Habits. Rituals. They slither through your life, noiselessly, unseen, endlessly. They silently redefine you, subtly change your course, reshape who you think you are. They take you away from yourself, lead you to some vague, unexpected landscape. Sometimes, they leave you wandering alone, uncertain, unable to recognize the path home. At others, they steal your soul and then abandon you, giving you up to an uncaring, indifferent, purposeless existence.
They can even kill you, so easily and secretly.
Chasing habits has been my life—following the slithering snake’s trail, wherever it would lead me. It’s been my life, and my curse. For too many years, I would doggedly sniff along the ground, only occasionally looking upward, always searching for that far horizon, trying to hunt down the last obstacle to clarity, to throw open the sanctuary in which the darkest, most violent men sought refuge. To find a killer you must consume his habits and drink deeply of his rituals. You have no choice. You must breathe his air, rub your face in the dank slick that trails behind his evil, and be forever on the lookout for the mark of the slithering snake. Worse than this, you must adopt his very soul, make it your own, breed his secret intentions in your heart, nourish his evil, care for him, love him, hate him, fear him, and somehow stop him. Then, in the ultimate moment, when you finally stand at that awful horizon for the first time and see what has been done—and why—you must instantly abandon him, absolutely and forever.
After a time living this way, there comes a quick end to it all. The will is drained away to nothing, without warning. The drive of the hunt is lost along the way. It all becomes too difficult, too unbelievable, too painful to continue. In the end, you must make a choice—to live or die, with your rituals or his, on your terms or his.
Habits make you vulnerable. Rituals make you predictable. In the end, it’s all the same. They both lay you open to approach from the outside. They destroy your invisibility and make you the prey. They can kill you, or make you kill, or both. That’s why I quit the Bureau three years ago. Too many bodies had been piled outside my door. There were too many places for the killers to hide, and no place left for me to run. All I could do was throw off my badge, toss away my weapon, and get the hell out of the game, forever.
Back then, all I wanted from life was to excise the perennial ache from my back, stand straight for a time and see nothing evil on the far horizon. For that brief, wonderful moment, there would be no dark places. No more bodies. The only habits in sight would be my own, and my rituals would remain safely unrecognized, undiagnosed, and meaningless for the rest of my days.
Like most decisions in life, this one proved to be mundane when its time finally came. Obvious, in fact. I had probably given it too much thought over too many years. The decision came easily, in the form of a forgotten, narrow, bankrupt bookstore one block off the Boulevard. From the first, I knew that this place had no hidden horizons, no secret, lurking shadows—and no business to interrupt my life. It was, in every way, perfect for me, except for one detail. It was soulless.
Plants have no conscience, I presume. Maybe they have consciousness. I don’t know. I deal in habits, and they are mostly a human foible. My personal landscape is unfettered by metaphysics, although it’s certainly cluttered with other, more ominous things. In the end, this was another simple problem, given some time to think it through. My bookstore needed soul, and I needed something to keep my sanity intact. This choice was another easy one.
I adopted an abandoned Jack Russell terrier one month after I opened the doors to my new business. He was just two years old when he found himself a ward of the shelter—and on the short list to die. True to his breed, this fellow was exceptionally bright—a big dog in a little dog’s body—and for the most part, uncontrollable. Still, like the bookstore itself, he was ideal—a creature whose habits were wholly superficial but whose real motivations were perfectly hidden within himself.
I named him Commander Cody, but I don’t know why. It just seemed to fit. Without any celebration beyond my customary bottle of Valpolicella, I appointed him Master of the Shelves, which were mostly empty anyway. He took to the job with absolute enthusiasm, spending his hours roaming the tall, dusky racks, sniffing out the occasional unlucky mouse, or barking at shadows that only he could see. Thanks to Cody, my business now had a real soul, and I had a companion. Even better, our existence was rarely intruded upon by anyone from the outside world. We were, in every way, at home.
Cody had special talents. He was quick to learn my habits. Even those I tried very hard to hide from him. He was relentless in searching out those vague, amorphous horizons that I had long tried to forget. In fact, Cody was much better as his job than I had ever been at mine. He was a true magician at reshaping my rituals and redefining them into something that he could use for his own purposes. Twenty plus years of chasing killers and I could never accomplish that goal on my own. In the end, I couldn’t even distinguish their nefarious, soulless habits from my own. Cody did much better. He had that skill down pat within the first month of his arrival.
Now, in the late spring, Cody senses that the time has come. This special moment has evolved from a simple habit into a tradition, and he seems to understand the difference. Some would call it a ritual, but that would be giving it more than its due. This is the time of the year when the sun swings south, finally breaking the bonds of the endless cold, gray rain from the coast. Its life is much longer these days, its warmth more comforting and easy. This is when I move the maroon, overstuffed chair from its usual place against the west wall, hidden back among the empty shelves. I drag it across the battered hardwood floor, black with age and forgotten traffic, and push it close to the dingy front window. I carefully align it, facing northwest, its back to the glass to receive those rare, pleasant, late-day rays. This is when Cody pays strict attention, when he recognizes his own awakening interest in that old chair—a piece of junk that never even catches his eye throughout the winter months.
Now, with the big move, Cody positions himself directly in front of the overstuffed wreck. His eyes grow small and intense as he fixes them on its tattered cushion. He is waiting, stalking, considering the meaning of what is to come. Cody is patient. He sits motionless by the chair, sometimes for long minutes, until I move near to it and finally slump into its worn arms. I slide around a bit and try to settle my aches, working my way into that perfect position to feel the warm, filtered sun on the back of my head. Still, Cody waits, watches, assesses my movements. Then, it’s time. Without a sound, he leaps upward, as gentle as the lightest breeze, and settles into my lap. This is all accomplished is a single, determined motion that has become his own, deeply personal ritual. In just a moment he will be asleep, protected, satisfied, clear in his mind that he has done well. For Cody, there is nothing but bliss on the far horizon. The landscape ahead is clear and free and without worry. Behind him there are no lasting memories.
It is I who will stay unsettled, no matter how pleasant the afternoon. I am vulnerable in that window, rippled and cloudy as it is. I am unprotected from the outside world, open to their scrutiny, undefended against their will. Worse, I am uncertain about the shadows that seem to constantly pass behind me, driven along the quiet street by something unrecognizable and uncertain. Cody doesn’t notice these comings and goings. Perhaps he doesn’t care. He senses nothing untoward on the street beyond my window. But I wonder about those shadows, turning their images over in my mind until I finally doze, worrying that they are the secret souls that have been stolen away too soon, too cruelly—the wispy remnants of what little is left of life when the killer finally flaunts his upper hand.