I’d been dabbing my neck all afternoon, feeling the hive begin to blister, then pop, and seep down my back. I was allergic to sweat, but I couldn’t help but run my fingers through my hair and smear it everywhere.
Agent Sunderland suffered no such compulsions. He’d spent the morning cooped up in the van with his suit coat buttoned the entire time. He didn’t mind sitting in a leather swivel chair, wearing giant head cans, or guzzling coffee like it was Gatorade. The man was a cold-blooded reptile with his hatchet face and beady eyes.
Agent Reese on the other hand had a head like a cinderblock, and no neck to speak of. He wore a pair of shoulder holsters over his pit stains. There was a Glock in one and silver flask in the other. The flask was covered in Celtic crosses.
“What is that?”
Agent Reese lifted his arm as if he needed to check. “A flask.”
“What’s in it?”
“Should I have some of that?”
Agent Sunderland shook his head. “She’d smell it on you.”
I itched the path they’d shaved down my chest, feeling the rash of ingrown hairs, the gaffer tape pinching the skin. “But she won’t notice this?”
Agent Reese snapped. “She will if you keep picking at it.”
Agent Sunderland guided my hand from chest to my knee. “Breathe. She can’t see through clothing, she can’t smell fear, and she can’t hear what you’re thinking.”
“How do you know that?”
Agent Reese peeled the cover off the van’s ancient surveillance equipment. “This is not our first rodeo.”
“Is that a reel to reel? What government agency did you say you worked for again?”
Agent Reese put a reel on the machine. “We didn’t.”
“What are you agents of exactly?”
“The lord.” Agent Reese threaded tape from one reel to the other.
I reached for the latch for the door. Agent Sunderland caught my hand. He had the same Celtic cross tattooed on the back of his hand.
“You saw what she did to your friend.”
The door to Jamie’s studio apartment was wide open. Signs of a struggle would’ve been an understatement. The mirrors were shattered. The drawers were smashed to splinters, and there were paperbacks everywhere.
As for Jamie his body was contorted on the kitchen table, arms locked in place, back arched in an upward facing dog position, head craned all the way back until his neck snapped. The screenplay he’d been toiling on for as long as I’d know him was rolled up and crammed down his throat.
Agent Sunderland put his hand on my shoulder. He squeezed it like he was giving a strong handshake, a show of sympathy from someone who’d read about it in books. “This town is filled with artists just like Jamie, bright kids with dreams of making it. The only thing between her and them is sitting in this van.”
I shook my head. “Pitching a screenplay is scary enough on its own, add this on top of that and…” I trailed off.
Agent Sunderland elbowed me, another show affection that didn’t suit him. “Good, use that fear.”
I hung my head between my knees. “If she’s licking her lips at the sight of my neck I’m going to lose the plot.”
Agent Reese scoffed. “You don’t think she’s a vampire, do you?”
Jamie had dragged me to a networking function for writers. There were whispers that a produced would be hiding among us. Matilda stuck out like a sore thumb with her leather lined suit, jet-black pixie hair, and fierce model features. Her skin was porcelain white and her eyes were so brown they might as well have been black. She wore an armored ring that ran up to her knuckle. When she reached out to shake my hand her palm was ice cold.
I scanned the van, shifting my gaze from one agent of God to the other. “What is she?”
Agent Reese lowered an eyebrow. “Not a vampire.”
Agent Sunderland adjusted the collar of the all black ensemble they’d fitted me with. “Listen. Don’t worry about your pitch. Let her do most of the talking.” He slid a pair of fine Italian loafers onto my feet.
“Just what the hell do you think she is?”
“Exactly.” Agent Sunderland smiled as he pressed the toes of the to check the fit. “Just remember, if you feel you are in any real danger, say the phrase, ‘Eye of the needle’ and we’ll come rushing in.”
“Eye of the needle, as in ‘It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God?’”
“That’ll be hard to work into casual conversation.”
“Which is why we won’t miss it.”
“And why can’t I wear my sneakers?”
Agent Reese motioned out the window to the line leading around the block to the bouncers at the door. One was shining a light on IDs the other was scanning the patrons from top to bottom.
“The dress code always starts with footwear.”
I’d heard of nightclubs with sleazy names: Envy, Flaunt, Exposé, but The Façade had to be the sleaziest.
The façade of The Façade was a maze-like grid of golden lines, a circuit board cut across the surface of smooth black igneous rocks.
I waited in line for an hour texting family members, banal small talk like, “How’s dad? Is his back still out? How’s your skin? Is the fungal thing gone?”
I texted my siblings, my exes, and everyone in my writer’s workshop, making sure to mention I was meeting with a producer in a club called The Façade. I wanted there to be a record of my last known location.
When I got to the doors the bouncers were built like power lifters with long jackets hanging off their bulbous guts. They waved a group of girls in cocktail dresses through without checking their Ids, let alone their footwear. Then it was my turn. The first bouncer scanned my license while the other scrutinized the ensemble the agents had fitted me with. “We’re at capacity.”
“So you just don’t like my face?”
The bouncer crossed his arms. “What was that?”
“I think I’m on the list.”
The bouncer with my ID flipped through his clipboard, clicked his flashlight, and scanned the page. “What do you know? He’s right.”
He fitted me with a VIP wristband and whispered, “Better hurry. It’s not wise to keep her waiting.”
The club may have very well have been at capacity. Patrons stood shoulder to shoulder at the bar, like calves fighting for utters. Waves rippled through the dance floor as the momentum passed from one hip to the next. Even the coatroom was clogged with lovers bumping and grinding.
I thought the agents had oversold my wardrobe budget. Now I felt underdressed. If you’ve ever watched a runway model with a bouquet of silk roses glued to her skin and thought, “Where would someone wear that outside of a runway in Milan?” The answer was at The Façade in downtown LA.
There were three staircases. Two on the borders of the dance floor and one near the entrance. Only one had its own bouncers. These two were built like MMA fighters, big, bearded, and tatted up. If I called for the agents they’d face a serious set of speed bumps on their way in.
I flashed my wristband. The first bouncer unlatched the velvet rope while the second ran a black light over the wristband. There was a phrase in German. I recognized the words Gute and Böse: Good and Evil, but that was all I got before he waved me through.
The VIP Longue
It turned out the VIP longue was empty, apart from a bartender and Matilda. She was watching the dance floor with her arms stretched across the railing. She was in one of her signature suits: a form fitting pinstripe number, with a line of leather running up the sleeves to the collar.
The bartender had a pompadour with shaved sides and a handlebar mustache. He wore a leather apron with a vest and bowtie. He was pumping smoke into a snifter with a portable food smoker. He covered the glass with a coaster, flipped it, and did the same with another. He poured some bottles into a shaker, shook the concoction well, and strained them into the smoldering snifters.
Matilda glanced over her shoulder, feeling my eyes on her. She waved me toward the bar.
“Hurry! We’ve got to drink these quick or else we’ll loose the effect.”
I strode through the longue of empty booths.
I swore I saw patrons out the corner of my eyes, dashing gents and dazzling dames, clutching pearls and raising Champagne, but they disappeared the moment I tried looking at them straight on. Fear had a hold of me and it was manifesting in ways I hadn’t foreseen.
When I got to the bar, Matilda handed me a snifter. Smoke spilled over the side of the glass.
I raised it to my nose. “What is it?”
Matilda winked, clinked my glass, and threw it back like a marathon runner with a sippy cup. I followed her lead and instantly regretted it. The cocktail kicked hard. I tried to shake it off, but I was tipsy on impact.
The bartender smirked. There was a clouding in his pupils, like cataracts. His eyes seemed to flicker as he recused himself to the dark.
Matilda shook her snifter out into her mouth and slammed it on the counter. I struggled to keep my drink down, let alone slurp any more. My snifter was still smoking when I set it down.
There was a row of candles on the bar. I couldn’t help but notice how the firelight leaned toward Matilda.
“How are you doing that?”
Matilda waved the question away. “Don’t worry about it. None of this happening.”
“So I’m dreaming?”
Matilda nodded. “Your teeth will fall out at any moment.”
I tongued my gums.
Matilda snickered, rolled her eyes, and ran her armored ring down my wrist. “I take it you brought something for me?”
I examined my palms.
Matilda cocked her head to the side and tapped my temple. “In here, remember? You had a movie to pitch me.”
Oh yeah, I was a screenwriter before I was a narc for agents whose credentials I should’ve thought to check before getting in their van.
I gave Matilda the elevator pitch.
“It’s called Savior Complex. Think Die Hardin a cult. The story follows Richard, a private eye who can barely afford to renew his license. Desperate for clients he takes a meeting with his ex girlfriend’s parents. They believe their daughter has joined a cult and they want Richard to get her out.”
Matilda tapped the counter and another pair of dragon’s breath cocktails materialized. She raised her glass, let the smoke billow down her muzzle, and wiped her lips. “Does his ex have a name?”
I struggled to scan my brain. “Amy, her name is Amy. Anyway Richard infiltrates the cult and finds Amy has shacked up with the leader. He takes this to heart because it was his manipulative streak that set the ground work for her brainwashing.”
I reached for my drink hoping it would take the edge off. It pushed me right over it. At that point I just rambled. I cut half the cast, sliced the subplots, and Nerfed all the nuance.
I was too nervous to go into the subtle intricacies of the story. How the cult wasn’t religious. How it sprung up in a town devastated by the loss of their manufacturing plant, and how no one ever believes they’re joining a cult, but rather a movement.
I didn’t have the brainpower to get into any of that. Not when I was thinking about Jamie in the upward facing dog position, choking on his own writing.
“So the cult leader, I forget his name, let’s just call him Jim Jones, because that’s who he’s based on.”
Matilda giggled. “Sure.”
I positioned the candles on the counter to map out my locations. “Jim keeps anyone who disagrees with him in a part of the plantation he’s dubbed the rehab facility. Jim’s idea of rehabilitation involves inducing chemical comas. When the FBI near the plantation Jim blows charges in that wing and blames it on them.”
Matilda feigned shock. “He sacrifices his own people?”
I nodded. “Just like David Koresh, or Jim Jones, or whatever. It’s up to Richard to prevent the feds from laying siege to the compound, save Amy, and keep Jim from killing everyone.” I figured that was a good place to leave it, considering that I’d run out of breath.
Matilda grinned through a golf clap. “Very nice. How far along is it?”
Me eyes darted back and forth signifying that whatever I was about to say was a lie. “I have a draft.”
Matilda nodded. “So it’s still malleable?”
“Do you mind if I give you some notes then?”
“I’m so grateful for this opportunity. Really any feedback is just gravy.”
Matilda cracked neck then her knuckles. “It’s not very original. I mean your friend Jamie had something just like it.”
The pages of which he’d asphyxiated on.
I shook my head befuddled. “His was from the perspective of a cult leader. It was totally different.”
Matilda cocked her head. “Was it? I mean I get a lot of these Die Hardin a polygamist compound, Die Hardin a hippy commune, Die Hardin a cult stories. It seems like a lot guys want to rescue their exes.”
I got hit with a sudden bout of drunken confidence. “My script will take the Pepsi challenge over any of those.”
“Tell me you’re not interested.”
“Oh, I’m interested. I’m even ready to make offer.” Matilda made a show of flipping her checkbook open, rolling a pen down her knuckles, and filling in the lines. “I want the first option rights, licensing, distribution, everything.”
She folded the check and slid it across the counter. I opened it. The amount read:
Zero dollars and no/00s
“I don’t get it.”
“You should. It’s the same offer I made your friend.”
That was it, the veiled threat. I was supposed to say something about a camel, an eye, and a rich man. Something to get the agents’ asses moving.
Matilda leaned forward, she was wearing a long leather tie with no undershirt, and I had chosen the least opportune time to notice this.
“You see one of my clients has a Die Hard in a cult script that’s been in development hell forever. It’s just now getting made into a feature. I’d hate for his project to share a marquee with Savior Complex. It would be like that summer when Dante’s Peakcame out at the same time as Volcano, and Deep Impactcame out at the same time asArmageddon. We’d be showing up to party in the same dress. It’d be embarrassing.”
I scanned the check. Under the memo line Matilda had written:
For knowing what’s good for you.
“Your friend wouldn’t hear reason, but I was hoping his unfortunate accident might leave an impression.”
I took a deep breath. Exhaled. “We’re through the eye of the needle now.” That was it. I’d ventured into the monster’s lair, gotten her to confess, and said the magic words. Any moment now the Calvary would be storming in behind me. The bar would be awash with tear gas and laser sights and I could call it a night.
“You seem parched. Don’t worry. We’ve got some water around here somewhere.” Matilda slid Agent Reese’s flask across the table. “Here. Have a drink.”
The Calvary wasn’t coming. How long had I been waiting in line? Long enough for Matilda to swoop down from the sky, tear the roof off the van, and twist the agents into a compromising postion?
For the first time all evening Matilda’s smile flattened. “Agent Sunderland was wrong about me. I can see through vans. I can smell fear, and I am quite literate in the workings of the human mind.”
“Oh.” I’m not going to lie. I wet myself a little bit.
When Matilda’s smile returned there was something grotesquely off about. Through the smoke her lips seemed to stretch from one eyebrow to the other. When she opened her mouth it was like I was looking into the jaws of a bear trap. Her chrome teeth twinkled in the candlelight. “Your friends were right about one thing. I’m not a vampire. I’m afraid my appetites run so much deeper.”
The sound system crackled with the ferocity of a lightning storm. The music cut out giving way to a panicked shrieking coming from the dance floor. I couldn’t help but look over Matilda’s shoulder, past the railing, to the dancers below. The red lights had blinked off, but the color remained. Blood slick masses writhed in ecstasy and agony. A wave of viscous muck splashed over the turntables. Naked silhouettes floated up from the gore. Some human. Some not. There were antlers, tentacles, and crocodile tails.
Matilda’s armored ring extended like a long chrome talon. She dug it under my chin.
“What do you want from me?”
Matilda’s smile glowed in the dark. “Now that’s my favorite question. I want you to go home, delete Savior Complex, and put all your printed pages on the grill. Aren’t writers supposed to burn their first three stories anyway? This will be on of those.”
Matilda stretched her arms over her head. They extended like shadows on the wall. Her leather coat screeched with the strain. She spread her hands open. Chrome talons drooped down over me like spikes from the ceiling.
I saw the bartender out the corner of my eye. His handlebar mustache had unfurled into whiskers, and his bushy beard encircled his face like a lion’s mane.
The shadows in the booths behind me returned. They made no more effort to hide in the blind spots of my mind, leaning over the tables like cougars preparing to pounce.
They whispered, “Say ‘No,’ so that we may chew the fat from your flesh. Say ‘No,’ so that we may lick the knots out of your muscles. Say ‘No,’ so that we may split your bones and suck out the marrow.”
“Okay, I’ll do it.”
“Pinky swear.” In the blink of an eye Matilda was back down to my level thrusting her pinky into my face.
Suddenly the speakers were booming, the dance floor was back to normal, and the VIP section was empty again.
I offered my pinky and Matilda gave it a good squeeze.
I awoke in bed. Felix was meowing on the pillow beside me, pawing at my nose with reckless abandon. I’d slept through breakfast and he was not having it.
I massaged my temples, spread the hangover around my skull, and shuffled to my feet. I felt around in the dark, opened a can of the good stuff, and scooped it into Felix’s dish.
It wasn’t until I splashed water in my face that I realized I was wearing last night’s clothes. I unbuttoned the shirt to find I was still wearing the wire. There was a black ring around my pinky finger. Right then the skin burst open like a cooked sausage.
Then my finger burst into flames.
He Has Many Names is coming out soon.
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