Magic Slim and Pine-tar Bob play blues on the corner. Magic Slim has a black trombone. A man with no feet sits with his back against a brick wall and shakes a tambourine. All he can see are legs. All the legs have feet. He wishes his feet would stop itching.
Brown shoes are scraping and shuffling on the concrete. The humidity is so bad sweat stains the shoe leather from ankle to toe. Everyone comes out at midnight and all the footless man can see are eyes floating under fedora hats. White teeth under the eyes. And the whole world smells of fish and armpits.
The noise draws the crowd from one club to the next, from one smell—spicy Satarain beans—to the next—tomatoes and fish head stew. Perhaps there is a wandering cat thrown in.
The crowd draws a stranger and the man with no feet thinks he recognizes him. “Jean Le Cockereau?” he asks. He thinks he knows that fella. Yes, it is Little Johnny, or Jean, and sometimes other names. Sometimes his last name is Le Cockereau, sometimes not.
“I am Hugo Cheal,” the stranger says, looking down, as if somehow, he may choose a name, and other folks are weak and must use names they are given.
“I know you,” the tambourine player says pulling his legs underneath him as if protecting his lost feet.
“Impossible,” Hugo says. In private, he wears all white. In public, he is a chameleon and blends with anyone or anything. He is invisible and neither more nor less than the nearest Charlie or Bill. This is a thing he knows with certainty. It is a gift. “You can’t know me.”
Hugo’s house is red brick with two white columns, just two, around the door. The roof is gray. The shutters are gray with a hint of blue. Men in green jumpsuits come to mow and spray his yard every three weeks—enough to keep it green. Sometimes a dandelion pops up yellow and turns to gray seed like a mummified man.
The man with no feet can feel his toes and his ankles ache. There was something he wanted to say. He looks up, squinting at the dark face backlit by sodium lamps.
What happened in the basement of that house on Mercy Street with its stainless steel room and the red drain in the center? Cameras mounted, recording, recording. A garden hose nearby. Hanging on the wall were stiff push-brooms and wire brushes and shelves of chemicals. Pinesol, lime, mineral oil. Acid.
Magic Slim hits a sour note on his trombone and sweat drips in his eyes.
Hugo Cheal spits on the sidewalk. He giggles. “Your boy can’t play tonight. Must be the heat.”
The man with no feet points a finger. “A van,” he says. “Something, I remember… something?”
“It’ll pass,” Hugo says, with a wave of his hand. He drives an older blue van, never thoroughly clean. No bumper stickers, no distinguishing dents. People glance at his license plate when they are bored and looking for some game to pass the time. They never remember his number.
Hugo, who might have been Johnny and could have been Jean, never touches anyone in public, but he reaches down now and puts a twenty into the still tambourine. His hand brushes the seated man’s forehead tenderly, as if they were lovers.
“Thank you, brother?” the man with no feet says, as if he’s forgotten something.
Sometimes people with unusual psychic powers shiver in Hugo’s presence, but they soon forget as he disappears into a crowd.
In a crowd, Hugo Cheal’s heart races. No one looks at his bland features, his sloping shoulders, his big hands like talons. In a crowd, he could be a pelican and no one would notice. No one would care. He has escaped again, and his joy is such that he slips off his shoes. His overlong, arching toenails click, clack, tap in the street. Still no one pays a mind.
In the crowd, Hugo fingers the black cat bone he carries around his neck and thinks he is a god and whispers Muddy Waters tunes while he slip-shuffles his feet.
“The boy has rhythm. Yes, he does,” an old woman says and her friends ask, “Who?”
The old woman shrugs her shoulders.
Hugo blends in with a band of black men dancing on spread sand. Then he walks away, saunters away as if his legs are blown about by the wind. He is near a fellow with a briefcase and Hugo assumes his appearance. Hugo could be a lawyer or a student. Certainly, he is respectable, older, mature.
Hugo stops at the courthouse steps and sits near a young girl in a short white dress who wears no stockings and Hugo sees her red panties and pearl white thighs while she eats her corn dog like a last meal on a stick.
If she is innocent enough, he just might invite her home.
* * *
Ricky is on the run. He has dreams at night, shadowy dreams in which a man he can’t see does awful things. Ricky remembers a few things; the man’s hands, they were like the feet of a parrot. The man wore white. They were in a steel-gray room.
There were other things that Ricky tries hard not to remember.
Ricky has a long knife that unfolds from its handle and folds back again with a flick of his wrist. When the memories get too close, he plays with his knife. Sometimes he plays with his knife all night long and does not sleep.
Ricky knows he killed the man, but not how he killed the man. The law, like the predators they are, put him in a straightjacket and locked him away where his only friends were doctors and their medicines. They gave him too much medicine. Ricky could not remember his family, let alone the fuzzy things that happened in Jean Le Cockereau’s basement and what happened after.
Ricky stopped that nonsense. First, he stopped taking the medicine. Then he stopped listening to the doctor. Then he escaped.
He visited the doctors house, nice family, yellow dog with a black nose, an attic to hide the bodies in.
The doctor didnt want to listen. He didnt even listen when both sides of his neck were spurting blood. The doctor looked like a pretty fountain, perhaps in Rome. Was that wine flowing from the fountain? Why not? Ricky gave it a taste. Blah, it wasnt wine. It wasnt even decent soup. Worthless doctor.
Ricky is thirteen. In a few days he will be fourteen.
* * *
Hugo Cheal pulls the drapes shut. That damn little girl is staring at him again. Hugo doesnt know where she lives, but he can see her behind the big maple tree. Maybe she lives there like a squirrel. Perhaps she is a rodent looking for something to gnaw with her two big teeth in the front. He laughs. He looks down from his second floor window and she looks right into his eyes.
It makes him shiver.
Nothing has given Hugo goosebumps in a long time. He rather enjoys it. He is naked from the waist up, his belly hanging over his belt, and there is a black velvet bag tied with leather around his neck. He touches the bag and wipes cold sweat from his brow.
Cant be, he says to himself. You cant see me unless I want you to. Hugo swings a fist at the window. He swings again and again in a rage. And then itll be too late. Too late, little Princess.
The microwave timer goes off and Hugo opens a bag of yellow popcorn. “Screw the twit of a girl.” He giggles like an eight-year-old child. He sits down in his black leather chair and puts his bare feet up on the white desk. The walls are white. The rug is white. Hugos pressed wool pants are white as snow.
Hugo watches his bids go up. The computer shows “Madame” Chang is winning.
Hugo types: 10,000 TO YOU, KILLJOY.
There is no response. Hugo flips popcorn into his open mouth. He misses once and popcorn lands on the white rug. Hugo has toenails like fangs and he stabs once with his foot and snags the popcorn. He bends his leg like a child and pushes the popcorn into his mouth. Hugo giggles again and wipes his bald head. Still got it, he says.
TWO MINUTES, KILLJOY...
Killjoy replies: CHANG CAN HAVE HER.
Hugo dumps the popcorn into a white trash bin and begins typing furiously. He gives Chang a set of numbers. DELIVER 10,000 TO THIS ACCOUNT, 3 MINUTES. He turns to the second of his four computers. He moves the mouse and the screen shows a bank account in Iceland.
His hand is poised over the enter key of the third computer. As soon as the bank account in Iceland goes from zero to 10,000, Hugo slams his finger down.
The Iceland account shows zero again.
LET THE SHOW BEGIN, Hugo types. He sends Chang a computer URL which only Hugo knows is a back door into a military server in Saudi Arabia. The fourth computer shows him the instant activity is detected along that line. Anyone who tried to track his computer trail would find a spaghetti stream of dead ends, like trying to find a single bone at an archeologist’s dig.
Ah, hes in. Hugo smiles. Time for your entrance, my love. Hugo taps on the closet door. He opens the closet and helps a young woman to her feet. Her hands are bound behind her back. A black hood is over her face.
The woman cries quietly. She flinches at the slight pressure Hugo applies to her arm. We know better than that, dont we?
She nods her head. The cloth hood twitches and moves in and out with her breathing.
Hugo unbinds her bare feet. He strips off the paper jumpsuit she wears. He shoves her toward the door. She stumbles and he slams his fist into her stomach. You will walk correctly, my dear. Or I will kill you. Understand?
The girl nods again, shaking as she tries to recover her breath.
Hugo drags her down the carpeted stairway, then to the basement door. Take your time, he tells her. He can feel the fine white woolen rug beneath his feet. The girl begins to whimper. Hugo gives her an elbow in the ribs. Shut up.
The basement is bright. There are four sets of fluorescent lights. The walls have been painted white. Hugo has installed a white ceiling with baffles to deaden the sound. The floor is covered with white linoleum.
“Ah, the door to eternity,” he says. He swings open a heavy door. The room is made of stainless steel. There is a drain in the center.
* * *
Ricky meets the others at a booth in Denny’s. It is his fourteenth birthday. It is late, 2:30 a.m. Koko is there. Koko took Ricky in after the business at the doctor’s house. Koko looked out for him until they had an argument. Koko would love him and care for him if only Ricky would do one tiny, tiny favor.
“How ya doing, young man?” Koko’s accent is Caribbean and thick. Next to him is a pale man dressed unconvincingly in women’s clothes.
“Who’s this guy?” Ricky asks.
“Mr. Lilly. He’s a friend. Don’t worry—we’re not after you.” Koko has red hair, which seems to be covered with mousse. He is over seven feet tall, but he can’t weigh more than 180. His skin is so black it appears blue in the fluorescent lights.
“This doesn’t look like a party. What you really want?” Ricky asks. He touches the knife in his pocket.
Mr. Lilly scoots around the booth. “Let me hold those hands for you, honey.” He doesn’t attempt to disguise his voice.
Koko smiles. “Its not that we don’t trust you, you understand?” He sniffs. “Just better safe than sorry.” He nods and an eight-year-old girl with burning blue eyes appears beside Ricky. She takes his picture. There is a flash and the whirring sound of a Polaroid.
“Oh, jeez!” Pictures scare Ricky. He knows what Koko can do with a photograph. Hes lived in that house filled with potions and chicken blood and feathered altars to forbidden gods. Ricky does not like dolls, or pictures, or bowls of blood, or strange markings on the wall.
“Relax,” Koko says. “Just a precaution.” He takes the picture and puts it in his pocket. Koko places a spidery hand on the blonde girl’s head. It covers her like a skullcap. “This child, if she is a child, has seen an old friend of ours.”
“Yeah? Like who?”
“Johnny Le Cockereau.”
“Johnny’s dead.” Ricky shivers. He acts tough, but a memory from the silvery basement comes back...only for a second.
“Oh, I’m quite certain he’s dead,” Koko says. “That’s what makes this so difficult.”
* * *
Hugo Cheal straps the hooded girl onto a wooden platform. She is naked and her legs are spread. He flips a switch and cameras near the ceiling connect to the Internet. He removes the girl’s hood and she screams when she finds herself underneath a guillotine.
Hugo takes his time, enjoying his work. The sex, while always wonderful, refreshing, fulfilling, is never quite as exciting as the finish.
* * *
Ricky tries to move, but the transvestite is quite strong and grips his hands beneath the table. He watches as Koko draws symbols on Ricky’s picture with a red pen.
“Do you believe the meek shall inherit the earth?” Koko asks. “We are the meek, you know? Us—you and I and Johnny.” He nods toward the girl. “Maybe her, too. Who knows?”
Ricky tries to move. He can’t. “What about Mr. Lilly?”
Koko smiles. “Just a friend, not one of us. Can’t you tell by his strength?” Koko holds Ricky’s picture up. “Do you know what these glyphs mean?”
“You’ve got me by the balls.”
Koko laughs. “Precisely. I can kill you, as long as I have this. I can murder you from Saskatchewan. You’ll have an aneurysm and no one will know. Too bad, my young protégé.”
“Im not your protégé. I dont want to learn your stupid magic. Get down to business.”
“How tall are you?” Koko asks. “Five-four…maybe. A tough little bastard. Seen your doctor lately?”
“Surely you don’t care about that. He was just another predator.”
“No, I don’t care what you do in your spare time,” Koko says. “What I care about is Johnny drawing too much attention to himself. That hurts all of us meek souls who only want peace.” Koko pulls a newspaper up from the seat beside him. The headline reads: Part of Fourth Victim Found.
“You see we can’t go to the police,” Koko says. He laughs along with the transvestite. “What would we say? We practice a little voodoo now and then, see? And one of our guys, one who died, has come back to life and gone rogue?” He lifts his head and the transvestite releases one of Rickys hands. “Its time we started to trust each other…a little. I need you to recover a velvet bag I once gave Johnny and while you may think you don’t need me, you really, really do.”
* * *
Hugo enjoys the cleaning up. He does it obsessively, totally aware of police procedures. He knows theyll never convict him, but theres more to worry about in life than simple evidence. There are connections. There are things the world shouldnt know.
Hes done everything he can to cover his tracks. The only thing he worries about is that little girl.
* * *
When the little girl speaks her voice is deep like a womans and Ricky shies away from her breath on his neck. Number 2 Mercy Street, she whispers. Goosebumps break out on his arm when she says, He calls himself Hugo Cheal.
She touches his free arm and Ricky pulls away. Finger-shaped red marks—somewhat finger-shaped—appear on his wrist. Whered you get this freak? he asks Koko.
I dreamt her up.
Ricky reaches for his knife, but the girl is on him too quickly. Her hand is hot. She shakes her head from side to side. No, I dont think so, she says.
Koko grins. Spooky, isnt she? Come here, my angel. Sit on my lap. The child scrambles onto his bony knees. Would you like to hold Rickys picture? Koko looks up. You see how it is? We want you—you who’ve already killed Johnny LeCockereau—to do it again. What do you say? Koko touches Rickys free hand. Just one thing. Johnny has a new trick. As Hugo Cheal, he’s practically invisible. This girl, this special, special girl, is the only one who can see him and remember for longer than two minutes. So, shell have to help you.
Shes not a little girl. What the hell is she?
Koko shrugs. “What is the wind? What are the stars?”
* * *
Hugo is aware the little girl has a friend. A young boy. Hugo hasn’t seen his face yet, but no matter. “He can’t see me,” Hugo says. “The boy is mere meat. Too bad. It’s been awhile since I had me a boy. The little girl is nice, though.” He stares back at her. “I bet you’d fetch a fine price.”
Hugo sits down at his computer. He writes a letter to his special clients. “Anyone interested in a preteen blonde? Blue eyes. Pigtails. Dress as pink as nipples. Lips like rubies. Rosy cheeks.” He pauses.
His first reply asks, “Send bone?” and Hugo laughs.
* * *
Ricky asks her again, What do you see? I cant see nothing.
Hes there, the little girl says.
Ricky rolls his eyes. Yeah, whatever. He watches the little girl stare at Hugo Cheals house. So whats your name, anyway?
Laura Bush. What the hell do you care?
You dont act like youre eight. Ricky wants to punch her in the face. Fine, then Ill call you Laura.
One names as good as another.
You sound like them. Ricky points his thumb at Hugos house. He leans against the maple tree and sighs. That’s no life, with Koko and them. Why arent you in school?
Its summertime, idiot.
Look! Ive about had it with you...
Quiet. Hes coming out.
Laura and Ricky duck down and watch as Hugo, dressed in a plain white shirt and pants, comes outside. Hugo checks his mail. He takes a deep breath like hes enjoying the weather.
Do you see him? Laura asks.
I see a guy. He could be anybody. I cant quite get a handle on his features. Ricky sees a man who may be bald, or may have white hair... or maybe it is cut so short his head shows through. He seems to be dressed in a single color, white, or gray, or blue. Hugo doesnt have any distinguishing traits. Hes average size and weight. He walks like everybody walks. Nothing special.
Hes a bald man in white, Laura says. Hes overweight—all the fat in his belly. Slip-on canvas shoes...also white. He limps a little on the left, like that foot is twisted a bit.
Johnny Le Cockereau had a club foot when he was young. They straightened it with a brace, but he still had a limp.
Hes got hands like a bird—a big bird. A fucking giant bird. And Ricky?
He knows were here.
Listen to me, Ricky says. Johnny was Meek. You know what that is? Human, but not human. Sold his soul to the devil...like Koko. Got into the black arts, voodoo, worse than voodoo. All because they had no power in life, so they found it somewhere else. I mean, this guy should be dead. I killed him already.
Ricky grabs Lauras shoulders. It hurts to stare into her eyes, but he squints and keeps talking. He did things to me that I still dont remember. And I went back and...well, when I was done, his head was hanging by a thread. Ricky laughs. Aint that great...hanging by a thread. But truly, it was. His head was hanging down his back. I messed him up bad. Then they put me in an institution.
Just listen! Yeah, I was insane. And when I got out, I wasnt much better. Now, you and Koko are telling me hes still alive?
Black cat bone, Laura says.
Thats what Hugo Cheal wears around his neck. Thats what is inside the black velvet bag. Thats what Koko wants back.
Christ! Johnny had one, too.
You know Hugo is Johnny Le Cockereau. You know it.
They hide behind the maple tree as Hugos blue van backs out of the driveway. Hugos head swings their direction, but he doesnt seem to notice. The van turns and heads down Mercy Street.
Now we go inside, Laura says.
* * *
Hugo Cheal drives to the river. He’s got several trash bags that need to be emptied, but he’s not as careful as usual because he knows what will be waiting for him when he gets home. “Little princess gonna make me some money,” he says. “The boy is just a bonus.”
He can imagine them breaking into his house. He can almost see them going through his things. He left a toe in the refrigerator as a surprise. “Surprise!” he shouts.
He listens to the water splash.
* * *
Ricky is slim and capable of squeezing through the tiniest holes—still, Hugo’s house is a challenge.
“I found an opening,” Laura says. She’s looking at a basement window that was left open.
“Even I can’t get through there,” Ricky says.
“No, but I can.”
Ricky grabs her arm. “I can’t let you go in there.”
“I’ll just slip in and open the back door. Then you’re inside, too. No problem.”
“What if he comes home first?”
“ He won’t. He’s dumping. I saw the trash bags, didn’t you?”
Ricky tries to remember. He shakes his head. “Hugo seemed like an easygoing guy.”
The girl opens her eyes wider.
Ricky raises his shoulders. “What are we doing here, anyway?”
Laura takes his hands. “I’m going inside. I let you in. We wait and you take Koko’s velvet bag away from him. It will be somewhere on Hugo’s body. In his pocket, or around his neck…somewhere.” She pauses. “And don’t get killed. He’s a lot bigger than me.”
Laura talks as if she’s explaining something to a four-year-old. “You have a knife in your pocket. Take it and stick him and we run away.”
Ricky looks stupid.
Laura snarls. She takes Ricky by the hand and leads him off Hugo Cheal’s property.
“What’s going on?” Ricky says.
“We need a new plan. We’ll hide in the bushes across the street. When he comes home, I’ll go in and lure him out to you.”
“I can’t let you go in by yourself.”
“Listen,” she says. “It’ll be a lot better than having to worry about your funky ass.”
Ricky looks offended. Laura sighs. “Your mind slipped. You thought about him too much.” She scratches her neck. “I wish I knew how it worked.”
“How what worked?”
Laura pulls him down by the shirt collar until she can reach his forehead. She thumps him with her knuckles. “All you gotta know is, when a little girl comes running out of that house—that house.” She points to Number 2 Mercy Street. “And the girl is screaming like crazy? You kill the big guy in white...OK? You got that?”
Ricky pulls his knife out and flips it open and shut. The knife is back in his pocket in two seconds.
Laura rolls her eyes.
* * *
Koko Shundai has Rickys picture. Koko is nude. Hes painted his body a deep blue. His hair is plastered with orange mud. Great plumes spring from the mud and flow down his back. Mr. Lilly is attaching long leaves and feathers to his arms, legs, and back with pins.
Oh, doesnt that hurt? Mr. Lilly says.
Koko doesnt reply. His eyes are bleary. He stares at Rickys picture as if the photograph has come to life.
Theyve failed, Koko says. Theyll be dead by midnight.
Its eleven now. The transvestite looks out the window. Damn! You should see this light show out here. Comet city. He continues pinning feathers into the skin of Kokos back. I love August...what a trip. Small drops of Kokos blood mingle with other stains on the floor.
Koko begins to dance. He looks like an insect mimicking an owl. His long arms look like wings. The orange mud and long leaves flow and shake like they’re alive.
He circles. He dances, hopping, walking flat-footed, letting his body do whatever his mind says. He circles Rickys picture lying in the middle of the floor. Koko takes a razor blade and cuts his arms. Blood drips on the picture.
Mr. Lilly stays quiet.
Koko circles and circles. He chants something under his breath and his sweat and blood and footprints mark the photograph.
Koko puts out his arms and spins like a top. Faster and faster. Feathers fly off his arms and off his legs. Leaves drop to the floor.
Koko shouts, Let him be blind!
He stops moving. He falls to the floor. His head is pointing north. One hand is on Rickys picture. “You’ll have to help Ricky now.”
Mr. Lilly closes his eyes.
* * *
Ricky thinks the darkness has thickened somehow. Things have been strange, anyway. Damn comets streaking across the sky. Laura went in Hugos house an hour ago, and hasnt come out. Hugo, himself, has been home about ten minutes. Surely Laura has had time to make her move.
But there must be a fog or something. Ricky cant see.
He feels strong hands touching him. Laura?
“Shush, little one,” Mr. Lilly says.
His hands feel hot on Ricky. The hands push and pull at his clothes. Where are we going? Mr. Lilly pushes him across the street. We cant go over there. I cant see!
Mr. Lillly says, Shhh.
Ricky feels rather than hears a door opening. He’s led inside and breaks into a sweat. I cant see him, he says. “I won’t be able to see Hugo.”
No answer. He’s led to a stairway. Down stairs.
He hears muffled screams. "Thats Laura. Hurry!"
They stop, then cross what feels like linoleum. Ricky hears a heavy door swing open. He hears Laura cry, Help, please help!
Mr. Lilly lets go. Ricky can hear Hugo grunting. What the hell happened to the lights? Hugo says.
Ricky takes the knife from his pocket and advances toward Hugos voice. He waits until he can smell Hugo. Stop! Ricky cries.
Ricky swings wildly with the knife. He feels a thud and knows hes hit soft tissue. Warm liquid spurts across his face.
Damn you! Hugo yells. He pushes Ricky, who bumps his head against the metallic wall.
Hands help him up. It must be Mr. Lilly, shaking and squinting and too afraid to fight, but he helps Ricky up, anyway. Ricky hears the sound of something heavy falling. It sounds like steel scraping against wood. There is a sharp, slicing swoosh and the smell of blood.
Laura gurgles once and then all is quiet except something heavy rolling across the floor.
Ricky regains his feet and stabs toward the sound of Hugo’s breathing. He can almost feel him move about the room, almost see him with senses he didn’t know he had. Couldn’t have known. He thinks of Koko.
Cant see, Hugo says, then screams as Rickys knife finds home. Ricky is on him now like a monkey and stabs again and again. Every cut seems to throw more blood on Rickys face.
Hugo’s breath is slowing. Slower... slower. Then it stops.
Ricky leans against the cold wall. He tries to stand, but slips in something warm that must be blood. He knows he must be covered in it. He must look like hes bathed in blood.
Mr. Lilly bumps past him. Ricky cannot tell what he is doing. He hears footsteps and then Mr. Lilly sighs. “He took off her head,” Mr. Lilly says. “Oh, God. Oh, God.”
More noise—wood and metal being moved.
Tears come to Rickys eyes and he waits for someone to take him home. “Take me home,” he says. Mr. Lilly slips a wet velvet bag into his hand. “Take me home, Mr. Lilly.”