Aphelion Issue 279, Volume 26
December 2022/January 2023
 
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The Devil Lit My Cigarette


by Penny Page




The hand came out of the dark, near my head on the right side, just within the boundaries of my peripheral vision. A man's hand, and in it a silver metal lighter. His thumb flipped the hood and sparked the flint in one fluid up-then-down motion. His lightly polished nail reflected the bar's dull light.

The flame hissed up, wavered, and then gathered strength, glowing steadily, demanding my attention. I turned my head toward it, an unlit cigarette sandwiched between my straight fingers, held a millimeter from my lips. The manicured hand brought the heat to the end of the nicotine stick and held it steady. I took a practiced pull, as effortless as sucking juice through a straw. The cigarette came to life.

As with any bar in Seattle, smoking wasn't allowed in here, but apparently this guy with the lighter didn't know that—or didn't care. I often sat with an unlit cigarette between my fingers as I drank. I liked the feel of the crisp white paper between my fingers: a comforting force of habit. I exhaled smoke at the ceiling. As long as the bartender ignored me, I intended to enjoy.

My eyes flicked to the guy's face: pale, clean-shaven, a biggish nose, arched ebony eyebrows, and black-brown eyes that reflected the lighter's orange flame. He slid onto the stool next to me. His wavy black hair was slicked back, covering the back of his neck and nipping at the white button-down collar of his shirt—a cool and sophisticated style. I turned back to my drink.

He closed the lighter, slipped it into the pocket of his black suit jacket and said, "By chance. Do you read, the oh-bit-chew-aries?"

I thought I'd heard every opening line ever concocted, but this was a new one. His voice was smooth and low, his pronunciation unhurried and soothing, like something sweet and slowly melting. A dose of the hypnotic.

I took a drag off my Marlboro and blew the smoke out through my nose.

"Yeah, sometimes. If the name sounds familiar, or if it's someone about my age. See if I know them from work, or whatever."

"And. Have any of them. Been of your acquaintance?"

"A few."

"Perhaps I know of them. What, were their names?"

What was with the macabre twenty questions? At first glance he had seemed promising, but now I was totally turned off. I gulped the last of my white wine, took a quick pull on the cigarette and snuffed it out on a folded napkin, ready to leave.

He raised one long finger to signal the bartender. "A pee-noh-gree -jhee-oh for the lady, please. Your best."

I considered. If he's buying the good stuff, what the hell. I shifted back onto the bar stool and took a good look at him. He was about my age, early-forties, and precisely groomed from head to toe. Oiled hair and buffed nails, a spotless coal-colored suit over a nuclear-white shirt and a blood-red tie. Polished black shoes with pointed toes, Italian-style. Long and lean and seemingly well-toned, he looked like he worked out. I imagined sinewy arms and legs, an abdomen ridged with muscle under the suit.

The bartender slid the drink in front of me, and I took a sip. Good stuff, much better than the house wine I usually drank. My new bar companion had gone quiet, and an awkward silence was building. Since he was buying, I decided to patronize him, despite the unappealing topic. "Why do you want to know about people who died?"

"I work. In the bizz-ness." He spoke in phrases, separating one sentence into two, as if savoring the words.

"Are you an undertaker?"

"Not, pree-cisely."

He smoothed his hair with one hand and checked himself out in the mirror behind the bar. A prima donna.

"My name, is Bah-tees-tah." He hissed out the middle syllable.

"That's an unusual name." Not that I cared. If we slept together, I wouldn't be seeing him again. I'm a one-night-stand kind of girl. By the time I was 19, I'd slept with 19 men. Nineteen and 19, that's why the number stuck in my head. Now that I'm 42, I've lost count, but more than 42. Probably twice that many. Maybe three times.

My Marlboros are my only monogamous relationship, my one true love. My doctor prescribed me a stop-smoking med, which I grudgingly agreed to try, but I doubt any little pill is going to get between me and my smokes. I've been on the med for three days, and so far the cigarettes are winning.

"Do you. Enjoy. The cin-e-maah?" my new companion asked, exhaling the last syllable.

"The movies? Yeah, sure." I had actually been an actor when I was a kid and lived with my mother in LA, and for a while after she died. In 1978, after Brooke Shields' success in Pretty Baby, my mother became obsessed with the idea of putting me in the movies. In 1985, when I was eight years old, she proclaimed herself my manager and commenced dragging me from audition to audition. For ten years she was determined to make me a star, no matter what it took. After she died, I tried for another ten to make it big, but except for one movie when I was twenty-two, I was never able to land many parts beyond cartoon character voiceovers or commercials for pasta sauce and cereal. Eventually I fled the sunny selfishness of LA for the gray anonymity of Seattle.

Aside from that, or perhaps because of it, I immersed myself in the movies. I've watched thousands of movies. That's how I spend my free time when I'm not drinking or screwing around. Although, in my opinion, most new movies suck. I prefer the classics like North by Northwest, The African Queen, or Some Like It Hot. But whatever, Mr. Slick has hit on a more agreeable topic than the obit -chew-aries.

"I enjoy older films," he purred. "The escapism. Is addicting. Don't you agree?"

This wine was addicting. I took another luscious mouthful. "Yeah, it's nice to tune out the world for a couple of hours."

"Would you care to accompany me. To my apartment? My home theah-tah is large. And well-stocked."

An apartment with a home theater? "Where do you live? In a penthouse?" I joked.

"Yhess. Around the corner. In the Fairmont Olympic. I occupy the top floor."

My eyebrows shot up.

"Are you. Fah-miliar with the Fairmont?"

I knew it well. A five-star, one of Seattle's best. Built in the roaring twenties, the Fairmont Olympic was a historic landmark and the grande dame of Seattle hotels. For those who preferred old-school elegance, and of course were willing to pay for it, the Olympic was the place to be. After I left LA, I used my connections to start a business booking accommodations and locations for movie crews coming from LA to film in Seattle. I'm their go-between, holding their hands as soon as they land at Sea-Tac. I'd booked many rich LA-types at the Olympic.

"I didn't know the Olympic had a penthouse." I'd been to the top floor of the hotel. It housed four luxury suites with fabulous views of the city and Puget Sound. Maybe he lived in one of those, although the cost would be astronomical.

"Yes. The thirteenth floor."

"The thirteenth floor?" I remembered the hotel as having only twelve floors. I'd never noticed a button for thirteen in the elevator, but many hotels superstitiously skipped the bad luck number thirteen in their numbering schemes.

As if reading my mind, he said, "The penthouse. Has a private elah-vay-tohr."

Going with him was reckless. He seemed a tad peculiar, and worst case scenario, a rich guy like him could snuff me out and easily cover his tracks with money. But I'd taken chances before, lots of them. My intuition, what I called my inner antennae, told me when to say no, and so far, I'd remained unscathed. Well, except for the bastard with the knife and handcuffs.

Plus, I was always on the lookout for bigger and better accommodations for my LA bigwigs, many of whom considered Seattle a cow-town. Proving them wrong was satisfying. I was paid a set percentage of every room I booked, the more expensive the room, the more my commission, so I was curious to see this penthouse. It could prove lucrative. What did I have to lose?

"Do you have popcorn?"

He barked a laugh and a gold tooth gleamed from the back of his mouth. "Whatever you wish." He paid the bill with a Benjamin, telling the bartender to, "Keep. The change," and then held my coat while I slipped into it.

Five minutes later the Fairmont Olympic's grand Italian architecture rose before us into the night. The hotel was lit from top to bottom, where stately columns framed the golden double-entry doors. The entrance plaza was an oasis, a masterpiece of botanical artistry; thirty-foot trees surrounded by clipped boxwoods, large-leafed tropicals and masses of purple lobelia cascading from ornate, waist-high planters, glowing lavender and green in the subdued under-lighting. A fountain misted gaily into the night air.

My eyes widened to take it all in as I drifted through the elegance, my body relaxing in response to the gorgeous decor. Being in the midst of such sophistication and style made me feel free and almost blissful, at least for a while. The beauty of the surroundings distracted me from my everyday reality, easing a continuous anxiousness that had recently been bubbling in my gut, a growing apprehension that my life would continue to be nothing more than a string of drunken one-night stands. Until I grew too old to care about the sex, at which point I'd be left with only my Marlboros and the numbing companionship of alcohol. The Fairmont's opulence momentarily diverted my thoughts from that encroaching future.

Two doormen, wearing captain's hats and navy-blue overcoats dotted with gold buttons, held the doors open for us. "Good evening, Mr. Mammon." I made a mental note of Batista's last name.

We swept into the palatial two-story lobby. Three massive crystal chandeliers sparkled from the high ceiling. Plush chairs and couches were grouped along each side of a wide carpeted walkway. We strolled through the lobby, side by side as though we were business associates, toward a sweeping marble staircase that rose and then split, each side curving majestically up and out of sight. We veered left at the base of the stairs, ducked through a curved doorway and into a short corridor with a slim elevator that I'd never seen before. The elevator doors were open. We stepped inside and he pressed the one and only button—13. The doors slid silently closed.

"Forgive me. I have been. Remiss. For not asking your name."

My given name was Jeanette Funk. "So ugly and plain," according to my mother. Jeanette was my father's choice, and he took off shortly after I was born, leaving my mother and me with nothing other than the last name of Funk.

But I never gave my real name to one-night stands. My acting name had been Dee McQueen. My mother came up with it hoping to play off the names of Steve McQueen (am I a relative, perhaps?) and Sandra Dee (with my blond hair and brown eyes I do look like her). Those two were big stars when my mom was a kid. She grew up watching them back in the '60s. Nowadays, I bet a lot of people have never heard of them.

"Dee McQueen," I said.

"Ah. Lovely."

"And you are Batista Mammon."

"Yhess."

"Are you from Seattle?" I already knew from his foreign-sounding name and his slightly accented pronunciations that he wasn't from around here.

"I am from no place, in par-tick-yew-lahr. I have lived. All over the world."

He lit a Tiparillo, a thin, mild cigar with a plastic tip. I knew them well. Marketed as a petite cigar for women, my mother used to smoke them. "Cigars, Cigarettes, Tiparillos," she'd sing-song before she lit one up. Certainly, Tiparillos were prohibited, as was any smoking in all hotel elevators. Perhaps when you had as much money as this guy, they let you do as you please. The slim cigar was scissored between his elegant fingers, the sweet smoke curling upward.

That's when I noticed his nails. They were long for a man, filed to slight points, and weirdly, painted black. Funny, I hadn't noticed that before. I could have sworn they were glossed with a clear polish. He saw me watching him and offered me a Tiparillo. I accepted.

When he lit my smoke, I saw that his eyes were brown, but not dark brown. They were hazel with ink-black pupils and when the light caught the serrations in the iris, flecks of orange-red flicked on and off like fireflies.

The elevator doors sighed open. He placed his hand on my lower back and we stepped into a softly lit foyer with an intricately patterned black-and-white marble floor. He took my wool coat and hung it in a closet with a door that blended invisibly into the wainscoted wall. Potted palms, the fronds touching well above our heads, sat one on either side of tall entry doors intricately carved with twisting tree branches. Were those snakes wrapped around the limbs? Mick Jagger's voice, softly singing Sympathy for the Devil, drifted from hidden speakers in the coffered ceiling.

"A Stones fan?"

"Yhess." He pressed a numbered code into a recessed keypad in the wall and the sculpted doors swung open. "This way. My dear."

We stepped into a room of such size and design, that I was forced to stop for several seconds just to take it all in. The place was massive, ballroom sized, much bigger and more opulent than the suites one floor below. To the left were at least six seating arrangements; oversized wingback chairs, sumptuous chaise lounges, vintage sofas with curved camel backs, each upholstered in velvet or silky stripes. One group was clustered around a fireplace with a head-high stone mantle. In the far corner, a black grand piano gleamed under a spotlight.

Nearer to us, a polished ebony dining table with claw feet and seating for twelve sat next to a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. Drawn by the view, I walked toward the windows. A swath of thick Persian rugs warmed the marble floor and softened my steps. At the windows, the Seattle skyline spread across the horizon like a fabulous painting, the buildings backlit, silhouetted against the blue-black night sky, the lights of the city flowing down Capitol Hill until they met the shoreline and the cold inky waters of Puget Sound.

He stepped up beside me. We smoked our Tiparillos in silence, enjoying the view, although I began to find the sweetness of the thin cigar cloying. I much preferred my Marlboros.

I gave a small jerk of my head to indicate the room behind us. "What? Couldn't afford a decorator?"

He huffed a short laugh. "But of course, I can't take credit for it. It is simply, my place of residence. For now." He paused a beat, and then said, "Shall we retire. To the theah-tah? I think you'll be pleased. With the movie selection."

He plucked the Tiparillo from between my fingers and ground it out with his in a cut crystal ashtray the size of a hubcap that rested in the middle of the ebony dining table. I linked my arm through his. "Let the show begin."

"Indeed."

He led me away from the wall of windows, back toward the black-and-white tiled entry and then to the left down a hushed hallway with more wainscoted walls. Twinkling floor lights illuminated the way as Mick's voice followed us overhead, "Hope you guess my name." We passed several closed doors until we came face-to-face with the last door. The end of the line.

He opened it and we stepped inside. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dimly lit room, but just as he promised, it was a home theater, square and windowless and the size of my entire two-bedroom apartment. An aisle split the space, descending gently from where we stood to the front wall, where a rectangular screen about a third of the size of a movie-house screen waited for its next audience. Four rows of half-a-dozen high-backed seats winged out from each side of the aisle. Nearest to us, four leather couches faced the screen. I guessed we'd have sex on one of them later.

The door sucked closed behind us and Mick Jagger's whine was swallowed by silence. Diminutive floor lights provided just enough light to see, and Batista Mammon led me down the descending aisle to the second row of seats. I sank into pillowy soft leather and leaned back against the headrest.

"You promised popcorn," I said.

"Yhess, of course. And another pee-noh-gree-jhee-oh, perhaps?

"Yes, please."

As soon as he left to make the jiffy-pop, I pulled my phone from my skirt pocket. Since my encounter with the stabbing handcuff bastard, I always kept my phone near me. I might be loose, but I'm not stupid. I used my thumbs to type B-a-t-i-s-t-a M-a-m-m-o-n on the small screen. My spelling may not be exactly right, but something should come up about a guy who has enough money to set up housekeeping in the penthouse at the Fairmont Olympic.

I was wrong. I scrolled page after tiny page of results. No mention of any high-powered businessman named Batista Mammon. Lots of references to Mammon being another name for the Devil. And Batista, meaning to dip. As in baptism, I suppose. My mind played with the words. Baptism of the Devil, or Baptized in the Devil's name, the flip side of baptized in God's name.

Suddenly, my inner antennae quivered. I felt like I was being watched. I scanned the coffered ceiling and the padded walls looking for video cameras, coming to the chilling conclusion that I was effectively trapped in a soundproof room. Who would hear my screams from in here? The walls seemed to close in. Just like the coat-closet door in the entry, the exit from the theater blended seamlessly into the wall. I couldn't make out where it was exactly.

The perfectly camouflaged door whooshed open, and I tucked my phone into my skirt pocket. Batista Mammon walked down the aisle holding a tall flute of pinot grigio in one hand, and a cut-crystal highball glass with a small amount of red liquid in the other. Sandwiched between his body and forearm, was a red-and-white-striped bag brimming with popcorn, just like what you'd get at the movies. He handed me the wine and then the popcorn, stepped over my high-heeled feet in his shiny pointed shoes and sat in the leather seat next to mine. I looked for a place to put my wine glass and found, of course, that the plushy chairs came complete with cup holders. As if on a timer, the door whooshed closed behind us.

"No popcorn for you?" I asked.

"I prefer. Simply my drink."

Which, to me, looked like a shot of cherry syrup. He pushed a button on my armrest and a cushioned footrest extended beneath my heels. I sipped the wine, and its dry fruity flavor settled my nerves. My antennae stopped quivering, dulled momentarily by the booze. I shoved some popcorn into my mouth and settled back.

"Were you, ev-ah an actor?" He took a swallow of his drink, his eyes trained on my face. The ruby liquid left a coating, like red varnish, on his lips and front teeth. The orange-red coloring in his eyes came and went as if pulsating.

His question surprised me. "As a matter of fact, I was." My antennae were standing again. "Why would you ask me that?"

"You have the looks. To be successful. In that bizz-nhess."

"Thanks." I really didn't want to talk about it. I had struggled desperately to break into the Biz, as everyone called it, especially after my mother died. I wanted to be a star, and I wanted it badly. I went after parts the only way I knew how, the way my mother had taught me, by sacrificing myself on the casting couch. When I was fifteen, she told me I had to get serious if I ever wanted to make it big, and while she never came out and told me to sleep with directors and producers, she encouraged me to do whatever they wanted. I knew what she meant. Alcohol, specifically white wine, helped me through it.

But that part of my life was over. At least the auditions were over. Getting drunk and sleeping around were habits I couldn't seem to break.

"I believe you will enjoy. This film. Vintage 2000." He raised a remote control and pressed a red button.

2000? Hardly vintage. A little up-to-date for my taste, but whatever, let's see what he's got for entertainment.

The opening credits rolled, and I couldn't believe my eyes. What in the hell? My stage name, Dee McQueen, flashed in front of us in white letters.

"Where did you get this?" I sputtered.

I tried to sit up and free myself from the seat, but the footrest got in my way. I lost my feeble grip on the bag of popcorn, juggling it with both hands until it escaped and bounced away, the weightless yellow puffs flying everywhere, skittering across the floor.

Batista Mammon's eyes remained focused forward as if nothing had happened. "Relax, my dear. Enjoy the show." The red syrup still lacquered his teeth.

A close-up of my 22-year-old face filled the screen. "Catch me if you can!" the younger me called enticingly. The camera panned wide as I ran down Huntington Beach, laughing, blond hair flying. It was my one starring role, a horror flick called Don't Let the Devil In. I received some recognition after it was released, and I thought I was on my way to stardom, but the final product wasn't anybody's idea of good movie making, and the attention quickly faded.

"You were quite good, you know. Now, please. Leave the theatrics on the screen. Enjoy your performance. With me."

"You set this whole thing up! Why did you bring me here?" My antennae were shivering. I pressed my heels down hard against the footrest, but the damn thing was locked in the up position. It wouldn't budge.

"I didn't bring you, my dear. You came. Of your own accord."

"Whatever!" I was pissed now. "What the hell do you want?"

He turned to face me. Ghostly light danced along the walls and glanced off the angles of his cheeks and chin. His face looked different than it had before, his nose was long and hooked, his chin sharp. "I enjoy your work. And I have, endless connections. You are more well-known, than you believe." He tipped his oiled head toward the screen. "Don't you still desire it, Dee? The fame. That should have been yours?"

A flicker of the old dream pushed into my mind, back when I imagined myself commanding the screen like the glamorous Hollywood legends: Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Mae West; the audience hanging on my every word. That dream had burned out long ago.

The film had progressed to the part where my character dashes through an underground maze running from the Devil. She rushes, panicked, down a long hallway, trying each of the many doors, but they're all locked. Finally, she comes to the end of the hall, face to face with the final door—just like we did in the hushed hallway outside this theater. Soon she'll discover that there's no way out. She's already trapped in Hell. My younger self screaming, "No, no, no!" reverberated from hidden speakers.

"What are you talking about?" I managed to keep the tremble out of my voice.

"I'm talking about freedom. The freedom to do, whatever you wish. As you can see, you were, and are, talented. And still. Seductively attractive." He grazed his long black nails across the top of my hand. I jerked away.

My performance in Don't Let the Devil In was good. It wasn't my acting that sank the film. It was a combination of nonexistent editing, poor marketing, and the fact that the executive producers were indicted for cocaine use and distribution shortly before the film's release. Cocaine was big back then.

And still, seductively attractive? Perhaps. I had retained most of my looks, no gray hair or significant wrinkles, although no doubt those would creep in soon enough.

As if reading my mind, he said, "Plastic surgery, is easy and effective. You can be, amazingly ageless. Imagine living your life gloriously—parties, money, fame, adoration. Your successes unheard of, unending. A future so triumphant that the Hollywood elite, those to whom you now pander for paltry commissions, will gaze at you with envy in their eyes. You can have anything you desire. But you, in turn. Must give me what I desire."

This whole scene would be funny if he weren't so creepy, and so predictable. I felt as though I was in an improv audition. "Let me guess," I said. "You can make it all happen if I agree to become your mistress-in-waiting. Your very own private on-call girl."

He threw himself back against his chair, raised his chin to the ceiling and howled with laughter, his mouth open wide, his scarlet lips stretched back from his reddened teeth. An unmistakable heavy copper odor drifted from his mouth—the smell of blood. I suppressed an urge to gag.

His black lacquered fingernails pressed against his chest. It took me a second to realize that he was laughing so hard he could hardly catch his breath, roaring at the suggestion of me being his mistress.

"Well, what then?" I demanded, cringing away from him and the stink of blood. "What the hell do you want from me?"

He sat up and wiped his eyes which now seemed to glow like red-hot coals. "Do you know. Who I am, my dear?"

"You said your name is Batista Mammon." I replied. "But who knows if that's true."

Batista Mammon smirked. Why did his legs look longer? And his teeth?

"You Googled me. You know. My identity."

Just as I thought. When he was gone getting popcorn, somehow, he had been watching me. He knew I'd looked him up.

"You should also know I didn't find anything." I retorted.

"Oh, but you did. You found it all."

"You mean that stuff about the Devil?" The movie had gone quiet, the screen dark. He stayed silent next to me, his body in shadowed darkness, except for his glowing ember eyes which were trained on me. All over my body, goosebumps rose. This whole thing was very wrong.

He spoke low, "The world is yours. If you want it. You know what I want."

"My soul?" I asked, managing to hide the angry sarcasm I was feeling.

He nodded. "Exactly." And without a trace of irony or humor, he added, "It is all up to you, of course."

This nut-job actually thinks he's the Devil. Even though this rich bastard was obviously unhinged, wouldn't it be nice if it were true? I'm forty-two, a grown woman in every sense of the word. I never had a husband. Never wanted one. Married with children wasn't for me. And in my heart of hearts, didn't I still want to be a movie star? To have all the money and the adoration that went with it? That kind of triumph, after all I'd done to try to achieve it, would be more satisfying than all the drunken sex in the world.

Regardless, however, it was time for me to make my exit. This snaky dude with the bloody breath, no matter how rich, now held no allure for me. But how do I get out of here without agitating him? I didn't want to have to fight him off. I'd have to remain calm and slowly, carefully, extricate myself from this freaky premier. Like stepping through a mine field.

And then he said, "Jeanette. I know your mother. Pa-trees-ee-ah."

I shivered as the fine hairs on my arms and up the back of my neck, thousands of tiny antennae, rocketed to attention.

"My mother is dead." I said, and almost added the word "asshole," but decided to hold my tongue. I still needed to get out of here.

"Yhess."

"Well then, how do you know her?"

"Because of what she did to you. When you were a child. Farmed you out. For fame and money."

"How would you know anything about that?" He had to be making this up.

He threw back his head and laughed again, this time a rough yack-yack. His incisors were long and sharp and red from the drink. The smell was sickening. "Where shall I start? How about when your mother said, 'Time for you to grow up, Dee.' You were fifteen, after all. Your career was going nowhere. By the time Brooke Shields was your age, she was already a star."

He was right. Those were my mother's exact words, "Time for you to grow up, Dee," and comparing me to Brooke Shields had really hurt. She explained to me that success in the Biz was based on who "made love" to whom. Made love; what a joke. She took me to the doctor, got me a prescription for birth control pills and made sure I took them. By that time, I'd already had sex with my boyfriend, so I knew what to expect. Sort of.

Batista continued, "Your first sacrifice. Earned you a Krispy Crunches commercial, I believe. Sugary junk."

Lots of people may remember me from the Krispy Crunches commercials. They aired on and off for several years during Saturday morning cartoons. Some in the Biz probably even knew how I landed the part, just as Batista Mammon professed to know. But his quoting my mother's exact words was something no one else could do.

He tipped the blood syrup to his lips, and it rolled onto his waiting tongue. The drink coated the inside of the glass with pinky-red streaks. He smacked his lips and aahed. The heavy iron odor wafted from his mouth and hung in the air. Ugh.

"Your mother had a lovely, obit-chew-arie."

It was true. I had written it. I said that she always wanted success for me. But really, she had wanted success for herself, and used me in the worst possible way to try to get it.

"I captured her soul before her coffin was in the ground," he said. "No negotiating needed." He pointed to the ceiling. His black pointed nails had grown longer and were now curved like claws. "No one upstairs. Was interested. If you get my drift."

He placed his glass in the cup holder and thoughtfully ran an ebony claw around the rim. It made a slight scratching sound that reminded me of a rat we had in the walls when I was young.

"But you, my dear. Are a tougher challenge. I have been waiting. For the inevitable. The drunken collision. The revenge killing of a date gone bad." He gave a small chuckle. "I had high hopes for—what did you call him—the stabbing handcuff bastard? But you walked away. Rather cowardly. And selfish, on your part."

I had contemplated killing the bastard. Daydreamed about slitting his throat. I even hatched a plan. Followed him home from the bar one night with bear mace and a carving knife in my purse. In the end, I didn't follow through. Maybe I didn't have the guts, or maybe I simply changed my mind. By then my cuts and bruises had mostly healed, and I wanted to put the whole thing behind me: the click of the handcuffs around my wrists, the stinging open handed slaps across my face, and the hours of being raped, front and back, his harsh whisper in my ear threatening to kill me, showing me the switchblade, nicking my skin over and over again with the sharp tip. And the police? Why put myself through that useless hell? I'd already suffered enough.

It was cowardly, and selfish, too I suppose, because he was sure to do the same to other women. But since when did other women ever come to my defense? When I was young and vulnerable, none of them stepped up. In fact, just the opposite. They aided my abusers. If Batista Mammon wanted souls for his collection, I could provide him with dozens of names from my past.

Batista leaned back in his chair and interlaced his fingers behind his head, his Adam's apple jutted sharply from his throat like a swollen peach pit. "I see your future, my dear. The comfort of drunken sex. Is on the wane. You grow tired. Of your inadequate life. Of numbing your aching heart. Trying to forget how badly mommy, how badly everyone. Treated you. Poor baby." He sat up in his chair and leaned toward me, grinning, exposing his repulsive red teeth. The burning orange in his eyes pulsated. I cringed back, panic building in my throat.

"You are self-absorbed. Trapped in a cage of self-pity. Boo hoo. Poor Jeanette and her horrible past. In the end you will be left with nothing. No glamour. No money. No fame."

"What do you want?" I shouted. My younger voice suddenly echoed my words from the screen, yelling at the Devil, "What do you want?"

"It's not what I want, my dear. It's what you want. To live life royally. To leave a legacy. Isn't that what everyone wants? To be remembered? And you, my dear, will be remembered. In the best possible way. For generations to come. Why not accept my generous offer? A simple yhess, will seal the deal."

With all my might, I drove my legs downward, and the footrest gave way. I stumbled into the aisle, my feet crunching and slipping over the popcorn. I ran up the sloping floor toward the back of the theater, but I couldn't pick up speed. My legs strained to take each step as though I were scaling a mountain or running in a dream. Finally, I reached the back of the room. My hands fumbled frantically over the wall, searching fruitlessly for the concealed door.

I glanced over my shoulder and saw that Batista Mammon was on his feet and slowly walking toward me. Behind him the movie screen went white, illuminating the theater in bright gray as if it were midday, and I saw his metamorphosis plainly. The oily black waves on each side of his head humped and spiked into curving horns. His arched eyebrows thickened and lengthened, and his nose and chin sharpened until he looked more animal than human. He rose in height, and his polished shoes transformed into burnished hooves.

His ugly lips moved. "Yhess, or no, Dee." His face now looked like a wolf, complete with long sharp teeth. Except wolves don't have horns—or hooves!

I screamed and pounded the wall with my fists. I heard myself sob, and then suddenly, the door opened. I sprinted down the hushed hallway, Mick's voice, "Pleased to meet you," chased me as the floor lights flashed past my feet. Ahead of me I saw the tall entry doors. Something moved within the carved tree branches. The snakes had come to life. They were squirming and twisting, bulging from the wood, turning their reptilian eyes toward me as they opened their mouths to show their fangs. I squeezed my eyes shut and ducked my head, pushing through the doors and into the entry.

My coat! My keys and wallet were in the pocket, but the coat was in the entry closet, hidden behind another invisible door. Forget it! My high heels clicked across the foyer's intricately patterned tiles. To my disbelieving horror I saw the small black squares moving, circling and squirming like more snakes underfoot. I envisioned a whipping line of tile reaching up to wrap itself around my ankle, trapping me, preventing my escape. I leapt over the writhing floor and into the waiting elevator.

The lone button, the number 13, glowed steadily, as if daring me to press it. Would it take me down, allowing me to escape, or was this elevator up only? Would the doors mercifully close and then cruelly reopen on the thirteenth floor? But what other choice did I have? Urgently, I thumbed the 13 over and over again. The doors slid closed. I sensed movement and I prayed that I was traveling downward. Seconds later the doors opened.

To my relief I saw the short corridor and the curved doorway. I vaulted from the elevator, through the doorway and around the grand staircase. I flew through the crystal-chandeliered lobby, out the golden-framed entrance doors and past the cascading lobelia and the manicured boxwoods. The garden fountain splashed with haughty laughter behind me.

I kept going, dodging four lanes of traffic to cross the street. Irritated drivers yelled and honked, but I didn't care. When I reached the other side, my high heel caught on the curb and my ankle turned. I nearly fell on the wet pavement. The city lights swirled around me. Coatless, I limped down the sidewalk desperately looking for a taxi, my panicked mind telling me to put as much distance between me and the Fairmont Olympic Hotel as possible.

A sleek limousine slowed and pulled to the curb a few feet beyond me. When I reached it, one of its tinted windows slid smoothly down.

"Dee McQueen?"

Is it Him? Did He follow me? I stopped short, my heart pounding, my breath heaving.

"It's you, isn't it Dee?" The voice was older, kinder; not Batista Mammon. I took a small step toward the limo.

"Yes?"

A man with thick white hair and black framed glasses brought his face to the open window. "My name is Harrison Ludlow. I'm a movie producer."

He didn't have to tell me who he was or what he did. I'd never met him, but I recognized him immediately. He was considered royalty in the Hollywood ranks. Ten of his films had been nominated for best picture, and five had won.

He stuck his hand out the limo window.

I shook it and tried to quiet my breathing.

"I've been looking for you. My people said you relocated up here. What fantastic luck to find you like this!"

I nodded, dumbly.

"Do you have a few minutes? I wonder if we could talk. I have a project in mind that I think you'd be perfect for." And then he added, "It's a starring role."

A sudden wind whipped my hair and reached up under my skirt. My eyes traveled back across the four lanes of traffic and then up to the top of the Olympic Hotel. Batista Mammon was standing on the roof, outlined against the blue-black, city-lit sky. He was looking down at me. I couldn't see his face, but I knew that he was smiling, the blood still shellacking his teeth. He spread his hands, palms upturned, as if to say, " Yhess, or no?"

Harrison Ludlow swung the car door open. "Dee?"

A shiver shook me and before I could step away, I bent and puked all over the sidewalk, grabbing the top of the open car door for support, while white wine and popcorn spewed out of my gagging throat and splattered on the cement inches from Harrison Ludlow's legs.

"Oh!" Ludlow said. Both he and the driver quickly got out of the car. Ludlow carefully stepped over the smelly mess that reeked of wine and placed a hand on my back. "Are you all right?"

I nodded, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand. "So sorry," I said. "I guess I drank too much." I straightened and then couldn't stop my eyes from racing back to the top of the Olympic Hotel. Batista Mammon was gone, only streaks of light from the rooftop, spotlights illuminating the night sky remained.

I glanced at Harrison Ludlow, too embarrassed to make eye contact. "I'm so sorry, Mr. Ludlow." What a time to upchuck. He probably thinks I'm a hopeless drunk, and truthfully, he wouldn't be too far off the mark.

"Allow me to give you a ride home." He pulled a tissue from his inner jacket pocket and handed to me. I dabbed my mouth as the driver guided me by my elbow, and the three of us walked around to the other side of the limo so Ludlow and I could get in where the sidewalk wasn't awash in my vomit. Still queasy, I slid onto the leather backseat and across to the other side to make room for the great Harrison Ludlow.

I wanted to wipe the sour taste from my tongue with the tissue, but instead I folded my hands in my lap and looked straight ahead. My stomach rolled and I squeezed my eyes shut. For Christ's Sake, whatever you do, don't throw up in Harrison Ludlow's limo!

"Dee, I wanted to talk to you about a project, but let's wait for another time when you're feeling better."

Humiliated, I said, "Yes, I'd appreciate that." Then, because I had to know, I asked, "Did Batista Mammon send you?"

"Who?" he asked, clearly confused.

I took a deep breath. "Never mind."

Harrison walked me to the front door of my apartment building. My keys and wallet were in my coat which I'd left on the thirteenth floor. Without my keys, I was forced to buzz Ernie, the maintenance man, and ask him to let me in. Ernie was in his early sixties, already too old and cranky for the job, but hanging on nonetheless. He growled over the speaker, "What the hell! It's after midnight! You can't even keep track of your own keys?" He abruptly clicked off with a grate of static.

I couldn't raise my eyes to look at Harrison. I said to the sidewalk, "I'm fine now. Thank you so much for the ride."

Mercifully, at that moment Ernie opened the door. "I suppose you'll need me to drag myself upstairs and open your door, too."

"Yeah, I will Ernie." Despite my nausea, I was getting pissed, plus I really needed a cigarette.

Harrison gently touched my arm. "Think about what I said Dee. I'd appreciate telling you about the project. I think it's perfect for you. Here's my card." He pulled it from his inner jacket pocket and handed it to me. "Give me a call if you're interested, or if you're not. Either way."

"I will," I said. Thanks again, Mr. Ludlow."

"Call me Harry," he said. "I hope you'll consider working with me." He turned and walked back to his waiting limo.

"You comin' in or not?" Ernie barked.

I shot Ernie a dirty look and followed him in silence, still shaky and sick feeling. What was wrong with me? Was the Devil making me sick? Trying to force me to take his deal?

Ernie opened my door and I walked past him and into my apartment without saying thank-you and then slammed the door on his sourpuss face. My hands shook slightly as I found my cigarettes and lit up.

My doctor's words ricocheted inside my head, "You really need to quit, Jeanette. Your blood pressure is creeping up and your breathing is shallow. You're putting yourself at risk for all kinds of cancers." She seemed truly concerned about me, something I wasn't used to, so I said I'd try. I took another long satisfying drag, dug out one of the stop-smoking pills and swallowed it dry.

I sat on the couch and smoked in the dark. The nicotine helped settle my stomach, but my head was still spinning, my thoughts cascading over each other like tumbling dice. When I finished my Marlboro, I couldn't sit still. I sprang to my feet and paced, following a path that I repeated over and over: around the coffee table, into the kitchen, back out again through the living room, to the bedroom, back out again and around the coffee table. It was dark, but that didn't stop me. I picked up speed, all the while thinking about Batista Mammon and Harrison Ludlow.

Had Batista sent Harrison? Ludlow's answer implied he'd never met Batista Mammon, but it seemed too much of a coincidence that Harrison had found me on the street right after I'd escaped from Batista's apartment. By accepting a ride with Harrison, had I accepted Batista's deal? Would I now become a celebrity, a movie star with everything at my fingertips, in exchange for my soul? To think the Devil had lit my cigarette and then lured me to his apartment was ridiculous, wasn't it? But if Batista wasn't the Devil, how did he know so much about me, right down to conversations I had with my mother? And the scariest thought of all: was my mother really in hell? The questions bounced and slammed against my skull, growing more ominous with each obsessive step I took.

My breath came faster and harder and I lost track of time, and then I stopped, my momentum sending me swaying forward on my feet. What was I doing? I sat down on the couch and turned on the table lamp. The soft glow grew fingers that clawed at the ceiling and crept into the corners.

Outside, the wind was whipping. A storm was coming in. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and through the window, lightning lit up the sky. The view of the storm over Puget Sound from Batista's thirteenth floor penthouse would be fabulous. I had a sudden longing to be back there, standing next to him, enjoying the view.

I gasped and shook my head to clear the image. What was I thinking? No way was I ever going back there. A mighty gust shook the window, and the lights went out. Damn. I went into the kitchen for a flashlight. I found one, but the batteries were dead.

When I returned to the living room, on the couch, where I had just been sitting were two eyes, glowing orange-red, burning coals in the dark. The lit end of a thin cigar rose and fell, and I recognized the sweet smell. Batista Mammon was sitting in my living room smoking a Tiparillo. A short flash of lightning lit up the walls, revealing him. His legs were crossed, and his hooved feet glinted in the burst of light. His face was almost human, except for the overly sharp angles of his chin, nose, and cheekbones. His arms were spread wide, resting across the back of the sofa as he leisurely bent his elbow to bring the Tiparillo to his lips.

"How did you get in here?" I cried. My stomach heaved. I bent and gagged, but nothing came out.

"I go. Wherever I pah-leeze," he replied.

I leaned a straight arm against the wall to keep from fainting. "Get out of here! I don't want your deal."

"But," he pointed the end of the Tiparillo at me, "you haven't spoken to Harrison. About his project. When you hear. What he has in mind. I believe you will reconsider."

"No! I won't," I screamed. "The answer is no!"

Batista didn't move. "Think of it thiss way. You are going nowhere. Your drinking and whoring, will lead you into my arms. Sooner or later. You are your mother's daughter. Why not make your life fan-tass-tick?"

My legs gave way, and I sank to the floor. Batista stood up from the couch and looked down on me. The lightning flared and I saw his curved black horns, the sharp tips brushed the ceiling.

"There is one more thing. An unwelcome surprise." He paused, drawing out the tension, waiting for me to ask him what this so-called surprise could be.

"Whatever it is," I snapped, "it can't be more unwelcome than meeting the Devil."

He tipped his head back and laughed a sharp hack-hack at the ceiling. "Oh, Jeanette, you do entertain."

My eyes had adjusted to the dark, and I saw his ceiling-high head and upper body lean toward me in anticipation. I pushed with my legs to scoot away, but my muscles failed me. I was unable to move more than a few inches. Behind him a whiplike hairless tail flicked from side to side, as if he were excited about what he was about to tell me.

"You are. Pregnant, my dear." he said, in a sultry tone.

"What are you talking about?" I cried. "Why are you saying that?" When was the last time I'd taken my birth control pills? I couldn't remember. Had I forgotten to take them? Did I get them mixed up with the stop-smoking med?

Batista's eyes glowed amber in the dark above me. His tail whipped harder. He was enjoying this. "The baby, however. Is damaged." He brought the tip of the Tiparillo to his lips and sucked on the cigar. The lighted end blazed in the dark. The smell of his exhaled smoke made my stomach jump and clench. He shook his head as if unhappy, the thick coiled horns made his head look top heavy. "So sad. Best if you flush this one. Just like the other two."

He knew about my abortions? One when I was sixteen. My mother had insisted. "A baby will ruin your career." She had put me on the pill, but I was sixteen and irresponsible. I didn't take it like I should have. And then when I was thirty, I got pregnant anyway. It happens, the doctor said. By then, I had given up on making it big in the movies, but I had hit the daily drinking and the one-night stands, and I had no idea who the father was. I decided to terminate\ the pregnancy.

"Damaged how?" I said. My arms and legs were wet noodles. I couldn't gather the strength to stand.

"Down syndrome, my dear. Not a surprise. You are, as they say, long in the tooth. To be giving birth."

"I don't believe you!" I screamed. Tears blurred my vision. How could he know I was pregnant when I didn't even know? He knew my past in lurid detail. He knew how I lived my life. He knew what Harrison Ludlow had said. Could he see into my womb as well?

Lightning flashed and he laughed as he took a step toward me, his long incisors revealed. I saw black scales on his shins above the cloven hooves. Half man, half beast, dragon, goat, wolf.

"What if I say no?" I yelled. "What if I keep the baby?" My mind was in pieces. Nothing made sense. What was I saying? I didn't even know if there was a baby!

Batista's cool demeanor disappeared. He loomed over me. "Decide soon, Jeanette Funk—such a plain and ugly name. My offer will not stand forever. If you want to be Dee McQueen, the door is closing. Say yhess, Dee. So simple. To say yhess. You can give up the one-night stands. Grasping for the affection Mommy never gave you. Wouldn't that be nice?" Lightning flashed as he brought his arm above his head, ground out the Tiparillo on the eight-foot ceiling, and tossed it onto the carpet.

The lamplight flickered and came on. Batista Mammon was gone. I crawled to my bed and curled up into a tight ball.

***

As much as I wanted to avoid the place, the next day I returned to the Fairmont Olympic. I had no choice. I had to find my coat with my keys and wallet in the pockets, and that was where I'd left it when I fled the thirteenth floor. Plus, I sure as hell didn't want to have to ask fucking Ernie to let me into my apartment again.

I kept my head down as I walked into the lobby, afraid to look up in case Batista Mammon was watching me from a shadowed corner or leaning casually against the banister observing me from the grand staircase, or lounging in one of the plush lobby chairs, or even hovering near the ceiling.

A friendly voiced boomed from behind me, "Buon giorno, Jeannette! I'm glad you're here!"

It was Salvatore, the concierge. One of a few men I'd met in my life who I actually liked. Salvatore was a stout man in his late forties, with dark hair, dark eyes, and a warm smile. His parents had immigrated from Italy, and he proudly referred to himself as an American success story. He was outgoing and the guests loved him. Even the snooty Hollywood types I sent to the hotel raved about him.

"One of the HVAC guys found your coat on the roof, of all places." He laughed and pointed up. "I knew it was yours because your wallet was in the pocket. And don't worry, your keys are there, too." His wide white smile was infectious. I smiled back. "Any idea how your coat got up on the roof?" he asked.

"I don't know," I lied. "I had dinner here last night with a client, and then we went out for drinks, and I didn't realize my coat was missing until he dropped me off at my apartment."

Salvatore's forehead creased as he listened, but in the end he nodded. "Well, I'm glad we were able to find it."

I placed a hand on his arm and leaned in. A friendly conspirator. The flesh on his face was dancing, shaking slightly. "Salvatore, I know you're probably not supposed to tell me this, but is there a guest registered here named Batista Mammon, on the thirteenth floor?"

"The thirteenth floor?" He frowned. "We have no thirteenth floor, but for you I'll check the register." He winked. "And I'll be right back with your coat."

As soon as Salvatore left, I strode toward the opening under the split marble staircase. If there was no thirteenth floor, then I had to at least find out if there was an elevator. I walked through the curved entrance into the short hallway and saw the door. Only today it looked different. It had a round handle, like any regular door. I slowly opened it, holding my breath as I peeked inside and found—a janitor's closet.

Rag mops, sponge mops, brooms, vacuum cleaners, scrub brushes, sponges, buckets, and shelves to the ceiling stocked with soap, toilet paper, paper towels, and plastic jugs of colored cleaners. This couldn't be. I turned on the light and stepped into the small space, closing the door behind me to shut out the noise from the lobby. Inside it was the same size as the elevator I had ridden with Batista. I stood still, getting a feel for the place, letting the walls settle around me, willing my antennae to tell me if this had been the elevator with the number 13.

I waited. Nothing. My antennae were still. Did I think that if I closed myself inside, the closet would turn into an elevator? But then my hands went clammy, and a ribbon of sweat snaked along my hairline. The temperature seemed to rise 20 degrees and my stomach clamped in on itself. The light was dim, one yellow bulb sticking out of the wall near my head. On a top shelf something glowed red and caught my eye. Two eyes, like hot coals, were gazing down on me from the high dark corner. Batista!

"Leave me alone!" I cried. I fumbled with the knob and the door flew open. I lurched out into the small hallway and into the arms of Salvatore.

"There you are. What were you doing in there?" He poked his nose into the closet.

"Up there," I said, pointing at the corner with the glowing eyes.

"What?" He grabbed a flashlight from one of the shelves and shone it upward. The beam landed on a plastic container full of orange cleaner fluid. The fluid glowed florescent in the light.

"Oh," I said, craning my neck to get a good look at all the shelves. "I thought I saw something up there."

Salvatore closed the door and studied me with his soft brown eyes. My coat was draped over his arm.

"My coat," I said, reaching for it.

"Allow me," Salvatore said, holding my coat with the inside spread open.

The silky blue lining shimmered in undulating waves that washed down to the hem. What was he doing? Why was he holding my coat up like that, showing me the inside? I stared at it totally confused. Salvatore waited a beat, and when I didn't move, he stepped around behind me and slipped the coat over my shoulders. "There," he said. You shouldn't go out in this weather without a coat."

"Oh, yes, thank you." I pulled my coat closed, seeing the navy-blue wool nap with its lumps of fuzz and valleys as if it were under a magnifying glass. And then I remembered Batista and my eyes flew around the hallway and up to the ceiling searching for where he might be hiding. "And what about Batista Mammon?" I asked. "Is he registered as a guest? A long-term stay in the penthouse?"

Salvatore shook his head. "I'm sorry, Jeanette. No Batista Mammon was ever registered here. And we have no penthouse. The top floor is the 12 th with the four luxury suites." He offered his elbow to escort me out to the lobby. "And if we had a long-term guest, I would know about it."

I clutched my coat closed at the neck and nodded, disappointed. "Yes, I suppose you would. Thanks Salvatore. I appreciate your help."

He walked me to the door and bowed at the waist. "Anything for you. You send more guests my way than anyone else."

My keys were in my left pocket where I always put them, and nothing was missing from my wallet—all money, ID, and credit cards accounted for, which was good. Out on the street, the wind was cold. But the next place I wanted to go was only two blocks away.

***

A bell tinkled as I stepped into the pharmacy. The air inside was warm and I took a moment to catch my breath. I searched the aisles until I found what I was looking for—a pregnancy test. The pharmacist scrutinized me over his glasses as I paid for my purchase. Why was he staring at me? He slipped the box into a paper bag and held it out. I grabbed it from his hand, suddenly feeling as though his plan was to jerk the bag away and laugh. I felt his eyes on my back as I clutched the all-important purchase to my chest and hurried out the door. Outside, despite the clouds, I had to squint. The light was blindingly bright.

I couldn't remember how I got home, but here I was. Even though I lived alone, I locked myself in the bathroom to read the directions and figure out how to do this thing. Was I trying to keep the Devil out? I knew by now that a locked door wouldn't do it. I peed on the plastic wand and waited, staying on the toilet, hunched forward, holding the stick in one hand with my pants pulled down around my ankles.

Even though I'd been pregnant twice before, I'd never used a home pregnancy test. The first time, when I was sixteen, I missed two periods, plus I felt bloated, and my boobs were tender. I had no clue that I was pregnant, but when I mentioned it to my mom, she knew right away. She was furious that I hadn't been taking my birth control pills. Her words and disgusted tone still rang in my head, "How could you be so stupid, Dee? I can't trust you with anything!" She took me to the doctor and arrangements were made.

Everyone assured me I was doing the right thing, considering my age. As usual, I went along. They were probably right. But several years after that, into my mid-twenties, I often thought about that baby, the baby that never was. A girl. I conjured her in my mind: a round bald head, pink ears, rosebud lips, pudgy arms and legs, and Sandra Dee eyes, like mine. She would have had little ball feet with ten nubby toes. I imagined kissing each one. When I hesitantly suggested that maybe I could keep the baby, my mother had waved her hand in the air, irritated, swatting away the idea as if she were swatting away a fly. There had been no more discussion about it. The procedure was over before I had time to think about it. My heart ached for a while after, I remember.

The second time I got pregnant, my mom had been dead for a couple of years, a blood clot to the brain, so I couldn't blame her for the decision I made. But I was hardened by then, entrenched in a directionless life with no room for a baby to interfere with my so-called social activities of drunk nights and casual sex, and busy days of catering to actors and movie execs. I didn't really think about the abortion, just got it done, like an unpleasant chore. Why didn't I think about it more? I've always had the feeling that one was a boy.

Three minutes later the result was clear. I was pregnant.

My hands shook as I lit up a smoke. Pregnant women shouldn't smoke, right? But did that make any difference to me? What about the stop-smoking med? The Chantix? Did I take it this morning? I couldn't remember. I think I was supposed to start taking two yesterday. Damn. I pulled up my pants and tossed the plastic wand with the telltale plus sign into the trash. What was I supposed to do now? I focused on the immediate, found the Chantix and tossed two back.

My doctor's receptionist said she'd make room for me that afternoon.

"Yes, you're pregnant," the doctor said. She shook her head. "You shouldn't be on Chantix if you're pregnant. Why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't know," I said. "Plus, other stuff has been going on that I don't know how to handle."

She rested her iPad on her knees. "Like what?"

"A man has been following me."

"The baby's father?"

I laughed. "No. I have no idea who that is."

She looked at me stone-faced.

"Sorry, not funny." I continued, "This guy, he's scary. He's like a devil." I let my eyes drop away from her face. "He is the Devil," I said.

She took in sharp breath through her nose and pressed her lips together.

"I know it sounds crazy," I said. "But it's true. He wants my soul in exchange for a 'fan-tass-tic' life." I imitated the hiss in Batista's pronunciation.

She got up and placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. "No, it's not crazy. It's the meds, a side effect. They alter brain chemistry, which can cause paranoia and hallucinations in some people. I think that's what is happening to you."

"No, he's real," I insisted.

She ignored me, plugged the stethoscope into her ears and listened to my heart.

"He also wants me to abort this baby," I said.

Her eyebrows raised as she looped the stethoscope around her neck and wrapped a blood pressure cuff around my upper arm.

"He told me the baby has Down syndrome," I said. "How would he know that?"

She shook her head as the cuff exhaled, and she recorded the results.

"Well, you are of advanced maternal age," she said. "The likelihood of having a child with Down syndrome increases with the age of the mother, especially after age 35. At age 40, the chances are one in 90, by 45, one in 30."

She shined a pencil-sized light into each of my eyes. As she did, I could see straight down the shaft of light and into her eyes, through spaces in the green iris to the back of her eyeballs where the veins attached and ran up into her brain.

"Your blood pressure is high," she said. "I want to admit you to the hospital. You should be under observation while you're experiencing these extreme side effects. Needless to say, you should stop taking the Chantix. Also, in the hospital we can do a blood test and an ultrasound. If the blood test shows certain markers at elevated levels, and the ultrasound reveals fluid behind the skull, that will tell us almost conclusively if the baby has Down syndrome."

I listened, trying to wrap my head around what she had said. Hallucinations? Hospital? Ultrasound? The words bounced, wild and meaningless, back and forth inside my skull.

"Do you understand, Jeanette?"

"Of course," I bristled. "I'm not stupid," even though my mind was a jumble. I shouldn't have told her about Batista. She didn't believe me. But no matter, I knew he existed.

An hour later I was admitted to Swedish Hospital and wheeled into a room in the obstetrics wing. I lay in a bed between sheets covered in a daisy pattern with a sunny yellow blanket and stared at the ceiling. I wanted a cigarette. But when I envisioned myself smoking, dragging the nicotine into my lungs, a thought that would have brought me comfort and longing just yesterday, my stomach tightened and roiled. I leaned over the side of the bed and puked into a small plastic bucket.

Before I finished vomiting, a doctor and a nurse came into my room. They waited silently while I finished retching and spitting and wiping my mouth with a tissue. When I was done, and without a word, the doctor bent over me, and I gasped.

His eyes were glowing amber, his nose and chin were sharply angled, his teeth and lips covered in red. Black bumps protruded under the ebony hair on either side of his head where his horns would sprout at will. It was Batista.

The nurse stood at the foot of my bed. "Dee," she said. I recognized her voice immediately. My eyes flew to face. My mother was standing smiling, wearing flowered nurse scrubs with an old-fashioned nurses' cap, stiff and white, bobby-pinned to the back of her head.

Batista spoke. His voice was familiar, smooth, and hypnotic. "I told her the hat. Was too much," he said. He chuckled, a deep phlegmy sound. "But Pa-trees-ee-ah is forever the actress. Just like you, Jeanette. Or do you. Prefer Dee?"

"Get out!" I screamed and pointed a shaky finger at the creature at the foot of my bed. "That is not my mother!"

"Calm down, Dee." She said it just like she always had when I was a teenager, when I'd come home crying and traumatized from some Hollywood party where I had been handed around to the men like candy. "I'm here to help. To convince you to do what's best for you. Don't you think you've waited long enough? Why throw away the rest of your life when you can have it all?"

She walked to the side of the bed and placed her hand on the yellow blanket over my foot. I kicked her hand away. Her mouth tightened so that her lips turned white and almost disappeared, her way of showing me she was not pleased. I'd seen it often. "I still want what's best for you, you know. I always have. Take the deal. Lead the life you've always wanted. The life I always wanted for you. Do it for yourself. Do it for me. You talked to Harrison Ludlow. Just call him back. It's that easy."

How did she know about Harrison? The doctor said I had been hallucinating. Was I hallucinating now? Were Batista and my mother really here? Or was it all in my mind? I smelled the reek of my mother's perfume, a rose-scented stink that she used to splash all over herself. My stomach constricted. Batista took two steps to stand close behind my mother and I heard the click of his hooves on the linoleum. No doubt these two were real.

She smiled. "You know Harrison Ludlow didn't come up with your name on his own. He never would have thought of you or tracked you down if Batista hadn't whispered in his ear." She walked to the corner and sat in the plastic covered chair, her face in shadow, the cap glowing on her head. "Silly girl."

Silly girl. I had hated it when she called me that. And she always called me that whenever I disagreed with her.

She said, "You can't lose. You have the Devil on your side." She leaned forward, her face coming out of the shadow. She grinned hard, her cheeks pressing up, her gums showing. But her grin did not reflect happiness, it reflected pain and deceit. She couldn't hide that from me. I knew her too well.

"I don't want that life anymore! I just want to be left alone," I shouted. "Get out!"

From the foot of the bed Batista clucked his tongue like an old woman. "Your mother will be. So disappointed," he said.

"Fuck my mother!"

My real doctor stepped into the room. "Jeanette," she asked softly, "what are you shouting about?"

Couldn't she see that the Devil and my dead mother were in the room with us? I sat forward and pointed at Batiste. "He's right there!"

She walked to me and gently pressed me back against the pillows. "Try to rest, okay? The medication is still working its way out of your system. Just be patient, and if all goes well, it won't be long before you're back to normal."

My mother stood and joined Batista at the foot of the bed. They both looked annoyed at the interruption and walked out the door without so much as a backward glance.

"Jeanette," the doctor hesitated, and I knew what was coming. "I have some bad news. Your baby does have Down syndrome."

I felt like telling her that wasn't really news, was it? Batista had informed me of that fact yesterday.

"We can't tell how severe the Down syndrome is. But it's definitely there." She sat on my bed and handed me a pamphlet, Raising a Down Syndrome Child. "You wouldn't be alone in this. There are many support groups in the city for parents of Down's children, and counseling is available, too." She stopped. "There is another option, of course. You're only twelve weeks along. It's not too late to abort."

"I understand," I said, and something inside me cracked, like a rotten branch. My heart dropped and my gut writhed as though worms were eating me from the inside. The idea of an abortion, another one, was making me feel sick again. "I need to think about it," I squeaked, unable to say anything more.

The doctor patted my hand and left. I watched the door anxiously for my mother and Batista, but I remained alone. Alone with my decision.

At forty-two, what had I done with my life? Nothing horribly bad, but nothing very good either. Drifting, with no specific purpose, I just existed. I had lived my life carelessly, recklessly, and dangerously. The way my mother had taught me, and the imprint, the habit, the routine, had stayed with me. Early on, it was all about my career, desperately hooking up with people who could help me make it big in the Biz. From audition to audition, couch to couch, hoping to catch some work or attention along the way, a puppet for other people's wants and needs.

The dream died after my mother, and then I simply plunged forward with no purpose except self-indulgence, insulating myself from anyone who tried to befriend me, to become attached to me in a permanent way. Maybe Batista was right. Maybe I was too self-absorbed, too full of self-pity to pay much attention to anyone else. I had no one I could really call a friend, only acquaintances and business connections. No one who cared about me, or who I cared about.

Now I had a big decision to make. I could call Harrison, get my old career back on track. Get the abortion. Rid myself of this Down syndrome baby. Do things the way my mother would have wanted. But I wasn't under her thumb anymore. I ran my own company, made my own decisions. But could I raise a child, let alone one with Down syndrome? One choice seemed so much easier than the other.

***

Nine months later I looked down at my little Annabelle, three months old, her toothless gummy grin tugging at my heart. "You're a little muffin, is what you are!" I said rubbing my nose against hers, causing her to smile wider, her eyes closing to slits.

I was determined to be a good mother. I quit the casual sex, I quit drinking, and I gave up the love of my life, my Marlboros. It wasn't easy, and sometimes I wanted nothing more than to fall back into those old comforts, to lose myself in drunken, nicotined orgasms with strangers. But that was all they were—comforts. Evil comforts to help me forget that at the core of it, I had nothing; nothing worth living for or hanging on to. In exchange, I gained something priceless, the love in my heart for little Annabelle. She was a real person for me to take care of, to be careful with, to plan for, to protect and guide in the best way I could.

Now I understood why I believed the Devil had lit my cigarette, taken me to the thirteenth floor, and made me an offer that my mother certainly would not have refused. Why I believed that her soul was forever under his thumb. She didn't take care of me. She didn't protect me. I was just a vehicle for her ambitions. Now I was who I wanted to be—Jeanette Funk, not Dee McQueen. Dee was gone. As dead and buried as my mother.

As odd as it sounds, the Devil helped me find my way. The doctor suggested that perhaps the hallucinations brought on by the Chantix were my mind's way of telling me that I needed to break free from the life I was living. At first, I didn't want to accept that Batista was a figment of my imagination. He seemed so real at the time, but now I believe the doctor was right—the Devil was a delusion.

Harrison Ludlow was real enough, though. He really had found me on the street and given me a ride home. When I finally called him, I was six months pregnant with Annabelle. The funding for the project he had in mind for me had fallen through. No big surprise there. He apologized profusely for getting my hopes up, but I told him I would have turned it down anyway. I had more important things to focus on now. Since then, he'd sent me a lot of business. I make twice as much as I did when I just took what came my way. I've even hired an assistant, Salvatore's twenty-year-old daughter, Mia, so I can spend as much time as I need to with my little Annabelle.

I put Annabelle down for a nap and started my cleaning—nesting, the doctor tells me it's called, making everything perfect and just right for the baby. I'd spent a good deal of my pregnancy on bed rest, so I was late with the cleaning. But I didn't care. It was all good. I enjoyed everything I did that connected me to Annabelle. I got down on my hands and knees, inserting the vacuum hose under the couch. All dust must be banished. What's that under there?

I swept it toward me using the hose end. The size of a short pencil with a burnt end: a half-smoked Tiparillo. Red stains smudged the plastic tip. And then I remembered something else. I looked up, and above me saw the black mark where Batista Mammon, the Devil himself, had extinguished the slim cigar on the ceiling.

THE END


Copyright 2022, Penny Page

Bio: Penny Page is a writer, a reader, a gardener, and a dog lover. She lives in the central coast area of California and writes primarily paranormal and gritty off-beat stories. Her writing includes a self-published novella titled Not Haunted, and three other novels: Coven Corners, Bayview Cemetery, and A New Kind of Monster.

E-mail: Penny Page

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