Earth Operations Central
copyright 1992, 1995, 2002 all rights reserved T.J. Hardman Jr.

This is a work of fiction, and any similarity to any persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.

- Interlude I -

She travelled the country, from top to bottom, from coast to coast. America was her hiding place. The $99.00 bus pass was her best friend, and she got travelling down to a science. She would ride the bus, pick a city, check into a fleabag motel, and check the lay of the land. She had few requirements of the cities she chose to haunt. She needed a decent library, and a population of over one hundred thousand. America was in the grip of a brutal recession, and police everywhere were underfunded. The cities she chose were some of the most blighted. She carefully chose her cities, avoiding the megalopolis scenes in favor of smallish but complete cities. Casper, Wyoming; Austin, Texas; Biloxi, Mississippi; Santa Fe, New Mexico... smallish cities with large transient populations, cities with no major industries or with recession-prone industries were her haunts. In such places there would not be funding available for the pursuit of one more runaway teenager, and she could come and go as she pleased, and nobody would be surprised if she didn't have a day job.

She learned to wait tables, to smart-ass the truckers, to hang on the corners with the one-percenters and two-bit hustlers. She arrived in these towns well-fed, as a rule, and spent her month in each town absorbing the local color, finding out where the good parts of town were, and avoiding them... finding out where the seamy side of life held sway, and there she would make a case for a deadly judgement against someone who would not be missed.

She would pick her next destination, and pack her few possessions, and they would be scheduled to leave town on the bus she would also ride... as soon as she had fed.

She didn't make any friends, though. She didn't dare. Always, there was a man or men who would be attracted to her, occasionally some of these men would be men she could respect. From these, she fled with an almost comical haste... for these men did everything they could to make themselves likeable. Sometimes a warm hand would fall on her shoulder, and she would have loved to let some of those hands rest where they lay, but she had never been short of imagination, and some of the dreams from which she woke were all too graphic and vividly remembered.

In these dreams, she would start with a lovely dinner, in a lovely restaurant. She would find herself eating with her fingers, and whichever man it was who was her admirer in this month's town would be smiling some shadowy romantic smile, and she would feel that warm, friendly stranger's hand upon her shoulder, and she would smile back, and his eyes would bug out, and she would look down at her plate as he showed her the stump of his other hand, and she would see in her plate, fingers... She would wake from one of her short, infrequent sleeps, stifling a scream of horror.

She felt always as if an echo of that unvoiced scream would rip from her throat every time one of those hands rested on her shoulder, but she would smile a small smile as she scurried off. Once, a particularly nice fellow of about nineteen remarked to her, somewhere in the outskirts of Tulsa, "You know, darlin', you act as if you're afraid of love itself!"

"I am," she told him. It was the most truthful thing she'd said in months.

Her dreams continued to haunt her. They were not all dreams of betrayal of trust in her, some were what she thought of as "trap-dreams", where she relived in full eidetic participatory dream-mode acts of savagery distilled from all of the bad vampire films of her childhood. She found herself chained in the sunlight, pierced by wooden spikes, decapitated by silver swords... Most often, her wakings were fast, and brutal, and quite often they were accompanied by the taste of her own blood as she bit her fist to keep from screaming.

Other dreams were not so unpleasant. These began with Lace in the darkness, in a fog, with sounds looming like images. From the fog would rush creatures, things shaped like men and women, things without faces. They moved like men and women, though, and in these dreams, she knew how to fight. Visions of combat filled her, and she would dream of war, of hordes of these faceless beings coming at her, singly and en masse, and she would fight. When first these dreams came to her, one beast would leap from the echoing fog to claw at her back as she turned to run, but she soon learned to kick her foot back as she turned, gutting the creature, or crushing its throat (in her dreams she was always naked, and barefoot)... later, she learned to face the creatures as they came. Soon, she could keep the creatures at bay, and later, she learned to tempt them into foolish rushes which she would sidestep, tripping them to fall beneath the clawed feet of their cohort.

She began to enjoy these dreams.

Occasionally, she would experience something like all of these dreams rolled into one, where she seemed to be both inside herself, and an observer removed a few paces, viewing herself from all directions. She would watch herself seem to slowly blur into something she could only think of as (remembering her chemistry and physics classes - how far away that seemed now!) probability clouds. Upon waking, she didn't remember the exact details, it seemed more of a holographic experience, in gestalt not unlike the one and only acid trip she'd taken.

And in the darkness of her hunts, when her rage and hunger took her to a realm of seamy alleys and bad-boy bars, where sleazy women were always found both inside and out of the places America throws up to take the money away from its working men, these dreams would come to life...

A fat ugly man recovered quickly from the small nudge she'd given his testicles when he pressed her too hard for a kiss she had no intention of giving him, and he chased her, and she ran, much more slowly than she could, and she felt his elation, and rage, and some ugly cousin of the emotion she sensed from the warm friendly hands of her young admirers, she felt all of this as he thought her cornered in a blind alley off of another alley on the wrong side of the tracks... He pulled back a fist nearly the size of her head, and as he jabbed she ducked and sidestepped in towards him, and she slashed her nails lengthwise up his arm, smashed his nose into his brain with her elbow, brought her closest foot up into his crotch for good measure, and slammed her foot down, raking his leg, smashing his instep. He jerked like the creatures in the dream, but unlike the dream creatures, he whimpered mindlessly as she pushed him against the wall and began to feed.

She liked those dreams, the dreams of fighting, and she would wake from them, and try to go back into one of those dreams whenever she had one. Usually, it wouldn't happen. Her sleep requirements were minimal. She could get by with three or four hours of sleep per night. If injured, she would require more.

Once, in flight from a kill, she had vaulted a fence, to land on a board through which protruded a rusty nail which had broken off within the ball of her foot. She had hopped, biting her tongue against the pain until she could get to her flop. She had passed out with her foot in a bath of Epsom salts, and had awakened a day later, with half of a rusty nail pushed out of her foot, the nail surrounded by red raw flesh leaking a nasty bilious pus. She nearly bit a broomstick in half as she yanked the nail free, and the wound bled copiously for a minute, and she wrapped a clean white sock around the wound, and passed back out. When she woke, four hours later, there was no trace of the wound.

She left that town as she had so many others, left it without a trace. Somewhere in that town was a young man or two who would never again see that mysterious young thing from "no place special", a young man who would no longer trouble Lace's dreams.

She wound her way to the West Coast, spent a bit of time in Seattle, in Portland, and in San Francisco, she left four dead men and a woman, and also left her heart.

She had taken up the habit of hanging out in all-ages clubs, and the enduring post-punk/industrial scene was her venue. She always expected to encounter others of her kind here, but perhaps she was nearly alone in the world, or she perhaps didn't know what to look for... perhaps she was being a bit too much of a bad cliche in poor taste by hanging out in dimly-lit bars all dressed in black. Whatever the case, none of her kind approached her, and she was obliged to fend for herself.

Being pretty enough that no amount of bad grooming and shapeless clothing would allow her to long remain unnoticed, she soon met people in the bars of the City on the Bay. Some of them weren't nice people at all, and she knew that some of these people were indeed evil enough to deserve her company. Besides, she knew that if she were ever to really disappear, it would be into such a scene as this, a scene where she could learn the ropes in one town, and it would be all about the same in any other city.

These people she fell in with asked her if she had ever considered getting into Satanism.

Lace had been withdrawing ever more into herself, as she had been one of those semi-popular teenagers with a dozen confidants and her own ever-ringing telephone line. She missed her friends, she missed her parents especially, no matter how much she'd tried to avoid them when at home, and she missed most of all the tell-all-your-secrets heart-to-heart gossip and chat sessions with her friends. All of that was behind her now, and she was totally alone. She ran from the boys who tried to date her, rebuffed attempts at friendship from the small-city girls of the midwest she'd met and worked with, developing in each stopover a reputation for being a cold li'l bitch, and without practice, her social skills began to wither.

She spent lots of time alone, reading in the dark until her eyes hurt, depressed as hell from the lack of the sunlight that could sicken, burn and perhaps kill her. When she could read no more, and could not sleep, she would contemplate her condition, and wonder whither her life might lead. A few times, she tried to kill herself, eating bottles of aspirin, only to vomit up disgusting messes. Slashed wrists bled until she was unconscious, and she would wake a day later, healed and Hungry. She did love the hunt in a way, loved the way she felt alive as at no other time, but still she felt a strange knowledge of the sanctity of life, and having learned that her attempts on her own life merely brought closer the time she must kill another, she desisted from her suicide attempts.

She pondered, with the aid of the libraries of small-city America, her philosophical position. Well, she was a murderess. She wasn't insane, not yet, but even if she retreated into a full-blown psychosis, she doubted that any court judging her would merely lock her up in a nuthouse. What would happen to her if she was incarcerated, and couldn't feed?

In a small Minnesota town, she'd had to delay her feeding due to a complete white-out. Snow blanketed the town feet deep, and snow lends itself to easy tracking, and besides, her escape route, the bus, wouldn't be running until the roads had been plowed.

She found herself fidgeting endlessly, raging at hopeless and harmless things. She had always been one of those be-kind-to-animals sorts, but now she found herself gleefully ripping the legs off of a cockroach. She found herself salivating for no apparent reason, then noticing consciously the previously subliminal odor of a fellow flophouse lodger passing by her door.

She sent out for pizza (a delivery service was on the same block), and as she paid the young man who smiled as he delivered her hot cheesey snack, she found herself trying to draw into a crouch, had to consciously fight to keep her lips over her teeth, and when she had paid him, she found that her nails had left deep gouges in the door as she shut it. The pizza didn't last long, and didn't fulfill the craving she had, but it did occupy a lot of room, and she was almost able to relax for awhile.

On the fifth day after she should have fed, she woke from a fight-dream to find that she had ripped springs from the mattress, and had cut herself in so doing, and spent the rest of the morning drifting in and out of bizarre dreams, lapping gently at her cuts with her eyes closed, like a kitten at its milk.

Soon, though, her cuts healed, and it was night, and the weather had warmed considerably (it was mid-April), melting the roads. Her things were packed, had been packed for a week, and she hastened to a truck stop nearby. In the back of one of the town's four taxicabs, she found her hands clenching and unclenching, and though she was wide awake, a series of superimposed fight-dreams chased themselves like hallucination, overlying the smalltown storefronts and lots. At the truckstop, she snatched a woman into the outside ladies' room, and damned near sucked her dry. The hallucinations began to fade, as fighting skill had not been required, she had merely grabbed the tipsy fortyish ol' gal by the armpit, and slammed her facefirst into the wall, bitten into the back of her neck, and begun to swallow. She finished, and replete to the point of bloating, she had dropped the woman unceremoniously next to the toilet as if she had slipped and cracked her head on the commode.

The taxi took her onwards to the bus depot, and she had resolved never to let herself get to the point where her Hunger made her so crazy again.

So much for insanity... how about evil? she asked herself in the backroom of a post-punk bar in San Francisco.

These kids were really into the Devil-worship scene. Lace hung with them for the better part of a month, and the things they told her, and some of the things they did, all added to her conviction that perhaps evil was indeed something she might be able to get into.

There were the spooky mannerisms they all affected. They dressed universally in black, and Lace didn't mind that bit of fashion or antifashion. There was a strange conformity to the uniform of rejection that was so popular amongst these modern nihilists, and she could be just another one of "them" to anyone who might momentarily scrutinize her. Also, she wanted to avoid the "Dorothy from Kansas" look she'd been affecting since she'd begun cruising the Midwest, as she figured that there must be wants for that description. (Her instincts were good. That bathroom killing had been truly sloppy, she had left an even dozen witnesses to the circumstances if not the act, in a town of 4500 souls.)

There was the music they listened to, Joy Division, Depeche Mode, The Cure, all wonderful stuff, incredibly evocative of depression... these guys totally eschewed the upbeat stuff, and she could stand that. Her mental state was one of endless depression, as she knew that as soon as she began to get comfortable anywhere she would have to move on, herded by her hunger and those who must try to find and kill her.

There were the rituals. She thought that she would die when they convened their Shabbat (of about twenty people) and made blood sacrifice, first killing rats (white rats from a pet shop, they were evil and twisted, not stupid), passing a cup full of the blood for all present to drink.

Lace made a show of revulsion conquered, and drank of the rats' blood, and while it was not quite the same as that of a Man, it was better than nothing, and quieted the Hunger she was just beginning to feel, quieted it a tiny bit.

Later, after telling her about the rules of the game, rules of silence, of evil, or wickedness and amorality, they swore her to secrecy, and then they did their big trick...

Each took a tiny razor blade, and cut a vein on each one's arm, and squeezed out a bit of blood into the same (rinsed out) cup that had held the rats' blood, and asked her to do the same.

She had no problem with doing this. She did so, and after some mystical mumbojumbo about Satan consecrating their mixed bloods to evil, and the blood in the chalice (it looked like cheap stemware with handmade silver filigree to Lace) being the blood of the Hornless Goat transubstantiated to the blood of the Anti-Christ, they passed the chalice around, every one of the old members going first, then Lace. There was still about a sixth of a cup left when it got to her, and they told her "Drink!"

(Don't mind if I do, she thought) She drank, and was considered one of them, and unknown for what she was, slaked her Hunger for awhile.

They taught her how to rob, and remarked that she was a fast learner. She had ditched her bank card back in Houston, after exhausting her account. She'd been robbing her prey since then, sometimes doing well, sometimes getting nothing but food for her efforts.

They taught her to shoplift, which she liked. She discovered that she could move fast enough to fool the eyes of almost anyone, and she also learned the art of moving so slowly that she'd not be noticed. She especially learned about perceptual fields, and on her own (and this was something she never confided to her "teachers") took perceptual limitation usage to new heights.

They could teach her nothing about the fine arts of climbing walls, and she carefully permitted them to view only what she wished them to see, an average suburban white chick who was a little bit slow, definitely kind of clumsy, and rather afraid of heights, and very hesitant about jumping.

This band of Satan's Night Shift, as they called themselves, supported themselves through an array of drug deals to suburban schoolkids, petty crime, second-story jobs, and muggings, robberies, and, reputedly, occasional contract work. Broken legs could supposedly be had, and perhaps a bit of wet work as well, if the price was right, and the victim sufficiently removed from the SNS milieu to preclude easy association with the source of vengeance and the agency of retribution.

They were indeed some evil little fucks, vicious as mink, and the women were, as usual, the worst. The bitches, as they called themselves, let Lace know right up front that if she wanted to keep her pretty looks, she had better not let any of the bitches' men have their ways with her. Let the men think what they wanted... the men were fought over, viciously, by the bitches, in manners ranging from mere skulduggery of the worst sort to private knife fights, winner take all. Lace meekly submitted that she wasn't really all that taken with any of the guys, and almost had to fight then and there for insinuating that none of the men were good enough for her. One of the bitches set her straight, letting her know that she hadn't passed enough of the "real" tests to be considered even good enough for a cheap gangbang by the bitches' men. Lace, having almost internalized the skewed value system of the SNS, avowed that, yep, she wasn't evil enough to be worthy of their masters' touch.

About a month after she had begun living with these little monsters, she was about ready to find some excuse to get away from them for awhile. She needed to feed. It was ironic that she, a real bloodsucker, found herself living amongst a bunch of criminals who modeled their society after the gang of bike-Nazi vampires in "The Lost Boys", and doubly ironic that she must sneak away from them to feed.

It wasn't required.

The leader, a strapping twenty-eight year-old Gestapo recruitment poster called Aleister (after Aleister Crowley, a famed Satanist of times long gone) called a coven to order for that night. The previous day, there had been some sort of hustle and hurrah down in the garage below the pierside warehouse they haunted, and Lace suspected that there was something about to happen.

At the coven, after all of the rituals had been observed, the coven called to order, and the blood sharing rituals observed, then Aleister announced that this was to be a Grand Shabbat, and that those not prepared to share in the greatest ritual that Satan had to offer should leave. Nobody left, and Aleister pulled aside a curtain which had obscured a part of the altar. Lace was intrigued... she shouldered her way in towards the altar, and saw a man, a rather ratty looking hippie, bound gagged to a cross on a wheel.

Aleister went on and on about how this hippie had offended the cult by dealing on the one hand and trying badly to preach the gospel on the other hand, thereby offending society, God, Satan, and Aleister, in that order. Therefor, this man was offensive to all of the world, and besides, he was trying to move some dope, the source of which was the rival of the group that their cult supported. Therefor...

Aleister turned, spun the wheel the man was tied to, and when the man was upside down, Aleister slit his throat with a straight razor. The man, whose eyes had never stopped bugging in terror, coughed blood out of his nose, and his throat gushed into a large milk canister. In moments, his eyes rolled up, but the whites remained visible as he drained.

The crowd went nuts. Most of the cult went to their knees, and a murmured litany of "Satan, Baalzebub," or some such went about the room. Lace didn't know what to do, so she dropped to her knees like everybody else, and closed her eyes.

She soon heard footsteps in front of her. She looked up, and Aleister and some of his cronies (she didn't know their names) were standing in front of her. They held a bucket, and a ladle, and Aleister said, "Lace, you've never participated in a Grand Shabbat. You've seen what we do, and you must join us, or you will join him," and he jerked his thumb across his neck, and pointed it back at the still dripping gagged hippie. One of the bitches was sawing his pants open with a knife and grinning evilly; another pulled his shirt down to the floor of the altar, mercifully covering his contorted face. She plunged a knife into him, and ripped downwards. The man's guts fell out.

"Which will it be, Lace?"

He held out a ladle filled with steaming hot blood, and she disregarded it, and took the bucket, which had almost a gallon left in it. She brought it up to her face, and looked about her. There were a few strange faces, with inverted crosses painted on their foreheads, and blood about their mouths. One man had a knife in his back, and two men dragged him to the altar, and the bitch with the guts distractedly reached over and slashed his throat.

Lace drank. She drank until she was almost about to vomit, and then it seemed that somewhere in her stomach a valve opened, and then she drank the bucket almost dry.

"Good girl!"

Aleister looked down at her, and smiled, almost beatifically, and she realized as she looked at his small, even teeth, filed to points, that she was in the presence of a true and mighty madness, an evil so intense as to mock any mere Satan. He dipped his finger in the blood on her lips, and painted an inverted cross on her forehead.

"Welcome to the California Cannibal Cult!" said a woman behind her after Aleister moved on.

She figured she was evil enough now. Well, she hadn't killed that man, but she had killed enough others. What made a difference to her was that her victims had been killed for a simple, direct reason. Her Hunger had driven her to kill and feed; she had not killed anyone for any reason so twisted as Aleister had offered. She figured that Aleister had organized this little theater of the grotesque in order to bind his followers through participation in monstrosity. Purely pragmatic. Nobody could possibly turn witness against him after participation in such an act. To have survived meant that one had drunk the blood of a victim murdered in cold blood. What she found chilling was that Aleister really didn't usually evidence the kind of intelligence required for such Machiavellian cynicism. It was a measure of his insanity that such ideas leapt unbidden into his mind. Perhaps it really was evil. The longer she thought about that, the less doubts she had.

The Grand Shabbat had ended in an unholy orgy of cannibalism, gore, and sex. The new initiates were led in a state of shock into another area of the warehouse. For this, Lace was grateful. As she was led from the Sanctum, she cast a last glance over her shoulder in time to see a large strip of leg muscle laid upon a grill placed atop one of the smoking censers by one of the bitches. She was being stripped of her redspattered robe by one of the acolytes, and Aleister was massaging her crotch as she worked. Lace had never seen a look on a human face like she saw on the face of the bitch, some vicious cross between rapture, lust and greed. Her knife flashed and sprayed blood. Aleister licked gore from her thigh, and then Lace could look no more. She had once thought the bitch sleek, had thought Aleister manly... she wondered what kind of dreams she would now have of them.

In the next room, they were stripped of their robes, and the men were sent to one side. She, as the only surviving female initiate, went to another. One of the bitches came to her, and began to tell her things appropriate to her new rank and standing in the group.

She could now be more trusted. If she showed improvement in her second-story skills, she would be going on a lot more missions. She could be trusted as a lookout, and they would be needing her for that. Also, she might soon be going along on a robbery or two. The unstated principle was that she would be drawn ever deeper into a web of evil. She had already participated by association in the ultimate evil, the pointless taking of a human life, and her involvement was to be ever increased.

The blood she had drunk had done whatever strange thing it was that it did inside her, and her shock began to fade. The rage and madness that had begun to build with her Hunger was gone. She was left with a strange clarity of thought, and her mind leapt into a hyperspeed mode. She began to read between the lines.

She had fallen in with truly lost souls. These people were possibly beyond redemption. As the bitch, Willa, went on, Lace became ever more convinced.

Willa told her, among other things, that their cult was destined to reign supreme, because of their peculiar anti-moral system. Good, moral people couldn't possibly fight them, if only because good, moral people couldn't conceive of such acts. Nobody could believe that such things could take place within the framework of a modern, urban society. Their criminal rivals couldn't hope to prevail, because most people, even desperate criminals, expected that when conditions of conflict were set up, that somewhere implicit was an expectation of compromise, of a modus vivendi. But when dealing with the Cult, well, the Cult would set things up so that offend the cult or not, placate the cult or not, the end result was the barbecue. Even the faithful executor of the Cult's demands would end up upside-down on the altar wheel, to be replaced by a Cultist. The Cult would thus expand through the method of eating the opposition, and also the allies. Only through active participation in the Cult and its rituals could one possibly be safe.

Rather ritualistically, Willa offered Lace a glass of some greenish liquor, and bade her drink. Lace had never been much of a drinker. Since she had begun her crosscountry journey through darkness, she had not drunk any alcohol of any sort, not wishing to risk worse dreams that those she already experienced, but right about now, she felt that a drink might be just the right thing, and so she gulped it down.

Willa explained to Lace how she would take orders from her superiors, to be obeyed without question. She might question tactics and operations, but never strategy or goals. Willa also explained that they were all, men and women alike, expendable property of the Cult, whose Satanic Prophet was now Aleister. Lace asked how Aleister had come to be the head of the Cult, and Willa just gave her a coldly measuring look, and told her that it was none of her business, and that all she needed to know was the fact of his supremacy. She was the low bitch on the totem pole, and she was to accept orders from anyone, regarding anything.

One thing she had better realize, though, Willa continued, was that the Cult was everywhere. In jail, there were cult members who had been ordered to commit crimes of varying levels of atrocity, from shoplifting to murder, simply so that they would be there in jail to silence anyone the Cult needed silenced. There were Cult members in places low and fairly high within the greater society, smoothing the way for certain operations. There was no escape from the Cult.

The drink she had gulped was beginning to affect her. There was a warm alcoholic haze beginning to work its way through the shock, and something else. She felt relaxed, lazy, but it didn't affect her ability to think. The depth of the evil that was the Cult was only beginning to unfold before Lace. In times to come, she would find herself wondering who was the more evil, whoever had first come up with this twisted morality, the madman who espoused and practiced it, or the sane, intelligent but vicious people such as Willa who perpetuated and built upon foundations of madness a growing, thriving edifice dedicated to cannibalizing society.

Lace was reluctant to render moral judgement. She had just been well and truly fed by these people, and after all, she was a vampire. All things considered, however, she knew herself to be truly in the company of monsters.

Certainly she was convinced when a twentyish White Rasta, covered with blood, became the first of five to rape her as Willa held a razor to her throat, which wasn't even really necessary, as the drugs in the greenish drink by now made it really quite impossible to resist.

She didn't even care. She had never really had much concern for her soul, and whatever morals she'd ever claimed had been blown away by the lives she'd taken. Being a meatpuppet for a group of psychotic cannibals was just the latest in a year-long train of solid injustice. She got no enjoyment from it, but somehow it didn't bother her anymore than eating or shitting.

She never even realized that she'd cracked.

She began to get assignments through the command structure. The organization of the Cult was based on a weird combination of paramilitary, democratic, and religious principles. One could attempt to curry favor in one group, which could vote on your acceptance into itself, but once within a group, absolute obedience was required. Failure to perform as required could be grounds for execution, unless one made a defense on "moral" grounds. One could quote dogma or Prophetic injunction, and it must then be settled by tribunal, but woe betide the one who called for judgement and was deemed to be out of line.

She often found herself lurking up the street from various burglaries, robberies and setups, her wildly dressed hair concealing a 49Mhz trans-set. She received her rewards in the form of continued life, occasional praise, drugs (which she gave to the Cultists with whom she had the least frictions) and the satisfaction of a job well done.

She wasn't exactly psychotic in the usual sense. She was certainly functional. She learned a lot, how to coordinate with other members of a strike team, how to give the come-on to a prospective victim, ways to turn a knife. The Cult had some excellent martial-arts instructors, who tried to teach her all that they knew. She dutifully went through all of the motions, sparring at what was to her about one third speed. Her instructors despaired of ever teaching Lace anything of use, and so she was given into the care of the bitches, to be taught the arts of a sex-lure.

She was certainly good at that. She'd done alright on her own with such techniques, having fed well enough all across the country before having been drawn into the Cult. The practiced bitches of the Cult taught her a lot of things, koochdance moves, postures to incite lust, cutesie little come-hither looks... but what she really wanted to learn was the criminal stuff, the set-ups, the robbery, the scamming. She seized every opportunity to involve herself in this sort of activity, and her innate faculties for deception and teamwork were soon noticed.

The men who came to her to relieve their urges began to be of a higher quality of evil. One thing the Cult was adamant about was that the members only have sex (unless otherwise ordered in pursuance of Cult goals) with other Cult members. The Grand Shabbat sacrifices were of course investigated thoroughly before an abduction took place, and one of the criteria for bloodrite victims (as opposed to those who merely vanished forever) was low AIDSrisk. Lace dutifully submitted, practicing the skills that the other bitches (she thought herself one of them, now) had taught her, but the thought of considering it lovemaking never entered her mind. Sex was supremely uninteresting to her. It was just another job, and one of the messy ones.

She was spared the messiest jobs of all, those of butchery of bloodrite victims. Only the high priestesses of Aleister's Satan might prepare the flesh of Men, and Lace, while a dutiful and effective cult member, showed none of the fervor and zeal of the Devil's Holy Rollers.

She always attended the Grand Shabbat. Generally held on the dark of the Moon, it luckily coincided with the coming of her Hunger, and it was remarked that in this one thing she did show proper zeal. She always elbowed her way to the front of the line for the Sacrament of the Hornless Goat, and while some of the other Cultists took only a small swallow of the blood that made them one with their society, she would drink and drink.

Willa asked her about it, and Lace responded, "It's what made me one of us, and I want everyone to know that I'm really into it. I don't like the flesh that much, so I take extra blood. Besides, I like the taste."

Willa had been a little bit revolted (she herself preferred the flesh, as did most of the celebrants) but she allowed that it was all part of the same Satanic Sacrament, and besides, often, extra blood had been wasted, disposed of down the toilet or drains. As an aspiring High Priestess, Willa knew that one of the most important functions of her caste was the disposal of evidence. No blood, flesh, or bone was permitted to remain beyond the time of Grand Shabbat, and Lace was doing a fine job of disposing of evidence.

Willa was a True Believer. Lace asked her once what would happen when the Cult succeeded in its goal of spreading itself through the world. Would it then feed on itself?

Willa answered that the glory of Satan would then be served by the elimination of weaklings from within the ranks. In the end, Man would live as Satan had intended when he had given Eve the Apple, man fighting man for the glory of Satan in wild savage splendor, winner take all, weaklings get eaten. Willa told Lace that she didn't expect to live to see it, she expected to long be dead and in Hell, a demon of rank tormenting lesser, more compromising damned souls.

Lace's eighteenth birthday came and went, unnoticed in the ritual madness of the Cult. She became ever more adept at her arts. She was a very popular girl in the sex-stable. Only her skills as a lookout and shoplifter and burglar (yes, she had "finally" mastered the arts of the second-story crew) kept her from being relegated to the dangerous position of favorite whore. That position was not sought after by any bitch with any sense. Other jealous bitches tended to gang up on the "fave" whore, with results not conducive to continued attractiveness.

Lace became quite the burglar. Once she brought back three kilograms of cocaine and close to a million dollars. In the front room of the hideout, there had been a pitched gunbattle between the Cali Cartel men and Cult operatives. Cult members had staked the place for a month, and in a concerted action had taken out the outbound and inbound mules, as well as the watchers up the block. They had gone for the Cali men through the front, and were getting their asses shot off when Lace, hanging outside of the fourth-floor rear window, sensed the operation going sour when the Cali men noted that their rooftop man hadn't returned to join in the fray. The one man guarding the fourth-floor stash room had been quite unprepared for a woman smashing through the window, kicking out the bare bulb in the ceiling fixture, and ripping his throat apart. His fingers were ripped from his hand along with the gun, and Lace had done a running jump through the shattered window, across the alley, and through another window, scattering glass across the bed of a cowering naked couple. Before she leapt, though, she'd stuffed the contents of two briefcases into her backpack, and fired the flare gun she had been issued (for signal purposes) into the floor.

In the cross-alley building, she fled down the hall, leapt down the stair case, and in the basement, found a telephone room. She ripped the doorknob right out of the door, and hiding within the darkness, secreted close to a million dollars in fifties and twenties within the recesses of a wall conduit.

She took the doorknob with her when she left.

The Cult was quite happy to have the near-million dollars and the three kilograms of coke. No questions were ever asked about any missing money. Organized as the Cult was, they really had no idea how to project the Cali revenues, and didn't realize they'd been shortchanged by fifty percent.

Provided that the building didn't burn down, or get renovated to the extent that a new set of phone lines was installed, Lace was a very rich girl, with absolutely no expenses.

Lace was quite mad at this point.

She was used as a sex-lure on one of the abductions-for-bloodrite, and she didn't have to think at all. Somehow, she just found herself in a restaurant, eating a light pasta dinner with the Hornless Goat, smiling coquettishly, watching his eyes watch her, turning her admirably sculpted legs a bit when she saw his gaze on them, thrusting her breasts at him when they were the object of his gaze. She would go to the bathroom, and feel his gaze on her, feel herself willing a fascination upon him, and to her detached amazement, feeling his fascination grow.

It was nothing to her when they were walking past a nondescript van with stolen plates and clowns burst from the side door to throw them both inside. The man, to his credit, tried to place himself between the clowns and herself, but for his troubles he got an upswept elbow in the back of his head. He fell, stunned, to the floor of the van where the clowns promptly trussed him like a steer.

"I guess you did learn some Kung-Fu in class after all, babe," remarked one of the clowns. She didn't recognize him under the makeup. It was a rule that Cult capture teams were from other regions of the Cult's venue. "They told us you were useless in a fight. I guess they were wrong."

"Not much of a fight, coldcocking him like I did," she said.

"Yah, right," one of the other clowns said.

That evening as she drank her fill of blood from a victim she'd helped capture, she recalled the way that his eyes had followed her in the restaurant, and before the Priestess ripped his shirt down to gut him, it seemed to her that his eyes followed her still.

The thing that was making Lace crazier than any other factor was that she was accepted here among the people of the Cult. She had a social circle within which to move, and she had her social obligations, and responsibilities, and she had a day-to-day life among people she could really get to know in a more than transient sense... and the society she in which she was accepted was a society of vicious killers and criminals.

When she had been alone on the road, every face was the face of a stranger, every face could be the face of the person who would expose her as what she was. She had no sense of belonging.

With the California Cannibal Cult, she felt that she belonged.

She had almost come to grips with her condition, and had begun to make the moves which would eventually have brought her to adulthood and the conventional sanity of her kind. She had almost settled into a way of life where she could grow, but fate had other ideas.

The California Cannibal Cult was really just another of the traps the world lays for those who step outside of the herd. Cult members had, in fact, been ordered to cruise the various bars in search of fresh meat. They were not alone in that mode of victim recruitment. Pimps, drug dealers, mere sex addicts and serial killers also stalked the bars.

Lace had been with the Cult for eight months now, and her devotion to the Grand Shabbat had been noted and remarked upon by the local chain of command. She was moved into a "trusty" position, and as a result of her display of initiative and loyalty in returning to the fold with the proceeds from the otherwise unprofitable (indeed disastrous) Cali raid, was given a lot of free rein.

Her canines were loose. They felt as if they might fall out at anytime. She was very careful about flossing and brushing, but she had last felt this way right before she had lost her last baby teeth.

Lace hung out in the bars a lot these days, between assignments. The inevitable Cult spies assigned to keep a watch on her reported that she didn't drink at all (she'd learned her lesson with that green juice), didn't do drugs, and mainly sat and watched the videos. She was a remarkable source of information to the Cult, however, as her senses cut through the fake fog of the dance floor and the blast of the music to extract the whispers: who had what, what was going to happen where, when, how. The Cult began to make money off of her little gleanings of club gossip.

She was occasionally accosted by the sex addicts and the procurers. The drug dealers had early learned that she didn't do drugs at all, neither bought nor sold. They considered her to be an unknown quantity, not someone who could be manipulated by chemical lusts as could be those who chose to be their victims. The sex addicts generally got the idea quickly enough. They went off in search of more acquiescent game, and that left the pimps.

By now she was at least on a nodding basis with the regulars in most of the bars she frequented. Since she haunted only the post-punk/alternative scene, there was a considerable clientele overlap between the different bars. She was occasionally seen to go out of the bars with this person or that person, always neophytes to the scene, tourists and such. This led one Slicky Jam Nines to conclude that she was a free agent operating out of a turf he was making his own.

Slicky Jam was a bad Blood up from L.A. where things had gotten a bit hot for him. He had taken a few detours on his way here, interestingly enough having once ridden the Trailways bus exactly one connection behind Lace on one of her getaways. His little detour through Kansas and the Midwest had resulted in the negotiated settlements of several disputed turfs. His instructions from on high were to get out and stay out of the hitman business thenceforth, and to assume proprietorship of a thriving little business in San Francisco. This business required little more strenuous than occasionally roughing up one of his bitches who was holding out on him. He found that he liked to rough up the bitches. It gave him the same sense of power that shooting men gave him, without the attendant risks.

Slicky Jam sat down at the bar next to the girl. She didn't have a drinks stamp, so she had to be under twenty-one. (The Cult had gotten a dispensation from the management for her to be here. Her ID's were ancient history.) She was a fine one. He figured that she would bring him top dollar. Young, clean looking, nice build for a white girl. Yes, he decided, I will make her mine.

He was waiting when she turned down the alley to cut through to her pick up point. Slicky Jam had followed her for a few nights, and her routine was the same. Every night at closing, she left the bar, walking out into the night with her head up. He aimed to take some of that pride out of her walk. As a matter of fact, he figured that she wouldn't be showing her face in public for a week or so.

She turned the corner of the alley, and walked right into his fist. She was knocked right on her ass, her head bouncing off of the brick wall. Her reflex speed couldn't cope with a total surprise, and that fist was certainly a surprise. She hadn't expected it a bit, and she was completely stunned. She slid to the ground, a roaring inside her head blocking out everything else.

Slicky Jam kicked her in the head, twice. He made sure to hit her with the insteps of his soft-leather shoes, not wanting to damage his property. In Slicky Jam's mind, she was conquered already.

She tried to sit up, shaking her head, and he bent over and gutpunched her. She stopped breathing.

"Free agent bitch! You workin' fo' Slicky Jam Nines, now. You bettah give me one thousan' dollahs one week from tonight, ho'. I'm countin' on you. Don't be late, and don't hold out on Slicky Jam, or you gonna see the Nines!"

She tried to stand up, and he backed up. She made a halfhearted grab for him, but between the shocks of his punches and kicks, and getting the wind knocked out of her, she couldn't really muster up any decent speed.

"Don' even try it, bitch. You workin', you bettah have the money fo' ol' Slicky. Don' look for me, I find you." And with that, he was gone.

Thirty seconds later, her ride pulled up. The guys got out of the cheap old Ford and rushed to her side. "Who was it?" "What happened, Lace?" "We'll get him for you!" they said to her, and then they backed off from her as she spat twice, and smiled.

Both of her canines had been knocked out. She spat blood through the gaps, and said, in a peculiar whistling accent, "You won't get him for me."

"Sure we will," one said, "We always look out for our own."

She gave them a very odd look. "I said you won't get him for me!" Her voice was very flat, and given the odd whistling sound, somehow very alien. What she said next is what they remembered.

"This one's all mine."

Three nights later, it was again time for The Grand Shabbat. Lace was far to the front of the celebrants. She had arrived early.

When she had arrived at the converted warehouse that served as a Black Church, some of the Priests had offered to send her to a dentist, at Cult expense. She objected so strongly that they gave it up. They asked her what had happened, and she told them simply that she had been careless, and had walked into the arms of a crackhead mugger. It sounded quite plausible, and the people who had brought her back from the scene attributed her words to shock, and hadn't repeated them to the Priests.

At The Grand Shabbat, Lace drank copiously of the Satanic Sacrament, this time provided by a lawyer who had somehow gotten involved in the periphery of Cult business and had paid the final price for curiosity.

To Lace, this was truly madness. Taking out more-or-less solid citizens was incredibly risky behavior. The arguments for his sacrifice had been excellent; why risk him starting some sort of investigation? The counter argument was similarly excellent; what if the investigation had already commenced? It was a no-win situation, any way you played it. If there was indeed an ongoing investigation, and the instigator suddenly, tracelessly disappeared, the sudden influx of nosy cops would look like shift change at the precinct house.

She had more pressing matters on her mind, though, and her Hunger was one of them. She drank, and schemed, and fell to her knees like everybody else, and gave lipservice to the Horned God Below.

After the service, she was on her way to one of the ancillary celebrations, her presence having been requested by some of the more ranking members of her home coven, when she was stopped by none other than Aleister himself.

"Lace, child."

"Yes, Lord?" Aleister was called "Lord" by everyone in the Cult. "What can I do for you?"

"You seem to be so devoted to the Sacrament. I've never seen such righteous fervor." Aleister often talked like a TV preacher. Rumor had it that he had once been a divinity student. Rumor was right. He had been an honors divinity student until adult-onset schizophrenia had blasted him almost overnight. A bizarre conversion reaction complex had pushed him over the brink into his peculiar madness, and in the grip of a psychotic break, pursued by the voice of Satan, he had fled into the long night of the madness which gripped him still.

"I love the Sacrament, Lord."

"It is the Sacrament which binds us together in the furtherance of the glory of Satan," he intoned. "Willa tells me that she has talked long and hard with you, and tells me that you are a true believer."

Nothing could be further from the truth. Lace didn't believe in any gods, above or below. She believed in nothing, really. She was, in her own way, as mad as Aleister. All she really concerned herself with was her need to belong to something, anything, her need for diversion (the activities of the Cult and the intrigues of her cohort sufficed admirably), and above all, her need for the Sacrament.

"I believe, Lord."

"Willa tells me that you have learned all of the skills we've taught you very well, and I remember the gift you brought back when we smote the Cali men. You've come far in such a short time. That shows you have faith."

"Yes, Lord."

"When I see you drinking so deeply of the Sacrament, I can believe you to be truly possessed of the Spirit of Satan. You love the blood like a vampire... you almost could be one... but a vampire would never get her canines knocked out by a crackhead..."

Lace felt chills sweep through her. What would this madman think if he knew the truth? But he continued:

"Carry on, child. I am gratified to see one such as you in our midst. Willa will get the word that you are to be initiated into a higher rank, and given more responsibility, as befits one whose faith is so strong." He began to stare through her, and started to leave, his entourage in tow, then he paused, and said, "If you ever see the man who knocked out your teeth, let us know. He will sleep with the fishes."

"Thank you, Lord!"

She took that as carte blanche.

Slicky Jam Nines and two of the brothers were kicked back in the Buick. He would really have preferred a new Lincoln Town Car, tastewise, but there was a difference between stylin' and keeping a high profile. Too high a profile, and the cops would come sniffin', and Slicky Jam didn't need the cops in his scene right then. There was business to attend to, and the free agent white bitch was the business he had in mind.

She had better have his money. He saw no inherent conflict in imposing an unearned debt on Lace, she was after all just a bitch, and as of tonight, she would be his bitch. She would give up the money, and from then on she would give up the booty, when and where and how he liked. He personally intended to wear it out and break it in proper himself. The brothers in the car with him weren't just along for the ride, they were part of the training process. They'd get their turns.

Slicky Jam was enraged. How dare that gray-assed bitch work on turf that belonged to the one and only Slicky Jam? That until a month ago, nobody in San Francisco, with the exception of one very tired and overworked FBI agent, had ever heard of Slicky Jam Nines, well, the thought simply never occurred to him. The thought that she might be working an entirely different angle than he was never occurred to him, either.

There she was.

He instructed the brother behind the wheel, Mau Mau T.-Bomb, to pull over up the street, so that she would have to walk past them. Money paid or not, the bitch was getting the Slicky Jam special taxi. T.-Bomb did what he was told, and Lace strolled on towards them.

Lace was walking with a bit of a limp. Slicky Jam liked that. It swelled his ego to know that she was limping because of him, and he just knew that she would be walking bowlegged for the rest of the month, if not for life, after he and the brothers were done with her. She was almost abreast of the car, when Slicky Jam decided to make his move.

Slicky Jam Nines hopped out of the Buick, and took two steps up towards Lace. She turned, achingly slowly, towards him, and he grabbed her by the arm, none too gently, and pulled her off balance. He pushed her head down, and threw her into the car. He leapt in after her, and as the door slammed, the Buick pulled away from the curb with only the tiniest screech of tires.

In the car, Lace was sandwiched between Slicky Jam and Mustapha M.D. Mustapha had reached across her, effectively pinning her with his two-fifty pounds, and he had ahold of her arm, stretching it out before her. Slicky Jam saw the look of pure terror on the gray-assed bitch's face, and it purely warmed his cold, cold heart. He reached inside of his incredibly tasteless three-hundred dollar jacket, and pulled out a filled hypodermic. He removed the needle sheath with one practiced motion, and reached for her arm.

Her arm wasn't there. The right hand that Mustapha M.D. had grasped only an instant before snatched the syringe from his hand, and the girl twisted away from Slicky Jam, and she twirled the syringe for an instant, twirled it like a cheerleader twirls a baton, and suddenly it was held in her hand as a syringe should be held. She jammed the syringe into temple of Mustapha M.D.'s head with such force that the needle broke. It didn't matter, the stiff unbreakable plastic of the syringe barrel penetrated the skull's weakest spot, and convulsively, her thumb pressed home a thirty dollar bag of excellent brown heroin.

When the syringe left Slicky Jam's hand, it was only natural that his excellent street skills would have him reach right back into his tasteless jacket for the locked and loaded Glock-18 in the shoulder holster. It was coming out of his jacket as Mustapha M.D. began to jerk and claw at his head. Mau Mau T.-Bomb had snapped his head around to look at the action, and so it was that when Lace grabbed Slicky Jam's wrist and whipped the gun away from her to point into the front seat (not incidentally dislocating Slicky Jam's elbow) the business end of a nine-millimeter eighteen-shot handcannon jammed directly into Mau Mau T.-Bomb's right eye socket. The notoriously sensitive Glock discharged, blowing brains and skull fragments over the entire left side of the Buick.

The awesome pain of the dislocated elbow was just coming home to roost in Slicky Jam Nines' wicked little mind, when the car, coasting at about fifteen miles per hour, came to rest against a fire hydrant. The jolt caused the Glock to fire again, with the slug exiting through the steel of the car's roof. The two-ton Buick stopped directly atop the fire hydrant, which erupted in a geyser of city water.

Slicky Jam Nines jaw dropped open as he regarded the woman he had thought to own in superstitious awe. It didn't make him any less afraid that she was smiling at him. He had never seen a smile like that, not even when Texas Red Jones had gotten his throat slit by another pimp's whore. That whore had just smiled like the very devil until her head had been blown right off with a blast of double-ought buck.

This smile was even more frightening. The woman's lips had peeled back almost like a Doberman's lips, and he could see almost to the roots of her teeth, which were quite impressive. Between her incisors and her bicuspids were gaps, gaps he suddenly knew he had caused, and within those gaps were tiny emergent points of razor whiteness.

The smile never went away, as she said, "That was for knocking out my teeth. This is for making me angry..."

She crushed his right wrist, and again the Glock discharged as it fell from his hand. The bullet tumbled through Mau Mau T.-Bomb's twitching corpse, and a fresh spray of blood spattered the inside of the car, getting in his eyes, blinding him. He almost didn't mind. At least he couldn't see the smile anymore.

"And this is just for being you," she said sweetly, and slammed the palm of her right hand into his chest, directly over his heart, with such force that ribs shattered, sending shards of bone into his ventricles. As consciousness faded, she heard her say, above the sound of the Buick's door opening, "Remember me in Hell, asshole."

She was outside of the car, soaked clean by the water gushing from the smashed fire hydrant in an instant, and a battered old Ford suddenly whipped around the corner.

"Damn drunk drivers!" she screamed. "My dress is ruined!" She paused for effect. The gathering crowd didn't seem to notice that she had emerged from the other side of the car.

"Oh, Bobby!" she yelled as the Ford screeched to a halt, "Can you believe it? This guy just wrecked right next to me! Gimme a lift home, OK?"

She got into the Ford, and drove back to the coven house.

"Don't ever call me Bobby, Lace," said Roberto, as they drove. "And what the hell were you trying to pull, sneaking off to a bar like that? This was the fifth place we checked. I didn't think you'd ever come back here after getting mugged."

"Well," she said, "I don't think I'll ever come back again."

On the news that night was report of yet another episode of drug-related gangland violence. The commentator remarked that this one had been particularly bizarre.

Rumors of Cult activity had been circulating with that peculiarly Californian, almost Cassandran flair for accuracy on entirely unknown subjects. There was, at any given time (considering that California held almost one-sixth of America's population), a very high probability that anything imaginable was actually happening. The story was (and had been, for about twenty years) that the Manson thing had only been the tip of the iceberg. Rumor further elaborated that Satanism was rife at all levels of the State Government, and that everybody had best lock up their sons and daughters.

The suggestion about locking up one's sons and daughters was a general appendix to almost any California rumor regarding almost anything, from voter-registration drives to reports of endemic Plague flare-ups, but in this case, it was an excellent idea.

The Cult had embarked upon an expansion phase.

Within the post-punk/Wild-Youth subcultures, the Cult had gained a toehold on a scale unheard of since the Flower-Child/Peace Revolution's heyday. There were varying levels of participation within the movement. Most of the levels were pretty much out in the open, involving and co-opting Wild Youth only to the extent of petty crime, drug abuse, and general sloth and rejection of functional social values. The difference between Cult influence and a prevailing decline of society in general was that society's degeneration was random and undirected.

There was no lack of direction where the California Cannibal Cult was concerned.

The Cult, in an absence of functional, directed conspiracies, moved to fill the gaps.

There was organized crime aplenty in America, especially in the major cities of California. Much of Los Angeles had been a free-fire zone for close to a decade; rival gangs such as the Crips and the Bloods fought pitched gun-battles with each other and police. Automatic weapons were the order of the day. Strange technologies and methods had been showing up on the slabs of the various local Medical Examiners' establishments, a lot of these pretty much amounting to (in the eyes of very overworked forensic pathologists) voodoo.

Some of it was voodoo. Well, actually, it was voudoun, Haitian and West African homebrewed poisons finally making it out into the more-or-less mainstream of American black witchcraft. The baffled top cops didn't have a clue as to how to suppress this. They were waiting on policy from their legislatures and executives. The legislature and executives were as a rule blissfully ignorant of the activities of an insidious and ever-growing antimoral minority.

The Cult was determined, under the direction of its unholy leadership, to fulfill its Satanic directive. With the exception of crack cocaine, which it wisely left to the feuding Crips and Bloods, it first began to assume control of all lines of supply and distribution of recreational drugs.

The Cult had been moving towards that goal for some three years now, and had made great strides. They used an effective combination of the ancient Roman dictum of divide and conquer, as well as Lenin's Two Tactics of the Social Revolution, first sowing discord among rivals, then allowing the rivals to battle it out to the point of organizational collapse. Aleister was a great admirer (as are most successful generals) of Sun Tzu's "Art of War", and firmly adhered to the principle, "supreme excellence is displayed by winning without resort to battle". He thus took a leaf from Cadmus, throwing rocks among the Dragon's Teeth. When the smoke cleared, the Cult was there, with supplies and leadership for the tattered remnants of former distribution systems.

The Cult also began to establish preeminence in fencing operations. There they became a new force in organized crime, one which had a much stricter code than the old "Omerta" law of the Mob Establishment. To break the Sicilian law of silence brought dishonor and death to one, perhaps to one's family. The Cult operated in like fashion, but offenders got eaten, and mere fear and obligation couldn't compete with antimoral religious fervor.

Soon, the Cult was armed with weapons of unparalleled might and subtlety. The Cult had everything needed to co-opt anyone but a saint. Sex, Money, Ideology, Contraband, and Ego, the classic tools of the blackmailer and the spymaster, were all at their disposal, and there was always fear and degradation enough to go around as well.

The Cult was certainly not above terrorism of science-fiction scales and varieties. One of the initiates was a pharmacologist with a taste for esoteric chemicals. He had chemistry and production engineering skills to go with his tastes, and soon he was in charge of a large scale designer drug operation.

Doctor Diablo, as he came to be known, had read a bit too much cyberpunk science-fiction, and had heard of some very strange chemicals. Among things he produced were synthetic adrenochrome and adrenotinin, which are structurally related to the mescaline-class hallucinogens. Adrenochrome normally was a transitional chemical in the healthy person, a breakdown byproduct of adrenalin. In certain disorders, adrenochrome built up, and was long ago discovered to be a chemical basis of paranoia and schizophrenia.

He also produced shellfish toxin, incredibly deadly stuff, and tetrodotoxin, the famed puffer-fish poison of Haitian zombi lore; other deadly poisons were also produced, not the least of which was succinylcholine chloride, similar in action to curare. He produced vast batches of beta-carboline, the neurotransmitter of raw terror, and mixed with the adrenochrome, this was a major instrument of psychological warfare, pure terrorism and vicious Pavlovian mindfuck.

He had bubbling fermentation vats producing botulinum and salmonella toxins, and other biologic toxins. He didn't do anything truly insane like breeding up antibiotic-resistant or high-transmissibility biologic weapons. He wanted weapons that went where directed, and plagues are notorious disregarders of borders and uniforms.

Doctor Diablo truly deserved his name. He was a member of the privy council of the Cult, a member of the war council, and he was a High Priest of Satan.

Doctor Diablo was one sick fuck, and unfortunately, he was also genius level, very well read, and very well connected to a lot of other devious assholes. Most of them were not at all in any way associated with the Cult, but were mere social misfits, outcasts, and hopeless pencil-necked computer geeks.

Some of these were international-access hackers, and from them he gleaned vast amounts of information concerning police methodologies, data-surveillance and LEAA/NCIC information sharing protocols.

One of the most endearing (to him) aspects of his stable of geeks was the mild paranoia that they shared. The geeks tended to collect schemes and techniques worthy of addition to the repertoire of Doctor Diablo. It was the geek contingent who relayed to him the information on such lovely little techniques as mercury-soaking the insoles of people's shoes, diffenbachia poisoning, and sprays of LSD and DMSO. The geeks uploaded and downloaded encrypted and ZIPped files containing reams of such information, which the geeks collected like a packrat collects nuts and bolts. The geeks never, except in their wildest fantasies, expected to use this information in any way whatsoever, and didn't expect anybody else to use it, either.

The California Cannibal Cult, by decree of the Prophet, Aleister, and through its minions, furthered by its resident black warlock, Doctor Diablo, used it. The Cult found uses for it all.

Doctor Diablo had been responsible for the green concoction that had held Lace immobile when she was inducted into the Cult's stable of bitches. It contained 3-propyl,3,4-methyl, alphamethylphenylethylamine (PMDMA), his own evil modification of "Ecstasy", and it also contained thiothixine, a major tranquillizer, as well as a tiny hint of beta-carboline, "The Fear", all in a licorice Pernod base. It had the effect of rendering a person quiescent, euphoriant, and quietly apprehensive. The combination of drugs and ritual betrayal-by-a-fellow-female and concomitant gangrape had, he found, an excellent shattering effect on feminine personalities brought to the edge of madness by the Grand Shabbat. He had once amused himself greatly by researching the psychology of brainwashing, and had begun to apply his knowledge to the instinctual techniques used by Aleister's original Cult. It had been quite effective, as he had known it would be. This in no small part was responsible for his current high standing with the Cult.

Lace was given an assignment. There was a certain private detective who seemed to be making it his business to investigate a string of heists deep in her home coven's domain, and she was to attempt to worm her way into the background of his investigations, and lead him astray.

Nobody had been able to find out just who he was working for, but one thing was evident. He had extremely big money backing him.

He was checked out via modem, and it developed that his license was less than a year old, and all inquiries on such matters as driver's license and service record came up with big fat zeroes. Well, he had a license, and a car registered in his name, and a DBA/TA certificate, and an office lease on file at City Hall, but it seemed that he had paid cash (or somebody had), he had no points on his license, and suspiciously enough, no birth or service records could be found, and the licenses and leases came up with very similar issue dates.

He was obviously some kind of hired gun of no discernable origin. Aleister was all for him making the Sacrificial Rites in big way, and all of his advisors agreed (not wanting to fill in for the mystery dick), but suggested a more thorough investigation. So Lace was given a fashionable haircut, and a jogger's disguise, and sent out, along with the rest of her coven, to make the man go away, if at all possible. The advisors didn't want to make him disappear at all, despite Aleister's wishes. The heat that would be generated by making this man the Hornless Goat would be awesome, and at this crucial phase, so close to a real chance at achieving the Unholy goal of total social penetration and secret domination, such heat was better deflected than withstood.

Lace thus came in contact with Doctor Diablo's Demonic Drugstore.

"This," said Willa, "is The Fear. About this much..." She shook into her hand a soft-looking little ball, which looked for all the world like a tiny pill from inside a cold capsule. It was a nondescript grayish-buff color, exactly the color of fog or ground-haze, or for that matter, most interior wall paint. "This is just enough to cause apprehension. One more, and you get anxiety. Another, and you get, ummm... free-floating paranoia. Five or so and you get panic reactions. The whole point of this stuff is to keep a certain continuous dose level, not enough so that the person is unable to avoid concluding that they've been dosed, but so that the effects are subliminal. You do know what subliminals are, don't you?"

"You mean like flashing stuff on TV screens?"

"Lace, that stuff really doesn't work. But subliminal, or unconscious, perception is what really makes most of us tick. Subliminal means 'below the surface', and if you've ever found yourself turning to face into the breeze to smell what later became noticeable as chocolate, you were motivated by subliminals." Willa paused, and added, "This is secret knowledge, here, and we like it that way, because if you understand this, and a few other things, you will always be in control of your own mind. If you are aware of these things, it can be almost impossible for you to be hypnotized or brainwashed. Most of our people will never know this stuff, and that's the way we want it, but you've shown time and time again that you're a loyal true believer, and so I will take this risk. Never tell anybody I told you what I will now tell you, just don't even tell them anything about it. This is Priestess shit.

"The whole point of this stuff is that you can't ever let a target know that they're being dosed. That's absolutely essential. If a person knows that you're trying to manipulate them, they'll fight. If they fight, you've blown the whole thing."

"Well, how do you keep them from noticing?" Lace asked, "I mean, what do you do, put it in their drink?"

"Nobody falls for that, Lace."

"I did, Willa." Lace somehow kept reproach out of her voice. She had come to accept her role as a coven-slut as had most of the bitches.

Willa didn't look in the least apologetic. "Nobody falls for it twice. We have a better way, well, a bunch of them, like darts, aerosols and topical-absorption sprays, or these hardened-sucrose injection spikes, but when you don't have tools, or can't afford the risk of being caught with tools, you do this..."

Willa showed her.

Lace was amazed. It was so simple, really, that she wondered why she had never thought of it.

"It happens all of the time, it's just that the way you do it, it's designed to not attract attention. If you weren't looking for it, you'd never see it, and even if you look for it, you can't really see it, you can just infer it..." Willa was smirking.

"OK," she continued, "here're some more. Lessee, we got The Fear, we got Reward, two kinds, Silly and Jabber. Silly is kind of your basic euphoriant, MDA, and Jabber is a mix of amytal and pentothal sodium. Also we got Good Boy, and that's a little bit of procaine and cocaine, and Thorazine. You really ought to use Good Boy first, it relaxes the target, and stimulates, and anesthetizes the nostrils so that the impacts don't register. Most of these also contain magnesium pemoline, which is sort of like an amphetamine, without a noticeable buzz, but it accelerates the learning process, and deepens conditioning activity.

"We got various types of trips, and we got Sleepy, which is some stuff called Fentanyl. I hear it's the recreational drug-of-choice for anesthesiologists. Incredibly strong for the weight."

Lace was dumbfounded. She had no idea that things like this were possible, and she hung on every word.

"Where," she asked, breathlessly, "did you ever learn this?"

Willa told her, "In European tradition, it's casting spells, ya know, cast, like throw? In African/Haitian tradition, it's a coup l'aire, translates as "striking through air". It's common enough throughout almost all cultures. I guess your people didn't keep dogs..."

"Nope. What do dogs have to do with it?" Lace was quite baffled.

"Dog people do it to dogs. Haven't you ever heard the term, 'dogging somebody'? A dog can understand a beating, and might bite back if beaten too often. But this is magic to them. It's magic, too, to anyone who doesn't know what's going on! So just be subliminal about it, and never get caught, and if you're caught, never ever admit it! Act as if your accuser is crazy for even thinking such a thing. You could always ask them, scornfully, if they believe in witches... You'd be surprised how seldom you'll get caught, and how plausibly this sort of thing can be denied." Willa had that look Lace had come to read as a gloating in the secret knowledge of Satan's Priestesses. "Don't you remember, Lace, that I told you we're destined to triumph because the fucking sheep just couldn't conceive of most of the things we do and love?"

Lace had to agree. She'd have never thought of such a thing herself, and could scarcely believe it was possible, even though she now knew how to do it herself.

Willa concluded, "Behold the power of Evil."

And Lace must respond, "Behold our might."

Behold the power of Evil she did, indeed.

The mystery detective was targeted by the entire coven.

Willa had showed her how to sew little compartments into the hems of her clothing, into the cuffs of her jacket. Each little compartment had a different dose. In the unbelievably unlikely event that some cops tried to shake them down and knew what they were looking for, a simple flip of the hems, a ripping of a few strategically placed stitches, a brushing off of the clothes, and all evidence would be gone, drifting on the breeze, or mixed indistinguishably with carpet lint.

The detective had been nosing around in another of the Cult's wards, and had actually been staking out some of the members, but he had never before laid eyes on the thirteen people who surreptitiously walked, jogged, skateboarded and biked past him.

Once, at a constriction in the sidewalk, Lace had biked towards him, passing within a foot or so. As she passed, she rolled a two-inch length of drinking straw out of her cheek, and blew the powder in it through pursed lips at the man, and got him dead in the eye. Doubtless he discounted the grit (if he noticed it at all, subliminalism again!) as street dust thrown up by the wind of Lace's passage. But soon the effects of the doses she'd delivered combined with the others' efforts, and the man got nervous.

As time went by, he began to make stupid mistakes, creeping idiocy beginning to replace his once flawless technique. By the end of a week, he was glancing over his shoulder constantly. Within two weeks he was afraid of his own shadow, and Lace was prominently and beautifully visible in as many of the scenes as she could manage. He would get dosed on his way into a bar, hot on a tail, and Lace would be there, showing as much leg as was legal. She didn't try to get close to him, she just remained in his peripheral vision.

He would be staking out a park bench in a bum disguise, and she would be there, halfway across the park, at about a thirty degree angle away from the objects of his surveillance, but well within his field of vision.

She had picked up a book by none other than B.F. Skinner, of "Skinner-Box" fame, and had done some research into techniques of operant conditioning. Everything (well, all of the bare bones, anyway) Willa had taught her was there. In her opinion, Pavlov and the others had just formulated ancient knowledge into rationalistic terms. She was, like Willa, exulting in the power of her simple, easy, extraordinarily do-able technique for driving someone mad.

He'd be in the park on his stake out, and she'd be there... and one of her coven would fly by and dose the poor fuck, who was by now (though dedicated as hell, or he'd have long been gone) addled enough so that he never made the association with his fucked-over state of mind and thirteen people who by now should have been familiar faces to him. She would wait until he was obviously starting to lose it under a massive dose, and then she would start doing stretching exercises, or something just slightly out of the ordinary (but not enough to really attract attention).

After almost a month of this, her mere arrival on the periphery of whatever scene he was investigating, accompanied by much yawning and stretching was enough to unnerve him, and he never once obviously associated her with his discomfort.

Lace wasn't aware that another coven, also from a different part of town, was feeding him all sorts of disinformation, leading him on wild-goose chases to get him where her coven would weave its weird about him.

The detective finally had all of this he could take. He left town, the Cult able to follow him only through the first two blinds of an elaborate but very effective retreat scheme. Two Cultists had bitten on poison teeth when people covering the detective's escape trail had trapped them, and with those Cultists dead, the covermen also bolted, along different escape routes of their own.

"I need something to read, Willa," Lace remarked one evening.

She was fresh and replete. A Grand Shabbat had been held the night before, and the crooked cop they'd made Sacrament of was well and truly disposed of, and the celebratory needs of the male coven members had been attended to with her usual workaday dispatch.

The Shabbat had been a truly huge thing, being only one of four that she had heard about. The one her coven had hosted had been celebrated by almost one hundred fifty people, and there had been eleven new Fellows in the Sacrament, and three failed pilgrims, who had promptly become turkeys. There had been more blood than she could drink. She had wanted to put some in a jar in the fridge, but Willa had drawn the line at that.

"Zeal is all well and good, Lace, but you're carrying this vampire bit too far. You know we can't have evidence left after a Shabbat... You know, that's how the whole thing got started, don't you?"


"Jeeze, you're dense sometimes, Lace," Willa admonished. "At first it was a way to get rid of the evidence after a sacrifice. The Goat got chopped up and fed to the dogs. Then Satan revealed to Aliester that the celebrants should eat the Goat. Can't buck the word of Satan, now can we? And it does leave a whole lot less to dispose of after we're done... plus it saves on the grocery bills."

Sometimes Lace suspected that Willa had seen one too many episodes of the Addams' Family. Lace was far, far over the edge now, and could not be said to have any scruples or morals other than the codes set down by the Cult. She was close to the center-core of the oldest members, and she was so far removed from the ways of mainstream society that she could not even be called a sociopath. Perhaps she could especially not be called a sociopath, because she was actually, by the lights of the society that had taken her so far into its hideous bosom, a first-class, upstanding citizen.

She obeyed all of the laws of the Cult, submitted meekly to the will of her self-acknowledged superiors, gave her best performances when requested. She was the epitome of all that the Cult one day wished to become. As the Cult was first and foremost a religious organization, she was also prime citizenship material because of the zeal she displayed... for one thing, she never missed a Grand Shabbat. You couldn't drag her away from one.

So Willa gave her a break from coven chores (today it was filing the serial numbers off of a hijacked shipment of automatic assault rifles) and told her to go on down to the city library.

She checked out the science-fiction section, read a few fashion magazines, and then wandered aimlessly around the library for awhile. She was about to leave when she saw the Hanes CrissCross index.

The Hanes CrissCross is an invaluable tool for those who want to get unlisted numbers. One can look up numbers in sequence, and see how they are scattered across a city. One can also look up by name, the same as in a phone book. One also has the option of looking a number up by use of the address, and right in front of Lace was, among the other cities, the Hanes CrissCross for the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC. She picked it up.

She picked up the back issues, as well.

She found the 1991 listing for her family home, unlisted by name, but listed by phone number and by house number. She checked the following year. Same thing. In 1993, the current issue, there was a new number at the house, and the old number was taken entirely out of service.

She replaced the books, and went to the microfiche index. The Washington Post was one of the indexes that was on-line at this branch, and she looked up the codes for missing persons, abductions and unsolved crimes.

Under unsolved crimes, close to 4000 murders came up. The DC police had only a fifteen percent conviction rate over the period 1988-1993, and so she looked up and added a code that eliminated "drug-related" killings from the search parameters. It took her awhile to figure it out, but the instructions were quite clear, and though rusty, her high-school computing skills came back to her.

She narrowed the parameters of her search, and finally, a set of citations came up that were usable. It led her to the microfiche cabinets, and to the readers.

She found herself looking into a screen occupied by a Post article, and a picture of her own face, from her sophomore yearbook.

She had turned up missing after leaving a concert at the Capital Center Arena, where she had been with friends, and had inexplicably vanished on a trip to the bathroom. It had been a particularly baffling case to the police, and it had happened on one of the bloodiest weekends in Prince George's County, Maryland's police records. The closest thing to a lead was the body of a man, found with his throat gashed open near the Capital Center. Police had been attempting to catch several serial rapists, and at least one serial killer in the greater DC Metropolitan area, and it was presumed that whoever had killed the man, evidently with a door handle ripped from the victim's car (indicating great strength) might have had something to do with the girl's disappearance.

Later articles followed up the puzzling lack of leads, and one final human-interest note interviewed her family, who had given up hope, blamed it all on DC's escalating violence, and were moving permanently away from the area.

Lace shelved the microfiche, which she had handled carefully only by the edges, and decided that she would now return to the coven. She also decided that if she should ever want to, she could also go home.

The cult was in the process of being well and truly hit, and hit hard, even as Lace was looking at her high-school yearbook photo. It seemed that the crooked cop so recently sacrificed had been a crooked cop with a bad heart. The Priestess who had found his pacemaker had not said anything to anybody, but had saved it from the evidence disposal team, possibly with the idea of fashioning a never-ending power supply for her Compact Disc player.

The implantable plutonium-fueled permanent power supply is not intended for use with portable entertainment appliances. The internal regulator promptly burned out. The Priestess wasn't thinking any too well, possibly as a result of years of eating fellow Californians, or perhaps a bit of oversampling of Doctor Diablo's strange brews. She simply dropped the power supply into a nearby trashcan.

When the trashmen picked up the device, they threw it and its forty-five grams of plutonium into the back of the trashtruck, where it was duly crushed, rupturing the containment wall. The plutonium, at about 500 degrees C, promptly oxidized, spreading highly carcinogenic and extremely radioactive plutonium oxide everywhere in the trail of the truck.

In the wake of the abortive Desert Storm war, as a precaution against the nuclear device importation threat, certain military and public satellites had excellent radiation detectors.

The cop, had he died in a hospital, or even been killed on his beat, would have not set off a radiation detector, but the Medic Alert tattoo above his heart would have informed medical personnel that there was a dangerous alpha source buried a mere four centimeters beneath his right shoulderblade. The power pack would probably put out enough juice to run a pacemaker for four lifetimes. They were quite commonly recycled... but the plutonium within could last 1000 lifetimes, and a bizarre rumor had circulated since the devices had become common.

The Rumor was that there were terrorists within the US who were hijacking pacemaker implantees as a source of plutonium for homemade nuclear devices.

The radiation detectors on two satellites, and one airborne Tac helicopter went off, and no less than five Federal agencies moved rapidly to contain the damage.

Lace had unwittingly taken the bus to the library even as the trashtruck crushed the plutonium powerpack, and loosed a kind of devil the Cult wasn't expecting at all.

Lace rode the bus right past the coven house. They were almost there, when it became obvious that there was something really unusual going on near the coven house. There were, first of all, cops everywhere. The bus was stopped a block short of Lace's destination, and the driver was ordered to turn aside, and to follow a certain route out of the area, and to allow no passengers to disembark until he had reached such-and-such an area. The cop gave no further information, but beyond him was a city Hazardous Materials team, and a few other, differently colored, but identically isolation-garbed teams. The bus driver got the message quickly.

Lace took the bus to a transfer point, and amid much complaining and querulousness on the part of her fellow passengers, disembarked. She had an idea that if there was that much police action in her neighborhood, it would be just a matter of time before the coven house got raided.

Even as that thought crossed her mind, so it was.

The trashmen had told the cops that they had gotten their first load of trash from the big dumpster behind the converted warehouse that creepy bunch of religious nuts had bought, and the cops dutifully told the Feds, and one of the Feds had heard The Rumor. A SWAT team in full biochem antirad isolation gear had swooped down on the coven house.

As it happened, Willa had just locked a clip into one of the AK-47 knock-offs that she'd removed serial numbers from, and when the first cop pounced through the door, well, she let him have it. The rest of the covenmembers who were at home ran into the workspace just in time for a full dozen US Marshals to let them, and Willa, have the full benefit of their state-of-the-art weapons.

The senior Fed shook his head. He had wanted someone to question. It looked as if it would take a full forensics team just to sort out which parts belonged to whom.

Across town, Lace yanked a doorknob off of a phone closet door. She stepped inside, and found concealed within the undisturbed wall conduit, close to a million dollars in twenties and fifties. She began to load her backpack.

She took a flight to Malibu, and holed up in a smaller town outside of the famous resort and movie-star colony. She went through all of the motions of looking for work, and even went so far as to get a phone line installed, and she rented a post office box. She took an incredible risk.

She was suddenly without her Family. She was afraid (and rightly so, from the news reports) to attempt any Cult contacts. The FBI was fully involved now, and besides all of the weapons, all sorts of grisly little mementoes of the Cult's anthropophageous nature had begun to turn up. Willa hadn't really done a thorough enough job of evidence disposal, after all; certainly nothing that could hide from the full scrutiny of the FBI. So far they hadn't found Doctor Diablo, Aleister, or any of the Most High Council. They were just beginning to unearth the web of underground highways that contraband, money and lives had travelled.

Lace had no security. She had money, but she had lived so long without money that she had to consciously remind herself to not shoplift when getting groceries. She missed her friends, missed Willa and her weird, morbid outlook on life, missed even the casual use of her body by anyone who wanted it, and most of all, she dreaded the loss of the Grand Shabbat.

She hadn't had to hunt for herself for over a year. She had killed once in that time, but that was no clean hunt, that was a spasm of revenge, and the men she had killed had come looking for trouble and had surely found it.

She needed familiarity. She needed structure. She was crazy as a loon, and needed the steady rhythm that even life with a cult of psychotic cannibals had provided. She needed a home.

She did what she could to find one.

Insanely, she called and made inquiries as to the availability of her birth certificate. It turned out that she could get it sent in the mail, twenty dollars by money order, thirty-five if she had it Express Mailed to her. She got the address, and sent the money order off.

She also bought a plane ticket.

Two weeks later, she and her birth certificate, which she had taken from the mailman in front of the house and with which she'd exited through a rear window, were treated to a wonderful view of the Nation's Capital over a sunrise-gilded Potomac River.

First, she stayed at the Hotel Marifax, one of the town's cheapest digs, and then she found herself living at The Dives' Motor Lodge. The Dives' was pretty damned cheap, and rightly so. She kept her money in a backpack in a Metrorail Station bicycle locker, which was a good idea, since there was gunfire outside her window almost every night, and the smell of crack cocaine drifted through the halls of the hotel. She rarely went outside, and had food sent up from the motel restaurant. The food was not the best, and was ridiculously overpriced.

She had been able to secure for herself a set of fake ID, which had her real first, and a fake last name, very convincing work, with fake numbers and everything. She set about enrolling in a night-school class, and applied herself to completing her GED. A course was offered at the George Washington University Campus, and she enrolled. She had once been studious, and it was not difficult to pick up on most of the stuff, but the math part of it eluded her. Her logical gears were quite stripped as a result of giving lip-service to a madman's god, and the inconsistencies of her existence for the past year, which she had learned to adapt to and to internalize, set up irresoluble dichotomies within her mind.

There was a youngish, well, young thirtysomething man who was available after the structured part of the GED course for tutoring. It was very popular for young urban professionals to do volunteer work with the innercity folks who by and large constituted adult literacy and GED classes. It just happened that he was assigned to be her tutor, and she found herself asking him questions about logical operation, truth tables, and such more than she did about the math... He was sort of nonplussed by the seeming non-sequitoriality of her queries, but his answers seemed to help her do the math faster and more accurately. He didn't realize the double-entendre nature of her questions, and he didn't know that the reason she was so slow at the math was that her mind was occupied with vast tiers of truthtable matrices, each sorting against the others, and sorting against themselves.

She was quiet, and dressed like so many of DC's college-age set, wearing black shapeless sweatpants and lumpy sweaters, and she affected, as did so many about town, the style of only letting an occasional finger or thumb protrude from her oversized sleeves.

Her questions were direct, and pointed, and somehow, she never really interrupted, but if the instructor should pause, she would wedge her voice into the gap, to draw out the teacher on any point she didn't quite understand.

Her math grade had been pretty bad at the beginning of the six-month course, which is how she had come to his attention. She was, by Ron's lights, probably just another case of DC poor white trash, drug casualty most likely, probably with an alcoholic father or boyfriend who beat her regularly, to judge from the way she sort of slunk into the room last and dashed out of the door first. The impression was heightened by the way she sat at the very back of the class, and sort of huddled into her text and notes. Her reluctance to raise her hands was another indicator, and Ron was surprised by the depth of some of the questions she asked him when she was finally assigned to him.

So Ron answered her little questions about logic, and puzzle solving, and found that she learned very rapidly, and every time he gave her an intellectual stratagem for problem-solving, she would apply that stratagem anyplace it could work. Towards graduation time, she had gone to the head of the class on math scores, and still she sought him out, asking always for some little mental trick or another.

He had come to look forward to talking to her, to hearing her soft voice speaking from between barely parted lips. That was something he had seen before, a lot of these poor white folks had only ever had miserable dentistry. It was a sad comment on the state of socialized medicine that for the poor, the only dentist to be had was often the dentist at a reform school. It was the little monster who had the perfect teeth. Well, if she didn't have a pretty white smile for him, there was always appreciation for his efforts and willingness to tell her what she seemed to so desperately need, ways to think clearly, concisely, rigorously. He admired that need, for he had long believed that most people's problems stemmed entirely from an inability to think clearly. He had his reasons for thinking that... He often caught her looking at him when he was trying to drive home a point with the use of diagrams and much handwaving, and the look in her lovely turquoise eyes was worth all of the effort. Then she would look quickly, shyly down at the diagrams, and begin to ask her questions. Her questions were ever more precise, ordered, cogent.

He decided not to tell the main instructor that this young woman didn't really need him anymore. He was growing too fond of her and her shy ways, and the questions she asked intrigued him. Where would a young thing such as she was, evidently living in some privation, acquire an interest in logic? Logic had been one of his favorite subjects in college, complimenting as it did his major in computer systems.

He began to be a bit obsessed with her, looking forward greatly to their thrice-weekly meetings, and as he looked at her, he fancied that he could detect within the shapeless concealing garments a rather fine form. Certainly, she was neither too skinny nor overweight. He began to concoct life-histories within his mind about her, and none of them really fit. His occasional attempt to draw her out on the subject of her life met with either a blank look, or a quick change of subject. She was simply a mystery.

His obsession became infatuation, to the degree that Ron's chemistry allowed.

Ron had once been a very hip, happenin' kind of guy, in college, and had gotten way into cocaine, dealing his way through a few semesters, riding courier during the summers. He had gotten wind of a shipment, and having been at the time a bit of a rat and a weasel, had managed to get himself a big chunk of somebody else's big package. He'd picked up the needle from some of his hard-partying courier buddies, and had gone to a hotel room, shot up an ounce and a half of excellent quality coke over a few days, and had gone quite crazy when it ran out. Problems piled on top of problems very quickly then, and Ron was lucky to get out of it with no real incarceration, and with a prescription for a new major tranquillizer.

It didn't slow him down much, but it took care of the creeping paranoia that remained even after a month of no coke. It left him rather mellow, and easily abused, but it didn't affect his problem solving or programming abilities. In point of fact, though, it made him pretty much a crashing bore with no sharp emotions or impulses of any kind.

He had completed his degree after six years of basically slacking, and had gotten a very well-paid job at a major dataprocessing firm. He really didn't have much of a life though, and everything was routine.

Routine, routine, until he'd had an attack of the white man's burden, and had signed up to teach this course. The course administrator had loved his credentials, and had hired him more or less on the spot.

And now the routine of his life was shattered by this young mystery woman, with her rapidly sharpening mind and her love for logic. As much as the drugs would allow, he thought that he was falling in love. Perhaps it was a mere infatuation, or a drug-minimized shadow of infatuation, but he found himself really starting to care about something for the first time in years.

And soon, the class was there for its final meeting, and the tests were passed out, and Ron had the job of classroom monitor, trying to prevent cheating.

When the test were over, all of the students had passed in their tests, with the exception of Lace. She came over to him, sort of shyly huddled, some kind of fineness hiding within baggies, and she handed her test form in to him.

He looked at it for a moment, not sure what to say to her, and she spoke first.

"Ron... Thank you so very much. I don't think I could have made it this far without your help. You can't know exactly what wonders you've done for me... but I'll just say, you've done a wonderful job. Thank you so very much..."

He said, "You're quite welcome," and stood to shake her hand, and congratulate her, for she had really already passed with her last quiz, but he could see from the test which he'd helped compose that she'd be getting an A-minus for the math. He was quite unprepared when she gave him a big hug (and his suspicion that there was a very healthy young body beneath all of the swaddling was quite confirmed), and smiled her funny, closed-lipped smile, and those big green eyes looked deeply into him, and somehow, he felt her gratitude, and... something else.

He started to say something, but she backed up suddenly, and said, "I gotta go. Thanks for everything! Seeya!" and she nearly sprinted for the door, leaving him standing there slack-jawed.

She had requested that her certificate be mailed to a post office box, and when he finally got hold of her file, only to find that she had given no street address, the certificate had already been mailed. He figured that it was his luck doing him wrong again.

He hoped he might find her some night, somewhere around the university, but somehow he doubted it. Outside, it was the beginning of the April rainy season, and as he put on his coat and left to catch his bus, on the horizon, a storm was gathering.

Go to the Darkness Page. If you're reading the whole thing through, you can reach Part One from there.
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