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Bollweevil

“There,” says Salem, “him. Shut him up.”

Bollweevil frowns. “But he’s not a subscriber–why him, anyway? He annoys you?”

“Government wants to be your Jesus!” shouts the man on the bench. “And if I weren’t the radio, the numbers on the eyes inside your eyes!”

“It’s an incantation around that whole block,” Salem snarls. “And if your business ethics get sticky, need I remind you you’re living on borrowed mind?”

“Fine. Paper, pen, scissors.”

Salem’s pockets produce a penknife, a receipt and a China marker. Bollweevil scribbles, counts and makes one cut. The man on the bench swallows his tongue.

Rob

“No,” says Rob, at the threshold.

Darlene’s already inside, working a mortar and pestle. In an arc to her side are slivers of white bone; to the other are tiny plastic bags. Splayed out on the floor next to her is the angel, white and dessicated. Its face is hidden. All its hands are crooked, its endless recursive wings, the savage spine–

“Don’t get squeamish,” grunts Salem, and shoves him. He trips and crashes, cuts his hands. White dust. He looks up at Darlene, and his eyes are black.

“You haven’t taught me anything,” he whispers. Darlene’s face is suddenly fearful.

Bollweevil

“Bollweevil?” gasps Salem, surprised and joyful.

Bollweevil screams raw and tries to get away. His legs aren’t working. He grabs a bench and scrambles.

“What a fortuitous encounter!” says Salem. He hooks fingers into Bollweevil’s nostrils and pulls up, and Bollweevil’s legs do work, then. Salem grabs his hair, then presses their lips together and puffs hot stale air.

Bollweevil’s unsure whose breath is worse.

“Say thank you.” Salem wipes his mouth.

“Thank you,” mutters Bollweevil. They’re the first words he’s been able to speak since Crane. “Thank you, thank you,” and he silently counts one-one. Two-two. Three-three.

Rob

Rob can just see the acupuncture needles from the corners of his eyes, when he blinks out tears. The sewing is less sophisticated. It’s thick black upholstery thread, big X-shaped stitches, and they’re starting to bleed.

He’s screaming through his nose, but his limbs and jaw are locked up by Salem’s expertise. He can feel the paper corner Darlene slipped under his tongue. She’s writing something on his forehead, now: four characters. Salem bites the thread and ties it off.

“Goodbye,” Darlene says a little sadly, and wipes away the first letter.

Rob’s alone. The needles are gone. Everything’s white.

Maya

Maya screams, to her shame, when Salem’s hatpin stabs through her hand and into the wall. “Quiet,” he says, and slaps her. Her ears ring; she almost misses the tinkling crash.

Rob is up, white and sweating, on his knees. He holds Boulevard’s watch. He’s smashed its face and bent up its second hand, which keeps ticking, crookedly.

“You won’t,” says Darlene. “You can’t.”

He wets two fingers with his blood and holds them above it; his eyes are wide, and very cold. Darlene and Maya hold their breath.

But Salem doesn’t. He snarls, and blurs; and then Maya goes deaf.

Rob

“What do you call this spell, anyway?” asks Rob, a little repulsed.

“Extract of ariolimax columbianus, Vittles,” says Salem. There’s less venom in his voice now: blow-drying the slugs seems to calm him. “And ‘snot a spell. One of your pharmacos will catch on in five years, but for now it’s our secret…”

Rob has his doubts about its efficacy, but Salem’s demonstration knocks them out as quickly as it does his victims. He snaps a pinch of powdered slug into the air and waits: seconds later, a big man in a kerchief walks through and sleeps face-first into the wall.

Rob

Darlene sneezes as soon as he walks into the squat. “You stink of sandalwood!”

Rob blinks and cautiously sniffs his own arm. “No I don’t. What, you mean my soap?”

“You wash too much,” she grumbles. “How should I teach you to track when you’ll only smell yourself?”

“I’ll get some unscented,” he says, glancing around. It’s more a monument to dry rot than a room, but Darlene seems satisfied living here for now. She and her associates are as disgusted by his lifestyle as he by theirs, he thinks, as Salem enters horribly, cleaning his teeth with a straight razor.

Rob

Despite her sharpness, scorn and blatant psychosis, Darlene is growing on Rob. There’s a pride and a spark in her that he can respect, if not exactly like.

He doubts there’s anything of the sort in Salem, though.

The man has distinct, nearly visible rings of smell, like Saturn, each level adding a complex new flavor to the horror: fish, wet dog, urine, ancient sweat and, innermost, breath. Right now, Rob thinks he can actually smell the decay of the man’s teeth.

“What’s the matter, little snack?” Salem leers, thrusting the stick at him. “We got a soft spot for froggies?”

Rob

“Do not return the gaze of a man missing a hand.” Darlene hustles down the alley. “Keep fresh holly over door and windows, for protection against those uninvited. If you are pursued, cross running water, and if you hear another curse, touch wood–”

“You said you’d teach me,” grumbles Rob, stepping around broken glass. “If I listen to you, I’ll be afraid of my own shadow!”

“Be afraid of your shadow,” says Darlene sharply. “Whenever possible, watch it, and keep streetlights to your back.”

“What? Why?”

“Because,” says fishy breath in his ear, “you’ll know if there’s someone behind you.”

Rob

Muzzy, thick, where’s the here blanket, still so they’re HERE tired want GET UP

They’re here. It’s dark. A cold shock and he’s awake; he can move nothing but his eyes.

“We don’t blame you any longer,” sighs Darlene heavily. “We understand. You have to lie, and it’s not your fault.”

“But we can’t have you lying about us anymore,” says Salem, “now can we?”

“You’ll tell no more filthy lies.” Darlene smiles, taps her lips. “No more. Ever again.”

Salem is threading a needle.

Rob’s jaw is holding itself shut, so tight his teeth creak. He’d scream if he could.

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