Ajay tossed the empty can of black Krylon on the ground and stepped back. Though it was just an outline, the face had many of the qualities he wanted. He’d incorporated elements of the crumbling wall into the work. Discolored stone added depth and shadow to the eyes, and the trench-like mouth gained terrible dimension thanks to a wide swath of missing bricks.
He wiped sweat from his face. It was a good night for the work. A full moon provided ample light, and the city still glowed with warmth after a hot summer day. The heat kept him limber and eased the ache in his ribs and shoulders.
He grabbed another can of spray paint from the jumble of cans at the base of the wall. Sun Dried Tomato, declared the label on the red-topped can. Ajay shook his head — Krylon always had such stupid names for their colors. He depressed the nozzle and released a hissing jet of crimson.
Anyone who looked in the alley behind the Kwik Mart tonight would see a skinny Indian kid in a black jacket and baseball cap tagging a brick wall. Ajay smiled — only someone who didn’t know shit about shit would call him a tagger. He wasn’t some lazy-ass wannabe scribbler, throwing up his initials all over the city for an ego stroke. He was a writer, a real artist, and his pieces had something to say. The cops still called it graffiti, sure, but they sometimes cut him some slack because his work was interesting to look at.
Cops weren’t the only thing he had to worry about though. Ajay did his work in some fucked-up neighborhoods, and getting caught painting over gang signs was a good way to get your ass kicked.
A writer accepted the risk of working in gang territory, but every Krylon-slinger in Seattle knew you didn’t fuck around south of Yesler. Oleg Talanov controlled that area, and the Russian gangster wasn’t a patron of the arts. If he or one of his outfit got hold of you, you’d get beaten within an inch of your life if you were lucky. Shot if you weren’t.
Ajay had worked in Oleg’s neighborhood only one other time besides tonight. Three months ago he’d seen a wall behind a check-cashing place perfect for a piece he’d been thinking about. He’d been halfway done when the Russian and his crew rolled up in their black Escalade. Years of dodging the cops had made Ajay wary and fast. He knew the neighborhood, and he’d gotten away.
Lesson learned. He wouldn’t go back into Oleg’s neighborhood, but that Eastern Promises motherfucker had other ideas. He’d taken personal exception to Ajay’s intrusion, and he’d asked around. Oleg knew a lot of people, knew how to scare those people, and some of them knew Ajay.
Ajay had been at the Pizza Hut where his little brother, Samar, worked when it happened. Samar hooked up his big bro with free pizza on slow nights, and they’d been the only people in the building. There hadn’t been anyone to call for help when Oleg — massive, black-bearded, and terrifying — walked in with a couple of his guys and dragged them out back. The gangsters had thrown Ajay on the ground, and Oleg went to work on him with a baseball bat.
The memory of that night roiled in Ajay’s stomach. He stopped painting, letting the can of Krylon dangle at his side. He remembered thinking they’d leave his brother alone, that they only wanted him. Oleg’s boys had held Samar so he couldn’t run off and get the cops, but they hadn’t hurt him. Maybe they would have let him go, but Samar was a brave kid. He’d had a box cutter in his pocket, and he’d gotten away from the guys holding him, lunged forward, and slashed Oleg’s back with it. Ajay doubted that little blade had done more than scratch the Russian through his leather jacket, but he’d howled like Samar had cut his ass in half. The two guys from Oleg’s crew grabbed Samar again and pushed him down on his knees.
“Watch this piece of shit,” Oleg had said to his guys. Ajay had hardly needed watching with three broken ribs, a shattered collarbone, and a fractured skull. He remembered every instant of what happened next. A flash of images, like the flickering pictures in a silent movie. Oleg pulls the pistol from his jacket. Oleg places the barrel against Samar’s temple. Samar’s eyes are wide, terrified, but defiant. The ear-splitting sound of the shot. Blood sprays from the side of Samar’s head, and he sags to the asphalt, still and silent.
Oleg would have shot Ajay too, but for once in his life the cops had shown up when he actually needed them. When Oleg and his boys heard the sirens, they piled into the Escalade and left.
Ajay spent a month in the hospital. He’d been so fucked up he couldn’t even attend Samar’s funeral. He spent another two weeks at home doing nothing but stewing in his own shame and rage. Sure, he could get a gun, but he sure as fuck wouldn’t be the only one with a piece if he went after Oleg. Vengeance, like everything good in his life, came to him through his work.
The man he and the other writers called Ivan had shown up unannounced at Ajay’s apartment two weeks after they released him from the hospital. Ivan was one of the most talented street artists in Seattle and the only Russian writer anyone knew. He’d never told anyone his actual name, so they’d settled on Ivan — he didn’t seem to care. Ivan’s pieces were beautiful but crazy and filled with strange symbols and weird, distorted faces. Most of the faces in his work were regular people, but sometimes they were monstrous, screaming things. His pieces changed too. Everyone would see him finish a wall, and then, weeks later, something new would appear in the work. These additions were always disturbing; demons, more screaming faces, and other terrible things.
Ajay wasn’t going to let the Russian writer inside, but then Ivan had said, “Oleg hurt you, take your brother. He hurt me too.” The Russian had grimaced, as if saying Oleg’s name caused him physical pain. “This,” he hissed and pulled a little pot of paint from his coat. “This can hurt Oleg.”
It wasn’t spray paint but the kind you used with brushes and a canvas. Ivan had removed the top revealing something thick and black that smelled awful, like blood, shit, and worse. After he’d shown Ajay the paint, Ivan had said strange and terrible things, his voice high and frenetic. Ajay hadn’t understood a lot of it, only that Ivan hated Oleg Talanov and, for some reason, he wanted a picture of Samar. Within the cryptic pidgin of English and Russian lurked something else, though, something Ajay wanted so badly it filled every waking moment of his life: his singular desire to avenge Samar’s death.
Ajay had let Ivan in after that, and they sat in front of the coffee table on the couch, Ivan’s stale piss and body odor reek filling the apartment, even overriding the stench of the paint he’d brought.
Ivan had pulled a knife from beneath his coat — it looked old, but the blade shone like a new quarter. “Cut arm,” Ivan said and pushed the knife at Ajay.
Against every instinct screaming against it, he’d taken it, its handle warm with more than Ivan’s body heat. “I don’t understand . . .”
“Cut arm,” Ivan had repeated. “Need blood for Chernobog.”
Ajay hadn’t understood that word, but it conjured both dread and terrible compulsion, like a magic spell. He’d brought the knife up and slashed his arm. It was so sharp he barely felt it.
Ivan grabbed his arm and held it over the pot of paint, letting the blood drip into it.
“Now picture,” he said.
Wordlessly, Ajay had given him a picture of Samar, taken a few years ago at the Pizza Hut, his brother smiling and happy and filling his face with a slice pepperoni.
Ivan took the picture, produced a lighter, and set the it on fire. He then put it into the paint. It burned quickly and became ash. There was part of Ajay that wanted to tell Ivan to go fuck himself, that this Russian voodoo stuff was bullshit, but he hadn’t because somehow he’d known it wasn’t.
Ivan mixed the ashes and blood into the paint and smiled. “Now I show you Chernobog’s words.”
Ivan had scrawled four spiky, whorling characters on separate pieces of paper. He’d named each one and made Ajay say the word over and over until he got it right. The words didn’t sound like Russian; they didn’t sound like a language at all, more like grunts and gagging sounds.
Ivan had stood up abruptly after Ajay could say the words on his own. Then he’d given the only real instructions in the bizarre lesson. “Make painting. Make symbols. Say words.” He’d then looked at Ajay with something like pity or fear, and they had tinged his next words. “You get what you want, but maybe Chernobog takes what he wants.”
That name, Chernobog, lodged in Ajay’s mind. The last time Ivan said it, his voice had dropped, like he was afraid of it, or worse, like Ajay should be afraid of it.
That was last week, and between then and now Ajay had thought a lot about what to make with Ivan’s special paint. It had come to him a few days ago when he’d visited Samar’s grave. They’d put his little brother in a cemetery in a bad part of the city, and taggers had left their mark on every square inch of exposed stone. One of the little fuckers thought himself a real writer or some shit and had sprayed a face on Samar’s headstone. The face had been crude, but its wide mouth, cartoonish teeth, and protruding tongue resonated with Ajay. The image had stuck in his head, and it had inspired him.
Ajay tossed the empty Sun Dried Tomato can down and snatched up a can of Greek Stone — plain old gray to the layman. He started working on the teeth, squatting down to get close to the wall. This was an important part, and he didn’t want to fuck it up. The brick and concrete surface was porous, a real paint-eater, and not the type of surface he’d normally choose for a piece. He’d need a lot of coats.
Greek Stone gave way to Ultra White, and then a bit of Bright Idea for a splash of jaundiced yellow. Each tooth now stood out from the wall like an ancient ivory spike — jagged and terrible.
Ajay looked down at his watch. A quarter past nine. Almost time to make the call. He grabbed a can of Classic Black and added depth to the mouth, making it deep and hungry. The black ran dry, and the wall was done.
He dug his iPhone out and dialed the number for the Iconic, a poker room in Pioneer Square that served as a front for the Talanov family business. Oleg spent most of his time there.
The phone rang and a man picked up. “Iconic,” he said, his Russian accent subtle but unmistakable.
“This is Ajay Basu,” Ajay said. “I have a message for Oleg Talanov.”
No reply, but Ajay had said the magic words.
“Tell that sputnik son-of-a-bitch I’m tagging the shit out of the wall behind the Kwik Mart on South Jackson.” He said tagging because to Oleg it would mean claiming.
Again, no reply, but Ajay didn’t need one. He disconnected the call. The Iconic was just a few blocks away, so he wouldn’t have much time.
Ajay stepped back to look at what he’d created. The face loomed huge on the wall, a gape-mawed nightmare staring out from a scathing world of swirling reds and blacks. Its lurid yellow eyes were twin moons beneath a furrowed scaly brow, and its nostrils flared wide, drinking in the scent of the edible world beyond its stone prison. The mouth truly made the face terrible. It yawned open, a black gash lined with yellowed bony shards. A tongue — wet, red, and gleaming — projected from the depths of that cavernous orifice like the questing tentacle of something even more horrid that lived within Ajay’s creation. He shivered despite the warm night air.
He wasn’t quite done. Ajay pulled four crumpled pieces of notebook paper from his pocket and unfolded them on the ground, using cans of Krylon to hold them in place. He’d scrawled one of Ivan’s symbols on each scrap. Ajay had practiced painting them at home, one at a time, never all at once. By themselves they seemed harmless, but together they made a shape, a pattern that suggested an awful openness. He’d once laid them out next to one another to look at them, and from the moment he could see them all together, an unsettling dread washed him; like the awful helpless feeling you get when you realize you’ve left the stove on after you’ve boarded a plane.
He now felt that same impending fear looking at the symbols on the ground. From his backpack, Ajay dug out a thick brush and the pot of greasy black paint Ivan had given him. He removed the top on the paint pot, gagging as the stench of the stuff wafted up. He dipped his brush and painted the first symbol in the upper right corner. The next three symbols went in the upper left, lower right, and lower left corners of the piece.
Again, Ajay stepped away from the wall. He thought the sloppy, dripping characters would mar his work, but instead they intensified the looming threat of the face, lent it weight and legitimacy. One more thing to do.
He drew in a deep breath and spoke aloud the strange syllables three times in the order Ivan had taught him. Something dark and smothering gathered in the night air, and when he’d spoken the final word, a terrible stillness settled over the alley, muting the noise of the busy street fifty yards away.
Something was happening to the wall. The fresh paint rippled and flexed, like a heat mirage. Ajay didn’t want to look at it. The part of him that had doubted Ivan’s incantation — that’s what it was, right? A spell? Some crazy Russian magic — had disappeared, leaving only two things: fear and hope.
Light flooded the alley, giving Ajay an excuse to turn away from the wall. Oleg’s Escalade rolled toward him, high beams bright and blinding. Shielding his eyes, Ajay moved back into the alley. He heard the sound of heavy breathing to his left, low and feral. He didn’t turn toward the noise; he didn’t want to see it yet. Instead, he kept his attention on the car, backpedaling until his back brushed the cinder block wall at the end of the alley.
Oleg parked his Escalade at an angle about fifty feet away so it plugged up the alley like a cork in a bottle. He got out and walked in front of the big SUV, his bald head gleaming in the headlights. Oleg was six-foot-six and over three hundred pounds, most of it muscle. He was alone; he hadn’t brought any of his crew. Ajay had hoped Oleg would be so convinced a skinny kid who’d narrowly escaped death at his hands would be no threat and he’d forgo whatever passed for security in his world.
“You are stupid motherfucker,” Oleg said, curling his hands into fists at his side. He smiled, his white teeth shining like the fangs of a wolf through the black tangle of his beard.
The heavy breathing to Ajay’s left had grown in intensity, and it took on a desperate, almost sexual tone. There were other sounds, too — wet, gnashing sounds that kept Ajay’s eyes locked on Oleg.
“You talk a lot of shit,” Ajay said, trying to keep his voice from shaking. “Why don’t you come over here and back it up.”
Oleg laughed, short and sharp. “I admit, I was very happy when I get your message.” His tone sounded almost gleeful, the tone of a man about to do the one thing he loved. “I have something for you.” Oleg reached inside his leather jacket, the same jacket he’d worn the night he shot Samar. Ajay thought he was reaching for a gun, instead he pulled out a short, ball-peen hammer. He raised it up so Ajay could see it. “I buy this a couple days ago,” he said, swishing the hammer through the air. “When I saw it, I think, you could break someone slow with this, little bit at a time. What do you think?”
“I think I’ll shove that hammer up your ass,” Ajay said. The wall moaned, and out of the corner of his eye Ajay saw squirming movement that sent the first pangs of real terror lancing into his guts.
Oleg let the hammer drop to his side, and his smile disappeared. “I start with your balls,” he said, and with surprising speed for a man so large broke into a sprint toward Ajay.
Ajay had nowhere to go as Oleg barreled toward him. He pushed his back tight against the cinder blocks and glanced at the wall to his left, seeing it fully for the first time since he’d said Ivan’s words. The obscene demonic face he’d made with a bunch of $1.99 cans of spray paint bulged away from the bricks, its huge fanged mouth opening and closing, long tongue writhing along its scaled lips with naked hunger.
Ajay wrenched his gaze away and shut his eyes. Terror had become a living thing inside him, a rabid beast gnawing away at his sanity. He sagged to the ground, shaking. “Oh fuck. Oh fuck,” he gasped.
Eyes clamped shut, Ajay waited for the inevitable, wondering what would kill him first, the thing on the wall or Oleg’s hammer. Oleg’s pounding footsteps grew closer and then stopped. The Russian wouldn’t be able to see the wall until he was close; the angle was wrong. For the space of a few heartbeats all Ajay heard was the wall, breathing heavily, hungrily, and then Oleg’s voice rose above it. “Chto za chert?!” Ajay didn’t understand the Russian, but he heard fear, revulsion, surprise . . . and then the screaming began.
Ajay opened his eyes.
Oleg was pressed up against the wall, his waist lassoed by the face’s tentacular tongue, his crotch level with the huge, gaping mouth. That mouth moved up and down, chewing away at Oleg’s pelvis with greedy, wet smacking noises. The Russian bashed at the wall with the hammer, but it had no effect. Blood poured onto the grimy asphalt of the alley and Oleg’s shrieking reached a piercing crescendo.
Ajay rose to his feet as the hammer fell from Oleg’s hand and his screams gave way to hoarse grunts. Those, too, stopped, and the mouth folded Oleg’s body in half, his vertebrae cracking like gunshots, so his head and feet were on the same plane. He was clearly dead, but Ajay couldn’t look away. He watched while the wall chewed up Oleg until nothing remained.
When it was over, the demon’s two lantern-like eyes swiveled and stared at Ajay. That ravenous, terrible gaze struck him dumb with horror. The leering mouth turned up in a grin, and Ajay thought for certain its tongue would come snaking out to pull him in. It didn’t, and the wall was just a wall again, a flat expanse of brick painted with an awful — yet completely unreal — demonic face.
Ivan’s symbols were still there, but the painting had changed. Behind the leering face, in the red and black chaos Ajay had created for his demon to live in, he saw another face, murky and insubstantial, yet completely recognizable. The bald head and black beard left no doubt.
“Got you, you murdering motherfucker,” Ajay said, sinking to his knees before the wall. He reached out and laid a hand on it; it was warm, and he snatched his hand away.
Ajay climbed to his feet and stumbled toward Oleg’s Escalade. He thought he would feel more — fear, satisfaction, maybe grief — but he just felt numb.
The keys were still in the big SUV, and Ajay climbed into the front seat. The engine came to life with a rumble, and he backed out of the alley. As he turned on to South Jackson, the emotional dam he’d built since Samar’s death burst. It started with laughter — the absurdity of it all — then gave way to sobbing, deep and wracking. The sobs came so hard that he had to pull the Escalade over and let his grief and pain have their moment.
He avoided the wall for a week. Too dangerous to return. He’d dumped the Escalade the same night he’d killed Oleg. He wasn’t worried about anyone linking Oleg’s death to him. Even if the cops did suspect something, there was no body. Not in this world anyway.
As time passed, it started to feel like a dream. How could something like that happen? He’d tried to find Ivan, but the man had vanished, maybe into the same place Oleg had gone. Ajay found he needed to see it, needed to see Oleg’s face on the wall, needed it to be real again.
He went in the middle of the day, bought a Coke at the Kwik Mart, and then walked behind the store. He approached his creation slowly, almost creeping up to it.
The demon was still there, a two-dimensional horror no more alive than the bricks around it. Oleg’s face was there too, behind the demon, but clearer now, and the pain on that face brought a fierce smile to Ajay’s lips. He hoped Oleg suffered, and he hoped it was forever.
“Got your ass good,” he said and spat on the wall. “Got you . . . His voice trailed off as he noticed a third face. He stumbled forward to get a better look and his bladder let go in a hot, wet rush.
Ivan’s final words slammed into his brain. You get what you want, but Chernobog takes what he wants.
Behind Oleg, deeper in the demon’s swirling hell, Samar’s face stared out, his mouth open — inhumanly wide — in a scream Ajay knew would have no end.
Aeryn Rudel is a writer from Seattle, Washington. He is the author of the Acts of War novels published by Privateer Press, and his short fiction has appeared in Factor Four Magazine, NewMyths, and Pseudopod, among others. He occasionally offers dubious advice on writing and rejection (mostly rejection) at www.rejectomancy.com or on Twitter @Aeryn_Rudel.