The Devil's Equinox, page 1
The Devil’s Equinox
FLAME TREE PRESS
London & New York
the devil at bay.
The space had once served as a suburban bedroom, but this was clearly no longer a place where anyone slept. It was now a place of worship. Or blasphemy. Dark ceremony. The air hung thick with the commingled scents of singed bitter herbs and melting wax. Candles flickered in triad clusters from every corner. The walls were lit in their warm shadows. Thirteen small flames provided the only source of light in the room. The sole window served not as a view to the outside, but rather as a mirror to the candles, the black of night reflecting the events going on within.
A woman walked back and forth there, preparing. She was thin and pretty, with long black hair that fell in waves across a dark silken robe. She set a wooden box before a single candle on the small table near the far wall that served as an altar. It was covered in assorted jars and stone figures. She touched the lit candle to something inside the box. A wisp of aromatic smoke curled in a silent whisper from within.
A golden crucifix hung upside down on a wire above the homemade altar. The Jesus figure was blackened from the residue of the smoke that rose from below.
The woman undid the sash and dropped her robe to the floor. She was naked beneath, her skin covered only by tattoos of a witch’s star on her breast and the curve of a snake fashioned from the number six on her arm. She knelt upon a black sheet that covered the floor.
A witch’s star was sewn in white in the center of the sheet, and the woman’s knees touched the inside points of one arm of the star. She reached into a large jar placed on the floor beside her and came back with a handful of something dark. Closing her eyes, she pressed the substance to her chest, and began to massage it across her torso and thighs as she whispered strange, ancient words that sounded dark. Words of power.
In moments, she shone like a dark angel in the center of the candlelight.
When all of her limbs were slick with the balm, she stood, approached the altar and lifted a small blackened clay figure lying there.
“Tonight,” she whispered.
She held the figure at arm’s length, and a grin slid across her face. She lifted a small dagger from the altar with her free hand and touched the tip to her nipple. When a red bead of blood appeared, she pressed the face of the doll to her naked breast, as if to let it suckle her life.
“Tonight, you will be mine,” she whispered. “One taste and you will know only what I say.”
She looked up at the blasphemous cross and showed her teeth. “He will be mine as I am yours,” she said. Then she lay down with the doll in the center of the star, spreading her legs and arms wide, offering her body to the Lord of Night.
Offering her soul to the darkness.
The Secret Room was quiet tonight. There were only three cars parked on the street out front, but the warm neon light of a Revolution Brewing sign beckoned him through the window. A sign of home.
As he stepped in, Austin held his hand out behind him to stop the screened wooden door from slamming him in the ass. A forgotten rockabilly band set an instantly retro mood from small speakers tucked on corner shelves to the right and left of the bar. A familiar strand of Christmas lights twinkled across the shelf of liquor above the bar, and may have provided the brightest light in the place. It wasn’t Christmastime, but the bar was ‘festive’ all year round.
Austin crossed the old plank floor and took an empty seat at the far right of the bar.
The nice thing about having a neighborhood bar was that if you warmed a stool with any frequency, you were like family. He was barely settled when an amber IPA slid across the polished wood to touch his fingers.
“You want a sidecar too?” Brandon asked, as he wiped down the bar with an old Lagunitas towel. The brewery’s logo mascot was just barely recognizable through the brown stains.
Austin nodded. “Maker’s, thanks.”
“You’re starting pretty late,” Brandon observed.
“Or I could be starting really early,” he said.
Brandon moved down the bar and retrieved an empty pint from a heavyset guy in a Bears T-shirt and a backward baseball cap with the unmistakable blue hue used by the Cubs.
Austin took a deep sip of the Anti-Hero IPA that Brandon had poured without asking (because Austin had to admit, he was nothing if not predictable) and stared at the clock. It was just past eleven-thirty on a Sunday night. Honestly, it was surprising that anyone was in here. Parkville, Illinois, was typically pretty quiet on a school night. The carpets started rolling up by eight or nine p.m.
“So did she kick you out, or are you on the lam?” Brandon said, carefully setting down a shot glass full to the brim.
Austin grinned. “I told her she could think about what life would be like without me to carry her shit,” he said. “And then I walked out.”
Brandon nodded. “So, what you’re really saying is, you beat your chest pathetically and she told you to get the fuck out and you slunk out of the place with your tail between your legs?”
Austin picked up the shot. “Something like that.”
The bartender nodded. “Love and marriage,” he said. “So, what’s the problem this week?”
“The problem is we got married,” Austin grumbled, and then shrugged and rolled his eyes. “Seriously? I have no idea. It doesn’t matter what I say, Angie goes off on it.”
“Sounds like you need an exit plan,” a voice offered. A woman in shorts and sandals was sitting two seats down. When she saw she had his attention, she slipped a small journal she’d been writing in back into a purple paisley handbag and met his gaze with hazel eyes that glinted with wry humor. She looked young, thirty-ish, with long black hair that hung in waves down her bare shoulders. “Sorry,” she said, grinning sheepishly. “I couldn’t help diving in.”
“No worries,” Austin said. “My life is a pretty open book. Here at the Secret Room anyway.”
“I think this place is a secret,” she said, gesturing behind them at the dark shadows and empty tables.
Austin shrugged. “It’s a school night. Come back on Friday after eight o’clock and you’ll find the secret’s out.”
She smiled and took a sip of her drink. It was something that swirled slowly, smoky and red in a wide-rimmed glass on a stem. Austin was surprised Brandon even knew how to mix a froufrou martini.
“What are you drinking?” he asked.
“Witches’ brew,” she said, and flashed him an evil grin. She pushed the glass toward him. “One sip and you lose your soul.”
“Thanks, but I’ll pass,” Austin said. “My soul belongs to bourbon.” He held up his sidecar shot (which was really about three shots, since Brandon poured it in a tumbler, not a shot glass) and took a sip.
“Suit yourself,” she said, before taking a long sip of her own poison.
The silence between them grew as the band on the sound system overhead chugged through a standard blues progression. Brandon was on the other side of the bar, talking animatedly with Gail Renfisher, who seemed to have a reserved stool on the north corner of the old bar. Did she ever go home?
“Do you live around here?” Austin asked finally. “I haven’t seen you here before.”
“I think the line is, ‘Do you come here often?’” she answered with a smirk.
Austin couldn’t help but grin. “That wasn’t a line,” he sa
“Fair enough,” she said, peering at him over the rim of the martini glass. “I just moved here, actually, so you caught me. But…maybe you’ll get used to seeing me here. We’ll see.”
He nodded and took a deep swig of his beer. The IPA cooled his throat and warmed his chest at the same time. The bitter tingle of hops brightened the night at the same time as it obscured his heartache. He’d barely set the empty pint down when Brandon was there to fill it up.
“You working tomorrow?” the bartender asked. “Or is it going to be a sick day?”
Austin snorted. “That depends on how many you can serve me before last call.”
Brandon looked at the old cuckoo clock on the wall behind him. It was an odd addition for a bar, but everyone at the Secret Room had grown used to the call of its mechanical bird. The hands were ominously close to twelve.
“You’ve got about an hour,” he said.
Austin nodded and picked up the glass. “I’ll use the time wisely,” he said, tilting the IPA back.
“Pretty bad fight, huh?” the woman next to him asked.
He shrugged. “One is much like another,” he said.
“Maybe you need to make some changes,” she offered.
He made a face. “That’s just life,” he said. “Same shit, different day.”
She shook her head, refusing to accept his complacency. “If you’re living like life is over than you might as well be six feet underground, eh?”
The tiny creak and comforting ‘cuckoo’ of the wooden bird poking through the clock’s door interrupted his thought.
“Cuckoo,” the bird called.
The woman smiled, and her eyes suddenly lit up.
“Quick,” she said. “It’s the witching hour. The time for wishes.”
“If you could have anything in the world, what would you want? Answer fast, before the clock strikes twelve!”
Austin laughed sadly.
“I wish my wife would just go away and die and stop giving me grief.”
He rolled his eyes. “I wish my wife was dead. How’s that for romantic?”
She laughed, and flipped her hair back with one hand. It cascaded across her shoulder.
Austin caught a glimpse of a blue tattoo mostly hidden by her shirt and bra, but then the shirt and hair shifted back.
“Every married guy wants that sometimes, don’t they?” she said.
“You married?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Not anymore.”
The clock silenced then, the bird retreating back inside its hidden room inside the clockface.
The woman retrieved the small book from her handbag, and wrote something inside it. Then she put it back and took another long pull from her martini.
“Drink,” she whispered with a mischievous grin. “For tomorrow we die!”
Monday wasn’t a sick day, though it should have been the way his head felt. But Austin wasn’t going to admit that to Angie, so he’d stumbled out of the house, through the day, and back to the couch twelve hours later. It didn’t matter in the end. She wasn’t speaking to him.
He didn’t care about the silence on Monday, but it did start to get annoying on Tuesday. When Ceili cried and he got up from the couch to go check on her, Angie would leap up to push past him and take care of diaper duty. She wouldn’t answer when he spoke; it was as if he wasn’t even there at all.
The worst part about it was, Austin knew how pigheaded she could be. The silent treatment could easily go on for a week. Nothing he would do or say would change it. And the maddening part was, he truly couldn’t even recall what the genesis for the fight was, or what particular things he might have said that had stuck in her craw that she wouldn’t let go of. In her head, he knew she had memorized whatever he’d said and was repeating the words of their fight over and over again.
In his head, he heard only silence.
So Austin wasn’t looking forward to the night ahead as he pulled into the white concrete driveway on Wednesday. The sun was bright and the sky was a lush deep blue, without a cloud in the sky – a perfect summer evening. But he knew when he walked inside, it would be like stepping into the gray gloom of bitter winter.
He turned off the ignition and leaned back in the driver’s seat inside the garage for a moment. Then he took a deep breath and opened the door. You couldn’t avoid the inevitable by sitting in a parked car.
Austin opened the house door and stepped into the mudroom outside the kitchen.
There were voices on the other side of the door. Which was odd. Angie never had people over. He frowned and opened the internal door from the mudroom to the kitchen.
Angie was laughing as he entered.
“Oh, here he is,” his wife said, turning to look at him with a smile. It was the first thing she’d said to him in two days.
“Austin, this is our new neighbor, Regina. She just started renting the house next door. Regina, this is my husband.”
He looked past her to see the woman and his jaw fell. The woman wore a purple and blue paisley wrap around her waist and a lavender tank top above. The hint of a tattoo teased from the low V of her shirt. Black hair pooled around her shoulders, and her eyes shot sparks when he made contact with them. He recognized her instantly.
It was the woman from the Secret Room. The woman who had smiled when he’d said, “I wish my wife was dead.” And now here she was, standing in his house. Laughing with his wife.
Angie mistook the surprised look on his face. “I know, it’s weird, right? That house has been vacant for years. But now we’ll finally have a neighbor.”
“Good to meet you,” Regina said, and stepped forward with her hand outstretched.
Austin took it and gave a perfunctory squeeze. She squeezed back and held his hand in her grip for an uncomfortable few seconds. As if she was sending him a secret message through her fingers. He wished he knew what it was.
“Yeah, same,” he stammered, and drew his hand back.
“Regina just stopped over to meet us,” Angie explained. “I told her that if she needs anything…I’m here all the time.”
“I really appreciate it,” Regina said, looking away from Austin. “It’s hard to start in a new place and not know anybody.”
“You’ll adjust fast,” Angie promised. “Parkville is a good place. People are pretty friendly, even if the place turns into a ghost town after dark. Not that it matters to me anymore. Since we had Ceili, I never get out of this house except to go grocery shopping.”
“Well, maybe I can help there,” Regina said. “I’m sure you and your husband would love a little time alone again. If you need someone to sit for you once in a while, I love babies.”
Angie smiled. “I would love that,” she said.
Regina looked pointedly at Austin. “You wouldn’t mind a romantic evening out with your wife, would you?”
Austin felt Angie’s eyes on him, but he didn’t look at her. He didn’t break Regina’s gaze for a second.
“No,” he said. “That would be unbelievable.”
Regina grinned and turned to Angie. “Great,” she said. “For now, I’d better be going. Lots of unpacking to do. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Sure,” Angie agreed and the two women both started out of the kitchen toward the front door.
“Nice meeting you, Austin,” Regina’s voice calle
“Yeah,” he answered, adding under his breath, “just like déjà vu.”
Austin went to the bedroom to change into sweatpants and a T-shirt. When he came back down, Angie was moving around in the kitchen.
“So that’s weird, huh,” he said as he walked into the room. “Someone actually living next door? That house has got to be a pit after all these years empty.”
Angie nodded and pulled a frozen dinner out of the freezer. “Yeah,” she answered simply.
She turned her back to him and set the temperature on the oven to 350.
“So, what did she have to say?” he asked.
Angie shrugged. “Pretty much what you heard.”
At that moment, the baby began to cry in the other room. Angie immediately turned and walked past him. “I’m just having a TV dinner,” she said. “You can throw one in for yourself if you’re hungry.”
And then she was gone, down the hall to retrieve the baby from her bouncy chair in the front room.
“Gee…thanks so much,” he murmured.
He thought of the conversation he’d had a couple nights ago with Regina at the bar, and shook his head.
“I wasn’t joking,” he said after a minute.
Then he began rummaging in the freezer for a TV dinner.
It took a few days, but eventually Angie thawed. She needed someone to help with Ceili, and he was the nearest possible candidate…so, like it or not, she had to talk to him.
Although…he might be getting some competition in that regard. Apparently, Regina had been stopping by every day while Austin was at work.
“Want to go out to dinner tonight?” Angie asked him on Saturday.
Austin frowned and looked at her, wondering where this was going.
“Regina offered to watch Ceili tonight if we wanted to go out,” she said. “And it has been a long time since I’ve been out of this house.”
“Where did you want to go?” he asked. But in his head he was thinking, You don’t want to go out with me, you just want to go out.
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