There were a few things I needed to check with the manager here, before I left. I stepped outside and I tried not to think of the Eucharist crumbs that dusted the doorway. The idea that I might have been the one to grind the wafer underfoot made me uncomfortable.The denim jacket I’d found wasn’t up to the weather. The wind cut under it, and the snow abrading it made an audible patter. I counted my blessings. I’d been lucky I’d packed more than one jacket. I had, in fact, packed a hell of a lot.
All the signs seemed to be that I was running from something, something that had caught up with me at least once. Which made me feel more than lucky that this jacket was large enough to hide the Eagle and its holster.
I trudged through a growing snowstorm to the front of the motel and entered the manager’s office. The woman behind the counter was easily sixty-five, wore thick glasses, and hair the color of FD&C Red #5. She glanced up at me, then went back to reading the book in her lap.
I walked up to the desk and cleared my throat.
“Can I help you?” she asked with a bored voice.
I opened my mouth, and for a moment I had difficulty speaking. I was suddenly overly conscious of a lot of things; the buzz of the unnaturally white florescents, the weight of the gun in my armpit, the smell of stale coffee coming from a mug on the counter, melting snow dripping down my neck. . .
The sense of hyper-awareness passed. “I need to check how long my room’s paid for.”
The woman gave a hostile sigh and put the book face down on the counter, cracking the spine. She looked up, her eyes magnified grotesquely by the glasses she wore.
“We don’t give refunds for—”
“Yes?” I said. Her distorted gaze had made me realize that I’d still been wearing my sunglasses. I’d been taking them off when she paused.
“Yes?” I repeated. I was becoming uncomfortably aware that she was staring into my eyes. It was an intense and disturbing contact that made me wonder what she was looking at. Somehow I gained a very deep feeling of how boring she found her job, of how lost she felt here. Somehow I knew this woman regretted missing the chance to be something other than she was. The wave of empathy was like a blow.
I was drawn, leaning forward. Something pushed at me, something that wasn’t a memory. Something more like an instinct. . .
She interrupted me by saying, finally, “What can I help you with?”
Her entire manner had changed, she wasn’t looking through me any more. I could swear that what I saw in her eyes was lust, a lust that didn’t make me nearly as uncomfortable as it should have.
“I’m in room 223, I need to know how long I’m paid up for.”
“Yes, certainly.” The hesitation in the way she breathed as she spoke made my interpretation of her expression unmistakable. So much so that I felt immense relief when she broke eye contact to rummage in a card file next to the phones.
“Do you have a phone book I could use?”
“By the pay-phone, dear.”
I glanced around the office looking for the pay-phone. I found it back in the hall I’d come through. I left her to rummage in her files while I stepped outside. The hall was little more than an airlock, with glass doors to the outside and the office. The only things in it were the pay-phone and a pair of newspaper machines.
For a few moments I stood there and tried to regain my composure. I was washed by a sense of disorientation. Rationally, I knew that all I had seen and felt about the woman behind the desk had been manufactured by my own mind, but I had to tell myself that none of it was real.
The roiling in my gut was real, though. The feeling of need inside me, a reciprocal and distorted version of what I thought I saw in the woman, that was real. The fact that I stood there with muscles tensed to where they felt as if they’d tear from the bone, that was real too.
For the first time I truly considered the fact that I might be psychotic.
My absent memory provided a fragment of a poem;
From childhood’s hour I have not been/As others were— I have not seen/ As others saw— I could not bring /
My passions from a common spring—
The sense of being totally alone gripped me again. I gripped the sides of one of the newspaper machines and forced myself to take deep breaths. If nothing else, the effort and concentration that took calmed me. When I felt as if I had rejoined the real world, I picked up the Yellow Pages.
As I called the cab, I started watching outside. Once I’d calmed down my inner world, I began thinking about the threats that might exist in the outer. There were people out there that had left me for dead, and I was beginning to feel much too overexposed behind this wide expanse of glass.
The stretch of Route 322 that I could see was all snow-cloaked shadows. I saw nothing threatening until I’d hung up the phone.
It was a small thing, off in the distance. Out there, by the side of the road, I saw the glow of someone lighting a cigarette. It was far enough away that it shouldn’t have concerned me. Except that spot of road had an overview of the motel’s entrance, the parking lot, and the door to my room.
I didn’t stare. If that distant smoker was watching me, he had a very good view right now, as well-lighted as I was. I didn’t want to tip off the guy that I’d seen him, not until I had some idea who he was. For all I knew he could be a cop, or my imagination could be running away with me.
I returned the Yellow Pages, and pulled out the White Pages to try and find an address for an “Arabica,” whatever that was. The listing said it was a coffee house, but I couldn’t find an address for “Coventry.” I had to hope the cabby would know what I was talking about.
I walked back into the manager’s office, avoiding obvious glances outside. “Four days, dear.” said the woman behind the counter. I jumped at the sound.
“You’re paid through Wednesday,” she finished.
I realized that I didn’t know what day of the week it was. “Wednesday? Morning or evening?”
She returned to her book, but she kept staring at me over the spine. “Morning. Check out time is at 10:30.”
It was Saturday.
* * *
The taxi took twenty minutes to show up. Despite the snow, I waited for it outside. I didn’t want to spend the time in the office alone with that woman. When the cab came, I was covered with snow, and almost used to the cold.
It was ten minutes toward the city before I was positive the taxi was being shadowed. It wasn’t easy for me to make the car. This stretch of highway was without streetlights, and the snow was getting worse. Most of the time the only visible sign of the car were the twin cones of headlamp-stirred snow.
However, not all pairs of headlights are created equal, and my tail was marked by a clump of ice by the right edge of the bumper that warped the lower right corner of its headlight. The car faded behind us two or three times as the cab made its way deeper into the snowbound Cleveland suburbs. But each time headlights reappeared behind us, it was the same car.
I resisted the impulse to have the cab pull over, or change my destination. I wanted to keep track of these guys as much as they seemed to want to keep track of me.
I wondered if they were the same people who had tried to kill me. That didn’t make sense. By all rights the people who dumped me in the sewer would think I was dead.
I was beginning to have problems with the idea that someone had tried to kill me. If all the blood that had frozen on me was my own, where was the injury that had bled so much? All I had to go on, really, was a gut feeling that didn’t even have a memory to support it. From the evidence, it could have been mekilling someone and wandering into the sewers to escape. . .
By the time the cab passed the border into Cleveland Heights, Route 322 had turned into Mayfield and we had passed deep into well-lit suburbia. The general lack of traffic made it hard for my tail to hide. They made a valiant effort, but they only had one car, so no matter what they did I could eventually pick them out.
The car was a little too old to be totally anonymous. It was a tan Olds that was made prior to the streamlining of the nineties. Mid-eighties was my guess, though they never let me have a good look. Best I could see, there were at least two people in the car, both large males. Nothing much else I could see through snow and distance.
I finally lost track of them when the cab turned on to Coventry. I suspected they’d held back at the intersection of Coventry and Mayfield. By the time the cab went a block, I had lost the intersection beyond a white fog of snow.
It was two blocks to the next tangled intersection when the taxi stopped. It confused me for a moment before I realized that we had made it to my destination. I had to squint past a snow-draped courtyard to see a storefront, but the neon sign was lit up reading “Arabica.”
I paid the cabby and stepped out into the snow.
I stood ankle deep in a snowdrift in the center of the courtyard and stared through the windows into the well-lit shop. Looking in, I felt a nagging sense of familiarity. This place meantsomething. I saw a lot of teenagers, more punk than anything else. I saw a lot of weird hair and body piercing. I also saw a lot of the bearded-poet type, the kind of folks who wear dirty army jackets, write longhand on yellow legal pads, and quote Nietzche a lot.
I knew this place.
On one of the tables near the window, a lanky kid with a blond pony-tail was having an animated discussion with a shadowy-eyed girl. They both wore abused leather jackets.
I stood there a long time before I walked to the door. The familiarity frightened me, as if this place might make me remember something that I didn’t want to remember. But after a few minutes the cold drove me inside.
Stepping from the empty night-street into the babble of humanity crowding the coffee shop was a shock. A wave of irrational enmity froze me in the doorway. No one actually looked in my direction, but I felt as if everyone in this place was paying attention to me, weighing me.
I forced myself to walk to the counter. It’s just the crowd. I’m not used to crowds.That’s what I told myself at least.
I was certainly in the midst of the largest group of people I’d seen since waking up sansmemory. It was only natural to find it disturbing, after what I’d been through—
Of course that was just me bullshitting myself, but it helped to steady my hands as I took a cup of espresso and two horrendously-priced danishes to one of the few free tables. The table was way in the back, in the smoking section. It was somewhat dark, and smelled like an ashtray, but having my back to a wall helped steady my nerves.
For a while I just sat there, cradling the warm mug in my hands, letting the cold retreat. I forced myself to moderate my paranoia. While some of the patrons gave me some odd looks, I was sure that they were the ones who gave everybody odd looks. I didn’t look terribly out of place here, it just felt that way to me.
At the table next to me, two chain-smokers were playing chess. I classified the young clean-shaven one as an eternal grad-student, the middle-aged bearded one as another unemployed poet. I didn’t know where the assumptions came from, but it reinforced my impression that I had been here before. . .
It made me wonder if being here was a good idea. If the cops werelooking for me, and someone here recognized me—
I lowered my gaze. My sunglasses didn’t seem much of a disguise.
As if spurred by my thought, someone slapped my back and said, “Hail Eris, you bastard. How goes the hunt?”
“Huh?” I said. I put down the espresso without drinking from it. I turned around. The speaker wasn’t Sam or Bowie, I could tell that from the voice.
I looked at him hoping for some twinge of memory. He seemed like someone I should remember. He had wild blonde hair and wore at least seven earrings, though his ears were all he had pierced. He wore a denim vest over a linen shirt whose drawstrings left the neck open on a pentagram necklace. He wore a pair of John Lennon glasses with slightly blue lenses. He looked like an avatar out of the sixties, though he couldn’t be more than nineteen years old.
He awoke no memories. He didn’t even awake a sense of deja vú.
He slid into the chair opposite me, folded his arms on the table, and asked, “Find her yet?”
I was glad for my sunglasses. If he had seen my eyes he would have seen my confusion. “No, I haven’t.” I said. “Do you have anything new to tell me?” It was a strange question, but one that came to me automatically— a rote question, something a policeman might ask.
My guest sighed and leaned back. “How’d I know you were going to ask that? Sorry my friend, nada. I haven’t seen them since that open circle I told you about. Not her. Not Childe. But you’ve been asking around, you know that. Vanished, poof,” he flowered open his fingers, “good riddance.”
He held up his hand. “Not the girl, you understand— but that Childe freak. Just gave the fundies and the cops something nasty to have us confused with. Hey, but that’s why I like you.”
I looked up at the guy, feeling lost. “Why do you like me?”
“You never came in with that Satan-cult bullshit.”
“Why would I?” At this point the questions were becoming a defense mechanism, to keep him answering questions so he wouldn’t ask me any.
“Hey man, you’re rare. Most people, say you’re a pagan, and they think you’re out torturing cats somewhere. Take any fundie and talk about any non-Christian spirituality, boomyou worship the devil. Somehow pointing out that Satan is a Christian invention doesn’t seem to faze them. Childe’s as close to the devil as I’ve ever been.”
I still couldn’t give him a name. However, as I talked I got some feeling that I knew his community, that I had brushed against it before. His words held a familiarity that he did not.
And there was that damn name again. “Is there anything else you can tell me about Childe?”
He shrugged. “That I haven’t told you already? Not really. English accent, snappy dresser, on a power trip that’d makes Alister Crowley and Anton Le Vay look like altruists?” He sighed. “Hey I want you to find this girl. I don’t like the idea of anyone stuck with Childe. If there was anything I can do. . .” He trailed off.
Behind him, the chess game continued. I heard a slap-ding as the grad student slapped the top of a timer next to the chess board. The poet immediately moved his queen and made his own slap-ding.
“What is it?” I asked. My companion seemed to have lost himself in a thought.
“Are you as open minded as you seem?”
“I try to be.”
He grinned, “Then perhaps I can offer some sort of aid.” He rummaged in his pockets and retrieved a bag. Behind him I heard the timer again.
From the bag he retrieved a stack of cards. Slowly he began shuffling. “You’re not someone who comes believing the oracle, are you?”
I glanced at the cards. “You mean fortune-telling?” What came to my mind when I thought of divination was more con-artistry than the supernatural.
The kid shuffled cards and said, “More than that. We attach complex symbols to the cards, manipulate them, arrange them into patterns. The patterns they form are reflections of the patterns around us. This is as much us truly seeing than it is the cards telling us anything.” He looked up and gave me a disarming smile. “Sounds pretentious doesn’t it? Just started reading up on chaos theory and emergent behavior.” He placed the cards down on the table between us, a slap-ding echoed his motion.
I decided if thiskid was about to try a con on me, that would probably tell me more than any oracle. “Go ahead, it can’t hurt.”
“Form a question in your mind, something for the cards to focus on. Then cut them for me.”
I reached over and cut the cards, as I did so, the only question that would come to mind was, who am I?
“Do you want to know the question?” I asked.
To my relief, he shook his head. “Sometimes the reading is more profound if only youknow what is being asked. At this point I am only helping you to see.”
He drew the top card, laying it on the table between us. There was a look on his face I did not like. The card I liked even less. On it a corpse lay face down, pierced through the back by ten swords. “The Ten of Swords.” He swallowed. “This card is the past, the basis for what is to come. You’ve come through something tragic and unpleasant. Relationships have ended, maybe badly. You’ve perhaps felt a feeling of abandonment. Things have not gone as you planned or wished them to. . .”
He took another breath and laid down a card above the first. This one showed a man upon a throne, holding a sword. “This card represents you, and the situation surrounding you. The King of Swords, not a great surprise since he deals with law enforcement. You have a determination to overcome the obstacles that confront you. There is a lot of stress around you, you’re fighting your way uphill, but you are fighting.”
He lay down a card above the other two, this one showed a woman on a throne, holding a staff in her right hand, and a flower in her left. The card was upside down, her flower pointing down at the king’s sword. “Ah, this represents your hopes or fears. In a sense, it is what you are looking for. A woman, I suspect that Cecilia that you’ve been asking about, though the Queen usually has blonde or red hair. The Queen of Wands, reversed. A troublesome woman, vengeful, she may turn on you, or others.”
“Your immediate past. . .” he flipped over a card to the king’s right. “Whoa.”
A skeletal horseman bore a black banner toward the king. Corpses fell across the steed’s path. “Death,” he said, needlessly. “Not necessarily a bad card, but you are in the midst of some change, a major severance with the past. With the swords I see a lot of struggle, but the change is powerful, and won’t be denied.”
“The forces arrayed against you, the obstacles you must overcome. . .” He turned over a card and laid it across the king. A bat winged demon squatted on a pillar, raising his hand toward me.
Behind the kid, the chess players went on. Someone hit the timer again. Slap-ding. We sat there, quietly for a moment or two before he went on with the reading. Most of the lightness had gone out of his voice. “The Devil,” he said quietly. He placed his cards down and ran his hands through his hair. “Evil forces are blocking your path, and escape from them seems doomed to failure. . .” He looked up at me and said. “Do you want me to go on with this?”
I nodded, not trusting my voice. His anxiety was infecting me, even though I found it hard to credit the idea that cardboard rectangles could say anything about me.
“The immediate future,” he said, slowly picking up the deck. He turned over a card, looking at it for a long time before putting down. The color drained from his face. I wondered what could be worse than Death or the Devil.
He slowly laid the card down on the other side of the king, opposite Death. “The Tower,” he whispered. Lightning struck a lighthouse-like structure, people tumbled off the precipice and flames danced from the windows. “Chaos, disaster. Your upheaval has yet to end, and the tribulations you are about to face will be worse than what you’ve already endured.”
He shook his head. “That’s enough, man. I just don’t like seeing those cards.” He began picking up the spread, shoving the cards back into his bag. “Look, I’m sorry. It was a bad idea.”
“Don’t worry, I don’t believe in it,” I told him.
He stood up and touched my hand. “Man, I know where you’re coming from. But even if I didn’t believe it, that kind of spread would freak me.”
With that, he left me.
Who am I?I thought.
He was right. Even though I didn’t believe it, those cards bothered me. I turned to ask him another question, but he had disappeared into the crowd.
The student and the poet had set up a new game. The poet was busy arranging pawns. smoke hung low in the air, like fog on a battlefield. Change, evil, and disaster. . .
“Yeah, I have seen her,” said the blond pagan. His name is Neil, but he calls himself Sunfox. He hands back the picture I showed him of a dark woman named Cecilia. She is missing, and I’ve been paid to find her.
“Where did you see her last?” I ask him.
“A week ago last Sunday. She came to a few open circles. She’s one of those people who’re looking for something, but they’re not sure what. The kind of kid that that Childe bastard’s supposed to prey on.”
“Yeah, that was the last time I saw him, too. A bunch of us got together and asked him to leave. . .”
The memory evaporated with a slap-ding from the next table.
I tried to hold on to it, but that made it escape all the faster. The young man in my memory was the same one who read my fortune in his cards. Again I was hearing Childe’s name, again I was looking for someone. . .
Am I a cop?
“. . .The King of Swords, not a great surprise since he deals with law enforcement. . .”
The poet moved a pawn. Slap-ding.
I cradled my espresso in my hands and thought that Sunfox had given me a lot of information outside of any debatable tarot reading. I looked into my cup and felt a wave of thirst and hunger wash over me, an intense and weakening feeling.
I took a bite of danish and my first sip of espresso.
Queen takes pawn. Slap-ding.
The coffee slammed into my stomach, constricting my throat. The liquid hit my stomach as if someone had napalmed my abdomen. My gut started spasming violently.
Knight takes queen. Slap-ding.
I managed to drop the mug on the table without spilling it all over myself. I had my hand over my mouth. I knew that I was going to throw up. It felt as if someone was slamming me with an ax-handle.
Rook takes pawn, checkmate. Slap-ding.
I stumbled the dozen feet to the rest-rooms barely in time. I could feel the contents of my stomach rising as I pushed open the door. I was kneeling over the bowl before the door had swung shut behind me. It took me ten minutes to expel that single mouthful of coffee, it felt like an hour.
The worst part of all was the steely taste of blood that came with it. I couldn’t ignore it, much as I wanted to. Streaking the bowl, swirling with the ugly liquid mass, were trails of bright crimson. The sight of it made me nearly too weak to stand.
As I got unsteadily to my feet I knew I could no longer pretend that I was ok. Ok people don’t vomit blood.
I turned around and leaned over the sink. My eyes refused to meet the mirror, even though I still wore my sunglasses. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I still felt a perverse thread of denial. It was only a little blood, after all.
I laughed, though I didn’t feel at all amused. I was in serious trouble. However well I felt when I woke up, right now I was light-headed from hunger, and probably thirst. My gut was too tore up to handle anything without puking. I needed a doctor.
I ran water into my cupped hands and dank a tiny amount. It washed the taste from my mouth, but from the tightening in my stomach I knew that drinking any more would send me back to the john.
I had a longing thought about the three bucks worth of pastry sitting back at my table, and almost threw up again. I finally raised my face to look at myself in the mirror.
“Kane,” I whispered, “you look like shit.”
Part of my face was obscured by a “Silence=Death” bumper sticker. But what I saw showed that, whatever was wrong with me, it must have been getting rapidly worse. I certainly didn’t remember looking this pale back at the motel. The stubble on my chin looked black against my skin, and my lips were almost white. Shadows carved out too much of my skull on my face.
I backed out of the bathroom.
Behind me I heard a familiar voice say, “Kane, what the hell happened to you?”
I turned around to face Sam. I was expending what little exhausted effort I had to keep from shaking. I knew him, and the sight of his face inspired a feeling of trust that managed to find its way past my lack of memory. I knew this man was a friend, even though I couldn’t remember him.
“Sam,” I said. “Get me out of here.”