This story was originally published in the British magazine FEAR in 1990. It was my first professional sale.
FIVE PAST FOUR
Mike wanted to know what time it was. That was the only bad thing about riding with Mike: he wanted to know what time it was about every ten minutes.
“Time for you to get your own fucking watch,” Jeff snapped. “And if you ask me again, you can walk the rest of the way back to New York.”
Mike didn’t give him any shit in reply. He was pretty cool except for always hassling about the time.
“Where are we, anyway?” Mike asked finally.
Jeff shrugged. “Still in Virginia, I think. One hell of a long way from home.”
“But not far away from rich,” Mike said, grinning. He sang a chorus of “White Christmas.” Jeff laughed, nodding. Today’s driving was easy, the interstate traffic light for a Sunday.
“Is the shit okay?”
Jeff couldn’t see Mike’s face, but he figured Mike was probably rolling his eyes; he guessed he was asking that question about as often as Mike asked what time it was.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s okay, it ain’t going anywhere.”
“Check it again anyway,” Jeff said. “It’s only about a million and a half on the street, you know.”
“Yeah,” Mike said disgustedly, leaning over. He flipped a hidden latch under the corner of the back seat, revealing a compartment containing a lot of plastic bags filled with fine white powder.
“Yeah, it’s a million and a half,” Mike said. “Closer to two, if we stretch it. But it ain’t got legs, Jeff. It’s not gonna get up and walk away.”
“Don’t count on it.” You’re damned right we’re gonna stretch it, he thought. Another half mil for Daddy, thanks to a little help from a lot of powdered baby formula. “I’m protecting my interests.”
“When we get home and unload this haul, you can go out and buy yourself a four thousand dollar Rolex, man. We get this shit on the street, and I won’t have to listen to you ask me the time, and you won’t have to listen to me askin’ you to check the stuff. Until then, I’m gonna worry.”
“Yeah,” Mike said. “I’m getting hungry, man. Can we grab a bite somewhere?”
Jeff sighed. “Sure. I’ll find us a quickie mart and we can grab and go. You good?”
Really, things hadn’t gone badly at all, Jeff mused. Not bad at all for a week’s work – and not bad for their first deal. It had taken Jeff fucking forever to convince Chuck they were ready for it. Just a little road trip, Chuck. Ain’t no thing. Come on, we ever let you down local? Give us the road, bro. I’m askin’.
They left for Florida on Friday, did the drive in two days, met with the dude late Monday night, partied through Tuesday morning, got laid, did the deal and got gone. Simple. They took their time on the return trip, three days on the road, helping themselves to a little of the merchandise to keep the momentum going. If things got really grungy, grab some z’s at the local fleabag. A day or two either way, who cares? What you’re looking at is a healthy profit.
His stomach growled. He spotted the skyscraper-sized sign of an off-ramp market, flipped on the turn signal and eased out of the interstate flow, decelerating onto the exit ramp. “I’m fucking seriously hungry, man.”
“No doubt,” Mike said. “My stomach is eating my leg.”
“Gonna buy my own market when we unload,” Jeff said as he pulled into the parking lot. “All we’ll stock is brew, rubbers and blow.”
Mike grinned. “Run a whorehouse out of the back.”
“Outstanding. Give the people what they want.”
Jeff and Mike got out. The parking lot was deserted. The market was empty except for the cashier. The interstate traffic was a distant whisper.
Jeff looked around at the trash-littered parking lot. Something about the quiet bugged him.
“In and out like ducks fucking,” Jeff said, heading for the big glass double doors, Mike behind him.
Inside they found the usual junk food and soda, along with a grab-bag assortment of everything from rock T-shirts to crab medicine. They grabbed bags of chips, cookies, snack cakes and sixpacks of soda, deciding against brew for the road.
“Just a risk we don’t need,” Jeff said.
Mike waggled a finger. “Don’t drink and drive.”
The cashier, a short, greasy-looking guy with big Chicklet teeth and one droopy eye, smiled as he rang up their purchases. “Going far?” he asked.
Jeff nodded. “Come a long way, and a long way to go yet.”
“I used to love road trippin’,” the cashier said. “Now it just gives me a bitch of a headache.”
“Yeah,” Mike said.
“You got a bathroom?” Jeff asked him.
“In back around the corner.” The cashier pointed to the rear of the store.
“Thanks,” Jeff said. “Gotta lighten the load before we hit the road, you know.”
“I hear you,” the clerk said, still smiling. Even his smile looked greasy.
“Dude, is that guy a fuckin’ psycho or what?” Jeff giggled after they found the men’s room and locked the door behind them. He held his hands up to his face, making his fingers look like rays coming out of his eyeballs. "Voop-voop.”
“I think he’s a fag, man.”
“Shit,” Jeff said, doing a hit from the glass vial in his front pocket.
He handed the vial to Mike as he checked his nose in the mirror. “You think everybody’s faggot.”
“He was staring at your crotch the whole time we were standing there,” Mike said, inhaling the rest of the contents of the vial.
“Anyway,” Mike said. “I don’t think everybody’s a fag. I just know you are.”
“Fuck you and the horse that rode you in,” Jeff said. “Let’s roll. My feet are itchin’.”
The greasy cashier looked up from the paperback novel he was reading and gave them a limp wave. “Maybe see ya again sometime,” he said.
“Never can tell, can you?” Mike snickered. They’d left the junk food cache on the counter while they were in the can; Jeff grabbed the bags and Mike got the door for him.
The silence was like a slap. It was only when they walked out and let the market door slam shut behind them that Jeff realized the cashier had been listening to a radio.
“Let’s hit it,” Jeff said. That weird feeling was back again. Something about the silence. “I want to hear some jam.”
“No shit,” Mike said. “You’re driving on the interstate,” he intoned, imitating Rod Serling. “You think the exit ramp leads to a place to eat, but in fact you just exited into The Twilight Z—“
They stopped short when they saw Jeff’s car. Chuck’s car, if you wanted to get technical about it.
Mike shut his mouth with a snap. Jeff moved a couple of steps closer. The bags dropped to the pavement.
“Son of a bitch,” Jeff said quietly.
The hood of the car was covered in graffiti. Slogans had been cut through the paint with a very sharp object, scoring deep into the metal beneath.
Crude pictures had been drawn.
As Jeff read the slogans, something cold and slimy seemed to inch its way up his back, finally lodging in his throat.
Brotherhood of Hell, Lenny Doc Jasper 2000, one of the slogans read.
Darkness from the depths was another. He rules both Pit and Earth above. Kingdom of sin. King of Chaos. Pain is his pudding.
“Jeff,” Mike said urgently, pointing across the parking lot.
A kid about their own age, late teens or early twenties, had materialized in the tall grass next to the outbuilding that housed a set of old 1950’s style gas pumps. The kid had long, dirty brown hair. He wore a brown leather hat and a jean jacket. A piece of hay jutted from one pouting corner of his smiling mouth, the smile made sinister by the absence of many teeth.
In the kid’s left hand was a knife with a long, curved blade and a serrated edge.
Jeff walked around the car toward the kid. “Did you do this shit to my car, you little fuck?” he snarled, red color rising into his face.
“Jeff, what are you doing, man?” Mike said quietly. “We don’t need trouble. Let’s just blow. We don’t need no cops showing up.”
“Fuck that,” Jeff said. “Little bastard wrote that evil shit on my car. He cut that shit into my car!”
“Just let it go,” Mike said. “Come on.”
“Go around to the trunk,” Jeff said, his voice low and soft with threat. “There’s a tire iron in there.”
“No, man,” Mike pleaded. “How long were we in there? Ten minutes, tops? You think he did all that damage by himself in ten minutes? Let’s bail. We don’t need any shit coming down on us.”
Jeff glared at him. “Get it.”
“Jeff, man, the stuff. Think about it –“
Jeff turned on him, enunciating every word clearly, as if talking to a small child. “I will fucking leave you here,” he said.
The boy stood on the edge of the parking lot, still smiling.
“You’d better start running,” Jeff yelled. “You’re going to need a good head start.”
The boy didn’t move.
“Your ass is mine,” Jeff said, and then a loud roaring and screeching filled his ears. Behind him. He knew what it was before he glanced around, and had about a second to think of the funny feeling, the bad feeling he’d gotten standing here in the deserted parking lot.
Jeff thought: I should have listened to Mike.
A huge white station wagon sped into the parking lot from behind the building, leaving black streaks on the pavement and a haze of white oilsmoke in the air. It swerved left, heading straight for the back of Jeff’s car.
Straight for Mike.
“Heads up!” Jeff screamed. Mike looked up as he shut the trunk, the tire iron held loosely in one hand. “Huh?” he said, and blinked.
The car slammed into Mike, and, an instant later, into the back of Jeff’s car. Metal shrieked and popped; glass jingled.
Jeff heard Mike’s ribcage splinter. A terrible sound burst from Mike’s mouth, something like screaming and vomiting at the same time. Blood sprayed black from his mouth and nose. As the two cars met, the skin along the side of Mike’s midsection split. He ripped open like a doll with a badly stitched seam and slid to his knees, his mouth still open and sluicing blood. He sagged forward, loose and boneless, his eyes far away and dusty. The tire iron clattered to the pavement and his abdomen opened and Mike came apart on the pavement. His shattered body twitched, sending little showers of blood dancing across the broken concrete.
Jeff opened his mouth to scream and suddenly found himself doubled over, hands cupped over his crotch, unable to think of anything but pain.
The long-haired boy stood over him. “Gonna kick you again,” he said conversationally, and backed off a little. Jeff saw his boots clearly from this low angle. They had pointed toes with little silver tips on them, and one of those silver tips caught Jeff on the underside of the chin. He went down in a sprawl, mind swimming, vision hazed. A roaring sound filled his ears, and it took him a second to see the station wagon. The pop of gravel under its tires was as loud as gunfire, his right ear an inch away from the rolling wheels. The hum of the engine was more vibration than sound.
The car was right here. Jeff had to move. He couldn’t. Pain imprisoned him.
The long-haired boy stepped back as the car rolled closer, closer. He never stopped grinning. Jeff smelled heat and rubber. He closed his eyes. He could feel it, right next to him. The engine idled.
The long-haired boy said something to the driver. He began to laugh.
The gearshift engaged.
Jeff looked up just in time to see the station wagon roll forward. Sun glinted fiercely on the grillwork, giving the car a ruthless grin. It loomed over him, huge and blocky.
The right front tire rolled over his right hand, trapping his pinky and ring fingers beneath it.
Jeff howled. The long-haired boy laughed some more.
The engine died. The car doors opened and two more sets of silver-tipped boots with pointed toes hit the pavement. They came around to Jeff’s side.
Jeff looked up into two pairs of cold, dark eyes, two vacant smiles. These two had long hair as well, and were dressed like the boy with the knife. One was similarly armed.
The other held a meat cleaver.
“Go take care of the other one,” the boy with the knife said. The boy with the meat cleaver smiled and moved off while the other crouched down beside Jeff.
“C’mere, Lenny,” he said. The boy who had kicked Jeff moved closer. “How’s your nuts, guy?” Lenny asked him. The two boys laughed.
“Lenny did a job on you, didn’t he?”
“Hey, Doc,” Lenny said quietly. “Can I have his eyes? It’s my turn.”
Doc chuckled. “You’ll have to share with your brother. One for you, one for him.”
“I want ‘em both,” Lenny sulked. “Jasper got ‘em last time. It’s my turn.”
“Share and share alike.”
“It’s my turn,” Lenny said sullenly.
Brotherhood of Hell – Lenny Doc Jasper 2000, Jeff remembered. He rules both Pit and Earth above. Pain is his pudding.
His hand was burning agony. He fought to think. Doc and Lenny are here, keeping an eye on me. What’s Jasper doing?
He heard it then: a series of wet chopping sounds. He closed his eyes, weeping hopelessly.
“Tough day, huh, guy?” Doc said. “Everybody needs a friend on days like this. Right, Lenny?”
“Right,” Lenny answered up.
“Bring this guy his friend, Jasper,” Doc said.
Thumping bootsteps moved across the pavement. Jeff kept his eyes closed. Japser’s shadow fell across his face. Jeff felt a soft weight fall onto his chest.
“With friends like these,” Doc said, “who needs enemies? Right, guy?”
Jeff didn’t want to open his eyes. They opened anyway.
Mike’s head sat on Jeff’s chest, the dead eyes staring through him, beyond him. They had stuffed something in his mouth. Jeff couldn’t tell what it was, but he could see that it was part of Mike.
“Good friends stick together through thick and thin,” Doc commented.
That was certainly true . Jeff’s mind floated back to a time when they were kids, playing on the big kids’ swingsets in Municipal Park. They weren’t supposed to use the big swingsets, Mom had told them that a million times if she’d told them once, but Jeff had to see what the big swings were like. Jeff had fallen in the middle of a forward swing and landed on his head. He woke up in a hospital and his Mom told him that Mike had come running up to a policeman and told him what happened, and the policeman had called an ambulance. The policeman said Mike had been very calm and brave.
Jeff had to see what the big swings were like. Jeff had to see if there was an easier way to make the score, a quicker, easier way to get rich. Mike, always in tow, backing him up, no matter what he did. Like a brother. Thick and thin.
Mike was very calm and brave.
Mike is certainly calm now, Jeff thought.
“Wake up, sleepyhead,” Lenny said, kicking Jeff in the temple.
“Have a little courtesy,” Doc said. “Let’s try to make his last moments comfortable, shall we?”
Doc leaned over until their noses almost touched. “Do you know anything about sacrifice, my friend?” His breath reeked. “I wonder if anybody these days really knows about sacrifice. People these days aren’t willing to make sacrifices, you know? If things don’t go their way they just … bug out … sell out … take the easiest path, and they don’t care who they fuck over on the way out. You get what I’m saying?”
Jeff didn’t answer. The pain was a claxon in his nerve endings.
Doc eased himself into a sitting position and continued.
“It’s a tough old world,” Doc said, “but there are ways to get by. You can get what you want. There are ways.” He paused. “But it can’t … be … done … without sacrifice.”
Lenny and Jasper stood at the edge of Jeff’s vision, eyes gleaming.
“Sacrifice for friends,” Doc said. “Sacrifice for loved ones.”
Lenny and Jasper moved closer.
“Sacrifice to your god.”
Jeff tensed, but Doc wasn’t finished yet. The pain was a deep throbbing, living in his mind. Pain was not a thing of the flesh; it was a thing of the mind. Jeff worked on driving it out.
“Do you believe in God?” Doc asked him. “I do. Man, you’d be crazy not to, all the wild shit that happens in the world. Yeah, I believe in God. I believe he’s a cruel, childish son of a bitch.”
Lenny and Jasper laughed.
“He’s fine for heaven,” Doc said. “He’s fine for up there, for that great kingdom in the sky, know what I’m saying? He’s a king in his kingdom, up there. But what is he down here, man? What is he?”
Doc cracked his knuckles flipped the knife into the air, deftly caught it with one hand. “He ain’t nothing down here, man. You pray to him from way down here … and maybe he can hear you … but he can’t reach you from way up there. Maybe he could a long time ago, in the Old Testament days, but not any more. He’s moving away from us. We don’t mean so much any more. He sees us down here in all out pettiness and foolishness and he says, “Fuck this, I’m outta here. These cats are undeserving.”
Doc stood, lifted his head. “He will receive us unto heaven!” Doc shouted. “But what the fuck am I supposed to do while I’m down here?”
Lenny and Jasper watched, hypnotized. Jeff watched too, but his mind was occupied.
He was chasing the pain away. He could feel it disappearing.
Doc knelt down again. “So I looked for an alternative, and be damned if there isn’t one!” He tilted his head, considering. “Acutally, I’ll most likely be damned because there is one.”
All three of them laughed this time.
Jeff looked up at the sky. The colors were moving, deepening with approaching dusk.
The pain was gone. He was weak, but the pain was gone.
Lenny reached down and rolled Mike’s head off his chest. Jasper scooted it clear with his foot, then kicked it across the parking lot.
“You understand, I hold nothing against you,” Doc said. “But sacrifices must be made. That’s the way it’s got to be. It’s what my god demands.”
He raised the knife above Jeff’s chest. “It’s too bad about your friend there. He would have been good, but he was already dead when we got to him.”
Jeff locked his eyes on the blade of the knife.
“He would have been good. But see, we’ve got to have your guts out of you while you’re still alive. My god demands it.”
Jeff’s vision clouded around the shape of the blade. He breathed evenly, deeply. He saw nothing but the blade.
“It’s good to learn sacrifice, don’t you think?” Doc said to Lenny and Jasper. They nodded, staring at Jeff, their faces wet and soft.
Doc grinned. “This will only hurt for a second,” he said, and brought the knife down.
Jeff watched the blade descend. He did not blink. He saw it fall from the top of its ar all the way down to a line he had mentally drawn in space about a half inch above his chest.
When the tip of the blade crossed tha line, Jeff moved. He twisted sideways. His trapped fingers ripped free with twin popping sounds. Jeff heard the sound of metal against concrete as the blade struck the ground where he had been. He continued to roll. He rolled into Lenny and Jasper’s feet and knocked them both down. Knife and cleaver flew.
Jeff came up, saw the cleaver, and grabbed it. His grip on it felt strange and awkward. He looked down at his right hand. He had left his pinky and ring fingers beneath the wheel of the white station wagon.
“No!” Doc wailed, knife held high again. Lenny and Jasper struggled to their feet. Jeff sidestepped over to where the knife lay and kicked it into the grass, out of reach.
“You’re not supposed to move,” Doc moaned. “You’re supposed to lie there … be afraid … accept the sacrifice. My god needs you to be afraid! He needs a sacrifice!”
Jeff leapt in, dodging around a clumsy thrust from Doc. He brought the cleaver up and slammed it into Doc’s face. The upper corner of the blade popped bloodlessly through the back of his head. He fell backward into the white station wagon, shattering the passenger's side window as he fell against it.
Doc slid down, leaving a long and shining scratch in the wagon’s paint.
Lenny and Jasper looked at Doc. Looked at each other.
They broke and ran, loping across the parking lot. Jeff could tell they were not used to running.
Smiling, he strolled to his car. The rear window was broken out, fender mangled, lights smashed to multicolored plastic confetti. But the car would run.
If it doesn’t, Jeff thought, I’ll just take the wagon.
Blood was splashed outside and inside, clear up to the front seat. There were pieces of Mike scattered around the car. Jeff stepped over them and got in, inserting the key into the ignition. He turned it once, tamping the gas pedal. The car started immediately. He backed it up, ignoring the thump-and-rattle of whatever he was backing over, and swing out of the market’s parking lot. As he turned the wheel he saw his right hand again. The ring and pinky fingers were strange glistening knobs, black with coagulated blood. The fingers had simply come free of the sockets. The bleeding had stopped. There was no pain, and there would be none. Maybe later, when he got to New York. No time for it now.
Jeff saw them, running along the side of a little two-lane country road that lay parallel to the interstate. Jeff turned onto it. Idiots. If they’d cut across the cornfield just beyond, they might have had a chance.
Jeff halved the distance between them; then again. Now they were trying for the cornfield – good idea, but too late. A high fence of junk lumber had been erected here. Neither of them were able to scramble over it.
Doc’s words rang in Jeff’s ears: My god demands a sacrifice.
Lenny and Jasper were dark shapes against the darker plane of the high fence, the sun falling out of the sky like a wounded animal. Dark coming early now, fall coming on toward winter. Jeff kicked on the headlights. Only one of them worked.
He thought of Mike, always wanting to know what time it was, not knowing how little time he had left. He thought of the deal that lay ahead, in New York.
My God demands a sacrifice.
“My God helps those who help themselves,” Jeff said aloud. He laughed, gunning the car forward, backward, forward again. The screams were loud and sharp. The wheel lurched and spun in his hand.
Backward, forward again. His hands changed places in the sniper scope of his vision, and the watch on his left wrist floated into view.
Mike, always wanting to know what time it was.
Backward, forward again. The screams stopped.
“It’s five past four,” Jeff said, still laughing.