Modern Crones

Michael Panush

The question I often my find myself asking is, can a modern woman practice forbidden magicks, traffic with devils from the foulest pits of black Hell and delve into long-forgotten lore beyond the ken of mortal man? And can she look good while doing it?

The answer would appear to be 'no' and a loud 'no' at that. My name is Dorcus Oakshire, and ever since I signed my name in a dark complexioned gentleman's ledger back in a wood near Salem back in 1693, I've found that working spells of mind-blistering power is easy. Getting men? Not so much.

The looks are one factor, of course. Living for over four centuries isn't going to do wonders for your complexion. Oh, who am I kidding, there are immortals from the Stone Age who look better than me. It's the magic, the black magic that comes with witchcraft and the doing the devil's work. It makes the eyes pale, the skin sallow and with more blemishes than lights in Time Square, and has given me a body as thin as a length of barbed wire – but not as pretty.

And that's just the start of the problems. Try relating to a guy when he wants to bring up the weather for small talk, and you're on a first name basis with the deities that bring the storms. And then there's the slip-ups. That's what drove away this cute executive I was chatting with in Perducci's, an upscale wine bar on the Upper East Side.

Maybe the light was low or maybe I was just lucky, because he had already bought me a drink and had commented me on my long black dress and asked my name. He was cute, with a wide forehead and a pleasant face, as round as a cauldron.

"Dorcus?" he said, between sips of white wine. "So, is that French?"

"Puritan," I replied. "You should have seen the girls tease me in school." You shouldn't, actually. It was pretty nasty, the names they would call me. Not that their elders had taught them any better. But I shook that out of my head. "But how about this wine?" I was hoping to change the subject. "You know what kind it is?"

He nodded, raising the long curved glass to his lips. I had drunken blood from skulls, mead from horns, and substances I didn't want to think about from the stone chalices of graveyard ghouls, so I knew drinks pretty well. But I knew that men liked to think they were the experts, and I was practically inviting this guy to be erudite and cultured.

"Hmmm," he said. "It's a bit tart. You know, I've been to Napa, and I find the better blends are always a little sweeter."

"Sweet as child's blood?" I asked.

He stared at me, his big brown eyes narrowing. "I'm sorry?"

I was the one who was sorry. I don't drink the blood of children, any more than I've got a gingerbread house (I can only imagine what the cockroaches and rats of New York would do to that), but it's a popular expression for the witchcraft community. "Figure of speech," I said, a little too hastily.

"Did you just say you drink the blood of children?" he asked. He stood up, and I could see him giving me quite a looking over.

Then I made another mistake – I laughed. It was a cackle, a long, rasping, high-pitched squeal that made him come to his feet. Now he could see the hooked nose, the corpse-like complexion, the warts and the sad eyes in a skull with too much bone and not enough skin.

"I'll, uh, see you around," he said, and left. He exited the wine bar at a run.

I slumped back into the booth. "My sweet Satan!" I swore, waving the empty glass. "Another one over here, please!" I shouted to the waiter.

Then I felt something fat sitting on my foot. I looked under the booth and saw my familiar looking up at me with his big watery eyes. I reached down and picked him up, keeping him under the booth from any prying eyes. Green Thomas, my familiar, has impeccable manners and more intelligence than most Wall Street traders. But Green Thomas is also a fat, squat toad, so caution is needed.

Green Thomas stood up on his haunches, waving his webbed hands like a traveling salesman extorting his product. "Great and terrible mistress, I bring tidings from your house. Voices speak from within dark boxes upon your shelf, extolling your virtue and glory. They are two in number, and two in their requests."

"So I got two messages on my answering machine," I said. I sighed. "You know, it would be easier if I just got a cell phone." Green Thomas's bulging eyes sank and I felt bad. I was mad at myself for screwing up, and the toad familiar didn't deserve my abuse. "But it wouldn't be as pretty as you, Green Thomas." He instantly brightened up and licked his lips. "Who called?"

"First was the scholar, noble Professor Murray. He wants to meet you for the midday meal, upon the morrow." Professor Matthias Murray was part of the Anthropology Department at NYU. We had met at some New Age festival, and he found my stories about being a healer in Salem intriguing. I wasn't sure whether or not he believed I was really from the 1690s, but he liked to listen to me talk. He was bookish, but a nice guy.

I nodded. "Okay. I'll have to call him back and tell him that sounds great. What was the other message?"

"That was from your trio of companions. They wished to know what had become of their erstwhile dining companion."

"Boil my newts!" I cursed, standing up and calling for the check. I'd been so busy screwing up with a potential Mr. Right that I'd forgotten about my late lunch date with my three friends. I scooped Green Thomas into my purse, paid, and hurried out of the wine bar. I caught a cab to the Village (better than taking a flying broom) and hoped I wouldn't be too late.

My girlfriends were meeting at Crowley's, an old school diner that catered to the club and cauldron scene from a few years ago. Now it was the preferred hang-out for old wizards, vampires getting long in the tooth, and a couple of modern crones. I went to our usual booth in the back, and found that all three of my pals were already there, making just like a coven when they saw me.

"By the pricking of my thumb!" Maeve Mac Roich turned around and gave me a yellowed gap-toothed smile. "Here's someone a little late to the party!" Maeve was Irish, and the oldest of any of us. She'd been lurking around since before the Romans showed up in the British Isles, worshipping horned gods, earth goddess and every druid worth his antler-headdress. She'd gone undercover when pagan ways fell out of favor, and showed up in New York a few years ago. Nowadays, wickermen weren't the only kind of man she enjoyed heating up. She wore a ragged blue cloak, had a face like a potato set sideways, and puffy white hair.

"Sorry, Maeve," I said, squeezing into the booth next to her. "I was just over at Perducci's, and I totally scared off some executive type."

Ophelia Reveaux leaned forward. "It ain't your fault, honey," she said. "Any man don't be liking you, he's not worth it and that's for sure." She was as fat as Green Thomas, with similarly bulging eyes. But unlike me, her skin retained its original coffee complexion. She was from New Orleans, and had worked as a Voodoo mambo, serving black and white citizens alike, until changing attitudes drove her into the swamps. Now she served the Loas with both hands, but still had the attitude that everyone trusted her. Maybe it was naivety, but I got the feeling it was simple kindness.

The fourth member of our little quartet had no such illusions. "It was the laugh, wasn't it?" Greta Himmelfarb said. Greta was the youngest of us and except for one detail, was a completely normal single working mother. That detail was that she had hooked up with some debonair fellow at a wild party and discovered after their romance that he was none other than Satan and she was pregnant with the Antichrist. Now, her son Clancy had just turned ten and was starting to attract major demonic attention. She gave us tips on living in the modern world. We gave her tips on balancing raising the spawn of the devil and keeping a career. She had a pretty face framed in dark curly hair kept business casual short.

"Yeah," I admitted. "I can't help it. I don't want to have to watch every word I say or thing I do when I'm out with some guy!"

"Get used to it, dear," Maeve said. "Long as your dating mortals, that is."

"Hey, even if you're a perfectly normal girl dating a perfectly normal guy, it's like moving through a mine field." Greta shook her head. "Though I guess it's always going to be a little bit tougher for people like us."

"Got that right." Ophelia patted her round belly and laughed. "If only they were like zombies – no brain and loyal as can be, but maybe a little less stiff."

"Speak for yourself, honey," Maeve said, grinning. "I don't mind a little stiffness now and then." That remark gained some shocked laugher. I cackled freely, not caring who happened to listen.

Greta nodded. "And it's not just relationships! You know, I was a bit tired when I was making the marketing report yesterday, and the boss wants to know why. What was I supposed to tell him – that I was up that night helping Clancy command and banish the seven-foot tall blood red demon with tusks and a mane of writhing snakes that crept out from under his bed and wanted to swear 'unending fealty to his infernal lordship'? The poor kid was so scared and his room still smells like brimstone!" She shook her head. "There's no way a man can understand that."

But Maeve had something up her sleeve. "Some men can," she said. "But you gotta find the right one." She leaned forward. "The Pitchfork Ball. Tonight, at the Morningstar Club in Brooklyn. I got four tickets with your names on it. And guess who's hosting it?"

None of us knew. Green Thomas let out an expectant croak from inside my purse.

"Galen Snorch. He's New York's most eligible satanic priest. And rumor has it that he's got a major case of the crone's disease."

I snorted. "Galen Snorch is young, handsome, rich and a master of the diabolic arts. What could he possibly want with us?"

"Don't say that!" Ophelia cried. "He may be all of those things, but he still wants a little of that old black magic, and you are a master of that, Dorcus."

"And he won't mind your cackling!" Greta pointed out helpfully.

I nodded. "Well, my only other plan for the evening was to lie around wallowing in my misery and failing to make love potions. I guess I could give it a try."

"That's the spirit," Ophelia said. "Check please!"

And so, after swinging by my apartment to pick up a sky-blue dress and a wide straw hat for the evening, we headed out to Brooklyn – and the Morningstar Club. It was a real tony place, the kind for hipsters looking to sell their souls as an ironic statement, atheists daring the wrath of god and the hardcore Satan Worshippers who liked raising Hell in both senses of phrase.

It was the early evening when we arrived in Brooklyn and made it to the Morningstar. It was a squat red building, like a marble barn with music and the scent of sulfur flowing out into the darkened street. Maeve handed over our tickets and in we went. The music was flowing blasphemous chants set over a strings section, and the occasional orgiastic, inhuman howl of savage delight came from the darkened shadows.

The place was packed, torch-lit and smoky. Greta looked around and shook her head as a donkey trotted past, hee-hawing happily. "You take me to all the best places, Maeve," she said. She gazed into the smoke. "Is that the senator over there? By the guy dressed as a satyr?"

"That's not a costume, honey," Maeve said, as Greta trotted off. "I'm gonna scan the corners. I bet there's some young neo-pagan just dying to see the earth-goddess."

Ophelia pointed to a table in the middle. "Ooh!" She smiled. "Appetizers! Is that Lobster Ravioli?"

With my friends wandering around, I walked off into the smoke myself, keeping my eyes peeled for Galen Snorch. I was walking past a robed and masked group of cultists playing around with an anaconda when I saw him. Snorch was sitting on a red leather couch in the center of the club, a goblet of red wine in one hand. Half of a dozen of his servants stood around him, all wearing identical red tuxedoes, with their heads shaved and tattooed with pentagrams.

Galen Snorch was a thin, exquisitely dressed guy with a good tan and slicked back hair the color of coals. He wore a striped Gucci blazer over a collared shirt, and could even pull off the neat goatee. Think Rasputin, by Banana Republic.

For a few seconds, his eyes linked with mine, and then he waved his hand. "Hey," he said, and over I walked. "Can I get you a drink?"

"Sure," I said, and he nodded to one of his lackeys, who scurried off. "So, you're the guy throwing this little bash?"

"Nothing brings the warlocks, witches, wizards and whackos together more than a party," Galen Snorch said. "You're a witch, I take it?"

"The Hill Witch of Salem," I said. "Dorcus Oakshire."

"Ah." He nodded. "So, I guess you're the maiden of the mother, maiden, crone trio. What kind of magic you work? Infernal?" He pulled a thin, hand-rolled cigarette from his designer coat pocket.

"What can I say?" I asked. I snapped my fingers and raised a burst of blue flame. The fire wrapped around my thin, bony hand, slipping over my curved fingers and pointed nails. I held out my hand and lit his cigarette. They always liked that. "I like it hot."

"That makes two of us," Snorch said, and patted the couch next to him.

Smiling inside, I sat down next to him. We talked for the rest of the evening, and Galen was clearly more than just another pretty face who listened to too many metal albums. He was a big fan of the Lesser Key of Solomon, and had been experimenting with major demonic summoning. Galen listened with polite interest when I told him about some of the Sumerian and Egyptian deities I had made contact with, and my parties with ghouls and other creatures of the graveyard, but it was clear he had a thing for Hell.

"Everything's so true down there, you know?" he asked. "Up here, sinners and sadists hide behind uniforms and elected offices, clerical collars instead of the chains they wish they could wear. But down in the Pit, there's no illusions. The damned are the ones getting tortured, and the sadists can revel in it without having their press office apologize for it the next day."

"There's something to be said for subtlety," I said.

"Is there?" Snorch let out a rasp of a laugh. "The more I spend time in this shallow, wretched little world, the more I long to burn it all down and laugh from on top of a mountain of cinders." He smiled at me. "More wine, Dorcus?"

I nodded and changed the subject to the similarities between the ingredients for a resurrection potion and a Cuba Libre. That kept him entertained, and the rest of the evening flew past like it was on silent bat wings.

Before I knew it, Galen Snorch was standing up. "Look, Dorcus," he said. "You clearly got a lot of power. You've been around a while and I want to meet with you some more. Make some private propositions, if you know what I mean." He smiled slowly, lit up like a Jack-O-Lantern. "What do you say we talk about it over dinner, tomorrow night?"

"Sounds like a plan," I said. I scrawled down my number on the back of a napkin and handed it to him. Snorch took it, and tucked it into his breast pocket. I walked out of the Morningstar Club feeling lighter than air, and met with my girlfriends on the sidewalk. New York was cold and the streets were dark, the glow from skyscrapers and cafes filling the city.

"Well?" Greta asked. "We saw you talking to that Metrosexual Satanist. What came of it?"

"Dinner tomorrow," I said. "His treat."

Ophelia smiled and gave me a quick hug, while Maeve nodded happily. "I told you he had Crone's Disease, and a pretty colleen like you with a good knowledge of the dark arts would be right up his alley," Maeve said. "What do you say?"

"A thousand thanks, Maeve Mac Roich," I said. We walked over to the curb, and I waved for a cab. "By the thousand darksome children of the night-goddess Nyx, you are a life saver." I paused. "Sorry, I can't make it for lunch tomorrow. I've got another interview with Professor Murray."

"Still telling him your stories?" Maeve asked. "I don't know if I like it. Does he believe you? And even if he does how can someone like him understand the horrors we've been through, at the hands of witch-finders and inquisitions? How can he see the glories we once had, and the depths to which we sunk?"

"Professor Murray's a good man," I said. "And I like our sessions. I just talk and he listens and takes notes. He's like a psychologist who doesn't cost an arm and a leg."

"Well, don't get too crazy," Ophelia said, giving me a quick hug. A cab pulled up and I started for the door. "And don't forget to call!"

"I won't!" I called back, as I slipped inside and waved goodbye. As the taxi took me home, I thought about Professor Murray and Galen Snorch. One was out of my world and fascinated by it, and the other was firmly inside of it, but I wondered how much respect he had for the work of witches. Still, I had a date with him tomorrow night and for the time being, I was feeling fine.

I slept in the next morning, had a quick breakfast and spent the early day working on a few potions for sale, scrawling down a couple spells and researching the geography of the Fairylands of Otherworld. Green Thomas made himself useful, fetching ingredients, books and scraps of paper from over my loft and workshop. I wouldn't have traded Green Thomas for the fanciest palm pilot, though maybe something electronic would smell a little better.

My roommate from Hell appeared in the kitchen as I was getting read to leave to meet Professor Murray. Balthigore was the Minor Prince of Unending Torment, a lower devil from the pit who was still powerful enough to have a small retinue and his own sense of style. I let him share my dwelling, and he shared news from the Inferno and juicy tidbits of occult knowledge.

He strode into my kitchen, wearing a sparkling salmon pink frock coat, a golden waistcoat and cravat, and a white wig, looking like some Baroque foppish gentlemen – except for the long fangs, beet-red skin, curling horns on his forehead and long nose. He was thin as a needle and just as sharp. Balthigore rested his thin clawed hands on the table, and smiled up at me.

"Well, Miss Oakshire, you've got a healthy glow," he said, licking his lips with a long forked tongue. "What happened? Found an extra case of newt-eyes?"

"Oh, stop," I said. "I got a date with Galen Snorch tonight."

"Now that is interesting," Balthigore said. "Snorch's name is all over the pit. But don't get too close. He's Zanadrax's mortal boy-toy, and that big red bully gets jealous real quick." I had heard the name 'Zanadrax' before, maybe in the index of some grimorie or dusty tome. It didn't sound good.

"Who exactly is Zanadrax?" I asked, handing Balthigore a mug of coffee. "And pardon me if I don't keep in touch with Hell's social registry."

"Look, the Inferno's as big as bureaucracy as anything in the mortal realms. You've got a whole bunch of factions. Some want to apologize to Heaven. Some want to conquer Heaven. Some want to put Hell on earth, wipe out mankind in a tide of red flame and let the demonic hordes run riot in the cities of man, then laugh madly from thrones of bone while humanity is turned into their permanent chew toy. Zanadrax is a major leader of that group of killjoys."

"Oh yeah?" I asked. "And what faction do you belong to?"

Balthigore just grinned his fanged grin. "Me? I just want to have fun, baby."

"Well, you'll have to have fun alone," I said, picking up Green Thomas and setting my familiar in my purse.

"A word of advice, honey," Balthigore said as I stood up. "First off, don't wear so much black. It makes you look too thin. Try and look a little less Arthur Miller's Crucible, a little more Baba Yaga. Secondly, don't go messing with Zanadrax. If you ain't got horns and cloven hoofs, he's bad news."

"Thanks," I said. "But I've got to meet up with Professor Murray for lunch."

"Professor Murray? Sounds like somebody's hot for teacher!" Balthigore chuckled as I tucked the purse under my ar. "Maybe you're the hot college widow, Dorcus? Hey, I got a thing for academics too. Just call him Dr. Faustus and me Mephistopheles!" He was still going on like that when I left the apartment.

I took the subway up to the college and met Professor Matthias Murray in a little eatery off of the main campus, the same place we always came for our meals and talks. He already had our usual booth and had ordered the coffee I liked. Professor Murray looked up and beamed. He wore a brown suit and tie, certainly not designer, and had auburn hair going gray and square glasses.

Professor Murray smiled as I sat down, his notepad sitting on the plate next to him. "It's very good to see you, Miss Oakshire."

"You can call me Dorcus, professor, for the hundredth time," I said, smiling a little at his nervous politeness. I took a sip of the coffee and nodded. "Good stuff. You ordered the cucumber sandwich for me?"

"I know what you like," Professor Murray said with a shy smile. "I mean, I have some idea. I mean, well, we've been doing this for a while and—"

"That's good to hear." I leaned back and set the purse in my lap. Green Thomas looked up and I pushed his head down. "So, where were we?"

Professor Murray flipped through his notepad. "Um, right," he said, finding the right spot. "You were talking about your mother and how her, well, her death." He gulped and looked away.

"It's okay," I said. "And it was her execution. My mother was the midwife and healer in Salem, like her mother before her, and what I was going to be after her. She had lived with those Puritan bastards their whole lives, given them herbs when they were sick, and brought their babies into the world. But because she lived alone and worked with medicines and wasn't a man -- because she was different -- they took her into the town square and hung her as soon as the crops failed."

It wasn't easy to talk about. I remembered standing there, feeling the cold New England wind whipping through my hair and striking my face like an attacker's knives, hearing the town reverend blaring on, hoping killing some poor old woman would put him in good graces with Cotton Mather. I could still feel that cold air and see the dark body, swinging against a gray sky.

Matthias noticed my discomfort. "We can take a break, Dorcus, if you don't—"

"No," I said. I took a sip of coffee. "I want to continue. So, after her execution, I knew that it was only a matter of time after they'd be coming after me. Hanging my mother didn't stop the crops from failing, or the Indians from attacking, or the winter from being cold. Pretty soon some stuck-up, bored rich girl would say that she saw Goodie Oakshire's daughter in her nightmares and then they'd come after me. So I took everything I had and ran into the hills."

"And that's when you, well, you claim that the devil contacted you?"

"That's right," I nodded. "Not right away, of course. I lived alone for a few years, shunned by everybody. They saw my escape as me practically admitting I was guilty, though they would have considered me damned if I stayed. Either way, I became the Hill Witch. Children sang songs and told stories about me. When I came into town, they threw rocks at me. Nobody would look me in the eye. So when this sharply dressed fellow with pitch-black skin shows up at my door, I was all for hearing him out."

Professor Murray looked up at me. He pushed up his glasses and I saw his bright green eyes. "Miss Oakshire," he said. "Dorcus, I mean…why exactly did you agree? You're an incredibly smart person. You must have known that eternal life as Satan's servant wasn't best for you."

"I know that now," I said. "Part of me probably knew that then." I paused and tried to compose my thoughts. "I suppose it was almost out of spite. Everyone assumed I was consorting with fiends from Hell, just because I didn't conform to their standards. The good people of Salem had turned their backs on me and the devil was waiting with open arms." I smiled. "And it hasn't been that bad. Sure, it may make me a little ugly, but I can be independent, happy, and free to live my life however I want."

"I don't think you're ugly," Professor Murray said.

"Thank you."

He coughed nervously and set his notepad down. "Well, I think that's enough for today." He took a sip of coffee. "I can't thank you enough. I don't even know if half the stuff you're telling me is true, but it is quite fascinating, just to listen to your story." He paused. "So, what have you been doing lately?"

"Well, I'm having dinner with this real cute guy, I met, Galen Snorch. He's a Satanist—"

"I've heard of him," Professor Murray said. "He's been checking books out of our library, and we've had to refuse a couple books we keep locked up. Dangerous things in them." He looked at me like I was stumbling close to a ledge over a deep drop. "Galen Snorch is a dangerous person, Dorcus. I don't know if he's the kind of guy you want to hang around."

Was there jealousy in his eyes, along with the concern? "Well, I'm having dinner with him tonight," I said. I stood up. "Thanks for the meal, Professor."

"Y-you can call me Matthias," he said.

I nodded. "Thanks, Matthias." I turned away and started to walk from our booth.

"Dorcus, wait." His voice stopped me in his tracks. I turned around and saw him looking up, staring down at his loafers. "Um," he said, scratching the back of his neck. "We could have dinner, sometime, if you'd like. It wouldn't be like this, an interview, I mean. It'd be, just, like as friends." He was like an adolescent talking to his crush for the first time, as nervous as someone walking across hot coals would be.

His question was clear, but my mind wasn't. Professor Murray was a nice guy, that was for sure. But I had thought of him as the dignified researcher who wanted to learn my story, not the kind of guy who would take you to dinner. He certainly couldn't sweep you off his feet, but he was very smart and kind.

"Um, maybe," I said. I saw his face fall. "Call me later, okay?"

"Okay," he said, nodding quickly.

I turned away and walked outside. "Hecate's nose, Dorcus!" I cured. "That was no way to treat him." But I shook it out of my head. I had a date with New York's most eligible occultist and not much time to get ready. I caught a cab back home, tried to get my hair less stringy, my nails less long and my warts less green and glowing as I waited for Galen's call.

While I was trying to get the green tinge out of my skin, Balthigore peeked into the bathroom. "We got a visitor, Dorcus," he said. "I think she's from your coven of friends. Her name's Greta and she's quite a dish."

"I'll see her," I said, smearing on some lipstick and stepped out to the kitchen. Greta stood there in a business suit, thin trousers and overcoat, looking at the dripping spell ingredients I had set on the hardwood table. "Don't touch that," I said, as she was about to poke the pulsating shell of a hardboiled dragon age. "It will burn skin on contact."

"Uh, good to know," Greta pulled her hand back. "So, your friend let me in. Barry, is it?"

"Balthigore, honey," Balthigore corrected, walking around. "Minor Prince of the Damned, but don't go broadcasting it."

"Uh-huh," Greta agreed. "Well, I'm here because of devils, actually. One popped up in Clancy's school today, and I had to go down and straighten things out."

"Blessed Danu. Is everything okay?"

Greta shrugged. "The teachers think it was swamp gas or some other hysteria common in Upper Eastside schoolchildren, and I calmed Clancy down and had him banish the demon back to Hell. But before I sent it down, I asked it about Galen Snorch. I figured it might know what kind of man he is."


Greta sighed. "He's bad news, Dorcus. He's was in this cult at his college, and sacrificed a dozen co-eds to some arch-devil named Zanax, if you can believe it. He only got out because of his family connections, and he sent hellhounds to frighten off the prosecutors."

"That's Zanadrax," Balthigore corrected. "Our names aren't that hard to pronounce."

"Well either way, he doesn't seem to care much about human life." Greta folded her arms. "And I don't know if seeing him is the best idea."

"I can take care of myself," I said. "And if I didn't know better, I'd say you were jealous. Galen can understand me, and most men you get can't do the same to you." The words tumbled out of my mouth before I could think of them. I saw Greta's eyes flashing down, her mouth setting in a firm line. "Greta, I'm—"

"You're right," Greta said. "It's probably nothing."

Balthigore's forked tongue snaked out, licking his lips. "Cat fight?" he asked. "Is there gonna be a cat fight?"

"I'll see you tomorrow." Greta turned and headed for the door. "Have fun tonight."

I would have gone after her, but the phone rang. I picked it up, putting my finger on my lips to motion Balthigore to silence. He wiggled his ears and nodded. I put the phone to my ear and wasn't totally surprised to hear it was Galen. "Dorcus," he said. "I was thinking I could bring you over to my place tonight, show you some projects I've been working on. I could send over some of my men to pick you up. How's that sound?"

"Pretty good," I said. I gave him my address. "What exactly are we planning on doing?"

"A deed without a name," he said. "See you soon."Galen hung up and I set the phone back. Balthigore gripped his neck and pantomimed gagging, his long tongue flopping around like a worm that had been hacked in half. I shook my head, grabbed my coat, my purse, with Green Thomas inside, and headed downstairs.

Just like he said, Snorch sent a sleek black limousine over to his place, and one of his red tuxedoed, bald servants got out to open the door. He was built like a cast-iron gorilla, but didn't seem to be as smart. "Thanks," I said, as I slipped inside. He only answered with a grunt. I guess they didn't make cultists like they used to.

I sat in the back of the limousine as it battled for space on the cramped streets. I wore a light fur coat over my black dress, as well as my straw hat. It made my arms look good, and a little less thin. I guess I had listened to Balthigore's fashion tips after all. He didn't seem that upset about me going over to Galen's, but I could tell he didn't like it, and Professor Murray and Greta certainly didn't.

Were they right? Could they even know what it was like, to become an urban legend in your own town? They certainly couldn't, even if they did tiptoe a little into our world. What I needed was a man who swan-dived right in, and it looked like his name was Galen Snorch.

Before I knew it, we arrived at his apartment building and I was escorted up to the penthouse. He had a swanky place overlooking Central Park, and everything was gold and copper inside. Even the elevator was gilded. I tapped my feet in time with the stops at the floors, and then we had reached his penthouse.

It was all done up in onyx pillars set with gold, scented smoke wafting around the wide chambers, cushioned seats and sleek furnishings. It was humid, and I felt like I was walking into some well kept jungle of steel and stone. The bald guard stood at the door, while Snorch walked out from behind one of the pillars, a wine glass in each hand filled with bubbling green liquid. He was wearing a striped red shirt, open at the collar and revealing pale skin, alabaster compared to the dark pillars of his home.

"Something to drink for the best witch in New York?" he asked.

"Well, I am a little thirsty," I said, gratefully accepting the drink. "So, what is it you want to show me?"

Snorch smiled as he led me to the center of the room. "Take a look at this," he said and pointed to a large altar that stood where most men kept their entertainment center. There was a pentagram of gold steel and diamonds resting on the ground, a different sacrifice placed in each of the five triangles, though the center was empty. There was a black cat's severed head, the skull of an alligator, a puddle of black melted candle wax, a human heart, and similar ingredients for some major magic.

"Nice jewels," I said. "Tiffany's?" I had a sip of the drink. It tasted sour as it slipped sluggishly down my throat.

"Blood diamonds, actually," Galen explained. "Each with the souls of those who worked to harvest to them trapped inside." He smiled, like a grade-schooler explaining the science project their mom had slaved over. "It's an altar, designed to create a big, fat portal to Hell. And Zanadrax, the Arch-Devil Lord of Eternal Suffering, can slip on through. Hell on Earth, Dorcus, right here on Fifth Avenue. The whole sick society will finally get what's coming to it."

I gulped, just thinking about it. "Don't you think that's a little...harsh?"

"Maybe. But it's just what they deserve." He turned to face me, his voice going silky soft. "I did a little research on you. They hung your mother, Dorcus. They drove you into the woods while they built up all of this for their descendants, keeping you apart. And while you may try and wear designer dresses, and put on perfume and fit in, you know you never will. It's another world, down there, and we'll never be a part of it."

He was right. I closed my eyes and breathed in the sweet, warm air. "That's true," I said. "They have another world. But it's full of people with their own hopes and dreams, loves and desires, far beyond any black magic or dark spells. If we hate it just because it's different, than we're no better than the Puritan bastards who murdered my mother."

"You won't help me unleash Zanadrax?" Snorch asked, his smile fading.

"I won't." I turned away. I took a step forward, and slipped on the slick floor. The room felt very hot and the air was thick around me.

"Yeah, figured you might do that. That's why I drugged your drink." Galen caught me as I fell down. "See, for the final ingredient, I need to sacrifice someone who's got a lot of magic in their bones and blood, and that's you, baby." He pulled me into the center of the pentagram and forced me down.

"This spell's great. Drains your life force without me having to cut you open, so I don't have to get this shirt messy. It's real Egyptian cotton, you know." My bones felt cold and my muscles were like rubber. I could barley move. "And by the way? About the mother, maiden, crone thing? You're definitely the crone." He coughed. "Pardon me while I do some chanting, invoking damned spirits and so forth. Gives the tongue a real work-out."

There were lights burning in my eyes, and I knew I didn't have much time. I could feel my strength draining away, but I reached out to my purse. Like most people who put their trust in Gods or Devils, Galen was over confident. He didn't bother to search me. I unzipped the purse and saw Green Thomas nestled inside. His bulging eyes widened when he saw me.

"Please…" I whispered. "Get help…"

"I shall hasten to thy aid!" Green Thomas cried as he sprang out of my purse and leapt into the air. Galen stared in surprise at the flying toad, and moved to grab Green Thomas. But the enchanted amphibian sank into the air, falling into the smoke like he had broke the surface of some dark, still pond. The air rippled, and Green Thomas was gone.

Galen shook his head, glowered at me and continued chanting. The syllables were the twisted, mad words of demonic power, and they reverberated around the onyx pillars like gunshots. I felt the heat grow and sweat coming in my green skin. My eyes burned but I couldn't close them. I could feel the boundaries between worlds getting thinner and weaker, more likely to break with each passing second. Some of my strength was coming back, but not enough, and I could feel the magic seeping out of me, like blood from a thousand tiny wounds.

Galen Snorch was delighted. He was beaming after he said each carefully memorized word, and when the edges of the pentagram burst into white flame, he nodded his head with smug satisfaction. Then, to my horror, there was a sound like the ripping of silk fabric – a long, splitting tear that made me wince. Smoke filled the penthouse, and I couldn't see much of anything.

"Zanadrax!" Snorch turned around. "I haven't quite finished the chant, but is that you? Zanadrax, lord of infernal doom?"

"Not exactly, boy-o," Maeve Mac Roich stepped out of the smoke and slugged Galen across the face. A powerful vine was wrapped around her bony fist, long thorns erupting from the green band. She let the vine go and it fell on Galen, attacking him like a python. Maeve looked up and smiled at me. "A little toad told me you was in some trouble."

I nodded weakly, then gasped as Galen's dozen guards came running through the smoke, all carrying heavy pistols. I couldn't believe I had gotten Maeve to come here, only to die because of my stupid search for a man who would understand me.

"Kill her!" Galen hissed, pulling the writhing, strangling vine away from him.

But as the red tuxedo-clad guards took aim, something else came from the smoke. Ophelia Reveaux stepped forward, her flabby hands folded. "You will hurt my friend no more!" she said. She nodded to something in the darkness. "Patrice, my darling, go and get them."

Patrice charged forward like an enraged bull – and he was about the same size. He was a massive dark-skinned Haitian who had fallen into Ophelia's disfavor in years past, and now served her as a zombie. His lips were shown shut, his eyes were milky white, and his decaying skin showed the muscle underneath. Patrice leapt into the guards, ignoring the bullets that cracked through him as he pounded them into paste with his fists. His blows cracked bone. The dead didn't have much restraint. I looked back at sweet little Ophelia, and I remembered that the bad side of bokor was not something you wanted to be on.

Ophelia and Maeve started towards me, but Snorch came to his feet. Fire coursed around his body, and he was bathed in the red flame that did not burn him. The tangling vine was burned to ash and fell away. "You little strumpets!" he snarled. "I am so close! Zanadrax's power flows through me! I cannot be stopped!"

He waved his hands at them, and bolts of fire flew from his glowing body. Maeve took a blast across the chest and fell back with a cry. Ophelia ducked for cover behind an onyx pillar, dragging Maeve with her. I could move my arms and legs a little now, but I knew it was useless. The wall behind the pentagram started to split. Zanadrax would be coming.

Galen turned to face it. "Ah yes," he said. "I can almost hear the flicker of flames, feel the heat of the Pit on my skin." He looked down at me. "Your friends are useless, Dorcus. A bunch of ugly old hags. It's almost a mercy, that I'll sacrifice all of you to Zanadrax's glory. I think I'll start with--"

The elevator's ring interrupted him. Snorch turned around as the elevator doors to his penthouse rolled open. Professor Matthias Murray stepped into the room, a baseball bat leaning on his shoulders. Greta Himmelfarb stood next to him. "Dorcus?" Professor Murray asked. He looked up at Snorch. "Oh god," he said, and there was absolute panic in his normally calm voice. He ran to Snorch, waving his bat above his head.

Galen Snorch laughed. "This is your rescue, Dorcus? Some pathetic old loser and a 5th Avenue shrew—" His words were interrupted as Professor Murray bashed him across the head with the baseball bat.

"You won't hurt her!" Professor Murray cried. "I won't let you!"

Snorch fell backwards, but grabbed Murray's leg and forced him to the ground. Poor Matthias was older than Snorch, and certainly wasn't boosted with dark powers from beyond the abyss. Snorch slugged Matthias Murray in the face, making him drop his bat.

The wall above me suddenly split and smoke poured out, making me cough and my eyes water. I wanted to look away, but then some clawed limb that size of a tree trunk slipped from the wound in reality and landed on the pentagram. I rolled away from the black scaly foot, that ended in long curved silver claws, and risked a glance into the portal – and into Hell itself.

Zanadrax was peeking out. He was as black as a shadow, the only interruptions in the darkness being his smoldering red eyes and shining white teeth. He loomed far over me, bigger than the statues in Central Park. When he spoke, it with a voice like a blazing, crackling forest fire. "At last!" Zanadrax snarled. "I shall walk the earth! And the realm of man shall be as ash under my cloven hoof!"

Snorch smiled up at Zanadrax, but before he could greet his demonic master, Greta stepped in front of him. "Uh-uh," she said. "You're not gonna do that, big guy. You turn around and go right on back to your Lake of Fire, right now."

"Who dares?" Zanadrax asked.

"My name's Greta Himmelfarb. My son is Clancy Himmelfarb, and his father is your boss, the Big Damned Cheese himself. Take all the time you want to check with your supervisor on that, but I guarantee he'll tell you that Clancy Himmelfarb is the Antichrist and your future boss."

Zanadrax paused. His dark eyes glowered angrily at Greta, and I knew he was checking over her story, psychically communicating with the lesser demons. I bit my lip and waited anxiously. "And?" Zanadrax asked.

"Well, I speak for Clancy. I'm his sole legal guardian and protector – your damn boss won't even pay alimony – so I'm tell you that he wants you out of this world. Go away and close the portal."

The Arch-Devil's eyes flared up with living flame. "Foolish mortal!" he bellowed. "You dare to presume to order me, the Lord of Eternal Suffering? Grovel, mortal woman, grovel and beg for your lives!" My bones shook with his every word, and I could feel the raw animal in him, begging to tear loose and destroy use in a deluge of Hellfire.

"Throwing a temper tantrum isn't gonna change anything, buddy!" Greta shot back, without showing a trace of fear. "My son is going to control Hell and Earth in the future, and he certainly outranks you. If you piss me off, I'll see that your career will be finished. The lowliest imps will get to order you around. I might even have Clancy toss you in the burning pit with the sinners, to watch you roast. You'll be 'fired,' if you pardon the expression." She folded her arms, every inch the cold executive. "So go ahead, pal," she said. "Come on and set the world on fire. I dare you."

There were a few seconds of silence. Zanadrax closed his burning eyes. "Maybe," he said slowly. "Maybe the destruction of the mortal realm can wait a few centuries. But I will talk to my supervisors about this! Mark my words, foolish mortal! You will receive a notice of a formal complaint!" He shook his massive clawed fist, but was already turning away.

"I look forward to telling whatever lower fiend has to deliver it to Clancy exactly where he can stick that formal complaint," Greta said curtly. "Go back to Hell now."

Galen Snorch stared in horror as Zanadrax turned away. "No…" he whispered. "The destruction of the world is so close…no…"

Maeve stepped forward and walked over to Snorch. She grabbed his arm and dragged him over to the portal. "Hold on, Zanadrax," she said, and pushed Snorch into the arms of the demon. "Take this guy with you. Perhaps you can work out some of your frustration on him."

Zanadrax smiled. "Perhaps," he said. The hole in the wall started to close, the burning smoke edges drawing together like a closing curtain. Galen turned around and looked at me with terrified eyes before it closed completely.

Professor Murray ran to my side and helped me up. "Dorcus!" he asked. "Are you okay? Are you injured?"

"I'm fine, though we should get out of here before the cops show up," I said. The effects of the potion were already wearing off. I could feel my legs and arms again, and even stand on my own. "Thanks for your help, Matthias. You were very brave."

"Oh, it was nothing," Professor Murray said, pausing to get his baseball bat. "I headed over here as soon as I got your, um, frog's message. I met Miss Himmelfarb in the lobby and we hurried up here as soon as we could." Ophelia, Greta and Maeve walked over to the elevator, Patrice the zombie following stiffly.

Maeve didn't seem too badly injured, her tough, enchanted hide shrugging off most attacks. She smiled at Greta. "You were magnificent back there, honey!" she said, as the elevator took us down to the lobby.

"Oh it was nothing," Greta said. "He was a big softie. When you've talked down a pissed-off middle manager who wants to expand his deadline, even the legions of Hell aren't that much trouble." She looked at Ophelia, Maeve and me. "Say, you guys want to go for a quick midnight snack after this? I know a nearby place that makes a great milkshake."

"Sounds like a plan," I agreed. I looked at the bottom of the elevator and saw Green Thomas smiling up at me. I picked him up, gave him a quick kiss on his dry, bumpy forehead and placed him securely in my purse. "Would you like to come with us, Matthias?"

"I'd like to," Professor Murray said. "But I've better not. I have an early class tomorrow, you see and…" He paused and gulped. "Dorcus," he said. "This Friday, would you like to go out for dinner? And not to talk about your past or anything. As a, as a date, I mean."

I smiled. "I'd like that," I said, and Professor Murray blushed, just as the elevator reached the ground floor.

After saying goodbye to the professor, we followed Greta to this cute little diner next to Central Park, and enjoyed a quick snack, with silent Patrice standing statue-still near our table. Maeve Mac Roich shook her head as she sipped her milkshake. "Too bad about Snorch," she said. "He was cute, in an Anton LaVey meets Brad Pitt sort of way." She shrugged. "I hope he has fun in Hell."

Ophelia nodded. "But don't worry, Dorcus. Now you have your professor. He seems like a good man, and even if he is not one of us, he is an upstanding human being and he likes you. It is easy to see that."

"I think so," I said. "And I should be grateful for you guys. You came running, even when I was stupid. When I screwed up, you were there for me."

"Of course we are," Greta said. "We're your friends."

Maeve took a big slurping sip of her milkshake. "But next time, why don't you put 'a maniacal desire to unleash demonic forces on the mortal realm' into your turn-offs list. It would save us a lot of trouble."

I laughed, a big Wicked Witch cackle. Ophelia joined in with her throaty laugh, and Greta giggled, while Maeve added her deep rollicking guffaws. We cackled together, free and happy in our own company, for a long time.

-The End-