The best way to celebrate the first proper day of spring was to have a late Saturday brunch with your best friend on Earth
“For someone who supposedly screwed the Devil back in December, you look pretty fucking good to me.”
Introducing Anders, astute businessman, concert promoter, diehard metalhead and my best friend since 1979. For over thirty years, we had done almost everything together. I shaved off three feet of hair with his dad’s electric shaver and dyed the rest of it blue with his help. We bawled on each other’s shoulders over our broken hearts, fed Alka-Selzers to the pigeons after punk concerts, somehow managed to survive many music festivals and spent one unforgettable week in his parents’ summerhouse kicking a vicious, mutual coke habit aided by a case of rum and the kind of primal therapy only your best friend, worst enemy and large quantities of alcohol can give you.
This Saturday, he wiped up the remains of scrambled egg and maple syrup with his bread at our local hangout, a café filled with bentwood chairs, marble-topped café tables, and battered store mannequins in vintage evening clothes topped off with the heads of taxidermied animals. One look at the mannequin by the door, and Jimi Hendrix’ ‘Foxy Lady’ would somehow never be the same again.
In thirty years, Anders hadn’t changed much. His French mother had been a house model for Balmain, and he inherited her elegant bone structure and her dramatic coloring, with the same black hair, pale skin and her copper-colored eyes. He looked like Ian Astbury with better bones, longer hair, and many more tattoos.
“Of course I look good, scumbag, I just had a very expensive haircut.” True. Along with everything else that somehow came along with it in my forties. Hair dye, pedicures and top-to-toe wax jobs.
Anders gave me a dirty look and stirred his latte. “I still say you’re full of shit. How do I even know what you’re saying is true? I mean, fuck, you’re been a hermit for months. Haven’t even seen you for Goth Karaoke nights. Not since Christmas.”
“I told you. I’ve been busy. Nancy sold my book, my editor is a major pain and I’ve been working it ever since.” I bent down and reached for my handbag on the floor. If he didn’t believe me, then I would just have to prove it.
“Here.” I dropped the medallion in his hand. “Does that feel hot to you?”
“What the…yeah, it does. What is it?”
“The medallion of Sitri, dude, conferring irresistibility to the one who carries it.”
“Right. You need that like you need an extra orifice.” Anders gave me another filthy look. He and I had a deal that had stood these thirty years – anyone but each other. One way to stay out of trouble.
“You never know when that might come in handy,” I quipped back.
“Especially with the Devil!” he replied, and at that, we both erupted, not even pausing when the barista came to clear away our plates.
The brunch crowd thinned out, and a Saturday afternoon lassitude seeped in through the door open to the first verdant breath of spring. A breathtaking blonde came in with an equally flawless redheaded girlfriend and sat down in the far opposite corner at the back. She looked familiar, but I couldn’t place her. Several nearby hungover metalheads choked on their coffee as she walked by in a trail of perfume one could only name ‘Spring’.
I could see why. No matter what I did, I just didn’t try hard enough.
Not that Anders noticed, bless him. “Some day, scumbag, you’re going to have to prove it. Hot medallions don’t prove a thing. Damn it, it’s almost two o’clock.” He gulped his latte, threw a few bills on the table, and stood up. “Gotta go, not that I want to. It’s doom night, and the band should be arriving in about an hour.”
“We’ll never get to catch up like this…” I complained. Anders’ day job – or 24/7 job, in his case – was the metal venue Alcatraz, and nothing happened at Alcatraz without him.
He tousled my perfectly set hair. “I can think of a few ways around that. Watch out for devils!” He pulled on his jacket. “Don’t forget – if you can’t be good, be careful. Call me, scumbag!” One last bear hug, and he was out the door and down the street at his usual warp speed.
I sat back with my latte and pulled out my notebook with printouts from my editor, an acerbic woman I dubbed Caustic Cyd. She had the unique ability to strip all layers of paint off my verbal furniture in ten words or less. Still, my book was sold. I quit my day job a month ago when my advance arrived, all caution to the wind, and that was another surprise. Even after Nancy had taken her bite, I could afford to write full-time, at least for the rest of the year, provided I didn’t have too many haircuts.
Life was good. It was spring. Nowhere I had to be, nothing I had to do but this, nothing but think about how disturbingly normal my life had been for the past three months. Life revolved around work while I still had the job, my book and nothing else. I did not go out. I put my nose to the grindstone and tried to forget the humiliation of December, even if it meant being chaste as a nun.
Three months that December morning haunted me like a toothache that wouldn’t quit. I wasn’t the type to take well to voluntary celibacy, but something held me back. Was it that veiled threat on a New York street, that icy chill down my spine as he said it?
‘I handle competition about as badly as disappointment. Very, very badly. I take care of my own. And now, baby, you’re mine.’
I forgot about the prints in front of me. I stared out the window at the spring afternoon outside, seeing the tubs of daffodils across the street strutting in the sunshine, the pale green buds emerging on the linden tree outside the window, the customers across the street in the Italian salumeria shop buying delicacies for dinner, hearing the background noises of idle, hungover Saturday afternoon conversations, the hiss and roar of the espresso machine behind the bar and the Ramones on low with ‘I wanna be sedated’.
Something set my teeth on edge, something made me hyperaware of my surroundings, made me remember what I had tried so hard to forget these past three months.
That it was so perfect, that it felt so right, that I missed those hands and those dangerous nails, that mouth and that bite, that growl, his laugh at my stupid jokes and puns. And twenty measly bucks.
My mother always said I wasn’t worth much. I knew that already, even after blowing the equivalent of seven hundred dollars on a haircut, dye job, pedicure and wax.
It was such a glorious spring day. The bright yellow of the daffodils burned away any memory of gloomy January, coats were unbuttoned as people walked by my window view, flirts were in progress in front of the bookshop sale bins. As I looked, the glass in the café window rippled suddenly, like a pebble thrown into a still pond, and for a moment, it was if all the colors on the scene outside the café window bleached to nothing, the flowers wan and indistinct, the passersby with the dismal gray faces of despair, all semblance of life and noise and even spring drained away. The next moment, another, more evident ripple in the glass, and the illusion, if it were, vanished as quickly as it came.
Strange. I glanced up to see if anyone in the café had noticed, but they were all preoccupied with their conversations, brunches and newspapers.
I must have imagined it. I focused on the daffodils in their barrels on the sidewalk, and thought about going home to work.
“You are a threat.”
A very expensive-looking woman stood in front of me with a truly evil scowl on her face.
I almost jumped through the window on my left.
“Excuse me?” I bleated. In English, even, since she addressed me in English.
“Do you mind?” She pulled out the chair vacated by Anders, took off her coat, and indicated my latte to the barista with one imperious glove-clad finger. Off came the gloves, showing ten perfectly painted and filed crimson talons, and she sat down and planted her designer handbag on the table.
Sometimes, I idly wondered what I would look like if I were… perfect. Here was my near-identical twin, perfect. If I were eight inches taller, weighed twenty pounds less, were fifteen years younger and perfectly proportioned, had shrunk down to a gravity-free C-cup and had a clothes budget of about four hundred thousand dollars a year, then yes, this was what I would look like.
She wore an impeccably cut suit the rich, decadent brown of Cuban cigars and matching sky-high suede boots that oozed the kind of Italian attitude only a serious amount of money could buy. Like me, she was blonde if lighter, a bright, natural gold blonde just shy of strawberry, like me, she was slightly freckled, like mine her nose was short, her eyes were the same color green and the same almond shape, her cheekbones elegant scimitar curves down to a sensual mouth painted the same gleaming crimson as her perfectly shaped nails.
“Did you know,” she proceeded to say quite loudly in a clipped and precise British accent, “that you have made my husband completely celibate since December? Hasn’t touched me once, the bastard, not me or anyone else. That hasn’t happened in four thousand years. What did you do to my husband that I don’t?”
As she catalogued my transgressions, her voice rose. Several nearby conversations came to an abrupt halt. Even I was stunned speechless. I stuffed my prints in my bag and stirred my latte, took a sip. Whatever it took to give myself time to think.
“I wasn’t aware that he was married,” I finally said. “Or that I would have such a devastating effect – on your…husband.”
The blonde and the redhead down in the far right corner giggled and several hangovers smirked into their coffee.
“Well…” she waved her hand, “It’s not that I care, you understand, otherwise I would have just had you killed in December. Nothing personal, just the principle.”
She said it so casually, as if I had borrowed a cheap ballpoint pen and forgotten to return it.
Was the Devil married? Oh. My. Gawd. Where did it say that? But there was only one…
Just my rotten, crummy, lousy luck. On a day I felt great for a change, like I looked a few thousand bucks with the haircut to prove it, I would have to face off the most dangerous woman in orthodox theology.
It was Lilith. Queen of the Succubi. The ultimate female nightmare.
That realization arrived at the same time as her latte. While she busied herself with her cane sugar and her latte spoon, I wondered how I would get out of this alive.
Like her husband, she emanated a scent, and like her husband’s, it was as unusual as it was distinctive. Floral and green, heady, leathery and earthy, with musky undertones and something else, something that smelled – poisonous, even tainted. It was very erotic and so domineering, it cracked an olfactory whip at my nose.
I had another sip of coffee. That always did wonders for my composure. “I’m sorry, your Majesty…” I began.
Lilith gave another airy wave of one elegant hand. “Please, call me Lilith. Much less embarrassing.”
“Very well. Lilith. I have no idea what I did to your husband. So far as I’m aware, I did nothing women haven’t done billions of times before in similar situations. If there’s anything else you need to know, I suggest you should ask your husband, not me.”
She looked me over with a cool and calculating eye, evaluating my clothes, jeans and a red silk velvet tunic top, my rather lacking figure, my hair, my skin, my perfume, even my shoes, the same All-Stars that had gone to New York. Whatever the end result was, it was obviously shabby.
She took out her latte spoon and licked off the foam, and thousands of porn stars died with envy.
“Tried that. Won’t even talk to me, the bastard, he just walks away like the swine he is.” Her eyes glittered, not with tears but malice. A marriage made in Hell. Not my problem.
Well, it was my problem now. “Look. I’ll say this as plainly as I can. I don’t have an answer for you. I have no idea what I did or didn’t do. If I’ve offended you or your sensibilities, then I do apologize, but as I said, I wasn’t aware that he was married.” Pathetic. But at least I was honest.
She sat back on her chair. “They never do tell you, do they?” Even her voice was uncannily like mine, the same pitch, the same timbre, just with an accent from the other side of the Atlantic. It was eerie. “At any rate – ” she reached out for her bag, “I did think you might like to have a look at these…”
A fat manila envelope landed with a loud slap on the marble tabletop.
She had to be kidding. As it was, I already wanted to scream. I ignored the envelope.
“Trying to intimidate me, Your Majesty? I’m a bit disappointed. I would have expected something a little less clichéd from the Queen of the Succubi. If you’re trying to intimidate me, you’re going to have to try harder than that.”
“Clever, aren’t you? At least, you think you are. Well, I suppose when one looks like you, one finds one’s consolations as best one can. You don’t have a clue, do you? I’d take a look at the contents of that envelope if I were you.”
There was a silky, evil tone of triumph in her tone, as if the contents held some little secret, some hideous truth I didn’t know.
She sat calmly, sipping her latte.
I’d be damned if I let the Queen of the Succubi get the better of me. I opened the envelope.
Inside were ten glossy photo prints of a kind that made extreme tentacle hentai look like saccharine Winnie the Pooh. I saw the wreck of the mock-Rococo bed in room 822 of the Chelsea, and even my own self, cellulite included. Finally, there was…no rock star I had ever done in this lifetime. In fact, it wasn’t remotely human.
Whatever it was, it was no creature any diseased human imagination could be sick enough to create, not even in Japan. Which said a lot about both that…thing, and my own suspect sexual proclivities.
“Ah.” Lilith’s smile was positively angelic. “I’ve always said, the truth never hurts.”
“Um.” I put the photo prints back in the envelope and pushed it back over the table. “I don’t know how to thank you. I’ll have nightmares for years. But I still don’t understand. You say you don’t care, that it’s the principle that matters, but if you went to all the trouble of procuring these-“ I held up the envelope – “then maybe you care more than you admit.”
She laughed, the uninhibited laugh of a woman with no reason to hold anything back. “Clever, aren’t you, darling? He always goes for the clever ones, and they’re always trouble. Do you think I’m jealous?” Again, that glitter of sheer malice in her eyes.
“To be honest, I don’t know what the hell to think.” I didn’t. I was too busy trying to forget those pictures. I had never seen anything so disturbing in my life.
“Oh, puleeze. Don’t make me laugh, darling. Should I be jealous of you? Whatever for?” Again, her voice rose, and she leaned forward and looked me straight in the face, as if to make sure I understood.
It was very disconcerting to see your mirror image without one mirror in sight.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the blonde and the redhead at the other end stop talking. The blonde looked daggers, swords and scimitars at Lilith.
“All right, from the top…” She had another sip of coffee. “You and I could, in some alternate reality, be identical twins. You’re shorter, uglier and fatter, obviously, not to mention poorer, and I have access to much better Botox and infinitely better taste in clothes, so really, darling, I do hate to point out the blaringly obvious, but he simply fucked the daylights out of my ghost, and you were just the shabby, third-rate substitute.”
Whatever I did, I didn’t want to bite on that piece of bait. I felt about three millimeters tall, and that was her intention, I could tell.
“It’s always nice to be appreciated for my unique and special qualities,” I finally had the guts to say. I suppressed a violent urge to find and blow the ten nearest available testosterone bombs just to redress the scales a little.
Lilith rolled her expertly made-up eyes. “Men!” she snorted. “They’re so easy, aren’t they? Oh, it’s nice enough, I suppose for the first thousand years or so, and after that, the rot sets in. Paint the ceiling beige. Of course, you wouldn’t know, would you? Never the same man twice, isn’t that the rule you live by? I have my own way around that.” She leaned forward on her arm, a girlfriend with a filthy, juicy secret. “Dicks are so overrated. Give me a woman any day! Much more fun! You don’t think it’s a coincidence I’m Queen of the Succubi, do you?”
Well, blow my mind! I hardly dared to breathe. I was too terrified I’d laugh.
“OK.” I held up my hands. “You say you don’t care one way or the other, you say that he bores you, not in a good way, you even say you much prefer women. Good for you. Be that as it may, you went to a lot of trouble to play the part of wronged wife, and as I said, I didn’t know he was married and I didn’t think to ask at the time. I have no fucking idea what I did to your …husband. I can’t even see it’s my problem that he won’t talk to you about it.” I said hello to my latte.
“But isn’t it nice to know the truth?” Lilith smiled sweetly, as if we now were the best of friends. “You thought he was human, but he’s not. I just thought it might do you a world of good to see what your little fling in New York was really like.”
“Bullshit.” This was another voice, a voice I hadn’t heard in three months, and the bottom of my stomach flopped to the floor in a second. I looked to my right.
Standing at our table holding a bottle of San Pellegrino was the Devil in the same beat-up leather jacket, the same jeans, and the same black aviator shades he always wore, oozing attitude. There was no warning, no scent trail, nothing to alert me.
The hangovers in the room suddenly woke all the way up. The blonde and the redhead whispered at the back.
The Devil slid onto the banquette, slid his hand casually across my thigh, and addressed his wife.
“Couldn’t miss out on a chance to see if you could intimidate the competition, could you, darling? Why bother to terrify her if you can settle for intimidation? You know what?” His grin went all the way across his face. “I tried that back in December, and it didn’t work for me, either.”
“YOU!” Lilith blanched in an instant. “Why can’t you ever just stay away and mind your own business and let me tend to mine?”
“Because this tasty little cupcake is my business, and I’ve been trying to forget her for too long.” He gave my thigh a squeeze. I ignored it. That twenty dollar bill still smarted.
“Cupcake?” Lilith snorted. “Cupcakes make you fat. I simply can’t see what all the fuss is about, she’s just a common, cheap little whore who thinks she’s got a talent and doesn’t. You have access to the most beautiful females on the planet, so why you’ve lost either of your dubious two heads over this one is simply beyond me. She’s nothing. She looks like nothing.” Lilith glared me in the face, and I was almost paralyzed by that glare. “You’re what – forty-six, darling, soon to be forty-seven? Getting desperate, are you? Fat and fading, long in the tooth and with no one to care, I almost pity you, childless and loveless as you are, trawling for younger flesh at a metal club of all places…”
The hangovers sat riveted to their seats by the floorshow in the corner.
“Just a goddamned fucking minute!” I began, before I was silenced by the Devil’s hand on my thigh and a swift kick to my ankle.
“She’s everything you’re not, Lilith. For one thing, you don’t put out for dicks anymore, do you?” There was no mistaking his grin for anything other than distilled essence of evil.
At that moment, I think everyone in the café stopped breathing.
Lilith jumped to her feet so fast, her chair overturned with a loud crash. She flushed a bright red that did not go at all well with her lipstick.
“And who is to stop me from killing her, right this instant?” She flashed her fingers, and I felt a catch in my throat. I tried to say something, anything, but nothing came out, not so much as a squeak.
The Devil stood up. His grin hadn’t moved. “Try it. Not even you can do that. So do yourself a favor.” He moved around the table and leaned forward, inches away from her. “Go back to your ladies, Lilith. You’re cramping my style. And…” he grabbed her by the lapels of her suit and pulled her even closer. “Stay. Out. Of. My. Fucking. Face.” He said it so low, it was almost a whisper, yet everyone in the room could hear it. We all sat frozen on our seats, afraid if we breathed too hard, something truly horrible would happen, something we couldn’t even begin to imagine.
Lilith’s face moved in several directions at once. Then, in a flurry of that horrid perfume and in seconds, she stepped back and away, gathered up her bag, her coat and the envelope on the table.
“So long as you don’t think, darling,” she pointed to me, “that I’m anywhere near finished with you!”
She turned on her heels, shoved several regulars by the bar out of her way, and kicked out the wedge in the door that held it open. It slammed so hard behind her, the glass almost danced out of the frame.
You could hear the collective sigh of relief she left in her wake.
My hands were shaking, and I hadn’t had nearly enough coffee for that. I folded them up in my lap. The catch in my throat was gone.
The Devil slid back in beside me. “Miss me?” he breathed in my ear.
“I’m not sure. There was that twenty dollar bet…” I looked out the window. The Italian shopkeeper was out on the street having a cigarette on a tub of blooming daffodils. He leered at me through the window.
“Look.” The Devil slid closer, wrapped his arms around my waist and saw the shopkeeper, who suddenly dropped half a cigarette on the street and hurried inside the shop as if spooked witless. I could see him gesticulate in the window, pointing across at us.
“I’ve missed you. You don’t know how much.” He squeezed me. “I’m sorry. You know, Saint Peter only did that so I’d choose you. He knows I can’t resist a bet.”
“Choose me? Whatever for?” I shifted away from the window, reached out and took off his shades. This prompted one of the staring hangovers on my right to walk up to the bar and begin talking to the barista.
“I need your help, baby. You’re my last chance at redemption. Just like I’m yours.”
“Really. That’s kinda old-fashioned in this day and age.” Redemption. A word most people couldn’t even spell these days, much less define. Rather like that itch I could feel on my skin, an itch I recalled from December. Three months was an eternity. I had missed him too, although I would rather die than admit it.
“OK, I’ll put it another way for you.” He adjusted one arm, put his shades back on and rearranged me on his shoulder.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do most – start screaming invective at him or simply drag him home to my lair five minutes away. I decided to stay right where I was. This was nice. After the dressing down I just received from Lilith, it felt even nicer.
“I need to destroy that fucking bitch. That’s where you come in. Don’t worry about her just yet. We’ve got a little time. Meanwhile, baby, there’s your redemption. All your dreams come true.” Another squeeze. “Nancy sold your book.”
“So how much did you have to bribe my editor for that to happen?” I asked.
“Not a dime. She’s got an instinct for this sort of thing. I used to know her, a long time ago. It was just putting her in the right place at the right time, and she did the rest.”
That sounded like the Caustic Cyd I had come to know these past two months.
At the other end of the café, the blonde and the redhead stood up, put their coats on, and walked to the door. There was something so familiar about that blonde, but I still couldn’t place her. She turned around at the door, looked right at me and winked, before she opened the door with a laugh and a wave as she headed down the street.
“What do we do now?” What a day, and it wasn’t over yet. The fox by the door grinned wider, the fluttering skirt of her ball gown billowing in a slight breeze from the open door.
“Sit here a while, enjoy the afternoon. It’s spring, baby. Don’t move.”
The barista turned up the volume on the stereo. The espresso machine hissed and roared again.
Outside the café windows, the city ebbed and flowed on its many errands, all strangeness forgotten, in and out of the bakery, in and out of the Italian salumeria, in and out of the bookshop and on to a sunny afternoon. The fox by the door smiled her Fifties ball gown smile, the daffodils nodded in the spring breeze outside, and on the stereo, a voice from a long-distant past sang it out.
‘Die, die, die my darling, I’ll be seeing you in Hell.’
With thanks to Café Bankeråt, Copenhagen.
‘Die, Die My Darling’ © Evilive Music & ReachGlobal, Inc.