With a growing certainty that he was about to find a surprising treasure, he put his hands on the purse and lightly squeezed. It was crammed full, straining at the seams, the mother of all purses, and Billy told himself that the forms he felt through the leather were wads of money, banded stacks of hundred-dollar bills.

His heart thumped with excitement.

He pulled open the zipper, looked in, and frowned.

The inside of the purse was ... dark.

Billy peered closer.

Very dark.

Impossibly dark.

Squinting, he could see nothing in there at all: not a wallet or a compact or a comb or a packet of Kleenex, not even the lining of the purse itself, only a flawless and deep darkness, as if he were peering into a well. "Deep" was the word, all right, for he had a sense that he was staring down into unplumbable and mysterious depths, as if the bottom of the purse were not just a few inches away but thousands of feet down—even farther—countless miles below him. Suddenly he realized that the glow from the overhead fluorescents fell into the open purse but illuminated nothing; the bag seemed to swallow every ray of light and digest it.

Billy Neeks's warm sweat of quasi-erotic pleasure turned icy, and his skin dimpled with gooseflesh. He knew that he should pull the zipper shut, cautiously carry the purse blocks away from his own house, and dispose of it in someone else's trash bin. But he saw his right hand slipping toward the gaping maw of the bag. When he tried to pull his hand back, he could not, as though it were a stranger's hand over which he had no control. His fingers disappeared into the darkness, and the rest of his hand followed. He shook his head—no, no—but still he could not stop himself. He was compelled to reach into the bag. And now his hand was in all the way to the wrist, and he felt nothing in there, nothing but a terrible cold that made his teeth chatter, and still he reached in and down until his arm was shoved all the way in to the elbow. He should have felt the bottom of the purse long before this, but there was just a vast emptiness in it, so he reached down farther, until he was in almost to his shoulder, feeling around with splayed fingers, searching in that impossible void for something, anything.

That was when something found him.

Down deep in the bag, something brushed his hand.

Billy jerked in surprise.

Something bit him.

Billy screamed and finally found the will to resist the siren call of the darkness in the purse. He tore his hand out and leaped to his feet, knocking over his chair. He stared in astonishment at the bloody punctures on the meaty portion of his palm. Tooth marks. Five small holes, neat and round, welling blood.

At first numb with shock, he at last let out a wail and grabbed for the zipper on the purse to close it. Even as Billy's blood-slick fingers touched the pull tab, the creature climbed out of the bag, ascending from a lightless place, and Billy snatched his hand back in terror.

The beast was small, only about a foot tall, not too big to crawl out through the open mouth of the purse. It was gnarly and darkish, like a man in form—two arms, two legs—but not like a man in any other way at all. If its tissues had not once been inanimate lumps of stinking sewage, then they had been a sludge of mysterious though equally noxious origins. Its muscles and sinews appeared to be formed from human waste, all tangled with human hair and decaying human entrails and desiccated human veins. Its feet were twice as large as they should have been and terminated in razor-edged black claws that put as much fear into Billy Neeks as his own switchblade had put into others. A hooked and pointed spur curved up from the back of each heel. The arms were proportionately as long as those of an ape, with six or maybe seven fingers—Billy could not be sure how many because the thing kept working its hands ceaselessly as it crawled out of the purse and stood up on the table—and each finger ended in an ebony claw.

As the creature rose to its feet and emitted a fierce hiss, Billy stumbled backward until he came up against the refrigerator. Over the sink was a window, locked and covered with greasy curtains. The door to the dining room was on the other side of the kitchen table. To get to another door that opened onto the back porch, he would have to go past the table as well. He was effectively trapped.

The thing's head was asymmetrical, lumpy, pocked, as if crudely modeled by a sculptor with an imperfect sense of human form, crafted from sewage and scraps of rotten tissue, as was its body. A pair of eyes were set high on that portion of the face that would have been the forehead, and a second pair blinked below them. Two more eyes, making six in all, were located at the sides of the skull, where ears should have been, and all these organs of vision were entirely white, without iris or pupil, so the beast appeared to be blinded by cataracts.

But it could see. Most definitely, it could see, for it was looking straight at Billy.

Trembling violently, making strangled sounds of fear, Billy reached to one side with his bitten right hand, and he pulled open a drawer in the cabinet next to the refrigerator. Never taking his eyes off the thing that had come out of the purse, he fumbled for the knives that he knew were there, found them, and extracted the butcher's knife.

On the table, the six-eyed demon opened its ragged mouth, revealing rows of pointed yellow teeth. It hissed again.

"Oh, G-G-God," Billy said, pronouncing the second word as if it were in a foreign language, its meaning not quite clear to him.

Twisting its deformed mouth into what might have been a grin, the demon kicked the open can of beer off the table and let out a hideous dry sound halfway between a snarl and a giggle.

Suddenly lunging forward and swinging the big butcher's knife as if it were a mighty Samurai sword, Billy slashed at the creature, intending to lop off its head, chop it in half. The blade connected with its disgusting flesh, sank less than an inch into its darkly glistening torso, above its knobby hips, but would not go any deeper, certainly not all the way through. Billy felt as if he had taken a hack at a slab of steel, for the aborted power of the blow coursed back through the handle of the knife and shivered painfully through his hands and arms like the vibrations that would have rebounded upon him if he had grabbed a crowbar and, with all his strength, slammed it into a solid iron post.

In that same instant, one of the creature's hands moved flash-quick, slashed Billy, revealing two of his knuckle bones.

With a cry of surprise and pain, Billy let go of the weapon. He staggered back against the refrigerator, holding his gouged hand.

The creature on the table stood unfazed, the knife embedded in its side, neither bleeding nor exhibiting any signs of pain. With its small black gnarled hands, the beast gripped the handle and pulled the weapon from its flesh. Turning six scintillant, milky eyes on Billy, it raised the knife, which was nearly as big as the beast itself, and snapped it in two. It threw the blade in one direction and the handle in another.

Billy ran.

He had to go around the table, past the creature, too close, but he did not care, did not hesitate, because his only alternative was to stand at the refrigerator and be torn to bits. Dashing out of the kitchen into the bungalow's dining room, he heard a thump behind him as the demon leaped off the table. Worse: He heard the click-tick-clack of its chitinous feet and horny claws as it scrambled across the linoleum, hurrying after him.

As a purse snatcher, Billy had to keep in shape and had to be able to run as fast as a deer. Now, his conditioning was the only advantage he had.

Was it possible to outrun the devil?

He bounded out of the dining room, jumped over a footstool in the living room, and fled toward the front door. His bungalow was isolated between an empty lot and a transmission repair shop that was closed at this hour of the evening. A few houses stood across the street, however, and at the corner was a 7-Eleven market that was usually busy. He figured that he would be safe if he was with other people, even strangers. He sensed that the demon would not want to be seen by anyone else.

Expecting the beast to leap on him and sink its teeth into his neck, Billy tore open the front door and almost plunged out of the house—then stopped abruptly when he saw what lay outside. Nothing. No front walk. No lawn, no trees. No street. No other houses across the way, no 7-Eleven on the corner. Nothing, nothing. No light whatsoever. The night beyond the house was unnaturally dark, as utterly lightless as the bottom of a mine shaft—or as the inside of the old hag's purse, from which the beast had clambered. Although it should have been a warm late-April evening, the velvet-black night was icy, bone-numbingly cold, just as the inside of the big black leather purse had been.

Billy stood on the threshold, swaying, breathless, shaken by his jackhammer heart, and he was seized by the mad idea that his entire bungalow was now inside the crazy old woman's purse. Which made no sense. The bottomless purse was back there in the kitchen, on the table. The purse could not be inside the house at the same time that the house was inside the purse. Could it?

He felt dizzy, confused, nauseous.

He had always known everything worth knowing. Or thought he did. Now he knew better.

He didn't dare venture out of the bungalow into the unremitting blackness. He sensed no haven within that coaly gloom. And he knew instinctively that, if he took one step into the frigid darkness, he would not be able to turn back. One step, and he would fall into the same terrible void that he had felt within the hag's purse: down and down, forever down.

A hiss.

The beast was behind him.

Whimpering wordlessly, Billy Neeks turned from the horrifying emptiness beyond his house, looked back into the living room, where the demon was waiting for him, and cried out when he saw that it had grown bigger than it had been a moment ago. Much bigger. Three feet tall instead of one. Broader in the shoulders. More muscular arms. Thicker legs. Bigger hands and longer claws. The repulsive creature was not as close as he had expected, not on top of him, but standing in the middle of the small living room, watching him with predatory interest, grinning, taunting him merely by choosing not to end the confrontation quickly.

The disparity between the warm air in the house and the freezing air outside generated a draft that sucked the door shut behind Billy. It closed with a bang.

Hissing, the demon took a step forward. When it moved, Billy could hear its gnarly skeleton and oozing flesh work one against the other like the parts of a grease-clogged machine in ill repair.

He backed away from it, heading around the room toward the short hall that led to the bedroom.

The repugnant apparition followed, casting a hellish shadow that was somehow even more grotesque than it should have been, as if it were thrown not by the monster's malformed body but by its more hideously malformed soul. Perhaps aware that its shadow was wrong, perhaps unwilling to consider the meaning of its twisted silhouette, the beast purposefully knocked over the floor lamp as it stalked Billy, and in the influx of shadows, it proceeded more confidently and more eagerly, as if darkness greased its way.

At the entrance to the hallway, Billy stopped edging sideways, bolted flat-out for his bedroom, reached it, and slammed the door behind him. He twisted the latch with no illusions of having found sanctuary. The creature would smash through that flimsy barrier with no difficulty. Billy only hoped to reach the nightstand where he kept a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, and indeed he got it with time to spare.

The gun was smaller than he remembered. He told himself that it seemed inadequate only because the enemy was so formidable. The weapon would prove plenty big enough when he squeezed the trigger. But it still seemed small. Virtually a toy.

With the loaded .357 held in both hands and aimed at the door, he wondered if he should fire through the barrier or wait until the beast burst inside.

The demon resolved the issue by exploding through the locked door in a shower of splinters and mangled hinges.

It was bigger still, more than six feet tall, bigger than Billy, a gigantic and loathsome creature that, more than ever, appeared to be constructed of filth, wads of mucus, tangled hair, fungus, and the putrescent bits and pieces of cadavers. Redolent of rotten eggs, with its multiplicitous white eyes now as radiant as incandescent bulbs, it lurched inexorably toward Billy, not even hesitating when he pulled the trigger of the .357 and pumped six rounds into it.

Who or what had that old crone been, for God's sake? She was no ordinary senior citizen, living on Social Security, paying a visit to her butcher's shop, looking forward to bingo on Saturday night. Hell no. No way. What kind of crazy woman carried such a strange purse and kept such a thing as this at her command? What kind of bitch, what kind of bitch? A witch?

Of course, a witch.

At last, backed into a corner, with the creature looming over him, the empty gun still clutched in his left hand, the scratches and bites burning in his right hand, Billy really knew for the first time what it meant to be a defenseless victim. When the hulking, unnameable entity put its massive saber-clawed hands upon him—one on his shoulder, one on his chest—Billy peed in his pants and was at once reduced to the pitiable condition of a weak, helpless, and frightened child.

He was sure that the demon was going to tear him apart, crack his spine, decapitate him, and suck the marrow out of his bones, but instead it lowered its malformed face to his throat and put its gummy lips against his throbbing carotid artery. For one wild moment, Billy thought it was kissing him. Then he felt its cold tongue lick his throat from collarbone to jawline, and he felt as if he'd been stung by a hundred needles. Sudden and complete paralysis ensued.

The creature lifted its head and studied his face. Its breath stank worse than the graveyard odor exuded by its repellent flesh. Unable to close his eyes, in the grip of a paralysis so complete that he could not even blink, Billy stared into the demon's maw and saw its moon-white, prickled tongue.

The beast stepped back. Unsupported, Billy dropped limply to the floor. Though he strained, he could not move a single finger.

Grabbing a handful of Billy's well-oiled hair, the beast began to drag him out of the bedroom. He could not resist. He could not even protest, because his voice was as frozen as the rest of him.

He could see nothing but what moved past his fixed gaze, for he could neither turn his head nor roll his eyes. He had glimpses of furniture past which he was dragged, and he could see the walls and the ceiling above, over which shadows cavorted. When he rolled onto his stomach, he felt no pain in his cruelly twisted hair, and thereafter he could see only the floor in front of his face and the demon's clawed black feet as it trod heavily toward the kitchen, where the chase had begun.

Billy's vision blurred, cleared, blurred again, and he thought his failing sight was related to his paralysis. Then he understood that copious but unfelt tears were pouring from his eyes, streaming down his face. In all his mean and hateful life, he had no memory of having wept before.

He knew what was going to happen to him.