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What came before

Jimmy was late. I tried to make the cup of coffee last, but it was still long gone before he got to the Java House. Roberto must have seen how tense I was. He kept looking my way with a worried expression. I could tell he wanted to come over and rap with me, get me to talk about what was going on. But he knew me well enough to stay away. I wished he would come over. You spend enough time showing everyone how tough you are, eventually you find yourself all alone just when you really need help.

But I had made that bed myself, and now I had to lie in it. So I sat there all by myself, thinking about what I was planning to do. Because sometimes you really did need help. It didn't matter how tough you were. Sometimes you got into a situation you couldn't deal with by yourself. Carol was in that kind of situation now, and I was going to help her. But I couldn't do it alone.

I needed for the misogynistic shit-kicking scumbag Carol had married to die.

I told her years ago that he was no good for her. I warned her that things were not going to end well between them. I even told her explicitly what she was signing up for when she announced their wedding plans. But she never listened to a word of it. At first she thought I was just a jealous dyke trying not to lose her, and she was right on the money. Eventually I realized that I'd already lost her no matter what happened, but I still tried to warn her away from Mike. The damage was already done, though. After two years of living with me, she didn't just want to get away from me, she wanted to escape from everything that I was to her. I don't think even Carol knows this, but it's true. She went to Mike because he was the anti-Susan.

I was a woman; he was about as masculine as they came. I was a radical feminist intellectual ? yes, it sounds pretentious, and I won't apologize for being who I am ? so she went for a mouthbreathing troglodyte who wasn't quite convinced that women's suffrage had been a good idea. I was a living, breathing reminder of the frighteningly different new world we were going to build, so when she ran she went straight back to the warm, comforting, predictable oppression of the patriarchy.

Sometimes I think she might actually have known that I was right about Mike. She went to him, knowing that he would end up hurting her, because hurt was what she was used to.

Getting carried away by my own bullshit again. Cards on the table, Susan. I hurt Carol, too. I was not the wonderful, understanding paragon of womanly love that the sapphic propaganda books are so full of. I was a bitch. Hell, I'm still a bitch. If, by some miracle, Carol came back to me when this was all over, I'd probably start being mean to her all over again as soon as the honeymoon was over.

But I never, in my worst moments, tried to tear her down emotionally just to see her squirm. And I never hit her. Whereas Mike... I didn't even want to think about what he'd done to her over the years.

I needed for him to be gone.

People who haven't ever encountered guys like Mike might try to convince you that killing him didn't have to be my only solution. They'd probably tell Carol she could just run away, pick up a new life in another city, talk to the cops ? or the most ridiculous suggestion that people like to toss around, ?just stand up to him for once.? You'd only say things like that if you had no idea what Mike was capable of. Those were Hollywood solutions, and I hadn't ever really considered them. Mike was not the kind of guy that would let Carol just move away. He would find her, even if she moved to Canada.

And she'd already tried standing up to him. Not a good idea. Not at all.

You couldn't just kill a guy like Mike. Maybe once upon a time he had been the cute, mischievous bad boy Carol thought he was, but that kid was long gone. Right after high school he'd entered a downward spiral that had taken over a decade to drag him down to the real depths ? but eventually he got there. He'd done some time, not just the occasional overnight lockup but real State Pen time, the kind you got when you graduated from getting caught with a nickel bag and getting into bar fights to getting caught buying coke and resisting arrest. For a while he'd still managed to stay relatively straight, but when he came out from the second time he'd started to slip irrevocably into different circles of society, and where once his friends had been crazy anarchist tattoo artists, now the people he hung out with were career criminals.

There is an underworld in America, and it's not like they show you in the movies, all slick gangsters in Italian suits and big mansions. Those guys might be out there, too, but most of the people who live in the underworld are pretty regular guys, underprivileged and slightly undereducated family men who go to the movies and the games, hang out with their buddies on a Saturday night, get high like everybody else, and occasionally follow women into dark alleys or break into some old lady's house, steal her jewelry and sell it for whatever they can get. Sometimes that means rent money. More often it's funding for coke or heroin.

Half the time, these guys don't even consciously plan their jobs. They don't go around looking for victims. Hollywood would have you believe they live to commit crimes, but they don't. They just lead their lives holding down crappy jobs, keep their eyes and ears open, and when they come to the line that most citizens won't step over because crossing it would be a crime and a violation of society's moral code, they just keep on going. Their rules are different. They're just like everybody else, except they follow different rules.

Mike, on the other hand, followed no rules at all. He'd take any chance if the mood struck him. He'd fight anyone he didn't like the looks of. He never backed down, even when he was beaten half to death by somebody bigger. Instead, he went right over the edge of sanity. He'd nearly killed at least two guys that I knew of. Not with guns, either. On one occasion, he put a man in the emergency room with a glass ashtray. On the other, he simply punched the guy into a pulp, and then started slamming his head into a pinball machine until four or five other guys pulled him off his victim. That was what got him locked up for the second time. As a result of this kind of behavior, he'd become something special in a certain segment of society. He was like a rogue crocodile. Once he'd been the kind of guy that upright citizens crossed the street to stay away from. Now he was the guy that made those guys cross the street.

All of this went to say that I couldn't just ask a couple of my bigger male acquaintances to rough him up for me. The only thing that would accomplish was an angry Mike and a couple of hospital bills, and Carol would pay worse than she already had. Finding an ordinary thug to kill the bastard wouldn't fly, either. Most of them were too scared of him, and I couldn't take even a tiny chance that Mike would survive the hit. If he did, I'd end up dead and Carol would wish she had.

I didn't even consider trying to kill him myself. I knew I wasn't up to it. I could hold a gun and fire it without blowing my own head off, thanks to a couple of training sessions by one of my more radical girlfriends, but I didn't like the sensation of holding a machine made expressly for killing, I wasn't a very good shot, and I knew that if I messed up, Carol would be left completely defenseless.

But I'd heard about another possible solution. It was something that most people wouldn't even believe in, but I'd heard enough rumors to think that it was at least a possibility. I keep my ears and my mind open, and I thought that maybe, just maybe, it was worth trying.

He was called Zee.

You have to understand this: America is not what you think it is. What you see in the movies, what you read over coffee in the morning, all your water-cooler conversations and your earnest little college clique's informal debates, are bullshit. The news at five is bullshit. What you think of as regular society is maybe, maybe one half of the real world. The other half is... different. It's poor Latino and black people trying to scrape by in a world that wants them to be undereducated thugs and basketball players. It's Chinatowns in every major city, where Christianity is a weird foreign cult and family obligations reach across the globe. It's immigrants living, working and paying taxes under fictitious Social Security numbers, knowing that any day they might get picked up by La Migra and shipped back to the old country. It's the criminal underworld that people like Mike live in. And it's the other underworld. The one filled with things that go bump in the night.

We don't remember those things, because this country was founded on Enlightenment ideals and because we've put up halogen lamps everywhere to keep out the night. That doesn't mean it isn't still out there, though. Our circle of protection is damn thin, and beyond it there are things that will chill your blood. Things our ancestors knew about.

I had no personal experience with this world when I set out to find Zee. But I'd heard about it from plenty of people, and I knew enough to know that just because I hadn't seen a thing myself didn't mean it didn't exist. They say fifty thousand Elvis fans can't be wrong. I ask you this ? if fifty million people believe in monsters, don't you think there's at least a chance they're not all wrong?

There are a lot more than fifty million people who believe in monsters. I'd spoken to a number of them, and one name kept coming up in the edges of conversations. Me being only a part-time resident in their world, a white girl and a lesbian into the bargain, they wouldn't mention him to me directly. Instead, I'd hear the name in whispers, inside jokes and fragments of conversation on the other side of the room. There was a man, they kept saying. There was a guy. A guy who did favors for people nobody else would help. A man with fingers in every pie, from drug money to reggae music, legitimate businesses in Los Angeles and churchless congregations in Bridgeport. He was half fairy godmother, half Don Corleone, half Dracula, and his name was Zee.

They said he had died and come back, a black man's Jesus with a voodoo twist. They said he was nobody you wanted to mess with. But they also said he would help you out for a price, no matter what it was you needed.

My friend Doreen was the first person who ever admitted that Zee might be more than a fairy tale. But she claimed that she knew nothing about him personally. When I asked her who would, she told me to look up Jimmy Delaney. He knows all about that kind of thing, she said.

Why, I asked her. I knew Jimmy and his friends Calvin and Royal, but only as a sort of Guardian Angels group that worked hard to keep things neat and civilized down around Fair Haven. They were good guys, all Vietnam vets, and they'd saved a couple of girls I knew from rape or worse, but I didn't think of Jimmy as any kind of voodoo expert. Doreen said, Jimmy's the guy you go to if you need help with boogeymen. I laughed at that, but she was dead serious. Jimmy was for real, she assured me. Something had happened to him in Vietnam that gave him an insight on the hidden world, and he didn't just protect people from rapists and muggers, but from haunts and spirits of all sorts.

Did she honestly believe that, I asked her. She swore it was true. I filed it away in my mental ?weird shit? compartment, not wanting to alienate Doreen with too many questions. And it wasn't until months later, the day Carol and I went to see that idiotic Star Wars movie, that I started to take more than a casual interest in the mythical fairy godfather.

Unfortunately, when I met Jimmy in Wooster Square, he didn't even want to discuss Zee. He agreed that the guy was real. And he told me that I wanted nothing to do with him. No matter how I pleaded, he refused to give me any real information about Zee.

After a while I backed down, thinking I could find another way to deal with Carol's problem. But when I found out what Mike had done to Carol for going out to the movies with me, I knew there was no other way. Mike wasn't just a potential threat anymore. He was a mad dog that had to put down. I couldn't wait, couldn't spend any more time trying to find a better solution. I had to find Zee.

I had to enter the underworld.

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