8

Time passed. Religious music played. Norman Drake returned and announced that it was nine thirty-four, Eastern Daylight God Loves You Time. This was followed by an ad for Jim Rennie’s Used Cars, delivered by the Second Selectman himself. “It’s our annual Fall Sales Spectacular, and boy, did we overstock!” Big Jim said in a rueful thejoke’s-on-me voice. “We’ve got Fords, Chevvies, Plymouths! We’ve got the hard-to-get Dodge Ram and even the harder-to-get Mustang! Folks, I’m sitting on not one or two but three Mustangs that are like new, one the famous V6 convertible, and each comes with the famous Jim Rennie Christian Guarantee. We service what we sell, we finance, and we do it all at low low prices. And right now”—he chuckled more ruefully than ever—“we’ve just GOT to clear this LOT! So come on down! The coffeepot’s always on, neighbor, and you’ll love the feelin when Big Jim’s dealin!”

A door neither woman had noticed eased open at the back of the studio. Inside were more blinking lights—a galaxy of them. The room was little more than a cubby choked with wires, splitters, routers, and electronic boxes. You would have said there was no room for a man. But The Chef was beyond skinny; he was emaciated. His eyes were only glitters sunk deep in his skull. His skin was pale and blotchy. His lips folded loosely inward over gums that had lost most of their teeth. His shirt and pants were filthy, and his hips were naked wings; Chef’s underwear days were now just a memory. It is doubtful that Sammy Bushey would have recognized her missing husband. He had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in one hand (he could only eat soft things now) and a Glock 9 in the other.

He went to the window overlooking the parking lot, thinking he’d rush out and kill the intruders if they were still there; he had almost done it while they were inside. Only he’d been afraid. Because demons couldn’t actually be killed. When their human bodies died, they just flew into another host. When they were between bodies, the demons looked like blackbirds. Chef had seen this in vivid dreams that came on the increasingly rare occasions when he slept.

They were gone, however. His atman had been too strong for them.

Rennie had told him he had to shut down out back, and Chef Bushey had, but he might have to start up some of the cookers again, because there had been a big shipment to Boston a week ago and he was almost out of product. He needed smoke. It was what his atman fed on these days.

But for now he had enough. He had given up on the blues music that had been so important to him in his Phil Bushey stage of life—B. B. King, Koko and Hound Dog Taylor, Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf, even the immortal Little Walter—and he had given up on fucking; he had even pretty much given up on moving his bowels, had been constipated since July. But that was okay. What humiliated the body fed the atman.

He checked the parking lot and the road beyond once more to make sure the demons weren’t lurking, then tucked the automatic into his belt at the small of his back and headed for the storage shed, which was actually more of a factory these days. A factory that was shut down, but he could and would fix that if necessary.

Chef went to get his pipe.

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