Prologue


He never thought he would be afraid of bliss.

He had been afraid of what he might see coming to his old, abandoned house, broken crack pipes and scorched spoons and used up lighters. The counselors at the clinic had told him to watch out for things that would wake up his addiction. Triggers, they called them. And if they had known where he was going, into which house he was returning, they would have jumped down his throat with both feet.

But he had come anyway, for his sister, for his dignity. He had convinced himself that this was a test he had to endure, a demon he had to exorcise. And demons from the past were always the most unpredictable, he thought. They never appeared to you the way you remembered them, the way you built them up in your mind. It was like an old scary movie that kept you under the covers when you were little, but now seemed silly and childish.

He had convinced himself that what he had seen through the crack in his sister's bedroom door so long ago had been a clip from a cheesy movie, that in the cold light of reality it would be revealed as just his own childish imagination. Because reality trumped imagination every time, he thought. That's how things worked, wasn't it?

The movie was real.

And he wasn't watching the movie through a crack in the door, not this time. This time he was in it. What the house had done to his precious dog that night twenty years ago, it was now doing to him.

The house had taken off his shoe and was consuming his foot, working its way up slowly and he didn't care. What a strange thing not to care about, being devoured. But so many things about this day were strange, he thought. Just one more thing to heap on the pile of crazy.

He was pretty sure this had been his sister's room, the nursery. The colors were right, the red with the white trim. He saw the silly carvings on the window sill that he had made when he was a boy. But were those there just a moment ago, or had he thought them into being? It was harder to focus now. His thoughts were like the wallpaper, colors and shapes coalescing, changing, evolving. Was there even wallpaper in her room back then? He couldn't remember.

The house had welcomed him in like a warm sock. He had recognized the thing when he saw it. It had appeared as something that couldn't be here, but he didn't care. That's what bliss does to you, he reasoned. It wasn't that ignorance made you blissful. It was that bliss made you ignorant.

He forced himself to look ahead, just a bit, not too much. His new jeans were still all sharp creases and deep blue. Wrangler. Great work jeans, or so he'd heard. This job was going to be his chance to start over, with Cheryl, with life. Now he would never know. He saw the bottom of his work boot, tossed aside onto the pile with the other boots and running shoes. Wolverine. Cheryl had bought those for him. He was going to wear those for his first day on the job. They had barely been on the ground.

He was staring at his bare foot ... what was left. The threads of his tissue, skin and bone, were being drawn into this thing. There was no blood and no pain, just heaven. He was being ... absorbed, slowly, almost sensually. The thing seemed to be ... savoring him. And all he could think was, Where have you been all my life? Time to wake up now, he told himself.

He looked away to the window and the vista beyond. Sunrise. He would have been getting ready for work about now. He noted the odd angle of the horizon to the window sill. It was just another one of those things, those wrong things he had been seeing since stepping into this house. There were so many wrong things now. He stopped concerning himself with sanity.

He had screamed before, when he first saw it, before the bliss. He had screamed until his throat was inside out, but there had been no sound. Just the paralyzing fear. Then the inevitable denial. That was one of those steps in the grieving process, wasn't it? Denial? He could never remember which step it was. But that didn't matter. Once the bliss came, he had skipped over the other steps and landed on acceptance.

He was afraid of what would happen to him when the bliss ran out

Chapter One

Paul knew it was a dream. The best ones always were. And he wasn't hurting anybody, not really. So maybe just this once he could enjoy ... a little. Just one. And she seemed so real. Tall, slender, legs to infinity. The way she balanced that tray on her fingertips, like a ballerina on tip-toes, navigating the dance floor on a Saturday night without spilling a drop. Because he would know if she spilled a drop. He would know. But that would be okay, too. Sometimes a single drop was all he needed. Just one dark drop, sliding down the side of that ice-cold glass, blending with the condensation. And he could catch that drop on the tip of his tongue the moment it left the edge of the glass. If she could just get it to him in time. If she could just-

"Paul!"

His eyes shot open and he realized he was going over backwards. He tried to grab for the table, but it was too late. In an instant he was on his back, a plate of hot wings now decorating his clean white shirt.

"Shit, man!" he spat out.

But his cries were drowned out by laughter and applause. Apparently all you had to do to get an ovation these days was pepper your shirt with barbecue sauce. He struggled to his feet, reaching out for a helping hand where none were to be found. He righted his chair and plopped down in it. His friends were still doubled over.

"Not funny!" he whined, glaring. He grabbed a towel from a passing waitress and started doing damage control. "I could've got hurt! Another inch to the left and I'm drinkin' my meals with a straw!" He rubbed his shoulder, giving a little wince at the right moment to sell it. His friends weren't buying.

"Dude!" chuckled Benny, grinning. "That was awesome! Your shit was out to lunch!"

"Thanks," he replied. You could always count on Benny to sum things up. Paula was next.

"Where'd you go, sweetie?" she said, with mock concern. "Did you go to your happy place?"

"Yeah," he shot back, "and none of you were there!"

They all feigned heart attacks. He tried to salvage his new shirt with tonic water, but it looked like it was headed for Goodwill.

"You best be nice to me," he lectured them. "I'm the designated driver, and you gets out where I says you gets out." He stroked his non-existent chin hairs in contemplation. "Maybe in a field in say ... the next county?"

"Not a problem," said Paula, burping her wine cooler. She dangled her glittery clutch bag between her thumb and finger. "I gots GPS."

"You couldn't spell GPS in your condition," Benny quipped.

Paula took that the way she always did, with a one-finger salute. Benny's barbs didn't cut deep, but they did cut. She slid her bottle to the side. Paul always wondered how his sister had grown such thin skin. They may have shared a womb, but they had little else in common. Paul had a rhinoceros hide; his sister was a raw wound. Twenty-seven years old and she still couldn't take a hit.

"I weep for my generation," he murmured, but his words were lost in the cacophony that was Salingers on a Saturday night.

"So, dude," says Benny, "Why'd we have to come to ..." crinkles his nose in disdain, "Salingers? We could've watched you juggle chicken wings over at the Ramada."

Paul holds out both hands, palms up. "Hmm ... let's see ... the Ramada Lounge or the hottest nightclub in Jefferson county ... which way will the scale tip?"

"I vote for Ramada. It's got more beds." Antonio had taken a break from working the dance floor and put in an appearance. He was drenched in sweat.

Paul waved his hand in front of his face. "Jeez, I can't believe women line up to buy you drinks when they should just hose you down."

"Hey, companies make billions selling "musk" cologne." He sniffs his armpit. "I give it away for free."

Paul stood up. "And that will be my cue to hit the little boys room."

He headed toward the back of the restaurant, but slowed just short of the bar. It was a bit quieter here. He could hear the familiar sounds of liquid life. This used to be his most special place. The sights, sounds and smells, they were his universe. The people who came through those doors were his people; every man a brother, every woman a conquest.

But they only existed in the warm fog of his alcoholic brain. In those days, life required lubrication. Three drinks in and he was all smiles and back-slaps. Every easy joke was a knee- slapper; each pick-up line an engraved invitation. He was the mayor of Salingers and his constituents loved him.

But in those last few months the drinks didn't stop at three. And by the seventh or eighth, his entourage had started to turn on him. The warm laughs had turned to cold indifference, and behind his back, the gossip was decidedly unfavorable. Even his invitations were being met with, "I don't dance," or "My boyfriend's in the restroom," or, the dreaded "I'm gay."

The dullest intellect could see a problem brewing, and Paul was no exception. His solution was to change lubricants.

Beer was just, well, beer. He couldn't possibly drink enough beer to get in trouble, right? But it wasn't long before he gravitated toward the ales and stouts, eventually landing on Sam Adam's Triple Bock. At almost eighteen percent alcohol, it seemed to be the new 'King of Beers'.

Then there were the wines. Wines were ... elegant. Wines carried a certain respect. Wines said, "I have a sophisticated palate, so don't fuck with me!" And at twenty-two percent, who could resist a nice Zinfandel?

But this was just around the corner from real liquors; the 'spirits', as they say. The tequilas And bourbons and vodkas. This was Paul's area code. This was home. In less than six months, Paul had made the trip back; and in less time than that, he had lost almost all of his friends.

His sister, Paula had stuck by him through it all. He had never been sure if it was because of some weird DNA bond they had formed while they were gestating in their mom, or if it was because of the unspoken love they both had of alcohol.

Paula was the first. She had started partying out loud since she was about fourteen. She had always seemed to gravitate toward anyone who could out drink her.

"It helps me up my game," she'd say.

But what it really did was help her rack-up a staggering number of failed relationships, missed career opportunities and unfulfilled dreams. She would never be a dancer, at least not the kind she had dreamed of being. She would never sing and play the guitar. She would never be on stage or in a movie. When she was young, Paula was beautiful. But the lifestyle had long since caught up with her. Most of the men in town knew Paula, in one way or another, and they didn't care to know her again.

But she had been there for Paul. Even at his worst, which was worse than her worst, she had been there. At the intervention, she had written her own letter. It was full of love and concern, and Paul had lashed out at her first.

"How dare you say those things? You bitch! You're a bigger drunk than I am! You'd spread your legs for any ... " Paul had hurt her. On purpose, he had hurt her. He knew how sensitive she was. He knew the combination to every button she had, and he had pushed them all. But she hadn't gone away. Others had, but she had stayed. Her sense of obligation was perhaps greater than her sense of self. Or maybe it was love. Either way, their relationship would never be the same. She was a cautionary tale; a vision of where he would be if he ever started drinking again. He was a constant reminder of her inability to control herself. It would have become a deadly cancer in most relationships, but theirs had survived. In a different form, perhaps, but it has survived. Maybe their bond was formed in the womb.

So, here he was at Salingers again; a thoroughly dangerous place to be. He knew his sponsor would continue to give him holy shit about hanging out here. But these were his friends, the only ones he had known who had stuck by him. He couldn't turn his back on them, even if it threatened his sobriety. So, fuck his sponsor! He could make this work.

On a Friday night in Westport, things didn't really get started until around ten o'clock. The regulars had mostly filtered in, and the energy was just starting to ramp up. Soon the billiard balls would all be 'clacking' against each other and the strains of karaoke would litter the air. It usually took several cocktails for most people to belt out their favorite show tunes in front of a room full of strangers. But, given enough lube, everyone was a friend. Pretty soon they were queuing up for anything from Summer Nights to Don't Stop Believing. Paul had even taken a turn or two at the microphone in his more agreeable days. Now, he was a spectator, who tried not to judge. Even now he could hear Wind Beneath My Wings wafting through the bar. They probably wouldn't make it on American Idol.

"Have you seen this man?"

Paul turned and came face to forehead with a pretty blond. She looked to be in her early twenties and only came up to Paul's chin. She was holding her cell phone out to Paul and he had to regroup.

"I'm ssorry ... what?" he stammered.

"This man. He's my brother. Have you seen him?" Her lower lip was quivering and Paul felt his maternal side kick-in.

"Are you alright, miss?" he asked sympathetically.

A frustrated frown rippled across her forehead. She scanned the crowd with her perfect blue eyes. "Nobody cares. All they want to do is get hammered." Worry lines were adding ten years to her face.

"I care," said Paul sincerely, "and I'm not hammered. Let me see."

He held out his hand for her phone. She passed it over and he focused his attention on the dark, grainy image in front of him. It was of a man, maybe thirty, wearing an Aeropostale shirt and sprawled out on an old bean bag chair in what looked to be someone's tacky living room. He had a shit-eating grin on his face and the bloodshot eyes of the truly inebriated. Paul had seen him around Salingers, usually with a girl under each arm and a drink in each hand. He couldn't remember drinking with him, but he couldn't remember much from those days. He did know that he had not seen him around for the last couple of months. Probably not the news this fragile young lady wanted to hear. When he looked up, her eyes were boring into his. They were starting to fill with tears and Paul felt he had to say something quickly before she lost it.

"I'm sorry, miss," he said slowly, trying to radiate as much compassion as he could muster. "I remember seeing him here, but not in the last few months. I wish I could be more help."

He waited for this to sink in. Her eyes started to lose their focus. Her shoulders slumped and Paul witnessed all hope drain from her face. In an apparent attempt to exit before her tears spilled down her cheeks, she murmured something under her breath and turned away. He couldn't hear her over the din, but her trembling lips had formed the words "Thank you".

Paul couldn't let her go. He had known this woman for all of two minutes, and he had no idea what he was getting himself into, but he couldn't let her go. He caught up with her and put a hand gently on her shoulder.

"Excuse me, miss?" She turned back, her cheeks damp, her make-up running into a surrealistic painting of her face. She didn't seem to see anything clearly; he wasn't even sure if she knew who he was.

"I know we don't really know each other," he said tentatively, "but you look like you could use a sympathetic ear. Could I get you something? I hear they brew a mean cup of cocoa."

Her eyes glittered a bit, maybe from the tears, maybe from the offer of kindness from a stranger. He got the impression that she had not received an offer like that in a very long time. There was a twinge of weariness in her voice when she said, more to herself than anyone else, "I would really like to sit down."

"Then sit you shall." Paul took her by the arm and gently guided her to a booth in the back, away from all the "clank and clamor". She poured herself into one side of the booth and let out a deep sigh.

Paul went to the bar and got the attention of the first waitress he ran into. He knew them all by name.

"Sadie, could you get me a cup of hot chocolate, please?" he asked with puppy-dog eyes. Sadie stared at him like he was from another planet.

"Hot chocolate?" she puzzled. "How the hell am I gonna get hot chocolate?" She looked him over, obviously looking for signs of intoxication. "Where do you think you are, sweetie?"

"I know where I am!" he snapped, losing his patience. "And I also know that Vinnie keeps a jar of Nestle's Quik over the refrigerator in the back. He used it last Christmas to make his Frozen Hot Chocolate Martinis that everybody raved about. If there's still some left, whip me up a cup, with some of those little marsh-mellows."

"Anything else?" she asked.

"Yeah, make it with milk, not water, okay?" he teased, feeling a smile coming on.

"Well, it might take me a minute to milk ole' Bessie."

"Sadie, your sarcastic blend of humorous banter is greatly appreciated here." He said evenly. "And said appreciation will definitely be reflected in your tip."

Paul walked back to the booth where the young lady was still sitting. She was busy digging through her purse, pulling out the contents a piece at a time. The surface of the table was littered with female doo-dads and whatchamacallits. She had amassed a small pile of coins in front of her and she seemed distraught.

"I don't have enough." She seemed on the urge of tears again. "I was going to go to the bank today, but it just didn't seem important at the time."

Paul didn't get her meaning at first. Then it hit him. "Are you worried about the hot chocolate? That's on me. It's my pleasure."

"But you don't even know me," she said, wiping her eyes with a napkin.

"Paul Sutton," he said. "See, we're half way there. Now your turn."

She managed a small smile, the first he had seen all night. "Cheryl Atwell."

"Well, Cheryl ... it's been a good long time since I sat across from anybody in Salingers who wasn't three sheets-to-the-wind. Maybe we could just talk like normal people."

"Normal," she said, wistfully.

"Yeah," he nodded in agreement. "Can you remember that far back?"

"Was there ever a normal?" She started stuffing things back into her purse.

"I got one sister out of two that's normal," Paul offered. "She's married, three kids, house in the burbs. That's about as normal as it gets these days. How about you? Any gold-medal siblings?"

Just then Sadie came to the table with a tray carrying her cup of hot chocolate.

"It's just me and my brother, Jesse," she said. She took the steaming hot cocoa from the tray and wrapped both hands around the cup, letting the warmth steady her grip. She seemed to be choosing her words carefully.

"Jesse was never normal," she said softly. Paul leaned in to catch her words.

"Jesse ... never met a drug he didn't like." She took a deep breath. "It started when he was about eleven, sneaking booze from his friend's father's place, a dive called the Come-On-Inn. After that he was on a steady diet of cheap rum and vodka. He would hide it in orange juice or diet soda. Mom just thought he was being health conscious. At first, it seemed to help him come out of his shell.

He became the official 'Party Guy'. You know the type?"

Paul looked down at his hands. "Sounds familiar."

"By the time he got into high school he couldn't function without a drink. He would get shaky if he couldn't get anything, irritable. He got caught with alcohol in his locker more times than I could count. He started racking up detentions, then suspensions. By the time he was a senior in high school, he was drinking and smoking pot and who knows what else every day. But he couldn't see the problem. Drinking was destroying his life, but he couldn't see it! It was like ... " She was reaching for the word, but it wouldn't come.

"It was like he had a parasite inside him," Paul said, remembering something from his rehab days, something he had read.

"Yes, exactly," she said, sensing a connection. "Jesse said that once, that he felt like he had a parasite inside him, something that craved the feeling he got from booze and drugs. Something the rest of us couldn't understand. Do you think that is true?"

"I think an addict's brain is different," Paul stated, stepping into uncharted territory. He wasn't sure how much to reveal to this woman. She obviously had some strong opinions on this subject; who could blame her? He decided to tread lightly.

"To an addict's brain, too much is never enough. You could put down that last drink or joint, but the addict can't."

"Do you really believe that? That he couldn't stop himself?" She sounded almost hopeful; that if her brother really did have something in his brain that kept him from controlling himself, then maybe he wasn't a bad person. Just damaged. Damaged she could understand. Then the frown returned to her face. "But if that's true, then what hope is there for someone like that?"

"They just can't take that first drink," said Paul with finality.

"Is that how it was for you?"

And there it was. His cover was blown. Everything he said from here on would not be taken at face value. He was an addict, an alcoholic. How could he be expected to tell the truth? But it didn't matter. He would put the truth out there, and she could accept or reject it as she wished.

"I took my last drink just over sixteen months ago," he said. "And if I took one drink today, I would fall right back down the rabbit hole. I can never take another drink. Never."

She sat very still across from Paul, looking intently into his eyes. He could tell she was searching for any sign of deception, the deceit she had seen so many times in her brother. She apparently found none, for her next words seemed to come straight from her broken heart.

"He didn't have as much sober time as you have," she said, her voice trembling. "He was only a month, but he had just gotten his one month token." She started dabbing at her eyes again. "He was so proud of that little aluminum piece of crap. You'd think he had worked his whole life to get it."

"And why do you think he was so proud of it?" asked Paul. "Why do you think they give out a token for only one month of sobriety? Because something that important deserves to be commemorated. Do you know how many people try to get clean and sober and can't make it to a month? If your brother was here right now, I'd give him a hug."

Then her eyes spilled over as she fell into despair.

"But he's not here, don't you see? Two months ago he stepped off the face of the earth ... and I ... I don't know what to do!"

She buried her face in her hands, and Paul felt like a pile of shit. He had pushed too hard, trying to defend himself when he should have been helping. He tried to backtrack, reaching across the table.

"It's okay ... listen ... just tell me what you know. Start at the beginning."

"I don't know anything!" she said, wringing her hands desperately. She took a breath and calmed herself. "He was supposed to start a new job, but he never made it. The foreman called and reamed me out, saying how I wasted his time talking him into hiring my brother when everyone knew that Jesse was no good. I just assumed he had fallen off the wagon again. I figured he'd show up one day in a fog, broke, needing a place to stay."

The tears streamed down her face as she seemed to give up right before Paul's eyes.

"But it's been two months! What does that mean? Is he dead? Is he hurt, lying in a ditch somewhere and he can't call me? I don't know what to do!"

With a lump of guilt in his throat, Paul reached across the table again, this time taking both of her hands in his. He looked deeply into her eyes and then, over the tortured strains of Love Lift Me Up, he let his mouth write a check that in all likelihood his ass could never cash.

"It's going to be alright," he assured her. "We're going to find your brother."

Chapter Two

Colton took a deep breath, gathered his courage around him like a thick cloak and stepped out, of the shadows. From now until the morning dawn no bullet would find him; no rival gangs would cross his path; no police would seize his freedom. From his apartment on Freemont to the house on Orchard, he was Supreme. Soon his subjects would begin lining up with tribute to curry his favor. And favor them he would, for he had traveled to the house on Orchard Street and he had brought back to them the sweet nectar of life. Only the chosen could enter the Palace of the Most High and leave with its essence. This is how Colton knew of his place in this world. He had always known that he was destined for great things, ever since he was a child. In spite of the obstacles on his journey, he was confident.

When his step-father had attempted to derail Colton's quest with a razor strap, the man had been brought low by an assassin's knife. When he suffered at the hands of classmates bent on his destruction, Colton had not broken. Even when his own mother had planned his poisonous demise while he was still in the womb, Colton's birth had prevailed.

All these struggles were but a prelude, a preparation for the glory that was to come. Still, he did not feel worthy of the task at hand. The challenges ahead seemed daunting. If only he had foreseen the revelations that he had recently experienced, perhaps he could have better prepared himself. The dark days ahead would prove a Herculean challenge. Even now his subjects threatened him. He was the first, but soon there would be many. And with many followers came the possibility of many usurpers. He would deal with them in time. But for now the word must be spread. The essence was here, the time was now, and the procession was beginning.

***

Kirby kicked the Cutlass into fourth and eased the pedal down. That throaty rumble was music to his ears. It threatened to rattle the rust off of his floorboards, but he pushed a little harder. His tattooed elbow was thrust out of the driver's side window, feeling the warm breeze tickle the dark hairs on his arm. Kirby took the cigarette butt from his lips and flipped it at a stray mutt as he rolled passed. The dog 'whelped' satisfyingly. All was right in Kirby's world.

He felt the rough gray primer on the door beneath his hand. His baby may look like lead shit on wheels, Kirby thought, but it never failed to satisfy the speed demon in him. And now that it was primed-out, they were all gonna see! Come payday he was gonna roll on down to Earl's and throw a fat coat of Cherry Red on this fucker, and then - look out! He would have the sweetest ride in Westport. Fuck Brenda then; she'd have to put out just to get in! He looked over at her, laying sideways against the seat back, dead to the world and slobbering like a little baby. Sometime he just wanted to take a sharp left and hope that her door flew open. He kicked her with his knee. She jerked upright.

"What?" she mumbled, rubbing the sleepy out of her eyes with the heels of her hands. Her long raven hair was matted against the side of her face.

"Wake up, bitch!" he snarled. "It's bad enough I got to deal with this retard up here. I don't need you droolin' all over my upholstery."

"Where we at, baby?" she asked in a fog, wiping her mouth and curling her hair behind her ear.

"We're down the street from where that freak hangs out." He scanned between the dim street lights looking for a dark figure among the shadows. The lights on these streets had grown dimmer since last summer. More of them were broken out and it was a good thing, too, considering all that went down around here. Kirby was happy to get in and get out, quick as you please; nothing to see here, folks ... just move it along. Something shifted in his field of vision and he slowed to a crawl.

"That's him, the little melon-head." Kirby pulled to the curb and put it in park under a busted street light. Brenda strained to see where he was looking.

"Is that him? Fuck ... he's just a kid!" she said in disbelief. Then she went back to checking her eye make-up in the rear view mirror.

"Yeah, well ... this kid's got the shit," said Kirby. He turned and focused on her. "And you got one job. You know what that is?"

"Yeah," she said, rolling her eyes, as if she'd done this a thousand times. "I keep an eye out for the cops."

He grabbed her hand and squeezed, hard, until her knuckles turned white. Brenda squealed.

"You keep both eyes out!"

She wrenched her hand out of his grip, massaging her fingers painfully.

"I know ... God! Why do you have to be such a shit?"

"The last thing I need to do is get caught buyin' drugs off the village idiot!" he snapped. "You see anything, rev the engine."

He slid out of the car and eased the door closed, turning off the dome light, plunging Brenda into darkness again. She slid over to the driver's side, locked the door and rolled up the window. For the next few minutes, Brenda watched events unfold like the scenes in a movie. When she thought back over it in the coming weeks, she said it was like being at the drive-in. Of course, no one believed her.


Kirby wasn't taking any chances. He knelt down beside the Cutlass and took out the snub-nosed .38 revolver he kept in his ankle holster. He slipped it in the back of his pants behind his waistband. He didn't trust that little shithead any further than he could kick him. He stood, draping his shirt in back to cover the piece, and did a quick scan around the area. Then he stepped up on the curb. The little prick was gone. Shit! Kirby stared intently at the last place he saw him. For a moment he was convinced that the kid had pulled a Houdini. But Kirby held very still and detected a faint movement. The kid looked like he was standing in front of a black hole. But he was there. Kirby nodded to the kid, hoping to get a response. Nothing? Fine. Kirby could play it that way, too.

***

Colton could, at times, sense fear radiating off of his subjects in waves. He never understood this. When his subjects were before him, they were automatically included within his cloak of protection. No harm could come to them while he was near. Perhaps it was simple ignorance on their part. The revelations should have removed all doubt. This development warranted further scrutiny. Perhaps a more prolonged exposure to the source might prove beneficial in the initial stages of recruitment. The subject approaching smelled of fear dipped in bravado. He should prove adequate.

***

"'Sup, little man?" Kirby said, walking up. He had stepped to within a few feet of ... shit, he puzzled. What was this dude's name? Conrad? ... Conjob? Shit, he couldn't remember. But he was close enough to him to see that this was a dim version of the dude he had met before.

He had only met him once, but the little fucker had made an impression. He was short but stocky; and cut like chiseled stone. He had a mouth full of crooked teeth, and a scar running along the side of his jaw. His bald head had a tattoo on one side that made it look like you could see through his skull into his brain. But the thing Kirby remembered most, were his eyes. His piercing, steely-blue eyes. His irises were contracted down to pinpoints, making him look like he was blind. The first time they met, Kirby had been tempted to wave his hand in front of the dudes eyes. That would have been bad.

But this guy ... shit! He looked like he had dropped about forty pounds, and he didn't have forty to lose. His face was drawn, his now milky eyes were sunk deep into their sockets. It was hard to tell in this dark and with that hood he pulled down over his face, but his skin seemed to be covered in a rash? ... or burns? Whatever happened to him, he couldn't have long for this world.

"You been smokin' your own shit, man?" Kirby took a step back, hoping whatever he had wasn't contagious. The small man stood silently, looking down at the ground, not looking at Kirby, and that pissed him off. Kirby pointed his finger at the kid to emphasize the point.

"Hey, you creepy motherfucker, I'm talkin' to you!" Kirby didn't like the idea of kicking a sick dude's ass, but the prick was getting on his last nerve.

The kid slowly looked up until his eyes were locked on Kirby's. He seemed to vibrate intensely, as if energy was rippling across the surface of his skin. Kirby pulled his finger back in revulsion. For a moment, he actually considered leaving without getting what he came for. Then, the moment passed. Fuck this, he thought. He hadn't come all this way to go home empty-handed. But those eyes; Kirby tried to look away, but it was like being caught in headlights.

"Look, dude," Kirby said, weakly. "I don't know what your deal is." He squared his shoulders. "But I didn't drive all the way over here for the ambiance. You got some shit or not?"

The kid stared at him for a moment, and just when Kirby thought he wasn't going to respond, the kid surprised him.

"And you would have tribute?"

Those were the first words he had spoken that night. The sound of the kid's gravelly voice sent a shiver up Kirby's spine.

"Tribute?" repeated Kirby. "You mean money? Sure, I got cash. I ain't lookin' for no credit here."

"No, not money." The kid said, holding up one finger. Kirby could see diseased sores on the kids hand. "There are other forms of tribute. Forms more personal ... more intimate than mere coin."

Kirby took a step back, warily, holding up his hands. "What the fuck are you talking about, intimate? You mean like ..."

Kirby noticed the kid was looking past him to the Cutlass. Kirby looked back at his car and saw Brenda filing her fingernails. She glanced up and smiled at them. Kirby turned back toward the kid.

"Whoa, whoa ... hold on!" said Kirby, considering. "How intimate are we talkin' here? I mean ... would she have to ..."

"Your vehicle," the kid said, still focused on the Cutlass. "It goes ... far?"

Kirby had to switch gears. "Look, dude, I ain't tradin' my car for shit," said Kirby firmly. 'You can just forget that."

"But it will go far?" repeated the kid, gazing at the car intently.

"Yeah, I guess," said Kirby cautiously. "Maybe two-fifty on a full tank. What're you thinking, man?"

The kid pried his eyes from the car and focused them back on Kirby.

"I believe that you could be my eyes and ears out there."

Kirby nodded. Now he and the kid were on the same page.

"So, you're lookin' to expand. To peddle your wares on my side of town." Kirby rubbed his hands together, greedily. This corn-fed Iowa farm boy caught on quick to how things worked in the big city. "Now you're talkin' my language So, what's the percentage?"

The kid looked puzzled. "Percentage?"

"Yeah, what's my end of things?" It was obvious the kid wasn't connecting the dots. "You know ... money?"

The kid seemed frustrated by this. "As my eyes and ears, you will be receiving tribute. Is this not understood?"

Now it was Kirby's turn to be frustrated. "Look, all I know is, when I sell somethin' I get paid. What's with this "tribute" shit?"

Suddenly, an expression of understanding came over the kid's face. "Ah ... but you have not yet experienced the essence." He reached into his shirt pocket and withdrew a small vial. "This should make all things clear."

Kirby looked at the vial curiously. Then he reached out his hand and took it from the kid. There were some kind of "particles" inside. He held the vial up to the nearest street light. It was difficult to see in the dim glow, but they appeared to be tiny wood scrapings.

"What's this shit?" he asked, scanning the contents. "This ain't the same shit you had a couple of weeks ago."

The kid contemplated this. "Much has transpired since last we spoke," he said. "This is the essence. There is no other."

"You're telling me this shit is better than that shit you had?" Kirby asked dubiously.

The kid looked at him firmly. "There is no other."

Kirby looked at the particles with wonder. "So, what do you do, smoke it? Snort it?"

The kid took the vial from Kirby and unscrewed the top. He tapped a particle onto his palm; a particle no bigger than the broken lead from the tip of a pencil. Then he replaced the top to the vial and he placed the vial back into his shirt pocket. He took the particle between his thumb and finger.

"This will be placed on your tongue. Then all will be made clear."

Kirby didn't like the idea of this kid's diseased digits being that close to his mouth, but he never was one to turn down a free hit. He opened his mouth tentatively, as the kid's hand extended. Then the kid paused.

"After this, there is no returning to the way things were before."

"Don't worry about me," said Kirby, bragging nervously. "I'm not the addictive type."

Kirby extended his tongue and the kid placed the particle on it. Kirby closed his mouth and a firebomb went off in his head. He felt like he was swallowing Napalm. A trail of fire reached down his throat and seemed to burn at the core of his being. He could feel ribbons of energy coursing through him, setting a blaze in his extremities.

A high pitched scream went through his head as his brain threatened to boil. Kirby clamped his hands over his ears. His legs gave way and he dropped to his knees. He gripped his head, rocked back and forth and waited for the agony to pass; prayed that it would pass. And the whole time he had one thought, like a mantra pulsing through his mind:

"If I survive this, I will kill the small man."

But after what seemed an eternity, the fever eased, and the screaming subsided, and Kirby finally dropped his hands to his sides. He took a deep ragged breath, let it out slowly and realized that he didn't feel the pain anymore. He realized that for the first time in his life he felt ... incredible! His mind was suddenly crystal clear, his senses intensified. He looked out into the night ... and he saw. Not the dark landscape he had witnessed only moments ago illuminated by the dim street lights. Kirby saw everything. Birds flying through a pitch black sky. Flies resting on the window sill of a house down the street. Whatever he looked at instantly came into sharp focus. Kirby could hear whatever he wanted to hear. Conversations from blocks away came to him as easily as thought. He could hear rats scurrying down the sewer pipes under the city. He could feel the life swarming in the earth beneath him. He held out his hands and felt the energy tingle around them. He sensed the radiation coming off of his exposed skin in waves. He felt into his mouth and realized that part of his tongue was missing. A small price to pay, Kirby thought, for this blessing.

The old Kirby would have been counting the dollar signs; figuring how much people would pay for this, to have this feeling. He would have held the kid down and forced him to reveal where he kept the goose who laid this golden egg. But Kirby was no longer concerned with money. This was a gift! He had been given a gift. And he knew he would share this gift with whomever would receive it. What else could you do when you were touched by God?

The small man came to Kirby, standing before him. Kirby looked up, looked into the face of his benefactor and opened his mouth to express his eternal gratitude for all that he had been given. He never got the chance.

"More prolonged exposure should be beneficial."

The small man opened the vial in his hand and poured the entire contents down Kirby's throat. It was a moment before he realized what the small man had done. Then Kirby started to seize involuntarily, attempting to vomit up the particles; but they were already scorching their way through his nervous system, penetrating his organs, their tendrils taking root in his brain. He fell forward onto all fours and wretched convulsively, trying to expel the invader. But it was no use; he was being eaten alive from the inside out. Kirby knew he had little time left, and he needed to tell someone of his enlightenment. He clawed his way to his feet and began stumbling to his car. He would tell Brenda; he would share this with her! But the fire had turned to acid in his veins. He could feel his skin melting off of him. He looked down at his hands and saw the tissue dripping from his bones onto the concrete sidewalk. It seemed to dissolve into the cracks and disappear. His feet were becoming wet puddles in his shoes, but he couldn't feel them.

As he staggered in front of the Cutlass and slammed his hands down on the hood, he heard Brenda scream. He tried to look through the windshield, but it was becoming hard to see, as his forehead oozed down over his eyes. It felt as if his hands were becoming part of the hood, fusing with the metal. He attempted to speak; he had so much to tell her! But his mouth was growing closed. Brenda, hysterical, popped the Cutlass into first and stomped on the gas. As Kirby felt the car roll over him, and his arms ripped from their sockets, he didn't feel pain anymore. He was lying in a pool of his own skin and bones, melting into the asphalt beneath him, and he felt no pain. He still wanted to thank the small man. Kirby was on a journey. He couldn't wait to see where it would take him next.

***

Colton stood observing the remnants of his subject and contemplating this turn of events. Perhaps exposure to the source should be limited. Colton would need to make more tests. More subjects would be required. He must return to the house on Orchard street and get the particles needed. There was much to do before dawn.

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