“Down here,” he says, and I nod, like it’s not obvious. Dip my head like I’m nervous, but a little shakily, too. Like I’m as excited as he is. You have to be careful about these things; he’s dumb, sure, but nobody’s that dumb.
You’d be surprised.
I had to work hard to hook up with this guy, who claims his “name” is Shrike93, just like his email. These Web-handles really crisp my arse-hairs, which I know makes me sound old—old enough to know what a Luddite actually was, any rate. The main good part about having once been a factory girl is, it keeps me small and weak-looking. Not a threat, supposedly, ‘specially when stood next to some bro like the Shrike, all swole up with hormone-saturated meat and childhood vaccines. Nothing like. That, and I know not to sound how I think, either, when I speak out loud. Worked hard on that over the years. So much so, it holds pretty well, except when I get riled up; lucky how none of this posturing is quite enough to rile me, though. Not as yet.
He always picks two, and one of ’em doesn’t tend to come back—that’s the rumour. That’s why I wasn’t surprised I found another potential initiate waiting for him, when I got to our IRL meet-point; made sure to bristle a bit, then waited for the Shrike to step in once it got truly heated. Can’t waste that precious red, now, can we? And he was quick enough to make his move, the minute this other wee pixie-haircut bitch pulled a flick-knife out. Which was just as well . . . for her.
She thinks she’ll be the one gets picked, all right. But I know I will, and that’s the difference.
Experience always wins, that’s my motto.
So down we go, the three of us, the Shrike leading the way, with me and Pixie-Cut trailing after. It’s almost always down, with these sorts. The house is an abandoned two-story box on a high-fenced lot somewhere in the Annex, thick inside with cobwebs and mouse shit and dust, except for the lane these slags have cleared between the kitchen’s back entrance and the door to the basement. And at the bottom of those stairs there’s another door—brand-new, very fancy, normal on the outside but heavier than it looks, with a neat little combination smart-lock built into its knob that has to be keyed from the Shrike’s iPhone, using his thumbprint. He undoes it on one side, then does it back up on the other.
Note to self: Need to get hold of that thumb.
Inside, another stubby flight of stairs, going down half a story to some sort of sub-basement; might have been meant as a wine-cellar, maybe, or a bomb shelter. There’s lit candles stuck in bottles everywhere, half-melted into wax stalagmites, and the air heavy with incense like it’s 1969. Whole floor’s paved with bare mattresses slicked in dark plastic on either side of a clear area, three feet wide by thirty long from the door on inwards, mosaic-tiled in red and gold—a ritual path to that joke of a shrine they’ve set up along the back wall. And there, at last, is that big red lacquer cabinet, inside which I can only assume they’ve got the thing—the person—I want.
The rest of the cult are all lined up on either side of it, too, not that they probably think of themselves as such: Twenty of ’em, all told, unless somebody else is hiding in the bog somewhere. Not that they seem to have a bog down here, that I can see.
They’ve all got names he insists on telling me, which I forget almost immediately, ’cause it makes it easier. Instead, I file ’em under characteristics: Blue Hair; (too much) Face-Metal; Green Highlights; Snatched Brows (with scarification); Needs More T. Not to mention Bare Midriff, Assless Chaps and straight-up Topless (girl and boy), plus a variety of other mock-Goth costuming; leather, studs and vinyl, too-large hoodies paired with artfully ripped fishnets. There’s even one in the back seems to be wearing a blood-stained fake fur-suit, bright pink, splotched all over like some naff bunny-leopard hybrid. Think I’ll call him Anime Chimera, if and when it comes to it.
This is church night for them, I reckon. Get together with like-minded individuals, share something meaningful, go through the ritual celebration that gives their dull little weeks a goal—all dressed up with something to pray to, not to mention somebody to kill over it. And so blessed, blessed sure, in their black little hearts, how no one else ever does the same. Bloody children.
Still, kids can be tricky, ‘specially when they’re high, and armed. As I know from hard experience.
They’re passing ’round bottles now, probably scarfed from parents’ liquor cabinets: tequila, scotch, bourbon, vodka, red wine. I take a swallow or two, enough to make sure my breath smells like theirs, and mime the rest, while Pixie-Cut gleefully chugs whatever she’s handed. By the time the Shrike stands up by the cabinet and loudly claps his hands, she’s well and truly plastered.
“Brothers and sisters!” he shouts. “The moon’s gone ’round again. It’s that time!” Yells and cheers and hoots. “Time to renew ourselves, once more. Time to be more.” More noise. I clench my jaw, holding my cardboard smile still. “Anyone have a story to share?”
“I did it!” Green Highlights yells abruptly. “I found my boss. Told him I’d changed my mind, and when we were alone, I broke his nose and I knocked out his teeth—” this gets more cheers “—and then I carved PERV into his forehead, and I whammied him so hard he’s never gonna know who did it! Ever!”
Howls of triumph fill the room; people hug Green Highlights, slap her back, hoist her hands into the air like she’s won a boxing match. She’s actually crying now I look close enough, poor cow. Still, I’m sure it feels good, while it lasts.
Up by the cabinet, Shrike’s grinning like a preacher tallying up donations in his head. Calls for other stories, and gets them: All much the same, though none quite as righteously vindictive as Green Highlights’. Petty grudges, gleeful sadism, conquest-notches; the sort of selfish tat people dream about in bed or in front of a bathroom mirror, through clenched teeth, tears or panting, between the short strokes. The I Deserve This rag, I call it—high on their own drama, the sweet bile backwash. Pixie-Cut looks pretty much like she’s already halfway to getting off herself at the spectacle, what with those big eyes and that flushed face, rapid-breathing through her nose; me, I make sure to keep on trembling just in case. Not that anybody’s really looking.
Finally, Shrike calms the crowd down with a gesture and beckons me and Pixie-Cut closer, both of us shouldering past each other down the red-gold road to Paradise. Because tonight’s the climax, right? The end of a months-long seduction waged over every form of social media available, led down a trail of whispers about transformation, transfiguration, apotheosis, power. Some new kind of kick, or—just maybe—a very, very old one, all dressed up in post-Millennial drag.
“Other people talk about confidence, or love, or tapping enneagrams,” he tells us. “But we’re not like that. Our shit isn’t bullshit, it’s real. Gotta be ready to handle it, though . . . to show how you’re willing to pay the price. That you can stand knowing this sort of secret.”
The crowd’s stepped back by this point, clustered to hide exactly what’s happening with the cabinet’s slick red doors; behind them, I can hear a couple of flunkies wrestling with the gilded handles, grunting in effort as they heave it open and pull out something, heavy enough to scrape the floor beneath. The ones in front grin a bit to themselves, eyes studying our faces: Oh, they want a reaction, can’t wait to see it, that first moment when—whatever it is we’re gonna end up looking at—registers. Not that Pixie-Cut even seems to notice, her gaze still riveted to the Shrike’s own, chest heaving pornographically.
“No rituals,” Shrike goes on, smiling even wider. “All you need to do is see it. ‘Cause when you do, I’ll look at you, and I’ll just know. That simple.”
I nod, slightly; Pixie-Cut swallows, quick and dry enough I know she’s going to ask, which means I don’t have to. Blurting out, a second later: “Know what?”
“If you’re one of us, of course.”
He turns, smoothly—like he’s rehearsed it. Steps aside to show what’s standing there: a triangle of tarnished brass, three coiled legs topped with a wide, flat metal bowl big enough to wash in, and who knows, maybe that’s what it was originally meant for. There’s a half-mirror set above it, after all, fanned out like a glass ruff behind the thing that sits inside, haloing its awfulness in sullen, splintered light.
A gasp, from Pixie-Cut. While from everyone else—even the Shrike—comes a long, slow breath, drawn out rather than in. Half religious awe, half physical pleasure, admixed with just a hint of happy recognition: So beautiful, this artifact, this thing we serve and own. This thing that owns us.
It’s really hard not to laugh, watching the other girl’s face change. Watching her suddenly grasp that this isn’t a joke or a piece of ego-boo, simple playacting. That when they crow about violence wreaked on anyone who pisses them off, they actually mean it, and the only right move for any still-halfway sane and moral person who finds themselves in this particular situation is to scream and run forever.
Neither of which she has the brains to do, of course. Instead—
“That’s a head,” she blurts out, yet again; can’t stop herself from doing it, poor bint. Like she genuinely thinks maybe someone in here just hasn’t noticed yet, and needs to know.