It hit me as I was almost two blocks away - I should have turned around and gone back to my apartment.
But I didn’t.
I could have called someone over or drank the rest of that bourbon or read Russian literature or jerked off and slept or got high and stared out the window naked in the dark, feeling like a complete stranger.
But I didn’t.
Once again, I eventually found myself at Bluenose’s. Always my first stop when making the rounds in Greenwich. Does it smell like shit? You bet, but the giggle water they serve there is incredible. There’s always at least a few crazy loons wandering around inside, so you’ve got entertainment as well. And, somehow, I usually find a cute guy or a girl who’s up for some petting.
So I spent an hour and half there, gabbing with old boys I felt like I hadn’t seen for years and years, but it had really only been just a week. We drank to convince ourselves that we were closer than we actually were as most alcoholics do.
There just wasn’t much to talk about that night. I had nothing new to say, no excitement to share with anyone. I didn’t have a case anymore. My last one — a cut-and-dry missing persons debacle involving a mail lady who started to collect guns and men — wrapped up over the weekend without any fanfare.
I was a blank that night. Dull to the core. But at least I had my smile, a new tie, and no obligations to anybody.
Meanwhile, the party went on and on - with or without me - as it always has.
I soon found myself canned like baked beans, leaning against the wall of a narrow hallway, waiting behind five or six people to take a piss.
Some piker stood before me grabbing his crotch like he had a hard-on that was about to rip through his pocket. His eyes stared up into space like he was watching clouds roll by through the ceiling. That, or maybe the ceiling was giving him a floor show. His ears were too big for my tastes and I was tired of watching him touch himself like that so I searched for a distraction.
Behind me was this couple — a tall woman and a short girl. The short girl was younger, Indian, wearing a deep blue suit with slicked back hair and a golden monocle. The tall woman was white, blonde, maybe three years older than her friend. She wore what looked like an entire colony of flamingos wrapped around a black dress that was wrinkled if you stood close enough to notice.
Despite the height difference — or maybe because of it — they seemed to be in a wild kind of love. Although I couldn’t compare what I was looking at to any relationship I’ve ever had, I had respect for it. I didn’t want it. Yet I felt a reverence for it.
But hey. You know me. I don’t like chains, even if they’re made of gold. I hunt from the treetops.
I began to trace the moles I found on the tall woman’s meaty arm with my eyes, drunkenly comparing it to a constellation I saw in the seventh grade.
That was when an oddly familiar face walked past the doorway at the end of the hall — a tasty mix of African and European in a dark blue suit jacket.
I definitely knew him from somewhere. Wasn’t sure where or how, but I soon would.
I couldn’t wait in line for the john any longer. Pretty sure someone was making whoopee in there anyway.
I ran out onto a fire escape that was outside a window towards the back of the joint, unzipped my pants and pissed down on the alley five floors below. I don’t think anyone saw. If they did, so what. It was sprinkling earlier, so what harm was a little more moisture on the street gonna do?
I went searching through Bluenose’s as fast as I could looking for the boy, half out of curiosity, mostly out of lust. I cut off the rest of the blottos in the crowd that tried to rope me into an empty conversation just because they wanted to fuck me. I was on a mission here.
But it didn’t take me that long to find him.
He sat alone, keeping the remains of a forgotten poker game company, hiding in plain sight from the drunken laughter that surrounded him.
He just stared down into the mess of cards and chips on the table, studying it like a family bible.
I sat down across the table from him. He didn’t notice me for a few seconds, probably thought I was just another gate-crasher stumbling around.
I cleared my throat.
He glanced up from the red, white and black slaughter spread out across the table.
“Leon,” he said, with surprise. In that instant, I remembered precisely exactly who this boy was — and I couldn’t believe I didn’t recognize him before.
“Dutch.” Yes, folks. Mystery solved — I definitely slept with him.
“Where’ve you been?” he asked.
“I’ve been…busy.” And it was true. I’m a busy guy.
He smiled patiently like an old school marm would have, sweet but forced, with a hidden bite. “I asked where you’ve been, not how you are.”
“I heard you.” The conversation suffered a fatal wound.
“I’m doing fine, by the way,” Dutch finally added, with displeasure. Which was out of the ordinary for him. At least, I thought it was. He’d always been a pretty upbeat kid. Guess I must have ruined him. “Where’s your drink?”
I sat there, studying his face for answers. I tried to remember everything I knew about Dutch.
“Gone. Drank it,” I replied.
It’s not like I have a bad memory or anything. I like to think of my mind as the Atlantic Ocean if you kept it in one enormous filing cabinet. It might be messy, dangerous, cold in some spots, too warm in others, and inhabited by bizarre creatures not even I will ever get a full glance at . There might be a few shipwrecks or two. But everything’s in there, from all the important milestones like the fourth time I ran away from home to the sulfurous smell of that brunette’s burps from three nights ago.
“I’m surprised you didn’t have another one lined up already,” Dutch said, looking back down at the dead cards scattered before him. “That’s your style, after all.”
The first stone was cast and it was a clunky reminder of how I failed to satisfy this boy’s hunger for something more out of us. Dutch sought a commitment, a husband, a guarantee. He wanted to be like the couple I saw earlier: a possession, sheltered from nature’s uncertainty, in love with the illusion of safety. But how can anyone be safe when the heart is just as selfish as the flesh?
How much time did we spend together, tops? A couple weeks. Maybe three. That’s like a year in my time. I bet you’re wondering why I let it last as long as it did.
Truth is, I became completely addicted to his body — the way it melted over mine, the way his sweat felt like sugar water, the way he tasted in the dark. It was all so…natural.
During those weeks we spent together, I was a cartographer hard at work on making an atlas to map out the continents spread across his skin. I outlined borders with gentle touches and charted tropics with firm grips.
The regions I spent the most time exploring where the most sensitive. His nipples, for instance. He made a hissing noise each time I put one in my mouth, usually the one on the right. And if you licked the edges of his sides, he would jump three feet off the bed. At least.
“Still working at the meat rack?” I asked. A memory wandering around Flushing one afternoon, waiting for Dutch to get off work from the local butcher shop drifted to the surface of my mind like a baby jellyfish.
“Nope, I quit that a long time ago. Man. When’s the last time we saw each other?”
“I think it was…” Another memory floated up: leaving Dutch’s place on a sunny October morning. I had spent the night finishing the finer details of my map, completing the design of its compass rose and everything. I left him at his doorway with a smile that felt like it was beamed down from the sun itself, almost like the day I met him at the cafe in the Bronx.
That was the last time I kissed him. And I didn’t even use tongue.
Another memory rises up, the water ripples. A few days later. Dutch walking up to my apartment door just as I was leaving with a new girl I had started fucking earlier that week. Met her in a taxi. Her name was…Gretchen maybe? The look on Dutch’s face. Like I had shot his grandma. Twice. He immediately turned around and walked away, his expectations crashing down around him. I felt bad about it for the rest of the night, until I blacked out anyway.
Go ahead and call me an asshole. What can I say? It’s not like we aloped.
“Last fall.” Dutch answered his own question. He already knew that anyway. I don’t know why he asked. This had been another one of his tests and I bombed it. Oh well.
“Are playing cards your new thing?” I asked, watching him turn over the cards.
Forgot to mention something. Dutch was a fortune teller. He made a good amount of dough reading people’s cards on the side. Lots of rich Wall Street saps, too.
One time he gave me a reading about one of my cases in the middle of the night, with one candle lit, both of us naked and covered in sweat. He drew the Wheel of Fortune card and placed it on my chest before leaning down for another kiss.
Not sure what it had to do with my case, but man was it sexy.
His face looked as though a cat just scratched him.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him. I instantly regretted it — that was a loaded question. There was a lot wrong here, most of it being my fault. But I hoped he wouldn’t bring any of that shit up.
Dutch continued to stare down into the cards like they were a hot pile of pure condemnation. He was out of words.
I reached over and picked up one of the cards that was lying face down. I turned it over. The 6 of Hearts.
I held it in my hand. He looked up at it as if it had power over him like a pistol aimed at his precious third eye.
“What’s this one mean?” I asked.
“6 of Hearts,” he said. “It was a good day. I went on a date to the zoo. I got to feed a seal. The guy was looker, too. He fucked me afterwards; we made out with ice. It was great. He told me I still tasted like cotton candy. I remember the sun was very orange that evening. I cut it off the next week, though, because I ran into him out with his wife and kids. Plus his stubble left marks on my face.”
I was a little confused. “I don’t follow.”
Dutch grabbed the card from me and placed it back down on the table, face-up. He looked around the room as though there was an escaped tiger lurking around, getting ready to take a leap and bite his throat out.
“Leon, are you working on a case right now?”
“Nope,” I answered. “My last one wrapped up this past weekend. It was so boring, even I forgot what it was about.”
“Good, ’cause I need your help.”
“OK, sure. Tell me what’s happening?”
Dutch’s eyes searched around the room for that tiger again.
When they gave him the all clear, he leaned in closer. “The Red Witch is after me,” he whispered.
I blinked. He sat back and waited for a reaction.
“Am I supposed to know who that is?”
Dutch sighed. “I hoped you did,” he said. “Because even though she knows everything about me, I still don’t a goddamn thing about her.”
I was the one that leaned in close this time. “Explain.”
Dutch lowered his voice, keeping his eye on the room. “A while back I woke up and found this note slid under my door. Typed in red ink. It said, ‘THERE ARE 52 CARDS IN A DECK.’”
“True. Unless you count both jokers,” I shrugged.
Dutch nodded. “Yeah, yeah. So next week, see, I get a second one. It says, ‘THE GAME WILL START SOON.’”
“This is the worst invitation to play pinochle I’ve ever heard of.”
“Are you going to take me seriously or not?” He lost his cool and slapped his hand palm-down on the table. A few bystanders glanced over. Not that tiger though.
His aggression was tinged with desperation, which was all the more uncharacteristic for him. I could tell he was serious. “My apologies. Please, continue.”
“The Sunday after that, the third said, ‘ALL CARDS ARE IN PLAY.’”
Sobering up from Dutch’s dose of second-hand stress, I realized I still had a cigarette that I rolled on my way here in my jacket pocket. I stuck it between my teeth and lit up. “All of these were signed by this Red Witch broad, I’m guessing?”
“Yes. In all capital letters.” Dutch replied, afraid to move all of a sudden.
I offered him a puff of my spliff to help him relax. He gladly accepted. A fleeting glimpse of that time we smoked opium one cloudy afternoon in Queens sailed by. “So then what?”
“The next morning. It was a Monday, right. I woke up and saw that instead of a note, the Red Witch left a playing card under my door. The Ace of Hearts.”
“Because it’s red and she’s red, right?” I watched the smoke frame Dutch’s face like the wispy fingers of ghoul. “Is that it?”
He cleared his throat again, as if talking about this was helping him get something unstuck. “Well, so is the Ace of Diamonds. But the next morning, there was another card under my door: the 7 of Clubs. And the morning after that, another. The Three of Diamonds.”
“And the next day, another one, and so on and so forth, right?”
“Yeah,” he swallowed, like whatever was stuck in his throat was finally ready to be sent for digestion. “But what’s interesting is that each card set the tone of what would happen to me that day. It gave me a preview of what was in store. A prediction, a premonition. You know what I’m talking about.”
I puffed. “So they worked like the Tarot does, basically?”
“Almost, except a lot foggier. I started keeping a journal about each day just to find the meaning of it all. So far, any day where I get a heart card is an excellent day. Happy, uncomplicated, no problems. And the higher the number on the card, the better. The 10 of Hearts was one of the best days of my life so far.”
“What happened on that day?” I had to ask.
“I’ll, uh, tell you that another time,” he blushed. I made a note to myself to find out why later no matter what. “Anyway, spades have all been the worst. Something bad always happens to me on days I get spade card. Again, it all depends on the number. The 9 of Spades was miserable. I got mugged in Brooklyn and my socks were soaking wet.”
“What about days with diamonds and clubs? What happens?”
“I seem to always get paid on diamond days, or I get a lot of business. Plus I feel very energized. Club days are neutral, as far as I can tell. Mundane. The hardest for me to figure out, honestly. They’ve always been my least favorite suit. I’ve never liked their shape, to be frank.”
After Dutch passed on the last drag of my cigarette, I put it out on the corpse of one of the blue poker chips in front of me. “Did you get any more notes from The Red Witch?”
“Yes, another one the day I got to 26 cards.”
My eyes widened. “Half-way through the deck!”
He nodded gravely. “The note said, ‘WE ARE HALFWAY THERE.’”
“And this was how long ago?” I asked.
He looked back down at the scattered cards for approval. “About a month ago.”
“About a month ago?” My stomach froze over. “Dutch, how many cards have you gotten so far?”
He didn’t want to look me in the eye. “Forty-eight.”
I leaned back in my chair. “Jesus Christ. You only have four cards left.”
Then he asked me the question that had been choking his mind every second of every day for two months. “What’s going to happen? Am I going to die?”
I wanted to tell him that he wouldn’t. “I don’t know, Dutch.”
That was exactly what he didn’t want to hear.
“But can you help me?” he asked. Then he felt he needed to rephrase it. “Will you help me?”
What else could I say? No, I’m not going to help one of my best lays stop from potentially being murdered. Forget it. “Yeah, Dutch. I’ll help you.”
This gave him some relief at least. He got lost in somebody else’s bad dream and he wanted me to be his exit.
“You gotta level with me here, Dutch, alright? Tell me — who hates you? Who did you piss off? Who pissed you off? I’m sure you’ve spent all this time making a list of who wants to give you a dead hand. At least, I hope you did.” I couldn’t imagine a soul who wouldn’t, but what did I know.
Dutch chuckled nervously. “Well…”
“Really? A sweet, ticklish guy like you has enemies?”
“Enemy is a strong word. I don’t think I have a true enemy in this life. I don’t live my life that way, Leon. You know that. But I do have a couple of guesses as to who might be upset with me.”
“OK. Let’s hear ‘em.” I pride myself in cutting to chases and beating any bushes directly. Ask any of my clients.
“I don’t want to talk about it here. Do you think I…” he was hesitant to finish his own question. “Can I stay over at your place tonight? I don’t want to be at my apartment. I won’t be able to sleep.”
I shook my head. “Nope. We’re going to go to your place.”
“I’m going to find out who this Red Witch is. I’m going to catch her leaving the next card underneath your door, even if I have to camp out in the hallway.”
“But?” I could sense there was something else he hadn’t told me yet. His body language gave it away.
“Knock it off, kid. If you want my help, I told you — level with me. Otherwise I’m walking home and you’re stuck playing solitaire with the scarlet bitch.”
“You might not believe me, but The Red Witch also…did something to my home.”
“Did she throw rocks through your windows?”
“Did she make it smell like sardines?”
“Dutch, for chrissake.”
“How do I say this…”
“Dutch!” My patience was as thin as cheesecloth and it wasn’t getting any thicker.
He sighed. “There’s a demon in my apartment.”
“A demon,” I said.
“A ghost maybe. I don’t know!”
“The Red Witch, I think she put it there to watch me with a — a spell, or something, god. I don’t know.”
“What does this ghost do, exactly?”
“It tells me things in the dark. Stuff I don’t understand, in words I can’t fully hear. But it just feels…evil, like secret messages from Lucifer himself. It’s hurt me before too. I don’t want it to hurt you. So please, Leon, let’s not go there tonight. Please.”
My eyes narrowed. I took a big breath, cracked my neck, and put my hat on. I remembered I had yet another smoke in my breast pocket, so I pulled the sucker out.
“Ah, stop being so dramatic. Let’s go. I wanna meet your new roommate.” I burped up some of the coffin varnish I downed in what seemed like a year ago. “Say, you got any whiskey over there?”
Stay tuned for the next chapter in “The Empty Witch”, plus more stories featuring characters from the world of The Occult Generation, created by Ryan Fukuda and illustrated by James Zark. Click on the link to find out more about this project! (And feel free to visit my site here, too. =)
“While investigating the murder of a notorious drag performer during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, a private investigator uncovers a secret war between remnants of the confederacy equipped with strange technology and a secret society that fights for justice through magick.”
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