Excerpt from Steve Burt's July 2003 release, Even Odder: More Stories to Chill the Heart. (sequel to Odd Lot: Stories to Chill the Heart, which was Writer's Digest Best Genre Fiction hon. mention, ForeWord Mag's Best Horror Book hon. mention, Ben Franklin silver medalist for Best Myst/Suspense Book, and won 6 honorable mentions in Year's Best Fantasy & Horror).
John Flynn’s Banshee
John Flynn—everyone called him Jack--stepped away from the window. He’d seen the hearse go by two or three times now, an older model, black one. This wasn’t the first time he’d seen it on this street in the Irish section of town. It made him nervous. When the hearse came around in the evening—it was now six o’clock—it wasn’t for a funeral; it was always to pick up a body. It meant someone had been called in. Usually the police cars were at a house first. Perhaps someone had died in bed or been found on the floor, an older person with a hip broken in a fall who had stayed there for a day or two with no way to call for help. A newspaper carrier or a mail carrier might have noticed the newspapers or mail hadn’t been picked up for a couple of days and phoned the cops. That was the only reason the old black hearse would come cruising through the neighborhood this time of night.
Jack took his seat at the supper table as his wife began putting out the various dishes: a thick beef stew, homemade coleslaw, buttermilk biscuits. While she dished it up, he rifled through a stack of mail. He had only gotten home from his factory job a few minutes before—after the usual stop at the bar for a few drinks and a couple of games of darts with the boys—just in time for supper. He passed the John Flynn mail across the table to his father and kept the John Flynn II mail for himself.
The white-haired man across the table was in his eighties, but he certainly wasn’t on his last legs. With his crooked pug nose and scar over one eyebrow from a pub brawl, the old man still looked tough as a tree stump. When Jack was young, the old man had beaten him with a belt, a coat hanger, a wooden paddle, even a barber’s thick razor strop. He’d been a tough disciplinarian who beat his son until he was eighteen. And then it was as if Jackie was suddenly an adult—Jack--and the old man stopped hitting him.
Now Jack was 50 and had a young wife of 30, Tina. She stood by the stove cooking, with their toddler Maria on her hip. The girl was their firstborn and started out colicky, which Jack took to be simply a terrible temper, which enraged him. But he found ways to keep her in line. Not the strop yet—it was too early for that—but the bare hands on the buttocks and the little finger flicks—plink, plink--on the face. She was learning.
A cry came from the bedroom. The four-month-old was awake now, John III. Johnny, they were calling him, to distinguish the father, the son, and the grandson: John the first, the second, the third.
When everything was on the table, Tina sat down at one end of it, depositing Maria in her high chair. No one moved. They all knew the routine. It was time for grace, something John the patriarch—King John I, Maria called him behind his back—would pronounce. He did it every night. If anyone made the mistake of reaching for a biscuit, or started to serve the stew or the coleslaw before the grace, it meant a whack on the hand, either from John--King John I--or from Jack--King John II. Jack was the heir apparent, although nothing seemed that apparent, for although old King John I had suffered a heart attack only a few months before, he didn’t appear any closer to departing the earthly realm for the heavenly, if he had a chance of going there at all.
“I might prefer to go where it’s warmer,” he’d often said jokingly, except there wasn’t much humor in his voice. It was the humor of a tyrant. And yet, tyrant that he was, Jack felt some sort of feeling for his father. He didn’t know whether it was love or fear, but certainly not admiration.
Then again, perhaps it was admiration; the old man had held the family together when Jack’s mother died when he was barely twelve. She had taken a fall down the stairs late one night when she and Jack’s father came in from a night of drinking. The two police officers who arrived on the scene before the coroner seemed to think there were more bruises around the woman’s cheeks and eyes than would have happened in a fall down the stairs. If she had been killed in the fall, it seemed to them, the blood would have stopped flowing and the bruising wouldn’t have occurred. But perhaps because Jack’s father knew one of the police officers on the scene--and the sergeant and the captain at the police station who were drinking buddies--no autopsy was performed. No investigation followed, and it was quickly deemed an accident and filed as such. Still, Jack had always wondered.
King John I said the grace and the food began its rounds, beginning with him, of course. It was all sort of medieval, the master of the house getting the best cut, then the next in the pecking order and so on down the line. Tina had learned that if she wanted to assure herself and little Maria of a meal, she had to make plenty of everything each time.
“That granddaughter of mine is the cutest thing,” John Flynn said. “She’s got my eyes.”
“Maybe your temperament, too, Dad,” Jack said, flashing a quick smile and holding it, hoping his father would latch onto it, too, which he did.
“Nah, I don’t think so,” he said, and for a moment he looked almost benevolent. “Well, maybe. She is pretty sweet.” He laughed at his own joke and the rest of the family dutifully followed.
A light shone through the shades and Jack felt a chill run up his spine. The Back Bonnet Road wasn’t all that well traveled, not like a city street might be. This was a rural town. Back Bonnet ran out past the old landfill to where the sand mines and slate quarries had been at different times in the town’s history. One never saw Volvos or Mercedes out here; if anything, it was more likely to be dump trucks or pickups, and then only during the day. Any night traffic would be quite late, high school couples going parking or under-aged kids looking for a place to share a bottle of blackberry brandy.
Jack took a mouthful of stew and burned his mouth. He sucked in his breath. “Damn, that’s hot!” he snapped, shooting an angry scowl at Tina. “Why didn’t you tell us it was so damn hot?”
Tina averted her eyes and said quietly, almost under her breath, “Your dad said he liked the food hot. That’s what he said last night.”
Just for an instant, Jack’s eyes and his father’s locked and he shot his father a dagger of a look. But King John’s gaze didn’t flinch or drop, and the old man showed no fear. So Jack turned a withering gaze back onto his wife. She was looking down into her food, head bowed, shoulders slumped. She knew better than to give him an opening, any opening. Jack’s anger smoldered with no place to ignite.
Headlights flashed across the window shade again, this time from the opposite direction.
“Who in hell is that out there going back and forth?” Jack snarled, standing up fast. The feet of his chair scraped the wooden floor, the chair nearly tipping over. He walked to the window, placed a finger inside the curtain, and pulled it aside slightly. It was black outside, almost total darkness save for a streetlight fifty yards down the street.
He was about to let go of the curtain when he saw the headlights returning. The old black hearse cruised by slowly. But when it passed under the streetlight he noticed it wasn’t the familiar hearse. This one was very old and looked like a ’59 Cadillac, the one that had the huge tailfins and looked like a Batmobile. Only this wasn’t a Batmobile; it was clearly a hearse and older than 1959. Could this be something an 18 year-old motor-head had bought and custom-painted so he’d be the envy of his school friends? No doubt such an 18 year-old would sport tattoos like Jack’s father and Jack had. For a moment he relaxed, his imaginings allowing him to identify with the car’s owner.
“Who is it, Jack? Who is it, son?” King John called from his chair at the end of the able.
“Oh, it’s just some old beat-up hearse,” Jack said. “Looks like the Batmobile.”
“The Batmobile?” his father said.
Jack heard something in his father’s voice he’d never heard before. Fear.
“You sure it looks like a Batmobile?”
Jack glanced out the window again. The hearse sat parked under the streetlight, driver’s door and passenger door both open. Two huge men in black suits and white shirts stood on the curb. Even at the distance Jack was certain they were wearing sunglasses and the stovepipe hats that reminded him of chimney sweeps.
“They look like Ackroyd and Belushi in The Blues Brothers,” Jack said.
“Agh, damn!” his father cursed. “Damn it! Damn it! Damn it! Is there a skull and a crossbones painted on the passenger door?”
Jack squinted. “There’s something on there. Could be. Too far to tell, but it sure looks like it.”
“Damn!” his father said again. “It’s the banshee.”
Jack turned and gaped at his father. “What?” he said.
“You mean, like in the movie Darby O’Gill and the Little People?” Jack said, the words tumbling out of his mouth now. “Where the phantom stagecoach of Death comes down from the sky to take Darby away because he’s sold his soul and it’s collection time?”
“Yes, basically,” the old man said. “I don’t know if it’s someone surrendering his soul on collection day, as you put it, but it does mean someone here is going to die. The banshee has sent the hearse here for the soul.”
Jack thought something in his father’s voice sounded false. But he did recall his mother telling him about the banshee before she died.
John Flynn stood up from the table, walked to the gun cabinet in the corner, and withdrew a shotgun and a box of shells.
“Are they here for you, Dad?” Jack asked.
His father cracked the gun’s double barrels and plugged a shell into each, emptying the remainder of the shells into his side pocket.
“Dad?” Jack asked.
“Grab yourself that shillelagh by the door, boy,” the old man said, pointing to the gnarled wooden stick in the umbrella stand. When Jack didn’t move quick enough, his father’s voice grew nasty. “Grab it, boy. Grab it, I said.”
Jack’s hand closed on the twisted cane his father had used on his back and backside many times.
“Pick it up, boy,” his father said. “We may need it.”
Jack picked it up, hefted it in one hand, and slapped it against his palm the way his father had done so often when threatening him. Doing it now sent a surge of adrenaline flowing in his system.
“We have to defend ourselves,” his father said, and Jack, despite finding it hard to believe that the hearse was anything other than this-worldly, found himself nevertheless responding to his father’s orders as if there was no question this was a hearse from hell and the two men the banshee’s henchmen.
“Take the girl,” the old man commanded Tina. “And get in the bedroom. Hunker down under the covers. We’ll let you know when it’s safe to come out.”
Jack’s wide-eyed wife scooped up the toddler in her arms and disappeared into the bedroom.
“Where are they now?” the old man said.
Jack peeked out. One man smoked a cigarette, the other stood looking at his watch. The kitchen clock said 6:29. The two men climbed back into the hearse and its headlights came on with a flicker. It rolled slowly toward the house.
“They’re coming!” Jack said.
His father turned the recliner to face the door, sat in it, and drew a blanket up as if he was about to take a nap. He slid the shotgun under the blanket, aiming it at the door.
“Hang onto that shillelagh, son,” he said. “This could be the fight of our lives.” It was the first time Jack could remember him calling him son.
The hearse had pulled up in front. Its headlights went out and both men got out and walked toward the house.
“They’re almost here, Dad.”
“Wait for them to ring,” the old man said. The old man clutched his chest and popped a nitro pill into his mouth.
The doorbell rang.
“Just a minute,” Jack called, gripping the shillelagh so he could do some damage.
“Who is it?” Jack said.
No one answered.
“Who is it?” he said again, still not opening the door.
“We’re here for John Flynn,” said a voice from the other side.
“John Flynn?” Jack said. “He lives somewhere else. He moved.”
“I don’t think so, sir,” said a deep voice from the other side. “This is 804 Back Bonnet. We’re certain John Flynn has not moved. We have instructions to pick him up.”
Jack’s face went white. He looked at his father, whose face had also gone pale.
“You can’t come in just now,” Jack said, stepping back from the door in case they tried to kick it down.
Suddenly the two men were standing inside, though the door hadn’t moved. They were right in front of Jack, as if he had blinked and they’d materialized.
“Who are you?” Jack said. “How’d you get in here?” He gripped tight the shillelagh.
Both men wore black gloves, so Jack couldn’t see their hands. Their sunglasses were oversized and Jack couldn’t see through them. Their hats were pulled down, their collars turned up. What little bit of facial flesh he could see looked more like tanned leather than human skin. The mouths moved weirdly as the men spoke their words.
“John Flynn,” one of them said. “This is a pickup. 6:30 p.m. February 21.”
“February 21 be damned,” Jack yelled, brandishing the shillelagh like a cudgel. “You’re not getting him!”
“Oh, we’ll have him,” the second man said. “We always do.”
“But why?” Jack said. “What’s this all about?”
The first man’s lips moved woodenly. “We have orders to pick up John Flynn.”
“And who do you represent?” Jack said. “Are you with a funeral parlor?”
The second man said in his deep voice, “You might say that.”
The first man raised his voice, “Where is John Flynn? It’s time.”
Jack looked in terror toward his father and saw the blanket move by his knee. His father nodded and Jack backed away. The cover rose slightly and suddenly the shotgun roared. The blast made Jack’s eyes squeeze shut, but when he opened them the two men were still there. A second blast pockmarked the door with holes. Cold air blew in through the shattered window, the flapping shade in shreds. The men were unscathed.
“John Flynn,” the hearse driver said slowly and deliberately. “John Flynn.”
The old man gasped for breath and clutched his chest, his face whiter than ever.
Jack swung the shillelagh with all his might. It cut through the men as if they were fog and struck the front door. The two men never flinched.
“Now!” boomed the voice of the second man. “John Flynn! Now!”
Jack backed closer to his father. “Are you all right, Dad?”
His father looked up weakly, eyelids half-closed with pain.
“Do you need another nitro, Dad?” Jack said.
His father nodded, and Jack grabbed the pillbox from the side table. He slid a pill under his father’s tongue.
“Get the hell out of here!” Jack screamed at the ghouls standing over them. “You can’t have him.”
“John Flynn,” the driver said firmly. “Now!”
Jack looked first at his father, then at the bedroom door where Tina and the children lay in hiding.
The men in black raised their right hands then and, for an instant, Jack saw them clearly—or was it his imagination? He was staring into the faces of two skeletons, two skulls under two hoods, two Grim Reapers. He began to cry and shake.
“John Flynn!” their voices boomed in unison.
Jack raised his own bony finger then and--for a moment, a fleeting moment--he had a heroic thought. I’m John Flynn, he would say, and his father would finally be proud of him. I’m John Flynn. Take me. But instead he gazed down at his father cowering in the recliner, this old man clutching his chest and wincing in pain, this old man who man who had beaten him so many times, dominating him all his life.
“Father, forgive me,” Jack said. He made the sign of the cross with one hand and pointed to the bedroom door with the other. “In there’s John Flynn. He’s in the crib!”