BE SURE TO VOTE FOR YOUR FAVORITE. AND COMMENT AT THE END. FOR THIS ROUND I’M GIVING AWAY A COPY OF MY COLLECTION, THESE OLD TALES (WINNERS CHOICE OF EBOOK OR AUDIOBOOK) FOR DAVID ANDERSON AND JAMES CHAMBERS IS GIVING AWAY AN EBOOK COPY OF HIS NOVELLA(S) THREE CHORDS OF CHAOS OR DEAD BEAR WITNESS. YOU HAVE TO COMMENT TO WIN. VOTING AND COMMENTING CLOSE WHEN THE NEXT ROUND BEGINS.
I sit at the red light, enjoying the night air. The rumble of the engine gently shakes the car, rocking me like a comforting mother. I never feel more peaceful, more at ease, than behind the wheel of Betsy, my 2034 Ford Mustang Classic Reissue. She isn’t the newest model on the road but I’ve added a few customizations that make her unique, make her mine. I like to say she’s black as night, fast as light. Silly, I know, but we all do stupid things for what we love.
A low growl pulls my attention to the left. A brand new coupe, some oddly configured foreign thing, hovers a couple of feet off the ground. It looks like it just rolled off the assembly line on Mars. All the overpriced sports cars are built there now. It’s this hideous neon green with smooth curves and strange patterns etched in the chassis. Hover cars are all the rage among the rich and elite. They’re supposed to be faster than wheeled cars because of less friction. Hopefully, it’s just a passing fad. I still prefer contact with the road. It’s not just the power, it’s the control, the feeling. The pull of the tires on pavement is therapeutic, a woman caressing her lover after a long day.
The driver looks at me and flashes a slimy, stuck up smile. He’s young, cocky, and bottled blonde. A spoiled brat driving his graduation present. His seat covers cost more than I make in three months. He gives me a curt nod and revs the engine again. Everything switched to total electric a few years ago but the manufacturers added gyros to cause the body to shake and fake engine nose to appease public demand. We may be trying to treat the environment a little better but everyone knows how an engine is supposed to sound.
I know I shouldn’t but I nod and smile back. If this kid wants to throw down with me, he better be willing to pay for it. I’ve been in this game a long time. Boy, I think to myself, you have no idea what you’re up against.
The challenge accepted, we both face the stop light. Seconds drag on for years. Both engines rev and growl. The car bodies rock back and forth as we both anticipate the inevitable change. This is the age old competition: old school versus new school. Terran versus foreign. Experience versus technology.
In a split second, the red is gone and before the green can even appear, the other driver takes off. It’s somewhat anticlimactic as there’s no screech of the tires, no smoke from burning rubber. He just glides ahead, leaving me sitting at the intersection. I like to toy with them like this. I shouldn’t, but I do. Give them a good start, a feeling of accomplishment, a false sense of security.
I reach across the dash and flick some of the customized switches. I can still see his tail lights, but they’re pretty far ahead. I stomp on the accelerator and feel the blessed force of gravity pin me to my seat. Right now, I couldn’t lean forward even if I wanted to. In a moment I’ve switched to second gear, then third, fourth. My heart rate increases with the RPM’s. Don’t know how fast I’m going. Don’t really care. I hear an insane sounding cackle and realize it’s me. I can’t deny it. I live for this.
Before I can enjoy myself too much, I’ve reached the other car. Far too easy. I aim a little gizmo at his hood and hit a button. His car automatically slows down and he pulls over. I match his speed then fall behind him. A new safety feature for those fancy flying jobs is a wireless kill switch. Once they hit 350 kph, the switch become active. I bet the dealer didn’t mention that when he was selling it to Mommy and Daddy.
There’s no denying the kid’s been beaten. It doesn’t matter how far or how fast he goes. It doesn’t matter for any of them. I always catch them. I pull Betsy in behind him and flip one of the switches off. The area’s dark except for the custom lights installed under my windshield. Dramatic shadows and all that. It’s not easy but I suppress my smile and get out. I take my time walking up to his window, letting the tension build. It glides down and he laughs nervously. Looks like the poor kid is about to hyperventilate. It takes a minute, but he’s finally able to speak.
“G-Good evening, officer. Is there a problem?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
THE THREE A.M. ROAD
“More to it than how fast you ride,” Barbary said. “The dead hafta want you to see ‘em. They need a reason. And you gotta have the stones to look. Even then, get out there, pump the needle to the red, still could wind up with nothing but empty road blurring past and wind spitting in your face. This thing I can do don’t always work.”
“Any chance to see Joanie again is worth it,” DeLeo said.
“I get paid either way.”
“The money doesn’t matter, only me and Joanie.”
“Fine, fine. But I gotta see the long green in advance.”
DeLeo placed an envelope on the bar, handing over the last of his money, the last of his hope. Barbary flicked it open, riffled the bills inside. Satisfied, he grunted and stuffed the packet inside his motorcycle jacket. He grabbed the full mug of beer before him and chugged half of it. DeLeo read the words tattooed in black and red across his scarred knuckles, “The Dead,” on his right hand, “Travel Fast,” on his left. Barbary belched, wiped beer suds from his red beard, then flagged down the bartender, tight leather creaking as he stretched his arm.
“Two tequilas, right here, Hambone,” Barbary said, tapping the bar.
Hambone set up two shot glasses, grabbed a bottle, and splashed tequila into them. He snickered at DeLeo, and then resumed wiping down the bar. Barbary raised one of the glasses.
“Seal the deal,” he said.
“You have to drive us later. Should you be drinking?” DeLeo said.
“Drinking?” Barbary laughed. “Call this drinking? Brother, you can’t stomach a sip or three without dimming your bulb, you ain’t got the stones required to ride where you want me to take you. Dig?”
“Okay, it’s just that ever since Joanie’s stint in rehab, I try to avoid alcohol. If she gave it up, so can I.” DeLeo lifted his glass and clinked it to Barbary’s. “But one drink won’t hurt. Seal the deal.”
“Tha’s right,” Barbary said.
The two men drank. The liquor burned DeLeo’s throat and traveled right to his head with a dizzy feeling. Barbary’s face loomed in the mirror behind the bar, and his wild eyes flashed with the amber light of a neon beer sign. A long blues jam freight-trained out of the jukebox, filling the bar with weary rhythms and a sad melody. Barbary seemed right at home here, but DeLeo hated bars like Starry-Eyed Darla’s. He had seen too many dingy, strange places, too many desperate people and the grifters who preyed on them. He hoped Barbary lived up to his reputation.
He placed his empty glass on the bar. “When do we go?”
“Witching time,” Barbary said.
“Midnight?” DeLeo said.
Barbary shook his head. “Tha’s Hollywood bullshit. Three a.m. when the whole damn world’s asleep. Quietest, coldest part of the night. Ever try to keep warm at three a.m.? S’bitch. Hear a lousy pin drop on the highway. The ones you want to see don’t like lights and noise. Sure don’t like crowds. Or heat either. So, three a.m. And, brother, you better be ready, cause I feel something hungry on the road tonight. The dead don’t ever stop moving. Bodies lie down, don’t get up again. Most times anyway. But what goes on after death, they’re a restless bunch. You gotta move fast if you wanta catch up to ‘em. Thing is maybe they got something different than what you want.”
“How bad could it be?” DeLeo asked.
Barbary rolled his eyes. “I seen some shit, s’all I’m saying.”
“It makes no difference. I must see Joanie.”
“If anyone can get you there, it’s me. Let’s meet here at three. Got to get myself ready.”
DeLeo walked back to his motel, where he stretched out on the bed, and thought of Joanie until the ache of missing her made him cry. He paged through his scrapbook of photos, newspaper clippings, autographs, postcards, and other mementos he’d gathered over the years. Not enough to fill the hole she left in his life. He hated himself for not saving her. He had been so near when she died. If only she’d listened to him, let him take her away like he’d asked, she’d still be alive. He closed the book and let his tears fall.
Around quarter to three he walked back to Starry-Eyed Darla’s where light and music erupted from the bar. The life inside did nothing to warm him, chilled to the bone, like Barbary said. And there Barbary sat on a motorcycle with a sidecar attached. His bushy, red hair hung in a ponytail down his back, his beard in a long, tight braid. A silver pentacle glinted on his chest, hanging from a thick chain around his neck. Another chain held teeth, shards of bone, and animal skulls that clinked dully. Daubs of white, red, and black paint sketched a rough skull on his face. He beamed a smile at DeLeo and dismounted. Painted matte black, the motorcycle and sidecar seemed like fragments yanked from the night. Only the glass headlights gleamed in the lights from Darla’s.
“Hop in,” Barbary said.
DeLeo stared at the rig and Barbary’s outrageous appearance. Another waste of money, he thought. Another fraud or a loon or a headcase running a con or looking for losers to validate his delusions of grandeur. And I fell for it, again.
Joanie would be so disappointed.
“What?” Barbary said, smile wilting.
“Thought you’d bring me a helmet,” DeLeo said.
Barbary scoffed. “Can’t wear one on this ride. Gotta have all your senses open and leave your life in the cold hands of fate. Pair of goggles in the hack, though. No need to ride blind.”
DeLeo climbed into the sidecar and donned the goggles.
“When things happen,” Barbary said, pulling goggles over his eyes, “you’re gonna feel it in your sphincter first, then your whole body’ll tense up. You gotta relax. Be cool. Ignore most of what you see. Don’t talk to anyone except the one you’re seeking. We keep moving, they can’t really mess with us.”
Barbary hopped on his bike and coaxed it to life. The engine roared. With a laugh and a last manic glance at DeLeo, he guided it away from Darla’s and opened it up on the road. The icy wind swept DeLeo’s breath away. They accelerated, and Barbary guided the bike onto the highway, abandoned at this time of night like he’d predicted. They passed a lone car and then settled into a ninety miles per hour run down a long tree-lined straightaway. The black bike and sidecar blended seamlessly with the dark, making it seem they rushed along on a stream of night itself. Only the moon and the headlights showed the way. They drove for a long time, Barbary working the throttle, seeking the right speed. Nothing happened.
DeLeo felt cheated and ready to give up.
How long, he wondered, before he brings me back to Darla’s and claims the spirits weren’t cooperating.
Then, like Barbary described, his sphincter clenched.
Every muscle in his body yanked tight.
He struggled in the wind to ease his breathing and stay calm.
The moon vanished behind a dark veil. The ground and trees shimmered. DeLeo felt a sensation of slipping between currents of energy while being stretched sideways.
Firelight appeared ahead. They rounded a curve and came upon a massive bonfire where hundreds of gray figures danced in a circle, darting among rows of gallows that surrounded the conflagration. Bodies hung from the hangman’s beams in groups of three and four, and black, winged creatures fluttered around them. The dancers all watched the motorcycle speed by, their dead eyes staring.
Barbary gave a triumphant whoop.
“We did it! We’re here,” he cried. “Think hard about this Joanie of yours, and keep them eyes peeled. She got a reason to see you, she’ll come.”
As the bonfire faded behind them, they rushed by packs of dead, gray figures roaming the shoulder, their outstretched arms reaching for the bike. The road became a tour of horrors. Wild dogs chased a family around their broken-down car with its hood up, the dogs catching them, savaging them, then letting them go to continue the hunt. Farther on, a line of people climbed to the top of an overpass, jumped off onto the rocks below it, and dragged themselves back to do it again. A tribe of folks with broken legs and knives sticking out of them like pins in a pincushion crawled along the shoulder on hands and knees. Beyond them, eyeless people with razors for fingers sliced each other as they scrambled up a hill toward a dark, clawed giant at the top.
They rounded a sharp S-curve, and a red light flared.
A woman screamed.
“Joanie!” DeLeo shouted.
“You see her?” Barbary yelled.
DeLeo pointed to the bottom of a slope, where the road dog-legged.
A woman walked there, her silky white dress glowing in the dark, arms outstretched, face obscured by a milky fog. Barbary aimed the bike at her, but as they neared the bottom of the hill, the engine coughed and sputtered. The bike swerved. Barbary struggled to control it. Metal shrieked, and then the bike rolled to a stop, a hundred feet from the woman.
“Oh, shit,” Barbary said.
He tried to restart the engine. It growled but refused to turn over.
The woman rushed them, the fog clearing to reveal her cold, white, beautiful face, and the death marks on her torso. Her caved-in chest. A ragged slash at the base of her throat. A line from one side of her abdomen to the other weeping blood into her dress. She shrieked as she lifted into the air and flowed over Barbary and DeLeo.
“Whoa!” Barbary said. “That’s Joanie Owens! Your Joanie is the freaking movie star?”
“Yes, yes, that’s her! She’s supposed to be with me. We’re meant to be together.”
“Hold it! Wait a minute!” Barbary scowled. “You’re him, ain’t you?”
Ignoring Barbary, DeLeo rose to exit the sidecar. Barbary clamped him by the shoulder and pushed him back down
“Uh-uh. You get out, you stay here. Nothing I can do. That’s how it works.”
DeLeo sat down.
“You’re the one who was stalking her.” Barbary said. “You’re one of those celebrity-worshiping nutbags, and she was running from you when she crashed. You killed her—and you’re still coming after her? Man, I’ve met some weirdos, but, brother, let it go. You already destroyed the thing you love. Move on. Didn’t they put you in jail, anyway?”
“I did my time! Now I want Joanie. I earned it. We belong together.”
Barbary groaned. “I gotta start screening you freaks.”
“There she is!” DeLeo pointed down the road. “Get going.”
Barbary tried the ignition again, and this time the bike snarled to life. He wheeled around, brushing back the dead ones closing around them, and gunned it toward Joanie. She screamed in the road, her beautiful face distorted by anger and sorrow, her body skewed as if her torso might slide free of her hips. She raised her arms and pointed her accusation and fury at DeLeo, who called out to tell her everything would be all right now that he was here, and they could be together.
The ranks of the dead thickened behind her, swarming to block the road.
“Shit, they’re coming for us!” Barbary drove faster, seeking the right speed to slip back to the living world. He felt it so close yet out of reach, and then he remembered reading online—127 miles per hour. The speed of Joanie Owen’s Jaguar when it shot off the road into a bridge stanchion, the collision cutting her in two as she fled from DeLeo.
“Deal’s off, brother. We gotta get out of here now!”
“No!” DeLeo shouted. “Not without Joanie!”
He raised himself in the sidecar and spread his arms, mirroring the embrace Joanie offered. An embrace he’d longed for since he first saw her on the silver screen.
“Sit down, you moron!” Barbary screamed.
They rocketed toward Joanie. Barbary inched the speedometer to 127.
DeLeo screamed Joanie’s name, stretched over the edge of the sidecar, reached for her.
As they passed Joanie, the bike hitched and jerked, and Barbary wrested it steady as more and more dead rushed into their path. With a sound like an enormous bubble popping, the bike and sidecar skidded from one world to the next. In the span of a second empty road replaced the ghosts of the dead.
Barbary braked and shuddered to the shoulder.
Panting, he said, “Made it! Sorry, brother, but we had to jet. No choice.”
DeLeo didn’t answer.
Barbary sighed and lifted his goggles. “Don’t start angling for a refund, cause—.”
He glanced at the sidecar and quieted.
Blood spatters painted the black finish. The bottom half of DeLeo’s body lay wedged in the compartment. The rest of him—well, Barbary figured that part remained in the arms of the one he loved, torn in half like her. Paybacks’ a bitch, and more than enough reason for a dead soul to come meet them out on the three a.m. road.
“Sometimes, brother, s’best to let ‘em rest in peace,” he said and then he rode back to Darla’s.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Chambers’ tales of horror, crime, fantasy, and science fiction have been published in numerous anthologies and magazines, and Publisher’s Weekly described his collection of four Lovecraftian-inspired novellas, The Engines of Sacrifice, as “chillingly evocative.” His other books include the novellas Three Chords of Chaos, as well as The Dead Bear Witness and Tears of Blood (the first two volumes in the Corpse Fauna series), and the story collections Resurrection House and The Midnight Hour: Saint Lawn Hill and Other Tales with illustrator Jason Whitley. His stories have appeared in the award-winning Bad-Ass Faeries and Defending the Future anthology series as well as Allen K’s Inhuman, Bare Bone, Chiral Mad 2, Clockwork Chaos, Deep Cuts, Fantastic Futures 13, The Green Hornet Chronicles, In an Iron Cage, Mermaids 13, The Spider: Extreme Prejudice, To Hell in a Fast Car, Walrus Tales, and many other publications. He has edited and written numerous comic books including Leonard Nimoy’s Primortals and the critically acclaimed “The Revenant” in Shadow House. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association and the recipient of the HWA’s 2012 Richard Laymon Award. He is online at www.jameschambersonline.com and https://www.facebook.com/ThreeChordsOfChaos.