost too loud. "She was painted black, she was all wet'n shiny. And I don't mean black like a nigruh. I mean black like... black. Like road tar or somethin'. And she were layin' on a big fluffy bed, friggin' herself."

"What?" Balls asked for reiteration.

"She was playin' with herself. Feelin' herself up'n rubbin' her cooter. That's what I seed when I looked in. The first bedroom. She were workin' herself up inta a swivet, too, and just 'fore I come back down it looked like she was tryin' ta stick her whole fist in herself. That's what I saw."

Balls sputtered through a frown. "A gal painted black fistin' her own cooze. You're high, Cora. You've sucked so much dick ya got jizz fer brains."

"If'n ya don't believe me, go look fer yourself!" she countered. "But first ya best keep your end'a the bargain. Untie me'n lemme git out'a here, like ya promised."

"Shore, baby—"

WHAP!

Balls bopped her in the back of the head with his homemade blackjack, and once again Cora collapsed.

Balls jerked his head toward the stairs. "Dicky, git upstairs'n take care of this. Don't know what the fuck Cora's talkin' 'bout but I'se guess there really is a chick up there. So's you go punch her lights out'n tie her up."

Dicky's jaw dropped. "Why me, Balls?"

"'Cos I said so. What, you's afraid of a splittail?"

"Naw, but... It's dark up there, and—"

"Just git on up there like I tolt ya."

Dicky's hooded eyes shot to the Writer. "Send him!"

"Shee-it, Dicky. He's a writer. Writer's are pussies."

The Writer interjected, "I'll admit, I am—to use your colloquialism—a pussy, but please know that not all writers are. Ernest Hemingway, for instance, was a boxer, a combatant in the Spanish Civil War, and a certified bull fighter. More recently, I'll mention the indisputable machismo of popular literary novelist John Irving. He would read Shakespeare and Percy Shelley in redneck bars, and when the patrons laughed at him? He'd give them all quite a pranging."

Balls stared. "Shut up. And Dicky? Git'cher ass upstairs and take care'a that splittail now."

"Aw, but, Balls... "

"Be a man, goddamn it!" then—

FWUMP!

Balls gave Dicky a hard kick to the pants.

"Awright, awright!" Dicky hurried for the stairs.

"And be quick about it. I'se don't wanna be here all night—"

Dicky, however reluctantly, disappeared up the stairs.

Balls gave the Writer a shove. "Come on, Writer. Let's git more loot loaded up."

(V)

Ain't fair, Dicky thought. It should'a been the Writer... His flashlight played over the wall, but then he quickly turned it off when he noticed the wedge of light in the gap of an opened door. That must be it...

Dicky mounted the landing as quietly as a clumsy fat redneck slob could, then edged toward the door.

A clock kept ticking but along with it he heard moaning, or at least he thought he did. Could Cora be right? Was there really a naked woman in there, masturbating? He didn't know what to make of the "painted black" part but—

I'se'll just barge right in there and bust her in the chops, he resolved. Dicky was, for the most part, a monumental coward, but he wanted to make Balls proud. I'll show him I'se got what it takes, too...

But before he could summon the courage to actually do it, a voice seemed to float out of the room, a quiet yet wanton woman's voice...

Come in, young man, and bestow me...

Dicky really didn't know what "bestow" meant, nor was he terribly convinced by the nature of the voice. It was more like words in a dream, not words actually detected by his ears.

How could this be?

Bestow me with your youth... and your surging virility...

Dicky froze against the wall.

I can smell your manfulness, I can smell your sperm...

Dicky didn't realize it but the bizarre flutter of psychic vocalization had put him into a trance. Like a fat zombie, then, he pushed the door open and stepped in.

Lamp light raved, overly bright, like the bulbs burning too hot, and of course it never occurred to Dicky now—in his half-wit trance—that there could be no lamp light in a house with the power shut off.

I am the Night-Mother and the Queen of the Labyrinth, a shadow rising from the bed informed him. My cunt beats with your paltry heart, and your soulless lust and my evil are predestined to fuck...

Kind of an odd thing for a maid to say, but then Dicky saw that it was no maid that rose smokelike from the high, four-poster bed. But it was a woman, all right, as voluptuous a woman as he'd ever seen, even in Hustler. High melon breasts; protruding, poker-chip nipples; a flawless hourglass contour. Long sleek legs rose to a hairless pubis dark and shiny as chocolate icing, and the flat stomach seemed to shiver around the slit-like navel. Yes, like the body of a Hustler centerfold save for one quirk:

She was as black and shiny as newly poured road tar.

Dicky could sense more than see her face; it was more of a symbol—an enigmagram—something that existed in an unglimpsable state. Hair just as black and wet as her skin seemed to radiate that same blackness.

It has been eons since my infernal womb has gulped human seed, the voice flowed.

As she moved gingerly from the bed across the room, the electric lamp on the Edwardian nightstand began to dim, but as this took place, her blackness seemed to glow within itself, as though she were composed not of flesh but electrified darkness.

I need to be filled. A sleek hand that was hot and cold at the same time traced Dicky's fat cheek. He began to blubber like a baby, and with no volition on his part he dropped his dungarees to reveal a thumping, prong-like erection that felt so insanely hard he feared it might split like a hotdog in a microwave.

Give me succor, the voice fluttered in his head. Let my night-cunt be the vessel for your lust, and then Dicky seemed to float backwards to the floor, levitating, until he lay on his back, his erection spiring.

When the black woman sighed, the walls seemed to buckle. The cleft of her pubis parted as if by a specialized musculature until it gaped, and then she sat right down on Dicky's groin. His spectrally hard penis sunk deep.

This otherwordly intercourse generated sensations that Dicky would never have thought possible. To him, a nut was a nut—the old Southern Boy Credo—and they all pretty much felt the same, whether he was raping a hot sixteen-year-old, having a go in a cow's backside, getting fellated by his uncle, or jerking off. But this?

His brain seemed to turn to baby food from the intensity of the sensations: it was like a hundred wet, hot tongue-tips cocooning his penis simultaneously as the cocoon slowly rose up and down. When he looked up bug-eyed at his unlikely lover, he saw that her desire seemed to gorge her breasts even more, pushing the nipples out till their tips leaked a glistening black fluid. All the while more fluids at her groin gushed.

My name is Pasiphae...

Her breast lowered to his chest, then she rolled him over onto her, the black legs spreading wider to invite deeper penetration.

Fill me now, fill me to the brim...

Dicky's body froze up and his jaw locked open. His fat stomach heaved and then his eyes seemed to roll all the way back in their sockets until he was looking at his brain. He gibbered as he came, sperm rocketing up out of his penis as if by a hand-pump. The orgasm did not abate but instead magnified; it was as though he were taking a long hard beer-piss but with sperm instead of urine. His rotund body continued to quiver on top of her as his glands kept kicking his semen down into the hot satchel of her sex. Eventually he caught a glimpse of her eyes but saw only lidded holes through which could be glimpsed an insane, smoking city which smoldered beneath a red sky and black sickle moon, and when her lips parted to release a final blissful sigh, Dicky saw only a sparkling black chasm that went on without end. Black crystalline drool trickled from the corner of her lips, and then a black tongue lolled.

Her soft hands gently pressed up against his fat-cushioned chest, and—

THUNK!

—she shoved him off of her body as though he weighed no more than a straw dummy. He collided with the wall. A painting of a woman named Elizabeth Bathory fell down and hit him in the head. Dazed, he looked on...

Now she lay painfully spread-eagled, her tight buttocks actually arched up off the floor several inches as she masturbated fervently. Wet, slick clicking sounds filled the room as her black fingers plied the sexual fissure. More sighs of desperate pleasure rose up and up, until Dicky thought he could actually see those sighs, like rampant spirits amid the impossible black light...

Good Gawd! Dicky thought.

He scrabbled around on the floor, pants still down, until he found his flashlight and snapped it on. He shined it on the mysterious woman...

The desperate masturbation continued, her hand a blur at her genitals. At a critical moment, then, her pelvis tensed as two fingers V'd open the abominable vagina, then the swollen black vulva puckered like grouper lips and began to spit out foot-long loops of some viscid fluid.

She's comin', Dicky observed in the utmost shock, but like a dude!

Indeed, the ejaculatory spurts did not abate until at least a dozen had transpired, collecting in a great glistening splotch between her legs.

The woman's body tremored one more time, then fell still.

Now I can die again, flowed the voice. Again and again and again...

The room fell into utter darkness and for a moment was filled with a sound like a hundred rattlesnakes.

She lay limp and quite dead, her sink-hole eyes half-opened and black tongue still aloll from the dead mouth.

Dicky dragged himself up, shaking, his penis shriveled to a mushroom stem from the toll that his abyssal orgasm had exacted. When he'd retrieved his breath, he took a closer look at what the woman's genitals had expelled on the rug: what had to be several gallons of sperm-marbled slop.

The fuck in tarnations is goin' on?

The woman's body began to erode in the air, until it had disappeared completely.

Dicky didn't even pull his pants all the way back up when he barged out of the room.

(VI)

The Writer and Balls both froze with boxes in their hands when Dicky plunged down the stairs into the mire of candlelight.

"You bust her up, Dicky?" Balls asked.

"I—"

Balls smirked at Dicky's half-pulled-up jeans and limp-as-a-the-pinkie-finger-of-a-rubber-glove penis.

"What the fuck you doin' standin' there with yer dick out? You punch the maid's ticket or not?"

"I-I— Well, ya won't believe it, Balls," Dicky jabbered, "but Cora were right, there was a nekit lady up there so's I-I-I—"

"You what?" Balls yelled.

"I fucked her... "

Balls frowned.

"And then-then-then—she got's ta playin' with her pussy a mite fierce, and when she got herself off, she-she-she—"

"She what?"

Dicky's eyes bloomed. "She ‘jacker-lated... "

"The fuck!"

"I'se swear, Balls! While's she were comin', her pussy was squirtin' out a bunch-a goo—"

"Goo?" Balls infuriated.

"No lie. She come just like a fella, only with her cooze. Squirted a giant nut out on the carpet—there's a big puddle of it."

"A puddle of what?"

Dicky fidgeted. "Well, it looked like all'a my cum mixed up with a bunch of this black... goo."

Balls frowned harder. The Writer thought: This is some high-brow crew.

"Writer? Balls stood with his arms crossed. "Git upstairs'n see what the hail Dicky's talkin' 'bout. Shee-it. This here is gettin' blammed ree-dicker-luss."

"Oh! Oh!" Dicky exclaimed. "She tolt me her name!"

"Yeah?" Balls challenged. "Lemme guess. Everclear?"

"Her name's... Pasiphae," Dicky blurted.

"Pasiphae, huh? You're more fucked up than that meth-whore with the hairy armpits." Balls' glare dug into the Writer. "Git on up there ‘fore I start carvin' me some college-ed-jur-kated cold cuts."

But the Writer had been taken aback. By the name Dicky had mentioned:

Pasiphae.

"Go on!" Balls' knife snapped open. "Git!"

"As you wish, Mr. Balls," and with that the Writer mounted the steps.

Pasiphae, he thought, climbing. Greek mythology. He thought briefly of Nancy's phone conversation earlier, the mentioning of a dream-baby with a bull's head.

But why would a rube like Dicky make such a reference?

The Writer couldn't hypothesize.

His hand slid up the bannister as he moved toward the second-floor landing, the darkness seeming to magnify as he ascended. On his palm he felt odd but regular bumps in the vanished wood, and when he shined his flashlight, he frowned, noticing triplets of sixes finely engraved. Lucifer's cliché, he thought. The first thing he noted upstairs was an exquisite oil painting, tinged by age and very Rembrandtesque in its style: horned demons with skin spotted like slugs pushing aside the boulder which sealed Christ's tomb on Golgotha, as peasants moaned. Yeah, Crafter's really got the occult bug. The Writer found it amusing. The only supernaturalism that truly exists is math, he knew. But Crafter's trite fanaticism notwithstanding, the Writer found it uncanny how the man could fill the disguised house with priceless antiques, busts, and art but not have a single bookshelf in view. Crafter was a cliché in and of himself; surely an "occultist"—especially one with money—would have a veritable library full of pricy occult tomes.

Yet he'd seen none since they'd entered the house.

Perhaps upstairs...

The first bedroom he slipped into was obviously the one where Dicky had experienced his calamity. The flashlight revealed a bed chamber that went hand in hand with the rest of the house: a mini-museum of various archaic styles, save of course for the television sitting upon—the Writer winced—a genuine Robert Gillow half-table made of Brazilian rosewood and well over three hundred years old. I wonder where Crafter gets all his money? but then he laughed. Probably a pact with the Devil.

The room smelled funny: a meaty, musky scent that was close to foul. No woman in black paint lay on the bed, though the sheets and blankets on the finely crafted poster were disarrayed. Then he shined the flash down to the fabulous hand-woven carpet and was surprised to discover Dicky's aforementioned "goo."

It looked like black gelatin surrounded by another gel-like substance that was clear but milkily lined. The Writer was mystified. Alcohol or cerebral defect obviously accounted for the younger man's account of this woman's ejaculating after her intercourse with him. Nevertheless...

What on earth could this substance be?

It lay in a gelatinous puddle, shimmering in the light.

Finally! A book! Another sweep of the flash revealed a night-table with a small book on it. The Writer scanned the cover, intrigued: THE ACCOUNT OF THE INCUBI OF VASR MONASTERY BY THE REV. M. BARI. The spine crinkled when he opened to the copyright page. London, 1787.

"Incubi, huh?" the Writer mocked aloud.

Nevertheless he stuck the book in his back pocket. It was probably worth some money...

Nothing here except some crap on the floor, some... goo, he deduced and turned to leave, but he stopped at the door as his light raked the carpet.

He shined it down and stared.

How peculiar...

The inchoate mass of black and clear gunk was now not so inchoate. How did I miss that when I first looked? It seemed to take on a configuration that he hadn't noted previously: something akin to a starfish shape, and the top "arm" possessed two small protrusions, like hooks.

The Writer fixed his gaze.

All five arms slowly extended.

You know what? the Writer posed to himself. I don't think I'm seeing things. I think that slop is really moving, and with that, he made his exit and hastily rejoined Balls and Dicky downstairs.

"Well?" Balls demanded.

The Writer lit a cigarette. "There's good news and there's bad news. The good news is—there's no woman wearing black paint—"

"I done told ya she weren't there no more!" Dicky raged. "She disappeared after she cum'd all that spunk'n goo on the floor!"

The Writer looked more resolutely at Balls. "I'm in concurrence with, at least, the latter component of Dicky's statement."

Balls shot him a funky look. "Huh?"

"There is indeed an odd substance on the floor that no manner of speculation on my part can account for."

"I told ya!" Dicky cut in again. "It's my load all mixed up with some black shit in her cunt, and then it all squirted out while's I were watchin'."

"Shee-it," Balls snapped. "I don't know which one'a yawl's more fucked up in the head! Guess I gotta see fer myself!"

But before Balls could bound up the stairs, the Writer interjected, "Mr. Balls? It's my deduction that we can go up and down those stairs all night, and we won't find any answers to our questions. However, I have an inclination—er, I should say I have a hunch... that there is a more likely place in this house where we will find those answers."

Balls smirked his irritation. "Where?"

The Writer pointed. "The basement."

"The fuckin' place stinks. Why there?"

"Because, as I've said, I have an inclination."

Balls and Dicky paused. "All right," Balls said. "Let's go. Dicky—bring that dirty cum-dump and drag her ass down with us."

The Writer led the way, steeling himself against the rotten aroma coming up the cinderblock steps. Balls swore behind him, gagging. Dicky trudged down, too, with the still-unconscious Cora slung across his back.

The stench thickened once downstairs. The flashlights lit up circles of strange doors, tables, and—yes!—shelves of books. The Writer flicked his Bic to light numerous sconce-set candles, and then—

The low-ceilinged room was alive now in squirming light. Dicky, Balls, and the Writer all stared speechless at the same thing.

"No fuckin' wonder the joint stinks," Balls muttered.

"Jaysus Chrast!" Dicky exclaimed, and in his disconcertion actually dropped poor Cora on to the cement floor.

"This place looks more like a temple than a basement," the Writer noted, "and how appropriate... A sacrificial temple."

Three of the room's walls were ornamented by Doric pillars, however short, and between them were a total of six shoddy wood-plank doors hung within keystoned arches. But it was what hung in one of these arches that flagged their concern:

A naked woman's corpse.

Only the Writer dared to approach, to register details. A rive had been made from navel to throat, separating two flaccid breasts the color of oatmeal. A pair of surgical retractors remained in place on her chest, which forced the rive open, much like double doors, to expose the cardiac cavity. Said cavity was empty.

"Now that's what I call a ruckin'," Balls remarked with a crook in his voice.

"Looks like someone... sacker-ficed her," Dicky contributed.

"Indeed, her heart's gone," the Writer told them, then shined his light on various areas about the room. "And by the looks of that crucible, that crematory, and that old book on tephramancy, I'd say she was sacrificed in grand style. Look. See these ashes?" The Writer gestured the smear of ashes over the door's stone transom. "Tephramancy is an occult science which utilizes the ashes of a sacrifice victim for a variety of dark arts, including incarnation."

"You're talkin' more'a that satanic shit, like what Crafter's into, ain't'cha?" Balls needed clarification.

"Oh, yes. This man Crafter has quite a hobby."

Dicky fidgeted at the sight of the girl. "What's that big college word you just used?"

"Incarnation? It means ‘to make flesh,' in other words, Crafter solicited this tephramanic ritual to summon a netherwordly spirit or even... a demon."

Balls and Dicky stood silent.

The Writer lit another cigarette and made a closer inspection. The unfortunate woman had been hung on the door by means of a sharpened iron spike sunk directly through the hollow of her throat. Much blood was in evidence, naturally, running down her pallid body and cellulite-pocked legs, to pool at the floor. The blood was dry and browning. Her feet and lower legs were a murky blue. "I'd say she's been dead a day or two," the Writer estimated. "The decomposition of the body is not yet acute, and I'd also say... she's not the first to suffer such a fate in this room." Now his flashlight tracked along the floor. More splotches of dried blood existed before each of the six wood-plank doors in the bizarre room.

The Writer opened the door to which the girl had been impaled. There was nothing behind it except for crudely lain bricks.

"The fuck's that all about?" Balls asked. "If Crafter did all this devil's jazz to get a demon here, a hallway to hell's what should be behind that door, not just bricks, right?"

The Writer chuckled. "While the ritual is active, yes, but of course only in Crafter's mind. There are no real doorways to Hell or demons, Mr. Balls."

"Yeah?"

"Let's not get carried away here, gentlemen. Crafter is an occult fanatic. He believes himself to be a retainer for the Devil, by serving him in such ways. But the notion is actually no different from someone rubbing a rabbit's foot for good luck, or avoiding cracks on the sidewalk. It's superstition. Crafter is probably just delusional, and thinks he's summoning demons or whatever, but it's really just hoopla."

Dicky squinted. "Hoopla?"

"You know. Ballyhoo."

"What's ballyhoo?" Balls asked.

The Writer slumped. "It's bullshit, gentlemen! Occult science does not exist. It's not functional. Its supporters merely believe it is."

"Oh." Balls stroked his goatee.

"But if it's all bullshit," Dicky posed, "then you's mean the chick I'se fucked upstairs all painted black who dumped all that slop out her pussy... wasn't a demon?"

"No, Mr. Dicky," the Writer insured. "She was a hallucination. The kariolytic fumes from this corpse made you and Cora see the woman and made me see that growing starfish shape upstairs. Or something along those lines. Let me make myself perfectly clear. Have you guys even heard of Emmanuel Kant?"

"No," Balls and Dicky answered in unison.

Ask a silly question... The Writer thought of a way to dumb things down. "Kant was the greatest philosopher to ever live. He disproved every philosophy and in this disproval he thereby proved something else: that mankind must have been created by a higher being—God, in other words. He proved this with mathematical theorems. It's incontestible. The only entity that can possibly exist beyond man is God. There's no room for anything else, including the Devil, demons, Hell, etc. For God and the Devil to exist simultaneously, then human volition would have to be teleologic—and we know that this cannot be. It's all math."

Balls' eyes seemed mistrustful. "So God ain't nothin' but a bunch'a numbers?"

"In a sense, yes. He exists by means of a never-ending equation that created everything, and God is the beginning of the equation. Understand?"

"No," Balls and Dicky answered in unison.

The Writer sighed smoke. "Listen, just trust me. Crafter didn't bring any demons here—he merely thinks he did."

"Then what's that writin' on that little plate over the door, above the dead chick's head?" Balls pointed.

The Writer squinted. "Oh, I didn't see that." He shined his light right up.

And stared.

A tiny brass plate had been mounted in the keystone, and engraved upon it was were several Greek letters.

The Writer made a rare departure from his avoidance of profanity. "Holy shit... "

"What is it?" Balls urged, impatient.

"It's Greek... "

"You speak Greek?"

The Writer rolled his eyes. "Of course."

"Then what the fuck's it say?"

After a difficult pause, the Writer told him.

"It says ‘Pasiphae.'"

««—»»

The Writer tried to assess every conceivable angle of the situation. Dicky had said this "woman" had called herself Pasiphae. How could he make that up? These two guys are white trash, not scholars of myth. Still, the Writer had to ask.

"Gentlemen, if I may. Are either of you familiar with the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur?"

Balls and Dicky looked at him cockeyed.

"That's what I thought." The Writer sat down at the table full of books and instruments. "I'm trying to reckon a conclusion: how Dicky could have heard the name Pasiphae upstairs earlier, and then we come down here to find the name written in its original Greek on the transom of that door. So when you gentlemen were children, in school, you never learned any Greek mythology?"

"Writer," Balls began an honest answer, "when we was kids, we was cuttin' class, stealin' hubcaps, and peepin' inta chicks winders so's we could gander some hair pie'n beat off. We didn't learn no Greek shit."

"You talkin' 'bout stuff like Herck-a-lees?" Dicky ventured.

Eureka! The Writer cracked his hands together. "Yes! This is a story along similar lines. Greek mythology comprises the first stories of sophistication in the history of mankind. The first genuine allegories. Thousands of years ago, it is said, the great god Poseidon gave Minos, the king of Crete, a splendid white bull to be sacrificed, but before that could take place, Minos' wife... became, uh, attracted to the bull and, well, she decided to have sex with it."

Dicky stared, mouth open. Balls frowned. "The chick fucked the bull, you mean?"

"Actually, yes, Mr. Balls. The chick... fucked the bull, a bull that was intended to be sacrificed to the gods. By circumventing Poseidon's will, big trouble would ensue. Minos' wife later gave birth to the product of her aberrant union: a terrifying creature stronger than Hercules himself, a creature called the Minotaur. This beast was, for all intents and purposes, a demon. It possessed the body of a man and the head of a bull." Then the Writer glanced at Balls and Dicky for effect.

Balls slammed his fist down on the table. "What kind of a a-hole are you? We'se got some serious whacked out shit goin' on here and you're blabberin' 'bout some king's squeeze who got the blocks put to her by a fuckin' bull! What the fuck are we'se supposed to do with that?"

The Writer half-smiled. "The king's ‘squeeze' was a woman of untold beauty, and her name was Pasiphae."

Balls' anger dissipated, giving over to puzzlement.

"That's what the splittail upstairs tolt me her name was," Dicky re-clarified, "‘Fore I'se fucked her and then she started squirtin'—"

"Yes, yes," the Writer severed the viscid retelling. "I'm simply trying to find a way to justify the coincidence."

Balls gave a mirthful laugh. "So's this time, instead'a fuckin' a bull, she fucked Dicky?"

Dicky laughed back. "Well, I'm damn near hung like one!"

"Yeah, well your mamma tolt me she'd seen bigger cigarettes."

"Yeah? Well your Daddy tolt me when you's were a baby you spent more time suckin' his dick than suckin' your momma's tittie!"

What am I going to do with these guys? "Gentlemen, gentlemen, please. We're in a conundrum here, and we need to take some action." The Writer gestured the floppy breasted corpse hanging on the door. "Crafter's occult delusions are obviously of a very extreme nature, and whether you believe in the occult or not, a murder has been committed. Our most logical course of action is to leave without delay. If we get caught in this house, or are seen by passersby anywhere in its proximity, we could be accused of this murder."

Dicky responded to the Writer's logic by posing the most illogical question. "So's what was all that spunky lookin' goo that this Pasiphae gal spat out her pussy all over the rug upstairs?"

The Writer rubbed his temples. "You're missing my point, Mr. Dicky. I don't believe that Pasiphae ever was upstairs—"

"But Dicky seed her with his own two eyes," Balls interjected, "and so did Cora."

"—nor do I believe there was ever any ‘goo' on the carpet upstairs."

Balls' face screwed up. "But you done said ya saw it yer own self!"

"No, I said I believe that everything any of us think we saw was an hallucination," the Writer reasserted. "A stressful situation, a sinister house, an unknown set of circumstances, plus the fumes of human decomposition. I believe that all these elements have aggregated and caused us to have a manner of shared hallucinations—a mirage, so to speak." He pinched his chin. "The only thing I can't figure out is how Dicky believed this imaginary woman referred to herself as Pasiphae when he was previously unfamiliar with the mythology... "

"Then maybe you're fuckin' wrong," Balls suggested. "Maybe it ain't a hallucination. Maybe it's all real, somethin' from Crafter's devil-worship'n shit." Now Balls struck the most contemplative look of his life. "So's far, all of us've seen somethin' in this house ‘cept me... "

"Ah, you've harnessed your powers of deductive reasoning," the Writer enthused. "Therefore?"

Balls rubbed his hands together. "Guess it's time fer me go upstairs'n check it out myself... "

(VII)

Balls mounted with steps up with confidence. What I got to be afraid of? Some crazy black chick? Bunch'a shit on a floor? Gun in belt, hickory pick handle in one hand and flashlight in the other, Balls reflected his current state of actualization: I ain't afraid'a nothin'.

He yelped when he turned on the landing and saw a figure facing him, which turned out to be a decorative suit of armor. Shee-it... He closed the basement door behind him, ill at ease, for some reason, by the look of the cross hanging on it. Candlelight shifted over the walls, and for a moment he thought he could see faces forming... but he knew that couldn't be. When he looked up the stairwell to the second floor, a depthless black void looked back at him. Don't be a pussy! he yelled at himself, and then he patted his pistol for good measure and began to climb the steps.

The boards beneath the carpet creaked like old ladies laughing. Each step up seemed noticeably higher than the previous. The flashlight bored through darkness thick as insulation, and once he set foot on the landing, he froze, startled, at a strange thumping sound but then smirked when he realized it was his own heart.

He turned into the first room and snapped the light to all corners. This must be it, he knew by the smell. Smells like cum'n pussy in here. A fancy bed with mussed covers sat against the wall; then he shined his flashlight down and stared.

The indescribable starfish-shaped goo lay there... moving. I don't care WHAT that writer says—this ain't no halluci-fuckin'-ation... Each elongation of the milk-marbled configuration seemed to grow like a slow trickle. Whatever this stuff was, though, Balls could not construe it as a threat.

Waste'a time. We should be loadin' up the haul... Disgruntled, he checked the other rooms, which offered more of the same: old-style furniture, old paintings and the like.

Fuck this. Time to git back to work'n git out'a this freaky joint. He headed back toward the stairs but paused. Something unbidden made him hesitate... and he peeked back in the first room...

The muck on the floor was beginning to... get up, two of the viscid configuration's extensions serving as legs. A vague tumescence misted about the room, and even some of the bulbs in the lamps flickered—as though the rising thing carried some inexplicable static electricity with it. Balls couldn't know, of course, that this phenomenon came from the flux of its Death Force, the residue of which carried over from its genetic origins which were rooted not of this earth but of the Labyrinthine District of Hell. Soon the spindle-form mass stood upright and close to six feet in height. Balls' sensibilities were now essentially high-jacked by his witness of what was taking place: a Para-Planar Birth.

He just stood and stared as the featureless stick-figure began to evolve before his eyes.

A crush of sounds percolated about the room, something like hardboiled eggs being peeled, and rushing sewage, and emphysematic respiration. The clock he'd heard ticking previously now seemed to tick ten times faster, all the while the thing before him growing in girth and taking on more details, until—

Balls' breath locked in his chest.

The thing stood complete: a beautiful nude woman with large, high-riding breasts, indefectable curves, and a plump, hairless pubis. Her skin shone fresh, poreless, and alabaster-white.

And one last detail: this "woman" had the head of a bull.

It appeared to be of the Angus variety, with shimmering black hair flowing down the arched muscular neck, then over the woman's sleek shoulders. Eyes green as backlit emeralds glittered in the small round sockets. But of this entire being—this monstrous crossbreed—the most notable feature was the pair of long, curved horns sprouting from its head.

It stood for several moments, seeming to stare at Balls as if uncomprehending. Then its delicate white hands caressed the burgeoning bosom. Thumb and index fingers teased the puckered dark-pink nipples, then the hands slid down over the flat abdomen and glided over the pubis. Then—

It looked again to Balls, snorted, and charged.

Balls came out of his stasis fast enough to yell, leap backward out of the room, and slam to the door. A bang and a crunching sound were heard immediately thereafter, and instantly two splintering holes appeared in the door through which jutted the tips of the entity's horns.

Balls fumbled for the pistol, then—

BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM!

Six .455 bullet-holes tracked up the center of the door, right between the horn-points. Balls stood wide-eyed in the sequent silence, waving away smoke. No way in fuckin' holy hail I missed, he thought.

The door exploded, splintery shards flying, and the unfathomable creature stepped through, jerked its head, and snorted a string of mucus.

Balls had a half-second to notice the six bullet-holes in the back bedroom wall, then he ran down the stairs as fast as he'd ever run in his life.

(VIII)

During Balls excursion upstairs, Cora remained unconscious on the floor while Dicky meandered around the strange room of bookshelves, Doric columns, and old doors. The Writer continued to smoke as he examined the pile of very old books set around the table.

Every second that transpired felt more like a minute. Dicky kept looking up at the ceiling. "What's takin' him so long?"

"Relax, Mr. Dicky. He seems like a pretty thorough man."

"But what if... What if the black chick came back and now—now she's fuckin' Balls?"

"I have every confidence that that's not the case."

Dicky groped for any distraction. "What's with all them books?"

"These are some very interesting books indeed, Mr. Dicky," the Writer said. "Hundreds of years old, and more proof of Crafter's devotion to his satanic delusion." There were a number of tomes that Crafter had obviously taken down off his shelves for the ritual he'd engaged in. One wasn't a book at all but a yellowed manuscript which the Writer was leafing through now. "But this holograph is the most interesting of all. They're hand-written notes by an infamous astrologer and occult translator named Dr. John Dee. Evidently he compiled these missives between May and December of 1581; he was translating ritualistic techniques from various sources, for his own use. This passage here—" The Writer pointed to the yellowed sheet of vellum. "It was translated from an older book, thought to no longer exist, called the Magnum Maleficarum, originally penned in Old Latin. The passage copied here is entitled ‘The Proper Procedure and Use of Eibon Wood.'

"Never heard of him."

"It's not a him, Mr. Dicky. It's a type of conditioned wood, and you may be intrigued when I explain what's written here. It tells of how wooden planks can be ritualistically conditioned by burying them in a graveyard of unconsecrated ground that served as the final resting place for condemned witches."

Dicky's brain could almost be heard clicking. "The graveyard we seed outside! Lots of 'em were half dug into."

"Precisely. It's a solid bet that the wooden planks that Crafter used to make the six doors in this room are made of such wood. Each plank was buried over the graves for a total of 666 days; then they were nailed together and used to fashion the door-faces. This manuscript here is quite concise. Dee calls these doors a ‘Talismanic Traversion Bridle.'"

"Huh?"

"Think of it this way. Each door is a magic door, Mr. Dicky. They've been ritually charged with an occult power to close off the passage to a netherworldly domain—six such passages, I'd say. And when the proper ritual is enacted... that barrier—that bridle—comes down, and the door opens to a predesignated supernatural realm." Again the Writer's eyes gestured the corpse hanging by the spike through its neck. "Lowering this barrier, of course, must involve a human sacrifice. Before Crafter left on his trip, it's clear he engaged in such a task, and that poor girl was the fodder for the rite."

Dicky whispered, eyes wide. "He opened that there door to some place full'a demons... "

"A place, yes. A realm, obviously one that's associated with the damned demonness known as Pasiphae. In defying Poseidon and falling in love with her own hellish offspring—the Minotaur—she was eternally condemned."

"So that's how the shiny black chick got here—through that door," Dicky figured.

"Well, Crafter believes that, yes. But I don't, and you shouldn't either. It's all part of his delusion—nonsense, ultimately. It is funny, though. We were astounded by how Crafter could leave a house full of treasures virtually unprotected. Perhaps he thought that summoning Pasiphae would serve as his alarm system... "

"All's right," Dicky insisted. "But let's just say that it is true, and that this Pasiphae gal come out that door when Crafter kilt the girl... What about these other doors? It say what they are in them papers?"

"Not in these papers, but in this," and then the Writer held up a very old book with metal hinges and faded gold gilding. "The Incarnologie Daemorium, translated into English in 1839 by Rev. Montague Thomas Alexander in Wales. The author is quite a sinister chap who went by the name of Comte Michel Lemoine Willirmoz, who had been burned at the stake in St. Claude, France, in 1680 for black magic and molestation. He was reportedly a lithomancer, that is he practiced magic through stones. If you look carefully, the keystone of each door, just above each brass plate, has been set with various stones."

Dicky peered and indeed noticed the tiny stone chips of myriad colors, affixed to each center block. "They diamonds'n rubies'n shit?"

"I'm afraid not, Mr. Dicky. They're only semi-precious stones, such as amethyst, onyx, galena, quartz—no monetary value but to a lithomancer, they're the source of his magic." Next the writer pointed to an odd smock-like garment hanging inside an opened armoire. It looked made of black sack cloth, yet the garment dazzled, for into its fabric had been stitched hundreds more semi-precious stones. "No doubt Crafter wore that tunic there during the rite... his sorcerer's surplice. All magicians and warlocks wore such cloaks when practicing their art."

"Dang. A magic jacket?"

"Precisely." The Writer turned back to the Incarnologie Daemorium. "Willirmoz was black magic's most notorious sorcerer, and in this priceless grimoire, he specifically identifies each of the six supernatural domains he was able to supposedly access. Door One we already know: the domain of Pasiphae. Door Two accesses a creature from pre-Islamic folklore known as a ghala but what is better known as a ghoul. Door Three? The Lycanthrope, otherwise known as a werewolf. Door Four opens to the realm of the Nosferatu, or vampire. Door Five: the Khmoc, which is an Asian version of a zombie that predates voodoo by thousands of years. And Door Six reveals a creature I'm not familiar with, something called a Spermatogoyle, which, according to this book, hails from a region in Hell called the Flesh District." The Writer raised his brows over the thing's official name. "I have no idea what that could be, but I can hazard a guess that it's got something to do with semen."

Dicky jerked his gaze. "Ya mean, like, man-batter? Petersnot? Dick loogie?"

The Writer slumped. "Uh, yes. Dick loogie... "

Dicky scratched his overhanging beer belly, then cast the Writer a more suspicious expression. "How you know so much 'bout all this devil shit?"

"Only from a few history of metaphysics courses I took in college to accommodate my double major in Philosophy. It's really no different from any manner of folklore; we don't study it because we believe in it, we study it to analyze an aspect of our intellectual evolvement. Before mankind was smart enough to think rationally, we made up stories and superstitions to explain the things about our existence we didn't understand. It's all quite silly when you get right down to it. It makes the human race look like a bunch of buffoons."

"A bunch'a balloons?" Dicky questioned.

"Never mind... "

A groan resounded from the corner. Cora was rousing. She blinked, shaking her head, and managed to hitch herself up to sit against the wall. "The hail? That mean fucker knock me out again?"

"Shore did, Cora," Dicky told her. "Balls don't like it when chicks talk too much."

"Fucker," she muttered, blinking out the rest of the stars. "And where is he anyway?"

"Upstairs, checkin' things out."

Only now did the malnourished prostitute notice the foul stench. "Aw, shit. Smells like—" and then she shrieked when she saw the dead woman hanging on the door.

Dicky and the Writer both ground their teeth and clapped their hands over their ears.

"What the hail is this? A horror dungeon're somethin'?"

"A modern equivalent, you could say," the Writer replied.

"What's goin' on down here?" she pleaded. "I can't stand this! Dicky, please! Cut my wrists loose!"

Dicky hemmed and hawed. "Aw, shee-it, Cora. I cain't do that."

"Why!"

"Aw, ya know... Balls'd get a right pissed."

"Fuck him!" she spat. "Let me go! Ain't right fer you ta keep me tied up like this! And that stink is killin' me! Let's all get out'a here! Lemme go!"

"Just be patient, Cora. Balls'll let'cha go soon."

The girl squirmed where she sat, trying but failing to snap her bonds. Then she began to sob.

"She's harmless, Mr. Dicky," the Writer suggested. "It can't hurt to untie her."

"Naw. Balls'd pitch a fit, he would."

Now she was panting, "Dicky! Dicky! Lemme go and I'll'se let'cha fuck me... "

Dicky shuffled his feet. Aw, naw... "

"Look, look," and then Cora was cumbersomely pulling her shorts down from behind. "Just you take a look at my beautiful pussy and then you'll'se be dyin' ta fuck it!" and with that promise, she squirmed some more and managed to get the shorts down to mid-thigh. "Take a look at that! Ain't that just a scrumptious-lookin' cunt?"

Dicky and the Writer both nearly howled at the sight.

"Dang, Cora, that's the blammed ugliest snatch I ever saw!" Dicky complained. "Looks like two dead rats pushed together. Don't be flashin' that shit."

"Well then... how's 'bout my ass?" she tried next. "You's kin fuck it ta high heaven! Take a look!" and then she rolled over and stuck her bare rump in the air.

This time Dicky and the Writer did howl. Cora's buttocks strained open, revealing an anus that looked more like a clot of steel wool... with a hole in it. Hair grew rampant in the rank cleft, tracing all the way up past her tail bone.

Dicky yelled, "Fuck, girl! Pull them shorts back up or I'll kill ya! Ya done fucked up my sex drive fer a year!"

Cora collapsed to more sobs. The Writer sighed in relief, now that he didn't have to look at the ghastly cleft. I'll bet she doesn't make very much as a prostitute... .

Cora bawled for several more minutes, hitching the shorts back up but eventually her eyes roved back to the pallid corpse on the door. She stared, her mouth falling open. "My fuckin' gosh—I know that bitch... "

"Ya do?" Dicky said.

"Aw, yeah, I used ta see her a lot back when I were turnin' tricks up the truck stop. She kicked my ass one night 'cos I was low-ballin' truckers fer blowjobs... the bitch."

Dicky laughed. "So's she's a whore, too?"

The Writer looked closer this time. "Given the obvious heroin needlemarks and the LOVE DEPOSIT tattoo, it's probably safe to say that she's not a church organist."

"But what the fuck happened to the dirty skank?" Cora queried.

Dicky was all too proud to explain. "A sorcerer sacker-ficed her to the Devil, so's he could open a doorway to places where demons hang out. That's where that black chick upstairs come from."

The Writer winced yet again. "Actually, Mr. Dicky, it's just superstitious nonsense of Crafter's. No demons really came through that door, no woman painted black. Like I postulated previously, we think we all saw something supernatural but in truth it was just an example of shared hallucinations."

Then, from upstairs:

BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM!

Cora shrieked.

The Writer ground his teeth again.

Dicky pissed his pants and yelled, "Balls is plum shootin' someone!"

They could hear the mad footsteps thundering downward, then the fist banging on the door.

"Dickyyyyyyyyyyyyyy! Open the fuckin' door!"

Dicky froze in place, but the Writer raced up the basement steps and opened the door to let a petrified Balls burst in and fall all the way down the stairs. In the second or two before the Writer reclosed the door, his eyes reached out unto the candle-lit sitting-room where he thought he saw a sleek shadow diced by snatches of white bare skin. He caught a half-glimpse of pre-eminent breasts, a half-glimpse of a flat female abdomen, and even a quarter-glimpse of a bald, plump, beauteous pubis with a seraphic pink twist of flesh peeking through the bifurcation.

And a one-eighth-glimpse of a Black Angus bull's head complete with horns.

The Writer slammed and barred the door just as the shadow would be at the threshold, and with the slam, he heard an animal-like howl...

The Writer trembled back down the steps and at once lit a cigarette.

Dicky was helping Balls up, the latter appearing just as shaken as the Writer.

"Balls!" Dicky exclaimed. "Who's were ya shootin' at?"

"I hit it, I know I hit it!" Balls yelled. "Couldn't'a missed in a million years, but then I seed the bullet-holes in the back wall... "

The Writer sat down and took a deep breath. "Mr. Balls. What exactly did you see upstairs?"

"Bet it was that weirdo chick painted black," Dicky said. "She come back, ain't she?"

Balls looked at his cohort with befuddlement. "Naw, Dicky. It was a white chick with a body that'd make the Pope kick out a stained-glass winder, and-and-and—"

"A bull's head?" the Writer asked.

"You saw it too?"

"Yes." The Writer spewed smoke. I'd sell my soul right now for just one drink. "A Minotaur, the offspring of Pasiphae."

"And you see the tits on that brick shit-house?"

Tits, the Writer thought obscurely. "I did, Mr. Balls. I actually saw a bull's head on a female body, so I guess that could only be a Minotauress." He shook his head, however, convinced of his resolve. "But just as before, I insist, it was not real—"

The inhuman howl resounded again from upstairs, shaking the house.

"Not real, huh? Then what the fuck was that? One'a yer fuckin' ‘lucina-shun-uns?"

"I contend it was exactly that. The duress we're all under, along with the macabre circumstances—" He gestured the sacrificed corpse. "It's all simply reinforcing the power of suggestion and creating a mode of multiple hallucinations."

"Aw fuck you'n yer bullshit, man!" Balls dismissed. "You're the asshole who says there ain't no Devil or demons and God's a bunch'a ‘rithmatic! Well, I'll tell you one thing, Writer. That thing upstairs shore as shit's a demon."

"If it were a demon, Mr. Balls, then why didn't it break the door down and come down here?"

"'Cos of the cross on the door, ya dick-head!" Balls answered without missing a beat.

The Writer could think of no argument. My existential actualization has now met its greatest challenge, he deemed. He thought of Sartre's protagonist in "The Wall," who faced a similar challenge by submitting to the firing squad...

"I'll prove Emmanuel Kant's theory that God is the only supernatural entity that can exist," and then the Writer got up and headed for the steps.

"Take the gun!" Balls implored. "Er—well, strike that. I shot the bitch point blank and the slugs went right through it."

"I won't need a gun, Mr. Balls, nor will I have any utility for any means of defense because I am certain that there is nothing upstairs I need to defend myself against. All that is upstairs is a figment of mind that can't hurt any of us."

Balls smirked a grin. "That big-tit bitch is gonna nail your college ass to the fuckin' wall with them horns. Don't be a moe-ron."

"Don't go! Don't go!" Cora shrieked.

The Writer winced, then mounted the steps.

Only faith can save me now, he thought and smiled.

He took the bar off the door and swung it boldly open. He stepped out, turned, then without hesitation strode into the sitting-room and its cloak of flickering candlelight.

The Minotauress stood in the opposite corner. Ropes of bull-snot flew when it jerked its great head toward him.

The Writer forced himself to stare, forced his gaze to slowly draw upward along the creature's provocative physique and then stop at the beastly, horned head.

"You are not the incarnation of demonic offspring," the Writer spoke right up to it. "You are nothing but the product of hallucination. I'm going to blink now, and when the blink is completed, you will be gone, because for that to not be the case is to reject all that I believe to be true. There is no power greater than the power of truth."

The Writer closed his eyes.

Sheer consternation followed: the hellish snorting, the ungodly mewls, and the blur of impossible mass rushing forward, perfect human breasts riding up and down as the animal-head lowered to advance its deadly horns. The Writer opened his eyes again, just as the thing slammed into him, causing the house to tremor. The horns just missed goring him, instead pinning him from either side under his arms. Plaster fell from the walls amid the impact, paintings popped off, and marble busts toppled. The Writer liberally urinated in his pants, and he couldn't be sure but it seemed the impossible bull-face was smiling at him.

Shouting, he shot his arms up, slipped out of the brace of horns, and ran blubbering back to the basement door. In the background he heard the Minotauress yank its horns from the wall, snort again, and tear after him, screaming.

The Writer leapt into the black stairwell and slammed the door behind him. All the hairs on the back of his neck stood up at the creature's bellow of objection.

Dejected even more than he was terrified, he came back down the steps.

Balls, Dicky, and Cora all looked at him.

"I guess... Emmanuel Kant was wrong," the Writer admitted. He slumped down in a chair. "And... I seem to have wet my pants."

"Don't feel bad," Balls laughed. "So did I."

"Me, too," Dicky admitted.

"What're we gonna do?" Cora squealed. "That thing ain't gonna let us get out'a here!"

"We-we can wait till Crafter gets back," Dicky stammered.

"You got pig turds fer brains," Balls remarked. "He ain't comin' back fer a week, and all he'd probably do is use us fer sacker-ficin'."

"But won't the thing upstairs kill him when he comes in the house?" Cora asked.

"More than likely not," the Writer said. "In demonic incarnation—which I suppose I believe in now—that which is summoned can not harm the summoner. The Minotauress born to such an incarnation: Pasiphae."

"Pasiphae," Balls muttered, searching for a chronology. "Crafter brought her here from Hell by killin' that fat chick on the door?"

"I have no choice at this point but to say yes," the Writer said.

"Then she fucked Dicky, dropped all that spooge'n slop on the floor, and that's what turned inta that bitch with the bull's head?"

"Yes."

"And it were a good nut, too," Dicky offered. "Dang good, it was."

"Shut up," Balls said. Now he was staring at the unfortunate dead woman. "And all this shit's hittin' the fan 'cos ‘fore Crafter left, he sacker-ficed that butt-ugly ‘ho on the door."

The Writer nodded, opening a hand to the implements on the table. "By using the ritual instructions found in these books and undertaking a particularized ritual invocation known as tephramancy."

"The fuck is that exactly?"

"He impaled her on the chosen door—the Traversion Bridle—removed her heart by means of those branch-cutters and surgical retractors, put the heart in that crucible, it would seem, and then reduced it to ash in the crematory. After that, he applied the ashes to the transom stones over the door and then... the Bridle was lowered and Pasiphae's domain in Hell was opened to this room long enough for her to emerge."

Dicky picked his nose. Cora sniffled. The Writer lit another cigarette and wished he could down a couple of pitchers real fast. But Balls set his chin atop the tips of his fingers, thinking...

"And the Writer here says that what a warlock brings through them doors his own self cain't hurt him... " Balls' eyes caught the Writer's.

"You're thinking that if we initiated our own invocation, we could use what we summoned to kill the Minotauress—"

"Yeah! And thens we can high-tail it out's this fuckin' place!" Balls rallied. "Why not! Crafter done it so's why cain't we?"

The Writer chuckled smoke. "Mr. Balls—the process would require one of us to be sacrificed."

Silence.

Very slowly, then, Balls and Dicky turned their gazes to Cora.

The Writer thought: Oh, dear...

Cora flailed against her bonds. "Why the fuck you rednecks lookin' at me?"

Balls shrugged. "Well, see, me'n Dicky still got a haul to make, and the Writer here, he's got the smarts, but you, Cora? You don't bring much to the table, in fact the way I see it, you're about as useful as a dick on a cow... "

"Let me go, you fucker!" she squealed.

POP!

Balls' fist made short work of Cora's protestations. She slumped over again, out cold.

"It's murder," the Writer reminded them. "It's a capital offense."

"Does it look like I care?" Balls retorted. "Shee-it. We'se'll just summon ourselfs our own demon, then we can get out'a here and still walk off with a shitload's Crafter's hair-looms."

"That's purdy dang good thankin', Balls," Dicky said.

The Writer struggled for any idea to thwart the plan. "Tephramancy requires human ashes; that's why Crafter has his own crematory. It probably won't even work with all the power shut off."

Dicky's minuscule intuition fired up. "But that thing runs on gas, don't it? We done seed all them propane tanks outside."

Balls stalked right up to the idle machine, pushed the ON button, and—

POOF!

—the pilot flared from the surge of propane.

"So much fer that, Writer!" Balls turned the knob to high. "Looks like we're ready to have ourselves our very own demoneric sacker-fice!"

And then the dirty-work began.

(IX)

The Writer felt ultimately responsible but then poor Cora didn't have much of a life to begin with. At least her travails and the pain of her addictions is at an end, he tried to rationalize.

Balls didn't need much instruction; he and Dicky, first, picked up Cora's unconscious form, and—

CRUNCH...

—impaled her throat on the iron spike of the last wooden door. Her junkie eyes sprang open; she flipped feebly on the spike, whose tip exited the hollow of her throat. Then she began to gargle foamy blood.

Balls looked to the first corpse, then to the Writer. "She gotta be nekit?"

Queasy, the Writer reeled at the gargling sound. "It doesn't say so specifically in these tomes but naked sacrifice victims do seem to support the time-held cliché. Nakedness begets lust, and lust offends God. By soliciting a demonic source, you pay tribute to it by offering a naked sacrifant."

Balls' Buck knife cut off Cora's tube-top. He frowned at the irregularly nippled breasts that were flat as proverbial beer coasters. "Shee-it. I seen bigger lumps in pancake batter. Hope her cooze looks a right better than them little skin-bags she's got fer tits."

"It don't," Dicky assured.

Balls hauled the cutoff shorts off her dirty legs and feet. "Oww! You gotta be shittin' me, man!" he howled in objection at the woman's groin. "Is that groaty or what? Her cunt looks like a fuckin' baby gorilla!"

Neither the Writer nor Dicky even looked this time. Balls' expression puckered as he grabbed the branch-cutters. "Any gal with a pussy that ugly deserves ta be sacker-ficed... ," and without delay he hooked the cutter's lower blade into her navel, pushed, and—

crack! crack! crack!

—began to clip a rive from her upper abdomen to her neck. Dark, disease-rife blood poured from the opening.

"Er, let's see now... Dicky, grab me that metal frame-lookin' thing off the other ‘ho—right, Writer?"

The Writer sighed in place. "Yes. It'll be necessary to widen the chest cavity enough to access her heart."

Balls figured it out by intuition. He sunk the retractor's prongs into the wound, then turned each of its two knobs. Each crank divided the severed ribcage in increments. Balls reached right in and manually spread the tainted, pink-black lungs, to reveal a quivering white sac.

"Wow, it's white. I'd always thunk hearts were red."

Dismally, the Writer informed, "The white mass is actually the pericardium which surrounds the heart. I'm afraid you'll have to cut both out."

The mass was still barely beating. Balls grabbed it and yanked, then with surprising finesse severed the aortic arch with the razor-sharp Buck knife.

After doing so, an inch-thick plume of blood vaulted out and hit Dicky right in the face.

"Dang, Balls! Aw, man!"

Balls chuckled. "Sorry, Dicky. Don't swaller none. Bet it's loaded with the AIDS and everthang."