Backwater, Part II of III

Part Two: The Gambler Luther “Doc” Santo Campo

Swim into my mouth and straighten the needle, for I have lost the thread. Ridley DeLeure, I will never know you now, for the shade I pursue has folded his wings around the images and words. My digestive juices have eaten through the parts that might tell me why you came here and not some kinder place. Did you overcome the sin in which you began? But I forget—my memory is a smaller fish and my lamp passes quickly over the schools of small thoughts—everyone comes here now.

Hell used to be such a chaotic, disorderly place. A strict plutocracy. Every theology and system of divine accounting vied for dominance. The Devil retained a power of veto, but was assiduously petitioned by disgruntled representatives of the Sumerian underworld, Haitian lua and Limpopo Death gods who complicated the road to heaven with obscure injunctions. Now Hell is in the hands of the Allotment, the combined force of every Titan, Æsir and minor Nephilim. Everyone—or at least everyone dead—is raked across its pillar, bardo or eightfold path in turn. Prior to taking the chute that feeds my river, each soul faces an impartial jury: Osiris takes the heart in hand and places it on a scale, whereupon its lightness is determined against the requisite feather. Odin hangs the same soul from a branch of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, so as to discover whether the strength of its faith in Valhalla outstrips the steely bark. Kali dances upon the dead body’s bones until they are ground and with her six arms unriddles the dust of which he is made to reveal aspects of lepers and kings, inspecting each life to see whether this was the best. This way no one is unrepresented, disappointment is minimalized and no religion is privileged over another way of life. But bordered by so many checks and balances, salvation becomes impossible.

I exist to put out the fire of life. The Allotment will not find I have shirked my task if I devour the souls that interest me first. And now, though I have lost DeLeure forever, a new knot of essence, congealed with Elysian kelp and radiant with my rival’s conspiracy, comes drifting into view.

Why such an exodus from the land of living? Was there a massacre? A war? Or did I overslumber on the flat places’ final day and spend the Judgment preening the parasites from my scales? Either way, to be at all is to be related to me. Dogpaddle along the stream if you will; all things wind up crushed between my jaws. Swim into my mouth, Luther Santo Campo, called “Doc.”

***

Art by J.K. Potter

Art by J.K. Potter

Part Two: The Gambler Luther “Doc” Santo Campo

We all end in flies, it said or seemed to say. The insect had landed on your infant eyelashes and, perched iridescently above your face, it allowed you to count its eyes. To see the world through its wings. It agreed to become your patron; a fly in swamp country, where Christmas lights hung from the willows year-round and news came by pirogue, was a most capable agent. From that day forward, your care and attention to detail operated at a minute distance from the surface. Yes, you knew where all the small things were. Your mind ably crossed-stitched the cleavage between acts and their consequences and so your friends called you Doc. Eventually you forgot all about Luther Santo Campo, the poor river-rat son of Cajun shipbuilders, pushed off from your birth-shore and got well afloat before the raft commenced its spinning and you sensed me in the water, nipping at your toes when you chanced death.

A player of propositions was a natural occupation for someone blessed with an algebraic gaze. You needed but cough and possibilities narrowed to their outcomes: you bet on mosquito bites, weighing by their size precisely how much blood each insect could carry; owned a prize bullfrog that always caught an odd number of flies; gambled on the moods of chameleons and guessed at the combined age of all the local obituaries. At Gondola’s Casino, you made a gentleman’s agreement with the staff: you would lose occasionally. Watching the hypnotic juggle of cigarette tips, the feckless tells of those desperados with mullets like Roman Centurions, you came to the conclusion that Gondola was piping in a custom blend of nitrous oxide and a faintly toxic agent filched from the swamp to encourage spending by disorientation. Par en sous. When you calmly confronted the impresario with your findings, you found yourself with a place on the staff and a generous check you gladly cashed in exchange for a prematurely aged exterior. And then there you were: A gray bearded folk hero with kind eyes and a ring of bones around his hat. Your title—Problem Solver—amused you and, in time, it was how you learned to see yourself. Dit mon la verite!

“Hey Doc, we got us a belligerent in the Santería room. We took his knife at the door, but the dude came in tanked. He’s falling all over the regulars and losing steadily.”

“Well now junior, it don’ madda. Dat’s a problem gonna take care of itself. Jus’ give dat dude a chance to embarrass himself. Cracher en l’air ca va tomber sur le nez, that’s what ah say. Say now kiddo, what kinda shirt is bel homme wearin’ asteur?”

“Alligator pattern Doc.”

“Caimon? Well that’s good for starters peeschwank, now pay attention ‘cause ah like you—say, was that there knife be’s bein’ a big ol’ cocain skullfucker or one of them weenier moochons?

“Skullfucker, Doc.”

“Well, there you go, Junior, guy’s got the gumbo. Here’s how we’re gonna play it. Dis couyon starts to bother any of dem nice people again, you tell the guys jus ask him is dat a crocodile or alligator and when he’s thinkin’ it ova he’ll forget to hide his cards, get all fout pas mal and get himself disqualified. Den he’s the bar’s problem and they can jus wait for him to fall asleep and haul him to the banket. Now is that a plan or am ah funnin’ you?”

Two minutes later, you felt like a boogalee Octavian before the security monitors:

“You were right Doc. It did work itself out.”

“What did ah tell you, podna? Pass a slap if ah ever steer you wrong, it worked itself on out, right junior?”

“You said it, Doc. Worked itself out.”

The casino closed for Yule and to avoid being caught moping around the grounds, you fled to the landlocked states with no purpose but to go rodee‘ and do the fly’s work for a spell, flitting between dung piles. You bought and reasonably restored a boat-sized stunt speeder with the words GRANDE BIGARNO painted on the side and whose last owner had left it with a sequence of improvements that began with a convenient flame retardant coating left over from the filming of Stand Up For Bastards! and ran all the way to a secondary fuel tank, which it’s a shame no one told you never got hooked up to the gauge because you wound up left in the lurch when the beastly claptrap ran out of fuel in some corncobbly Nowheresville off Highway 81.

Noticing how the brightening headlights lit up the recently laid street tar, you opted out of the usual thumbery and attempted shadow puppets. Spider-doing-pushups and sea-anemone missed the mark, but rabbit lured a charitable motorist to the curb.

‘Scuse me podna,” you said as you slumped, a sopping wet mound of smoke-smelling leather, into the passenger’s seat, “Seems ah’m a castaway of de broke-down variety. Here’s hopin’ you ain’t a swinger or nothin’.”

“Far from it, my brother,” said the stranger and pulled the raincoat loose from his collar so you could see he was a priest, “My church was made for castaways.”

“Reckon ah done gambled away mah credit wit’ de upstairs department.”

“And yet you were selected,” his grin wider than the highway strip, “I prayed for a herald to do God’s work on earth and He sent me you. I knew you by the sign of the mendicant.”

“Qui c’est q’ca? Ah was intendin’ a hare.”

“Close enough.”

The car followed the signs west until roadside hotels and billboards disappeared and all the manifold trauma of cities seemed pinned between the yellow lines of the road. Around here the towns were one-street ramshackles, blazing white churches and bent track. Some two dozen hectic years of progress and decline in the outlying world faded before the barbed wire and rebar that looped in this infinitely slighter planetoid, as though to ensnare the rare visitors from the highway. In regions of such primeval isolation, the Great Flood or Second Coming is a greater heartache than the elections or wars that preoccupy the spoony masses of the flat places. You were closer to Hell than you could have guessed and after an hour of this diabolical landscape, the priest asked if you could make out a black car in the rear view, following at a distance of a mile with its lights off. You replied you couldn’t, but that you knew it was there as surely as you knew that the mouse hides silver dollars in his hole or that stagnant juice goes boozy in the open air. Even odder was your certainty that this was not the first fog that had hid the black car’s metallic, scum-covered shanks from you.

“I knew it,” said the priest, “It follows me wherever I go.” Only then did he introduce himself: he was the deacon of Good-Morrow and his name was Ridley DeLeure.

[Fancy this, my breakfast cavorting with my lunch. I am intrigued though cursed to forget. Aimless new thoughts—randomly looped palimpsests and dubious subsurface koans—lobby to displace the dead souls that grope for a handhold inside my membrane. Santo Campo is still stuck between my teeth; I feel my enemy trying to pull him loose, so I sink to an aquatic temple nestled in this dislodged piece of Pangea. I do not recall having been here before, though the tabernacle is festooned with my leavings; a snug cavern where primitive paintings and cracked sculptures of Baal are still halfway visible under my headlamp. Of course, I have no eyes left to appraise them, only the lingering life-stain of antediluvian fingers. Never, for all I know, have I been so close to my enemy. Yes. I know what endless wraith is behind the wheel of that black and battered car. Your faithfully gaping maw is here, Santo Campo. I am here Ridley Deleure. Speak in unison and fill my throat, for the water grows murky. And time is short.]

The flies that attended your birth circled in a halo as you reached the crest of a rising, many-precipiced hill. (“E ou ce qu’il reste?”) A pointed, venerable church stood there, covered in a stained glass Savior of riotous hues. Your patron took you inside his city of refuge. Never had you seen such an amassing of sacred things: chthonic gods kept watch over victory gardens that sprawled like portable Edens around the perimeter; miniscule arches and cupolas dressed model cities of Babylon, Jerusalem, Nineveh and Antioch; mounted pike wheels strung with Bible verses turned in perpetuity; the brick path to the ziggurat was overhung with latticework and studded with mirrors.

“Where we at, preacher?”

“Belladonna County. A place that used to be called Good-Morrow. But now it is no-place. Home to the no-people. I call it the Church of Gehenna.”

Inside the church were quarters to house a community roughly the size of Gondola’s nightly clientele and a rectory basement that widened into a catacomb stockpile. You touched the walls where they left off stone and became what you strongly suspected was the excess metal of recycled school buses. You estimated expiration dates for the amassed vegetables and sealed packets of condensed foodstuff and registered that you’d found yourself transported to a fortress against the final days. Rooms had been prepared to mimic an uninhabitable outer world, with dioramas devoted to days at the circus, evenings under stars that turned out to be zodiacal trompe l’oeils. Indoor duck ponds, beaches and veldts; a life’s work in cultivated fauna, mail-order flora, laborious handicraft and soldered metal trees. In one room, you found your face or at least a striking resemblance.

“That’s The Gambler by the prophet Kenny Rogers. This is the record room. So that the children that inherit the earth can have all that I, in my youth, was denied. I have quite a collection, but I began with this. You see? Your place in the Divine plan.”

This part you never questioned, for what’s the harm in swapping one illusion for another when the stakes are small and everything appears like a temporary clot on the windscreen? Life was a game for you, Santo Campo (called Doc) and what were you but a player? Take a chance and place your bets, said the fly, and if Judgment Day does come, you’ll have a roof over your head and records to play. In Ridley DeLeure’s Church of Gehenna you’d been dealt a strange hand indeed. But you never questioned his mission, never mocked his garden of earthly delights—the most fruitful plain in a receding world where he proposed the future would begin.

“The snake is on its climb, Doc,” quoth Belladonna’s homegrown prophet, “but I found the way out. For thirty years I’ve broken rocks and soldered metals so that the saved may have an ark when the kingdom comes. But it’s no good without the wretched.  Without the meek.”

“The meek, n’est pas? Y’hear so much about dem.”

“Those to whom the earth is unfriendly. Go forth and find them. Fill my church with the ones worth saving.”

When you returned to the Grande Bigarno with an urn of oil tucked behind the seatbelt, an invisible clarion hummed in your ears. The song of an archangel who had found his calling. As for the blessed few fated to survive the Reckoning, you knew you’d know them when you saw them. Some you would recruit, others would have to come to the new church under false pretenses.

You painted your orange car white and chased roads back where they came from. As for the elect, your judgment never faltered, and it was the same game as before, wasn’t it, except instead of guessing at clubs and diamonds you were weighing the best among men. The hopeless, the lost, the trod upon, broken and holy; you looked into their hearts like I’ve eaten into yours and saw how marked they were for salvation, smoking alone outside pizza parlors, bent over gas pumps. You became adept at sweeping them from the chairs of tattoo parlors, finding them asleep on benches and, when forced to enter the cities, you lay in wait in your car with the same song playing over and over. Every night on earth had one absolutely perfect song. Finding it was just a matter of paying attention to the way the wind clattered and the trains howled their requests for the jukebox. You let songs guide you to the strays and lost souls Ridley’s church required. And when they approached, you opened the door and carried them away like an angel come for? a sick man. That’s right—we have a ferryman here too, as you may have heard, and you acted as a perfect antipode. In this way, the two places came one step closer to the equilibrium that Heaven has always bandied about and Hell has always shunned.

Lands long believed fallow bristled to life under your care, as the children you saved colored the hillocks with their shirts and playthings: toy airplanes that had run afoul of the updraft and fallen between two sulking crags, rocking horses left to blanch in the sun, wiffle bats and wooden dolls imprinted in a patch of moss. These were the only clues that the topsy-turvy peaks were anything but deserted. The pines were hung with secret chimes, so that when one of your flock spotted a distant lineman’s maintenance vehicle or stray hiker distending the perfect flatness of the horizon, the community, in a flurry of sneakers and Big Wheels, fled to the sanctuary of the catacombs and huddled in a storied nook until you or DeLeure announced over intercom that the danger was passed.

Even during those tense intervals, when silence and fear trespassed in Ridley’s peaceable kingdom, all it took was one wink from you, a scratch from your whiskers or a coin snatched from an ear, and once again childish laughter wafted like honey down the halls. The Church of Gehenna was a happy place, free from the wounds that festered in the land below. No magazines or books entered the complex without your review; you alone were the measure of how much secular matter mingled with DeLeure’s gospel truth. And so you were certain no one knew of the black car that sometimes circled the base of the mountain in the forlorn and secondhand starlight of the early morning.

[The images jump inside my belly. I am about to lose my lunch, and with it my enemy, forever. But wait, what of the end? What transpired that brought Santo Campo and his master here in tandem? And what of me? Have I not listened like a good executioner ought? I gurgle in the darkness and one last dream of your life in the flat places rises to all possible surfaces—but principally yours and mine.]

The first time you saw little Ruthie, she was in the parking lot of the Higgledy Piggledy Mart rifling through a dumpster. And—beaucoup crasseux!—it was the presumptive Dumpster of the Covenant! She’d accrued an astonishing pile of cast-off dresses, wigs, socks and a pair of platform shoes. There was no need to be picky—Ruth had one blue eye and the other one was green, so everything matched. And she wasn’t so little, not really. Even in the lights of the Bigarno, you recognized an experienced demoness in local costume: Daisy Dukes, navel pierced with a ruby snare, red tank top with spaghetti straps, hair like a startled skunk. The girl was mal pris; yours was not the first car Ruth Blossom had climbed inside. She told you, once the night music soothed her initial alarm at encountering kindness, that her diet consisted of the milk they left in front of the department store in the morning supplemented by sparkly ChapStick and fingernails.

“J’ai gros couer. Yuh poor darlin’ pop chock.”

“Pop chock?” Ruth Blossom twisted inside the seatbelt, “What is pop chock?”

“It means little bird. And I’m the bird dog’s gonna take you home to roost.”

But it wasn’t in Ruth’s nature to roost, was it Doc? She was an occupational runaway like you were a gambler: inevitably, the same sleepless nights you spent playing solitaire in your office were the ones when Ruth slid out her window on a knotted bedsheet and hastened through the sycamores. “Mais, jamais d’la vie,” you’d sigh at the first report of Ruth’s truancy, don your hat and coat off the hook on the door (“E you ce qu’t’as mit mon chapeau?”) and commence checking the local caverns, grottoes and the abandoned homesteads that littered the gorge below. Often she’d leave polite little trails for you—dice, rose petals or paper dolls—that you’d follow to a half-burned barn and find her sleeping in the hayloft. Gazing at her face criss-crossed by the cataract-colored light that leaked through the beams, you’d shrug and softly say “Fais do-do, pop chock.” Opening the green eye, she’d reply, “Hello, bird dog.”

Outside a few close calls in the mountain’s dankest crevasses, she usually didn’t get far—there was nowhere to go and, besides, running was how she showed her affection. At least, that was how you explained it to Ridley when he worried aloud that this painted serpent might inveigle the compound into widespread defiance.

“She don’ mean to make the misere, Ridley. Girl’s jus’ otier foux. Half-crazy’s better den all.”

“Your faith in this particularity is greater than mine,” answered Ridley DeLeure, and mused quietly, as though speaking to himself alone, “That girl has the red mist inside her.”

That was all he said. Co faire? Mention of the red mist always came at the end of the priest’s conversations, never at the beginning, so you took it for the curious euphemism of an obscure dialect. Then came the unusually misty morning in December when, playing the Madame in your customary slippers and crawfish-motif apron, you roused your wards for breakfast and found neither Ruth among them, nor the bebette overslumbering in her bedroom nor any tracks to show you where she might have gone. Not even the barest print of a cleated sole, much less her customary trail of telltale flotsam. And yet there was one thing. You noticed how the dew sparkled on all the mountain’s frosty surface but for the treads of your daily passage worked into the road that ran under every outcrop and sheer cliff. No stranger to the sense of being certain despite the odds, you concluded another car had come this way, up the hill in reverse so as to trace your tire marks with uncanny precision. You also concluded that Ruth Blossom had not left of her own free will, but that she had been taken against it.

The Grande Bigarno, fired up to full stunt-car capacity, raced backward over its own circuit through Belladonna’s backwoods. Like a spider pulling in her laundry, you undid a day’s progress in an eighth of the time. For thirty miles phantoms crawled across your rearview mirror, coyotes crowded your wake; you paid no mind, zeroed in to the hairpin turns where the tracks of the second car diverged ever so minutely from your own. In chicken country, wire fences and mangy muttering cockatrices—things more lizard than bird—guarded the gravel road that reached out over the dirt where you could plainly see the grooves your phantom had driven into the earth smoking in the early morning. You swung the wheel hard, sending feathers flying and raining down a hail of pebbles on the stray hounds that nipped at your hind.

Ridley had deceived you when he’d called this land deserted. Not that you’d ever really doubted that some of the godforsaken houses of the region still had inhabitants in them. The same Santo Campo who’d always been able to guess which of two warblers would yield the more oblong egg could feel them scratching behind screen doors, these all-but-invisible no-people that seldom left the rooms where they lived out their strange, solitary lives. You’d long suspected that transients tended to the stunted vegetation and battled wild pigs for food here on the mountain’s inverted dark side and had seen no point in making a bahbin. So you weren’t shocked at the human debris riddling the ranch behind the fence—milk gushing from hastily dropped pails, weathervanes creaking over hay bales bearing fresh fingerprints in the straw, ominous coops aglow with feral, cannibal eyes—but the scale of the secrecy required for a whole commune to function under your nose was impressive.

In the driveway was a black car. Scraping ice from the window, you made out a stripped girlish form lying akimbo over the torn leather. With a crowbar fetched from the Bigarno’s caisse, you smashed away the glass and hauled the dead body (“Zeerahb!”) out and into your arms. It looked like Ruth; but there was no fooling the fly, poised as he was on the imposter’s blue lips, then crawling down to where you could plainly see how the mole on the back of her broken neck had been moved too close to the hairline. The piercings still bore tiny scabs, the makeup was two shades too bright and, most tellingly, the eyes were the right colors but in the wrong order. Contacts, skin bleaches, expert surgery: someone had gone to a lot of trouble to convince you you’d come too late. But judging from the abandoned bowls of cereal that greeted you from the farmhouse’s hardwood tables, you’d arrived ahead of schedule.

Soc au’ lait! Blinking computer terminals, radios and a multitude of board games marked an outpost almost equal to the Church in its microcosmic sprawl. But whereas you and Ridley had stocked closets full of jigsaws, devotional poetry and illustrated bibles, the search you conducted across the grounds turned up instruments of guerilla warfare: bullet-riddled targets, drawerfuls of stolen keys tagged with the addresses of the doors they opened, maps covering all Belladonna’s bulwarks and potential caches. The trailer-barracks out back suggested a company being trained for an invasion; the rows of lockers cleaned out but for bullet casings suggested one already in progress. In something like thirty-five years (since you looked twice your age anyway, you’d frankly lost count) the fly had never failed you, so you had only your own head to swat when you realized the trap you’d walked into. Sure enough, when you turned to leave, a shot fired through the kitchen window from the almost perfect cover of the woods kept you indoors.

Stay with me, Santo Campo—don’t dare shirk from the moment you’ve been trying to sequester within more buoyant mind droppings. This was the occasion of your ultimate dishonor, en bouts des dents. Coming here had left the Church open to attack, bereft of anyone with your eye for impending catastrophe. Who was this army of shadows and how many were marching this very minute to take Ridley’s tabernacle by force? Meanwhile, you were a hostage, hemmed-in by warning shots. (“Foutre!”) Any way you sliced it, you’d walked into fate with your zipper down, and there was nowhere to go but down, over shag-carpeted stairs into the wood-paneled rumpus room. And what a rumpus awaited you there.

A comfortable modern den, refuge of some long gone hobbyist whose model train piped through a painstaking miniaturization of the county as it would have appeared a generation past. The rest of the décor was made up of the unsold goods of a dozen yard sales: basket chairs, neon beer signs, ceramic frogs and, in the center of the room, a card table with a deck radiating through the smoke and ichor.

[But no, that’s impossible; it can only be the interference of my enemy, troubling the water. I furiously clap my jaws, as though Hell’s servitude were a leash I could snap, and dive after memory’s last mucous strands. After the care I have taken in imbibing each episode, I will not have them unraveled by as reckless a spy as he. And then there he is, drawn hastily into the frame, playing the part of your host in the same ridiculous skin as last taste.]

Humped over a bar as you entered, you were sure you were shot when he turned around. Instead Cody Horn-Naquin—a wicked rock and roll changeling retaining childish mien despite the gray in his wild pompadour—handed you a glass of whiskey with his left hand and toasted you with the identical tumbler held in his right.

“Here’s to you, Doc,” setting both glasses on the card table, “and to honky tonk angels and The Queen of Country Music.”

“You de capon dat drives dat ugly chouchoot?”

But the sheriff’s son only arched his eyebrows so that there could be no confusion, though you were neither of you behind the wheel, concerning who was the driver and who the passenger at this moment. You scanned the room for some detail to use to your advantage and registered only that a third place was set at the table.

“Dis party only fo’ me? Or you spectin’ some other skinny mullet?”

“For the one you bring with you, though if we’re lucky he won’t recall the courtesy. He sees with your eyes, watches our present in a time yet to come. But then, time flows differently underwater and makes allowances for the master you do not know you serve.”

“Poo-yee-yi, Parron DeLeure’s a size’ble distance from heah.”

“Ridley?” My enemy shrugged, “I don’t love any man better. Not in this life, at any rate. What we have is a sort of, uh, an ontological disagreement. I was speaking of someone else. But never you mind,” Gesturing to the cards, “Shall we get down to it?”

“De bon coeur. And if ah win?”

“Don’t guess you will, Doc.”

But it was the same tired rahdoht you used to hear at the bourré tables; Cody Horn-Naquin was simply enough of an amateur to believe a good cheater superior to a natural born Acadian. He hadn’t reckoned with a real gambler, one liable to knock back a bottle of whiskey and beat six hands like a personal acquaintance of the royal family. Which is just what you did, the legendary Luther Santo Campo back whole hog after years of having only seventeen-year-old sharps and yourself to play against. Again the couyon shuffled his trick deck and dealt his marked cards and again you pretended not to notice when he hid an ace (It ain’t gon’ help him none). You obliged your rival at every juncture, switched from regular poker to stud, then to blackjack and even exotic variants like pontoon and lansquenet. Once Cody Horn-Naquin was reduced to mucking his hand, you decided enough was enough (“T’en cas toi, boy, you jus’ don know when to fold’ em.”), swept the cards and whiskey off the table and showed him your slappin’ hand.

After a few minutes you said, “Gar ici, ah’m lookin’ fo a little cher, answers to Ruthie,” and lifted Cody’s face—the sharp parts of which you’d seen fit to blunt—out the indoor plumbing so he could answer you properly.

“She didn’t make it.”

“Somebody didn’t,” You had a strict policy for dealing with cheats; you confiscated their knife and gave them the business. Technically, the house was supposed to keep the weapon, but you stowed a few for posterity like the treacherous, gold-handled stiletto with which you commenced to shave Cody Horn-Naquin on both sides. He made an awful potain, then, at long last, laid his cards on the table.

“She’s not here, Doc.”

“Alohrs pas,” Of course not, “Where’s she at den?”

“She never left,” said my scolded foe, “Only made you think otherwise.”

“Fait pas une esquandal,” Which was to say, ‘knock it off,’ and in lieu of exclamation you plunged him into the model town where he lay like a fallen monument and finally spat out the extent of Ruth Blossom’s betrayal:

“It was always the plan. The only way to save Ridley’s life, Doc. He’s in terrible danger and such run the stakes that we had to take you off the board any way we could. It’s not your fault you’re on the wrong side of Heaven. But make no mistake, Ruthie would have killed you if I had asked her to.”

“Boy, your game been in the pochom all day and that’s your worst play yet. Why would she go an’ do a awful thing like that for?”

“To avert the end of the world. That good enough for you, Doc?”

Good? You no longer knew the meaning of the word as you dragged Cody upstairs and walked outdoors with him held before you like a gris-gris to ward off the snipers in the trees. You’d played for the better part of the day, but instead of bringing on the night, the sky was turning a sanguine shade of red. The Sun scabbed over. The air turned to poison. Cody howled to the congealed heavens, “Looks like doomsday’s coming early, Doc. The Beast cometh down. Sweet Jesus, he’s going to remember everything. Come on, we haven’t much time.” Then the red mist came swirling out, forcing out all annular logic like color and shape, forcing the fly from his perch between your eyes, forcing out the stars and forcing out me, as my meal finally gives up the ghost and I come to the last of Luther Santo Campo.