ERIC HART

Eric Hart

RITUALIST/CLEANSER


PATRON:
BARON SAMEDI


CHARACTER SHEETS

ERIC'S STORY


Eric took the pipe and gave it a look-over.

Nice, he thought. Looked artisinal. Felt very comfortable in the hand. Plenty of room to hold its cargo while the curve of the bowl would keep the flame from getting too buried its fuel.

“Do you sell these in the gift shop?” he asked.

Eric remembered that it had actually been hard for him to inhale the first few times he’d tried anything, way back when. He’d always held it in the back of his throat and then exhaled it, instinctively, rather than really breathing it in and then breathing out. He hadn’t been a natural at drugs. It had taken a while. He’d been, as with most things in life, a late bloomer.

But oh could he catch up.

He drew the smoke in easily, breathed out. Drew it in, breathed out. “I’m good at something, fuckers,” he thought before feeling too good to be angry at anything. “The world shouldn’t be so damn hard. Some of us just want to play …”

He was seven years old. Some bigger kids were leading him through some tunnels they’d found running under Berkley. It had blown his young mind to think that there was this whole other world, just out of sight, that could be accessed by people who knew where to look …

Jazmyn was right, his future self thought, somehow in the moment and watching it from a distance. What we’re doing now is exactly the same. The world is just fucking awesome …if you know where to look.

This time, though, the homeless guy they found with the knife couldn’t be talked down. He wasn’t just groggy and hungry. This time they’d had to run, and little Eric was obviously the slowest …

Oh man, Eric thought, simultaneously being cut up and watching. That’s brutal. That … is anybody even going to find the body? No, no … eaten by rats it is.

It hurt, of course, but there was more than enough smoke to keep him from caring. It wasn’t … somehow he knew … supposed to be like this. He was supposed to be thereentirely, experiencing it … which would just suck … but here he was, both in and out. A foot in both worlds, committed to neither.

That is so me …

Age 10, falling off the roof of a building they’d broken into.

Loser, he thought.

Age 14, falling off the central spire of the Golden Gate Bridge which he’d climbed to see the sunset. Way better. What a long way down. What an amazing view.

Age 15, when his first real fight had taken a very different turn. Shit, he thought, from his detached vantage point. I was actually the asshole there. We were … how did I not realize we were being so obviously racist? Fuck.

He shrugged as his teeth were beaten out and his eyes broke and his bones shattered. Breathing in and out. In and out. Protected by the beautiful warm detachment. It felt so good to be so disassociated.

Another fight, at age 16. Over a girl. That had turned out to be remarkably sweet of him - though in hindsight she was clearly not worth dying over.

And over …

And over …

So many drug overdoses, so many stupid stunts that had been incredibly fun at the time, several incautious deaths in bed …

And it never really got to him, all this dying. If anything it was kind of pleasant. A fun, gruesome, spectacle to relive. What did it have to do to him, really?

Until he fell off the top of the Chronicle building on his 20th birthday. Because then the pattern broke. Then he kept falling … and falling … and falling … and he didn’t hit the ground. He just kept falling.

And the world just started to go away. It just - detached - from him and started to recede into the distance.

Hey, where’s the world going? This pierced his haze. This he didn’t like.

And he suddenly realized, as though finally putting the pieces of a dream together, that death had resented his detachment. Death had objected to his inability to truly commit to these moments of life …

… and so now death was rejecting him.

And that meant all the world was going away. Because death is the price of life. At least one of them.

And part of Eric was fine with this. Because it was finally over. No more pressure. All he’d ever wanted to do was play. To run with his pack and laugh and be counted and known. He’d never imagined there could be anything more. Not until they told him. Not until they started asking him what he was going to be when he grew up. What he was going to do with his life.

Do with it? What could it possibly be for?

The pressure to be something, to make something of himself … he’d never wanted it. He’d never understood it. But it was constant, all consuming, and one by one his pack had dropped away, giving in to the idea that it was better to strive in a cage than to sleep on a rooftop. And he didn’t understand. And every time he’d tried to follow their lead it felt so wrong, and he was so bad at it - late bloomer - that he’d always gone scurrying back to his tunnels and his crawl spaces and his balconies.

And they’d laughed at him and they’d pitied him and they’d asked what’s wrong with him, and he’d never really understood where he went wrong. What the hell do they want from me? He’d just wanted to play. Why did it get so hard?

And then the world had turned, and suddenly he was in demand, and he could play all he wanted, play to his heart’s content, and it had destroyed him utterly …

… And now he wasn’t even going to get to relive that glorious time, because now death itself was rejecting him. And all he would do is fall farther and farther away from life … and maybe that was okay, because what else was there for him anyway?

He tried to just settle into it. Falling isn’t so bad …

… except …

… That he still wanted to play …

… Oh God, he still wanted to play.

Even after everything - all the disappointment - he still wanted to stand on the top of a bridge and feel the wind in his face and balance himself on the edge.

Even after everything - all the dying - he still wanted to get carried away by music under the moonlight.

He wanted to taste food. He wanted to kiss girls. He wanted to fuck - oh how he wanted to fuck - and feel hot breath whispering beautiful lies in his ear. He wanted to go back to that show at the broken down pier where all the lights had gone out except for a row of costumed demons holding glowing globes, and an unseen chorus had chanted sacred music to call them to walk the flickering path.

It had brought tears to his eyes. It had been so beautiful.

The flickering path had led to a hellscape where strangers in elaborate costumes had tangoed on elevated stages, and then an orchestra had swelled, and everyone had leaped to their feet and jumped up and down as the dancers had pulled out swords and begun dueling over the true nature of art.

Eric wanted it all. All that. So much.

But he couldn’t have it. Not if he was disassociated. He couldn’t have it if he was detached. You can have peace or life, but not both. Not for long.

… he didn’t have much longer.

Peter Pan is a lie

… death will honor every choice but the refusal to make one.

Eternal falling has nothing I want … except the refusal to lift a burden. How much was it worth, to not stand up when his name was called?

Slowly, as the light faded, taking the darkness with it, Eric reached out …

He landed on his feet, in the middle of the crowd surging to music played by an orchestra that surrounded them. He stumbled, but knew what he had to do. If it wasn’t too late.

He ran up to one of the stages. Leaped on it. Stood in-between the sword fighting dancers. Began his best imitation of a tango, screaming at the top of his lungs about art.

They grinned through their masks and stabbed him. One sword in the chest, the other through the side, piercing him through like a pig on stick.

There was no haze, no disassociation. This time he felt it all.

Agony like he had never known.

Well that was fucking stupid, he thought as he fell to his knees and bled out.

It was the sensation of sand and pebbles on his cheeks that made him sit up. He was on a beach, now, underneath the moonlight. The wind tasted of salt. Doc Pleasant stood over him, shaking his head.

“Late Bloomer,” Doc Pleasant said, spitting on the ground.

***

Doc Pleasant shook his head, and nudged Eric with his butt of his staff - which, on closer inspection, seemed to be a shovel. A large shovel, true, and embossed with a skull on the blade…but nevertheless, a garden-variety shovel. As an instrument of ritual, it lacked a certain mysticism, true, but it made up for it in ominous, knuckle-cracking suggestion.

“Why you so afraid?” he asked, looming over Eric’s prone form. “Ain’t never seen one come through here that be runnin’ so hard.”

He cackled, and there was a certain eerie edge to the sound. “What you think’s gon’ bite you if you actually commit to somethin’ one day, eh?”

“Well … well …” it took Eric’s mind a few moments to wrap itself around language again. “Well, I was eaten by rats just a little while ago … that wasn’t so nice …”

The Hoodoo man snorted. “Them’s been eatin’ on you for years…only thing what’s different now is you noticin’.”

Eric got up onto his feet. “No kidding?” he asked. “That’s … that’s … “ he frowned. “Okay, I’ve got nuthin’. Nice shovel.”

Doc Pleasant took off, heading down the path to the stone stairway, the handle of his shovel thudding heavily into the dirt with each step - the sound of a grave digger at work.

“You know you got to commit to one side or the other, eh?” he said, finally, a few moments later. “Any man what waits too long to choose gon’ get the choice made for him, an’ I’m gon’ guess this comes as a real surprise, but Death ain’t impressed by no smooth talker.”

“Yeah,” Eric muttered. “Yeah, I got that. So … chocolates?” He wasn’t sure why he was even talking. It was just automatic, and all he seemed to be doing was …

He stopped. “Hey … hey …” he said. “This all isn’t some elaborate metaphor for me digging my own grave, is it?”

“Could be, could be,” his guide replied. “Ain’t my journey so I can’t tell you. You be the one what’s got to take its meanin’.”

He slammed the butt of the shovel down on the next few steps, the macabre beat booming out, ringing across the empty plane. Turning his head, he gave Eric a meaningful look over his shoulder - then snickered. “If’n you asked me, though, metaphor be a real fancy damned word for reality.”

Eric opened his mouth to say that, as far as he could tell, right now “reality” was a fancy word for “opium,” but then closed it. Was it just his imagination, or the nature of this place, that the thought seemed to linger in the air all the same, as if it had a weight and substance all its own?

Hey, Eric thought. I’m the first one to admit I don’t know what I’m doing. I just …

Just what?

That seemed to linger in the air too.

Okay, fine, I’m getting lectured on my life choices by an opium dispensing hoodoo doctor with a shovel he probably bought at a Death Guild fundraiser … but … but …

No, that seemed to be it, really.

Wow, reality.

“This is a pretty nice island,” Eric said, trying to piece it all together. To grasp some kind of - truth? - that he’d been avoiding his whole life. “Is it available as a party venue? Because I could fill it up like this,” he snapped his fingers, “every weekend.”

Doc Pleasant cackled. “You think you can sell the shadow world to the dead? That be like sellin’ ice to eskimos, or smugness to lib’rals. I ain’t sayin’ I wouldn’t like to see it done, mind, just that it’s gon’ to be takin’ a lot of talent to make that happen.”

They reached the bottom of the steps, and the path opened up to an expanse of beach - nearly obscured with heavy fog. Pleasant strode across the sand, and the fog slid aside to admit him, revealing a gondola, sitting upright in the sand.

It was decked out with colored lanterns, purple bunting, and strings of finger bones - jovial, but with a morbid touch.

Eric had to admire the ride.

“Get in, boy,” the ferryman said, stepping in himself. “We got a ways to go.”

For one familiar with the topography, the landmarks of their journey would be recognizable. The hulk of Bird Island as they headed out. The passage between the two peninsulas - the new world’s Symplegades, though instead of crushing outsiders, the masses of land (in accordance with local tradition) merely passed silent judgment on those traveling through. And in the distance, as they skimmed across the water, first the forbidding bulk of Alcatraz, then the outline of their destination, Angel Island.

The ferryman sung quietly to himself as he poled the craft along - an amazing feat in the Bay - and the tune seemed incredibly and oddly familiar - something about drinking, swinging from chandeliers. When Eric realized what the man was singing, he didn’t know whether to snicker or wonder if it was snarky, passive-aggressive commentary, or perhaps even an omen for what was to come.

Before he could decide which, though, the boat arrived. And rather than the all-encompassing silence of the plane where their journey had begun, the sounds of revelry floated out to the new arrivals. Snatches of music - the thud of trance, the beat of a drum circle, the wail of a blues guitar. High pitched, manic laughter came from one direction, the squeals and grunts of mindless copulation from another. There was smoke, too - weed, tobacco, incense, other less identifiable things.

Colored lights flickered and moved, beckoning to Eric, calling to him.

“Well, what’re you waitin’ for, boy?” Pleasant asked, shooing him out of the boat. “Get on with it. Word to the wise, though: you ain’t stuck. Remember that. You still got the ability to choose, eh?”

There were no discernible paths leading off from the stretch of sand where they landed, but the enticing hints of sight and sound were direction enough, and Eric soon found himself in the middle of a fantastic dreamscape.

Here was a woman in a dress with holes where the polka-dots should be singing torch songs to a crowd of warriors with long knives who cut their own flesh whenever they began to cry at the loneliness of the heart. The more gashes and scars a man had, the more you knew he cared about the world.

There was a carriage with a dozen blazing torches sticking from its sides, rolling around the island on wheels of diamonds. Slender hands emerged from it and tossed precious stones carved into the shape of birds and skulls out to the revelers.

Here were a group dancing around a bonfire to the rhythm of immense drums and the roaring of instruments made out of long animal horns - and when the music suddenly stopped whoever was out of place was stripped naked by the other dancers and over to a group of women to be painted. Some of their brushes were impossibly tender, some were harsh and rough, and they painted the bodies of the lost dancers as they wept and thrashed and pleaded for less and more until their bodies were covered. Somehow - he didn’t understand how - the way people treated them from now on would depend on what had been painted on their bodies, which depended on how they danced.

There were a pack of toothless men in loincloths running up to strangers and promising them wishes in exchange for teeth. Beyond them was a crowd of dancers holding flaming umbrellas who twirled and swirled in intricate patterns against a sky of total darkness.

Here were a group of women wearing animal skulls painted in clown colors who surrounded stragglers from the revelries and mocked them mercilessly until they wept. The women harvested the tears and put them in small glass bottles, hid them away, and then went in search of further victims.

Here were jewelry makers who fashioned intricate designs out of silver and steel and gave them away from free - if you would let them hammer them into your skin, to decorate you for all time.

Here was a table filled with roast boar and pheasant and all manner of dishes, attended to by servants all in red … and there were courtesans dressed in dark blue, who would be served for dessert.

There was a mock battle between dark men with glowing wooden spears who shouted and laughed when they were struck, pretending to die in order to impress three women clad only in fishnet stockings who each played a stringed instruments in order to give the battle melody and rhythm.

Here was a hut full of pillows where people had stripped naked and drugged themselves and offered themselves up to passing satyrs, and there was a hut where one could be blindfolded and locked against a wall taught lessons by the priesthood of Aphrodite. And there - Eric recognized him instantly - was the Emperor Norton, holding court on a throne of melted coins, dispensing knighthoods and justice. And there was … was that … Cassanova? Teaching a master class to an adoring crowd? Eric found himself turning and walking in that direction, only to be cut off by a parade of strange gryphon-line creatures ridden by naked women smoking cigars - and by the time he turned around from that there was so much new to look at.

A fanged woman wearing only a necklace of skulls danced in a circle of fire with a man holding live cobras in his hands. A group of men and women clad head to toe in gaudy jewelry - and nothing more - ran back and forth searching for keys that were hidden among the revelers. An old man in colorful leather strips walked between camps, offering sizzling meat from a bag. Men in wolf skins howled in harmony. Two women danced around each other whirling their impossibly long hair, striking at each other with it as though it were a weapon. A man in green cut firewood with an ax made from the bones of a mammoth in time to spirituals sung by a priest without sleeves wearing a deaths head mask of human bone.

Everywhere Eric looked there fires and huts and dancing and writhing and fucking and drinking music and danger … and it was the greatest thing he had ever seen.

He was not alone.

Yes, he thought. The only question was how to jump in.

Someone was walking next to him.

Yes, yes, yes! Where to start?

Someone - a presence - was deliberately matching his pace.

Eric turned. “Hey, do we get cell reception here?” he asked before he even processed what he saw.

The presence tipped his great hat in Eric’s direction, taking the cigarillo from between his lips to blow a perfectly-formed ring - which he then flicked away with a snap of his fingers.

“Who you tryin’ to call, man?” he asked. “If it’s ghostbusters, you shit out of luck.” He grinned, bright white teeth gleaming in contrast with his dusky skin, and the gesture turned the white skeletal facepaint he wore into a genuine rictus.

He pulled out a silver cigar case from the pocket of the well-fitted blazer he wore. As he flipped it open, it caught the light from a one of the campfires, and the initials ‘BS’ blazed briefly, then faded. “Cigar?” he asked, offering it to Eric.

Eric fiddled with the phone. “I know a guy … he’s a promoter … I figure we get a bunch of opium, sell maybe 60 tickets a night, bring everybody here, after the first week they’ll be begging to come back, we can …” Eric shook his head. “Or I could just post some pictures on Instagram. That’s an option too.”

“Hey thanks!” he added, taking the cigar without a moment’s hesitation. He put it under his nose and sniffed. “Nice. Hey, this isn’t going to curse me or anything if I smoke it, right? It’s just a cigar?”

The man cackled. “Who you think you are? Persephone? You eat it and you ain’t ever going to leave?” He eyed Eric, looking him up and down. “Sorry, man. You lackin’ some important assets,” he mimed generous boobs and hips with a smirk, “to be a princess.”

Eric chuckled back and lit the cigar in a torch by the side of the road. “Well, it’s a Tuesday,” he said. “I’m strictly a drag-on-weekends kind of guy. Although … that’s a lot of work, you know? I think I’m just too lazy to …” his eyes narrowed. “Is Persephone here? Like … here?” he asked. “Because that … that … “ he shrugged. “Yeah, actually I don’t care. Never really wanted to meet her. BUT I could add that to the ticket email. She’s got name recognition. It helps. SO …” he clapped his hands together. “I’m figuring I just dive in? Or is there a VIP room you can get me into or something? Not that I need it. This all looks … pretty damn good to me.”

“Ah man, this ain’t shit,” his companion said, taking another puff of the cigar. “You want to see the real action?”

Eric took his own puff. His eyes widened. “Strong …” he wheezed as he pushed the smoke out. “Delicious but … strong.” He tried it again. Yep. Entirely too strong for him. He tried it again. Definitely. One more time …

He looked back at his face painted companion. “You’re kidding me. Really? Because, I’m not going to put on airs here … this all seems worth doing. Really, really, worth doing.” Another puff. “I’m thinking of just … playing here, for a while …”

A beautiful woman in a silver costume walked by. They stood and stared, for a moment.

Ah dammit, Eric couldn’t help himself. “All right, what’s the real action? Just … tell me and I’ll let you know if it’s worth missing out on this ….”

His guide watched the woman move away. She seemed to sense their admiration, too, for she let a little more sway creep into her walk, and turned to look back at them, winking - her eyes glinting strangely in the flickering light.

“Goddammit, Brigitte,” he hollered after the women…once she was out of earshot. “I thought you was off seein’ your maman!”

“Missing out on that,” he jerked his cigar in the direction of the sauntering woman, “was a damned close shave,” he muttered. “Figures, a man’s wife’s going to show up where she’s least expected…”

“Nevermind all this,” he continued, heading off at surprisingly brisk pace. “You’d fuckin’ die if you missed what I got to show you.”

Reluctantly … muttering are you kidding me? … Eric followed. The idea of a world within a world impossible to resist. Although … “couldn’t we just spend an hour here first? Or a couple? Or a few days?”

The further they went into the woods, the more - for lack of a better word - industrial the scenes became, though no less whimsical for that. And Eric’s guide threaded his way through it all with practiced ease, seemingly recognized by all and sundry.

“Samedi!” A scrawny black man in an elaborate costume came up, holding a bottle of dark liquid and jabbering at the pair in an incomprehensible creole. Samedi - Eric’s companion - nodded thoughtfully, listening to the spiel, then held out an expectant hand. The man offered the bottle with an elaborate bow, and Samedi with equal solemnity.

“I hear you,” he said, in grave, measured tones, then snapped his fingers, dismissing the man - who gave a huge sigh of relief and headed up, errand completed.

“Favors,” the Baron said to Eric, with a knowing look. “Got to keep the kids happy, you know?

He uncorked the bottle and took a swig. “Goddamn,” he said, shuddering as it went down. “That’s the stuff. Have a drink?” he said, offering Eric the bottle.

Eric took the drink. “Great cigar demands great whiskey. Demands it. You can hear it, right? Demanding?” He took a puff and then a drink, and nearly fell over as the world shifted beneath his feet.

“Gotta keep the kids happy …” he muttered in agreement (he wasn’t sure why) as he found his balance. “Okay, can I ask who your source is? Because, I know that’s not polite, but, in return I will hook you up with a ton of free movie passes at the Metreon. I swear I know a guy.”

Samedi laughed, loud and long, slapping Eric on the back. “Man,” he said, wiping his eyes, “that’s the best fuckin’ thing I heard all day. Been a long time since someone tried to make a deal like that with me.”

A dark-skinned beauty in patent leather booty shorts, matching boots, and nothing else but body paint crossed their paths. Recognizing the Baron, her eyes widened and she blew him a kiss. He waggled his fingers back in return, and she strutted away, knowing she had their attention.

“Goddamn,” Baron breathed. “They don’t make ‘em better than that, do they?” he said, shaking his head, and tipping back the bottle again. “I can see I got to go have a little conversation with her later on.” He grinned at Eric. “Public relations, yeah? It’s a tough job, I know, but someone’s got to do it.”

“Yeah …” said Eric. “Yeah … listen, not that I’m not having a great time, but, I’m kind of invisible next to you. You notice that? I mean, no surprise - it’s all completely understandable, but … if you’re not actually going to make any moves, could you, you know, introduce me? Be a wingman? You,” he nodded, savoring the thought. “You’d make the most amazing wingman in the world. Can we do this? for funsies?”

“Whatcha need with these girls?” Baron asked. “They nice, but that’s it. They ain’t real, not like the girls back out in the daylight.” He looked over at Eric curiously. “That pretty little piece you got ain’t working out for you? She’s one kinky girl, too.” He shook his head appreciatively. “I’ll introduce you to Farah back there, if you’ll introduce me toher…”

“They seem real enough …” Eric muttered. Then shook his head. “If you know all about that, then you probably know I’ve never been very good boyfriend material. I don’t really see how this doesn’t get screwed up in a little bit.” He surprised himself by how sad he about it he sounded.

“Only gonna get screwed up if you screw it up, man,” the Baron pointed out. “Ain’t like you can’t do things different.” He offered Eric the bottle again. “Have another drink. Make you feel better.”

“It always does. That’s part of the reason I’m a bad boyfriend.”

They neared a camp that was situated some distance from the others they’d been through, and as they approached, Baron turned and gave Eric a wink and a nod. “Check it out,” he said, waving the other man closer. “Watch the action for a bit, huh?”

“I’m more of a participant and less of a voyeur - I really like to … okay, okay. I can watch for a little while.” There was an open building - as though some walls had been removed allowing them to see inside - and Eric tilted his head as he looked at the tableau of people getting into 1920s costumes and putting up the finishing touches on a secret 1920s style speakeasy and cabaret.

“You know, it’s funny,” Eric said, “but this reminds me a lot of a party I was involved in, way back when … I was still a teenager, and …”

He stopped. He stared. “Ah crap,” he said to the Baron, unable to turn away. “You’re gonna ghost of Christmas past me, aren’t you.”

Baron just waved the bottle and puffed on the cigarillo. The message was clear enough:Get ON with it.

“You know, it’s all fun and games ‘till somebody lost an eye 15 years ago,” Eric muttered. But in fact he couldn’t turn away. This was … this was … this had been something special.

Everyone was running around, getting into place … there were just 10 minutes before the doors would open and the “casino” and “bar” areas would be filled. The cabaret would start a half-hour later. It was opening night.

Zeus and Valerie and Jamie W were running through the old building, troubleshooting - it was their party - and there, there, Eric saw his younger self, walking around in a sharp suit, looking thrilled to be there and terrified that somebody was going to kick him out.

“Ah man,” he thought now. “Was it so obvious that I just wanted to fit in? I didn’t need to try so hard …”

He remembered what happened next, and he watched it play out in front of him. The back door opened. Burris walked in, wearing work jeans and combat boots and a Metallica t-shirt. Eyes bulged.

He sat at the bar. He sat at the fucking immaculately constructed 1920s speakeasy bar, prepared with authentic antique beer taps, wearing that. And nobody knew what to say, because he was the landlord, and the whole thing was illegal anyway. He could be as big an asshole as they wanted, and as long as he didn’t mind losing the money they were supposed to bring in, there was nothing anybody could do about it.

The doors were opening. Z, V, and JW were at the front, greeting the customers, lapping it up in character. That meant they couldn’t be reached on radio. In just moments, everything was going to go terribly wrong. It would be incredibly embarrassing, it would be death …

“Well, not death, exactly” Eric muttered from the future.

Then young Eric sprang into action.

He walked up to Burris, looking sharp and swank. He even did this little move with his scarf that looked keen … nice one, thought Eric, watching. Why did I stop wearing scarves? … and he leaned over to Burris and whispered, “hey, got something to show ‘ya.”

Burris was in a dark place. It happened. “What?”

Eric raised his eyebrows. “Just … c’mon.” He looked around. “It’s not for them,” he said. “Just VIP. Right? Because …” he gestured at the building.

Slowly, Burris got up. Followed Eric through the backstage door that connected the speakeasy with the dressing rooms with the kitchen with the cabaret.

Okay,” young Eric was thinking. Okay, he’s out of sight, now … now … how do I keep him that way …*

Inspiration struck as he began to pass one of the strange nooks that once might have been a broom closet and now was a prep room. Miriam and Alley were in it, in costume, talking. Eric stopped in his tracks.

“This,” he said, “is our VIP seating area, with a special cabaret showing.”

The girls looked at him. They were just actresses, not planners, they didn’t really know what was at stake.

“Ladies,” said Eric, “are you ready to do your special song?”

He stared at them. Not even old enough to legally drink, trying to use a shit-eating grin as a telegraph, as if they could read the situation by studying the way his jaw clenched. They knew he was somebody … that he ran errands and gave directions for Z, V, and JW … but they were on in a half-hour. What was he talking about?

“Improvise” he mouthed at them. “Vamp.” This was not an effective form of communication.

“C’mon,” he heard Burris behind him. “What the fuck?”

How come it’s always the assholes who own the best buildings? Eric thought, then and now.

And then … then … something happened. The connection was made. The switch was flipped. An electric current zapped between them, and inspiration was in the air. Miriam and Alley had been working on a duet. They struck poses, Miriam sang a note, Alley sang harmony. Burris sat down in the nook, intrigued, and Eric made a motion behind him. 20 minutes. Give us 20 minutes, and we’ll be able to get this taken care of.

They nodded - completely on the same page. He whispered “VIP,” and then left the small room, closing the door behind him.

It had been a glorious save, Eric remembered. The show had gone off without a hitch, he’d come out a hero, and they’d used the space for months - much longer than expected. Eric watched for the view to follow him out and manage, after 20 minutes of working crowds, to explain to Jamie W. what had happened.

Except the view didn’t follow him. He went out and around the corner and out of sight. Instead, it stayed on the nook. Where …

Oh God, he realized. Oh God.

He hadn’t been able to see it then, he was too young and much to excited, but Miriam and Alley had just taken something. That was why they were in the room together. And they never should have … oh crap oh crap oh crap.

Miriam managed to get out. Alley didn’t.

Jamie W. had told Valerie, and they’d gone to the nook with kitchen knives and a baseball bat, but Burris had already left. Valerie comforted Alley for a little while, but then Alley wanted to go on stage anyway. Wanted to just … keep going. Not talk about it. Not be a victim. She’d been so stupid to let herself get put in this position in the first place, the drugs hadn’t even kicked in yet, what had she been thinking?

So they wouldn’t talk about it. They didn’t go to the police - that probably wouldn’t have worked - but they blackmailed Burris for free use of the space. And nobody told Eric then, and it was only now that bits and pieces of conversations he’d forgotten about suddenly clicked into place to make a coherent whole.

His jaw dropped. The cigar fell to the ground. He’d been so stupid, not to see it. He’d even played the hero about it, for months. Strutting around.

“Yeah,” he whispered. “Thanks for that. I … don’t think I want a wingman anymore.”

The Baron just nodded, his face neutral. “Come on, then. Another party right down the way. You don’t want to miss this one, man. Real exciting, I hear.”

“Whoa whoa whoa,” said Eric. “I’m … I’m thinking I just might want to go back to the big party. The one we left to come here … the one where everything was awesome and I wasn’t such a terrible person.”

“Those ain’t your parties, man,” Samedi said, pulling out the cigar case. “And even if they were, you wouldn’t like it there any better than here. Another smoke?” he offered the cigars once more.

“Why … why not? Why wouldn’t I like that party any better?” Eric asked. He took a cigar, but he didn’t light it.

“This look like heaven to you?” Baron asked, smirking, though the question was clearly rhetorical. “This is my realm, man. The Cimitière. The crossroads. This is where choices are made, and lives are offered into my care. This folks you saw back there? They’re all someone’s Alley. Someone’s Burris.”

“Right, but …” he was going to blurt out They’re not my problems! but of course that wouldn’t work. That … what he’d meant to say was … “but that doesn’t mean I’d have to screw them over now, right?”

Baron shook his head, giving Eric a half-smile, a knowing look - as though he’d heard what the man had started to say. “Don’t work like that, trust me, son. They wouldn’t even see you there.”

Eric’s face fell. “I knew this was too good to be true. You couldn’t have told me that back when I was planning to sell tickets? Look-but-don’t-touch would drive the sale price seriously down. We’d have to scrimp to make up expenses on opium.” He sighed. “That’s, damn, that’s actually pretty perverse thing for me to say, under the circumstances.”

“Graveyard humor,” Baron said, winking at Eric and giving him a thumbs-up. “I can dig it.”

“Well, at least I know why none of the women were looking at me …” Eric lit the cigar. “I guess I’ve still got it. So you’re telling me there’s no way out but through? I have to do the whole Christmas past thing or else …?”

“I don’t know about the or else part, but I’m going to guess you came here for a reason. Might as well get it over with if you’re already here, no?”

Eric looked away. “It wasn’t entirely my idea … you see, there’s this secret underground strip club, and … ah nevermind, you must either already know that stuff or not care.” Eric took a puff of the cigar. Struggled to stand up straight. “You know you’re my hero, right?” he asked. “That I want to be you when I grow up? Okay, let’s do this.”

“If I ever have an apprenticeship open, I’ll let you know… Off we go, then.” Baron tucked the case back into his pocket and took off down the path towards another clearing. “This lookin’ familiar?”

Of course it did. It was where the bus on the way to the Nevada ghost town had stopped in the mountains. Where they’d all gone off to play in nature because it was actually a pretty warm night. and they actually weren’t running too late and because … well, because they’d wanted to play in nature.

Eric felt sick, but now that he was here he couldn’t look away. He didn’t even notice that Alley and Miriam and Burris had followed them up to the top of the mountain, and were standing a few yards behind them, just out of the glow of the bus’ headlights.

This time Eric knew exactly what would happen. He’d convinced Tom and Dustin and Megs to take these amazing homemade … somethings … that Admiral Fiesta had cooked up, even though Dustin was on an antidepressant that he was pretty sure shouldn’t be mixed and Megs was still recovering from the tabs she’d done last night. Dustin had to be taken to the hospital because he wouldn’t wake up when the bus got back to San Francisco, and Megs … well, she was just depressed for a couple of days, thankfully, but let’s not minimize that …

I just thought I talked them into it. I mean, that is all that happened, right?

They went to the co-op next, and Eric didn’t see that Dustin and Megs had joined Miriam and Burris and Alley, walking behind. They’d all been so idealistic then, and when the Ma had announced that he was going to sell, Eric had convinced a crowd to throw a final rager there. The place was trashed, the property ruined, and Ma had pressed charges, but the police had never come down on Eric. No, Eric had escaped, while others took the heat …

There were other cops, too: officers who he’d been able to convince to look away at just the right times. Some of them had gotten caught. There were janitors who’d loaned out keys; people he’d convinced to invest in parties - including Yoli, who had mortgaged his house to support a pop-up bar. But he didn’t lose it! Eric pointed out. I made him his money back …

And then things turned ugly, when Eric started to have real money on the line.

It finally occurred to him, watching himself on the prowl with his fair weather friends at a bar, and his face went white and he turned to Baron Samedi. “Nikki,” he said. “Did I … did I … use my power to make her …”

“That one seems like a woman who knows her own way, if you ask me,” Baron said , from where he was lounging against a tree, drawing on the cigarillo that apparently never ended. “But why you asking me? You the one that knows what you done. Far’s I can tell, all you done was be a good boyfriend like you say you can’t be.”

“I’m … I’m a fucking rape drug in bad pants,” Eric said. “I’m Rohypnol Man … this … this is really bad …” He shook his head. Turned his back on the scene in front of him. “I don’t want to watch this. Please, don’t make me …”

And then he noticed the crowd behind them. So many victims, standing just outside the light, waiting their turn.

He wobbled on his feet. He was trapped between his crimes. He looked back and forth.

“I’m … I’m so sorry … “ he whispered. And then he said it more loudly. “I’m so sorry! i didn’t know! I had no idea I … I thought were in it together. I thought we were making experiences, I had no … “ He shook his head. “I don’t know how to make it right. I have no idea. It all …”

He heard his own voice behind him, the events of the past were still going on. He felt an electric tingle - he knew what it meant.

“Oh fuck that,” he whispered. “No no no no no.” He looked at the crowd. “I’ll … be right back, or something …”

Eric turned. He did what he had never thought to do before. He dove into the scene. Baron Samedi was right, no one noticed him, he jostled them and they just went on exactly the way it had happened.

Not good enough He raised up his hand. Nothing happened. Not good enough! He inhaled the cigar. Let the strength of the poison tobacco flow through him. It was like giving a car battery a jolt. Electricity flowed into his hands.

He reached out and grabbed himself by the throat. Put all his whatever into it. “STOP!” he shouted. “JUST STOP!” He couldn’t let this happen.

The spirits around him paused, considered him for a moment, then returned to their preordained path.

From his tree, the Baron called, “Going to have to do better than that.” He held the whiskey bottle up. “This help?”

Eric nodded and took the bottle. Took a smoke, then raised it to his lips and threw the liquid down his throat, guzzling it, spilling it on his face and chest. He put it down and then stabbed himself in the neck with the lit cigar. The whole world spun, but his body was full of energy. This time he threw a punch at himself. Screamed “I’M THE ONE YOU’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO FUCK OVER!” And it was true. He had never felt this focused, or this desperate. He thought he might be burning

“Keep going, man,” the Baron called out, shifting to a more comfortable position against his tree and giving Eric a cheery grin and wave. “You headin’ in the right direction, anyway.”

Past Eric picked himself up off the floor, stared at him, and his eyes blazed. He made a “You wanna do this? It’s cool” gesture with his scarf - dammit, why did I stop wearing scarves? and struck back.

But he didn’t throw a punch. He opened his mouth. He spoke. Because words have always been Eric’s deadliest weapon.

“I don’t even want to LOOK AT YOU!” earlier Eric shouted. “It’s embarrassing! You had it all! You had it ALL! For once in your goddamn life you weren’t some stupid tagalong kid who everybody was laughing at! Who everybody felt sorry for! You were the Man!” He gestured with his scarf again. Used it to point out that he was wearing a tailored suit. “We finally reached a place where nobody was saying ‘When is Eric going to grow up!’ They admired you! Do you remember what it felt like to be admired, just that ONE TIME! Even the Rents respected you!”

“… fuck the Rents …”

“And all you had to do is NOT FUCK IT UP! That’s it! The only thing! But you didn’t, because you couldn’t, because you really are just a sad little lazy fuckwit who sounds so clever and does so little. Jesus Christ just ‘don’t jump off a cliff!’ It’s not complicated! But here you are, sad and lonely and unemployed and friendless, and you’re trying to tell me - ME - what the right thing to do is. Well, this is the right thing, jackass. Because it’s control. And that’s what you need in your life: control! This is your edge! This is what keeps you from being the guy lying in the street who everyone is going to turn away from because you clearly don’t add anything to the human race except a funky smell! But you don’t want to use it. And so you have nothing. No control, no power, no dignity. And that …” he gestured around him at the club. “Is why I win. Because time and time again, you’ve proven we’re NOTHING!”

Eric nodded. The electricity was flowing into him now, now from him. But it didn’t matter. It all made sense. This is what it’s like, he thought. It’s not so much mind control as …He didn’t know how to describe it. But every word was true.

He blinked, and wiped away tears, as younger Eric put his arm around Evelyn, the woman he was going to take home that night.

Eric looked back at the crowd of victims who stood just behind Baron Samedi. “He’s … he’s right …” he said. “I don’t … he’s right, and I’m sorry, and I can’t stop him. Because I’m …”

A thought occurred to him.

“But you can kill him,” he said. “I think … I think we have to do that. I think it’s the only way. Can you do that for me? Can you take him down? Punish him for our sins? Because he has to be stopped. He has to be sacrificed. And I …”

Younger Eric’s eyes were wide. “No …”

“I give you permission.”

“NO! They’ll …”

“Just save me the scarf, okay? Assuming I’m still here, which … I dunno. I have no idea what’s about to happen. But we all know he has to be stopped.”

“The fuck you think you’re doing, son?” the Baron called, pushing himself away from the tree and strolling over - though the tone of his voice belied his casual pace. “You ain’t thinking about consequences. Again.”

He held his hand up to the assembled crowd, and they paused in their march.

He stopped in front of Eric, uncomfortably close - clearly not a man accustomed to the concept of “personal space” - and touched a finger beneath Eric’s chin, tilting his face up so that the Baron could looking him in the eye. “Listen up, pretty boy,” he said, pausing to take a puff and blow a smoke ring over Eric’s head, “What you think going to happen if you kill yourself? Even here, that’s going to have an effect.”

“I don’t know,” Eric said softly. “No idea. It’s my first day. I’m just … I almost didn’t make it here because I couldn’t … it just makes sense. They need satisfaction, he needs to be stopped, and I …” he shook his head. “No scarf for me,” he said sadly.

“Think about it, pretty boy,” Baron said, coaxing - almost tenderly, not moving away. “This’s important. You got to think it out.”

Eric sighed. “Are you telling me the laws of physics work here too? Cause and effect? That he’s me and I’m him and … I don’t know, but that’s the point. I don’t … I’m not a ‘think about the consequences’ guy, and he was even less of one. You can’t reason with him. And he, he makes some good points. But … look, I think it’s pretty obvious that if I wouldn’t be here at all if I wasn’t willing to destroy myself at the drop of a hat.”

“That’s true enough,” Baron conceded. “On the other hand, the Hoodoo man gave you counsel, when you got here. True speaking, that were. Me, I’d consider it real good, eh?”

“Yeah, well … you’re my hero, but I’m obviously not you … “ Eric considered. Then blinked. A strange expression crossed his face. “Gimmie some more cigars,” he said.

Baron smirked, drawing his finger along Eric’s jaw and winking. “Anything you ask, pretty boy,” he said, reaching into his inner jacket pocket and withdrawing the cigar case. He popped it open with his thumb and stepped back, holding it out with an elaborate bow. “As you requested…”

“Aren’t you supposed to be my mentor or something? Aren’t there, like, rules against hitting on me, and stuff? And I have to report you to the Dean of Students? Nevermind - secret’s safe with me.”

He took the cigars. He picked up the bottle of whiskey. He walked back over to his slightly younger self. “Hey,” he said, and electrical currents passed through them both. “You’ve gotta try this.”

Younger Eric scowled. “Don’t try to …”

“Hey,” Eric said. “See him?” He gestured back towards the Baron.

Younger Eric squinted. Trying to see … seeing but not processing … processing but not understanding …

“He’s got the good stuff,” Eric said. “The really good stuff. He’s …” he stopped, considered. “I’m his wingman, now, and I’m telling you - this,” he gestured around at the club, “is bullshit. Just try it. Here …” he held out a cigar. “Give it look.”

Younger Eric took it, looked it over, gave it a sniff, and then eagerly held it out to a fairweather friend for a light. “Oh fuck yeah,” he said, inhaling deeply.

“Right? And it’s perfectly balanced with the whiskey …”

Younger Eric grabbed the bottle, took a swig. A look of bliss came over his face.

They stood there, in the club, drinking and smoking for a long time, passing the bottle back and forth - younger Eric never caring that he was drinking twice as quickly, smoking twice as much - long after Evelyn left safely, until, eventually, he collapsed into a corner, smiling and insensate.

Eric grinned stupidly, took another puff on his cigar, and stumbled back to Baron Samedi with the nearly empty bottle. “You can’t reason with addicts,” he explained, offering him the bottle back. “But he’s an addict, so, he could be distracted, and it was just a matter of time before the cocaine in his system wore off.” His grin widened. “I did a lot of coke, that night … and you’ve got really, really good stuff … he couldn’t help it …” his smile vanished. “It’s almost empty! I’m … I’m sorry, its almost all gone now …”

“Best get on with your business while he’s busy then, yeah?” Baron jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the increasingly restless crowd behind them. “Your fan club’s still waiting.”

“Right … right …” slowly Eric turned around. Looked over the crowd of the wronged.

Thought of what he could possibly tell them.

“I’ve got nothing!” he shouted at last. “I’ve got no answers to make this better and no justification that makes sense of it, and I offered up my own life - you saw me - and they wouldn’t let that happen. So all I can say is: what happened to you is wrong, what I did to you was wrong, and the fact that I didn’t know it doesn’t change that, and there’s no magic trick that can do anything about it. We … we’re stuck with it.”

He shrugged.

“But if you’re sticking around here, hoping for more … I don’t know if that does you any good. I don’t see the benefit to it. If you want to watch me feel guilty - fuck, I can do that for you. You’ve got that right now. But how long is that going to last you? I mean, can you get an eternity’s worth of pleasure out of that? You … you had other things in your life, right? I’m not - I can’t be - the most important thing that ever happened to you? Tell me your world didn’t revolve around me, that you thought about other things … I know you did. I wronged you, I see that, but I was just a piece of shit on your road. We all know, deep down, I wasn’t really so important.”

Miriam and and Megs slowly turned and walked away from the crowd. Others joined them. A number of janitors, cops, ravers and building superintendents simply vanished.

“If … if there’s anything more I can do for you, tell me, please,” Eric told the rest. “Because I’ve done everything I can think of, and I’ve got nothing.”

They came to him, then, finally closing the gap between them, and Eric spoke to them one-to-one. Some just wanted to hear him say a particular thing, some just needed him listen to them weep; Dustin needed him to know just how being taken to the hospital with drugs in his system had hurt his life. Burris … Burris just stared at him, for a long time, and finally said “You turned me into something …” before vanishing.

Eric blinked, and wondered if that was entirely fair.

But there were so many of them, and the thinner the crowd got the longer each one seemed to take. Did hours really go by? Eventually Eric heard his younger self begin to stir from the club.

Ah shit … he got to sleep and I’m so exhausted …

But the Baron only shook his head and chuckled. “Time’s up, boy.”

Eric’s head spun around. “But, there’s still so many …”

“That,” said the Baron, poking his finger in Eric’s chest, “is what you get for wasting time with all the whining and the ‘kill me, kill me’ crap. You put that aside, you got plenty time to save everybody. You wanna help people in the world, you got to stop running from it. An’ you got to decide what’s actually important.”

Eric started to say something, then stopped, and nodded.

Baron Samedi grinned. “I know you, pretty boy - you lazy, but you not that lazy. You got the right soul for this work…okay, the right mouth for the work. And listen, I tell you a true thing: them that guard need another ‘round who don’t take life too seriously, eh? You and me, we got to stick together, lest well-meaning folk shut the party down.”

“That … would be a pity,” said Eric.

“Pity,” Samedi agreed. “A real shame, too.”

“You and me,” said Eric.

“Then you ready to take the oath?” the Baron asked.

Eric blinked. “There’s an oath?” He blinked again. “Of course there’s an oath. Is there a secret handshake too?”

“You do this, boy, it ain’t just for life,” Baron said, his good humoring fading into solemnity, as befitted the spirit of the oath. “This oath binds you through death, and that’s no small thing.”

Eric gave him a look. There had been no small things today. Not a single damn one. “But if I do sign up,” he said, and gestured around, “this is my party, right? I help run it?”

The protector of death and life of the everlasting party laughed. “Wingman,” he agreed.

“Well, I was thinking more ‘Vice President of Operations,’ but yeah, okay … I’m in.”

There was a fiery explosion from the party on the island and a massive flash of light momentarily lit up the sky. “That got witnessed, boy! Now you joined the party for real.” The rictus grin widened. “You’ll be seein’ me around again, sure thing.”

His form began to fade, thinning out, becoming translucent from the edges in. “Leaving you a little something to remember me by, pretty boy. And…if the missus asks you, you was with me and I was here all night!”

Then he was gone, and Eric heard the sound of waves behind him. He turned, and there was the shore, and Doc Pleasant standing at the boat. Eric tried to figure it out - it didn’t make any sense geographically - before shrugging and walking back down to the water.