A courier stops at a bar where the locals are dangerous, but another traveller is well-suited to deal with the threat.
– Age verification required. Genre: Modern Horror. Trigger warnings: graphic violence, moderate profanity, moderate Roxette references.
Rubber tears like the hoof-beats of some fell beast. Engine noise screams as if ripped from the throat of Hell itself. Rain pounds down, the wrath of an angry God, blasting the foul Earth with a downpour that cleanses even as it condemns.
One false move in that storm, one faltering movement of wheels, would spell death. Anyone in their right mind would be out of the tempest but still, howling down a lightless highway well past the middle of nowhere, a black-clad rider urges a roaring motorcycle through the driving rain, smashing through sheets of water without hesitation.
All around the storm rages.
It wasn’t the stench of piss and stale beer that made Rick’s such a distinctly unwelcome joint. It wasn’t the dry suffocating heat or the miasma of fetid cigarette smoke. For the most part it was a pretty standard truck stop and bar along the winding highway that tracked through the sheer boredom of hills and plains that formed the vast majority of the state’s landscape. Nothing special about it, really – it was just a place. The proprietor’s unfortunate taste in decor had resulted in a fusion of Western and 50s furnishings that, at first glance, hurt the eyes.
But even that was bearable, really, when it came down to it. The red-and-white bar stools were faded and peeling, records hung between stuffed animal heads on the walls, insufficient lighting resulted in the sort of space that made focusing on anything in particular a trial. The jukebox in one corner only ever seemed to stock Elvis tunes scattered between the worst of the 80s. The mirrored disco-ball above the cramped stage – a platform that could only host a live band if it happened to be formed by musically-talented cats – hadn’t actually spun in more than twenty years. One side of it had been bashed in by some blunt object that might have been a thrown bottle but could as easily have been someone’s head.
Nonetheless, while the place was a little like a pile of cultural vomit that had become the home to a million fashion-blind maggots, it was still just a place to come and drink. None of these things made the place particularly pleasant but they could all, individually or collectively, be ignored if you’d drunk enough beer (or what the joint claimed was beer, anyway).
It was the locals.
Most travellers came during the day. It wasn’t too bad during the day; the locals weren’t about then. They were off working the fields nearby – at least, that was possibly what they were doing. They were definitely off working and, given that there was nothing nearby but fields, it was probably safe to assume that’s where they were. So in daylight hours travellers would pull up, fill up on fuel, pay their way and be gone with little more than a creepy spine-shivering sensation that told them that Rick’s was, without a doubt, a place they didn’t want to stop in.
At night, though, that’s when the bar slowly filled with patrons.
They weren’t that rowdy- not early on. They were tired from their work (which probably was in the fields, and it’s least distressing to assume it involved farming of some kind), looking for drink, disinterested in trouble.
There were about a dozen of them in the bar that night, the night that brought the storm clouds overhead to play, when the thunderclaps were so loud and frequent that eventually nobody bothered feeding the jukebox. Even conversation was difficult, though the locals generally didn’t bother with conversation anyway. Oh, they could certainly talk when they wanted to. They just rarely had anything to say.
Any passer-by would find it difficult to describe the folk filling the joint. The men were huge and hulking, with broad shoulders and bent backs, while the women bore heavy breasts and weren’t quite as solidly built – though they came close. There was a forbidding quality to their gazes, a hostility – or at least resentment – that made strangers very keenly aware that they didn’t belong. And yet one would find their clothes – hard-wearing overalls and thick muddy boots, for the most part – far easier to describe than the people in them. The disquieting quality to their appearance, the danger in their straw-coloured eyes and some other, unnameable quality made the casual onlooker’s eyes slide over them uncomfortably.
Only one person in the bar seemed easy on the eyes – in more ways than one – and that was the proprietor.
Rick stood behind the bar, polishing glasses. He wasn’t the Rick that had given his name to the bar – that man had died fifty years ago – but he was entirely normal. He was a big man, no doubt about that, but the locals made him look like a dwarf. Sandy hair crowned his head in an untidy mop, a handsome jaw was covered in light stubble and blue eyes peered from a face that, if it were a little less lined and weather-beaten, could have been a fashion model’s. Tiny circular scars – burn marks from the fryer, for the bar doubled as a diner – decorated his hands and forearms, strange silvery freckles against his tanned skin.
He hummed cheerily to himself as he worked, though nobody could hear him over the pounding rain on the dilapidated bar’s rusting tin roof, and he absently put a hand out now and then to steady the rocking bottles of bourbon near the cash register as a particularly violent crash of lighting broke directly overhead.
It was Rick who looked up when the door banged open, wrenched by the furious winds from the hand of a rather scrawny young man named Per.
The rider’s taut frame handles the bike past the worst of the road’s hazards – the rare fallen tree branch is swerved around or jumped over, potholes which should be invisible are deftly avoided, other vehicles sharing the soaked highway are driven by at speeds that surely must be far too dangerous in such a downpour.
In the dim of night the water puddling on the road seems as black as ink. The occasional flash of lightning, along with the bike’s bright lamp, only serve to make the night seem deeper and more threatening than mere moonlight could. That night could hold monsters and angels, old gods and young demons. Perhaps it does.
The machine speeds on, eating up the miles with relentless hunger, shining headlight piercing through the oppressive blackness like a lance.
Per wasn’t particularly fond of his name. It was Scandinavian in exactly the same way that he wasn’t. Per’s mother was from Boston in the United States; his father had come from Sydney in Australia. When he was younger Per had taken some interest in genealogy and found that his family tree, stretching back over three hundred years, was almost exclusively English, Irish and French. Her mother, however, had been a Roxette fan when she was younger – or, more to the point, when she was alive, a state of being that neither she nor Per’s father currently enjoyed – and Per had no doubt that if he’d been a girl his mother would have named him Marie. He had no talent for singing and, to his mother’s disappointment, no interest in learning to play an instrument.
What he had instead taken a passion for was soap – liquid hand soap, to be precise. His efforts in school had been poured into his chemistry classes, he’d gone to university with great plans to become an inventor of new and fascinating types of hand cleanser, he’d cursed the world when he contracted glandular fever from making out with a very pretty girl – from, ironically, Scandinavia – who was less than diligent with her personal cleanliness. The illness wiped out any hope of him finishing his course. He dropped out suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, lay about for two years and then picked up a job as a courier for a printer repair company run by a friend of a friend.
As is common enough for sufferers of chronic fatigue Per’s constitution was not excellent. His skin was sallow and his face gaunt, hair a rather boring brown and now plastered down to his skull which, on a rather spindly neck, looked comically oversized. He hadn’t thought to wear a coat that day so his clothes were soaked through and clung to his thin frame, drippingly insufficient; his glasses were steamed and covered in droplets that made visibility all but impossible.
He stumbled in as if blown by the sheer force of the same wind that had pulled the door from his grasp. It was an effort to close behind him and for a moment the angry cold of the storm gusted into the dingy diner-cum-bar.
For a split second Per considered some kind of jaunty greeting – “Whoo! Nice weather for ducks!” – but it died on his lips as the smell of the place hit him. Grime, smoke, stale beer, sweat. Instead he took the opportunity to wipe his glasses clean with a soft cloth he kept in his pocket for just such occasions.
They were still smeared when he put them back on – the cloth had soaked through when his pants had – but it was an improvement.
He was painfully aware of thirteen pairs of eyes watching him as he headed up to the bar. One of those pairs – if not the friendliest then certainly the least hostile – belonged to the bartender.
Per risked a glance about at the folks gathered.
Ooooo… kay, he thought wryly, I’ve entered the Twilight Zone, right here…
If their forms seemed wrong to Per his brain didn’t want to know. It put them in the ‘ugly and scary’ basket and was eager to move on.
“Wild weather out there,” the bartender declared as Per neared – too loud, Per fancied. Any of the local folk in the bar who hadn’t been watching him sure were now. “Nice weather for -”
“For ducks, yeah,” Per nodded, dripping inelegantly. At least the din outside had quietened enough for conversation. “Hey, look – I need to fill my car up but damn if anyone can drive through this crap. There any motels nearby?”
Rick shook his head and laughed. “Naw. Last place tried to open up anywhere near went broke after a month. Closest place now’s far enough south that y’might as well just keep drivin’.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Got coffee, might just wanna wait th’worst out.”
Per really didn’t want to wait it out. Most of the local ‘wildlife’ had gone back to doing whatever it was they were doing before he came in but a few still stared. There was something that kept sliding past his mind; whatever it was it didn’t make him feel safe. But with the storm raging outside it was probably safer, he guessed, to risk hanging around a while; he’d almost gone off the slick highway at least four times when unexpected bends leapt out in the dark. He didn’t want to stay here but he wanted to drive through the tempest far less.
“This normal for this area?” he asked eventually, taking a seat at the bar and nodding to Rick who, grinning a beamy smile, started fixing up a coffee. “The storm, I mean.” Of course you meant the storm, a voice at the back of his head nagged, what else would you have meant? Look around, Per…
Rick shrugged. “No way. Weirdest thing. Yesterday, clear sky. Great weather, ‘specially for this time o’year. Today…” He nodded to the door. “Boom. Lightning sandwich.” He put a steaming cup of coffee on the bar in front of the traveller. “Milk? Sugar?”
Per shook his head vaguely, eyes trapped by the sight of a series of furrows cut into the bar’s hardwood surface. There were a few of them – if he didn’t know any better Per would say it was a long, ragged scratch left by a huge paw. That voice niggled at the back of his mind again but he pushed it away.
“Got family around here?”
The question caught Per by surprise but he shook his head, forgetting the furrows in the bar almost as soon as he looked away. Out of the corner of his eye he saw one of the only two women in the bar staring at him and he kept his gaze away. He didn’t miss the sight of her licking her lips unconsciously but something about the sight didn’t encourage him.
“Just passing through. No family.” He shrugged to show he wasn’t telling a sob story.
“Oh, right,” Rick nodded, not showing the slightest sympathy, which was fine with Per. “Visiting friends or somethin’?”
Per shook his head and droplets of water spattered across the bar. “Nah, heading home. Just finished a job. Courier,” he supplied, anticipating Rick’s next question.
“Got a name?”
The gravelly voice sounded like its owner was a chain-smoker addicted to whiskey who liked to gargle with lemon juice. It sure wasn’t Rick’s. Per’s gaze was dragged to a man further down the bar.
Unlike the majority of the locals he didn’t wear overalls. He wore a warm-looking woollen coat that was hard-pressed to cover the man’s incredibly wide back. Per had the distinct impression that he was a hunchback or something. The guy was bent over the bar, glaring at the green beer-stained runner. A glass sat neatly on a coaster on that runner and some dark liquid swirled in the bottom. Per would have bet his bottom dollar it was whiskey and he’d have been right. The man had long fingernails which he dragged idly over the bar’s top with a raspy noise.
“Uh, Per,” said Per, hastening to add, “Not the fruit. Just Per.”
“Sounds Dutch,” Rick noted.
“Scandinavian,” Per offered, lifting his coffee to his mouth. It was good coffee.
If the local had a name he didn’t offer it. Per wasn’t sure if he should enquire but before he could Rick had done the work for him.
“Old Pearse here,” the bartender grinned, “Ben Pearse, he’s a regular. Aren’t you, Ben?” Something about Rick’s tone struck Per as being a little condescending, as if he were talking to someone who was just a little slow.
Ben Pearse gave a non-committal grunt and Rick let out a light laugh. The look in the strange man’s eyes – weird, amber eyes – wasn’t unintelligent. It was hateful, resentful, angry. If Rick noticed – and Per had the suspicion that he did – he didn’t care. A clink of glass on glass sounded as the bartender topped up the man’s whiskey. Per sipped his coffee again.
Silence closed in and it occurred to Per that nobody in the bar was talking – nobody. Normally he probably wouldn’t have noticed but between the distant rumbles of thunder and waves of pounding rain on the roof the traveller could tell the jukebox was inert. A pair of men played pool, the two women stared about looking bored, other locals sat in booths or at tables – and not one of them spoke. If Ben hadn’t asked Per’s name he’d have started wondering if he’d stumbled into a convention for unwashed, weirdly deformed mutes.
“You should leave,” the man said suddenly, resuming his scratching motion at the bar. He hadn’t looked directly at Per and he didn’t do so now. He stared a the bar still, only sparing a hate-filled glance at Rick and the man laughed a full, rich laugh.
“That’s not real hospitable, Ben!” Rick shook his head firmly. “Rude, really. You leave my customers be.”
Per stared at Ben. The venomous distaste in the man’s glare was devoid from his voice. Gravelly, yes. Rough and somehow forbidding, definitely. Unwelcoming, yes, unquestionably – but whatever had raised the old man’s ire certainly wasn’t Per. He was absolutely sure of that fact. He opened his mouth but found, suddenly, a glass of freshly-poured beer set down by his hand.
“On the house,” Rick assured the courier with a wink, “an’ don’t let old Pearse scare you off. Can’t go anywhere in this rain anyway, right?” The bartender waved a hand at a nearby empty table.
After a few moments’ hesitation Per nodded to Rick and gave Ben a vague shrug. The man just shook his head and pulled his nails across the bar. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch.
Per moved to the table and sat. His head was swimming. Something had happened but as much as he tried he couldn’t concentrate on it. He vaguely wondered if his coffee was drugged; his mind was usually as sharp as a pin.
Old Ben Pearse said nothing more to Per. He just sat and scratched, stared and drank.
This is going to be fun, the courier mused.
One dim light shows up in the field of rain-flecked blackness. Not a headlight; too far to one side, the wrong shape and colour. A sign, too far away to read but approaching fast. The rider’s face, hidden behind its visor, could as easily be relieved as unimpressed. Nonetheless the bike leans in the direction of the light, heading down a side road and off toward the distant sign.
More lights, rectangular and low and broad. Windows, dimmer than the sign, their glow diffused by the downpour. Dim circles – lights on gas pumps.
Instruments glow fiercely, insistently, in the bike’s dash. Not low enough to be an emergency. Could do with more, though.
A brief calculation of finances and then the machine slows, passes under the bright sign declaring the place’s name.
Per had no desire to learn pool but he liked to watch. His eyes roamed over the nearby table as the pair played silently. It was bizarre, surreal. No small-talk, no boasting. One stepped up, took a shot, nodded to the other. Quiet and somehow remarkably ordered. They had a lot of manual dexterity for huge ham-fisted farmers, too, particularly when their fingernails were taken into account. Just like Old Ben Pearse the pair at the pool table – much younger and more fit, Per guessed, though he couldn’t have told you why he got that impression – they had long, thick fingernails. They didn’t get in the way at all. Both men were clearly accustomed to the nails and there, deep in the back of Per’s mind, something seemed wrong.
He couldn’t shake the feeling. It felt, he imagined, a bit like it might if he’d fallen into a tiger enclosure at the zoo and found – against all expectation – the tigers were dressed up as rabbits and patiently nibbling carrots and lettuce. Per was in danger, he thought, but he couldn’t tell why he felt threatened or where the threat came from. All he knew was that something felt like it was going to break, just as the storm had earlier that day.
The air felt tense. It had felt thicker and more disturbing as the night slid by. Some of the locals were staring at him openly now and he didn’t like their looks.
Now and then Rick brought over another coffee or another beer. Something about that seemed weird, too, and Per began to feel his temper fray as his frustration rose. He had excellent concentration. Why was it failing him? He’d discounted the idea of drugged coffee. He’d felt like this as soon as he’d walked in the bar. Something in the smoky air? No. It wasn’t constant. When he was staring at the table in front of him his mind sharpened. But each time he looked up, looked around, he set eyes on someone and then…
There! He almost had it! He almost understood but even trying to work it out made his head hurt.
A shadow cast over his table made him look up and, immediately, his brain started shutting down. Pearse, Ben Pearse, loomed over him. He didn’t nod to Per, didn’t greet him. He just sat down. His whiskey had been left untouched on the bar, Per could see, glancing briefly back at the spot the hulking old man had left.
For a while he simply sat there, staring at Per with eyes a colour somewhere between rich amber and weak piss. Per couldn’t look him in the face. Something in his mind refused to concentrate on the man’s head and it hurt to try. His vision went blurry for a moment and he heard, more than saw, Ben shift in his seat.
“You gotta leave,” the old man whispered hoarsely. “You gotta get the fuck up from this table an’ push off outta that fuckin’ door.”
Per’s jaw worked as he tried to form words. “Why?” he asked eventually. To his ears those words sounded petulant and scared rather than manly and defiant, as he’d intended them to be.
“Cause if you don’t,” Ben glowered back, “we’re gonna kill you an’ eat you.”
There was no movement. Per’s spine had fused with sudden fear. There was no malice in Ben’s words, just a simple, bald honesty which terrified Per to the core much more effectively than any threat. He could hear the old man’s honesty and, as he snuck a glance at one of Ben’s incredibly wide hands with those strange long nails, Per had no doubt that Old Pearse could snap him in half without breaking a sweat.
“Night goes on,” the hulking local continued, “gets harder t’think. Folks get hungrier. Lotta travellers ain’t reach their own front doors after findin’ Rick’s.”
Per had never before heard a word uttered with so much venom.
Thunder roared just outside – no, not thunder, Per realised belatedly. It was an engine, a heavy mechanical burble that he could almost feel through the ground. A motorcycle?
“Oh fuck,” Ben muttered, standing and heading back to his whiskey at the bar.
As he glanced around Per had some idea of what the place must have looked like before he walked in. All across the joint the locals stopped what they were doing and, as if their heads were attached to the same wire, turned to stare at the door. Only Ben Pearse didn’t look over; he remained with his head bowed over his drink, staring at the stained mat atop the raggedly scratched bar. There was a pause as, presumably, the owner of the bike made their way up to the door of Rick’s. The bartender emerged, then, from a back room with a curious look on his face. Something about this arrival had surprised him; perhaps he, like Per, was wondering how anyone had managed to ride a motorbike through this particularly shitty weather.
Not a single yellow eye blinked when the door slammed open but Per jumped and, he saw, so did Rick. Neither of them had heard the rider approach; for some reason the courier had the feeling that the locals had far, far sharper hearing – or perhaps some stranger sense.
Think, Per, look around, that voice nagged in the back of his skull. It made no sense to his forebrain and he silenced it quickly.
Little did he know, on that rainy night, that it was the very last time in his harrowed, paranoid life that he’d ever be able to ignore that impulse. Eventually he’d come to rely on it.
Lightning blinded the room and thunder roared overhead like a wounded beast. In the doorway was silhouetted…
Just a person.
Per let a breath out that he didn’t realise he’d been holding. He felt stupid, disappointed, and he couldn’t tell why. The figure was clad in black riding leathers with little silver lightning bolts detailing the gloves, the cuffs, the collar, the helmet. No-nonsense riding boots clumped on the floor and after a moment the newcomer closed the door. Per had struggled with that door considerably more than the rider did.
Every eye in the joint was on the figure as it stepped forward. Per guessed it was probably either a woman or a shortish man; the leathers were cut for practicality and protection, not fashion, and the bulky cut of the jacket could have concealed breasts just as easily as a masculine chest.
Then the rider stopped and tilted a hip to a comfortable position before pulling off its gloves. It was a feminine stance.
A woman or a really gay dude, Per revised, perhaps a little unfairly.
The hands beneath the gloves were long and feminine, though, with nails painted a mirror-like shining silver. The rider hadn’t really looked around the place, mostly focused on the bar and bartender beyond. And then it – she – pulled off her helmet.
She was… certainly something. Strong cheekbones, fine features, slightly arched nose. She was Latina, her skin warm and almost golden under the light. Her rich brown-black hair had been roughly cut into something that might have resembled a pixie cut if it weren’t so messy and she ruffled it with her fingers absent-mindedly. She wore no makeup and the whole effect, to Per’s mind, seemed very masculine indeed. He wasn’t one to think too deeply into whether he should be worried that ‘no makeup’ and ‘short hair’ automatically meant ‘masculine’ to him, though perhaps he should have. Nonetheless the woman was both striking and severe at the same time. Her eyes, a deep brown, should have been warm and gentle but when they glanced Per’s way he felt, strangely, less safe with her in the room than out of it.
“Wild weather out there,” Rick called, his tone smooth, confident and totally at odds with his face. “Can I getcha anythin’?”
The woman, though, was looking around the joint. Barely five feet in the door she had stopped still and was staring hard at the locals. It was a tired look, a look of someone who should have guessed, an expression that clearly said, ‘Figures.’ Shaking her head briefly she headed up to the bar.
“Fuel pumps are locked,” she said shortly. Her voice was accented but Per couldn’t quite put her finger on how.
“Yeah, sorry. Don’t sell much fuel in this kinda weather,” Rick said easily. “Crazy weather! Not real seasonal but what can y’do? A mal tiempo, buena cara, right?”
There was a pause as the woman stared at him blankly, her brow creasing into a frown.
“I don’t speak Spanish,” she said bluntly. “You gonna unlock th’pumps or not?”
Per couldn’t help himself. The translation was right on his lips. “It means ‘In bad times, a face held high.’ Strength in adversity, sorta thing.” Seeing the woman stare blankly at him for a few moments he shrugged. “I don’t speak Spanish either. One the assholes at my work likes showing off.”
The woman made a noise. Per couldn’t tell if it was a laugh or a grunt. She stared at Rick pointedly and jerked her thumb over her shoulder.
“Gee, lady,” Rick began expansively, “I’d like t’help you out -”
“You should,” she replied. “You really should.” It was a quiet, dangerous tone. The threat carried within wasn’t implied so much as promised.
Rick laughed. “Fiery one! Or what, little lady?” he asked, a tone of aggression wafting through his charismatic voice.
She shrugged carelessly. “Or I rip this entire place an’ every yellow-eyed monster in it to pieces.”
“Monsters? What?” Per couldn’t keep the shock out of his voice. It wasn’t until she turned to look him up and down that he realised he’d even spoken.
Now she did laugh. A short, barking laugh with absolutely no humour in it. “You really dunno what you walked into here, do you? You really got no idea.”
“Told you,” Ben’s voice echoed from the bar. “Should have left.” It was barely human now, rough and growling. His fingernails dragged across the bar again and Per could barely perceive curls of wood coming up as if those nails were sharp, sharp knives. “Warned you. Didn’t listen.”
Per opened his mouth to speak but all that came out was a pained squeak. The woman had closed the distance to him and had grabbed him by the hair with one hand, his lower jaw with the other.
“Look at ‘em,” she hissed in his ear. She smelled of sweat and rain. She smelled good.
He looked. His head swam. Every time he tried to look away she squeezed his jaw so hard he thought she was going to pop it out of joint but his own fingers, grasping at hers, couldn’t even budge them. His eyes blurred and ached, his head swam, his spine crawled with a terrible, desperate fear –
And then he saw.
It was difficult to say what they were – what the non-human parts were – just as it was difficult to determine how they’d become what they were. Had they been born that way? Had they been changed? His disbelieving mind overflowed with questions, bubbling up on the fear, but as much as he desperately wanted to the rider wouldn’t let him look away.
If they were some race of creatures they were all the same race. If they had once been humans and had suffered some alteration then, he figured, the same event – or the same affliction – had taken them all. Apart from their clothes each looked the twin of the next. Not identical, not quite, but very nearly so. Heavy foreheads, broad flat noses, sunken eyes, jowled cheeks and heavy jaws all detracted from their humanity and, yet, those faces were undeniably similar to Per’s own. Skin that he suspected would normally have been pasty-white instead bore rich tans, evidence of their hard working lives. Only greying wisps of hair clung to their scalps; they could have been in their twenties or their seventies just as easily. Each mouth was filled with sharp, triangular teeth made for tearing and cutting meat. They looked like shark’s teeth.
The pair standing at the pool table were typical for their kind (whatever kind that was). They were both male, broad-shouldered and stooping, well-muscled arms a little too long and giving them a brutish appearance. Keen eyes the colour of straw watched as ivory balls clacked on the green felt, tracking movement unerringly when they weren’t staring cautiously at Per and the woman. Long fingers – too long by far – toyed with pool cues while they waited their turn or manipulated the sticks with surprising dexterity when taking a shot. Each of those fingers bore a long, blunt-ended claw.
His face, turned back to Old Ben Pearse, found the same deformed appearance. His hair was gone, though, and his fingerna- his claws were longer and much sharper than those of the younger monsters in the bar. The old man didn’t turn to look at them but Per thought he knew what he’d see – that old face fighting to keep his mind as the night wore on.
The two women – Per suddenly thought of them as females rather than women – looked little different. They were both more than a foot shorter than the others, their faces were not as thick-jawed and heavy, bulbous breasts pushed at the fabric of their flannel shirts as if threatening to break out, but otherwise they looked identical to their male counterparts. A wild image of these things breeding flashed into his increasingly fevered mind – inhuman screeching, blood flowing from deep scratches, hot passion and hard nipples – before he managed to shut his eyes.
His mouth had been forcibly kept open by the pressure of the woman’s fingers in his jaw hinges and as soon as she released him he closed it and tried to swallow. It took three attempts and even then he felt like his throat was burning.
“Wh-what are they?” he whispered hoarsely.
“Fucked if I know, fucked if I care,” she answered, pushing away from his table.
Rick stared at the pair from the wrong side of the room as he dropped a bar in place across the doorway, holding the door closed. He started to chuckle as he watched the woman, his eyes keeping focus on her as if watching a particularly interesting spider – potentially venomous but, ultimately, insignificant. He was human, Per could see. One hundred percent, bona fide human and no less dangerous for that.
“You’re makin’ a mistake,” the woman warned. It sounded like her last warning.
“Oh really,” Rick replied. The friendliness had gone from his voice and all that was left was a predatory smugness. He wasn’t scared of a bar full of yellow-eyed monsters. He sure wasn’t going to be scared of some girl in biker leathers. Even if her fingernails were painted silver, no sirree.
“What’s going on?” Per demanded, standing sharply. His chair hit the floor behind him with a clatter that was too sudden, too loud, in the silence.
“Warned you,” Ben repeated from the bar, “warned you…” He was standing now. In fact all of the locals were standing, turning to the pair, watching them as if waiting for a signal.
“What’s going on?” Per crossed the distance to the woman who, perhaps unsurprisingly, threw him an impatient glance.
She gestured around. “You’re in a room full of huge clawed monsters who’re standin’ up an’ any minute now will start comin’ toward us.” There was no sympathy in her voice. “Do the fuckin’ math.”
Rick laughed. The woman was right; the pair who’d been playing pool started to circle them. The best Per could do was stand with his back to the woman’s, trying to keep track of them, hoping she had some kind of plan. From what he could tell she didn’t seem scared, more angry and put out. She seem annoyed that this was happening, like someone who’d finished up at work only to find one last report to file.
“Not gonna tell me I’m makin’ a mistake?” Rick taunted.
The woman shook her head. “You had your chance,” she spat, her voice thick with resentment and condemnation.
The one that moved first was slightly larger than the others. Per remembered that intimately. He also remembered hitting the ground, knocked in a sprawling heap by the woman at his back. What happened next was a blur and it, like the rest of the night, made no sense.
As the huge creature lunged forward he swiped at the woman’s face. She leaned back just enough to let the claws pass by, missing by a fraction of an inch. The monster’s second slashing attack went for the woman’s torso and she twisted to the side, one foot stepping neatly over Per’s prone body. The beast’s third swing stopped short as the woman grabbed the wrist, twisted hard, snapped the tough bones like they were dried twigs. The male’s scream of pain was stopped short as the woman’s other hand came up, closed around his larynx and crushed it, tore it out.
Blood fountained up as the monster fell backward, gurgling a death-rattle. Crimson liquid spattered across the woman’s torso and up one shoulder, fell in red drops to splash on the floor, the pool table, Per’s face. Huge limbs jerked spasmodically. The woman stepped back over Per as she moved into a smooth fighting stance, holding her bloodied hands up.
They were shining silver under the blood, jagged and elegant at the same time. It looked almost like her hands had sprouted heavy diamond-shaped scales of gleaming metal.
“What the fuck?” The voice was Rick’s and Per only just heard it before the second monster charged.
Without hesitation the woman crouched, caught the thing’s arm in one hand and propped the other in the pit of his stomach. She lifted and brought the beast up and over her head – over Per’s vulnerable body – and down through the table Per had just been sitting at. The wood splintered; the floorboards snapped with the force. The monster’s scream was muffled – it had come down face-first – and it changed to a hideous shriek and then a wordless bubble as the woman raked a hand down the thing’s overalls, plunged it into the creature’s bare back, came up with something in her hand, blood-soaked, snapped tendons still clinging to it.
She’d torn out the thing’s spine.
She’s torn out its fucking spine, Per’s terrified mind helpfully supplied. He scrambled to his backside, backpedalled across the floor, jammed himself under a table near a window. The rest of the bar ignored him; the woman had more than caught their attention. Per was in a prime position to see what happened next.
The scales along the hand holding its new prize shifted and flowed. He couldn’t see how but the stuff flowed in rivulets along the spinal column’s length like sentient mercury, slicing through tendons, reinforcing bone and straightening the vertebrae into a single straight shaft. Not a smooth shaft, it retained the flanges of bone that gave the spine its unmistakable shape, but held in a direct line, devoid of its natural S-curve. Metal flowed from the bone staff to form a long, sharp blade at each end.
The woman hadn’t come out of the attack unscathed. A trio of long scratches had sliced through the thick leather at her back and stinging lines of blood flowed in thin rivulets. Per might have been imagining but he had the strangest notion that the red of her blood was tinted with a metallic undertone. She swore heavily and swung the staff, readying it.
With a single swing she decapitated the next two monsters that attacked. A beast approaching from behind found one of the blades penetrating its forehead. Another, assaulting her from the side, barely scored a nick against her leg before she had one of its yellow eyes torn from its heavy skull. It howled in pain and the woman, dropping the orb, gripped the monster’s lower jaw, tearing it off with a sharp yank. As it sank to its knees in agony she kicked it backward, slamming her foot down hard enough to crush its skull even as she spun the staff to disembowel one of the females who had joined the fray. Opened neatly from crotch to throat she spilt her body’s organs, collapsed on the floor and died in one messy, if economic, action.
A deep, thunderous growl stopped the motion. Per didn’t have to look around to know it was Pearse.
The old man snapped his teeth at the other woman who, in a near-rage, was about to attack. She, along with the surviving males, backed off immediately. Then, with a hand that trembled with control, Ben pointed at the door. Get out, that gesture said.
The woman didn’t need to be told twice. The living steel melted back into her hands, coalescing into her fingernails (they weren’t painted, Per suddenly realised, they were metal), and she flipped the table the terrified courier was under. Grabbing his arm in a grip that he knew could have torn his arm from his socket she lifted him bodily to his feet and started toward the door.
“Not that easy, bitch!” roared a voice. Rick was behind the bar again – he must have run there in the fight – and in his hands was a shotgun. Per didn’t even have a chance to yell a warning.
The shot was louder than thunder in the confined space.
Per opened his eyes, surprised more than he’d have thought that he still had eyes to open. For a second he had an urge to see if his shattered head was plastered against the wall and he was actually dead but the pain in his arm told him differently. And then he saw the gleaming shield that had saved his life.
The woman lowered her arm slowly. Metal had erupted from the back of her hand and spread out in a protective plate as thin as tinfoil. The shotgun blast hadn’t even scratched it, much less dented it, and as Per watched the surface melted away, receded into her skin once more.
Rick’s jaw was open. He closed it and raised the gun again but by the time he had it up and ready the woman was across the bar, leaning over it, grabbing the gun and wrenching it from the bartender’s grasp. He let out a wet grunt as its butt smacked into his nose and as he recovered the woman bent the barrel into an L shape. She dropped the weapon scornfully on the ground and walked back toward the door without hurrying.
Two of the monsters moved to block the way and Per, without much other option, moved out of their way. Pearse growled an order but the two didn’t move, their eyes filled with rage and jaws slavering with hunger. They’d lost themselves to something – a hunger that defied survival instincts, perhaps – and Per had the feeling Ben wouldn’t be far behind.
Per ran to the woman but with a shove she pushed him away hard enough to crack one of his ribs. She flicked her arm up, glittering metal reflecting from her hand, and then a bolt of lightning tore through the ceiling.
The electricity crackled momentarily in her hand as the woman stood there. Sparks flickered around her entire form and the courier understood that if he’d been touching her he’d be dead. The lightning roiled in her palm with a noise like the world was being torn apart and then she threw it.
With a blinding flash the ragged, forked bolt ripped through the monsters, through the door, through half the wall before going dim. Fierce rainfall poured into the stricken building as if it had been waiting for its chance.
“You know how this has to end!” the woman yelled at Old Ben Pearse as she grabbed Per and hauled him toward the gaping hole.
Pearse nodded once. He knew. He’d always known.
She whistled, a piercing note, ear-splitting. Over by the pumps – covered from the rain, thankfully – stood her bike. Its light flashed once and then it straightened somehow.
As Per watched the vehicle – a custom-built thing, he’d initially figured – somehow unfolded itself. Wheels became legs. Struts became ribs. The headlight moved down and something emerged – a head. A horse’s head.
Gleaming and impossible the metal and leather stallion stomped its hooves, threw back its head and let out a whinny that was half the noise of an animal and half the burning, rumbling engine in the creature’s chest.
She looked back just in time to see Pearse lob her helmet to her – possibly at her, it was hard to tell. Per was already soaked through again. She caught it easily and pulled it on. Then she walked Per – dragged him, really – to the robotic steed.
Per wiped his hair from his eyes, looked up at the horse, shivered. Then his vision was cut off as the woman grabbed his head and he felt a moment of sheer terror as metal flowed across his face. It surrounded his head suffocating him, blinding him – and then he could breathe. A plate in front of his eyes went transparent and he realised he was wearing a helmet. Then he was being hauled up by one arm onto the metallic animal’s back.
No saddles. They were motorbike seats. That amused Per – well, it amused the part of his brain that wasn’t preoccupied with trying to deny any of this was happening. That part was very small.
Then his arms were being wrapped around the woman’s waist and the beast reared, pawed the ground and leapt off.
The ruin of Rick’s wasn’t a good place to be. It was bad enough before there was a gaping hole in the wall but now it was far, far worse.
In particular it was bad, right at the moment, to be Rick. Very bad indeed.
“You can’t!” he protested. “We gotta deal!”
Like starving sharks the monsters closed in, circling, cutting off his escape routes.
“It was that bitch! Pearse, you can’t!”
Old Ben Pearse considered this. Rick had treated his kind like fools and children for a long time. Being the only one around who kept his mind clear in the dead of night had advantages, certainly, but it had made the human arrogant. He hadn’t helped them find a way of fighting off the animal mind that overtook his people when the sun went down. He’d just fed them unfortunate travellers. His kind hadn’t really wanted to prey upon the passers-by but they had such little option. Rick, though… Rick had liked it. He’d revelled in it. He’d displayed a nauseating desire to see members of his own species being torn apart and devoured by the locals. A wide, toothsome smile was Ben’s only response.
“No! I – no!”
Pearse silenced him with a backhand that knocked him clear across the room. The diminished crowd of monsters followed the man’s trajectory and leapt.
Rick felt sharp teeth rip into the tasty meat of his left bicep. Claws sliced open his abdominal wall, dipped in, searching for and ripping out his liver. Pearse’s foot came down on his hip and braced as strong limbs tore the human’s leg out at the socket.
The locals let him scream for a long time, as long and loud as he could before shock overtook him.
The horse pounds along the highway. It tears up the night, powerful hooves leaving dents and cracks in the asphalt, eyes burning as red as tail-lights. The huge round headlight in the creature’s chest illuminates its path and the rain means nothing to it as it races through the night.
On its back its owner – its mistress – directs its movements with knees and hands as the flimsy male clings to her in desperation.
It doesn’t bother wondering what happened at the small truck stop. Whether capable of abstract thought or not that wasn’t its nature.
With neither hesitation nor pause it gallops through the darkness as the storm crashes around it, perhaps pursuing the woman and her steed, perhaps carried by them.
Per groaned in pain as he hit the ground, half-falling from the strange steed’s back. He watched in vague confusion as the horse folded itself back up into the shape of a motorbike. Like most kids of his generation he’d had Transformer toys but this was nothing like those awkward flipping and twisting mechanisms. It was elegant, organic, beautiful.
The woman pulled her helmet off and, touching her palm to Per’s headgear, pulled it back into herself somehow. He wasn’t sure how; it just seemed to melt away from his face and pour backward into her hand, up her digits, into her fingernails.
He sat still for a while. She waited.
“You okay?” she asked eventually.
“You don’t care either way,” he guessed.
“Nope,” she said, shrugging. “Jus’ don’t go runnin’ to the police or anything.”
“And tell them what?” he laughed bitterly. “Monsters are real and some freaky metal-powered woman on a steel horse saved me from being some kinda midnight snack?”
She nodded evenly, staring at him. “Yeah. That.”
He shook his head and she watched his face for a few more moments before nodding in satisfaction.
“What would you do if I did?”
“You know what I’d do.” She shrugged again. “No point floggin’ a dead horse.”
Or a metal one, Per thought, but he bit the words back. He knew just from her tone what she’d do if he told anyone. She’d hunt him down and end him. She could do it, too. Hell, she could kill him right here and nobody would know. It would even make a kind of twisted sense for her to do so. But all she did was stare out across the bay.
The horse had taken them to an industrial district on the outskirts of the next city. Per had no idea how quickly they’d gone but it was sure as hell faster than his car. They’d finished up on a dockside street right near a warehouse overlooking the dark, reflection-studded water. It was silent apart from the lapping of waves near their feet. She was leaning against a railing and he was sitting against the building’s brick wall. The district seemed deserted but even if it weren’t, Per knew, the woman less than four feet from him was very likely the most dangerous thing in it.
A single sulfurous light attached to the wall above burned defiantly in the night.
At least it’s stopped raining, Per pondered. “Why’d you save me?” he found himself asking.
“Cos you were there an’ cos they pissed me off.” It was honest, blunt and eminently unflattering.
“No other reason?”
“Goodness of your heart, anything like that?”
The woman laughed aloud at that. “Nnnno,” she said eventually, subsiding into giggles. “I’m no hero. They pissed me off. Draggin’ you out of there took their food supply away.” Then she laughed again. It wasn’t a nice laugh. “Except for the bartender, o’course…” She turned her head long enough to give him a nasty grin.
Per shivered. He decided to try another topic.
“So what’s your -”
“No.” She stared hard out at the water. She wasn’t laughing any more. “No names. I don’t give a shit who you are an’ I’m not some knight in shinin’ armour. Got it? We met, I saved you, we got out, I make sure you’re not gonna make me come back an’ fuck you up, then we part ways.” She straightened, turned. “That’s all.”
Per opened his mouth. He closed it. “So what do I do now?”
She shrugged. “Don’t care, long as you don’t bring me into it. Chances are you wake up tomorrow, freak the fuck out, start seein’ monsters in every shadow. Then you either fuck yourself up an’ end up a drunk, or you jump off a building or something, or…” She waved a hand out at the bay and the city across the other side. “You harden th’fuck up an’ you keep goin’.”
“That’s it. Collapse, die, endure. Those’re your options.”
Per stared out at the water as she moved toward her bike. He didn’t say anything for a while. He just stared out and digested her words.
“Hey,” he called eventually, “thanks. I mean I know you really only saved me to fuck over the bartender, but… Thanks.”
She paused in the motion of bringing her helmet up and looked over at him. For a few moments she didn’t seem to know quite what to say and then she shrugged.
She kicked off and sped into the night. Per didn’t move from the spot until sunlight. When he did move it was with aching joints and a stabbing pain in his side from his cracked rib. He got a taxi into town, paid for a hotel room with his credit card, showered and collapsed in bed.
He slept for thirty hours and he was a mess when he woke up. He shook his head, tried to deny everything. He ranted, he cried, he paced the room in his anger. A short and paranoid trip to the liquor store on the corner furnished him with enough alcohol to stun an ox and he worked his way through it, staying as drunk as he could for the rest of the week.
And then Per woke up.
Really woke up.
He got up, reached for a bottle and stared at the amber liquid sloshing around within.
“Collapse, die, endure,” he mumbled.
He put the bottle down and, in doing so, he picked up his life.
Wheels burn down the road. Sometimes hooves tear up chunks of blacktop like it was fresh turf. Lightning crashes around them some nights, others are calm and clear. Every now and then she’s forced to fight. Every now and then she’s forced to save someone’s life. But always the road calls, always she moves on, never stopping.
The woman and her steel horse race on through the night.
© Scott Thornby, 2013