Roger had taken the long way back from Cedar-Sinai Hospital. He left his 2018 Eclipse Spyder, his pride and joy and the last vestiges of his social standing, behind in the apartment’s parking garage; since 2017, police were able to confiscate any property related to an arrest, and Roger was sure that was where he was heading. With no vehicle, he turned up his windbreaker and marveled as the dawn streaked across the eastern sky. Walking down North Commonwealth, he thought about his brief encounter with Cassandra Diamond. She claimed to see a face within a face should have asked about the eyes. After his earlier encounter with the old man, Roger’s mind opened to the possibility that the girl believed she was telling the truth. But try as he might, the best that Roger could come up with was that the bum was paparazzi in disguise. She saw the face within the face; a young man made up as old, it was the only explanation.
As he loped along, he contemplated the pop reality show diva’s words found you at last, must save her, lose this vessel he ran through a series of scenarios. If the bum was a paparazzi in disguise, that would explain his first statement found you at last and the big payday the man was expecting like I have room to talk Roger opened the phone and played with the delete button again for the umpteenth time. The second statement must save her must have referred to him; perhaps he was her biggest fan, perhaps a stalker, perhaps much worse. Found you, save you, it could have been a deranged fan trying to save her from herself? But it was the last statement that threw him; lose this vessel could it refer to the man’s camera, if he was paparazzi or perhaps a more sinister pronouncement aimed at Cassandra Diamond herself. The sick bastard could have felt he was saving her by sacrificing them both. The more Roger thought the sicker the scenario too many serial killer cop shows but there must be a logical explanation; one that would fit in the real world. He decided to give it a rest; a morphine induced delusion was the most logical choice.
He swept through the photos again, as he made his way down South Commonwealth. He was too preoccupied to notice a throng of churchgoers milling around the front of a church; too preoccupied to notice as the sun peeked through the glass encased buildings, marking the beginning of a brand new day. If I give Danforth the pictures I will be no better than the rest of them. A hint of pride welled up as the pictures turned out pretty good for an unlit hospital bed in the dead of night. Might as well throw the award away and admit that I have sunk as low as I can go. The debate raged as he walked, toying with the delete button once again, knowing all along that it was a no brainer, but how to rationalize this to his boss. His finger precariously touched the icon just one push and I can live with myself, one push for human decency. He was fighting a battle of wills; a battle he had no intention of winning.
In the alley behind Roger, another battle was shaping up; within the mind of a derelict, a gleaming ray of hope; a temptation beyond his wildest dreams beckoned him from the alleyway; the kind of temptation he had drowned years before in the sterno and backwash he had subsisted on these many years. It shone from his eyes, a chance for redemption, a renewal of a part of himself that he once had loathed. His limbs moved despite the numerous broken joints, despite the reek of vomit and port; like a marionette on in a Punch & Judy show. He staggered back to a dump opening; the spotlight’s beams crossed. He sensed the lights as they surrounded him, bathed him in this new reflection of self-worth and righteousness. He felt alive again, an evangelistic desire to proclaim to the world that he was healed; healed of the years upon years of neglect he had visited upon his body. And along with the burning that now bulged in his guts, a yearning welled within him to talk to, to touch the first human he could make contact with. That first human was Roger Miller.
The seduction continued; but now something felt terribly wrong. He no longer wanted to merely touch, make contact, but bludgeon the human—this temptation no longer a temptation, but a command. It howled its rage at the man, even as that concept Yes, I am a man was coming back to him, and he fought this exorcism with a strength even he no longer believed he possessed. The shadows arrayed then melted across the alley as another cry escaped the aged hobo. His face was, by now, a hideous mask, skin bubbling upon his chin, drool slavering, a look of terror or purpose haunting his eyes.
He lumbered forward, a skirmish for a soul; a battle in which he never thought he would put up much of a fight; but now, in the rising morning mist, he decided that he wanted to hold onto a last shred of human existence. A flash of a previous life appeared in his mind: his job lost after computers replaced him, his unemployment exhausted, his wife and kids left after the drinking had gotten worse, the wish for success blended into the dreaded failure that eventually consumed him; until, inexplicably, he just disappeared one day. He had always run from his problems before; but now, he stood his ground wrestling with the demons that had finally caught up to him. Heat seethed from his breast as he was compelled forward toward the human; a purpose so righteous, yet so repulsive all at once. His arm upraised to strike.
Roger began to feel revived from walking in the fresh air; the migraine that he feared would cause a nosebleed in the hospital room had dissipated to a point of a dull ache behind his right eye. That he hadn’t eaten in a day or two or three amounted to him not whistling a merry tune. He began thinking of what the spontaneous combustion cases could mean; three that he knew of but could there be more? How Cazz Diamond fit into the scheme; just unlucky or the focal point of the attempt? He knew the police fervor would revolve around her, leaving him to investigate into the bum’s incidents. And what about the old man; could there be a link the old man, the bum and the girl, he would just have to find it, and when he did, well, it would probably not make a ripple in the grand scheme of things, but it would set up Roger as the only investigative reporter at SCAB! doing the tough assignments. He considered what to do with the pictures still have Jose’s program on the phone once again. He would have to work with the pictures would stay for the time being what was left to him. It had been over a year since Roger had done an actual story, ironically enough, it centered upon Cassandra Diamond and her sister’s mysterious death. If he noticed the smoldering bum shuffling toward him, it was in his periphery, a faint glimpse of someone to avoid. Caught in his reverie, he was unaware of the singular purpose driving the man, lumbering from the alleyway to meet him on the sidewalk. Roger noticed a sale for furniture probably just go to one of those rent-to-own places in the shop window.
The bum had lost his Christian name many years before, had been gimp for so long, he couldn’t recall the original. Perhaps he had lost out on money or family, some may say that he had just given up, but he had always been a survivor, not necessarily a coward, not this time. He saw purpose like a soft beam of light, the demons cajoling him to approach the young man and smite him. The contradiction slowly sank in, to strike out at this innocent man for the sins that he alone bore, the demons raged, the responsibility that he alone bore, demons raged, what he could no longer mend; the human in him fought on.
Roger saw an open liquor store on the corner, tripped on the curb bad penny, but approached anyway. He fiddled in his pocket, and then stopped digging gotta quit this shit before it owns me, for some cash. Turning, the bum materialized from the shadows of the alley, and was instantly upon him, in the light of the sidewalk, the sight caused him to cringe. The face was hideously pocked with boils, a wisp of smoke streamed from his jacket into the morning sky. His head pounding, Roger heard a rasp-like gurgle, demons pounding the mantra of slaughter into the derelict’s mind. The raised arm moved viciously towards, then, with a hideous convulsion, jerked away.
“Drachr,” the derelict croaked and flung himself at Roger. Roger startled, caught the man as he teetered on the curb, staring the man down. Had he lost his mind? He was about to ask… Roger never knew the battle of wills that ensued as the man fought to not heed the voices, this time he would fight to save the innocent man’s life.
“Save yourself! Run fast, run far,” this time semi-coherently, a seeping cold sore bubbling from his right eye, as he winked then grimaced. Roger began to feel a heat rise from the bum’s coat, the air smelled like processed metal, the stench from the man’s kerosene breath filled the air between them, seemed to coat him. The man grappled with him now “Drachr” forced from his mouth like fire, the breath getting hotter and hotter in his lungs. The nameless bum continued to cling to Roger, the pox on his face now literally boiling, the coat smoldering. He and Roger locked eyes once again and in place of the crazed gaze there appeared a look of sympathy, even love, on the bum’s countenance. The man grasped Roger’s arm but Roger jerked away, scorched by the close encounter. Roger, cursed lightly, as he realized the danger he was in. He felt like a hot pocket in a microwave oven and began to feel his hair to see if he had started burning. He shoved hard, breaking the feeble embrace of the malignant old man.
Something in the pocked face collapsed at the action, the bum now saw that the battle was not winnable. That he had made his bed so to speak and must now lie in it. His skin began to crawl a hive of bee stings, the heat now manifesting itself deep within his chest; the bum smelled the fumes, like the taper candles in the church of his youth. To lie down, so tired as the battle of demons raged within him but it was no longer a battle for survival, the human side had taken care of that long ago; it was a battle of combustion. Roger, still shaken, watched in horror, as flames began engulfing the man; the eyes turned towards him fiercely for a second, then awareness returned and the demon that had possessed the man vanished until only the smoking calm eyes remained. “My name is Ben.” A wail, forlorn but triumphant, escaped the charred lips, as the creature ignited in a butane flame; his head turned to guava jelly. As hot wind rippled his clothes, an invisible hand pushed firmly from the front sending him upon his backside, just as the body teetered for a moment, then collapsed in a heap on the sidewalk, all burnt bone, shreds of cloth, charcoal, suet and charred beef.