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It seemed like an easy gig, just before meeting the Americans at the Dogstar. He'd done his turn over the years of popping trunks in parking lots and snagging people's Holiday Cheer, but you couldn't guarantee decent goods and you stood a good chance of getting caught, people just poking out from the shadows of parking garages. And that was back in T-Dot. In a smaller place it was a particularly bad set-up, though he'd done some pry and grabs in the mall parking lot the week before, some electronics for the Americans and a furry Furby toy for quick turnaround at a local pawn. But if you knew where a good party was happening you could alleycat in, and hide in the dark places. People couldn't hear for shit at a party, half of them would be baked, and if someone saw you, so long as it wasn't the host, you could bluff your way out like, great party, huh? If you were really lucky, they'd just blow past you. The key was to grab easy-sell and move, quick as a happy ending.

He'd been lying low a year, and his lease would be up in January and then he'd bus back to T.O. or at least somewhere more interesting than here, so it was time for a bold move. He had his electronics in his satchel and he knew the Americans would be at the Dogstar, and he'd spotted that party in the two-storey, just a block over, near Rainbow Park. You could see the house from the cracked-pavement parking lot of the old walk-up, the woman, a pretty hot woman, too, and the girls putting drinks on the icy back porch. Worst case scenario, he figured, he could help himself to some free beer. The sun was done by five, and they had only the back porchlight on. He had to be careful here. He cased it from the front first, and saw the cars and the crowd of people with food, doing it all potluck. The house lacked Christmas lights but a bushy wreathe hung from the door, and he saw lots of greenery and red berries in the window, just before they slid the curtains closed. They'd probably have some quick saleables and, if luck was with him, a nice pile of coats with stuffed wallets.

He took the long way around to the back again, and made his way into the yard once he saw someone pick up an armful of drink cans. The door was not locked. The kitchen was nearby—- bad luck, because that's where everyone ended up at parties—- but, hey hey, it was empty, and he could hear the sounds of gathering from another room. The house was dark, candlelit. It was turning out better than he thought. He heard singing, live singing, a child's voice, and moved his way to the stairs.

The kid, a little girl, did "The Holly and the Ivy." He found two bedrooms at the top of the stairs, which he figured for master and, probably, guest. Guest didn't look like a kid's room, and he saw no coats there. Master it was then, and he stepped inside. The colours were the first thing he noticed, a lot of bright red and black, but no pile of coats, as he'd hoped. They must have had a big closet downstairs. There was a cup like a chalice on the dresser, with the woman's tampons arranged there in plain view. Then he caught sight of the thing: a winged gargoyle or devil stared back at him, grey stone eyes.

He had no time to ponder home furnishing. He snagged a laptop and a small box of jewelry. He could assess it all later. It was probably best to fence his treasure with the Americans, though he could probably wipe the laptop and pawn it, since he planned to be gone by January.

The singer finished. He looked back at the devil on the dresser and then crept down the stairs.

He heard a crumpling noise, and then realized they were applauding.

He heard a voice, reading or speechifying. They chanted something about watchtowers and outer darkness and directions: East. South. West. North.

He should've just run to the back door, but he saw a shadow in the kitchen and hid in the darkness. He'd never seen a house so dark at a party, all of the candlelight flickering from the living room. He slipped to the front to see if he could get by that way, noticed the blinds even drawn on the front door window, and the door to the room was slightly ajar so he peaked in, just that one, awful moment.

He thought all the red and green was just some kind of elaborate Christmas thing, but then he saw in the uneven tongues of light, the woman with the candles on her head burning and the man in a mask, green and leafy and horned and straight from an old horror movie. Among the small crowd a few people wore robes and one or two didn't look much dressed at all, and candles everywhere and chanting, a knife and a cup and chanting, and what twisted scene had he stumbled into?

The woman breathed fire. He was sure in that glance that she had breathed fire.

Just a street over, and across from Rainbow Park. He thought old Shirl had been crazy, all those years ago, with her talks of Satanists and cat sacrifices and the End of Days.

He crept back to the kitchen. The coast was clear, and he headed out the back, quietly, and ran across the darkness of the yard and to the walk-up's parking lot and then booted it, fast enough to cover ground but not running, and finally slowing down halfway to the Dogstar, his breath and lungs freezing and the weight of his goods dragging on his left shoulder.

There had been kids, too, in that room. In Aunt Shirl's stories the Satanic cults always had kids.

Shirl had been counting down, counting down all her life, and it was ten days now and like the song said, party's over, oops out of time. It said so in Revelations, said Shirl. He didn’t know about that. He never read it. But 2000, she always said: the world would end in the year 2000. He'd thought about Shirl last New Year's Eve, and laughed, her old warnings and the news about Y2K and nothing happened, the world continued as it had always been. Now it occurred to him she never said when in 2000 the world would go. Maybe God was saving it for the last couple days, one last Christmas, a grand birthday present to Himself. He'd seen a devil in a bedroom and a woman breathing fire and a man in a green mask and he thought about Aunt Shirl, and trembled.

Shirl lasted the longest of dad's girlfriends and raised them mostly, if anyone did. Crazy old Shirl, who knew how dad made his extra money and was okay with that, but who talked Bible and reamed them out that time she came home late and he and Cindy were watching that old horror movie. He and his sister stared at a flickering old-time TV, the colours running wrong and a young guy in black by a candle calling out the demon of forbidden knowledge and the arch-devil of the black delights and the cool kids lighting candles and praying to Satan, praying to darkness, and some babe in a robe offering herself in a pentagram. They were going to raise Dracula, who was one of the Princes of Hell. They caught Hell from Shirl; that was for sure. Later, when she caught Cindy and her friends doing Ouija shit, she said the cops had been by. Someone had stabbed a cat, Shirl said, a black cat, and the cops thought it was kids who were into occult. It was bull, of course, Shirl's idea of scaring Cindy straight. He'd had a good laugh, his sister all terrified, fingers picked bloody and jumping when you said boo like she'd seen a snake. Shirl was filled with stories more twisted than that crazyass movie, watched every talk show and televangelist who warned of Satanists and even as a kid he thought it was bull, but now he'd seen it for real, the man in the green horned mask and the woman afire. Now maybe, just maybe, they were after him, and Shirl all these years later didn't seem so crazy.

He made it to the Dogstar, the outside crumbling brick and the inside dim lights and yellow. A face lit up and gave him a passing fright, like the people in the house by Rainbow Park had sensed him, had tracked him, but it was a faded plastic Santa Claus the staff had set by the door. Even a place like the Dogstar got into the spirit, with some old Christmas lights mixing with the yellowed ones. He found his Americans at a booth and he knew he couldn't look spooked, but damn, he thought. Just damn.

The lyrics to "The Holly and the Ivy" had been changed. He was sure of it now. They'd twisted them into something dark as winter's night. He made eye-contact with Willy and Spud and then ordered a boilermaker.

Willy and Spud hailed from somewhere near Detroit. Spud had long stringy brown hair and permanently wore an expression between a smile and a scowl. He was a bit heavy. Willy, who always seemed to drive, was tall and slender and clean cut and looked like the class brown-noser, the kid who would turn you in or turn on you when you weren't looking. People ignored you in the Dogstar. They could talk business if they kept their voices low and didn't wave goods around. In Toronto he'd had better fences, and he could move a lot of his own goods, but he'd come under some heat and this town had the border, so the Americans often moved his goods. Willy and Spud could breeze in and out, they said, country to country, because the border cops ignored good old boys like them and pulled over brothers with their pants hanging down and they asses hanging out.

He looked over at the bar, at the bartender and the bar girls and a couple of guys he'd seen before. The one looked like an old-time biker, with the hair and the beard, but his eyes were softer, kind of girly, even if you could tell he'd seen things, and they’d been things no one wanted to see. Biker Dude hung with the Twitchy Guy, a skinny fucker with eyes like the crazy preacher Aunt Shirl had eventually fallen for, before she ran off and disappeared for good. They were drinking beer and he'd heard they were a big buggy, the pair of them, people you wanted to steer clear of. He got his drink and joined the Americans in their booth.

The Americans liked the electronics, and knew an old laptop wouldn't rouse any suspicion at the border. Jewelry would cost more, because they couldn't easily explain a jewelry box full of stuff, and anyway, what kind was it? Was it worth the risk? They casually looked at it over the evening, none of it precious and maybe he should consider fencing it himself.

They found the sun and moon pendant, with wry smiling faces like the green man's mask, and the earrings, half-moons and pentacles with amethyst centers. "Jesus, buddy,' said Willy. "You knock off the Wicked Witch of the West?" He smiled like the kid who just pulled one over on mommy and then took a drink of draft.

The thief gave him a look to cover the rapid beat of his heart. "Yeah, well, I ain't all hardcore like you pups."

A few drinks later, they were in the lot, heading for the Americans' battered Ford Escort.

They heard two guys yelling from the food stand in the corner of the lot that appeared to operate year-round.

"What's next for you boys?" He couldn't see them crossing tonight; the border guys would've spotted them as DUI. They had a cheap motel, they said, and they were going to hit Windsor and maybe the Canadian Ballet the next day before crossing back.

"Nothing like the Festive Season in a strip joint," said Spud, jollily.

Willy opened the driver side door. And a voice from the dark said, "That your car?"

He looked at the guy, two guys, suddenly near them. "Yeah. Not for sale."

The one guy smiled, an older, bug-juiced-looking guy. "'Cause you dinged the side of my car."

Willy said that no, he hadn't, his car wasn't even there when they parked, so he needed to get out of their faces. Two against three, the thief thought, but he didn't want trouble. He hoped the numbers would work to their advantage, but you couldn't tell with some guys.

A blink and more shit-talking and then the one guy was on Willy. He pushed him away and pulled off his belt and started swinging. A buckle caught Willy who staggered into the open door. He pulled a hunting knife from out of the Escort and Spud grabbed the end of pop bottle from the ground at the edge of the lot. He tried to say they needed to chill and it might have settled even though Willy was looking angry, a welt on his face, when the Twitchy Guy, the skinny guy with the mad preacher’s eyes from inside the Dogstar just appeared, like he'd been hiding out in the lot, maybe checking cars, and out of the corner of his eye he saw the other guy, the big Biker Dude with the girly eyes, running towards them and then the Twitchy Guy grabbed Willy, tried to choke the bastard and Willy twisted round and shanked him with his knife. The Twitchy Guy stepped forward and fell to the blacktop and there was the big Biker Guy, heading their way.

"Jesus Christ! Jesus jesus jesus!" And they jumped into the Escort and booted out of the lot. With any luck, no one got a license, everyone too beer-brained and whiskey-eyed to think but now they were well and truly shanked and schlonged. The car hit Front Street. Even the plastic Santa looked like it might rat them out.

The Americans headed down the 402 away from the river and the border.

One of them had a friend a short drive away, in a rural house. Everyone agreed rural roads were the way to go. He stumbled with a map and tried to remember the way, maybe an hour’s drive.

"We’re carrying a shit-ton of goods and you shank some dickwad in a parking lot!"

"I fuckin' just turned and it was in." The darkness and snow passed them, outside the window, and kept passing. "Self-defense. Shit, it was self-defense."

They turned off at the next exit.

"And then there's this fuckin' guy."

The thief realized they meant him. "I'm no rat," he said.

Willy swore. And Spud said, "So what's your plan? Hmm? Mr. Prince of Thieves. What's your next move?"

"I was gonna go someplace in January. Hell, you really wanna know, there’s an assload of reasons I won't be staying in town, even before this happened. You know me. You know I won't say anything.”

"You bet you won't."

Willy popped a few of the amps he had and they headed through falling snow and night glare to an old house somewhere. The thief could not have identified where in his country they were. He kept his eye on Willy's coat and the pocket where he kept his speed.

They had to wake up the owner, a burly, grizzly-faced man who didn't seem overly happy to receive visitors at 3:00 a.m. but understood this was a situation and they'd helped him out in the past. Before they even went into the house a window slid open and a woman's voice from behind the screen asked what the hell was going on.

"Will and Spud. With a guy."

"What the fuck." Frost breath came through the screen and the window slid shut again and they ended up crashing in the main room, waking up at times to use the washroom and once to see the woman of the frosty welcome, looking annoyed, head of an older woman on a body and clothes that would've suited her daughter, and the room spinning. He slept uncomfortably, the people in the house near Rainbow Park breathing fire and setting him up for sacrifice, the pentacle earrings moon-magical and calling out like a tracking device. Then he saw the sketchy skinny Twitchy Guy, down on the pavement in the dark. Blood ran into snow and the plastic Santa smirked and breathed fire.

He woke up and quietly washed away the sweat and stench, as best he could, in a washroom with a window that did too little to block the breeze. He made a quick check of the medicine cabinet: he saw nothing sellable but saw a robo-cough syrup jar, nearly full, and knew a little of that stuff would help clear his head. Next, working with infinite care, he snagged Willy’s amps and made his way out. The grizzly guy had stepped out and taken the car. The woman was nowhere he could see.

The snow had stopped. The sun hung low in the blue sky and the air nipped at his face and fingertips. He had no idea which way to go. The year 2001 lurked a week and change away and who knew what great evil things would come crashing into them, because it all seemed possible now. Hadn't they been arguing about that on the TV, that the next century really started in 2001? The Twitchy Guy was dead on the blacktop at the Dogstar and they were wanted men, really wanted, the kind of wanted people put up road blocks over, and maybe somewhere the man in the green and horned mask and his women and the creepy singing children were dancing naked and laughing, just like the Satanists did in Shirl's imagination.

.

An hour later he was riding a rural road, riding with the ladies in an out-of-date station wagon.

He saw Agnes's eyes in the rear-view, from where the witch was hanging, with her bag of blood-and-white striped candies.

"There’s our Mrs. North," said Clare, pointing to a woman who waited at the end of a long rural driveway. "She'll fix you up."

North.

The people near Rainbow Park had been chanting the directions: east, south, west, and north.

Four old hags.

The car stopped and the back door opened and he saw her, moving towards him, blocking his way. There was a murder of voices as he pushed aside and then he felt something catching him, something he couldn't get away from and he heard calling, cackling, and finally he broke free, he had to break free, because he looked into her eyes and saw fire, and then he ran out into the afternoon where flames exploded around him and figures of darkness surrounded and dragged him into unending silence.

To Part Three (Conclusion)

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