Excerpt from ENOCH'S PORTAL*

by A.W. Hill

*Champion Press, 2002
  ISBN 1891400592

He withdrew the knife from its short-lived nesting place beneath his pillow and crept to the door silently. She had changed her clothes, seasoned her body with a pungent herbal perfume, and donned a stunning henna-colored wig with a long French braid, but Marta, the barmaid, would have registered through any disguise. He stepped round from his defensive position on the backside of the door and resheathed his knife, which she observed passively on entering.

“Expecting trouble?” she asked.

“Not so soon,” he replied, scanning the hallway as he let her in. “You didn’t happen to come in a black Mercedes, did you?”

“No,” she said. She stepped to the French window and pulled back the drape slightly. “I’m only a waitress. But there is a man down there, in the back, whose fringe benefits are better than mine.” She let the drape go and turned to him. “Will you offer me a drink?”

“Have you seen him before?” asked Raszer, locking the deadbolt and crossing to the desk, where the Armagnac bottle stood. “The man downstairs?”

“Only in my...how do you call them? Night-meers?” Raszer poured her a drink and handed it over the desk.

“Lucky for us, the porter brought an extra glass,” he said. “Do you tend bar here, as well.” She took the liquor down, Russian style, in a single gulp.

“No,” she replied, “but I am known to the concierge.”

Raszer squinted hard and gave her a glancing once-over. The lace-up boots came almost to the knee, leaving a good ten inches of sturdy but nicely shaped thigh before the hem of her cordovan leather skirt. She wore a matching brown vest, bound across her breast with thongs. There was something about the whole ensemble that suggested a fifth century warrior queen ready to receive the general in her tent. Of course, he thought. A girl like this would be known to any European concierge worth his tips.

“And you’re also known,” he said, “to Monsieur Fourche.”

She set down the snifter and walked to within an inch of his chest.

“Do you trust women, Mr. Branch?” she asked to his face.

“I let you into my room at two in the morning,” Raszer answered.

"I asked if you trust them, not if you desire them."

“Let’s see,” he said. “I trusted my fourth grade teacher, Miss Buzzo. I trusted my mother, when she was sober. I trusted my wife. Big mistake...” She tossed the French braid over her shoulder and laughed as lustily as she had in the bar.

“They can be cruel if you deny them what they really want, Mr. Branch. But if they are on your side, they offer protection that no man should be without.” Marta scooped up her glass and held it out for a refill. Raszer obliged, wary, but undeniably intrigued by the presence in his life, at this particular moment, of such a sybil.

“Your English is head of the class,” he observed. “Why do you put on the act for Monsieur Fourche?” She sat on the foot of his bed and drew her right knee langorously up to her chin, revealing, an inch at a time, the tender underside of her thigh. Raszer saw no evidence of underwear.

“Knowledge is a little like a knife,” she answered. “Sometimes, I think, it is better to keep it hidden until you need it. No?”

Raszer replenished his own drink and swung the plain, wooden desk chair around to face her. Then he sat down and leaned in, his lips close enough to her bare knee to caress it, his nostrils near enough to smell her essence through the perfume. He knew he was being seduced, and had not yet decided what to do about it. Soon enough, things would decide for themselves.

“You said you had something to share with me, Marta,” he whispered. “About my business partner. Mr. Fourche.”

“He beat up my sister last night,” she said, matter-of-factly. “He’s a pig.”

“Your sister?” Raszer asked, “is she...”

“A prostitute. Yes,” she cut him off, as if to spare him the awkward inquiry. “I introduced her to him. He has special needs.” Raszer shook his head.

“I was only going to ask,” he said, “if she was all right.” He dropped his head for a moment and contemplated the Byzantine design on the faded carpet. “So that’s why you’ve got him on the defensive,” he conjectured, half to himself, then raised his eyes and looked at her deeply for the first time. “Strange, isn’t it? How even a man who can keep state secrets can be compromised by an itch. How badly did he hurt her?”

“She is OK. It is not the first time she has seen this kind of thing...but he frightened her. His eyes. She was sure that he could just as easily kill her as slap her.” She swallowed the rest of her armagnac and her body registered its quality with a shudder that ran down to her toes. “Now she can’t sleep. She says that the Devil is in Praha.” She lowered her knee and bent over to set the glass on the carpet. Raszer studied the rawhide laces which criss-crossed over her bodice, and felt himself getting a little dizzy. As she straightened, she placed a hand on his knee for balance and regarded him through the unkempt bangs of her Queen Boedica wig. “So, I have given her my bed and my Doberman for the night, and I...”

“And you,” he said, “have no place to sleep.” She stood, brushed his cheek, and moved back to the window, running her hands over the back of her skirt to smooth the leather. A winning move. Raszer knew it was all over but the ref’s call.

“You need protection tonight,” she said, her back to him, and touched the drape lightly as if to drive home the message. “And I can give it to you.” The muscles in her calve were as taut and strong as the shank of a longbow.

“I don’t doubt you can,” he said. “But protection always comes at a price.”

“And wisdom...” She turned her head, and her green eyes flashed.

“Even more expensive.”

“Then I offer you a bargain,” she said, wrapping the curtain around her lower half. “Two hundred American dollars, and I’ll spend the night with you.” Raszer gave a short laugh and got up to light a cigarette.

“Ha! For a minute there, I thought...”

“You thought what?” she said. “That the poor Czech girl would throw herself at the rich Canadian ‘businessman’ for a chance to get out of town?” She released the curtain and waggled her finger at him. “No. I am not looking for a husband, Mr. Noel Branch. And I am not a whore. But what I have to give has value.” She aimed her finger at the half-empty bottle of Bas Armagnac. “You pay a good price for that cognac, yes? Would you not pay as much...” She came forward, head cocked, hands on her hips. “...for something like me?”

“It’s not a moral judgement, Marta,” Raszer replied, blowing the smoke into the strobing blades of the ceiling fan, “but I’ve found that when you pay for sex, that’s all you get. Now, information... that survives the morning after.”

“Then let’s call it information,” she said, popping the first of her vest laces out of its hook. “Or if you wish, a contribution to my tuition at the University. I do not intend to be a waitress forever.” Raszer set the burning cigarette in the ashtray, put a hand around the small of her back, and with the other, undid the next two laces.

“If it’s for the cause of higher learning,” he said, “then I’m your man.”

Fatalism had been Raszer’s best defense since emerging from the black fog of depression six years earlier. When the world seemed too bleak to bear, he took refuge in the abiding faith that whatever would be would be, and one-by-one, had seen most of his phobias leave him. This had allowed him to buy into life with something approaching reckless abandon, but he had always drawn the line at love, which somehow seemed a little too close to the death he had narrowly escaped. He could give body and soul to war; to women, he gave pleasure -- even the occasional epiphany -- but he denied his own, most precious favors. He called it discretion, but he knew full well it was fear. It had probably cost him his marriage and his daugh- ter. On this night, as became rapidly clear, Marta was out to strip him of his psychic prophylactic. As Monica had warned, the Czech girls had yet to discover safe sex. The Woodstock Nation had come to Prague, stripped of its sentimentality and tempered by the cool, cybernetic fire of a bold new age of ecstasy without illusion.

She racked his body until he felt as if his bones were the soft cartilage of a baby’s. She kneaded each centimeter of his skin with potter’s fingers, keeping the clay moist with a mouth so generous that Raszer perceived at last how Isis had managed to raise an erection from the emasculated corpse of her Osiris. She awakened places so deadened by shame or neglect that he cried out repeatedly, and even sobbed. “My beautiful man,” she called him. “Moje krasna golem.” When she had reduced him to compliance so complete that he lay flattened on the bed, unable to lift a finger, but with his cock as mean and red as its namesake, she mounted him backwards and fucked him until her red queen warrior cries had diminished to whimpers. He watched her ass rise and fall like seafoam on a part of him which was his, and not his. He was up here, in his head, wasn’t he? Think again, she seemed to say, as she lifted, turned round, and kneeling between his legs, took his liquid self into her mouth and down to the deep, hot athanor of her soul.

*     *     *

Sleep came with the weight of God’s hand pressing him like a seed into furrowed earth. All light, sound, and sensation were baffled as fully as if the room had been filled with down. Consciousness, if it existed at all, was aware only of the continual downward thrust. What woke him was the sudden return of his sense of smell -- or possibly the dream of it. Burnt cedar, fig, and myrrh. And a soft thump, as if he had reached the end of his fall. A feeling of dread, alive in his limbs. He raised his head weakly and turned to look beside him. She was propped up on an elbow, watching him, the chalk white hair framing her ancient face, her withered breasts laid on the pillow like old silk slippers. Behind and through her he could make out the slumbering form of his lover. A flare of pale indigo shot from his eye and burned through the hag’s parchment-skinned forehead, and she smiled at him toothlessly. “Shut up and listen,” she said. “You ought to know me by now.” She kissed his ruptured eye, and spoke this verse:

Her life’s in a temple where ash is burned
an ark with the sum of what man has learned
A juggler, a Jew, and a foursquare cross
know her as the vessel of Wisdom lost

Her death is the door by which you came nigh
and speaks with a lovelorn she-cat’s cry
Can but be denied if a groom ye be
and bring me the gift that you promised me

Just as her diaphanous form began its dispersion into atoms of night, he watched her ashen hair return to its blue-black youth, her wrinkled skin stretch taut and burnished over high Sumerian cheekbones, and her breasts retract from the pillow and form firm, ripe plums of flesh. She laughed melodiously and her breath carried the scent of mead. As she laughed, the pitch of her laughter deepened into a masculine register, and she underwent one final transformation. The cant of the eyes lifted and the folds of skin around them filled with the creases of coming middle-age; the nostrils widened and the bridge of the nose bowed out like a raven’s beak; the lips spread and thinned, the upper lip curling just slightly at the right corner. Raszer felt the last cubic centimeter of oxygen leave his lungs and simultaneously fill her breast. He was looking into his own eyes, along an axis of indigo light. When he dropped his gaze to see if his own body still existed, he saw full breasts, damp with milk, swelling from his chest. He tried to scream, but all that came out was a guttural moan and a question more felt than spoken.

“Who are you?”

“Why don’t you get up on all fours?” she replied, in a voice which was at first his own, “and see how it feels to be a woman.” Now it was Marta, who had sat bolt upright in bed, her own features smeared by those of the Other. He shot out of the bed and flew back hard against the wall. There was a knock at the door.

“Are you OK, Mister Branch?” said a stranger.

“Yes, I’m fine,” said Marta, in Raszer’s voice.

As she rose from bed to come to his side, what remained of the vision was drawn into Marta’s lungs with her first breath. She came naked to him where he stood, trembling in the corner, and led him back to the bed. She held his head against her breast and hummed old Slavic lullabies until he dropped into sleep. Sometime shortly after that, in the drizzly pre-dawn light, she got up, dressed quietly, and left. On her way out, she stumbled over the snoring hulk of Raszer’s new bodyguard, a fat, kindly looking Czech. She shook him gently awake, as he was on duty, and he seemed to recognize her as a fellow denizen of the dark city. She entrusted to him the business card which her sister had given her two nights before.


A.W. Hill lives in Los Angeles. His first novel, a supernatural thriller entitled Enoch's Portal (ISBN 1-891400-59-2) was published in June 2002 and acquired for motion picture development by Paramount. A screenplay, Little Black Book, a comedy about a modern-day courtesan, is currently being shopped to studios and actresses unafraid to soil their reputations. More info about Hill and his alter-ego, P.I. Stephan Raszer, can be found at www.raszer.com.

Visit A.W. Hill online at: www.awhill.net

Enoch's Portal © 2002 by A.W. Hill






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