A million souls in this City of Night, and Jerome finds himself alone in an alcove jutting off from one of those deep underground corridors designed for walking but mainly used for things illegal or illicit.  He sits on a stone bench carved into the curved wall.  He sits, he clenches and unclenches his fists, he catches his breathing just before the panic leads to hyperventilation.  His insides get knotted and taut every time he comes down here.  There are houses.  He could get his fix on a somewhat comfortable couch, surrounded by dim red lights and smoke and exotic women and men in fashionable jackets.  He could be home now, sleeping a regular sleep, dreaming of things like sunlight and beaches, all those things Midnight never sees.

He remembers sunlight.

He sits in shadows.  In Midnight, you find shadows everywhere, in parks and cemeteries, outside bars, police stations, around the corner from high-rise apartments and the low-rent projects.  Shadows infiltrate the subways and the highways, bus routes, parking lots, schools, prisons, office buildings, City Hall, the Historical Society Building.  After a while, the shadows infest your soul.  It starts when the blackness sneaks in through the cracks of your heart, whether caused by heartbreak or loneliness or uncomfortable memories of other places.  When the darkness spreads, it leaves your limbs numb, your fingers cold, your eyes unfocused, and you might as well be on something.  You’re not.  You think you’ll be okay.  You start with maybe wine, spiced cigarettes, cheap sex, then slip into harder and harder stuff, seeking some escape, some salvation you know can’t possibly exist.  But you look anyhow.

You look, and like Jerome, you end up in an oft-forgotten corridor waiting for a guy you know only as Freak.  For all you know, that might be what he calls himself at home.  His girl might call him Freak, and his children if he has any.  Daddy Freak, Daddy Freak, they say, and he gives them gifts with the money you shoveled over.

The money’s already gone.  Jerome’s foot taps out a quick staccato on the concrete ground.  In his fist, he’s got a small baggie, and inside that, three red pills.  Three hits of Scarlet.  Three tiny trips to heaven.  Carefully, he fishes one out.  It stains his finger red as he places it on his tongue.

Ask ten people what Scarlet does for them, you’ll get ten different answers.  Is it a hallucinogen?  Certainly, it sends the heart into overdrive.  The chest pounds with inconceivable rhythms, sometimes skipping a beat, sometimes three, sometimes ten.  Hands like balloons.  Stroboscopic lights.  Everything moves really fast, or in slow motion, or not at all.  The City of Night is yours to command.  Men and women alike will bend to your will.  Ravens will flock to you.  The gypsies, out in the forest, chant your name as they dance their pagan rituals.  Creatures of legend bow before you, with names like Uncle Knuckles or the Wandering Reverend.  Three hours later, Jerome hasn’t left the stone bench, has barely moved.  His eyes are closed, his heart furiously attempting to beat, striking once, twice over the course of seconds.  His blood is cold, his skin moist, and he stinks something awful.

Sometimes, in the corner of your eye, if you know the city well enough and know what should be where, you’ll sometimes see a person who shouldn’t be there, maybe a ghost, maybe only one of those shadows, an agent of someone or something you’d rather not consider.  Sharply dressed, rigid, imposing, and fleeting.  One such man stands beside Jerome now.  Sadly, he shakes his head.  He forces Jerome’s fist open and takes the little baggie with the two Scarlet pills still inside.  He checks the pulse at the throat, then wipes his fingers clean with a white handkerchief.  He finds a payphone–there are thousands in Midnight, in the valley of two mountains, a place where mobile phones simply fail to find any signal–and makes a call.  Not to the police or an ambulance.  “Found another.  Good as dead.  Send someone to gather him.”

After he hangs up, as he walks crisply away in his crisp shoes, he drops the Scarlet pills on the street.

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