The Stop






It all had to be…perfect.

Nights like tonight didn’t come around too often. In truth, once a year only.

And that time was fast approaching.

Crisp fall leaves, recently dislodged, crunched under his Vans as he strolled across the litter-strewn parking lot of the Value Village, beneath a cold, dimming sky. With a quick push of his wire-rimmed glasses, he glanced down at the wrinkled receipt clenched in his fist. It would be the second time since he’d left the store…

                                                            Tools (misc) – $24.99
                                                  Kitchenware (utensils) – $16.85
                                                           Clothes (Men) – $46.75

In his mind, he further broke down the items in the bag held at his side; the plastic brushing against his cargoes as he shuffled along. Looking up, he grinned a strained grin, cramming the receipt into a pocket. It had told him enough.

Next stop…

Cold, moistened air washed over his face as the wide Cold Zone door swung open. Row upon row of cool glass and curved metal loomed before him, pleasingly designed labels working to pull him in

Choose me…No!…choose ME instead…I’m delicious!

Pushing his glasses up, he scanned the beer selection, taking in the details.

It was Friday night and the after-work crowd milled about the aisles of the liquor store, all searching for their own flavor of socially-acceptable tranquilizer to kick off the next 48 hours of perceived freedom. Out of the corner of his eye, he noted the overweight and balding security guard pausing, pausing as he noticed a young man with messy brown hair and glasses, clad in baggy tan cargo pants and a loose green hoodie (complete with a large camouflaged backpack), staring into the chilled section…

Always – 2 degrees!...or so the signage proudly claimed.

The moment stretched…and then the kid moved, gingerly pulling a large brown bottle from the rack. The guard unconsciously hiked his sagging pants and wandered off down the nearest aisle, determined to bust skulls and kick ass by morning.

Germany. Czech Republic. Russia. Slovakia.

Strange and interesting foreign labels gleamed in the overhead lighting as he examined each bottle and can, before they were gently placed into the basket beside him. Looking again…Asian this time.

China. Japan. Korea.

…all disappeared into the basket to rub shoulders with the frosty Eastern Bloc flavours. With a slight sigh of impatience, he grabbed a few more at random and turned. Rooted in place, he scanned the store.

He saw people. Different kinds of people…scattered before him among the aisles. Frat boy douchebags with ghetto blaster-sized cases of mass-produced shit-beer like Budweiser or Coors. A pair of cute Asian girls humming and hawing over 4-packs of brightly coloured coolers. An elderly couple picking though the French Wine section like they knew what they were looking for, chuckling to themselves over some private joke.

And there were others.

But, of all of them…he was the only one, the ONLY one, who would be doing…what it was he was doing. Imbibing was the one and only thing he’d have in common with these folks.

Would he be getting some sweet private time with some fine Internet-sourced poontang? Sadly…no.

Would he be hitting a spot downtown with a trendy crew of Good Time Guys n Gals? Nope.

Would he be sitting around knitting and murmuring Christian hymns to himself? Not. A. Fucking. Chance.

If only they knew…

He made his way to the bustling checkout, heavy black basket rolling on small rubber wheels, the large thrift store bag swaying to and fro.

Outside, the temperature had dropped with the dimming light of day. The sun was sliding into the West, book-ended by wide swathes of fading pinks and oranges. Noticing the combined weight of his recent purchases, he moved to the side, shrugging off his pack. Pulling at the zipper, he winced as the smell of fresh bud hit. Shit…that so-called Smelly Proof bag had clearly not been sealed before being hurriedly tossed in, moments before his dumbass boss walked by. The thuggish lead-hand of the Assembly team had assured him that this quarter-ounce was a diabolical mix strain called ‘Sharpened Teeth‘… and ‘Sharpened Teeth‘ was apparently “the Shit!” right now. Appropriately named too, he would later muse.

He liked weed…hell, he’d convinced himself that he needed weed, for help with his inner turmoils ( a reality)…but deep inside he knew that was mostly bullshit.

He just liked to get high.

But tonight couldn’t be just some middle-of-the-road baggie of window-sill cheeba picked up from some asshole at a transit stop…no, sir. Tonight…the booze and favors HAD to be good…as good as his meager picker/packer wage would allow. They HAD to be “the Shit!“…or at least a close approximation of.

Seeing the still-chuckling elderly couple exit the liquor store, he hurriedly crammed several beverages into the pack, crushing down on his musty work clothes and smothering the skunky scent of Mary Jane. Gingerly, but with urgency, he slid the pack on, grabbing the purchases, and about-faced to shuffle away. Shuffle toward home…and the evening’s festivities.

His key hit the lock with a hollow click and the scuffed door to his small, one-bedroom apartment swung inward, granting him entrance to his meagre domain. It wasn’t much…but it was his (month to month, if you want to be a dick about it).

Well…his and Cleo’s.

And there she was.

The small black cat poked her head around the far corner; vibrant green eyes scanning him as she meowed in greeting…before silently disappearing back into the living room. He hadn’t wanted a cat, but when old lady Randall had that stroke, or jammer, or what-ever-the-fuck-it-was last fall, right around the last visit, the cat had been left to wander the halls of the old apartment building till a) someone took her in…or b) she died.

He’d found her trapped in the stairwell one night when he’d ninja’d his way out to blaze some hash, yowling weakly and trembling in a corner beneath the stairs, cold and scared.

A whisper in his conscience, and the memory of his parent’s old cat, ‘Jack’, had prompted him to act. So she became ‘Cleopatra’ (he still doesn’t know why) when he brought her home to live with him.

That was nearly a year ago…and he was now convinced that he was being allowed to stay here…but only for her amusement. Something he wasn’t so convinced of, however, was how Cleo would get along with this evening’s guest. Should be interesting, as they’d never met before.

But now…there was work to be done

The beer went into the fridge, the weed onto the coffee table and he…into the shower. Under the weak stream of near-scolding water, he pondered – It had been a year since the last visit. They’d had a great time, drunkenly bullshitting late into the evening, before his guest had to venture out…on business…again. Always on business. Collecting…trinkets, or something.

He remembered the feeling of intense loneliness that had bubbled up inside him as he’d watched the lithe silhouette saunter off into the shadows, the sweet smoke from a French cigarette hanging in the moist air behind before it was gone, one with the darkness. He felt it every time their sessions came to a late-hour ending. Every time. But, as he was reminded…in nearly seductive tones, there was always next year.

And here it was.

Wrapping himself in a threadbare Transformers towel, he stepped out of the bathroom…ignoring the passive glare of the cat sitting on his checkered pillow as he stepped into his messy bedroom. Prowling through, he selected his uniform for the night: An oversize pair of black basketball shorts slid on over boxer briefs. A blue tank-top sporting the circular symbol of the ‘Star Wars‘ Imperial Navy fell over his thin chest, the open shoulders showing off his lone tattoo…a half-decent rendition of the Glaive…the mystical, star-shaped weapon from that cheezy-but-awesome flick, Krull. His Mom had nearly shit a brick when she first saw it. Normally she didn’t pay a ton of attention to him…unless there was a chance to manipulate or criticize.

And criticize she had.

But that was irrelevant now. The parental units lived in a different city…and they could go fuck themselves, for all he cared.

Pushing his glasses up, he studied the reflection of the lightly-faded ink, wondering yet again if he should invest in a touch-up. But other matters were at hand…and he still had things to do…

The zip-lock bag opened with a slight hiss, exhaling a breath that was pure and sweet. Plucking up a sticky nug, he held it to the light, admiring the mess of red hairs and frosting, before crushing it into the bowl of his long-stemmed dragon pipe. Grabbing his 101st Airborne Zippo, he lit a fresh stick of Nag before bringing the flame to the herb. There was a slight crackle as the bowl glowed hot…and he inhaled a lungful.

Cleo wandered into the living room in time to see him exhale a billowing cone at the framed Pulp Fiction poster over the flat-screen TV across the room.

As if propelled, he collapsed back onto the drab, 1970’s era couch, the old springs creaking beneath the worn plaid fabric. It only took seconds for the airy calm to settle in behind his dark eyes and he found himself staring, half-lidded, into Uma Thurman’s sultry gaze for what felt like a short eternity.

He looked over as the black cat hopped up on the worn-leather Lazy Boy nearby, her whiskers twitching as the last traces of smoke drifted past her nose. She continued to stare…

Focusing on Cleo, he nodded slowly, muttering that yes, she was right…no time to slack off now.

There was still shit to do.

Looking at the digital clock next to him, he did a quick calculation through the comfortable numbness in his mind.

A couple more hours. Or so.


With a groan of effort that was more drama than exertion, he lurched up and pulled aside one of the tattered, miscoloured drapes hiding the sliding glass door.

Normally, his small balcony yielded a decent enough, Southern view over the sprawl of narrow streets and low buildings, all leading down to the muddy river that snaked off into the distance. The streetlights were flickering to life as the last streaks of color on the horizon faded out, giving way to Night.

Noting the scattering of icy stars above and the hiss of rising wind in the nearby trees, he let the drapes fall closed, turning back to his Human Filing Cabinet, pushing his glasses up.

Where to begin?

The bag of ice emptied with a surprising crash into the kitchen sink. Several bottles and cans followed, jammed noisily in among the piled cubes, waiting to be plucked up and tossed back.

A plate piled high with meat cuts was carefully drawn out of the cramped fridge, shrink wrap unceremoniously discarded. Attracted by the scent, Cleo moved in to rub lovingly against his legs, only to be gently shunted aside as he took it to the living room, where it joined two bowls of potato chips and a pricey tray of fruit and veggies on the wooden coffee table.

Straightening up, he abruptly remembered something.

Yanking the freezer open, he found the half-pack of Gitanes tucked in behind the mickey of Fireball. These thick yellow cigarettes were a hit with his late-night guest, bought last year on a whim as he hooked up a fresh pack of Rizlas from the Arab smoke-shop down the block.

As an after-thought, the small bottle of cinnamon-spiced whiskey joined the others in the ice, in exchange for a lager from Thailand.

Cleo tracked the half-pack of smokes as it sailed across the apartment, crash-landing in the tray of veggies, disappearing off the tables far side, along with a pair of errant carrot slices. He shrugged. At least he knew where they’d be. He popped the bottle and flicked the cap aside.

The wind had picked up. He could hear the frantic rustle of the trees across the street as the chilly gusts blew through, making them dance. The small kitchen window would rattle in it’s frame as the building was buffeted by the late fall weather. He watched the broken cloud drift smoothly over the crescent moon hanging in the dark sky. He raised the shiny pipe for another hit, his reflection flashing orange in the glass as the Zippo clickwhoomph’d to life. The contents of the bowl crackled softly, the hot smoke tickling his throat.

Picking the beer back up, a spot of cold abruptly formed on his left foot as an errant drop of ice water slipped off the bottle. He raised it to his lips and downed a mouthful of the icy suds, relishing the sensation as the booze dulled the smokey tingle.

Turning to his computer set-up (one of the few good things to come out of the parental units), and with a quick flurry of practiced key strokes, he fired up one of his favorite chill-out channels.

Ambient trip-hop bumped out of the satellite speakers as he lit strategically-placed black candles that smelled faintly of licorce and earth. Cleo watched, taking in the oddly careful preparations of her human, not sure what to make of this abnormal behaviour. As she stared, he turned, surveying the room. Taking another mouthful of beer, he nodded contently.

It would do.

Glancing again at the clock, he smirked. Not long now. In fact, his guest could arrive at any moment. Pushing his glasses up, he sat back down, grabbing his newest graphic novel from the side table as he went, and leaned back…to wait.

On the black and white pages, the monstrous thug-with-a-heart Marv had been describing the physical perfection that was the lusted-after stripper Nancy, during another violence and booze-soaked night at Kadie’s Club Pecos, when he noted the change in the air.

Glancing up, he saw that Cleo had noticed it too. Where she was curled up on one of his many hoodies, on the frayed Lazy Boy, she quickly raised her small black head, looking back and forth for…something.

The atmosphere had gone cool and dry, the uneasy air making surprisingly painful static leap from every surface. The candles flickered in a wind…that wasn’t there.

Pushing his glasses up, he placed the comic book back onto the table, all the while scanning the room.

Where? Where was it going to happen?

It was different every time…and always fascinating. Taking a sip, he caught Cleo’s wide eyes as she looked over at him.

A faint tremor then rumbled though the apartment, rattling dishes and sloshing liquids, source unseen. He grinned…his neighbours had never complained about any of these disturbances…not once. It made him feel…insulated. He didn’t know why…but then again, there were many things about his guest that he still didn’t know or understand…even after all these years.

Cleo let out a worried yowl, leaping nimbly to the couch, hustling over to his side where she huddled, unsure. He stroked the cat assuredly, sipping again as he scanned the room.


A high, keening sound cut through the speakers, rising over the mellow acid jazz. Bright blue light zipped frantically across his nearly-nude Kate Upton screen-saver, her sexy features distorting under the digital onslaught.

Then…things got strange.

The shadows moved.

Every shadow, including the ones cast by himself and Cleo, began to shift…on their own. Dark streaks of non-light, like swipes of charcoal on a canvas, reached across the apartment, snaking toward the corner of his small kitchen. Cleo’s head pivoted about as she struggled to keep track of the drifting tendrils of dark. Lines, swathes and smears of shadow were collecting, forming a growing mass as they watched. It had no definitive lines or edges, but a shape, like the curved aperture of a feline eye. Or something vaginal. It grew, the wispy edges brushing the stucco ceiling and lino floor like dark vapor.

The air felt charged around them, kinetic…only there was no sound, just sensation. He felt it in the pit of his stomach and for a moment, just a couple of seconds…he felt vomit…as he always did…every time. His mouth flooded with saliva as his guts prepare to heave. He glanced down at Cleo, noting that she too, looked momentarily unwell. Her head dipped weakly, as though too heavy for her small body, and her eyes narrowed. A low growl rattled in her tiny chest.

The shadow mass continued to expand in the kitchen, it’s core blacker than anything he’d ever seen…well, since last time. Then…a faint luminescence deep inside the black; electric blue, mimicking the sparks zipping across his computer screen. It grew. As he watched, the puke sensation vanished, replaced by a child-like giddiness.

He wiped the back of a hand across dry lips. Cleo also recovered, raising her head to watch again…

The sinewy hands that drifted out were large, wrapped in tight pale skin that was more blue than white. Each hand boasted 5 long fingers tipped with nails as though carved from black glass. Razor sharp glass. They stopped, hovering in space…before they pivoted, palms outward toward what could be loosely defined as the inner edge of the spectral mass…and pushed.

Another tremor shook the apartment as a low bass rumble pulsed. Cleo sprang to her feet, alarmed. He robotically raised the bottle again, eyes never leaving the pair of disembodied limbs forcing the portal open…in the middle of his kitchen. The last suds drained, bubbling down his throat. The push became a shove…and the darkness ignited, exploding with a concussive thud, burning propane blue before it halted, roiling in place.

Cleo bolted past to cower at the far side of the couch, out of sight. The shockwave should’ve blown the wall out in a cloud of fiery debris, human and cat with it…but it didn’t. Instead, a chilled wind of cold air swirled past, gently rustling his brown hair and causing the nearby tips of candle flame to flicker. A whiff of ozone and wet soil washed past, quickly fading away. The hanging tapestry of icy flame collapsed, leaving behind a thick fog that obscured the small kitchen completely.

Everything fell still, under-scored by the dirge-like sigh of the wind outside.

Cleo cautiously poked her head around the corner of the couch and blinked at what she saw.

The empty bottle was loud coming down on the coffee table as he slowly rose to his feet.

There was something in the mist that filled his kitchen, a towering bipedal shape that stood motionless.

He could feel it’s gaze upon him.

Without revealing itself…it spoke…in perfect, alien-accented English. There was something unsettling in the tone, beneath the wet hiss and throaty baritone of the voice…

                                            “What’s the good word, Markus Remple?”

Markus pushed his glasses up as a smirk broke out across his pale features. With odd confidence, he responded…

                            “Not much, you big scary bastard…how you doing, Raad”

The demon’s name was pronouced ‘Raad-Gal-Fanoog—Mal-Sa-Faanix‘, but Markus had long ago said “Fuck that!”…and shortened it down to ‘Raad‘. The first time he’d said it aloud, many years ago, the demon had grinned that grin, his wide black eyes twinkling as the thin purple lips spread, revealing needle-like rows of stained yellow teeth; the too-wide smile dominating the pale, skeletal head. Rows of sharp, black quills, tightly packed across the pale skull and down his spine, thinning out along his muscular back, almost maintained the illusion of hair…till you got close.

There was a wet rustling sound…followed by the unmistakable din of a bottle cap hitting a kitchen floor…and Raad strode out of the pale fog, a dripping beer bottle clenched in his deadly-looking fist. The same shark-like grin was plastered across his hideous visage now as he came, jet-black eyes fixed on Markus, candle-light glinting. The mist faded quickly, revealing the small kitchen again. The creature paused, raised the frosty bottle and took an awkward-but-healthy swig. Markus could see the tight sinews and tendons flexing in the long neck as he swallowed half the beer in one shot. A shockingly red forked tongue darted out as he pulled the bottle away, head bowed to examine the label…

                        “Better now, my friend. That crossing took a bit more effort..”

The shiny black eyes narrowed, seeing something in the label’s design…

“Ah…Slovakia! Good place, nice architecture…even after Kosice was gnawed to the bone by the Yersinia Pestis, back in 1700 and…whenever.”

The demon smirked as though amused, waving a clawed hand dismissively at the rest of the date…

“Ah yes, that ole Black Plague definitely twisted that region up. Party time for my tribe…to be certain!”

He raised the bottle again, this time as though showing it off, game-show style…

                        “Hey, tasty brew here though…they obviously bounced back.”

Markus grinned again, inwardly pleased that his choice had been met with approval…so far. Moving around the table, he sauntered fearlessly up…and raised a fist. Raad cocked his strange head, the flattened quills less than an inch from the cheap stucco of the ceiling, eyes narrowing as he stared down. Markus paused, uncertain, then rolled his own eyes in return…

                                                           “Don’t leave me hangin, yo.”

Raad’s skeletal visage broke into another lethal-looking grin, his hideous version of a chuckle hissing and burbling in his throat. He raised a clawed hand, mimicking Markus before…landing a solid fist bump. Markus’ smirk faltered when the steel-like knuckles painfully bounced off his own. Seeing this, Raad’s chuckle morphed into a low, sadistic laugh, which he then drowned with the rest of the beer. Lowering the empty bottle to his naked side, Raad winked…

                                          “Gotcha! I saw it! Don’t even deny it, puny mortal.”

Markus shot a mock glare up at the demon, along with a middle finger, drawing out the words of his response…

                                                  “Fuuuck you, whore…’Nother beer?”

Raad thrust out the bottle and smirked…

                                                                      “You need to ask?”

Markus plucked it out of the beast’s grip, careful to avoid the claws, as he slipped past and into the kitchen. Raad slowly scanned the apartment, the black of his eyes reflecting all points of light before he froze…

                                               “Well, well…what do we have here?”

Cleo had slipped out from her hiding spot and was now sitting daintily in the middle of the living room, watching the interaction between her human and the creature that had appeared.

It towered over everything and she was intently noting the details of its long, pale body; equal parts fight or flight ticking through her system. Raad stood right to the ceiling…and was naked. Beneath his tight, vein-etched skin, inhuman musculature showed, giving an impression of deadly power poised just below the surface, like a cheetah on the savannah.

With grace, like comfortable underwater movement, the demon lowered into a crouch, beckoning with a sharp finger. Her small green eyes met his large black ones and…they connected.

Her ‘flight or fight’ melted away and she felt herself drawn to the awful creature that gestured kindly to her. She trotted forward, stopping to sit again; curious and waiting. The clawed finger gently stroked her small head. For a split second…she felt deep fear and panic, as instincts and alarms all lit up at once, making her bristle beneath the creature’s gentle caress, then…it was gone, fading quickly away as though wiped away by forces beyond her control. Raad stared down at her…

“Well, you’re a new addition to this house of ill-repute. And who might you be, little morsel?”

Markus came around the corner, brandishing beers, and paused beside the crouched monster, to also look down at the little black cat…

“Her name’s Cleo. Found her after you were here last. Never did get the whole story on what happened to her owner. I think this lil miss may have been starving, so I brought her home.”

Raad continued stroking the tiny skull, noting that she’d begun to purr…

                                        “‘Cleo’, you say? Sounds like certain royalty.”
Markus, holding out beer, mused…

                                      “Yeah, you know…like ‘Cleopatra’…ancient Egypt?”

Raad, taking the can in a talon’d hand, nodded…

“‘Ancient for you, maybe, puny mortal. Oh, I knew of Cleopatra VII Philopator, in her day.”

Raad broke into his version of an approving grin, a twisting of that face that suggested lethal intent below the surface…

“She was a murderous little cooze who sold her lineage to the Romans. Twice. She wasn’t even Egyptian…”

Markus cocked an eyebrow.

Raad took a sip, pausing to analyze the lager’s taste. With a subtle nod of approval, he turned back to his host…

“…she was Greek. Macedonian Greek, to be precise. Product of inbreeding too. But smart, driven and ruthless. The little sow was admired and resented in both Egypt and Rome, for large swathes of her years in your realm. An entertaining human, to be sure. Some of the vandalism aimed at her and Caesar while they were mating was very amusing. Quite filthy…you would’ve liked it. She had quite the…’scandalous’ appetite, you could say.”

Markus, sipping his own brew as he sidled back to his spot on the couch, nodded, going along, eyes still fixed on the clawed fingers stroking his cat…

                      “Well, I guess we learn something every day then, don’t we.”

Cleo’s eyes were closed and she kept pressing into the claw that rubbed behind her ears, sensing no danger and purring excitedly.

Raad stood, rising back to full height, dark quills brushing the ceiling as Cleo looked up questioningly, wondering where the creature’s soothing touch had gone.

There was a wet crunching sound as the demon stretched…and shrank. Markus could see odd bunches of muscle sliding beneath the skin as his guest’s body twitched and shifted, beer still clenched in a nightmarish hand. When the display subsided, Raad had…changed.

He was shorter.

Less monstrous.

Somehow…somehow more human.

As the sharp cheek bones morphed below the surface, he took another sip of beer, settling into the worn Lazy Boy, the springs straining beneath his weight. Markus tried to ignore the thought of free-balling demonic genitalia sullying his furniture as Raad scanned the room again…

                    “So, my little human friend…what’s on this evening’s agenda?

Reaching down beside the couch, Markus came back with the Value Village bag…

“First things first. Your filthy demonic ass needs to get some clothes on it before you smear…something, anything…all over my LB!”

Raad clapped his clawed hands together gleefully, the sound like a pistol shot…

                           “Absolutely, my gracious host. What’ve you got this time?”

Markus handed the bag over. With an excited twinkle in the eyes, the demon reached in.

Of the clothes Markus had picked off the racks, Raad chose a pair of faded blue jeans and a worn black tour shirt from some C-Grade 80’s metal band (he found the Satanic symbols amusing). For headware, he happily accepted the checkered flat cap, over the oil-stained meshback. Holding the T-shirt open before him, still grinning, the demon twisted and contorted again, his body further altering, losing height and features. In the right light, from the right angle, he could nearly be mistaken for human now. Nearly. But there was still the skin.

And the eyes. Those couldn’t he hidden….

“You humans. I love this costuming you do. Every time I’m here…I get to look different. Back beyond…skins and coverings are for the weaker species. Here, you all do it. It’s just so much a part of what you are.”

Clad in the thrift store garments, he turned proudly, relishing the sensation of clothes on his pale torso as Markus watched, a new beer in hand. Picking up the bag again, the demon paused, judging the weight. He shook it gingerly, and something shifted, clanking inside. Glancing up at Markus, he received no answer, just an exaggerated shrug. Rummaging through the discards, Raad found the source of the sound, at the bottom…and was delighted.

The first to emerge was the cleaver. It was rusty, dented and chipped. The long wooden handle was stained and cracked, fitting well in Raad’s hands, once he’d shortened his fingers.

Fascinated, Markus watched as the creature scoured the pitted and scuffed metal, as if memorizing every last detail, before gently placing it down on the table top before him.

Next was the butcher’s knife. The metal was discoloured but the tip had serious potential, already holding a lethal point. Held up in both hands, the dim reflection in the blade showed Raad his own black gaze as he poured over the details of this new instrument. It was set down beside the cleaver.

The next to emerge was the chisel. It was large, of a size that would easily take a blow from a hammer, and was just as hardy. The gouging edge was razor sharp. It was ready. It went down next to the others after being examined.

The ball-peen hammer was old, probably having started life in a 1960’s auto garage, but was still sturdy and ready to go. Holding it before him, Raad met Markus’ inquisitive stare…and giggled.

That’s the only way Markus would recall it later…as a giggle. A short rattling hiss burst out happily and the monster held the hammer to it’s chest, enraptured by the feel. Markus, through a thin veil of nerves, burst out laughing as well, partly out of infectious joy and partly out of relief…

                                                                 “So…they’ll do?”

Raad opened his black serpentine eyes, happiness evident…

   “Oh yes, Markus. These will do nicely. You’ve done well this year. Thank you.”

Markus beamed, pride swelling within him at the demon’s compliment. He stammered a little…

      “Uh, no problem. My pleasure. I’m your inside man, I get ya what ya need.”

Raad leaned in, carefully laying the hammer down with the other instruments…

                                                      “You know what else I need…”

Cleo looked up from where she was examining the black nails of the creature’s bare feet, curious about the tone of voice.

“…a sinfully-sized hit of that sweet foliage smoke you always have lurking nearby.”

Markus popped off some finger-guns, reaching for his stash. With more drama than necessary, he slammed down the vintage He-Man pencil box that held his gear and product. Flipping the lid open, he snatched up a pre-rolled blunt of Sharpened Teeth he’d prepared earlier, brandishing it triumphantly. Raad’s sharp tongue slipped over his thin, now-human lips in anticipation, and he took another swig.

The Zippo sparked, flared. The cigar of weed blazed to life in a small mushroom cloud that rolled leisurely toward the ceiling. Markus felt daring and inhaled sharply, instantly regretting it as the hot smoke drop-kicked him in the lungs. Around his hoarse coughing, he handed the blunt over. Raad pinched it in his black-glass talons and awkwardly pursed his lips, greedily sucking at the wispy tendrils of smoke as he worked to position his unfamiliar human lips. He suddenly got lucky and was rewarded with a huge and sudden toke, the cherry blazing bright. The black eyes widened hugely and he froze, not sure of what to do. The tears had finally cleared from Markus’ eyes and he burst into coughing laughter when the demon’s perplexed expression came into focus. Raad couldn’t hold it and wisps began snaking out of his sharp grin. He giggled again…and the smoke burst out of him like water from a dam, billowing into the space between them. Cleo’s nose twitched as the pungent scent hit her, narrowing her eyes and lowering her head to the carpet. The demon slapped his own thigh with a *crack*, leaning back and hissing…

                                  “Holy shit! That was a force to be reckoned with!!”

The Mary Jane hit Markus right between the eyes and the words issuing forth from the monster from beyond, sitting there on his thrift store recliner, sounded oddly hilarious…and he burst out laughing again, taking the massive joint from the demon. It was after the sequel to his first toke that things began to get hazy…

Later…when he’d remember…

he would remember

…Raad effortlessly rolling two Gitanes smoothly across his knuckles…while lit…while pounding back a tall Bavarian lager in brown glass in quick, animal-like gulps…

…the blue wisps of flame the demon ran across the black-glass surface of a finger talon, re-lighting the extinguished blunt…

…violent gusts of wind rattling the building and, for a moment, the lights blinking out, an icy glow from Raad’s eyes hanging in that moment of darkness…

…Cleo rubbing herself around the creature legs as he stared down at her, enraptured…

…the demon sculpting with exhaled weed smoke, forming the hazy image of an ominous city-scape, not of this Earth, hovering over the crowded coffee table, as he described sinister pleasures within, in low hissing tones…

…slabs of deli meat and handfuls of chips being jammed into Raad’s mouth, as he again goes off on another excited tangent about how he always forgets about the sensation of Taste, as the sense means something very different where he’s from, and how very agreeable it was for him…

…beers being cracked, spraying suds everywhere. Cleo taking a sip from a nearby splash, wrinkling her teeny nose in alarm at the taste…

……between tokes, sips, and hissing giggles, Raad rambling about some fairy massacre on the march of Plen-stetz Ool, in some place called K’tring, and how funny the blood looked smeared on the crystal dunes…

..Porn. Streaming porn. Online streaming porn. Not because Raad was turned on by it…but because he found human sex funny as hell. It was weird…

…the fiery burn of shots of Fireball, cooking down his throat, as Raad stood in awe of the blast of cinnamon, his jaw clicking uncontrollably for a moment…

…thunder, rumbling far off, as the winds whistled past…

…Raad’s claws on his otherwise human hand running admiringly over the new instruments spread before him, a half-joint smouldering in the other…

And of course, they reminisced

…about their first meeting…back at a time when Markus was toying with a Wrong Direction in life, giving the art of breaking and entering a day in court…having broken into the wrong building at the ripe ole age of 16…which yielded an old showroom…the parchment in glass, tattered and yellow with age…must be valuable…*smash*…shards…pain…blood…stains…a spell fulfilled…a presence summoned…

Raad snickered, remembering the numbing terror and sharp fear in Markus, remembering the psychic *pop* of his mind snapping…just a little, when he’d first birthed into this dimension, in the human adolescent’s presence.

Markus continued down Memory Lane

…about the calm and joy that he’d felt, the first time the black eyes had met his, seeming to stare into his soul…about holding up that joint he’d been smoking at the time, as an offering, because he had no fucking idea about what to do, as the giant thing that emerged from what he thought was a hallucination found him in the woods that night long ago, unseen out in the darkness beyond the bonfire where the other kids had been partying, stared down at him questioningly, it’s head cocked as it studied, no malice showing, despite the horrifying features…the rudimentary sign-language Markus had employed to explain what the demon needed to do…to get high…and how it had…

Markus, eyes heavily lidded, sat up, pointing a finger around the beer in his hand, a question lurking below his tone as he remembered…

…Raad asking for instruments…for his collection…the older, the better…something with a story…but sharp..or heavy..and Markus gladly pulling open his often absent parent’s kitchen drawers, telling Raad to grab something…for his collection…the excitement in the demon’s alien eyes as he picked up an old steak knife that the parental units hadn’t gotten around to recycling yet…and a heavy sea-food mallet Markus forgot was tucked into the back of the drawer…for his collection.
It was when Markus had nervously offered one of his dad’s shitty beers, that Raad demonstrated his shape-shifting ability, twisting and turning, altering and reshaping periodically thoughout the night as human and demon kicked back in a secluded spot in the forest…chilled…hung out…became buds over some stolen brews and a clumsily rolled doobie. And then, when Raad had shifted as far as he could, looking almost entirely human, if you overlook the jet-black eyes, the near-white skin and the sharp, black nails…he rose from where he sat…

Like he did now. Mashing the empty Lowenbrau can into scrap with one hand, he stood. Markus blinked his vision back into clarity, pushing his glasses back up his nose and glancing at the clock…

                                                                          “That time?”

Raad nodded, good-naturedly saying…

                                                               “Fraid so, puny mortal”

…as he hunched over, the snaps and pops of the shifting skeletal structure loud in the room, making Markus wince…

                                 “Ugh! That is some grim shit you’re doing right there.”

Raad shrugged as he rose back up, confessing…

                                                   “Grim shit is what I do, friend.”

Markus just nodded in baked compliance, head bobbing lazily. Raad bent at the waist, a perfect ninety degree angle, and carefully slid his new instruments back into the plastic bag, carefully wrapping each in one of the left-over garments. Cleo trotted daintily around the near-human as it went through it’s ritual, pausing when it straightened to look down at a sprawled Markus. The human blinked as he pushed his glasses up, struggling to rise. Raad plucked the Gitanes off the table, noting three left.

                                                             “Mine! I’m taking these.”

Markus straightened, the head-rush making him sway. A steely grip caught his arm, and he looked up, into black eyes that showed no sign of intoxication, despite the plethora of evening goodies.

“Again, thank you for the hospitality, young Markus. T’was a good time had. But now work beckons…and I must go. The collection I seek this trip won’t linger long.”

Markus nodded…and then slapped himself. Hard. When he turned back, redness showing, there was a glint in his eyes, shining behind his rounded lenses. He was awake now.

                                                            “I’ll walk you out.”

Raad, carefully fitting the flatcap over the pattern of shrunken, hair-like quills that served his human appearance, politely tipped the brim. The instruments made no sound as he picked up the bag, gazing one last time around the room, wistfully saying…

                               “I always like starting here. Puts me in the right mood.”

Markus grunted from where he was struggling with a pair of Nike slip-ons…

                                                              “Well, I do aim to please.”

With a low creak, the apartment door yawned open, revealing Markus’ blood-shot glare as he searched for any possible witnesses roaming the halls at 3 AM.

Nothing. Empty.

An overhead light flickered spastically at the end of the hall. The wind whistled past the dark skylights above. He made a tactical decision…and stumbled, stubbing his toe on the door as he failed to ninja his way out of his domicile. Stifling a curse, he paused, rubbing the injured digit, searching for the dreaded broken nail. Like a ghost, Raad strode out, perfectly confident in his silence as he padded along the cheap, stained carpeting, moving like a wraith on bare feet. Gritting his teeth against the swollen toe, Markus followed suit, only louder and more clumsy.

Cleo watched from the unshut apartment as her human and the old soul cautiously opened the heavy Exit door and disappeared into the stairway a couple suites down. With a determined purr, she trotted out. The fire door was just closing as she sidled up, the shadows of the two taller beings dancing on the walls in the dim service lighting ahead. She followed, slipping in with the door quietly clicking shut behind her delicate tail. She wrinkled her nose at an unpleasant smell one floor down and increased her pace. She could hear her human’s feet scuffing the concrete steps ahead. Of the other…she could hear nothing. But she knew it was still there. She could feel it. She was getting closer. Another flight down of dry cool steps…and she froze.

Raad stepped through the glass door Markus held open at the bottom of the stairs, relishing the crispness of the air on his human-like face; black eyes turned up toward the clouds rushing past on the wind, sharp features edged in the crimson of the Exit sign. Markus followed the demon’s studious gaze, breathing out a low, ominous whistle in awe. Raad’s head snapped down, cocked inquisitively…

                                                             “What was that?!”

Now is was Markus’ turn to glance questioningly…


                                                               “That sound…”

Markus chuckled, demonstrating with another whistle. Raad’s arm struck out in a blur, the sharp point of a claw freezing millimeters from a glass’s lens…

                                                                 “Yes! THAT!”

His voice quaked with excitement…something new! Lazily gesturing between them, Markus pursed his lips, indicating that the demon do the same. At first, the result was hideous. A ghastly grimace. A bubbling wet sound. But moments later, a clear note. The razor-thin lips of the creature curled in a satisfied smirk, and he whistled again. Better this time. As if in response, a horn from the trainyard in the distance wailed into the night, fading out quickly. Raad’s head pivoted, seeking the correct heading to the sound, mimicking the tone of the train whistle with one of his own…

“Well, puny mortal. That’s my cue. I shall now exit Stage Left…and march into the tediousness of the night.”

Markus nodded knowingly…

It was a good night for me, buddy. Hopefully it worked for you, helped you kick off another collection. Hell, this collection of yours must be a big bitch by now, yea? Plenty of instruments to go around?”

Without turning, there was something sly in Raad’s response…

“Yes, the collection of…instruments…is rather sizable now. But it’s never enough. Their value is unmatched, back beyond. But the other party I must meet this night is mobile, and won’t linger long. I must go.”

He turned back to Markus, leaning in…

“Thank you, my little human friend. You enable so much…it’s greatly appreciated, and not just by me. There are others. As for the brews n smoke…always a treat.”

He tipped his cap as he leaned away…

“You’re a mortal of impeccable taste. Keep it up and I’ll see you again next year, Markus Remple.”

Hefting the shopping bag in his hand, Raad spun and walked away, sauntering down the path between the low apartment buildings, silently gliding along on black-nailed feet. Clouds slid past overhead. Markus glanced down as Cleo rubbed against his calf, meeting his look as she nimbly sat on the threshold, staring intently out into the night. He chuckled, looking back out again. The demon was just a shadow in the distance now, moving swiftly though the scattered pools of dim light as they watched. Another wailing horn from the trainyard drifted by on the wind and Markus swore he heard a whistle in return. From the moving shadow as it was swallowed by darkness.

Cleo led the way back into their apartment, as Markus numbly wondered why the door was open, forgetting that he was the culprit, as it clicked shut behind them.
The finger-width’d roach of the blunt smouldered in his fingers, dangling over the edge of the couch as Markus lay sprawled, an odd feeling coursing through his system as he surveyed the ruined landscape of empties and spilled snacks that dominated the table top before him. He absently sipped from a remaining bottle as he worked to mentally catalogue how he felt. There was a deep, expected pang of loneliness. A hint of longing for approval. But there was also a film of empty happiness laid over top, like a stifling cover of numb acceptance had been artificially inserted somewhere along the way. And there was rage. Deep down, on the very edge of his sub-conscience, it bubbled. The same kind of pent-up anger that’d infected him when he realized that he was being manipulated by the parental units, for use against one another in their petty squabbles. Being pushed this way and that, by anyone, caused his blood to boil. It had caused him problems in the past. Jobs. Friends. Something was causing it to dwell within him now, only it was muffled, suppressed, quieted down. Before he could explore it further, his eyelids fluttered, suddenly heavy. Fatigue washed over him. Cleo, plopped down on a pillow, her own eyes drifting closed, falling asleep just as the half-bottle of lager in Markus’ hand toppled onto the carpet with a thud. Beer glugged out, setting in quickly beside a foot. Markus didn’t move. He was asleep.

The wind continued to blow outside, muffling those shrill sounds in the distance…

Sunlight on the horizon brightened, glowing through a slit in the drapes and gleaming off the glass frame of the Pulp Fiction one-sheet, dancing over Markus’ slack features. His cheek twitched and he groaned, something flashing annoyingly against his eyelids. Reaching up, he adjusted his glasses, which had fallen askew as he slumbered, blinking himself back into consciousness against the reflected glare of the rising sun. Stretching his legs, he recoiled as his sock came down in a cold puddle, the empty beer bottle confessing to the crime nearby.

                                                                          “Ah shit!”

Cleo awoke, blinking sleep away as she lazily yawned, watching her human scramble about, frantically grabbing the leftover paper towels from the table and dabbing at the spill in a panic. She wrinkled her nose at the smell that wafted up from Markus’ cleaning efforts as he bolted into the kitchen, and laid her small black head back down on her cushion to watch more comfortably. Brandishing more towels and cleaning fluid, he came back, pausing at the computer to call up the local news site. He was going to need to find out after Cleaning Duty if the comic convention was still going on today, despite the sinkhole that had reportedly opened in the street near the venue. That was all assuming that his hang-over, already threatening to make an appearance, would even allow him to surface from his box today.

As the human cleaned and the feline watched, the computer screen behind them blinked to life, throwing the news site up for all to see. The main story, that Markus, oblivious to all but his comic book convention, would later absent-mindedly pass by (briefly wondering if they were ever going to catch the mysterious psycho responsible), read…

                                                    ‘Murder on the Tracks!’
Local police are on the scene at the Norton Junction trainyard, where the bodies of what appear to be 14 homeless people were discovered in the early morning hours by a Norton Junction maintenance crew. Early reports say the victims where found in and around an empty freight car parked off the Main Line for inspection. This is the worst case of mass murder this city has ever seen, already being compared to the vicious killings of the 4 Power and Water workers two years ago and last year’s Chick-A-Dee Diner massacre,where 7 people were brutally murdered in the early morning hours. Both incidents are currently under investigation and police still have no suspects,though a serial killer has not been ruled out. Supporting this theory, it has been noted that both previous incidents occurred on this same date,two years in a row. Unconfirmed reports suggest additional murders on the same date,in other districts,are also being considered. Higher authorities are also rumored to now be involved, given the forensic connections between the crimes. Beyond the date connection, there was also the similar weapon types used. Forensic examination reportedly showed edged and blunt instruments were both employed in frenzied attacks in both incidents and due to rust particles and aged wooden elements found in the wounds,it’s thought they were of an older,worn variety, most likely acquired used or stolen by the perpetrator to avoid law enforcement tracking of recent purchases from local businesses. There’s also been an unconfirmed report that one of the NJ maintenance crew that came upon the gruesome scene heard a suspicious sound nearby. It was said to resemble someone whistling, but no one was seen or found at the scene and there were no other witnesses who claimed to hear it…

Markus looked up from dabbing at the moist spot on the carpet, pushing up his glasses and sighing as he pondered ahead to next year. To the next visit. To the next stop…

                                               Perfect. It all had to be perfect.

                                                                   THE END