Abyss & Apex: September/November 2003: Little Guilt Thing Goin’ On

LITTLE GUILT THING GOIN ON Illustration

Little Guilt Thing Goin’ On

by James Maxey

 

Halo slumbered, her peaceful face visible through the empty tequila bottle. Rob rolled over, careful not to disturb her. He sat up, wobbly and nauseous. Sunlight slipped through gaps between the blinds. Rob blinked, gaining his bearings amidst the clutter. Halo lived on the fifth floor of a brick building that had once been a department store. Her collection of antiquities and oddities filled the huge space. In a near corner stood a razor-edged sword, its polished steel gleaming beneath dust. The far wall held old, beautiful paintings that could have been at home in any museum, with dozens of additional paintings propped up against support columns. And books. All around were books in great heaps, books written in every tongue, from coverless paperbacks to leather-bound tomes, the pages yellow and crumbling. Looking down, he found his feet rested on a medical encyclopedia, opened to a tangled map of blue and red blood vessels, its heavy pages propped open with a gilded monkey’s skull.

“Sweet merciful Jesus,” Rob whispered, his lower lip thick and swollen. “Not again.”

His face hurt. No part of him felt good, but his face hurt with special intensity. It helped balance out the throbbing base of his skull. The pain reminded him of the time he’d been hit from behind with a hammer. He touched his face and winced. He looked back at the bed. Blood spotted the pillows.

“Ah, Jesus,” he said. “How could this happen?”

Of course he knew. From time to time he would walk out of the studio of his ministry in Richmond, Virginia, get into his car, and drive down to the corner store to buy milk. Some of those times, not every week, but a few times a year, he’d drive past the corner store and get onto the highway, achieving speeds upwards of one-hundred thirty miles an hour down I-85 toward Atlanta. Toward Halo.

Yesterday, he’d forgotten the milk again.

Trembling, he tiptoed across the scattered clothing concealing the floor. A full-length mirror leaned against a support column. He brushed back the tangles of his red, shoulder-length hair to reveal his face. It had changed somewhat. Rings pierced his face, almost a dozen of them. Slender, shiny hoops, in neon shades of blue and pink and green, along the ridge where his left eyebrow had been just yesterday, balanced by three black ones in his lower lip, from which hung tiny bells. When had this seemed like a good idea?

Thin dark trickles had dried on his face. He looked into his red-rimmed eyes. For not the first time he felt like a helpless prisoner in his body, like the real him was some tiny doll man trapped inside his head, strapped into the driver’s seat of a body without brakes.

Halo stretched, arching that long sinuous back, showing off those little dimples in her shoulders that drove him wild. She rose and tossed her dark hair back, and the streaming light accented the curves of her breasts and belly. She strode toward him on perfect legs, still wearing her black stilettos. She draped a slender-fingered hand across his shoulder and pulled his hair back, kissing his neck, before looking into the mirror with her deep green eyes.

“Hmm,” she said, the hint of a grin on her succulent lips. “You look like you fell face first into the tackle box.”

“How did this happen?” he whispered.

“You showed up like this, Sugar. You ever think tequila might not be your drink?”

“Dear God, I tried,” he said. “I tried so hard.”

His lower lip trembled, causing the tiny bells to chime.

“I’ve failed,” said Rob. “How can I change the world when I can’t change myself?”

“Oh Sugar,” Halo said, hugging him. “It’ll be all right.”

Her warm lips pressed once more against the nape of his neck.

“Y’know,” she said, “you’re kinda cute when you got your little guilt thing goin’ on.”

His eyes caught hers in the mirror.

In a twinkling, Rob glimpsed the force that made him drive past the store. Halo loved him, more than anyone ever had. She never said it. That wasn’t important. He’d heard the words before, spoken by more women than he could count. Words meant nothing. Halo was different. She carried her love in her eyes, in the gentleness of her fingers, in the sway of her hips. And he loved her. He could admit that, on these dark painful mornings, in this brief clear window between wanton abandon and shame-filled denial. He loved everything about her, her wit, her laugh, her gentle teasing and her rough touches, her soul and her body. Except . . . he wasn’t sure about her penis. As perfect and beautiful as the rest of her, somehow feminine even when it was fully aroused, Halo’s penis was a sticking point for him. No pun intended.

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“All I want,” said Rob, sitting half-dressed on the edge of the bed, “is to be taken seriously. OW!”

Halo stood over him with a pair of needle-nose pliers. She’d taken off her shoes and put on some panties and was wearing his shirt, unbuttoned. She slipped the skinny point of the pliers into another ring and pulled.

“Ow!” Rob said again.

“You ever think, Hon, that maybe you take yourself too seriously?”

“I don’t think that’s-OW-possible. People listen to me.”

“Um-hmm,” she said.

“I’m screwing everything up.”

“Baby, I can’t argue. You know about screwing.”

“OW!” he cried as Halo gave a particularly vigorous tug.

She dropped the ring into the ashtray along with the others.

“That’s the last of it,” she said.

He went to the mirror, to examine his bloody, swollen face. He looked like he’d been a brawl.

“Anyone ever tell you you’re a scary lookin’ man?” asked Halo.

He nodded. Deep inside he worried that he liked it.

Someone knocked on the door.

“Who’s that?” asked Rob. “Jesus, if a reporter saw me….”

“Sugar, it’s only Bubba.”

“Your photographer?”

“We’re shooting today.”

“I don’t want anyone to see me,” said Rob.

“Bubba won’t talk, Baby.”

“I’d better go,” said Rob, reaching for his boots.

“It’s okay if you stay. I’d like it if you watched me work.”

“I don’t want to be around you and a camera at the same time,” said Rob.

Halo looked miffed.

“You could phone ahead,” she said, opening the door.

“Halo! Baby!” Bubba’s ever-jubilant voice made Rob’s head throb even worse. Bubba sashayed into the room. He was a tiny man, with a bleach-blond Mohawk and facial features that mixed the best of his Asian and African ancestry. He wore a pantsuit made of a shimmering purple fabric that creative and energetic vandals might use to reupholster a stranger’s couch.

“Oh,” said Bubba, spying Rob. “You. Forget the milk again?”

“Morning, Bubba,” said Rob.

“It’s four in the afternoon,” said Bubba.

Rob looked at his naked wrist. He had the faintest flash of giving his Rolex to some tattooed woman with a shaved head.

A grunt from the doorway announced the arrival of a young woman, in torn jeans and a black tee shirt, straining under the load of five bags of camera equipment. The hair on the back of Rob’s neck rose. He didn’t recognize this woman.

“Quite a climb,” the woman said, gasping.

“Who’s this?” asked Halo, eyeing the woman cautiously.

“Brandy quit,” said Bubba, shrugging. “This is Lucy.”

“I see,” said Halo.

Lucy looked around the museum attic clutter of Halo’s home and whistled. “Cool decor,” she said.

“Just some things I’ve picked up over the centuries,” said Halo.

Great, thought Rob. He didn’t have to be around Halo long to be reminded that her penis wasn’t the only thing waiting to scandalize his parishioners.

Lucy grinned, ready to take the bait. “Did you say centuries?”

“Didn’t I mention?” said Bubba. “Halo’s a demoness.”

“Demoness?” said Halo, rolling her eyes. “Darlin’, we prefer the term ‘eternity challenged.'”

“Look at the time,” said Rob, looking around the room for his leather jacket. “I’d best be on my way.”

He spotted his jacket hanging on the corner of a bookshelf and snatched it. In doing so, he dislodged a stack of dusty magazines and sent them fluttering to the floor. Amidst the flurry of paper, a hard, marble-like object bounced, coming to rest at Halo’s feet.

“Ah-ha!” she said, kneeling to pick up a smooth black pebble the size of a small egg. “That’s where I left it!”

She held it up into a bright dust beam, where it glimmered with the polish of ages.

“Know what this is?” she asked.

“A sex toy?” said Bubba.

“Please,” said Halo. “This is the stone that killed Goliath. It’s the oldest thing in this room. Not counting me.”

“Cool,” said Lucy.

“I’d stick around and help clean up, but, you know,” said Rob, pulling on his jacket. “Long drive. Running late.”

Lucy glanced at him as he spoke, turned away, then looked back, goggle-eyed.

“Oh. My. God!” she said.

Rob clenched his teeth.

“You’re Rob MacDowell! From the Four Horsemen!”

Rob’s teeth unclenched a little. For once he felt relieved that his other reputation preceded him. Lucy had that look on her face, that dreamy hungry look that Rob had seen countless times, a different life ago.

“I, uh, get that a lot,” Rob said, heading for the door.

“Your song! YFM! It’s, like, my favorite ever! You and Dirk Sinister are geniuses! Oh my God! Could I get your autograph? Could you get me Dirk’s autograph?”

Rob felt a very strong desire to turn into water and seep between the cracks in the floor.

“Lucy,” said Bubba, “you’re going totally fanboy.”

“Long drive,” Rob mumbled, avoiding eye contact.

Halo intercepted him, planting a kiss on his cheek.

“You get that lip healed up,” she said, tapping it gently with the stone that killed Goliath. “Come back soon, ya’ hear?”

“I’ll, uh, call,” said Rob.

“That’ll be the day,” said Bubba.

“Sorry if I embarrassed you,” said Lucy. “But you have no idea! Your song changed my life.”

“Yeah,” said Rob, shoulders sagging. “I get that a lot, too.”

He slipped from Halo’s arms into the hallway, and shut the door. He leaned back against the wall, his heart pounding. He could still hear their muffled voices.

“What?” said Bubba. “He ain’t gonna call. You know that. What do you see in him anyhow?”

Halo sighed. “He’s, you know, interesting. Always something new.”

Rob nodded.

“He’s a maniac,” said Bubba.

Rob nodded again.

“I like his style,” said Halo. “Rob goes through life the way some folks go through windshields. Faster than he ever dreamed and with the most precious look on his face.”

“Leaving behind a bloody mess,” said Bubba.

Once more Rob nodded, then pulled himself away. Time to take his bloody face back home.

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I-85 from Atlanta to Richmond is one long haul when you’re stone sober and leaving behind the love of your life. Lucy had rattled him. He hadn’t said good-bye. And this time… this time he wasn’t coming back.

“Coward!” he cursed, then punched himself in the forehead. Insufficiently chastised, he struck again. “Idiot,” he said.

Driving through the dark nothingness of the rural south, there was little to distract him from his shame and weakness. He was a minister of the Lord. If his relationship with Halo were discovered, his whole world would crumble around him. But, wasn’t he a fool to fear what the world thought? It was the Lord’s opinion that mattered, right? Of course, the Lord hadn’t given his stamp of approval either. Still, honesty was the best policy, right? Perhaps it was time to tell the world the whole story.

“Not going to happen,” said the little doll man in his head.

“I know,” said Rob.

He’d met Halo five years ago in Los Angeles after the release of the second Horsemen album. He’d slipped away, unnoticed once Dirk Sinister had entered the room. As always, he was practically invisible in Dirk’s presence.

He’d walked to the top floor of the hotel parking deck and climbed onto the wall that surrounded it. Thirty-seven stories to the pavement. He’d spread his arms and closed his eyes. The warm wind rushing through his fingers gave him the illusion of falling.

“You feeling okay, Sugar?” were Halo’s first words to him.

He looked at her out of the corner of his eye. She was breathtaking. He assumed she was a prostitute Dirk had hired.

“Go away,” he growled. “You got nothing I want.”

Halo laughed. “I was worried you might kill yourself. Now I’m kinda lookin’ forward to it.”

“You think it’s funny?”

“Oh, Baby, everything’s funny.”

“Not this. You can’t know.”

Halo brushed back her hair as the wind danced around her. She said, “You feel guilty about making the second album, right? Die, God, Die. Honey, you do have a way with words.”

“Everything’s happened so fast,” he said, watching the cars streaming below him. “I’m tired. Folks back home… they think I’m some kind of monster.”

Halo leaned against the wall. “Dirk’s having a good time.”

“Dirk is a monster. Nothing makes him happier than looking out his window and finding the villagers have brought out the pitchforks.”

“Are you scared of him?”

“Why am I talking to you?” he asked, looking down at her.

“You looked like you could use someone to talk to.”

“You aren’t a reporter, are you?”

“Do I look like a reporter, Baby?”

“So who are you?”

“Would you believe that I used to be an angel?”

“Nope,” said Rob.

“Wasn’t real good at it,” she said. “Got fired after this big dispute with management.”

“Ah. Casual blasphemy,” said Rob. “We have something in common.”

“Sugar, you’d be surprised at how much we have in common.”

“It’s been a while since I felt surprised,” said Rob. “Been a while since I’ve felt much of anything.”

“Want to talk about it?”

“I don’t spill my guts to strangers,” said Rob, studying her. Her eyes had a fiery opalescence that caught his attention. “So. What’s your name?”

“If I told you my real name your eardrums would explode. But my friends call me Halo.” She raised a hand toward him. “Come on down from there before you do something ironic.”

He had. They’d talked all night. She’d listened, mostly, and made a few jokes, as Rob had told her of the terrible weight in his life, how far he’d strayed from his childhood dreams. He’d grown up in West Virginia, singing in the choir, learning the bagpipes from his grandfather. He’d gone to college with the dream of becoming a gospel singer, not a rock star. As he talked to Halo, the path out of his terrible guilt suddenly came into focus. The following morning, he informed a very hung over Dirk Sinister that he was quitting the band and devoting his life to the Lord. That had been the morning he’d found out what it was like to be hit in the back of the head with a hammer.

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Weary from his drive from Atlanta, Rob dragged himself into bed as dawn was breaking. He woke in the heat of the day, feeling lighter. This time, it really was over. He got dressed. His face was looking less swollen. A dab of make-up and he’d be fine on camera. In retrospect, the whole encounter with Lucy encouraged him. People listened to him. He was a role model. He just needed to sharpen the message. Focus in like a laser beam.

“A love laser,” Rob said to himself in the mirror. “Jesus is a love laser.”

He began to hum a tune to fit the words. He might be onto something. His thrash bagpipe gospel had never moved Horsemen level sales, but this one had potential.

Whistling the tune, his head full of lightning enthusiasm, he wheeled across town to the studio.

In his office, there was a postcard from Dirk.

“Love, love, love, love, love,” it read.

On the front was a picture of a tiny dog humping a woman’s leg and thinking, “Oh, Baby!”

Rob suddenly realized why his tune for “Jesus the Love Laser” was popping into his head so fully formed. It had the same baseline as “Burn in Hell, You Cocksucker,” the Horsemen’s first big hit after Rob left the band.

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Rob was in fine form. His bagpipe sang like a living thing. He’d started into “Jesus the Love Laser.” The whole studio clapped and sang. He’d found his groove, tapped into the underlying angelic chorus that vibrated through his world. He felt alive and free.

He brought “JTLL” to its climax, then basked in the spotlight, waving to the bright faces in the audience.

“What’s it about?” he yelled.

“Love!” screamed the audience.

Rob handed his pipes to Mickey, his stagehand and took a microphone up into the seats.

“People,” he said. “People, when I’m making music, when I’m making music, it’s like I don’t exist. I just disappear, and all that’s left is energy. That energy is love, people. It’s like nothing else. No drug can take you there, nothing you can smoke, drink, or stick in your veins is gonna get you there. It’s God’s love, moving through me, and I’m here to share it. God is ready to move through all of you. I need a witness. Can I get a witness?”

Hands went up all around.

He thrust his mike into the face of a blonde, blue-eyed girl wearing a tartan skirt and a lovely smile.

“I just, like, feel God’s love, Rob. I feel it when I’m cheerleading. When I start jumping around and shouting, I know that my energy is coming from someplace higher. I’m cheerleading for the Lord!”

The audience clapped and whooped raucously. Rob moved up the stairs. A college-age guy with a crew cut and leather jacket jumped from his seat to intercept him.

“Preacher,” Crew-cut shouted. “Preacher, I’ve felt it! I’ve felt the glory, Preacher!”

“Testify!” Rob said, holding out his mike.

“I’ve felt the fire inside me, Rob,” the young man said, taking the mike. “The fire that comes from doing the right thing, from living God’s word.”

“Tell it,” Rob said, as the audience began to chant, “Tell it! Tell it!”

“Like, last week, there was this faggot, you know?” said Crew-cut. “He was all looking at me, and telling me that I had pretty eyes and shit, and I told him, I told him God hates faggots.”

Rob grabbed for the mike, but the young man spun away, continuing to testify. “He was all, like, ‘God doesn’t care. God doesn’t care who I put my thing into.’ So I smote him, people. I smote that faggot good! I left him tied to a fence with blood coming out his ears and—”

Rob shoved the boy hard, snatching the mike away. The little doll man inside Rob’s head gripped the wheel tightly, anticipating the worst.

“You fuckin’ moron,” Rob shouted, as the young man stumbled backwards, tripping on the steps. “What’s wrong with you? You think this is some kind of joke?”

The crowd hushed.

“It’s in the Bible,” Crew-cut said, stammering. “God hates faggots. He wants them dead.”

“It is not in the Bible,” Rob said. “God is not hate. God is not about hating. God is—”

“Sodom and Gomorrah,” said Crew-cut. “God killed whole cities because they were faggots!”

Rob grabbed Crew-cut by his jacket and yanked him to his feet. In his cockpit, the little doll man struggled with the wheel as all around him dials rose into red zones.

Rob stared into the young man’s mean little eyes and growled. “God. Is. Love.”

“It’s an act of love to kill a faggot,” Crew-cut said. “What are you, some kind of faggot lover? Huh? Who’s side are you on?”

Crew-cut punctuated his argument by raising his knee hard into Rob’s groin.

The little doll man crashed into the top of Rob’s skull.

Then, because occasionally these things happen, Rob pulled the young man closer, placed his mouth upon Crew-cut’s eyebrow, and bit that poor bastard ’til he squealed.

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Rob trod sullenly toward his office, wiping blood from his mouth. Micky had sent him away to cool off before the police arrived. He had a terrible ache in the pit of his belly that was only partially due to the nut-shot. The little doll man was awake again, and delivering a very scathing critique of Rob’s handling of the situation. Rob could only nod, and sigh.

He opened the door to his office. The pain in his belly magnified exponentially. There, sitting at his desk beneath the yard long stainless steel crucifix that hung on the wall, was Dirk Sinister, all seven feet of him, dressed in a white silk suit, his skin bleached to a matching shade, his dark eye-slits twinkling with amusement despite his permanent frown.

The little doll man sighed, and clutched the wheel once more. Then he noticed Mikimbe in the corner, reading a year-old issue of Gospel Music Today. Mikimbe was Dirk’s bodyguard, a 300 pound former linebacker with a fine aim to accompany the .44 magnum visible in his shoulder holster. The little doll man relaxed. Even Rob wasn’t stupid enough to lose his temper around Mikimbe.

“My dear Mr. MacDowell,” said Dirk. “Have you ever considered that live television might not be your friend?”

“You planted him,” said Rob. “Of course. Brilliant. And I fell for it. You must be very happy.”

“Happy. Wealthy. Every time you throw another tantrum, the Horsemen albums rise up the charts. But I had nothing to do with the boy.”

“Sure,” said Rob. “Why are you wasting my time, then?”

“I’m concerned about your reputation, old friend.” Dirk folded his fingers into a prayer-like wedge as he spoke.

“Noted,” said Rob. “I’ll send a thank-you card.”

“‘That angry guy,'” said Dirk. “You get called that a lot, don’t you?”

Rob shrugged.

“‘That bagpipe guy.’ Harmless enough. ‘That crazy guy’ galls you, I imagine.”

“Dirk, can you speed this up? What do you want?”

“I want to help you not be known as ‘that preacher who sleeps with she-male porn stars,'” said Dirk.

Rob tried to remain poker-faced.

“What are you talking about?” he asked in his calmest, most bemused voice.

Dirk pulled Rob’s laptop computer from the top desk drawer and opened it. It was already on, lighting his pale face with an electric glow. He spun the monitor around.

It was Halo’s web page.

“Impressive,” said Dirk. “You’re sharing the bed of a fallen angel who was around to watch the planet cool. I’m a teense envious.”

“Huh,” said Rob, with a disinterested glance at the computer. “Yeah, I know her. Didn’t know she was a he. Certainly never slept with her. She’s a soul in need, and I am a minister.”

“This is why you’ve been an abysmal failure as a man of the cloth,” said Dirk. “You’re a pathetic liar.”

“So you’re planning to spread the rumor that Halo is my ‘girlfriend,'” said Rob. “Who’ll take you seriously? You’re an aging rock-hack who earns most of his money off a song I wrote. I might be known as ‘the angry guy,’ but you’re known as a past-his-prime burnout who desperately clings to his reputation for hedonism and the occult in order to keep his name in the tabloids.”

“How pithy,” said Dirk. “Did I mention I have photographs?”

Rob laughed. “You can whip up any picture you want in PhotoShop. You really think Halo has black leather wings?”

“Yes,” said Dirk. “Halo has black leather wings.”

Rob shook his head, feeling pity for his insane former partner.

“Halo also has the stone that killed Goliath,” said Dirk. “I want it.”

“Dirk,” said Rob, in a soothing voice. “I may not know Halo in the Biblical sense, but I know her, okay? She’s not a demon. She doesn’t have wings. She’s someone who found a niche market for she-male demon porn and filled it. She makes up stuff. The stone that killed Goliath is probably a pebble she found in a parking lot.”

“Believe what you wish,” said Dirk. “Three millennia ago that rock was touched by divine wrath and turned into a weapon. The power of God’s violence resonates within it. The stone is priceless. I want it; you’ll get it for me. If not, the pictures hit the internet a week from today.”

Mickey opened the office door. “Hey Boss, the cops are here,” he said.

Rob turned from Dirk and Mikimbe and told Mickey he’d be right there. But, Mickey wasn’t through. “There’s good news, kind of. The guy’s confession was real. He’s wanted in West Virginia on attempted murder charges. You’ll look like a hero for this.”

“No,” said Rob. “I’m glad the guy got caught, but we’re not gonna spin this into me doing the right thing. I’m going to apologize. That clear?”

“Fine,” said Mickey. “Your call.”

“If you’ll excuse me, Gentlemen,” Rob said, turning toward his desk. Dirk and Mikimbe were gone. “What the … ? Where’d they go?”

“Where’d who go?” asked Micky.

“You didn’t see … ?”

“See who?”

Rob scratched the back of his head and left the room. “Never mind,” he said.

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Rob had met Dirk Sinister at a party. Dirk was the center of attention, being that he was nude with a pentagram cut into his chest. Rob in his “What Would Jesus Do?” tee shirt had instantly become the target of Dirk’s barbs. Dirk had spent the night ridiculing Rob, his accent, his mullet, and every thing dear and true Rob believed in. Somehow, though, Rob felt like he was in on the joke, and by the end of the night the two were friends.

Not long after, “The Four Horsemen” were born. Dirk’s morning Tarot reading had been favorable toward forming a band, and Rob was the closest person with musical talent, albeit bagpipe oriented. Dirk showed promise as a lyricist. So, of course, the first song that really took off for them was “You Fucking Morons,” which had been recorded one drunken night with Dirk squeaking and honking on the bagpipes and Rob mumbling his way through lyrics made up on the spot. The lyrics were dark and evil, welling up from a place inside Rob he still didn’t dare examine. Listening to the song the following morning was both shameful and liberating. They’d posted the song to their website and forgot about it.

The following year, in California, a teenage boy named Johnny Ray Wilson had walked into a church, splashed a cup of gasoline onto an old man, and flicked a lit cigarette into his lap. He did this humming the music he was listening to on his headphones:

 

rip pages from the phone book, go on pick a name

visit where he lives and introduce some flame

burn the fucking moron and dance in the laughing fire

feel the spark inside you know that nothing gets you higher

 

These were the words to that had fallen from Rob drunken lips that long ago night. These were the words that drove Johnny Ray Wilson to murder. After news of the “murder song” leaked out, these were the words that made Dirk Sinister and Rob MacDowell unimaginably rich.

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Three days later, he was in Atlanta, parked in front of Halo’s building.

“This is stupid,” he grumbled.

For once, the little doll man was making trouble. Because the little doll man was worried. Dirk was right. Rob didn’t want his relationship with Halo becoming public. Someone had told Dirk; it was easy to guess who. Rob wasn’t surprised that pictures existed. Hell, Halo had a web-cam in her shower. Who knew where else she might have them hidden?

“Two birds,” said Rob, “with one stone.”

It was time to finish this.

Halo opened the door before he knocked. She looked worried. Cool morning air flowed through open windows, and her collection of eclectica seemed cheap and junky in the sunlight, an assortment of flimsy props gathered from garage sales and Goodwill.

“Lip’s looking better,” Halo said. “Except for the frown.”

“Lucy ratted us out,” said Rob, striding past her without looking at her eyes. “It’s over.”

“What?”

Rob looked around, searching amid the maze of clutter. He began to wander around the room, full of nervous energy. Where was the rock?

“You heard me,” he said. “Dirk found out about us sleeping together. He’s threatening blackmail. Lucy has to be the one who told.”

“That little whore,” said Halo. “I’m sorry, Sugar.”

“I know,” said Rob, continuing his seemingly random pacing. “I know. But, this is it. It ends. I let this whole thing go on too long. Today is the last time we see each other.”

He placed his hand atop her dresser, as if to steady himself. He took a deep breath. The words sounded good, now that they were out. He had what he’d really come for.

Halo wasn’t saying anything. He said, “I thought you deserved to hear it in person.”

He turned toward her, to look at her sad eyes from across the room.

Only her eyes weren’t sad. They were angry little daggers.

“You know what your problem is, Honey?” she said. “You don’t believe a damn thing you say. You go on TV and shout about ‘love, love, love.’ You’ve never felt love in your life. It’s always shame with you. It’s always fear. Dirk only has power over you because you give it to him. You can shout about love all you want. But you’ll only preach what you practice.”

The venom in her words stunned Rob. Halo had never raised her voice to him before. Good, thought the little doll man. This made it easier.

He stomped back through the junk shop labyrinth, his practiced good-bye speech forgotten.

“You don’t have a clue, do you?” he asked. “I know you’ve probably had a rough life. Something bad happened to you that’s made you craft this little fantasy you live in. That works for you, fine. But I’ve had a man die because of something I said. Life has consequences. I’ve done a bad thing. I can never undo it. All that keeps me sane is knowing a loving God watches over me, that he forgives me for being me.”

“Oh, Sugar,” said Halo, taking a deep breath. “Sugar, God’s not gonna forgive you. Trust me on this. God assumed you were guilty before you were born. You’re wasting time expecting his mercy.”

Rob didn’t know what to say to this. He’d known, obviously, that Halo wasn’t a Christian. Despite all of the Biblical mythology she wrapped herself in, he’d always assumed she was deeply non-religious to make such a joke out of the things he held dear and deep. It never seemed important to him. It seemed clear why, studying her perfect pretty face.

“I never loved you,” he said.

“Tell yourself whatever it takes to get down from that wall,” she said.

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All the way back to Richmond, the little doll man kept telling Rob how good he should feel. His shameful secret life was finally over.

“You’ve done the right thing,” said the little doll man. “Now we give Dirk the rock and move on. Simple.”

Maybe it would be that simple. In a way, he was grateful to Dirk for bringing the whole thing into crisis. He could start a new life, the life he’d pretended to start all those years ago.

“No more hypocrisy,” said the little doll man. “No more lies.”

Instead of going home, he drove straight to the studio. He paged Dirk. No point in dragging things out, the little doll man reasoned.

While he waited for Dirk to call, he paced around the room. The walls were decorated with photographs of him and his followers, smiling faces whose lives he had touched. Some people got his message, didn’t they?

He came to the stainless steel crucifix, gazing up at the tortured face of Jesus. No forgiveness, Halo had said. But look what God had given the world. His only son, brutally tormented and slain, to pay for our sins. That was a kind of forgiveness, wasn’t it?

Rob noticed himself in the mirror-smooth metal just beneath Christ’s feet. He looked old and tired. He imagined his little doll man must be gray-haired by now, withered and weary from the effort of trying to do the right thing. Then, he noticed a flicker of white in the corner of the reflection. He turned, and found Dirk and Mikimbe waiting.

“I thought you’d call,” said Rob.

“We were on our way here before you dialed,” said Dirk. “Those occult hobbies of mine have their uses.”

“Whatever,” said Rob. From his jacket he produced a small, dark pebble. “So, what can your occult hobbies do with this rock? You planning to rule the world?”

“This world is already mine,” said Dirk. “The stone will help me move into other realms.”

“Whatever gets you off the planet,” said Rob, tossing the rock to Dirk.

Spasms wracked the corners of Dirk’s mouth. His smile muscles had atrophied.

“At last,” he said, rolling the stone in his palm. He looked to Rob. “There’s one last item of business between us.”

“Oh?”

“Mikimbe,” said Dirk.

Mikimbe reached into his jacket. Rob tensed, but instead of the gun being drawn, a small manila envelope appeared. Mikimbe placed the envelope on the desk.

“You cooperated nicely, betraying your boyfriend when I hadn’t even shown you the photos.”

“She’s not my boyfriend,” said Rob. “What’s in the envelope?”

“Look.”

Rob cautiously emptied the envelope’s contents onto his desk. It was a photo of him standing in front of a window in an old brick building, and Halo was kissing his cheek.

“This was taken today,” said Rob.

Dirk nodded. “As I said, you responded so well to blackmail when I had nothing but imaginary photographs, I’m anxious to try again with the real thing.”

“We had a deal,” said Rob, feeling the veins in his forehead pulsing.

“We’re making a new one,” said Dirk. “This photograph was taken after the old deal.”

“You—” Rob swallowed hard. What had he expected?

“You look distressed,” said Dirk. “Perhaps a little tequila would calm your nerves.”

“What do you want this time?” Rob asked.

“I want full ownership of the first two Horsemen albums. I want your rights signed over to me.”

“Why? You’re filthy rich. Why take it all?”

“To help your reputation. Isn’t it terrible you still make money off of what you consider to be your greatest sin?”

Rob ran his hand through his hair, contemplating Dirk’s demand.

“That money funds my ministry,” said Rob. “I use it to fund the homeless shelter on King Avenue. Also the prison outreach program. That money makes amends for my mistakes, as long as I control it. You’d spend it on drugs and prostitutes.”

“Then keep the money,” said Dirk with a shrug. “Use it to hire more PR people once this picture hits the tabloids.”

“It’s just . . . .” Rob swallowed. “It’s just a peck on the cheek. You can’t expect me to—”

“There’s also a tape, made with a directional mike from across the street. You plainly say, ‘Dirk found out about us sleeping together.’ Your voiceprint can’t be explained away as PhotoShop trickery.”

Rob sagged. He’d played right into Dirk’s hands. But Dirk was asking too much.

“No,” Rob said. “I’ll take my chances.”

Dirk clucked his tongue and shook his head. “Rob, Rob, Rob. You continue to delight me. You gladly betray your lover, but you refuse to turn loose of the money. Perhaps you do have what it takes to be a successful televangelist.”

“Fuck it,” said the little doll man, letting go of the wheel.

Rob growled like an angry Doberman.

Mikimbe went for his gun.

Rob reached behind his head, ripping the steel crucifix from the wall, then hurled it across the room. The thorny face of Jesus kissed Mikimbe’s lips as the linebacker pulled the trigger. The bullet whizzed by Rob’s ear and kicked a hole in the plaster.

Rob leapt onto his desk as Mikimbe crumbled to the floor. As Rob went airborne, Dirk turned two shades paler. Rob slammed into his reedy nemesis, knocking him to the carpet. Rob straddled him and wrapped his hands around Dirk’s throat. Dirk scratched desperately at Rob’s wrists, to no avail.

Rob noticed the small object that had fallen to the carpet. He laughed as he snatched it up, and pressed it into Dirk’s lips.

“You want the stone? You want the stone? I hope you choke on it!”

Dirk struggled, jerking his head, his teeth clenched. Rob pinched Dirk’s lips and stretched them with all his might, until Dirk’s teeth popped open and the pale man gasped with pain. Rob pushed in the stone and jammed his palm under Dirk’s chin.

“Choke on it!” Rob yelled.

Dirk didn’t choke. Still, the look on his face as the stone went down was worth the price of admission.

Mikimbe groaned. The .44 sat next to the linebacker’s enormous hand. His eyes fluttered open. Rob abandoned Dirk and scrabbled toward Mikimbe. His hand fell on the steel cross. He rose to his feet, clutching it overhead like an axe as Mikimbe closed his fingers around the gun.

“Drop it,” said Rob. “Or I pop your skull like an eggshell.”

Mikimbe dropped the gun, and began to curse. “Cowardly backstabbing freak.”

“You don’t have to like me,” said Rob. “You just have to crawl out of here and take your boss with you.”

“I’m not cussing you,” said Mikimbe. “That bastard left without me.”

Rob looked behind him. Sure enough, Dirk was gone.

“Man,” said Rob. “He’s really good at this Batman thing.”

“Ow,” said Mikimbe, touching his bleeding nose. “I got no body to guard at the moment, so I’m off the clock. You got any aspirin? A wet washcloth, maybe?”

“Sure,” said Rob, resting the cross on his shoulder and heading for the door. “Check the bathroom down the hall.”

“Where you going?” said Mikimbe. “You ain’t gonna find Dirk. He’s halfway around the world by now.”

“Couldn’t care less,” said Rob. “I’m just stepping out to get some milk.”

cross

Halo opened her door and smiled bright as the morning sun. Rob entered her apartment, and dropped the crucifix onto her couch.

“Brought you a prop,” he said.

“I can use it, Sugar,” said Halo. “Business really picked up after CNN played that tape.”

“Sorry about that,” said Rob.

“Don’t be, Baby,” said Halo. “I haven’t had this much in the bank since I was mistress to Louis the Fourteenth. So where you been the last month?”

“Was it only a month?” asked Rob.

“Forty days,” she said.

“I decided to walk to the store.”

“That explains the weight loss. You walked all the way from Richmond, didn’t you?”

Rob looked down at his ragged clothes. His pants were cinched up with a piece of clothesline.

“I gave my belt to some guy at a shelter in Durham,” said Rob. “He liked the buckle.”

“Who’d you give your jacket to?”

“Some kid. I dunno.”

“I hear you signed over your Horsemen copyrights to a waitress at a diner in Spartanburg,” said Halo.

“Yeah,” said Rob. “I hope she didn’t get too much of a hassle when she showed the attorneys the contract on that napkin. She needs the money to get her son a spinal operation.”

“Good thing I never loved you for your money,” said Halo.

“I’m down off that wall,” said Rob. “I’ve got something to tell you.”

Before he could speak, they were interrupted by a voice from the doorway.

“Look at the lovebirds,” said Dirk, stepping into the room. Three seedy-looking thugs with guns drawn followed him.

“Rob,” said Dirk. “You’ll beg for a bullet when I’m done with you. But these are for the hellion.”

Halo moved in front of Rob as the thugs aimed their guns at her and fired. Her hands moved so quickly they cracked like whips when they halted.

Halo looked back at Rob and smiled. She was holding a silver bullet in her teeth. She turned her gaze upon the gunmen, who suddenly dropped their weapons as the barrels began to writhe like serpents. She spat out the bullet, then studied the small silver cylinders in her open palms.

“Oh, look, you’ve carved little crosses into them,” she said to Dirk with a giggle. “How cute. Child, you done got me confused with werewolves and vampires.”

Then, once more with unwatchable speed, she spun around and jammed the bullets into Rob’s ears. He gasped. They were burning hot. Halo said something, but he couldn’t make out what. He clawed the bullets out and heard the wails of the three gunmen, who tripped over themselves to get out the door, blood gushing from their ears.

“A predictable counter move,” said Dirk, still looking confident. “Are you surprised to see me still standing?”

Halo shrugged. “The bullet flub didn’t make you look like a master sorcerer, Sweetie. So you know a little magic. I’m not impressed.”

“Then be impressed by this,” said Dirk, holding up a small dark stone that Rob recognized. “With the divine anger that echoes within this object of power, you are mine to command!”

Whatever,” said Halo. “What’s so special about that rock?”

“Don’t play the fool,” said Dirk. “This is the stone that killed Goliath.”

Halo reached to the bookshelf and picked up something small and polished. Light played across its ancient surface.

“No, Baby, this is the stone that killed Goliath.”

Dirk stared at the stone she held, then gazed at the rock in his fingers. “Then this . . . ?”

Rob grinned. “That’s a pebble I found in the parking lot.”

“Son of a bitch,” said Dirk.

“Now here’s how that mind control thing works,” said Halo. “You’re gonna go throw yourself in the river for me, ain’t you, Dirk-baby?”

“Sure thing,” said Dirk, smiling as best he could manage. He turned and left without further comment.

Halo faced Rob, who hadn’t blinked for about two minutes.

Rob rubbed his temples. “So much for my theory about you.”

“I’m the genuine article, Baby. I never tried to hide it.”

Rob placed his arms around her slender waist and pulled her close.

“I’m not going to hide who I am, either,” said Rob. “This doesn’t change how I feel. I’ve been thinking about Jesus, all busted up on the cross. Forgiveness can’t be an easy thing for a God who’d do that to his own kin. Maybe God doesn’t love me, or much of anyone, really.”

“Ah, Sugar, he’s just cranky.”

“Maybe. But it also may be that the only love in this world I can count on is what I feel for you and what you feel for me. I’ve treated you wrong, Halo.”

“It’s okay, Honey. You’re only human.”

“I love you,” said Rob. “I want the world to know. Halo, will you marry me?”

Halo blushed. “Aw, Baby. The laws of Georgia frown all over that kinda thing.”

She pulled him tighter and tilted her head, as he lowered his lips to meet hers. He closed his eyes, basking in her fragrance, her salty skin upon his lips. In the lingering stillness that followed, he heard her gentle moan, and the soft, leathery rasp of wings unfurling.

__________

James Maxey’s debut novel Nobody Gets the Girl is available this fall at all major bookstores and from Amazon.com. For more information about James and his writing visit his website





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