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The Salt Gets in Mr. Valens’ Eyes

15
L

It's hot in that city. You don't sweat because it's too dry, and the air is thick with the smell of salt. I arrived there in August, I think. I had my mission: locate the target, eliminate the threat. But I was taken aback by the white buildings and the Mormons and the punky youth. I had never been there. After I got off the plane, I ate pizza while a warm breeze blew in my hair. The pizza was spinach and bell pepper and beef and I seasoned it well with parmesan and pepper. It was delicious.

The target, though. I would say I am good at the job, but that's an overstatement. I'm just lucky. There are worse jobs, I suppose. I arrived via private jet. I vaped some grass on the plane, because flying makes me nervous. The old stewardess didn't complain. I imagine she had been briefed on me.

So I was half-stoned in the city, eating pizza, and wearing a shirt (white) and tie (black) and slacks (black). I have fashionable Ray-Ban sunglasses I got in Mexico. Not just a fashion detail. My eyes get red when I'm high. After I ate the pizza, I looked around. The air there tastes bitter. It's probably the lake.

I remembered what the commissioner said. He had said, running a hand through his thinning hair, "Remember, Mr. Valens, remember. That thing is loose in the city. You track it down with minimum attention. I advise discretion. No, I demand it."

Good pay. I don't like to work, but it's a fine job, and I needed the money, because I like to collect paintings. I really want to finish my Dr. Seuss collection. Did you know he's a fantastic painter? Wonderful use of color. I had a couple originals, too. Anyway, I checked in at the Best Western. The shirt and tie and pants are a bit stifling, but it's a classic for my line of work. I left the jacket in the room. It was a tad much. Hadn't shaved in a couple weeks, nor cut my hair in a few months, so I looked bedraggled. That was fine. I think it helps. I mean, if a guy in a black suit, perfectly shaven with a coiffed haircut comes up to you and starts asking you weird shit, you'd probably be a little concerned.

I vaped just a little more because I was getting some strange vibes in this city already. There is no place like it. I began my investigation in a low key sort of way. Asked the hotel lady about goings on, she didn't say anything. Read the newspaper: also nothing. Quiet city, quiet day. Pull the other one. The target was apt to cause more trouble than my ex-wife.

The target, the target. I had little to go on. "It's hairy," the commissioner had said, "but only sometimes." Whatever the hell that means. He seemed uncomfortable. Intel was pretty bad on this one. I was also informed it had a taste for watermelon, and I didn't even ask how they found that one out. Finally, they told me the killer clue: the ability to replicate human speech. I didn't know its size, or anything else. Just the sometimes-hair, the watermelon, and the talking. It was enough.

So I bought a nice watermelon and some banana chips from a Safeway. The watermelon was for the target, the banana chips were for me, and they tasted wonderful. I walked around, tried to relax, enjoy myself, but the weed made me a little anxious, and the air shimmered in the heat. I wandered into the temple square where I looked at the humongous Mormon buildings. I saw a lot of them, the Mormons I mean, because it was Sunday.

"Excuse me," said a fat one in a blue suit near a drinking fountain. "Sir, would you be interested in a tour?"

"Sorry, not right now."

He nodded. "Well, sir, if you are interested, please, let me know."

I nodded. I figured this was a guy with a big head on his shoulders, maybe a little too big. I vaped a bit more, calm my nerves, starting to worry. It rushed to my head and I realized it was too much, but it was too late and I was stoned as hell. I figured I could question this guy, who might have been a higher-up on the chain. He had a nice suit anyway.

"Uh, I was wondering if you could answer some questions for me, actually." I said. Damn, did my voice shake? Can this guy tell I'm high?

He clapped my shoulder and looked up at me. I'm a tall guy. "Yes, sir! Yes, I can, sir! That is my job."

I tried to clear my head and smiled at him because he looked really funny, like his fat features all kind of wrinkly. Never mind – the questions. Focus, Eddie. "I'm looking for someone in the area, the city, you know," I said, and showed him my badge. It twinkled.

He nodded. "I thought you had questions of faith!" he chortled. "But of course, anything to help the federal establishment. Ahem – my name is John Kirk."

I took note of this on my phone, but when I read it later my note just said Kirk the momron. I said, "Mr., uhm, Kirk. I'm looking for someone in particular, but let me start somewhere else. There is a dangerous individual of somewhat incriminating persuasive ability operating in the, ah, city."

He scratched the back of his neck, which I suppose could be a sign he was lying. The fat rolls on his neck quivered and proved to be distracting to my stoned mind. "Son, I don't know any person in the area like that, or anything particularly, ah, dangerous. Or even a little dangerous. Things are quiet round here!"

He clapped me on the shoulder again which made me flinch. I never received physical training. The federal government is remarkably uncaring when they deal with my department; you got a knack for it or you don't. Anyway, this smug bastard had more dirt than my tomato garden. I was starting to get a little paranoid, but the hidden .45 at my hip calmed me. It's sort of like a security blanket, only a security revolver, and instead of being a rest for your head, it makes heads explode. This puppy was stacked with silver bullets. I think it's a little more comforting than a blanket.

I almost vaped a bit more, but I breathed in and stopped myself. "Yeah. There someone else I could talk to?"

He looked around. His eyes were crazy, the sort of piercing grey that looks beautiful and deadly. They were striking, but his fat rolls were not. I thought if he were slim he'd be handsome. He checked his watch. "Well, you know, just for you, sir, you can go ahead and talk to the board inside the administration building. I'm just a community outreach leader!" he chuckled.

Mormons were nice people in my experience, more or less. I followed him through the dry air, and before we walked in, I saw a young broad with tattoos and a nose ring and purple hair leaning against the building, glaring at me. I grinned at her, and walked into the building. Haze in my mind, things strange, everything weird. I forgot about her right away. It was quite impressive inside, with oversize hallways and frankly rather gauche gold. All around me the gold and the silver swirled, and the paintings showed holy writ expressed in oils, God delivering tablets unto the new world, the light pouring in from the huge ceiling window panes. All of this is to say, I thought it was cool, and I told Kirk so.

"I'm glad you think so!" he said. "Just our way of, well, showing God's glory! But never mind, sir, never mind! This way, this way."

Kirk showed me down a hallway and I lost track of where we were going because I was way too high. Turned left into a door which wheeled left into a series of hallways where I suddenly was in an elevator which led to stairs which led down to another few doors, and I had no idea what I was doing. But here's the kicker. I checked my bag at some point – and the watermelon was gone! What the hell? What did I do with it? Was the target here? I was panicking.

Soon we were in an office and I realized I was sitting in a chair, and in front of me was a bald old man with circular glasses and I shook his hand and grinned and he told me he liked to speak to a man eye to eye so I took off my sunglasses but he said nothing about my red eyes. I was still pretty antsy about the whole watermelon situation, but you got to do one thing at a time, you know?

"Well met! My name is Mr. Bernstein, sir!" he said, in a real friendly voice.

"Pleasure. Handle's Eddie Valens."

I bet that if we weren't sitting down he would have clapped my shoulder. Thank God we were. He gave me a business card.

"So I hear you have some questions, Mr. Valens."

"That's right," I heard myself say, the room and my head swimming. I felt really good. "I'm here on behalf of the federal government in pursuit of…unusual occurrences we have reason to believe are in the area. I hate to be vague, but I can't reveal too much, you understand." I am still amazed I got it all out properly.

"I understand, sir. No – I am not sure about any unusual occurrences at all! There are minor crimes, and it is a city, you must understand, even if it is in God's land. But this has been a good summer, with good tourists, and good weather. This last month has been wonderful, so many curious new faces! Perhaps you are wrong about this individual?"

"Ah, mm. He – she – it…is definitely in the city. Mm…listen, pal. There's nothing? Not even the smallest thing? Small, real small, think microscopic, you know what I mean?" I found it hard to articulate such complex thoughts. And then it hit me like a spiked bat. Like a mallet. Like a real whop to the groin. I hadn't said jack about any individual. This was getting fishier than a Japanese pantry.

He looked like a goddamn egg with a smiley face on it. "No, sir. Nothing I can think of. Nothing remotely microscopic. Is there someone else, perhaps, you would like to talk to?"

I shook my head. I wasn't getting anything out of these eggheads. They said some stuff, and I did too, and they led me outside the building. I was almost sweating and my lips were parched and I drank some water from a fountain outside and when I looked up there was that chick from earlier. She was wearing torn jeans and an open plaid shirt over a black sleeveless shirt. She was attractive. Tan. Hispanic, maybe.

"Who the hell are you?" she said. She was giving off some real bad vibes. I looked for my sunglasses but frankly I couldn't find them anywhere. "I'm Eddie Valens. I'm an, ah, detective."

She glared at me. "Are you fucking stoned?" she said in disbelief.

"No, no. Well, yes. I mean, just a bit."

"Are you serious? A stoner G-man?" she started laughing. "Listen, you better come with me."

Who wouldn't go with her? I went, and we went downtown and I lost track and thought I really shouldn't vape more so I didn't and the street-walking lasted a while and I was surprised to feel a single bead of sweat roll down my forehead but it evaporated in seconds and then there was a big brick building and soon we were in this dank lounge and I was on the comfiest armchair I've ever been in and there were these two dudes and the chick whose name I should have gotten and she said, "There's some weird shit afoot."

I couldn't argue with that. I was really high. At some point I must have acquired a glass of water, so I drank it. I checked inside my bag, but still no watermelon. I was delighted to find my sunglasses in there, though. I put them on.

I looked at the girl and I asked her her name.

She rolled her eyes. "I'm Maria Gomez." I knew she was Mexican, or whatever.

"Looks like you know something I don't," I said, trying to focus. I think I had plateaued.

She nodded and the two dudes, who were pretty skinny and both smaller than me, whispered something. Beats me what they said.

Maria said, "You better go ahead and tell me everything you know."

"That's ridiculous. I should say the same to you," I showed her my badge.

"That doesn't mean shit to me," she said. "Look, I'm coming off on the wrong foot here. Something messed up is happening in the church, and you showing up has to be related."

This was too easy. "Mm. Go on about the church – and I'll tell you what I know."

One of the skinny dudes glared at me. "Listen, man, you're not in a position to argue –"

But Maria cut him off. "Shut up, Jerry." She sighed and lit a cigarette and offered me one but I told her I didn't smoke and she looked at me funny for some reason and went on. "It happened in the last month – you know Mormons, they're so nice. This city is built on them, and you know, us, and them, we tolerate each other."

I tried writing this down on my phone, but I got distracted and started to play this game I'd downloaded like a week ago so I turned it off.

"People have been converting more than ever. Huge increase. Started last month."

Yes. Bernstein had mentioned it was a good summer.

"And not just – people, you know, just random people. But – everyone! In the last month, the church has converted two hundred thousand people in the greater area. They say that God is among us. I don't know what they're doing, but something fucked up is going on. Valens, they converted my sister. She's been a staunch atheist all her life, and she, you know, she goes to parties – drinks, that kind of thing. Now it's like she's brainwashed. Like I don't even know her. Nice –giving – but in an empty way. Like a shell. Like she's…not herself. She just stays at home all day."

I nodded. These were classic symptoms. The target was here alright – it was here, and its feast had begun. They thrive on this sort of thing.

"I come home and my sister isn't herself – she's just a Mormon. She wants to go on a mission to Africa for god's sake." Maria dragged on her cigarette. "And my mother, Catholic all her life – she's one of them now, too. She keeps putting the Book of Mormon on my bed!"

The two dudes nodded. One of them, the blond one, said, "My best friend…I can't even talk to him anymore."

I sank back. I was sobering up a bit by now, thank god. Probably the adrenaline. Enough to think somewhat clearly. "I'm here on behalf of the federal government to track down an individual of…strong influence. These signs – the conversions – this spread – we can attribute it to this, ah, person."

She frowned at me. "If he's somewhere, it's at the church. But what's going on, Valens? One person can't cause all this."

Of course one "person" could not. I couldn't tell her the truth though. I just shrugged. "He…or she…is at the core of it anyway."

She sort of squinted at me the way you squint at someone that's full of shit, because I was. Anyway, it was done; I knew it was at the heart of it, because they always are. The dank room swirled around me, and more adrenaline boosted my heartbeat and cleared my senses.

"And you're just going to arrest this guy? Alone?" she asked.

There was nothing to be said. I wouldn't be arresting anybody. The two dudes in the back started jabbering, and I leaned in my chair and tried to relax. Something in the air changed. Like a hum all around me. Something unnatural. The world hummed with choir, and the air vibrated, got thick with haze, and I felt very calm. Something was going on. Cute Maria told them some words and they went away, and we were alone. I kept my hand on my .45. She leaned towards me and by God she smelled good and she said in a hushed tone, "I'm part of this, Eddie," which really wasn't what I was expecting. If she thought she could face the target she would die.

"You'll die if you come," I tried to say it mysterious-like, but I croaked it out.

The weird music got stronger. The choir of heavenly voices. She closed her eyes. She looked up at something, agape, and then she looked at me. Sensual. Something rippled up me. My head…thick with the haze, with the chanting. She kissed me on the lips. God damn. It is never this easy. She tasted like cigarettes and fruity lipstick. It was not on the whole unpleasant and it was even better when it happened again. I tried to resist because the target was messing with the place, with our heads, but she asked if I'd ever done it stoned. How do you say no to that? I actually had not. Believe that or don't. I enjoy genuine intimacy without substances. But, I was turned on and we got high together and we did it right there and God it was good. Gives feeling everywhere. Brushstrokes like strokes of skin, your head with hers, as you tumult together in that sofa, and that choir never stopped. It was like…Jesus. Like a postmodernist painting. I knew every part of her. Like colors on the canvas, feelings on the skin. It was so good. After, we slept.

Things never turn out that well, do they? When I woke up I found I was nude and strapped to a table, which really is not the first time I have found myself in a similar situation after a vicious session of love-making. However, the stone table was uncomfortable, and I was in an unfamiliar room. My groin was not aching as it is apt to do after release. I supposed I had been drugged, and I was no longer stoned, but stone-cold sober. My head pounded and pounded. Did any of that actually happen? There are a couple possibilities here. It could all have been a drugged delirium, but that would be embarrassing. I would rather say Miss Gomez actually seduced me and we made incredible, wild, sensational love and then she intoxicated me and tied me to this slab. Either is just as likely.

In any case, I was alert and awake, and my heart was pounding about as much as my head. I tried to shout but my voice hurt and I groaned instead. I swear I heard my mother's voice. She told me, in that lovely sweet way, that it would be alright. I appreciated the sentiment, but she was seven years dead. Still, mom always makes me feel better. My head pounded and my eyes adjusted to the dark but it was no good. All I saw was a room with no windows, just crappy fluorescent lighting from the nineties, concrete walls like a post-Soviet prison, and an old wooden door. A single bug crawled up my chest but I couldn't shake it off so I tried to blow it off like crazy. No good. It was a daddy longlegs which I know, intellectually, are harmless. It's disgusting anyway. I hate bugs.

I have sort of a trick, though, to help me deal with disgusting creatures. I just give them a name. So I named this daddy longlegs Kyle, because I can't think of a less threatening name. I used Kyle as a point of concentration to zone out on, and help me calm down. Kyle's little legs went plop plop plop up my body and he stopped somewhere on my chest. I found I was shaking less. Now I had to analyze the situation. I suppose Maria had lied all along, and she was under the target's control. Or she had another stake in the situation, though I can't imagine what. Clearly she had seduced me and drugged me, and dragged me here, probably with someone's help. The two scrawny guys, maybe. But then why tell me about the church? Why tell me anything? And how about Bernstein and Kirk – what was their angle? I was almost certain the church was involved. That was classic. The target was in the church just as sure as I was in the shit. Maria may have been in cahoots with them. Or he got her at the last second – used her to track me down. That would be clever. I realized then the target was perhaps cleverer than I had given him credit for. The worst ones are never the most powerful, or the biggest. They're the old, smart wise ones. The ones who have lived through centuries of human history, who know how we work and how to exploit us.

I thought I heard another voice. It was like a heavenly choir of women's angelic singing, in vocal form. I thought it was beautiful. I wasn't just imagining it; I was actually hearing it.

Edward Valens, went a voice. When it spoke it was in blissful melody. It was male, more or less, and surrounded by that choir of women's voices. It filled me with a sense of reverence for everything around me. Kyle, my skin, the air, the world. This is what an angel sounds like. A burning bush.

"Spit it out," I croaked.

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter.

"Fuck you."

Do you know the good book, Eddie Valens?

"Let me see your ugly mug. And enough with the cheesy music, alright, pal?"

God loves all His children, Eddie. Even you. Even the lambs that have been led astray. He loves them all the same.

"I'm not in the mood for a religious discussion."

You should be, my son. You stand on hallow ground; this is a holy city. Did you know that? The teachings of Christ are eternal, Eddie. Through centuries the holy writ has stood. The Old Testament, Lot and Abraham and their kin. Then the New Testament, which tells us of the Messiah. But it did not end there. No, child, no. There is…a third.

He had to be kidding me.

Could I interest you in the teachings of the prophet Joseph Smith and his flock within the third testament delivered from God unto His people? I know thou hast heard of this third book.

"You've got to be kidding me."

The Book of Mormon is true, Eddie. It is the truest thing thou shalt ever read, my son. Embrace God's light. Give in to His glory.

And I beheld a multitude of lights and pleasures in my mind, even lying there on that cold slab, naked, and tied, and I saw that it was good. I saw white and clouds and my dead mother garbed in beautiful robes of sunlight, and she embraced me and told me it would be OK, that she loved me after all, and it was good. And I saw the new Zion, and I saw an angel give golden tablets into that land, and it was so, so, so good. And I saw myself as a child, and I saw my father but he didn't hurt anyone anymore, as he did, he was forgiven by God. For the first time in my life I saw my father's face without fear of pain, for he was cleansed of sin. And God spoke unto me, and in holy light warmed me, and tears ran down my face because it was so beautiful.

Embrace the light, Eddie. I am a messenger of God. Open thy mind unto me, so that I may fill it with His radiance.

And I saw Joseph Smith open his mind and accept the tablets; and Nephi before him; and Luke before him; and Isaac before him. And I saw the communion of goodwill and sanctity on the world, and the more perfect version which was possible through Christ's teachings, and Smith's, and I saw the pearly gates of my mind start to open, and the angel speaking to me in my head trying to open it. Open the gates to the back of my mind. The voice, this angel, was entering my mind, and I felt bliss and enlightenment crawling at my fingertips, warming them, warming my whole body with magnificent fire…

Snap back. I shuddered, suddenly. Kyle was at my neck. Crawling upwards. Slabs. Bound. Real. Focus. Mormons. The target. I shuddered, pounded my head on the slab, which jolted me and matted my hair with some blood. Of course I knew then it had been the target all along, fooling me with his speech and wily words.

Thy mind is closing off to God, Eddie. Let Him go in. Accept my presence and it will be good. He will forgive thy sins…

"Buddy," I said, "the only place you'll be getting into is up your own hairy asshole."

AIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

That screech hurt like a truck with a grudge, and Kyle the daddy longlegs scuttled off. Of course I was still tied up, but I was getting the feeling the target worked through words rather than his own physical ability, at least at this range, which was lucky for me. Means he couldn't touch me…not yet. The wooden doors burst open and there was Bernstein, and good lord, he was no longer wearing a tailored blue suit but crimson robes, and his face was caked in dark blood.

His eyes were dry, dead, unseeing. "He has rejected the messenger of the lord. May God prepare him for the eternal torment he shall face."

There were more followers. They started humming in low tones. This was just classic. Textbook, really. They unchained me, grabbed me, bound me in tight rope. And there was Maria, clad in crimson robes, and she looked down at me, holding a black trash bag.

"Wait, wait, one second. Please, Maria. Answer me just one question," I said.

Maria was pale, uncaring. "What?"

"Did we…you know. Do it?"

Her eyes were dead. "I am pure in God's eyes. I would do nothing with a heathen."

The bag shoved over my head muffled my swears. They dragged me down corridors, chanting something in Latin. I was panicking, because let's not kid ourselves, I am not that cool, and being naked and bagged and dragged to a horrible monstrosity with low Latin chanting echoing around Mormon church walls would be enough to freak out Dirty fucking Harry.

Yes, of course they train us in Latin, it's practically my second language.

"Sanguinem sacrificii," they went. Means blood sacrifice. Too rich.

I suppose that being fed to the beast was, at least, an iconic way to go. I pissed myself. Don't blame me, it's a common reflex. I wished I could at least have seen mom one last time before I went, but we can't ask for everything, can we? Just then they dunked me into something sweet and sticky, and I realized I was being dipped in watermelon juice.

Behold, it said, and I sensed it was close, what happens to the unbelievers. He shall be consumed in ash and dust like the partisans of Sodom and Gomorrah. Yes, Nephites, Followers, and men and women of God, let there be sacrifice so that the world is cleansed!

They shoved the bag off my head and I was face to face with the target. Of course it didn't assume its true form, because that would be…uncouth. I was dealing with a clever one. It looked like a gentle baby, pale, sanguine, with blue eyes and thin blond hair. If I had my revolver, it would also have six holes in it. Shit. The followers behind me gathered in a semicircle and continued chanting. I was dripping in the watermelon juice, and I felt sticky and my hair was matted. I bet I smelled real hot, combined with all my sweat and piss. They set me down and I stood naked and wet before the babe. It moaned in expected pleasure and opened its mouth to reveal a long, swishing purple tongue.

It was disgusting. Every few seconds the tongue pulsed and thin membranes of hair which tasted the air quivered. Celia, I suppose. The tongue got near my face and it pulsed with the hairs and they were over me, smelling, tasting, and excreting white-hot mucus.

O what a sinner. O Lord! O Lord, show me the way! it said, delighted, its voice radiating pleasure.

I grabbed its tongue hard with my hand to snap it, but it was no good. It kept extending and whipping, and it was too gelatinous to break. It wrapped around me, constricting me, and gluing me to the pulsing membranes. I was stuck to it and the hairs oozed hot mucus and began burning my hand and I screamed in pain. I looked back at the crowd, but they were too far gone into its grasp to do anything for me. I looked around. Had to observe my surroundings. Adrenaline cleared my head. I was in the middle of the Mormon cathedral. It was nighttime and the moon shone brightly overhead, through ceiling window panes. The tongue started twisting around my body, circling my chest, my belly, my groin. The membrane hairs pulsed and burned. It smelled like my own charred flesh and I saw my skin was burning. I realized the horrible screams all around me were my own.

I tried clawing myself free, and the tongue ensnared me but as it had no muscle it didn't restrain me completely. But it entangled me and it burned awful, like fire. What could I do? Burning, my flesh, my screams, the chanting crowd.

"Agnus Dei, mortem amplecti, agnus Dei, mortis complexa. Bonum est Deus!" they went.

Then I saw it. More fire – the altar! I grabbed a candle from the altar, screaming, crying, and I thrust it into the throbbing membranes and the tongue began to smoke and light with the candle-fire and it was ablaze, lit smoke wafting through the air.

It did not have the effect I was hoping for though because the light did little to deter this particular creature and the its tongue was at my neck and soon it would be at my eyes and I fell to my knees and without thinking I threw the lit candle straight at the babe.

And I cried, choking, "Let there be light!"

And there was light. And oh, baby, was it good.

The babe, combustible, acidic, and sometimes hairy, was set ablaze. Its membranes pulsed with pain and the tongue released me and I fell on my knees, burned, panting, to the ground.

KILL HIM! said the angel. KILL THE SINNER.

And the crowd ran towards me, clawing and grabbing, and I wished for a weapon because the babe, still aflame, was not dead and mere fire would not be enough. I jumped to the altar and I grabbed a candle-holder and I kissed it because I am a sucker for theater and I prayed that it was silver. I stabbed the babe through the head with it.

They had been grabbing at me, clawing me, and I was bleeding from my side, but when I shunt that thing through the babe's skull, it exploded with blood, and the legion paused, broken from religious fervor. But the target was not finished, and even with the silver candle-holder embedded in its skull it writhed and screamed in agony and the flames extinguished and it showed its true form, a pulsating monstrosity of pink tentacles writhing from a gelatinous grub-like mass which was thick with those throbbing pulsing thin hairs. It had five more of the tentacles that had been its tongue. And the clergy awoke from their stupor and began screaming when they saw the target in its true form.

It had abandoned human speech at this point and its guttural sounds made me nauseous but I didn't throw up, not yet, and I looked at Maria, who was shocked, awakened, and I shouted at her to get my gun for the love of god please get my gun get the fucking thing jesus christ and she ran and ran and its tentacles wrapped around me, four of them, and I smelled smoke coming from my own torso. I saw death come, and he was pissed.

And through the air of the church there was three explosions. Three shots. They tore through the screams and the low guttural calls and the smoke and the burning and the creature exploded with the silver bullets tearing its flesh and dark blood spewed everywhere, the target vomiting black goo on the ground, and the tentacles quivering and the hairs spewed mucus all around and it twitched and moaned and fell. When it died, it convulsed, crying, melting, until there was nothing but charred black flesh.

The target was eliminated. I let myself throw up, and I passed out.

When I awoke I was in a hospital high on morphine which was plenty welcome and they told me I was suffering from third degree burns on my neck and body, as well as several minor lacerations, a rash, and Hepatitis B, which I could have gotten from anywhere. There had been a lot of blood. Not bad, overall. That was the end of that job, I guess. I got my money. It was another six months before the suits called me up again.

I saw Maria one last time, and I thanked her for her quick shooting, and she said it was nothing. I asked her out but she said she was engaged. She was embarrassed about the whole thing. It seems the creature had used her. There was nothing to forgive, of course. It wasn't her fault. I looked as Maria left and coughed, looked pale. Asked if she was alright, she said she was a little sick, with a fever. We said goodbye, then, but I can't help wonder what she was sick with.

The church covered up the incident with the help of the feds, of course. Remarkably there were only half a dozen deaths as a result of the whole shebang. They were reported as missing indefinitely. The church, unfortunately, lost quite a number of followers in the following few weeks. It took me a month to recover. I took a plane north to colder weather, where I got my Seuss paintings. They look damn good on my wall.

It's a dry heat in that city. The sweat can't get into your eyes, but the salt can. That burns even harder.