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"The Devil's Bookseller," Part 6
ATF SPECIAL AGENT HAROLD Wilkins is watching TV. Something is terribly wrong with him, but he can’t put his finger on what it might be.
There was nothing wrong with what is on the television, however, and the program he is watching amuses him greatly. Another hilarious historical sitcom from the writers and producers of The Romanovs!, this particular show is about Queen Elizabeth I, and is titled Reigning Like a Bitch!, and Agent Wilkins thinks that he’s died and gone to heaven. It features Margaret Cho as the monarch, Chris Burke as Sir Francis Drake, and Antonio Fargas as the sassy Nubian major-domo. The Queen cracks a potty joke and Wilkins tilts his head back and roars with laughter.
His hands are covered with blood. It has dried and cakes his arms up to his elbows. He wears a Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt and jeans as he sits in his Barcalounger in the den of his split-level home in the suburbs. His clothes are spattered with gore, too.
Chris Burke, an actor afflicted with Down’s Syndrome and absurdly miscast, flubs his lines and makes a farting sound with his lips while mugging the camera. Both the live studio audience and Wilkins can hardly catch their collective breaths; Wilkins remembers when out takes were exorcized from TV programs, or at most were saved for the very end, inserted during the final credit-crawl. But nowadays the producers just leave them in, and often they are the funniest parts of the shows.
Wilkins’ home is exactly what you’d expect for a well-paid but still relatively low-level employee of the Federal Government. It was built in the late 1970s and has an attached two-car garage. There is a patio out back, accessible by a sliding glass door in the den, not ten feet from where Wilkins is now sitting. The small lawn is immaculate; one could search it for an hour in vain to find a weed or bald patch. The kitchen is newer, renovated by Wilkins and his wife, Debbie. The new Kenmore refrigerator has pictures by their kids stuck to the front with whimsical and cute pig magnets.
The house is closed up tight against the humid heat of the summer evening is silent but for the banal TV show and Wilkins’ gusts of hilarity. The air conditioning is off. The whole place has the iron reek of blood.
On the TV Queen Elizabeth is asking about the status of the Spanish Armada.
“Did you fuck up those Spicks yet?”
“Consider them fucked, my liege,” says Burke/Drake, getting his line right this time. Antonio Fargas, best known for his role as the black pimp/snitch Huggy Bear on Starsky & Hutch, makes a big entrance, acting drunk, reeling in with a massive flagon of mead in his hand. “Hey!” he shouts, “Hows’about a little political correctness, you goddamn honkeys?”
Wilkins laughs fit to pee his pants.
Cut to a commercial and Wilkins hoists himself out of his chair and goes to the kitchen for another beer. Debbie, his wife, lies dead in the middle of the floor, a hole punched through her chest, her heart lying on the floor near her elbow, dried out and looking rather like a giant-sized tea bag. Wilkins, still chuckling over the political correctness gag, steps over her and opens the fridge. He pops the Budweiser and ambles back to the den. He had two children up until sometime yesterday morning. They are upstairs in their shared room, two boys, aged twelve and fourteen, both as dead as their mother, both with their living hearts yanked out of their chests.
He vaguely remembers killing them.
It is almost a week since the botched raid on the Goths hideout in the city. Wilkins has been off-duty since then, partly because he is waiting for the commission to get around to reviewing the incident, partly because he started acting very strangely after the raid.
He knows he is somebody he is not but he isn’t sure who.
Two days after the raid he started having shattering nightmares. He would wake up screaming and Debbie would comfort him. During the day he would loaf around and watch TV, drinking beer, leaving it to Debbie, who was a nurse, to get the boys out the door to their summer camp. The morning he killed his family he had gotten pissed off because a storm blew through and cut off their TCI cable. Goddamn TCI! It went out every time the wind got over ten miles per hour! Debbie told him to stop overreacting and he killed her with a punch to the chest, a punch that split her sternum in two and carried his fist all the way through her chest cavity almost to her backbone. Then he killed the kids. A half hour later the cable came back on, so he supposed that Debbie was right after all, he was just overreacting. All he had missed was Martha Stewart Living, and he could never stand that bitch anyway.
He sits down in his recliner and watches the commercial that is on, paying no attention. He feels something strange in his fingers and lifts his hand up to his face. Talons are pushing through the ends of his fingers. The talons are long, slightly hooked, and very sharp. They are the color of gunmetal. Whew! he thinks, that’s something you don’t see every day! The talons retract back into his fingers with a sucking sound. Bizarre and wondrous things are happening to his body. That morning he had woken and taken a dump, and when he was finished he looked into the bowl and saw the water boiling, the porcelain above the water line scorched and blackened. But his ass wasn’t burned or anything! That’s what he gets, he thought at the time, for eating one of those microwave burritos.
He still has his terrible dreams. Dreams of killing all the members of the SWAT team who had broken in on the Goths in that tenement building. He killed them like he had killed his family, by thrusting his fist through their chests, although the SWAT team members were harder to kill, what with their composite body armor and all. He dreams of moments in history, when he whispered in the ears of guys like Stalin, or Hitler, or, farther back, planting the seed of madness in the minds of Caligua, who, truth be told, didn’t need a whole lot of help to begin with. He whispered to all these despots, and his words were like battery acid, they made the recipient wince, then scream, then howl with desperate agony. But only for a few moments, then the words took over their minds and they Became, just as these silly vampires that litter the streets of America today Became, only more so. After they Became they were pure evil, whatever was left of their already tattered souls lost forever, as they started to plot and scheme and then work towards their ends of murdering as many of the innocent as possible.
Part of Special Agent Harold Wilkins thinks he is still a federal law enforcement officer, and simply losing his mind. Another part of him thinks he is somebody else, but doesn’t know what.
A part of him knows he needs something to Become again.
Once, not too long ago, he remembers being able to fly through the air like a crow, only much, much faster, faster than any jet airplane. He once was able to change his shape with the blink of a human eye, and to change his position too. That was how he was able to kill all those crack SWAT cops, jumping around through every dimension like a bad film edit, here one instant, way over there the next. There is nothing hard about it. At least, there was nothing hard about it back then. Then, a bullet smashed through his human head and wiped clean part of his brain.
No, that wasn’t right. He had been the one who’d fired the shot, killing the man in the room with the flickering TV. He remembered every instant, the buck of the Smith & Wesson in his fist, the spray of bone and blood from the bastard’s head. It hadn’t killed him, thought, not instantly, for he fell to the floor and crawled over to Wilkins and touched his ankle—
None of this made sense, because Wilkins remembered dying himself. And yet here he was, watching TV in a house filled with corpses, drinking a cold Bud, wondering why he wasn’t what he had been before.
The TV program comes on again but now he is unable to understand it. He knows every language, every dialect, ever spoken on Earth, and yet he can’t understand what the characters are saying. What is wrong with him?
HE STRUGGLES TO HIS feet and staggers out of the den. His brain is spinning, he can’t think straight. He goes upstairs and pauses by his sons bedroom. Looking in, seeing their small bodies, he feels something catch in his throat and he suddenly bursts into tears. What happened to his sons? Then he recalls that he killed them. Christ, that’s a hell of a thing.
Part of him is still Harold Wilkins, part of him is Taffy, the Prince of Darkness, and the two parts are doing battle inside him. The part of him that is Taffy knows that something dreadfully wrong had happened when he made the jump to Wilkin’s body. What could have happened that was so dreadfully wrong? Normally, when he jumps into a mortal’s body he immediately kills the soul within. There’s nothing to it, really. You get inside another’s head, and just kind of clean it all right the hell out. But that didn’t happen this time, and a fragment of Wilkins soul is still there, aghast, mortified, but still alive. The body of Agent Wilkins reels into the master bedroom and Taffy is dismayed. He tries to stop, but it is no good. For some reason, somehow, the soul of Harold Wilkins has stored up all its reserves of strength and is now putting it to use. For the moment, Taffy is merely a bystander in the mortal remains of Wilkins.
He goes to closet and flings open the door. A gun safe is bolted to the floor at the very back of the closet, and Wilkins kneels down and works the combination.
Taffy is horrified. He suddenly understands what this madman is about to do. He tries to stop him from opening the lock, tries to fog his mind so he’ll forget the combination, tries to stop his fingers from turning the dial. The most he is able to do is make the talons emerge from the fingertips again, but by then Wilkins has the safe open.
He had surrendered his work gun after the assault on the Goth hideout, a standard procedure for any cop involved in a shooting. But there are more guns at the house, and he roots through the safe and pulls out a Glock 10 millimeter automatic pistol, a big howitzer of a gun. A moment later he discovers the loaded magazine for the weapon and shoves it into the grip. He jacks back on the gun’s slide and seats a cartridge in the breech.
Taffy is screaming, shouting for him to stop, it’s not worth it, think of your kids! Think of your wife! But that’s the wrong message to send, for that’s all Harold Wilkins is thinking about, how he killed his wife and children and now he wants to take his own life. More importantly, he wants to destroy the thing that is inside his mind, taking over his body, turning him into a demon.
Wilkins sits down in the middle of the floor inside the closet. He jams the muzzle of the Glock into his mouth, breaking off a front tooth. His finger tightens on the trigger. He slams his eyes shut against the explosion.
Then the gun drops from his mouth and thumps on the carpet by his knees. Taffy has taken control again. But not by much; the battle continues, on and on, into the night.
DARKNESS FALLS ACROSS THE city. The skells and Goths and gangbangers come out to play, while all the normal people go home and triple-lock their doors.
Inside the closet of the home in the suburbs, Taffy has won for now. He stands, fully in control. Somewhere, in the very back of his mind, he hears Wilkins screaming to be let out, to pick up the pistol again and end it all. Taffy ignores him. He’s heard plenty of screaming over the eons, and one more voice added to the noise is nothing to him. He feels a slight pain in his mouth from where the front sight of the Glock pistol broke off the tooth. He wanders into the bathroom and surveys the damage in the mirror. The tooth is broken off just above the gumline, on the upper jaw. He shrugs, reaches into his mouth and pulls the tooth out, making him look like a hayseed yokel. He touches the bleeding gum tissue, feels some pressure, and a brand new tooth slides into view. He washes his mouth out with some Scope and spits out the blood. All set, he thinks. Ready to roll.
He disrobes and steps into the shower. During his battle with Wilkins he has soiled himself and doesn’t care for the stink. He washes and then puts on some fresh clothes, selecting one of Wilkins’ better suits from the closet, a nice dark-blue worsted wool pinstripe, not up to Taffy’s normal standards but pretty good for a low-level federal employee like Wilkins. He puts on a fresh white dress shirt and comes across a very pretty Brioni necktie that sets off the suits stripe nicely. Shoes are a problem; it seems all the footwear that Wilkins owns are cop shoes, heavy ugly things with thick rubber soles. Taffy slips on the least offensive pair and looks at himself in the mirror once more. Not too bad, he thinks. Wilkins wasn’t a bad looking dude, not at all. He decides to leave the gun. He really doesn’t need it, and anyway he’s afraid that Wilkins might take control of his body again. He’d rather not risk it.
He leaves the house and gets into Wilkins’ vehicle, one of those obnoxiously huge sport utility trucks, starts the engine, and heads for the highway into the city.
Taffy is looking for something, but he can’t tell what it is.
His body is hungry. He pulls off the highway and finds an all-night diner and orders a meal. What he eats doesn’t matter to him, he simply needs food, so he eats.
As he sits there, in the nearly deserted diner, he realizes what has happened to him.
He is Taffy, the devil, the Prince of Darkness. He had been in human form, living with a bunch of silly young Goths. The feds had broken down the door to his hideout and the Goths started shooting. None of them were very good shots but their hearts were in the right place. All of them would rather die than allow anything to happen to Taffy, their prince and lord. Not too surprisingly the feds had gotten the upper hand pretty quickly, busting caps in the Goths’ asses, knocking them down like ninepins, and Taffy realized he had to step in. He did his magick act, disappearing and reappearing, punching out the hearts of the ATF agents, killing them where they stood. Then another wave of feds had come in, and instead of killing them too Taffy had gotten complacent, had mouthed off to one of them, a certain Agent Wilkins, and just as he was about to disappear the cop had shot him in the head, blasting away part of his brain, coming uncomfortably close to killing him. With his dying breath, he had shape-shifted into Wilkins’ body.
Normally that would have been enough. Normally shifting into a new body killed the soul and personality of the new host, but for some reason it hadn’t. Part of Wilkins still lived, back there in Taffy’s mind, walled in and chained up, at least for the moment. Taffy realized he was very weak. A lot of his magick was gone, blown away by the bullet that he thought he could outrun, which he could have outrun if he hadn’t been so nonchalant. This was bad news for our anti-hero; without all his magick, there were many things he couldn’t do. He couldn’t shape-shift, he couldn’t change his form from mortal to purely spiritual. For the moment he was stuck in Wilkins body, fighting over its control with the previous tenant.
“Yo, dude, got some spare change?”
Taffy looks up and sees a stinking old bum swaying next to his booth, holding out his hand for some Thunderbird money.
“Fuck off,” says Taffy.
“No reason to be a jagoff, dude.”
Taffy uses a lot of his remaining magick and puts a lot of effort into it. A new mouth opens in his forehead and a forked serpent’s tongue zips out, wagging at the bum. The bum’s eyes bulge out of his head and he takes a couple of steps backwards, running into a table. The mouth in Taffy’s forehead disappears.
“Jesus Christ,” whispers the bum.
“Maybe you ought to cut back on the sauce, my friend.”
“Jesus Christ!” the booze hound cries, then quickly dashes away.
That was capital fun, thinks Taffy. He watches the bum as he stumbles out the door, doing a hilarious pratfall on the way. He laughs then turns to the food on the table that doesn’t really interest him. He is going to have to learn everything again, he realizes. He’ll have to learn how to do much, much more than the stupid little party tricks of magick that he had used to get rid of the bum just now.
He suddenly stiffens in his seat, a thrill like an electrical charge coursing through his body. He reacts to it the way an old roue does to a beautiful young woman entering a room, her expensive perfume heralding her appearance.
The way to his recovered learning is close by.
He lifts the coffee mug to his lips and takes a deep swallow, ignoring the way the hot coffee burns his lips and his mouth.
The way to his new magick is so close that it gives him an erection. He blinks at the power of it. It is very close, no error, within a few miles, perhaps. So close that he can almost smell it, feel its vitality, its sway over his life. What is this thing, The Way? Is it a person, a warlock, perhaps? And not one of those absurd Goths, who get their learning from idiotic tomes of magick that have no basis in reality, but a real live warlock, one of the Old Ones, who Taffy had thought to be all but extinct? Or was it perhaps in a dusty old book, sitting on the shelves of some fossil of a collector, a parvenu who can’t even read it, all but illiterate to the writings of the Old Ways.
Taffy isn’t sure. There’s no way for him to tell, not with many of his powers gone, blown away by the federal agent and his stupid bullet. He stands and leaves the diner, heading he knows not where.
© 2012, John Steven Anderson