I recently re-discovered this, the very first short story I’d ever wrote (many, many years ago), and decided to publish it here, despite it’s more amateur aspects, I think there is much to enjoy in the tale.
“Jet lag, mon ami?”
Chester North did not recognize the jovial, drawling voice which had so suddenly pierced the din of the crowd in the small, cloistered roadside diner.
Since it was only thirty feet from the only other gas station for however many absurdly long miles in any direction (not that you’d know without a compass since everything looked pretty much the same) it was quite a welcomed sight to the many road-weary travelers that regularly passed by. Dusty travelers, a bus full of hippies that had, only twenty minutes previously, pulled to a stop to refuel, the crew inevitably deciding to get something to eat as well.
It was humid. Very humid.
The cloying smell of stale sweat, grease, dust and oil hung heavily over everything like a damp, moldy mattress cover. North wasn’t sure if it was a single insect, or dozens, but something or things hummed insanely about his head almost every ten seconds, he felt that he now knew what people in mental institutions went through everyday and worried that if it were to continue he would shortly be joining them.
The cracked thermostat, now empty, hung crookedly upon the far wall nearest the door, a small silver pool congealing about the shadows of its base. The waitress had remarked without provocation that it was hot enough to boil an egg over easy in a matter of minutes on one of the many dunes spotting the desolate landscape. North seriously doubted the walking spray-can’s claim, though he had no intention of testing her fume addled theory.
The aforementioned turned languidly towards the sound of the speaker and beheld a tall man of indeterminable age dressed all in brightly colored plaid and equally bright, mirrored sunglasses.
“Yeah. Jet lagged a bit, I guess. And you? Halloween party?” North retorted cagily.
The stranger chuckled with a wry sort of amusement and then set himself easily in the booth beside Mr. North. He was unnaturally graceful and made no sound as he walked. North didn’t like it. He didn’t like it at all.
“Not exactly, but something like that. Look, I’m sorry ta grind you like this but every other seat in this joint is completely stocked, lik’a barrel full’a fish. Not exactly az I’z expectin’ out ere and all, bein’ az’ iz’.”
“Uh huh.” he replied carelessly, arching a brow at the stranger’s peculiar dialogue and cadence. He couldn’t place his accent.
After a few seconds of motionless silence North returned his red and black-circled eyes back to the paper he was reading and the icy cup of tea he was slowly sipping. Anything to detach himself from his own headache-fuddled mind.
“I’m Ryter, and yaself, mon ami?” the man extended a thin, pale hand.
“Why are you so curious?” North shot back with stoney calm without extending his own hand.
The man who called himself Ryter smiled, revealing disturbingly sharp teeth. North winced inwardly at the albescent display.
“The same reason why you are so curious of why I’m so curious; human nature, Mr. North, human nature.”
North raised another brow and lowered his paper before answering, half shocked, half interested, but trying, though failing, to show neither.
“I’m not curious why your so curious, I was merely attempting to fend off the ever encroaching tides of sleep from a lack thereof. But I am curious of one thing, how do you know my name?”
Ryter looked puzzled momentarily, then amused and hesitant; finally he just slowly pointed a long willowy finger towards Mr. North’s suitcase which was embossed with his name in a small, but clear and easily visible, font of bright silver.
“Oh… right. I have… trouble sleeping… see, um, sometimes everything doesn’t… quite… come to,” he brought his right hand up to his temple and tapped it furiously, “my mind like it… like it should. My mistake… that being me having made the mistake of mistaking you… for having made a mistake.”
Ryter cocked his head slightly as North dropped a few sugar cubes into his cup of tea as if on reflex. He then stirred his cup lackadaisically and removed several ibuprofen from a small container in his left pants pocket, cast the pills into his mouth and then knocked back half the cup.
“But how would me knowing your name without you knowing I know it be a mistake, exactly?”
North contemplated this query silently for a brief moment before replying.
“Touche,” he replied slowly, carefully weighing the stranger’s words, “I think your right, perhaps… more akin to a misconception, really.”
“Misconzeption, that’s the word! I was trying to think a’ it too, but anywayz…”
He trailed off shortly and roved his piercing gaze over North’s facade, in that moment he looked like a hungry predator, dangerous and wary. A feral lust gleaming in his eyes. What is was that the stranger lusted for, what it was that could sate his desire, North knew not.
“So… what exactly brings you around a tumble-down dinner in the middle of nowhere?”
“Certainly not the food,” North sighed heavily as he slothfully pushed about a barely touched plate of beans, coleslaw and something which at first appeared to be jell-O and would have convincingly passed as such had there not been bizarre bits of something that looked suspiciously like greenish meat floating about in the small gelatinous mass.
North continued his complaint with his customary lack of energy and general air of forlorn exasperation; his every gesture seemed to exude disappointment and disenchantment. His every breath o’er laced with melancholy.
“Anything called,” he glanced with utter disdain at the nearly untouched meal, “’Pork and slaw’ warrants the expedient evacuation of my digestive cavity, and I’m sad to say it’s the best thing on the menu, if you’d like to call it that.”
Ryter snickered and gave the “food” a cursory once over, wincing as his eyes came to rest on the gelatinous… something.
He worried it would try and bite him if he got too close.
“They call that food?”
North scoffed contemptuously.
“Well, whatever names it might go by I doubt ‘tasty’ is among them.”
This brought the thinnest of smiles of to Chester North’s face, it was a weak smile, worn down and faint, like a sandstone that has seen one too many storms. It was more a gesture of mild amusement rather than any kind of genuine happiness. He looked a rundown shell of a man, a man harried and sorrow-laden whilst the jolly Ryter seemed his polar opposite; content and merry with every nuance, no matter how slight or trivial. It was a stark contrast that seemed almost to palpitate the very air.
Their conversation continued innocuously for sometime until Mr. North rose to use the rest-room in the back of the little dinner. Upon his return he found Ryter absent from the table. Looking around with acute perceptiveness, sharpened to a needlepoint from years of practice, North spotted him through one of the large southern windows outside smoking a cigarette languidly with one of the half-baked long-hairs. Ryter quickly returned with a self amused smile, sauntering around like he owned the place (not that such a achievement would really be worthy of mention though it might rightly merit some shame).
“These hippie punks sure did surprise me.”
North gave him a mildly puzzled look, “Why is that?”
“Well… that is a plus.”
“Say… iffa ya don’t mind me axing-”
Axing? North thought to himself. What kind of accent is that? But try as hard as he might North was unable to place anything about the man, ethnicity, fashion, accent, everything about him was unfamiliar, foreign, mysterious and obscure.
“Well, you’d have to tell me what it is that you’d be asking before you actually ask it before I could say, wouldn’t you?” North joshed feeling considerably happier than he had for months. Everything was coming together just as he had been told it would. It had all been planned, down to the very last detail by the most vengeful intelligence he had ever known. It was such a tight-knit plan that he wished he had thought of it all himself, there was so much artistry in it as to be obscene.
“Well, course I would! Though I see ya quite deft with words aren’t you. My daddy always used to say the same bout me, called me a wordsmith; I like the sound ‘o that don’t you? Wordsmith. Yeah, rolls off the tongue like water off a duck,” He paused proudly for theatrical effect in a melodramatic pose, apparently finding this comment supremely amusing.
“Sure.” North mumbled without inflection, unsure of what else to say.
“Anyhow, what I wanted to ask you was why you lookin’ so down, ya got the blues like I never have seen. Got more burden to ya than Robert Johnson. You’ve a hellhound on ya trail?” There was a distinct hint of mockery in Ryter’s tone. It filled Chester North with unease.
There was the predator again, lurking underneath the surface, hiding quietly, patiently in the still end of the pool, in those green-gold cat eyes.
North let out a long, low sigh, barely audible.
“That’s a…. a very long story.” He allowed his head to droop into his hands.
The stranger who called himself Ryter raised his tea cup to his lips and took a long swig.
“I’ll bet,” he smiled with great self satisfaction, his fangs bared.
Out twenty miles from the small roadside dinner in which Chester North and the man who called himself Ryter dwelt stretched a vast ocean of ashen sand, seething intense heat. Small wind tossed dunes rose up in haphazard jumbles all throughout the foreboding landscape, creating a picturesque backdrop for the few scattered cacti that grew up here and there, twisted, gnarled and old, bearing the manifold punishment of their treacherous realm of skulls and sand. The only sign of life aside from the few cacti in the seemingly endless dunescape were two large vultures wheeling lazy circles up in the thermals and a dusty, beaten car.
Now the vultures might not have been the cleverest of avions but they did have a certain cleverness to them, a knack, if you will. The faint scent of blood and smoke was in the air and the birds had the nose for it, as any creature in their line of work must. Swooping low, they fluttered down to investigate. Death out in the desert, to the scavengers, was like spilled coins to the destitute on the street, it’s great until everyone gets attracted to it and then not only does your prize inevitably get stolen but there’s also the good possibility of you losing your own hide in the scramble. The vultures knew that they only had a small window of time to feast before the ever-hungering desert devoured the unfortunate wayfarer in the car.
They were to be disappointed, however; as the only passenger of the car had escaped the blast that had set the beaten automobile alight. Alive but not unscathed.
The first vulture landed on the prone man where he lay with a supine elegance utterly at odds with it’s vulgar appearance. Slowly the man opened his eyes and then gasped, exclaiming and gesticulating wildly as the enormous bird squawked and flew hastily away. The second avion quickly followed suit.
The drifter rose slowly from the ground, quite surprised to find himself still alive; shaking his shaggy head, as much to free his hair from sand and dust as to clear his disorientated brain. Walking in odd, uneven steps like a drunkard straight off a week long bender, as if the ground was doing tilty-whirls beneath his feet. Next he cracked his neck, stretched, screamed in pain and realized there was a razor sharp, nearly nine inch long metal shard jutting rather unnaturally from his blood-soaked shoulder. His eyes went momentarily wide with surprise as he continued to gaze wordlessly at the wayward article of shrapnel. He quickly noticed various other bits of glass and metal here and there, a couple in his leg, a few in his bloodstained torso, all, however, were far smaller than the shard in his shoulder.
“Well now, I don’t seem to remember leaving that there,” he stated softly with glib nihilism as he studied his near fatal injury with calm detachment, simultaneously feeling in his left back pocket for his pack of cigarettes.
Curiously he felt very little pain.
He’d been shot before (several times actually, since he had not exactly hung around with the most upstanding of citizens in his younger years, not to suggest that he was even remotely close to being anything of the sort either) but never had he been hit with shrapnel from a exploding car. It was quite a new experience and since getting shot had lost it’s luster this new circumstance intrigued him, especially since he was still alive afterward. What was most amazing was that it was only scant inches away from his heart, a little to the left and he would have died near instantaneously; some people would call it luck, others would say it was a miracle, he didn’t really give a damn what it was, all he cared about was finishing the plan he had set in motion, this unforeseen event, however, complicated matters greatly.
For about three seconds he pondered removing the shrapnel and then realized that he’d likely bleed to death in some odd allotment of hours if he did so, and being far more fond of bleeding to death in some odd allotment of days instead, he left it where it protruded from his chest, though he removed all the rest of the shards. He was curious as to why it wasn’t really hurting, there was only a dull ache, he assumed he was in shock or something of the sort which would then explain the lack of pain. It took a great deal of willpower to stay his rising fear and panic, he knew if he lost his head in this situation he would never make it. Yet all he could think about were his bones being picked apart by scavengers, snakes twining through his empty orbital sockets, ants militantly traversing his spinal cord, scorpions scaling his shoulder blades and vultures carrying off his rib bones like grim trophies for some macabre mantelpiece.
He took a deep breath and then shook his head again as a vicious gale crested the dunes and began to sail in from the north like an angry, olden god.
Slowly, he approached the skeletal remains of his vehicle; the searing heat so intense that he flinched away from it at first. After surveying it for a few moments he plucked a fresh cigarette from the pack and held it next to the dying fire of the vehicle until it caught the flames and began to glow. He took a long drag of the cigarette and then let the smoke raise slowly from his mouth as he continued gazing, utterly transfixed upon the smoldering remnants of his vehicle.
Memories danced wildly about the eerie, twisting corridors of his mind like a photo-play gone insane; memories of another burning car and another unfortunate man.
“Oh god, please! No!” The man in the car was crying now, squirming wildly about in a desperate but vain attempt to free himself from his bonds. His features contorted grotesquely with fear and dread. The ignoble squawking of those filled with a knowledge of their imminent demise.
The drifter stood easily, slightly slouching a few paces from the passenger side window, languidly smoking a cigarette, a subtle air of mockery in his every gesture and word. The full moon at his back like a fey companion.
When he spoke his tone was scathing and cold. Amusement and cruelty mingled with anger in his dark, rich, musical voice.
“If some god were going to intervene on your behalf I think he would have done so much sooner. Don’t you? If they did they’d be next on the pyre, for manner of being worthy of adulation would deign to save a killer like you?” The drifter replied rhetorically with a remorseless calm that seemed to fill the darkened spaces all about him.
“Please! I haven’t killed anyone! PLEASE-”
“-And thank you.”
The drifter finished sardonically with a smile, tossing his lit cigarette into the petrol soaked car and watching as it and the man bound securely inside burned to cinders. There were two things he never forgot about that night, the horrible, cloying smell of burning flesh and the screams of agony.
Especially the screams.
It was on that day that he had set himself upon the path which he now walked. A path which lead him to swear vengeance. A path of blood and fire. A path of vultures and sand and the great and uncaring sky above it.
He methodically smoked as he watched his own car burn; the desert winds lashed out maliciously at him in every conceivable direction, as if the very elements resented him, detested him and sought his failure through pure vexation. Then slowly he turned and made his way unevenly to a small, gradual rise in the terrain that reminded him of the back of a whale.
He felt as if he’d been squeezed through a tiny tube and then fallen onto a heavy milling grindstone.
“Shrapnel with a side of flaming car,” he grumbled almost inaudibly as he gave a cursory glance in the direction of the place he had fallen, looking for his dark, thick-lensed sunglasses, hoping that the elevation would aid him.
“Ah-ha!” he discovered them half covered by sand and completely undamaged about six feet from where he had been thrown. He brushed them off and cradled them in his hands as if they were precious stones.
But his thoughts were quickly torn from his predicament and his find by a rising cloud of dust in the distance. It was coming quickly down the road and he knew it could only be one thing; a car.
A car! Gahdzooks! How fortunate! … Gahdzooks? Damn… there must be something wrong with my head…
After he stood swaying and letting his equilibrium adjust for a few brief moments he allowed himself a sly, crooked smile, his fortunes were just getting better and better.
As the car closed in he waved the driver down with his right arm, it more unscathed by shrapnel than the other.
“Whoah! What the hell happened to you?” the driver queried, shocked and him a tall tan fellow with mirrored aviators and a bright green short-sleeved shirt, he bore a irritatingly smug countenance and sported two popped collars, heavily starched.
The drifter was suddenly gripped by the all consuming urge to violently and inexplicably slap him across the face.
“Polar bear hunting, what else,” the drifter sneered, impatient and more than somewhat irritated.
“Wow, buddy, that was so fucking funny I forgot to laugh.”
“I’m bleeding badly. I could use some help.”
“Right… look… do you need a hospital or a teacher in manners, hmm?”
“Neither,” the drifter drew back his good arm and threw a elbow at the smug driver’s face, knocking him instantly cold. The driver slumped face first onto the steering wheeling, setting off the horn.
“I need a car.”
After depositing the smug driver rather tersely and unceremoniously in the nearest available ditch he set off down the road as fast as the flashy sports car would go, which, thankfully for the drifter, was quite fast. He felt like he was driving a rocket ship. A nebula, a blackhole and a rogue asteroid or two and he’d be set.
“Are you okay mister?” A soft, youthful voice asked with genuine concern from the passengers seat.
“I don’t think so,” he replied without looking at the speaker, a moment later he rather wished he had.
For sitting beside the drifter was a little girl, no more than twelve years of age in an old fashioned diving suit, viewing bell-helm and all.
“WHAH!” the drifter exclaimed out of pure shock.
His eyes went instantly wide, so he decided to close them and slowly looked again, in the event that it was all some surrealistic vision, yet there she still was, all childish innocence, bright eyes and serene smile. The drifter having absolutely no idea what to say or do tried concentrating on the road, muttering, “Just a delusion, just a hallucination, ignore it,” to himself at continuous intervals.
“Am not! And don’t ignore me!” the girl retorted hotly, stamping her iron shod foot against the shag carpeting of the sports car.
Why the fuck does this car have shag carpeting? The drifter wondered absently as he glanced out the window at all the brightly colored fish he was passing by on the road.
This gave him quite a moment of pause. He looked again, tilting his glasses down on the bridge of his nose and peering over them to get a cleaner view. Indeed school after school of shiny piscine creatures swam placidly all about the car, in the same vein of insanity the drifter simultaneously realized that all the air had turned to water and that he appeared to be driving the stolen vehicle on the bottom of some beautifully clear, sandy ocean floor. A lovely paradise of tranquil harmony.
“Am I hallucinating?” he asked the little girl, unsure of what else to say.
“Well of course you’re not! But at first I thought I was, I mean you shouldn’t be able to breath down here should you,” she stated in puzzlement whilst tapping her helmet with her tiny, heavily gloved knuckles in rhythmic fashion.
Not to mention that I’m driving a car on the bottom of a ocean! But surely that’s not in the slightest out of place… No need to mention trivialities.
For a short spell he nearly forgot about his predicament, about the car bomb and the wounds and lost himself to the bizarre phantasmagoric spectacle that had so suddenly and inescapably closed upon him.
“You have a name?” he asked without looking at the girl.
“Cat.” she replied nervously.
“Cat? What kind of name is-”
“CAT!” She shrieked pointing fearfully at the road ahead.
When he looked back from his uninvited passenger to the highway the ocean scene and all the fish were gone, only an enormous lion, fur shinning magnificently in the boiling sunlight, attracted his attention, all about the desolate wastes of the desert once more stretched, only this time bizarre tombstones seemed to rise up everywhere, daunting and forlorn.
“Shit!” he braked the machine instantly, screeching to a halt only scant inches in front of the beast driving his skull into the dashboard in the process. The powerful feline was surprisingly calm for almost being run down by a metal monstrosity, he noted with interest as he lifted his head from the dashboard. Instantly he felt the hot trickle of blood down the side of his face.
“Fucking goody gumdrops,” he spat scathingly as he struggled to keep conscious, blood mixed with spittle spraying from his mouth as it moved. Something told him that if he passed out he would never wake up. He had no reason to doubt that intuition.
Suddenly something else caught the drifter’s undivided attention, a bright blue thermos slung around the feline’s thick, muscularly corded neck. Little droplets of liquid streamed from the lid, as if it wasn’t fully tightened.
“Water!” he gasped weakly.
I must have been unconscious for a long time, I feel like I haven’t had anything to drink in at least twenty four hours, I’m not going to last much longer out here without any. I’ve got to do something, I have to take that thermos! But how am I supposed to take it from a lion? Why the devil is there a lion here anyway? And where did all the fish go?
“Pretty kitty.” the girl chimed utterly transfixed with the huge cat, rising quickly from her seat and pressing her helmet against the window of the car.
“Not nearly as pretty as that thermos.” he smirked triumphantly and then climbed cautiously from the car, collapsing limply before he could even take a single step. The girl peered over the edge of the drivers seat at him with great concern.
“Maybe you should rest for a few hours, mister, you don’t look so good.”
“I’ll be dead in a few hours you little twat, especially if I don’t get some water!” he snapped venomously, at this point he didn’t give a damn if he upset her, he was tired, in pain, angry and nearly dead.
Tears began to well up in the little girl’s wonderfully luminescent green-orange eyes.
The drifter sighed, why did everything have to turn into a problem for him, it never failed. He would have called himself unlucky if he believed in luck, in all truth there wasn’t a lot he believed at all anymore.
When he rose, hands held out in front of him in as placating a manner as he could muster, as much for the lion as for the girl, he did so unsteadily, the tilty-whirl feeling returning with supreme vengeance.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be so… angry, I’m just, it’s not… it’s been a…. I’ve lost a lot of blood…”
The girl didn’t reply and instead shrunk back into her seat, knees hugged tightly to her chest, head down, sulking.
Was she stupid, didn’t she see how badly he was bleeding? What did the little bitch expect! He thought in silent vexation.
The slap count bumped up to two.
He rolled his eyes as he continued to approach the great beast which had simply been staring at the oddity of a man that awkwardly approached it, as much from caution as from his messed up equilibrium and physical weakness. Of course, his lack of balance could also have had something to do with the fact that he had lost nearly two pints of blood.
“Hey big guy, easy, okay? Easy there big guy.” he charmed softly, reaching out his hand for the thermos.
Abruptly the huge feline roared and lashed out furiously, catching the young drifter in the side of his already traumatized skull.
The sky spun.
His vision blurred.
He could feel blood and the heavy, hard rays of the merciless sun beating ceaselessly down from above.
He could feel… nothing.
Then there was only darkness.
The drifter awoke to the patter of footsteps and the pungent smell of alcohol, tea, smoke and gasoline.
Several dark forms loomed over him, silhouetted by a backdrop of eerie, blue light. Strange voices all about, whispering incessantly. Everything blurred and swam, turning and tumbling, he felt like his mind was made of mercury and fire. All was thought and feeling without form.
Having absolutely no idea where he was, who these shadowed whispering people – if they were even people at all – were or even what time it happened to be, the drifter started violently and rolled from the cot upon which he was laying. He drew the knife he always kept in his back pocket defensively and slowly inched out of the whatever-it-was that he had been lying in. The whispering people fell silent and merely watched as their unexpected guest backed out, taking no action whatsoever.
It turned out to be a tent, an enormous one and it was not alone. Everywhere were tents of every possible color, hue and pattern imaginable, and maybe more. Festooned with gaudy ribbons, garish glitter, sequins, tapestries, newspaper clippings and random segments of various holiday lights, both constant and blinking.
His eyes felt like they were going to bleed.
He looked down and found himself to be suitably patched up, in addition his shrapnel had been removed. He hadn’t realized it until now from fear, confusion and disorientation but the intense pain and agony that had so fiercely gripped him however earlier was now just a dull, residual ache. Feeling his head where the lion had slashed him he discovered that it had been bandaged as well. Apparently he had been given water because he was no longer thirsty enough to drink motor oil.
The drifter continued to survey his surroundings with building amazement, the true scope of the place finally becoming clear to him. The sheer magnitude of the encampment was astounding, it was like a small city in the middle of nowhere. He absently wandered into the very largest of the tents, which was also lit with a hodgepodge of strange lights.
“What is all this?”
He had no idea why he had asked the question aloud as there was not a single soul in sight and festive and friendly as the encampment’s facade was it exuded a desolate and sinister element. It seemed, to the drifter, to be a isolated macabre carnival of decay, but he knew better.
“THIS IS THE SHOW!” a bizarre, theatrical voice echoed brazenly from somewhere close by and perhaps it was only the drifter’s imagination but he felt as if all the lights around him were dimming, leaving him trapped and alone in a small, solitary circle of glossy luminescence.
“Who are you people?”
“I am not a people, I am a person, you’re not daft are you? You don’t strike me as such, so needless to say, though I shall do so nonetheless, it would come as a great surprise to me. But the important inquiry is… what are you, a people or a person?”
“Can I be both?”
“Of course. But a better question is, “Would you want to be?”
“Where are you, better yet where am I? What is this place?”
The drifter whirled about three hundred and sixty degrees but saw no one, though now he was sure of it, the lights were dimming, slowly, ominously. Suddenly the stillness which had so previously pervaded the strange landscape was broken by the sound of well placed footsteps upon smooth gravel that was nearly sand. He had been so taken with the colorful tents and bright lights that he hadn’t even glanced at the ground.
“You are in my tent. But as a guest or a intruder, that is the question, is it not?”
The voice whispered in the drifter’s ear.
Whirling violently once more the drifter spun around and nearly fell over from surprise, for not a foot away from him stood a dark figure, ramrod straight. All of a sudden a brilliant myriad of lights slashed through the darkness that obscured the mysterious man, revealing the most singular creature the drifter had ever laid eyes upon. He held his arms wide and stood atop a small, crimson pedestal. And in a wide, respective circle all about this aberration stood dozens and dozens of bizarre people all either wearing traveling gear or festive costumes, some of them even wore masks. They parted and bowed lowly as their mysterious leader took the fore.
His dark purple hair was closely cropped and jagged; his eyes were cool and cunning, and covered by mirrored spectacles. Bloodless lips were touched up with blue lipstick and twisted into a cruel smile. Spatters of colorful paint adorned his utterly tatterdemalion wardrobe which he wore with the bearing of royalty. His eclectic choice of clothing consisted of deep blue fishing galoshes, twenty one watches (of varying degrees of worth), seven necklaces, patchwork jeans of at least thirteen different shades, a military grade bulletproof vest with disturbingly numerous marks of former use and a thin, tattered, hooded overcoat of pure black, edged at the collar with a thick mane of fur. When he moved it was always with poise and purpose; his steps were often heavy but it never looked ungraceful. Every movement fluid and forceful, enhanced by his muscular, athletic frame.
Behind this peculiar, menacing man the lion the drifter had met upon the road stalked silently, almost obediently, behind the carnival master and, to the drifter’s very great surprise, none of the other people in the crowd looked in the slightest agitated by the great beast’s presence.
“Well… thanks for the patch-up, milord,” the befuddled drifter replied sardonically with a short mock bow, he then pointed behind the mysterious man while simultaneously reaching for his cigarettes.
“Pet of yours?”
“No, he is a friend of mine not a slave, though I apologize for,” he made a quick, lithe gesture towards the side of his own head to indicate the drifter’s wound.
“It’s alright, I guess I would have done the same thing if someone had been,” he chuckled, “Grabbing at my throat. I mean he had no idea what kind of situation I was in, did he? So, why did he bring me here, wherever that may be?”
The bespectacled man smiled and reached for something hanging from one of the long silvery strands attached to the roof of his tent, when he held it up towards his guest into the light the drifter winced. It was a coyote skull, one half of it completely crushed and ruined, presumably by the huge golden maned beast which strode only forty or so feet away, pacing up and down.
“My friend often brings me gifts,” his masked eyes shifted ambiguously to the drifter, “Sometimes their still… alive. A complication easily remedied.”
“I don’t think you’ll hear me complaining.”
Suddenly a thought struck him like a lightning bolt.
The little girl!
“It might sound odd but have you seen a little girl wearing a diving suit and… and..a,” he paused as he realized how insane that had sounded and the more he thought about the little girl the more and more ludicrous the idea of her existence seemed. She must have simply been a delusion of the heat.
The strange man assumed a serious look and walked over to the drifter, laying a hand comfortingly upon the drifter’s shoulder.
“A word of advice. The Bedouin of the Middle East have a name for the apparitions of the desert, they call them the Djinn. The sands can drive men and beast alike more than mad my friend and when it does, as is it’s penchant, they will be visited by the Djinn. Now the Djinn can take all kinds of forms, in your case it was the form of a little girl, but the thing to remember about the Djinn, the really crucial point is that, quite simply, they don’t, have not, and never will, exist. At least not to anyone but their creators and so, since they are so unpredictable and often destructive I think it would be in your best interest not to allow yourself to invent anymore. Lest, maliciously, they visit you without doing so.”
“Right… Well, I’ll certainly think about that,” the drifter arched a brow at this, unsure of how exactly to responded.
“Wonderfully splendid! But enough of this grim tongue flailing! A FEAST TO WELCOME OUR NEW GUEST!” He snapped his fingers theatrically, not half a second latter someone from the crowd threw him a cane which the bespectacled man caught with the utmost flourish and elegance. He then hopped easily from his pedestal and strode purposefully from the tent without another word to anyone.
Some of the crowd murmured with excitement, yet so quickly and quietly did they talk and so convoluted, codified and arcane was their dialogue that the drifter had absolutely no idea what they were saying. It created in him a most unpleasant feeling of isolation.
“AS YOU WISH AND AS YOU SAY GLADLY WILL IT BEEN DONE, MR. GREY!” the eager throng chanted back.
Well, this should prove to be interesting…
And so with nothing else to do the drifter followed the still murmuring throng and the enigmatic Mr. Grey to the dinning tent.
Shashana Cordelia knew she had to hurry if she was to prevent a willful murder that was to be perpetrated by a contract killer of a truly fearful caliber. What made the situation even worse and the murky waters of her discontent infinitely deeper was the fact that the kill-zone was in the middle of no-man’s-land.
She had been with the Nevada Special Investigations Task Force for only seven months and had shown remarkable promise from her inception but she had gone nowhere fast due to a naturally prickly and quarrelsome nature and it was that same natural inclination that had recently gotten the young agent fired. However, before her fellow co-workers were aware of her termination and subsequent repulsion she pulled every string and forged every paper she could to get what she needed.
A Seven Forty Seven.
For Ms. Cordelia’s interest in the hit-man she tenaciously tailed was not solely professional; precisely two years ago in Pittsburgh her brother had been kidnapped from his apartment, tortured and then bound and burned inside his own car in an abandoned chop shop south of the worst slums in the metropolitan area. She found out only afterward that her brother, Cornelius Cordelia, had been one of the premiere drug dealers in the entire city and was connected all the way up through the mob, it was said he had worked for the infamous kingpin, Viktor Krystof. He had apparently gotten greedy, started skimming, got snitched on, ratted out and wound up with a price on his head. That’s when everything had went sideways, capsizing.
When her boss had shown her the charred remains of her late brother still inside the twisted heap of melted metal she had promptly vomited and then passed out. That image would never, ever leave her mind, of that much she was certain. Revenge burned ceaselessly inside of her like a acetylene torch; her brother had been a troubled man, certainly, but he hadn’t deserved to die.
Fuck, she thought sorrowfully, all the memories of her late sibling flooding back into her mind like a torrential deluge, so many laughs and good times, he was only twenty six, so young, too young, I never even got to say goodbye, to heal the wounds that I made in him.
As the wind whipped through the open window of her pure black jaguar and tossed her bright, auburn hair wildly about she forced her mind back to the task at hand, refusing to allow her weaknesses to swallow her up.
She reasoned that, unless she was very, very stupid, the only locale that the man who masqueraded as Chester North could conceivably stop at on the stretch of Nevada’s vast desert was the Lunar Cafe Dinner, a greasy plate joint that doubled as a dingy little gas station. So unless the conman was traveling by solar power she would intercept him there.
The only problem was she was direly low on gas and the only people to frequent this particular stretch of road were the kind she hoped she would never have to run into again. However their leader did owe her a favor.
Well, it’s not like I have much of a choice. It’s been a while… Mr. Grey. This time you won’t get away so easily, this time you’ll tell me what I need to know!
Mr. Grey’s feast was truly a marvel to behold, if you could conceive of a food the bizarre ringmaster was guaranteed to have it. Rare wines, candied apples, lobster bisque, caviar, stuffed olives, both black and green, smoothies, a myriad of alcohol and at least a dozen three foot high chocolate cakes, just to name a few of the assorted delights.
The drifter had never ate quite so well nor been quite so displeased when his meal was abruptly disrupted by his phone going off. In all truth the drifter had completely forgotten he had even had it, but he quickly checked his right pants pocket and discovered that sure enough it was there and wailing, wailing like an opera singer being castrated with a ball-peen hammer.
Mr. Grey’s devious, shifting eyes hesitantly left the crème brule and fastened themselves upon the drifter’s own, his look was knowing and intense.
Without a word to his host the drifter left the enormous, bright yellow, fold-up dining table table and hastily exited the mess hall tent.
He looked down again and recognized the number, a faint trace of a smile touched his lips for the merest fraction of second before he answered.
“What is it, Chess?”
“He’s here. He got in late,” the placid voice on the other end of the line stated without emotion.
This time the grin that split the drifter’s face was no faint trace.
“So the plan is still set?”
“Theoretically, what happened to you, your nearly two hours late?”
“I had a bad spill at the roller-disco, you just can’t replace a good pair of parachute pants, you know?”
“Zing,” the voice mocked, seething tired sarcasm, “What happened? Time is wasting almost as much as this place. It’s filthy disgusting.”
“It was hardly a zinger, more of a ha-ha.”
A hearty sigh and then, “Oh, and did I mention time is wasting.”
“I was under the impression that you worked for me or was I just mistaken, confused, perplexed perhaps? Befuddled, maybe? Am I forgetting a word?”
“Alright, sorry, geez… no need to bitch. But let’s hug later.”
“Fine. Brass tacks. The package went off prematurely and I took some injuries-”
“Holy fuck! It went off? On you? Are you alright?”
“Hey, watch your language, you never know who’s listening.” Which was as much as saying, “Yeah, I’m fine.”
There was a sigh of relief on the other end of the line.
“So what’s your status?” the drifter asked pointedly.
“Dead,” the man called Chess replied with perverse relish, savoring the word like sweet meat.
And without another word the drifter snapped shut his cell and proceeded back into the dinning tent as quickly as he had left it. He was not five seconds back inside when suddenly police sirens began wailing from all directions.
“Grey! Grey, what’s going on?”
Mr. Grey had risen from the table and cocked his head to one side, listening intently.
“How did they find us out here?” he asked quietly, he seemed to be talking to himself more than anyone else in the room.
“Who? Who found us, the police?”
“Who else, Wile E. Coyote?” Grey smirked back as he made several hand motions to his men and then bolted around the table, heading for the enormous cooler in the back of the tent.
“Why are the police after you,” the drifter followed at a slower pace behind the strange ringmaster when suddenly he just stopped and stared.
Mr. Grey had tersely thrown open the cooler and pulled out two glistening desert eagles.
“What are you going to do, shoot your way out?”
“No, we are going to shot our way out.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then you’ll be caught in the crossfire, you know how people are, once a gunfight breaks out they’ll just shoot anyone who comes out of these tents. The cops operate like this: shoot first, check for weapons and skew ethnicity later. Besides I saved your life, and I could always just shoot you now if you don’t help me.”
“You know Grey, you have a particularly powerful penchant for persuasion.
The drifter shook his head.
What a day.
Then he snatched up one of the pistols that his devilish host offered to him and followed Mr. Grey who had ran to the opposite end of the mess hall, towards something that was draped with a long, dark tarpaulin.
“Well, well, what do you got there?”
“Magic carpet ride,” grinned Mr. Grey rakishly, as he pulled off the veil to reveal a bright green motorcycle underneath.
The drifter couldn’t help but grin as well.
“Isn’t she.” Grey replied with obvious pride.
“Oh, I was talking about your eyes.”
Grey, caught off guard, fixed the drifter in a wide eyed stare which the man called Chess paid back in full.
Momentarily each party realized the tension they were receiving from the other was false, so they began to laugh with wild, reckless abandon as the first machine gun spray ripped through their tent.
Ryter peered down his nose at the still form of Chester North, the poor fool had no idea what was about to happen to him until it was too late. North lay back against his seat, still upright, eyes closed, head slightly drooping to one side, completely inconspicuous. No one would realize he was dead until they closed up shop since the bill had already been paid.
Ryter toggled the small vial of neurotoxin in his left hand as he smiled ever so slightly, he was at once pleased and yet somewhat disappointed that his quarry had not presented a greater challenge. But he would still be paid the same whether the job was easy or hard. Now all he had to do was wait until North’s confederate, the big game, arrived, deal with him and then he’d be gone, on a bus back to Las Vegas.
“Should ‘ave checked ya tea, maybe dhen ya’d still be alive.” Ryter sneered through a mouthful of pork and slaw and jello…thing, he had no idea what North had been talking about, it was absolutely delicious.
Suddenly the door to the diner swung wildly open and two men entered, a grizzled old trucker and a young, handsome fellow with mirrored aviators and a broken nose. The elder of the two rushed over to the counter where he exchanged words with the hairspray soaked waitress.
Ryter caught the words, “blown up”, “about twenty five miles down the road,” and “looks like it was a bomb!”
He rose and proceeded quickly over to the trucker, his unfortunate companion and the aromatic waitress.
“Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but overhear ya, what about a… what a bomb, ya’ll say? That’s mighty peculiar!”
“That’s what it looked like to me, a bomb, or rather it looked like what done it,” he had a heavy southern accent that suited his rugged appearance.
“What, done what?” Ryter pressed, impatient.
“Well, what blew up this car out about twenty five miles yonder,” he gestured with his hairy hand to the east.
“What kind of car?” Ryter asked already knowing the answer, suppressing a wolfish grin.
The trucker looked up at the ceiling momentarily and began stroking his long Grizzly Adams beard, as if trying as hard as possible to precisely recollect what he saw.
“It must have been a dark blue mustang, see I could tell what color it had been cause the hood was a good twenty feet away from it and it hadn’t been burned as badly as the rest of it which might as well have been charcoal. Yep, if anyone were in it, they’d be dead as done.”
“What a terrible travesty… so what happened to you, have a emotional run in with an old flame? He get a little prickly with you?
The man with the broken nose glared maliciously but said nothing, as if afraid that he might be struck again.
“Well, thanks for everything darling,” Ryter charmed as he turned back to the trucker and the waitress, his comments directed at the latter.
Then he set off at a brisk pace out the door, pleased that someone had done his job for him, now with both marks dead all that was left to do was return to Las Vegas and pick up his payment from Krystof.
However, before he even set foot outside he began feeling dizzy, not five feet out the door he could barely stand and ten feet outside he simply collapsed.
He could vaguely hear well paced footsteps coming from behind him.
The last thing Ryter seen before he passed out was a bright green motorcycle pull into the diner’s parking lot and some one stepping from it and saying, “Magic carpet ride.”
When Ryter awoke he felt like he’d been bludgeoned over the head with a sledgehammer and discovered that he was securely bound to a simple steel chair that was bolted to the floor of whatever building he had been brought inside of.
He shook his head and looked up, at first there appeared to be just one person looming over him but as his vision cleared he realized that there was in fact two figures standing around him. Ryter’s eyes widened with shock as he discerned that one of the men was the man with dark, thick-lensed sunglasses whom he had seen riding the bright green motorcycle, the other, impossibly, was Chester North.
Both should have been dead.
“How are you both still alive?”
“Oh good, you’re awake, we were about to douse you but…” the man with the dark sunglasses sat languidly upon a old crate and was smoking methodically, savoring every long drag in between words.
Chester North sat directly in front of his prisoner clutching a pistol loosely in his right hand and looking significantly less unhappy then when Ryter had first made his acquaintance.
“Seems like everything just went all Hitchcock on me, I think I know how James Stewart must have felt. Though I’d like ta think I’m much moraof a Carrie Grant. What’s going on anywho?” Ryter demanded curiously.
“Your not really in any kind of position to be making demands of us, Mr. Riverton.”
Ryter froze but said nothing so the man with the dark sunglasses simply continued.
“You are the same Cidolfus V. Riverton of Peter’s Street, Las Vegas, 33275? Bank Pin 458- 3434, phone number 702-901-2560, movie buff; have a phobia of algae, lint and goat cheese? Don’t bother answering, it’s rhetorical. But goat cheese? Are you serious?”
Riverton cleared his throat apprehensively before continuing.
“It’s… you never know where those goats have been, do you?”
The man with the dark sunglasses just arched a brow in amusement.
“Mr. Castle, ya neva’ cease to amaze. May I call you Castle since we are being frank with one another.”
Edric Castle slowly removed his sunglasses, his eyes were the most vivid and intense shade of green Ryter had ever seen, the only problem was he was missing one of them. He then gave his prisoner a long, hard look before speaking.
“Edric Castle died a long time ago. Castle is gone.”
“That’s not what I hear, I hear-”
North quickly jammed his pistol up against Ryter’s temple with a glare.
“Right, of course, Mr. North, sorry. But I must know… what happened at the dinner? You really out dealt the reaper back their. Listen to Blue Oyster Cult much?”
“Oh, you haven’t already figured it out? Well, I don’t mind telling,” at this point he lowered his gun and leaned back in his chair with a regal air about him.
“You see when I returned from the restroom I noticed that my teacup was not where I had left it, there was a water ring on the table since I wasn’t using a coaster and it was this same ring that was slightly off alignment with my cup, only half a centimeter but it was enough to be a dead give away that things had become grotesque. And from that point on I knew you were the man that me and my friend here were looking for, though you must have thought we were on the run ourselves. Anyways I realized that you had probably poisoned my tea so I switched cups, unfortunately for me you didn’t seem to be very thirsty and this created obvious problems, so when you went to the restroom I laced both your food and your cup, which was now my cup, with a very special sedative. Faking my own death and at the same time trapping you.”
At this point Castle broke in, “It’s called Death-Feign, the sedative, because it simulates all the functionary changes caused by death, it even reduces your heartbeat so low that it looks like you’ve stopped breathing.”
“So why am I here?” Ryter asked curiously, he had been wondering why he was still alive since he woke up, why had they not killed him?
“Because your going to go back to Victor Krystof and tell him that the two men who stole from him are dead, your going to go back and tell him that you completed the job with no hitches, no snags, you’ll be paid, we shall disappear and everyone will leave the theater grinning.”
“If Krystof finds out that I’m lying-”
“He won’t.” North replied smugly.
“We have worked things in a very thorough fashion, Mr. Riverton, no one will be the wiser in this game of rat and snake except for use three. A appropriate trio of secrecy, don’t you think?”
Ryter shook his head.
“And if I don’t cooperate?”
“Oh, I think you will.”
“And why is that?”
“Mr. North, show him.” Edric Castle smiled darkly.
It was only then that he realized North was wearing tight, black leather gloves, the insomniac reached into his left pants pocket and produced a small, clear vial filled with equally clear liquid that had a thick syrupy consistency.
“Know what this is?”
He knew what it was, knew it quite well. It was the poison he had been carrying on him when he tried to kill Chester North, the poison he always used. Ryter was mortified and speechless.
“You see the only problem with using a neurotoxin of this efficiency is it’s rarity,” began Castle still smirking disturbingly, “And when something is this rare well then it’s no trouble at all in tracing it’s source and once I found the source it was only slightly more difficult to find the buyer, you in this case, Mr. Riverton.”
“And see this here,” North pointed to a hard-to-discern mark upon the glass of the vial, “This is your fingerprint.”
“And this,” Castle interjected as he produced a tape recorder and clicked play.
“Should’ave checked ya tea, maybe then ya’d still be alive,” the tape recorder recited loudly.
“Now what do you think would happen if all this evidence and our testimonies were to fall in the hands of the police? I mean the rumor is that you’ve been responsible for thirty five contract killings in six months, now that is impressive. You’ve been such a busy little bee, haven’t you. And anyone as impressive as you is bound to garner their share of interested parties. Perhaps a party like that of Shasana Cordelia, I’m sure you’ve heard of her before. Because I know she’s heard of you.”
Ryter had indeed, she’d went after him with the tenacity of a bulldog, always going for the throat. Believing him to have been responsible for her brother’s death, though he never even met the man he had allegedly killed.
Ryter sighed. Being killed was just a risk of the job, if someone out-played him and took him out, more power to them. He had no fear of death, it didn’t bother him, never had, but to ruin his life and leave him alive, that was just plain cruel.
“I think we understand each other,” Ryter conceded, they had him by the veins, there was nothing he could do. It was over, he’d lost. These two sure knew how to play the game; Ryter couldn’t help but feel pleased as well as utterly distraught, he’d been winning so long he forgot what it was like to lose. It felt bittersweet, mildly liberating.
“I’m curious,” Chester North intervened, “Did you really kill Cordelia’s brother?”
Ryter looked up at his captor in confusion and irritation.
“Of course not, I have no idea why everyone keeps saying that. Flapping their mouths about like tent sheets!”
“He’s telling the truth.” Castle, the one eyed drifter, replied coolly.
“How do you know?” Ryter challenged, his last vestige of defiance.
Castle put his glasses back on, took a long drag of his cigarette and then sat back down on his crate before answering, leaning back into the shadows, bathed in darkness.
“Because I killed him.”
“What?” This time it was Chester North’s turn to be confused, Ryter followed suit.
“Why?” was all Ryter asked once more genuinely curious.
“I don’t regret what I’ve done, I never will, he deserved his fate just as my girl did not deserve her’s.”
“He murdered your girlfriend?” Ryter pressed.
“The woman I loved. Girl-friend. What a childish term. In relation to the deed I am not bound by the law of weak-minded creatures nor shall I be retained by the regulations of the police. The police! Just another word for hypocrisy,” he snapped venomously, hatred ringing in his every word.
“But don’t make me into something I am not, I didn’t do it for vengeance, no, I did it because it was right, fair, just… so, Mr. Riverton, now you know my story… will you help us still?”
Cid Riverton, formerly Mr. Ryter, slowly nodded his shaggy head.
“What else can I do, mon ami?”
Viktor Krystof gazed absently out of his sixtieth story office window, mulling over his plans again and again.
Quite abruptly the ring of his phone cut through the dense stillness that had previously pervaded the well polished office. He had been expecting the call, Ryter was just on time as usual.
“The portfolio was delivered as promised. It’s all tied off. Finished.”
“Good, your money will be wired to you in half an hour.”
Ryter’s line then went silent.
As Viktor Krystof turned around to replace his phone on it’s hook he discovered that two men wearing expertly tailored suits had just entered his office, which was peculiar since he had given his bodyguards very specific orders that no one was to enter and disturb him.
Such a incursion was highly irregular.
The younger of the two looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks, with dark bags under his eyes and short, razor straight hair that fell lankly about his face; thin as a reed he wore a pure white suit and carried something which Krystof couldn’t quite make out in his right hand.
The elder man was taller by several inches and decisively more muscular, he wore a jet black suit and dark, thick-lensed sunglasses to match. A half finished cigarette dangled limply from his sneering lips. Both wore gloves and thick soled boots.
“Mr. Krystof,” The man with the dark sunglasses stated, his voice dripping contempt.
“What is this about? Who the hell do you think you are coming in here like this!”
Without another word the stranger whipped out a silenced pistol and pumped a bullet into Krystof’s left kneecap. The old man went down with a cry of agony and lay on the cold marble floor withering in pain.
“Do you remember Passion Winters? You should, seeing as it was you whom ordered Cornelius Cordelia to kill her. You whom appointed yourself as Judge, Jury and Executioner!”
“What is it to you?”
“That’s none of your concern, however, this should be,” the man with the cigarette gestured casually to his companion in the white suit.
When he looked he realized with horror what the thinner man carried was a can of petrol and he was currently busying himself with dousing the room in it.
“Are you fucking insane, do you know who I am!” he screamed, his steely control completely gone, though he tried to appear imposing, only fear remained.
“A dead man.” The dark figure with the sunglasses stated without inflection.
“No. No! NO!”
“Goodbye, Mr. Krystof… oh and Ms. Cordelia sends you her fairest regards.”
With that the drifter and his companion turned expressionlessly away and began walking to the door, flicking his cigarette behind him into a puddle of petrol as he went.
Then there were only flames and the anguished screaming of a dying man.