Last Punch

lastpunch

Topanga Canyon – May 2014

He woke up to the sound of Famine’s thunderous purr. She had placed herself in his left armpit right underneath his outstretched arm, her whiskers stuck out just far enough to tickle the hairs in his armpits and purr him awake.

His eyes weren’t even open yet, but he knew what he would see. The blue light of predawn burnishing his upper bedroom windows, Famine in his armpit and Pest, Death and War lined up like a feline barbershop trio on his other side willing him awake.

Well, they did say cats adopted you to keep you humble.

Al opened his eyes. All four cats gave him the evil eye for not jumping out of bed and running to the kitchen. He also saw his black-painted bedroom, the black duvet, his four-poster bed and a vast expanse of crumpled burgundy velvet bedspread concealing nothing more edifying than four different shades of cat hair.

These days and most days lately this bed was empty. With the kind of batshit women he usually attracted, this was just as well.

He sighed at the canopy above his head, rubbed the grit from his eyes and sat up. All four cats instantly leapt off the bed and began to mewl in anticipation of their breakfast.

Silly creatures. As if he’d ever starve an animal besides himself.

“All right, all right, guys. You know the drill.” Al stretched as he got out of bed and tried not to notice the definite creak in his bones this morning.

You could be screaming famous, rich beyond your most avaricious dreams, live a life dedicated to discerning dissipation, have hordes of female phone numbers in your little black book. He had all of that.

But Gawd fucking damn it. You still grew old.

#

Two hours later, the cats were fed, the coffee was brewing, and he had finished the first fifty laps of the day in the pool and was working his way around his private gym. Weights, check. Rowing machine, check. Jump rope, check. On his way to his fifty-seventh birthday next month, and he could still bench-press 400 pounds. Take that, decrepitude!

Alasdair Cameron Lennox, known to the world as Al Nox, this is your life, he thought as he beat his punching bag into submission.

Fifty-seven next month, eighteen albums over a nearly forty-year career, fifty million albums sold, sold-out arenas on four continents, the accolades and acknowledgement of two generations of his peers and a gazillion screaming, rabid fans. So many, he’d had to move from his house in the Hollywood Hills all the way out here to this isolated spot of BFE Los Angeles County, just to get away from the stalkers, the crazies and the crazier women he dumped after a few weeks because they bored him to tears with their demands for everything he didn’t want to give them.

Like a relationship. A house in Los Feliz. A thorough thrashing in his dungeon. Or infinitely worse. A wedding ring.

Fuck that shit.

He punched the bag harder.

It was simple, really. He felt increasingly dissociated from the music business, from music in general, from everything he cared about and even from life. Call it middle-aged malaise. His later albums received tepid reviews, even if they still sold, even if he could still fill the venues and sell the merch.

But rock’n’roll was dying or else becoming a parody of itself in this age of MP3s, Blabbermouth troll gossip and Spotify, who didn’t even pay the bands properly no matter how many times their music was streamed. That didn’t help.

Metalheads didn’t want innovation and renewal, they just wanted their own biases and preoccupations validated. Half the time, not even he could tell most of the good bands apart, they all sounded like each other. Sure, they were good musicians, but he was schooled at Juilliard and expected nothing less.

At least, that was what he thought until Max Shell came along. These days, Max was about the hottest, raddest producer and impresario in metal since anyone in the Eighties, and he should know.

Max took unknown, run-of-the-mill metal bands and supercharged every single one of their tired, trite musical clichés until even the drums pounded out undiluted evil. He elevated the guitars to chimerical distortion levels, skewed bass lines into impossible contortions, amped up the vocals all the way to demonic possession, and then released that sonic hell into an unsuspecting world.

Al had heard everything since he first started out in the industry. Yet he had never in his entire life heard anything at all like that. Neither had anyone else. And before long, they were all trying to figure out Max Shell’s M.O, trying to take apart his sound and coming up empty. Not even he could figure it out. Six years at Juilliard with the finest music teachers in the world, and Al Nox, musical genius since age three, was drawing blanks.

He pummeled away at the bag.

Those bands sold like ice cream on hot summer days. Which meant more money and more power for Max. All the metal rags wanted to interview him, every band who had ever made a name wanted him to produce them.

No dice. Max Shell never gave an interview, never answered requests for producing or engineering. He was a strictly invitation only kind of guy.

But what Max did need was a brush of legitimacy. He needed a big name, someone who would understand what that sound was trying to say, someone who knew the drill, someone who got it all the way to bedrock and bone marrow.

He stopped beating the punch bag for a moment to catch his breath and wiped the sweat off his face.

In other words, he needed Al Nox. Which explained today.

Because Al needed Max Shell, too. He needed that extra creative kick in the balls, needed to stop coasting on his twenty-plus years of superstardom, needed a newer, fresher audience than the fans who stuck with him since his radical punk days, and they sure as fuck weren’t getting any younger either.

So two months ago, he’d signed a contract with Max. Even though the guy creeped him way the fuck out, even though all of Cambion Studios set his teeth on edge, with its very state-of-the-art studios packed with flawless black-clad youth and edgy attitudes.

The punching bag was really getting it today.

Eighteen brand-new demos were as perfect as he was able to make them. They were among the best stuff he’d ever done; he knew it in his bones. After all this time in this shitty business, he knew.

But he also knew he needed to move out of his comfort zone and away from his cronies, and so, he needed a new band. As in, a brand new band. A young band, a hungry band, a band that wanted to get it out there and give it all they had with everything they owned.

A band that would shut the fuck up and do as they were told.

Because he was Al Nox. Still relevant, still edgy, still pushing the limits and the buttons and the ticket sales.

Too many people wanted him to just slink away and die already, buried alive in this eyrie tucked away in a secret little canyon off two winding, nameless dirt roads.

Just one over-the-hill rock star sucking down his memories of former glories and triumphs and conquests, fondly remembered as the biggest douchebag in rock’n’roll.

Well, it was one way to get where you needed to be in this industry.

He needed a massive hit. Correction. He heard his mother’s voice in his head.

“Dare, you don’t need a hit, you want a hit, which is not at all the same thing.”

True. His missed his mother on a day like today. When he was reminded of the first day of school, when everyone would be staring and wondering and whispering behind his back.

The punch bang creaked on its chain as he beat away. What did he want?

A hit. That rush of adulation as he hit the stage and found the lights. When eighty thousand people flashed the horns and screamed his name. When it worked, when it was right, when it was magic, he got hard just thinking about it.

He wanted the best drummer Max could buy. Not some hotshot out to show off just how much he rocked out to Lars Ulrich, not some smartass who thought he was the next Vinnie Paul or Danny Carey.

Anyone who knew anything knew a drummer was fully half the band. He wanted a kid who simply got it, got the music, got the idea, had a backbeat for whatever Al could throw at him, had punk in his blood and blues in his soul and that all-important primeval pulse in his heart, that was what he wanted.

So last week he sat through over four hundred audition demos of every starving drummer in Los Angeles who responded to an open audition call for demos. Four hundred had been knocked down to twenty-five. The twenty-five who would audition live for Al, hidden behind a one-way mirror in the producer’s booth. They didn’t know it was him, only that they were auditioning for a headliner band.

He looked forward to seeing their shock of recognition and awe. They were so easily impressed when they were young. He hadn’t been one of them in a very long time.

Well, he sure as fuck didn’t want to be stuck out here in his solitary canyon with only the cats and the coyotes for company, either. Andy, his personal assistant and human punching bag, was usually stuck at the office fending off interview requests, plowing through the mail or passing stuff on to his manager.

His cats were lovely, but the conversation was a bit one-sided. The whack jobs and nut cases who wanted to fuck him these days didn’t know Monteverdi from macaroni, thought Schopenhauer was some kind of communicable disease. They didn’t know how to cook, didn’t know how to eat and didn’t know how to take care of him or give him space when he wanted quality time in his studio with his notebooks, his Steinway and the noises in his head. They wanted him to be their whole lives and he couldn’t be someone else’s whole reason to exist, simply because no one would never be his. The music came first. And last. Always.

The punch bag screamed with the strain as he pummeled away.

As he did, as the sky lightened over the Santa Clara mountains and his arms and shoulders began to ache, a long-buried memory floated up to the surface of his mind. The tiny, dangerous pinprick of a size 5 stiletto heel on his spine, a brush of long, satin hair and a light hand on the choke collar around his neck, heat radiating off perfumed, silky skin.

Should I be nice to you now? Have you deserved that? I mean, really, truly deserved it?”

            That faint, sexy purr of her foreign accent.

With one last, powerful uppercut and a groan that startled his cats, the punch bag described a perfect parabolic curve on its chain.

Al was so preoccupied, he never saw when the punch bag swung back and knocked him to the floor.

Something he hadn’t had in almost twenty years. Another someone he had brutally kicked to the curb for knowing too much, for caring too much, for seeing too much not of Al Nox, but Alasdair Cameron Lennox.

Astrid.

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Family Reunion

DirtyDishes77

A low, insistent thrum woke her up. For a brief, dizzying moment, she thought she was still on the plane, stuck in a forever limbo somewhere over the Pacific. Until she opened her eyes and discovered she was home. Home on West 23rd St., home in the bliss of her own bed, wrapped in the dark blue twilight of her bed curtains, and Hogni, all thirty pounds of furry cattitude, was purring her awake, as if to say: “Wake up, stupid. You’ve slept long enough.” Which was perfectly reasonable, considering it was 3 PM in the afternoon. Hogni licked her nose, purred a little louder, then jumped out of bed and headed for the living room with an elegant swish of her plumed tail.

Lea sat up in bed. Home. Sometimes, it still spooked her that she lived here now, that all of New York was always right outside her building for the taking, when for so many years she had dreamed about living in New York so long and so fervently she thought it could never be as good as she imagined.

Yet even after three delirious weeks shilling her latest novel and meeting up with friends and fans, she wouldn’t have traded New York for anything at all. And now, after all her heartbreak and all the success she had busted her ass so hard to achieve, she also had Dev to share it with.

He was probably in his studio in Dumbo, blasting George Clinton as he painted his demons and chimaerae. He had an open studio coming up with the other artists in the building, and still had a few finishing touches to add to his new canvasses.

Three o’clock was either way too early or far too late for anything she wanted to do. But not too late for a shower, to get dressed and upgrade her ‘best-selling author at home with jetlag’ self. It had been three weeks.

Walking into her living room an hour later, she was hugely surprised to see Sophia stand at her kitchen island, chopping shallots as if it were the most normal occurrence in the world.

“Good mornin’, hon.” Sophia never moved, her knife dancing on those shallots like a cutlery ballet de corps, with total concentration to the task. “Yeah, I know. It’s mid-afternoon. You’re jet-lagged. You’ll need coffee. It’s in the thermos on the table. So’s a cup and a jug of milk, and it should even still be warm. And I’m cooking tonight, so sit the fuck down and shut up.”

Lea was too surprised to do anything else. “OK.” Coffee. “Did some inter-dimensional disaster happen last night that Dev forgot to tell me about, since you’re here?”

“Well, that’s one way to put it. He didn’t know until very early this morning. None of us did.”

“Knew what, exactly?” Lea sipped her coffee. It was strong, ambrosial and even better for being her own. “I thought all of that was over four years ago. Gawd. It seems like a lifetime ago.”

“I guess you could say that.” Sophia finished the shallots and moved on to cubing beef. “Never mind. It’s time for a family reunion and a few hard questions, so Saint Peter and Fulla are comin’ over later, Freya is rollin’ in from somewhere, too, and as for the rest of it, we’ll see. That’s why I’m cooking. Bœuf en daube.”

“In other words,” Lea put down her coffee cup on the table with an irritated clang against the saucer Sophia had heard before, “shut the fuck up and don’t ask questions until the whole gang is here, did I get that right?”

That made Sophia laugh. “Yupp. So.” She tossed the beef cubes into a freezer bag and coated them with seasoned flour. “How was Australia, anyway? I wanna know everything.”

“Huge. Australian. Warm. And do you know…” Lea laughed as she realized it. Three riotous weeks in Sydney and Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth, Auckland and Wellington. Those lovely, wacky Antipodeans who bought and downloaded her books and showed up for signings and readings had feted her and spoiled her rotten and showed her an incredible time in an astonishing part of the world.

“I was gone for three weeks, and I never did get to see a single koala. But the kangaroos were to die for!”

—–

Dev stood at the sink of his studio and wiped paint off his hands with an oil-soaked rag. He was surprised to see it was dark already, surprised the day had flown by without him, just as he flew in the door at a disgusting early hour this morning in a white-hot rage he could neither articulate nor explain. Not at 5 AM, he couldn’t.

Still, the last thing he consciously remembered was that fury, hauling out a large prepped canvas and setting it on his easel, and then…nothing but the black hole of creation. Nothing except the lines on the canvas to delineate his chosen motif, the underpainting he always used that made his colors glow with such heat, and the beginnings of…this. He turned to look at the canvas.

It was a creature he had never painted before. Once, there were many of these entities, fed by those black, shadowy corners of imagination women once never dared admit they had, since even to admit they existed carried the ultimate price tag, or else the ultimate and sanctified justification for rape, torture or sadistic murder. But in this anything goes relativistic age, they were very rare indeed, rare even four years ago, when he was fool enough to think they were destroyed along with the rest of Hell’s hundreds of thousands of inhabitants.

He should have known better, should have known his former spouse better than that. Lilith was a lot of things, but stupid wasn’t one of them. Somehow, without his even suspecting, she had managed to hedge her bets with the one trump card she had left.

On the canvas, spotlit with an eerie, otherworldly glow of paint, an inhumanly perfect man loomed large over an indeterminate lump that would later become a woman. He was all muscled, testosterone definition in that gleaming painted glow, a youngish man at the very apex of sexual appeal, with his long, black hair trailing down over what would become the woman’s skin, a look of rapt concentration on a chiseled Michelangelo face, one powerful hand gripping a would-be arm tight as any claw. Except this was no human.

This was an incubus about to feed. Or rather, the incubus, the child and lover of Lilith’s own making, he could see that now on the canvas, the one he never knew she could actually create until last night. Only now, it could very well be too late.

She had learned so much, she once said before she died, and that was true. She had somehow taught herself to be mother, mistress and lover to this abomination made flesh before she evidently had sent him out into this mad, bad world, taught that creature to be her last laugh and final revenge on humanity. Because it was the only way this creature could cross that line from superstition to concrete reality, and the only way he could have remained hidden for so long.

He washed the oil off his hands and threw the rag into the sink, angry all over again, with the world, with his former wife, with himself most of all. Livid for daring to think he would be safe now, furious for daring to imagine he had earned his right to live as these restless, endlessly curious humans he so identified with, for daring to presume even he, once the Guardian of negatives and nightmares, had earned the right simply to be happy.

De placed his cleaned brushes in their jars, closed the tubes of paint and put them back in the order he liked, and scraped off his palette. He was happy, truly happy for the first time in his life. Early this morning, after having his own personal nightmare confirmed, he realized with a start what he never could have known before. Happiness made you vulnerable, made you fear you could lose the cause and the sum of it to random chance, simple stupidity or just a vindictive ex-wife.

Happiness had in its own insidious way made him human, and that was yet another surprise.

Since he came back to this crazy world four months ago, life had an order and a consistent, quotidian rhythm, a set routine that all boiled down to a kind of joy. No other word quite described it. Three points of focus defined his world now, these 400 square feet of refuge in a famous building in Dumbo, his new bat cave where he came to get lost by painting the monsters out of his memory, the occasional visit to the house in Ditmas Park, and the epicenter of everything, the loft on West 23rd Street, where he lived and breathed, loved and fought and thought with Lea.

She wasn’t what she had been when he found her in a Copenhagen café four years ago, what she described as a ‘post-punk walking midlife crisis with an attitude problem’. Her crisis then was a lack of faith more than anything, faith in herself and her ability to create the future she wanted to manifest with such edgy desperation, but if he taught her nothing else, somewhere in those fevered weeks four years ago, he taught her to believe.

One thing had never changed. She definitely still had the attitude problem. Only now, they both chose to define it as yet another kind of foreplay.

Success had sanded down a few ingrained punk edges and made them smoother, expanded her tastes in the finer things in life and made her appreciate them more.

He remembered when they flew to India on a wild impulse shortly after his return just to get away from New York. Somehow, they ended up in a suite at the Taj Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur surrounded by the outrageous opulence of Moghul maharajahs and the equally outrageous sensory overload that was India itself. He remembered how the rest of the world had disappeared in the five days they spent there under those southern stars, and that moment in the dead of a warm Indian night when the lap of the water and the distant cries of unknown birds was the only music they needed.

He saw her in his mind’s eye silhouetted against the moonlight on the lake that night, the candlelight on the table in front of her reflected on her face and in the amber-gold glints of her hair.

“If you could go back in time to that café in Copenhagen, would you have made a different choice, knowing what you do now?” he asked her that night.

For a heartbeat or maybe ten as she hesitated, he knew all the self-doubts humans knew, knew he should never have come back, he was better off not knowing, not caring, not feeling. Infinitely better off for being his usual self, the embodiment of cold, calculated, emotionless evil. He knew.

Until she reached forward, grabbed him by the neck just like she did the first time, and whispered in his ear.

No.

He inhaled sharply as he remembered, and he was back in the present, staring at the canvas in front of him on a paint-splattered easel with a clamped desk lamp attached, the dilapidated purple velvet chaise he sometimes slept upon, the second-hand chairs and tables, the cabinets that held all the paraphernalia of painting, the big bottles of cold-pressed linseed oil, palette knives, walnut and poppy-seed oil, Damar and extra brushes, and on the other side of the window, the lights of Manhattan twinkling in the twilight across the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge looming ominous right outside.

She had been gone three weeks. And he knew exactly what could kill off this tetchy, restless, melancholy mood, precisely what he needed.

As Dev locked up his studio and walked toward the elevator, he thought one thing. “Brace yourself, baby. Because tonight, you’re gonna ride.”

—–

“Can you believe it? So then, the idiot had the nerve to ask me, ‘But what’s wrong with pornified sex? Are you saying it isn’t sex at all?’ I mean… come the fuck on! Young, dumb and full of come was dead on in his case. I dumped that bozo double quick at a Bierhalle in Munich during Oktoberfest. I mean, a girl can handle only so much stupidity at a time, you know? Maybe I should just dump all those younger dudes…”

Lea laughed at Freya’s story as they set the table for dinner that night. Freya was her best friend, sister and a goddess all wrapped into one exquisite exemplar of femininity, just like Fulla, now preoccupied with helping Sophia get everything on the table while Saint Peter was on the sofa fussing over Thafnir and his thunderous purrs, much to the irritation of Hogni, who turned her broad, furry back to all of them and stared out at West 23rd Street below with an irritated twitch of tail.

This was a family reunion she hadn’t expected, which made her appreciate it so much more.

She looked up             when she heard a key in the lock, and Dev walked in. As he caught her eye down the length of the hallway, his face lit up with a look she knew very well while he hung up his jacket.

“Baby, I’ve had a day and three quarters, so what I need from you right this instant is…”

Then, he walked all the way into the living room, and in a heartbeat, his face went nearly black with rage as he registered the company.

“GOD FUCKING DAMN IT!” he roared. “Who asked for company tonight of all nights?”

Sophia calmly set a salad bowl on the table, lifted an eyebrow and said, “I did. Sit the fuck down. Shut the fuck up. And eat, whydoncha?”

Dev threw himself into his chair with a scowl. Lea knew enough to stay well away from that mood on that face, and sat across from him on the other side. His scowl grew blacker.

Food and glasses of wine circled the table in silence until finally, even Sophia sat down, sighed and reached for her wine glass.

“OK.” She sipped her wine. “Guys, we’re in deep, deep shit. As in, over our heads deep shit.”

“How so?” Lea asked. She still had no idea what on Earth transpired dire enough to bring in Sophia, and no one was telling.

Dev sat back, ignored his food and picked at the stem of his wine glass as he stared out the window. Even from across the table, Lea sensed the anger that seemed to emanate off his shoulders in noxious, radioactive waves.

“What’s the matter?” laughed Freya as she knocked back the contents of her wine glass. “Something get between you and your hard-on on the way home?”

Fulla, on her other side, rolled her eyes.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” mumbled Saint Peter.

“Well, genius, either you explain it or I do, but since you caught it first, I say you should.” Sophia picked up her knife and fork and glared at Dev.

Who glared right at Saint Peter, before he snarled “I fucking told you to keep it quiet, and did you, asshole? No, you just brought in the whole goddamn cavalry on me! I told you – tell Sophia, but no one else needs to know, and blabbermouth you…”

Sophia stared him down. “Enough crap attitude from you, sunshine. Saint Peter sent for me. I came. He explained. It was my idea to round up the gang, not his. Thought it might be…” she stared at the spinach leaf on her fork before she popped it into her mouth, chewed and swallowed. “A good thing we’re all on the same page, ya know?”

“What page?” Lea interjected. “I’m not even in the same library as the rest of you!”

“Hon…” Sophia had another sip of wine. “You’re not on the same continent as the rest of us yet. OK. Now. Please. Behave yourselves already. Dev, someone you know needs an explanation. I suggest you give her one.”

A look bounced around the table. No one dared argue with Sophia when she pulled her matriarch trump card.

Dev stared into his wine glass, as if the answers were hidden in the depths. “Last night, when you were asleep, I had…I guess you could call it a nightmare. Except I don’t dream like you do so I don’t have nightmares, either. I woke up with a…” he drank down the wine in his glass. “Premonition, let’s call it. A premonition that something is way, way out of whack, something very, very wrong. Evil. Evil as anything Lilith ever was, if not worse. Except it’s not supposed to be there at all. We got everything, Samael and I, four years ago, so I thought and he did, too. What we didn’t get was destroyed the night Hell imploded, Lilith was killed, and we left.”

Lea buried her face in her hands and sighed. “And?” Why now? Why her? Why?

Never any answer to that question.

“So I went to Saint Peter at 4 AM this morning,” Dev went on, and Saint Peter chimed in.

“Woke me up when I was actually asleep, ya know? Well, cut to the fuckin’ chase already. We went downstairs. There’s one something out here in the real world left over from Hell, something from the wrong side of the fence for fuck’s sake, and genius here…” he elbowed Dev in his side, “says it’s an incubus. Fuck me, man, I thought those died out with the witch trials, for Chrissakes. Unless your name was Dion Fortune, but look where that got her.”

Despite the delicious aroma of the food wafting up from her plate, Lea instantly lost her appetite, and she hadn’t eaten a thing since somewhere over the Pacific.

“An incubus. Cute. Not.”

“No.” Dev’s most ominous baritone boomed through the loft. “Because this incubus was smart enough to find a human to latch on to, and that would keep him hidden from us if we went looking. Well, so far as I could tell, he’s managed to blend in for four years and no one’s the wiser. Except that’s not all.”

“No.” Sophia said. “You see, hon, if he can hide himself that well, he also knows a few things most of them never did. The Incubi may have been smokin’ hot guys to look at and impossibly great lays, but most of ‘em were dim as dirt. Not this one. He might have figured out how to breed. In which case, we’re as screwed as I thought and that’s why I came.”

“Breed?” Lea shook her head. “Give me a break here, guys. I’m jet-lagged. So far as I know, the Incubi were originally a very handy excuse for sexual abuse and misconduct you needed to explain away to an inquisitor, or did I get that wrong? The Succubi collected sperm they passed on to the Incubi, who then impregnated hapless, susceptible, superstitious females who didn’t have to tell the truth that Daddy did it all. Right?” She was so exasperated she picked her knife and fork and began to inhale the contents on her plate. Oh, fuck. Right when she was perfectly happy for a big change, right when everything was going well and she had even worked hard enough for Cyd to lay off her case, right when she thought she deserved a vacation, this happened.

She understood Dev’s toxic mood so much better now. Then again, she usually did.

Freya leaned over the table on her elbows and looked her right in the eye as she reached for the pepper mill. “Were the Succubi a figment of your imagination?”

This wasn’t Freya in girlfriend mode any longer. This was the Norse Goddess of dark and highly arcane magic in a voice that demanded an answer. Now.

Four years on, Lea had only a dim memory left of what she endured at the hands of the Succubi, but that much, she remembered.

“No.” She reached for her wine. There wasn’t enough Zinfandel in the state of California for her right now.

“So what makes you think,” Fulla went on sweetly, “that it’s any different this time?”

“I don’t know what to think! An incubus. A smart one. OK. What I want to know is how? If nothing feeds into him any more, and there’s no need for absolutes any longer then how the fuck…”

Right when she said it, she made the mistake of looking at Dev, who looked positively haunted. Oh, Gawd, no.

“Did you ever wonder, hon,” Sophia passed the wine bottle around the table. It came back empty. There was another one on standby on the kitchen island. “About why Lilith never attacked you, that last night in Hell?”

“As I recall,” Lea dropped her cutlery onto her plate with another irritated clang, “She couldn’t. You made sure of that. Or else it was that Daddy-o Samael didn’t want her to win.”

“True.” Sophia had a gleam in her eyes Lea couldn’t read. “Well, think, You’re really good at that. It could just possibly be…” her voice trailed off as she focused her attention on her plate.

Dev’s brown eyes across the table broadcast everything she wished she never knew. “That somehow, Lilith had managed to transfer her own powers to this…incubus, as a last laugh, is that it? Before she sent him out, before Hell was destroyed, before anyone even knew he existed? Am I missing something?” She killed the wine in her glass and got up to get the other bottle.

“Damn, girlfriend,” Freya lifted her wine glass in approval, “you’re good.”

“Bullshit.” Lea was so upset, she began to clear the table. “I’ve just been around all of you for w-a-y too long. So. An incubus. Who was given all of Lilith’s powers before she died. The only one left. If my memory serves me right, the Incubi are supposed to feed off sexual energy, is that right? How hard can he be to find? Wouldn’t he stick out like a sore thumb?”

Pots and pans and dirty bowls were thrown pell-mell into the dishwasher.

“That’s my job”, Saint Peter growled. Lea noticed that as they were busy discussing the shitstorm they were in, Saint Peter had quietly and effectively eaten nearly everything on the table. “Dunno yet, Got a few leads, but I’m waiting to hear back from a few people. So.” He shrugged and spooned the rest of the boeuf en daube onto his plate. “That’s where I’m at.”

“Great!” Lea slammed the dishwasher shut with a satisfying bang. “One super-powered incubus we can’t find is on the rampage somewhere trying to feed and breed in a world that doesn’t need him. Meanwhile, I’m guessing that lovely concrete container in what was once the dimension of Hell is filling up as we speak, and we’re all stuck here wondering what to do about it. Damn it! Why not just hunt that miserable son of a bitch down, destroy him and call it a day?” She skulled her glass of wine and immediately poured another.

“Well…” drawled Sophia with her usual calm, “it gets worse, kinda.”

“Worse?” Lea braced herself against the kitchen counter that separated the dining area from the kitchen. “How is that possible?”

But instead of Sophia answering, Dev spoke up. “Because I can’t destroy him any longer. I gave all that up when I came back.” He sounded at least as haunted as he looked.

“There are two entities in this room who can,” said Sophia. “I’m one.”

“I’m the other,” Freya mumbled into her wine glass. “But we’re going to need a little outside help, especially if he’s managed to breed.”

“First, we’ve gotta find him.” Saint Peter sat back with a happy, sated sigh. Not a scrap of food was left on the table. “And when we do…”

“We’ve got to lay a trap,” Dev murmured. He looked up at Lea, and there were entire Dostoyevsky novels inside that look.

“And that…” Sophia’s voice trailed off in the room, “is where you come in, hon.”

Lea drained her third glass of wine. There wasn’t enough Zinfandel on three continents to deal with this family reunion.

(With special thanks and undying gratitude to Maria, who told me much I needed to know…)

Sonic Hell

After four years in Hollywood, that town where all dreams came to die, the entity known to the authorities as Maxwell Shelderson the Third and to the general public as Max Shell had to admit it – life was usually pretty fucking good. Or it was until his engineer quit this morning.

Right when it was going great, right when his hot new find Satyriasis were grooving with a titanic monster of an album, the idiot engineer had to quit. Tinnitus. It always brought those humans down in the end.

Max had made his reputation in a little more than record time, literally and figuratively. On arriving in Hollywood four years ago on the specific orders of his mistress, it took him no time at all to discover that the movie business wasn’t quite his cup of tea. For one thing, they worked you to the bone, and he had much better uses for his.

Once upon a time, when hair bands were the next big thing and all the noise on the Strip, aspiring deadbeats in bandanas had made Cambion Studios the place for wannabe rock stars to record their demos in the hopes of multimillion dollar record deals.

A few bands succeeded, going on to fame and fortune before the drugs, the decadence, Machiavellian record contracts and VH1 TV specials did them in, but by then, Cambion had a reputation for being the place any self-respecting metal band began their illustrious careers.

That was over twenty years ago. Since the original owner was forced to sell off Cambion to pay the legal fees for a coke bust, Cambion slowly but surely slid into a state of metal fatigue. As the world moved on and bands went to other, better-equipped studios, a series of fly-by-night owners and the general decline of the music industry reduced it to a fifth-rate studio complex waiting for a wrecking ball to happen.

That was the day Max walked in the door, pretended to work there, and took about five minutes to figure out the layout, the logistics and his own battle plans for domination.

Two weeks later, no one dreamed of questioning his right to be there, just as no one ever wondered whether he had anything to do with the owner’s missing torso and later the head that emerged in the Chiquita Canyon landfill. It was only identified thanks to an enterprising forensic officer and a ten-year-old charge for DWI.

That just meant the bank knocked off sixty percent of the asking price when Max showed up with a checkbook to buy the studios.

Six months, a state-of-the-art renovation, an expensive PR makeover and two new releases later, Cambion Studios was an instant sensation. Metal bands came running to be reinvented by Max Shell, producer extraordinaire, for he could do what everyone said they wanted and everyone else got so horribly wrong – he could create a veritable sonic Hell on Earth. Not the Hell of limited human imagining and misguided metalheads but Hell as it once truly was, with its unearthly, inciting mix of mayhem and madness, metal and opera, music and emotion.

So they came, those boys and young men who thought rock’n’roll was a better option than working for a living, they came with all their own visions of what they wanted to say, what they wanted to do with their music, and if they were unsure of what directions to take or what options to choose, Max took great pains to teach them. To be fair, he had an edge or two on the competition.

He was the last remaining incubus on Earth. He was taught by his mistress to hide his tracks well, to be infinitely discreet and not to give himself away too much, but humans were so vulnerable, and women were so curious. In the course of four years, more than one young woman was found dead after what the LAPD coroner determined had been a night to remember, and that last, fatal night of their lives always belonged to Max.

What could he do? He had to feed. Those girls who came to the studios and hung around, hoping for a way out just as much as those hungry bands in his studios, girls with starving, khol-rimmed eyes and fishnet legs, girls with black talons and black talents, girls who begged to be abused didn’t take too long to discover that Max, with his Maserati and his money and his tall, inhumanly perfect self, with his prerequisite, long back hair and piercing blue eyes, was a much better deal than the dirty unwashed dudes who just wanted to screw their guitars.

Meanwhile, he needed an engineer, and a break, and to go home to the house in the Hollywood Hills that kept his own filthy little secret, a secret none of the music journalists who interviewed him ever knew.

A very human, very pregnant secret named Abbie.

Original image by Joe Chiodo

With special thanks to Tiger Powers.

Manhattan at 3 AM

 

 

He bolted upright in an instant, shocked aware and awake. It wasn’t a dream, since he never dreamed, had no need to clear out the mental cobwebs of the day as humans did. Yet something woke him up. What was it?

Beside him, she slept the sleep of the jetlagged, dead to the world and everything in it. Only a few hours before, she had returned from Sydney on a promotional tour for her latest novel. His baby was a literary superstar now, and pieces of her were wanted on five continents. There was no sign of the lionized writer in the bump under the duvet, only her disheveled hair trailing over the pillow, both cats snuggled up against her other side. Hogni opened one glowing amber eye as he got out of bed.

They were Freya’s cats, disguised as the pampered owners of a dedicated cat lover, but these two were no mere cats. He held his fingers to his lips and winked. She winked back. “Look after her,” he whispered in the dark, and drew the duvet up higher over her. Hogni opened her other eye, gave him a disdainful stare, sighed and stretched out further, showing off her long, luxurious belly fur.

In the living room, he walked to the window and stared out at West 23rd Street down below. Manhattan thrummed its 3 AM hum of sleepless ambition and voracious dreams this chilly October night, even the faraway sirens a little quieter at such a dead hour.

What could have woken him up? Not a dream, but some intuition…something that tasted of danger, danger to him, danger to her, to all of them, a kind of danger that shouldn’t even have existed any longer. They had all of them made certain to catch everything four years ago, all made sure there was nothing left on this blue planet except humanity, that singular species that was so like him in its restive, roiling, endless curiosity. Nothing at all left of his former domain, not even what he himself had been, which was precisely what he wanted, to leave that old, former self with all its bitter memories behind him and become as human as he could and live a life as humans did.

The Guardian of nightmares and negatives was… no more. No one in a city so enamored of surface and show ever suspected the truth – that he wasn’t human at all. These days, he was just another New York artist so far as anyone knew, freezing that kingdom of his past in his Dumbo studio onto canvas in near-photographic detail and vibrant, pulsing color. He constructed his chosen identity from the ruins of his former self, conjuring a growing reputation for painting creatures and scenes of horror in audacious, fluid, erotic ways no one dared before. The New York art world was always on the hunt for the new discovery, the different, the next big name, and the scenes he painted with their Horde creatures and chimerae in motion, exactly as they once had been in Hell, were getting attention and write-ups, just as he himself with his one name and his rock-star demeanor.

Deva or Devil, god or nightmare, it was the same name and the same meaning, so he named himself Dev as his beloved once did, painted it on his canvas in carmine with a precise Elizabethan calligraphic flourish, and laughed in private that those Chelsea galleries and their susceptible foreign clients were so gullible, so easy to manipulate.

He turned away from the window and looked across the dark living room. Her suitcase parked on the floor still unpacked, her travel clothes and the Converse All-Stars she refused to give up danced a tango across the floor and told their story of a happy homecoming, jet lag be damned.

That sense of danger, that faint taste of some unknown terribly, utterly wrong out there on the other side of the window, didn’t leave him. He tiptoed back into the bedroom and pulled on clothes, ran a brush through his hair, and closed the door softly behind him. She would be safe with her feline bodyguards while she slept. Or so he hoped as he left the loft and headed for Ditmas Park, Saint Peter and an explanation.

“This had better be good, asshole. I was asleep for a big fucking change.” Saint Peter’s deep baritone rumbled in the dark green room, with only the lamp on his desk to banish the Brooklyn 4 AM shadows. He looked rather rumpled himself in a khaki t-shirt and black sweatpants as he pushed his hair out of his face.

Dev sighed, drummed his end of the Chesterfield sofa for a moment as he thought and finally asked:  “Where is everybody?”

“Fulla is way asleep.” Saint Peter showed his canines. Dev filled in the blanks. “Freya …who knows? She comes and goes. Sweetpea came back from Sydney last night, right?”

“She did. She’s dead to the world. Leave her. She doesn’t need to know about this, and neither does Fulla unless we don’t have a choice.”

“So what was it?” Two gargantuan bare feet planted themselves on the coffee table. “Fuck, I’m tired. I thought we scoured the planet four years ago to make sure nothing was left.”

“Apparently, we missed one. I’m telling you…there’s something out there. Or someone. I felt it.”

“Any bright ideas, genius?”

“A few.” Dev ran his fingers through his hair, tried to organize his thoughts. “One of the Lilith faction, maybe, someone who managed to hide away when Samael and I went hunting. That’s as far as I got.” He shifted on the sofa. This should not be happening. He was happy now in his New York idyll, doing what he loved with the woman he wanted.

“How can they?”

“They can if they’re clever enough. If they can find a human to latch onto, they can. Which means it’s either a succubus, and I rather doubt that in the circumstances, or an incubus.”

“So we’re going downstairs, then?”

“We don’t have much of a choice, do we?” Dev sighed.

“Should I start tracking it down?” Saint Peter was a genius with a computer, could hack into any database anywhere without a trace, find anyone on Planet Earth.

“Not yet. Let’s go have a look first. If there’s anything to see.”

“Place is sealed off tighter than Fort Knox. It’s empty. Still. Can’t be too careful, doncha know.””

“Yeah. I know. If it is an incubus, he can’t get back in. That’s a start.”

Two huge feet landed on the floor as Saint Peter stood up. “Should I rally the troops?”

“Only Sophia. For now. Until we know more.” Dev rose too and tried to shake off a feeling of dread in his bones.

Down they went those familiar three flights of spiral stairs, down to where he hadn’t been in four Earth years, through the steel door and down the long corridor with all its anonymous steel doors. So many memories, most of them bad. Except one. Sweetpea in Leviathan’s black suede, taking him up against that wall over there, negating the encompassing horror of where he was headed now.

They arrived at one of the doors, Saint Peter swiped the card, scanned his left eye, and it opened with a hiss Dev thought he would never hear again.

The steel balcony was still there, the thin tubes of fluorescent lighting that ran down and along the floor of the vast space lit up as they approached, and according to the plan and all their work, this behemoth container should hold nothing at all except shadows and the echoes off the concrete floor. Yet it did.

A thin rivulet of a black and formless mass that sparked in the dim lighting flowed in a clockwise spiral toward the center of the space, swirling around the shadowy center point like water down a drain.

It was true. When he left four years ago, he had been so sure, so certain that every last scrap and manifestation of his former domain was utterly obliterated, only recreated on his canvasses now as an artistic fiction no human would ever mistake for anything else.

H watched that endless, swirling motion and for only the second time in his earthly existence, his blood ran cold.

They had missed one. Out of all those hundreds of thousands, they had missed exactly… one.

“Fuck!” Saint Peter sighed. “You were right. Now what?”

“We have to check the other container. That might give us a clue.”

“OK.” They turned away and left, the door sealing shut behind them with a hiss. Saint Peter entered a code in the security lock. “Better safe than sorry.”

Through another, identical door in the corridor and another steel balcony, and sure enough, below, a similar, paper-thin rivulet swirled around and around a shadowy central drain, yet this one was anything but black. It glowed against the dun of the concrete in all the colors and shades and perfume of its existence as it swirled and danced.

Dev lifted his hand and held out his palm. This much, he could still do. A tendril leapt up from the floor and curled over the balcony, before it eddied and whirled and congealed into an oblong the size of an olive, warm and pulsing against his skin.

For a moment, he had to fight a feeling of revulsion that rose to the back of his throat like bile, and that told him even more.

He curled his fingers around it and tossed it back as hard as he could over the balcony railing, watched as it smashed into a thousand shattered fragments of color on the floor far, far away from the center, before it again congealed into a pearlescent blob of hue and scent that inched its way back to the rivulet in the middle.

“Let’s go,” he heard himself growl at Saint Peter. “I know what I need to know.”

Only when they were back in the study with their feet up on the coffee table did Saint Peter ask.

“So what do you know?”

“It’s an incubus. He’s latched on to a woman somewhere in the world, someone who is grateful, someone who isn’t used to that kind of attention. She fell in love. He’s feeding off that, feeding off a few others, too, so far as I could tell. God fucking damn it!” Dev hammered his fist into the coffee table. “Damn it!”

“Dude…it’s just one. What’s the big deal? I do the research, you hunt him down, end of the story.”

Dev turned around. “You’re forgetting something.” He sighed, a loud lament of a kind Saint Peter had never heard before in over four hundred years of acquaintance.

Suddenly, Saint Peter’s human blood ran cold in the quiet room, far colder than the pre-dawn chill outside the windows.

“You’re forgetting…I’m not the Devil any more. I can’t destroy it. And if this incubus has found a woman, it can breed more of its kind.”