For those who’ve been wondering when the real S.K.Epperson will appear…
Dinah peered through the thick glass of the restaurant and wondered how one person could eat so much in the morning. On the table nearest the window were scrambled eggs, sausage, an order of pancakes, a breakfast burrito, a cherry turnover, two containers of orange juice and one coffee. The breakfast bounty was for one large woman with a drooling interest in the latest copy of a tabloid, the headline of which proclaimed that Bat Boy Needs Eye Surgery.
“Over there,” said Mick. “The geek by the street side window, the one with the stringy hair.”
Dinah looked. She swallowed. “Mick, can’t you do this one?”
“Sure, I could. But I wouldn’t be helping you if I did. Time to bust cherry, Dinah. Go for it.”
“Wait,” she said uneasily. “Are you sure he isn’t dangerous?”
The red-haired Mick sighed. “I’ve been in this business a long time. I know dangerous when I see it.”
Dinah placed her back to the window. “That’s what you said yesterday. I’d call a twelve-pound mace pretty dangerous.”
“Hey.” He lifted a freckled hand. “Renaissance freaks are like that. This is McDonald’s. No one’s pulling metal in here.”
Funny, Dinah seemed to recall reading about an incident where someone did in fact pull metal in a McDonald’s. Heavy-resulting-in-several-dead-metal.
Mick was watching her. “I knew this wasn’t gonna work. Little candy-ass girl wanting to play hardball. It’s the same old shit. I suppose you’re gonna tell me you only wanna do the girls?”
“No, I just didn’t think it would be like this. I didn’t know we’d be dealing with so many nuts. That guy yesterday could’ve killed us.”
“Me, you mean,” Mick corrected. “You never left the fucking car.”
“You told me not to,” Dinah reminded him.
Mick looked at his watch and expelled a loud breath. “Come on. Get your ass in there and do it. He’s not going to run and he’s not going to dunk you in his coffee. I swear the guy’s harmless. Crazy maybe, but harmless. I know he is, because I did him the first time. He’s just another street nut.”
“Why are you in such a hurry?” Dinah asked. “You said he was here from eight in the morning until ten. It’s only eight-thirty.”
Mick growled under his breath. “Look, Miss Blondie Blue Eyes, I’m not wasting the whole goddamn morning here. Now, I’m going in to get a cup of coffee, you wanna stand out here and piss in your panties that’s just fine with me.” When Dinah’s head jerked around he continued, “You’ve been shifting feet and squeezing knees for the last five minutes. Now come on. Jesus, you’re like a fucking ten year old.”
He was already moving toward the entrance. Dinah had no choice but to follow him; she seriously did have to pee.
Mick got his coffee and sat on the opposite side of the room from their man. Dinah made a note of Mick’s table and hurried to the bathroom. She told herself that when she came out she would simply walk over to Richard Heffel and get it over with. With Mick there it would be easy. He wouldn’t let anything happen to her. He’d been mean to her from the first day, said she was too pretty and soft for this kind of work, but she thought Mick liked her.
She changed her mind about that when she came out of the bathroom to find him gone. Mick left a napkin propped up on his table. The scrawl on the napkin said he would be back for her by ten o’clock.
“Shit.” Dinah wadded up the napkin then apologized to the raised eyebrows of the gluttonous woman with the tabloid.
A feeling of being watched made her glance at the table by the street side window. Richard Heffel was smiling at her. Abruptly Dinah turned and made her way to the counter to order a cup of coffee.
“Make it two,” said a voice behind her.
She didn’t have to turn. The guy was fast.
The counter girl was waiting.
Dinah’s mouth was dry. “Uh…okay. Two coffees.”
“Thanks,” Heffel said.
Dinah still couldn’t make herself turn around. Only when the coffee appeared and one long, thin arm reached past her to collect a cup did she dare to glance at him. His hair was longer than she had at first thought; oily, blond, with wispy ends that reached the middle of his back. His beard was scraggly, reddish-gold, and unusually fine for facial hair. His eyes were solid green, no flecks or darker splotches in the irises. The whites were clear.
He smiled again and she saw that his teeth were still in good condition. Most of the street people she encountered had rotten stubs or no teeth at all.
“I…have something for you,” she said.
“I know.” He gestured for her to follow him back to his table. “I recognized the man you came in with.”
Dinah hesitated, looked around then decided she would be reasonably safe with so many people in the restaurant. She carried her coffee to his table and sat down without looking at him.
“Go ahead pretty lady,” he said. “Serve me.”
She blinked. Then she opened her purse and handed him the summons. “I haven’t been a process server very long,” she explained. “I’m glad you’re being cooperative.”
Heffel laughed a surprisingly soft and somehow charming sound. Dinah felt herself begin to relax. Maybe he was harmless after all. Not all crazy people were dangerous, were they?
She forced herself to speak slowly. “I used to work for the judge who issued this. What it’s telling you is that you’re in contempt. You haven’t paid the child support the judge ordered you to pay. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Heffel said. “But what he doesn’t seem to understand is that I have no children. I have no wife.”
Dinah tried to smile. “Well at one time you did, Mr. Heffel. That’s what this is all about.”
Heffel eyed his coffee sadly. “What a terrible waste of the taxpayer’s money. You can see I have nothing.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s not my concern,” Dinah responded, though she did wonder at the reasoning behind the summons. The man was clearly indigent now, regardless of what he may have had before.
“I was required to fertilize the egg,” Heffel explained. “I did. But my responsibility ended there, in that moment. I told her it did.”
Dinah couldn’t help herself. “So you agreed to donate sperm and that was all? It was an in-vitro birth?”
“Not at all. There was definite coitus.” He was smiling again.
“Then how can you say you have no responsibility? You were married to her, right? It’s not like you’re some fish swimming around and spawning.”
“I’m not a fish, no,” Heffel agreed. He lifted one arm and pointed to his bicep. “I’m a snake. See the scales?”
Dinah saw dry skin was all. She sipped her coffee and told herself it was useless to argue with a nut. She had heard Mick call him the Snake Man, but she’d thought it was because of a tattoo or something. This was…well, that’s why he was crazy and homeless, she guessed. After looking at her watch she decided to humor him. “Do you have fangs, Mr. Heffel?”
He frowned. “I do, but I don’t use them. I’m an anaconda.”
“Okay,” she said with a smile. “When did this affliction, uh, strike you?”
He missed the pun.
“After I was recruited for the Drug Enforcement Administration. We were flying from La Paz, Bolivia to Caracas, Venezuela when our plane went down in—“
“Wait, let me guess,” Dinah said. “Near the Amazon river, right? In the jungle.”
Heffel nodded. “That’s right. The nearest town was a place called Fonte Boa, but I didn’t know that when we crashed. I didn’t know where we were. I’d been sleeping when we went down, you see, and I woke up to find myself alone. There was only one other agent besides myself. And the pilot, of course.”
“And the mission was probably hush hush,” Dinah said, enjoying herself. “So the DEA didn’t bother to look for you. They couldn’t acknowledge your existence, let alone search for you, right?”
“Exactly,” Heffel said. “We had a cover story that explained our reasons for being in South America but our actual assignment was to follow the movements of one man and gather information on his operations.”
Dinah nodded. She’d watched enough of Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal to know where this was going. “A vicious drug kingpin?”
“Yes,” Heffel said in excitement. “He was in La Paz to guarantee shipments of ether to three cocaine processing plants in Colombia. In Caracas he was to meet with two pilots, both Americans. My partner recognized one of the men as a former agent. Anyway, after we crashed I got out and discovered the reason: we were shot down. A plane circled the site of the crash for ten minutes—I could swear it was an old B-52, but maybe it was my imagination. I had a compass with me so I decided to start walking. I eventually found the river and then some natives found me.”
“Natives?” Dinah repeated. “As in brown and mostly naked?”
“I still don’t know who they were,” Heffel replied. “They didn’t speak any of the languages I knew. They took me to a small camp—they were obviously nomadic—and turned me over to a woman.”
Okay, here it comes, Dinah thought. “She was their leader?”
“She was the Snake Goddess.”
Heffel paused and rubbed his eyes, as if suddenly weary of talking. “I know it sounds crazy, but have you ever read the story of Medusa?”
A crazy man thinking something sounded crazy was what Dinah thought was crazy. “Who hasn’t?” she said. “Mythology, right? Lady with snakes for hair?”
Heffel nodded. “She was the only mortal of three Gorgons.”
Dinah lifted her cup to hide her smile. “And completely lost her head over it.”
Heffel’s green eyes flickered. “I just realized that I haven’t asked your name. I don’t usually care about names, but I’d like to know yours.”
Dinah gave a shrug and told him.
He repeated it three times, slowly.
“Okay,” Dinah said, slightly creeped out. “So what happened after they turned you over to the queen?”
“She was a goddess, a daughter of one of the immortal Gorgons.”
“All right. A goddess. What happened?”
“She kept me in a cage for a week and just stared at me. She seemed enamored of my coloring, as if she’d never seen blond hair and blue eyes before.”
His eyes are green, Dinah told herself as she listened. Does he not remember?
“The second week she began feeding me a strange, bitter-tasting mixture of roots and menses. Hers. She fed this to me for six days and every night she took me out of the cage and stroked and played with me as you would a pet. On the seventh night she copulated with me and performed a ritual.”
Dinah’s mouth pinched in distaste. “What kind of ritual?”
“She anointed my glandular areas with something—I don’t know what. Whatever it was, she took it from a snake thirty feet long and at least a foot and a half wide. Then she allowed the snake to eat me. I have no idea how long it took. The strength of the snake’s contractions was incredible, but it felt like forever before it swallowed my head. I was nearly dead when she slit the snake open and took me out. She was enraged to discover that one of my legs had been broken. Before I passed out I saw her split the head of the snake in two and suck out each eye.”
“Yuck,” Dinah said, her stomach rolling. Okay, the story was interesting—better than the alien tale she and Mick heard last week—but she didn’t go for the gross stuff. And where the hell was Mick? He wasn’t honestly going to leave her here until ten, was he? She nervously glanced at her watch again. “I, uh, thought those snakes squeezed you to death before they ate you?”
“This snake was under her power,” Heffel replied. “That’s why she was so angry about the broken leg. It wasn’t supposed to hurt me.”
“Right,” Dinah said. Unable to resist, she said, “So then what happened?”
Heffel drained his coffee before answering. A single drop cascaded down the side of his mouth and became lost in his beard. “I slept. The next morning I found myself in the back of a Jeep. A group of British ethno-botanists found me. When I asked about the camp and the goddess they looked at me like I was insane. They had seen no trace of a camp.”
“What did they do with you?”
“They set my leg and took me to a clinic, where I made contact with a U.S. ambassador. Then I came home and spent three or four weeks being debriefed. Richard Heffel isn’t my real name, by the way.”
“Of course not,” said Dinah.
Heffel’s green eyes narrowed slightly. Then he sighed. “It was months after my return before I noticed anything wrong. It was gradual, but I felt myself changing. I tried to tell the woman I lived with, but she’d been told by doctors to expect a certain amount of odd behavior. I’d been through a harrowing ordeal, they said, and like other post-traumatic disorders the effects could last for years. Eventually I had to leave her.”
“After fathering a child,” Dinah said.
“Her idea, not mine.”
“Dinah finished her own coffee, now cold. “You used this snake story to justify your desertion?”
Heffel shook his head. “I had to leave. I couldn’t fight it. I was changing inside and it was time to go.”
Dinah smirked. “Time to move on and fertilize other eggs?”
Heffel’s look was direct. “I won’t do that if I can help it. Sometimes I can’t help it.”
Her gaze skittered away from the probing message in his. “So…now you live on the street. I know how you get your coffee; dare I ask what you do for food?”
“No,” he said. “You don’t dare.”
Dinah stared and a creeping sense of peril claimed her as she stared back.
“Dinah,” he said. “Do you believe me?”
The earnest tone of the question made her keep staring. She gave a helpless laugh. “I’m sorry, but how can I?”
“I have a driver’s license that says my eyes used to be blue.”
She tried to tear her gaze away and couldn’t. “They could be contacts. I don’t see any scales, Mr. Heffel. I don’t see anything but a man who’s given up on himself. You don’t have to live on the street; you’re articulate and you appear able-bodied enough to go out and find a job to support yourself—and the child you fathered. If you need help there are plenty of programs available for—“
“No one can help me,” he said harshly. “How can anyone help when they won’t believe me? I’ve been in hospitals and seen dozens of doctors. I’ve told everyone I’ve ever met what happened, but no one will believe me.”
Dinah grew flustered. “Maybe if you had some kind of proof they would. But you don’t. All you have is a wild story about Medusa and a mamba.”
“It wasn’t a mamba.”
“Okay, an anaconda. But you see what I mean, don’t you?”
She forcibly tried to look at her watch and found it impossible. Her eyes were burning with the need to blink.
“I see what you mean,” he said slowly. “So I might as well go on being crazy until I change completely. The seventh year, I figure. That’s probably when the scales will burst from beneath my skin. My eyes are already beginning to slit. Have you noticed?”
Dinah couldn’t notice anything but his eyes. And yes, his pupils were beginning to look strangely oblong. But that was only because…because his story was so good?
“I’m growing stronger every day,” he said. “I don’t have to eat but once or twice a week. It’s the change. I think it’ll end the seventh year because it was on the seventh night that she performed the final ritual. I sleep near the river now, but that’s only because it’s easier to catch animals when they come to…. Anyway, when it happens I’ll probably live down there permanently. I’ll miss coming here and drinking coffee. It’s the only way I can feel like my old self. And talking. I’ll miss talking with people like you.”
Hypnotism, Dinah thought suddenly. Is he hypnotizing me? Did anacondas do that? Did any snake really do that? Just birds, right?
“Dinah, Dinah, Dinah,” he said softly. “You’re so pretty. I might not be able to help myself with you.”
She tensed. It was time to go. She could wait in the parking lot.
“If you want proof I’ll give it to you,” he said. “Just you. The only way I can think of. Maybe then you’ll let me come and see you. We can talk some more. I like you, Dinah. I like you very much.”
Dinah started to speak, tell him no fucking way, but she suddenly found her throat as uncooperative as her eyes. Panicking, she jerked her mouth open to shout. Nothing came out. Her throat began to tighten, closing in on itself.
“I learned how to do this just recently, “Heffel said in the same soft tones. “The Goddess did it to me when I panicked. She simply immobilized me. It’s not something I’ve been working on, Dinah, it just came to me one day.”
It was getting harder to breathe. Dinah lifted her hands to claw at her throat, but even her fingers were sluggish and unresponsive. Lost in the green depths of his gaze, helpless to do anything but stare, she felt something wild and frenzied break loose within her when the hairs of his beard suddenly began to writhe. A tiny yellowish-green head burst forth just below his chin. Another emerged from his scalp. Threadlike black tongues flicked from impossibly small mouths. Heffel didn’t seem to notice.
Dinah tried to throw herself out of her seat. She went nowhere. Her paralysis was complete.
“Is it happening?” Heffel asked her. “What are you seeing, Dinah?”
The truth, she thought wildly.
Idiot! She screamed in her mind. He wasn’t going to be a snake. How could he possibly have thought he was going to turn into a snake? He was going to be like her. Like the goddess. Didn’t he know that? How could he be so blind and stupid? Dinah knew the reason for the ritual; the Snake Goddess had wanted him for a mate.
“Do you believe me now?” Heffel asked anxiously.
Dinah’s lungs were heaving. She was close to the point of losing consciousness. There was no air. He was killing her. He was squeezing her, swallowing her whole….
“Jesus Christ!” someone shouted beside her. She saw Heffel start and look away from her, breaking the spell. Then she felt herself being dragged from her seat.
“Do the Heimlich!” another voice shouted. “She’s choking on something!” It was the woman with the tabloid and the big appetite. She had egg on her upper lip, Dinah noted wildly. Eggs.
Someone lifted her off the ground from behind and buried a cruel thumb under her sternum, causing her stomach to give up its contents to the floor, after which she was able to breathe again.
“Don’t call a goddamn ambulance,” she heard Mick say. “I’ll take her myself.”
She expanded her lungs over and over, sucking in air until she could taste it along with the bile on her tongue.
“Dinah, Dinah, Dinah…” came a whispering voice.
She squeezed her eyes shut.
“Hey, get the hell away from her, asshole.”
“See?” the whispering voice hissed.
Dinah cringed away from it.
When she opened her eyes again she was in the car and Mick was pulling her skirt down over her thighs. He put her hands in her lap and slammed the door. When he climbed behind the wheel he said, “I’m not going to argue about this. We’re going to the emergency room. Whatever you were choking on may still be lodged in your pipe. Nothing came out but coffee.”
“That’s all I had,” she croaked. “I didn’t eat anything. I never eat breakfast. What about the Snake Man? Did anyone see what happened to him?”
Mick started the engine and put the car in gear. “What do you mean? He’s still sitting there looking like the damn dummy he is. He would’ve let you choke to death. Goddamn psychos. What the hell were you doing talking to him? You were supposed to serve the paper, period.”
Dinah ignored him. Her pulse was pounding again. No one had seen. No one but her.
“Mick, you were right,” she said in a rush. “I can’t handle this job. I want to quit, and I want you to take me home right now.”
“No way,” Mick said. “You’re going to see a doctor. You don’t know how blue your face was in there. Scared the shit out of me.”
“Please,” Dinah said frantically. “He knows my name, Mick. I told him. I have to get home and get my things.”
Mick glanced at her. “What’s wrong with you? Did he threaten you?”
“Not in…he didn’t…Mick, just forget the doctor and take me home. I have to get away before he realizes what’s really happening to him. He’ll want someone of his own and he’ll come looking for me because I saw his proof and I know and…please take me home. I’m begging you.”
Mick was frowning. “Hey, don’t come apart on me, all right? I said you were too much of a looker for this job. Guys’ll come on to you, crazy or sane. They see a pretty girl and they think they can either sweet talk or intimidate her. I should’ve known Heffel would lay his best stuff on you. Sonofabitching shrinks make the worst crazies.”
“Shrink?” Dinah said.
“Yeah. Didn’t you read the file? The guy has a degree in psychiatry.”
Psychiatry. Dinah sagged against the seat in relief. She had the hysterical urge to laugh. So she had been hypnotized after all. Somehow.
She coughed in embarrassment and leaned her head back, unable to believe her own gullibility. Mick had been right all along; she was too soft for this kind of work, too easily suckered by a charming liar with a good story. A psychiatrist. Good God you’re dumb, Dinah. Dumb, dumb, dumb…
She gave Mick a weak smile. “I guess I should have read his file. What happened to make him like he is? Did he snap under professional pressure or something?
Mick lifted a shoulder. “He didn’t have time. He never got to practice. After graduation Heffel and this other newbie flew down to South America to learn a treatment from this world famous guy. On the way there they got kidnapped by a bunch of rebels. They broke every bone in the other guy’s body, but Heffel came out alive and distinctly wacko, as I’m sure you noticed. He claimed his friend got fed to a huge snake by a very weird lady. Crazy. Anyway, that’s why he’s called the Snake—hey, are you sure you don’t need to see a doctor? You’re getting paler by the minute.”
Dinah was sitting up. Her throat hitched in remembered anguish. “Home…” she managed.
“Don’t look like that,” Mick said. “You’re scaring me again.”
“Home!” Dinah shouted. “I have to pack! He wants to fertilize my eggs, Mick! Take me home!”
“Okay, okay, Christ you’re a nutty broad. Just calm down and tell me where you live.”
Dinah wiped her perspiring forehead and touched her throat. She flicked away the tiny scale she found there and heard herself whimper.
“I live on Riverbend Drive. Right on the river. Hurry, Mick. Please hurry.”
Copyright S.K. Epperson
A somewhat different version was published (a long, long time ago) in a little magazine called 2A.M. Anyone remember them?