"Hey, thanks," said Tim, taking the money from John. He tucked it into his shirt pocket. Then he got back down on all fours and returned to the Qabalistic sequences and diagrams he'd drawn in colored chalk on the sidewalk out in front of the magician's house.
"What is all that?" John asked.
"Just my way out, is all," Tim muttered. "A secret passage. Soon I will be far from here."
It was late afternoon in the 'burbs. Sultry; secret; quiet.
"Can't you just walk?" John wanted to know.
"I cannot. Where I want to go, people don't walk, they soar." He looked off into some actorish distance.
"You could stay at my place, you know."
"Nah. Your wife hates me," Tim explained. "If I can just follow these lines, you see. Wear a tunnel through things...."
He stood up.
"Never mind," he said, dusting himself off. "Anyway, thanks for the ten. Least I can buy my date a drink."
John stroked his ponytail and looked bothered. "It's all I can spare right now," he said. He looked toward the house. "Hey, you know, Janey don't hate you, man. It's just that you always hit on her."
John looked at the house. It was big and dark. Even in the daytime it was dark.
"So who all lives here besides the cats?" he asked.
"Stoye." Tim spat out the name. He nodded towards the man approaching them. "That's him coming now," he said.
He was regal, robust; well into middle age, yet his big head rushed with hair. He swung his arms importantly and looked insulted.
"A call for you," he said, standing before them now. "I wish you'd tell them to use the other number." He closed his eyes and raised his head slightly as he spoke, or whined, it seemed to John, who observed that this man, this Stoye character, had a thin, sickly sounding voice that didn't match his barrel-chested, baronial manner. "I need the service number kept open for my clients. And you refuse to engage with the convenient Call Waiting function."
He quickly strode away.
"I gotta go," said Tim.
"You studying with that guy?" John asked.
"Nah. I wanted to. I thought he had big medicine, but . . . well, he's too weird. Frankly Sinistro, is what I'm saying. I just watch the cats. Thanks again, by the way."
He left John there and ran around to his room at the back of the house.
It was Helen on the phone, saying she couldn't make it for dinner.
"What's wrong?" he said. He tried not to sound dubious.
"Ah. Flu," she told him.
It was a lie. He looked at the cats, who were everywhere. They seemed to understand, although they showed no interest.
"Well, another time, then," he said.
"Yeah. Call me, OK?"
When he hung up, Stoye was there.
"I asked you not to invite people over," he said.
"I didn't. I was going to meet her."
"No. That man."
"Will he help you to clean the cat rooms?"
"No," Tim laughed. "Well, I mean, he's a Chen Lung master, you know. Himalayan Tai Chi. He doesn't need to clean cat rooms."
"And so he isn't welcome here," he said with finality. Then: "Are you going out?"
"Yeah," he admitted.
"I found two more dead cats." Stoye looked reproachful. "We're down to ninety-eight again. An inauspicious number. Your own Qabalistic studies should have told you that." He pointed at the ceiling and made slow, thrusting gestures. "Those rooms are not good for them. I hold you responsible."
"Well. I'm working on it." Tim hung his head. Then he remembered. "Hey," he said, looking up. "It's my day off. And maybe if you paid me ... sir."
"I am paying you," said Stoye, arching his vast brows. He smiled with menace and turned away. Tim heard him muttering, "Some people care more for pussy than cats," as he strode up the hall.
On his way out, Tim carefully scuffed away the equations on the sidewalk in front of the house with his found Oxfords. He could see Stoye in the big window. He had his arms to his sides, looking determined, regarding two furry, twisted shapes entwined on a glass tabletop. As Tim moved on, the window caught the failing sun and Stoye dissolved into flames.
He walked up to Orfeos anyway, even though Helen wouldn't be there. Helen was a bitch. More than likely she was gay. Often the women he found attractive turned out to be gay. They liked him for his mind, they said. He should sell it on the Av.
He sat in the lounge and drank wine, picking the cat hairs off his clothes. There were cats in here, too, now, cats all over. They strode along the tops of the counters, hung from things, sprang from them.
When the help brought in the free buffet, he loaded up a plate and made a meal of it. It was a good deal, actually. All you had to do was order a drink. He often brought dates here for dinner.
A woman sat down at the table next to his. Seeing her blond hair, her pale, doughy, disappointed look, and sensing in her a yearning for quick, Eurotrash loves, he began to hold forth in Italian. The cat in her lap was growling at him. She herself had cat's eyes, which were her only remarkable feature, and these regarded him warily now as his Italian grew redundant. Perforce, in subtly accented English, he then went on to describe himself as an importer of fine waters, also learned in cheeses, a cheese speculator, a promoter of domestic Brie.
But the cats made him self-conscious, their cruel eyes seeing all: the old, oily, ill-fitting slacks, the corny shoes, the vestments of a poseur. Soon she would tell him to run along and play with himself, he knew that, and she would have every right.
Not that she was any too happily dressed, herself. She wore cheap synthetics, albeit tasteful. Also he noticed that she smoked cigarettes of an undistinguished brand, which she carried in a gaudy, sequined case, completely disregarding how uncool it was to smoke in the first place. And her hair was not naturally blond, it was bleached. Her make-up was running, and so were the cheap black nylons she wore. She chewed gum. She watched the soaps. She picked her nose and ate them. She took pills, she shot up, she drank from the bottle, she masturbated to Chippendale videos. She was no better than he.
These observations should have given him courage.
Yet he was bound to spill soup in his lap, then to get up suddenly, in reflex, upsetting her plate in turn and scalding the cat that was waiting in ambush beneath it.
The relationship was terminated in an explosion of claws and steaming polyester as she boiled out of the lounge. The cruel eyes smiled up at him, then bent upon the food at his feet, as he hurried to the bathroom to retrieve what he could of his dignity.
He washed, trudged through the cat boxes, checked himself in the mirror. He read all the newspapers posted above the urinals, the want ads asking for dancers, prestidigitators, animal trainers.
He returned to the lounge and took a different seat. Even though he looked for all the world like a man who had peed his pants, surely something could be accomplished. But all the best people had gone in to dinner. Only the cats remained, intent upon scraps. When he signaled the barmaid, she ignored him. Should he leave? What for? He had the price of another drink. Two, three drinks more (the ten bucks he'd wormed out of John was only pocket change compared to what he'd filched that day). Even a tip, if these people learned proper respect. He went over to the bar but there was nobody there.
Cats were everywhere. They were regally perched like China lions to either side of vaulted entryways. They minced and gamboled over the walks, or were known simply as presences, their glowing, disembodied eyes dancing through the lengthening shadows.
"Did you do this, Stoye?" he asked the air. "Ruin my evening like this?"
Passing the Tripoli, he saw Helen. The bitch was sitting out on the terrace with another guy. Good thing she couldn't see him. It would be pretty embarrassing for her. "Flu, huh? Some flu." He wouldn't say anything, though, and that could even be worse.
There were so many cats. One of them slid between his legs as he walked, almost tripping him. It bit him as he made to right himself. "Hey!" he blared, driving it back into the shadows.
He thought of the things he'd done as they began to stalk him. He searched his mind for a possible revenge motive, trying to remember cats wronged or persecuted, run over; cats abandoned on rooftops, kicked, underfed, given into the care of wicked stepmothers, cats despaired of or secretly despised, the two who had died earlier. No. No. There was no logic to this, it was an enchantment.
Perhaps Stoye would teach him to work with the cats, make the cats do things. Better than all that Qabalistic hooha he was so fixated on, those numbers. They were OK, sure: you could play with them, write them down and see how they showed up in situations, see them writ large in the heavens; you could even -- in theory, anyway -- construct paths into higher realities with combinations of numbers alone. But with cats you could give people shit.
"All right, Stoye," he said to the air. "What do I have to do?"
It was dark. The cats pursued him. When he came to the park he began to dance Chen Lung, to chant Qabalistic sequences at random. He was trying to drive the cats away, all of them. John had taught him these esoteric Himalayan steps. That's what John knew. He thought numbers were dumb. But Tim was dancing with numbers, trying to align the Mudras with the Paths and Sephiroth. He'd effected a synthesis. And the cats just didn't dig it, did they? They did not. He had beaten the little shits. They were sent wild. They shrank back into the shadows, merged with the shapes of night in a chorus of sighs. Were gone. He was suddenly all alone there, dancing.
He headed back to Stoye's . Perhaps he was stronger than Stoye. Perhaps he could extort from him the remainder of his puny secrets.
Shadows followed him, keeping their distance.
Then he saw Lisa. He knew it was her from her sleek, mottled hair, and from the way she said, "Hi-yee!" She even kissed him, though they were no longer lovers.
"I saw you dancing," she said. "You still do it, then."
"Only when I need to."
"Are you living with Stoye?"
"At. At Stoye's house."
"Don't you make it with him?"
"I do not."
"All the others had to make it with him. If they didn't, he threw them out. Or worse. This whole town rests on the bones of men who've resisted Stoye."
"That is not my understanding of our arrangement. I clean cat rooms. I take care of cats. In return, he lets me sleep under his roof and he instructs me in the Occult Arts. Or maybe I'm not his type, is all. And realizing that, he's decided to just get his cat rooms cleaned up and then he'll throw me out. But he admitted right from the start that he was impressed with me. He said I had 'entitlements' scribbled all over my subtle body. He said he thought fags were better magicians for the most part but I seemed to have internalized both genders . . . His words. He said I had a clear central channel. 'I would be afraid to fuck you,' he told me. 'You might swallow all the rest right along with the lesser weapon.' That's how he refers to it. The best thing a guy's got."
"In your case, I would agree," Lisa said.
Tim ignored it. "God, I hate this town," he sighed, "this Berserkly. It is a city of false starts and dead ends. Everywhere the broken promises, waiting in cafes for some Magus to show and he never does, geek parties where you were expecting to have a dance or two with the White Goddess . . . Whole thing's a bust from start to finish. Shoulda stayed in Kansas."
"Hey." She rubbed up against him. "My parents have moved out of their old house. You could stay there. They won't be tearing the place down for at least a month. Even more, if I know the planning department. Come on."
She took him by the hand.
"I couldn't stand it at Stoye's," she said as they walked along. "I couldn't stand all those cats."
Sometimes she released his hand and darted ahead of him, walking backwards so as to face him when she spoke. She had spaces between her upper front teeth, which were pointed.
"You're cute," she said.
"Still? After all these changes?"
"You know, we can still fuck," she said. "I mean, even though we're not together in any major way now."
"I did love thee once."
"You never loved anybody."
"Well, OK, I had this operation, see . . ."
"Ah!Anyway, for old time's sake?"
Her eyes glowed. He felt himself getting hard. His cock slid out. His hair stood on end. "Oh, yeah?" he said.
She held him, mauled his belly.
"In here," she said.
Stoye watched them in his mirror. He saw how they vaulted over piles of refuse and broken furniture, hung from the drapes, finally landed in a heap on top of a rolled up rug. He heard Lisa say, "Not that way, stupid," when Tim approached her from the front.
"Heeheehee," laughed Stoye.
He waved his hand over the face of the mirror and it went dark.
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM