If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time or the tools to write - Stephen King, On Writing, p. 147
Riders on the Storm
Riders on the Storm – The Doors.
Lights flashed through the torrential rain. For a moment the man was confused. Had lightning hit close by? A steady rumble began. He felt it in his feet, a tremor that worked up through his body.
He swayed with it for a moment. Nicotine-stained teeth flashed in a wide grin as realization cut through his tumbling thoughts. A car. The lights solidified into two white beams and the rumbling became the low sound of an engine.
Whoever it was didn’t like to drive in the rain. The engine seemed to creep when it should roar. The beams were taking an age to come closer. The man stepped to the crumbling dirt at the edge of the highway and stuck out his thumb.
Anger blitzed through his thin frame. A fire ignited in his mind. The car wasn’t stopping. His eyes narrowed, squinting against the driving rain. His hand slipped inside his jacket, clutched and then withdrew as the lights flashed twice and the engine idled.
“Need a ride fella?”
A weedy, reedy sound, nasal, like a drill in his ear. Please don’t let it be a chatterer. Mindless conversation got on his nerves and he preferred to enjoy his rides. He flashed a close-mouthed grin as he leaned down to the passenger window. He’d long ago learned that his teeth put people off.
“Thanks for stopping.”
“No trouble. Where ya heading?”
He waved vaguely north and the driver nodded.
“Yeah, whole lot of nameless nowhere, I know. Hop in.”
Seconds later he eased out in the passenger seat and dropped his pack between his feet. The driver grinned and offered his hand.
“Good to meet you, Mike.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets and shrugged, “I don’t shake. Got a touch of arthritis.”
“Don’t look old enough. What are ya, twenty-five?”
The car fed back onto the blacktop and Mike resumed his hunched over the wheel, ready for anything posture.
“It’s Saul and I had early onset. Fucks up trying to get a steady job.”
“I’ll bet” There was genuine sympathy in Mike’s tone and Saul felt the familiar cold glow in his blood, “Hitching to the next job huh?”
“I’ve already found it.”
“Guy wants some fencing done in Jaceville.”
“Hey, that’s my town. Wh’d’ya know!”
“Guess I got lucky tonight.”
“Sure did. Got a place to stay?”
“I’ll find a barn or something.”
Mike actually took his eyes off of the river that had been a road before the storm and grinned.
“Wouldn’t hear of it. You come stay at mine tonight. Been a widower ten years. Could do with the comp’ny.”
“That’s good of you Mike. Are you sure? You don’t even know me.”
“I’m a few years too old to be worrin’ about psycho hitchers, son. Why, ya got plans to kill me and run off with me fortune?”
“I’m thinking that I’d be a fool to consider a man driving a beat-up old truck and one lonesome for company would be a good mark.”
“Ya wouldn’t be wrong son.”
They drove in silence for a while. Saul watched the rain stream down the windscreen, the wipers making no difference. Brilliant flashes lit up the scrubland. A lightning strike hit to their right and a bush caught fire.
He fought to keep still as excitement surged through his nerves. Storm nights made his brain boil. Thoughts chased each other around his mind. Ideas, images, possibilities came and went. He felt the cold steel of the knife in his shirt pocket through the thin material.
They crawled past a seedy bar. Its red neon sign flickered across the windscreen. It momentarily turned the runnels of rain to blood. Saul snapped his head to the side window, smothered his grin and feigned sleep. It allowed him to drown in the sadistic images playing across the movie screen of his eyelids.
Numbers flashed in and out of his vision. Each was accompanied by a face. Faces with staring eyes, rictus mouths open in silenced screams. Light danced off of his blade, dazzling, obliterating thought as it sliced and diced.
His fingers curled, his left hand creeping close to his chest and the comforting chill there. His torso curled around his hand, secretive, protective. Face thirty-five slid into view. The rain of blood in his memory blended with the spattering against the window. It lulled him, came close to sending him into real sleep.
“Hey, you sleeping son? We’re almost there.”
Saul jittered upright, number thirty-five fuzzing and vanishing as his eyes snapped open. Dangerous. He was pretty sure he talked in his sleep. His mind was never quiet and he was convinced that spilled over into his sleeping hours. He knuckled his eyes, enjoying the brief explosion of hot pain, letting it bring him fully awake.
“Been a long day.” He muttered and Mike nodded, his eyes full of kindly concern.
“We’ll get some food and a couple o’ beers into ya. Then a long sleep.”
Saul flicked a suspicious glance at his ride but Mike was concentrating on the road, appeared to be searching for a turn-off. Paranoia. A part of Saul’s mind knew he suffered from it but that part was failing. It was pushed further back with each number.
Mike turned between a pair of white-painted posts and bumped the car over a rutted road. Lightning flashed again and Saul caught a glimpse of sprawling fields and a couple of barns.
“Used to be” Mike shrugged as he swung the car to a halt before a dilapidated wooden shack, “No money in it these days. Switched to working for the power company a few years back.”
“Shame” Saul got out and followed Mike up the rickety steps to the door, “Neighbours gone the same way?”
“No neighbours for dozen miles or so. Big farms ‘round here.”
Saul soaked in that piece of knowledge with a secret smile as Mike waved him to the cooler on the table and told him to take a seat, help himself.
“Get one for me while ya at it.”
Saul popped the caps and set one on the table, taking a quick swig from the other. Mike glanced up, frowned for a second and then smiled.
“Forgot, your hands, right?”
Saul realized he’d been expected to take the beer to Mike and nodded, managing a parody of helplessness. His social graces were going the same way as memory. Truth was he couldn’t bear to touch live ones any more. Only the cooling flesh felt good under his fingers.
Mike fried up ham and eggs and served it with big hunks of bread. Saul polished it off fast and only when he sat back did he realize Mike was watching him. He felt a rapid pulse of irritation closely followed by suspicion.
“Something in my teeth?” he asked, baring his yellowed smile.
“Hands don’t bother ya much when ya eating huh?”
Saul shrugged, chugged some beer as he fought for a convincing lie. It was becoming increasingly difficult to remember what he’d lied about, not to trip himself up.
“Pressure, you know? Other people don’t know how much I can take. I do.”
“I see” Mike smiled, slowly and Saul forced his hands into his pockets to quell the itch to gut the smug bastard with his too smart eyes and knowing tilt of the head, “Let’s get you bedded down huh?”
Saul lay on the narrow cot in the spare room, his hands clutching, releasing, clutching at the faded quilt. Part of his mind listened to Mike in the room next door whilst the visions came. He let them flow, swimming in their ecstatic imagery. His mind slowed and the cool glow began to grow in his nerves, in his blood.
He thought of it as the killing river. As it flowed into his veins he became steadily more detached from what he was about to do. By the time the knife went in all he could do was feel the joy, the elation. White fire blinded his eyes, ice sedated his nerves, cool, calm frosted his superheated brain.
It was coming as he levered off of the cot and strolled to the window. Rain beat steadily against the panes, lightning still flashed intermittently and thunder crashed above his head. He smiled, his eyes snapping out of their sleepy slits. His pupils dilated as the almost sexual anticipation coursed through him.
He slipped the knife from his shirt and caressed it softly, ran it along the line of his jaw, kissed the blade and walked to the door. He knew the gods were with him. The shack was a wreck but no board creaked under his steps and the door refused to click as he turned the handle.
He stepped into the narrow hallway and grinned as lightning flashed. It flooded the hall with brilliant blue tinged light and left crisp black afterimages behind his eyelids. The black shapes turned to dancing corpses in his mind as he turned left and headed for Mike’s room.
He turned the handle, braced for sound but still it didn’t come. The room was filled with shadows as he stepped inside. The quilt was humped up on the bed, still, a real quiet sleeper. Not even the sounds of breathing. He berated himself for feeling a moment’s panic and crept across the room.
He took a deep breath, raised the knife and brought it down in a sweeping arc. Ice screamed through his blood, his heart raced, his mind cleared, the visions crystallized, pointing his way. He stabbed again and again until the quilt caught on his frantic blade.
He felt a second of anger as he paused to free it, snapping the quilt back and hurling it to the floor. The blade fell from his numbed fingers and his lips curled back in a feral snarl. Fear began to creep into his ice calm mind, the fires threatening.
Number thirty-five stared up at him from the sagging mattress. Her mouth hung open in an O of screaming. Her blonde hair clung to her face, stuck to the dried blood, to the open slashes. Her clothes hun off of her skeletal body like rivers stripped of all colour.
As he stared in total disbelief a maggot fell out of her nostril and he fought to quell the scream that caught in his throat. Her eyes, flown wide in terror, stared up at him from behind milky lens, like she’d gotten cataracts after death.
He stumbled away from the bed and hurled in the corner. His mind screamed at him to get out but the remains of his calm murmured that he was tired, imagining things. Probably just a heap of blankets and a vivid imagination. The visions spilling into reality.
Saul found he had no desire to check, his only thought now to find Mike, kill him and get the fuck out of Dodge. He edged along the far wall and scurried into the hallway. As he closed the door he felt calm return, was ready to believe he’d just had a vision. He loved his visions. It was ok. Convincing himself as he went, he halted at the head of the stairs. A light was bobbing in the kitchen.
He grinned, an unconscious echo of the corpse in the bedroom and eased down the stairs. The light was odd. It seemed to swing back and forth. He decided Mike must have knocked the low-hanging lampshade as he passed.
Saul smothered a giggle. Mike had explained that the john was out back, hadn’t gotten round to indoor plumbing yet. The thought of slicing and dicing while his prey was trapped in the john was too delicious.
He hurried into the light of the kitchen and failed to silence the scream of terror and anger that rent the air. Number twenty-three hung from the lampshade, gently swinging back and forth. Saul went for the corpse in absolute panic. He sliced for the rope, missed and ripped through the bloated, blackened neck.
The putrid stench sent him reeling. He slammed into the back door and fell out into the yard. He retched but had nothing left to give. Bile burned his throat as surely as anger seared his mind. The ice was lost and it fueled his fury. He’d never get it back now. That bastard was gonna die slow.
He staggered across the yard, his mind reeling. He couldn’t reassure himself this time. That had been number twenty-three, no doubt. He remembered her because she’d tried to fight him. Her hands had been bloody ribbons before he’d subdued her. The same hands that had hung in the kitchen below dirt encrusted sleeves.
A cough sounded to his left and he stilled, tried to squelch the ravenous flames in his head but his vision was full of blood, of tearing, rending, ripping. It was too late. He ran for the outhouse and flung open the door.
Mike pushed hard, just once. Saul shot forward and cracked his head on the back of the privy wall. He sagged onto the seat and Mike slammed the door, bolted it and stepped back, smiling broadly.
“Time to ride the storm Saul” he chuckled and flicked the switch in his hand. The signal shot through the wires and tripped a second switch. As Saul began to hammer on the privy door white light exploded down two lines attached to the outhouse door.
A sizzling filled the air and Mike placed his arm over his eyes as the light flared and Saul screamed, high pitched and jittery. Flames sparked around the doorframe and then caught. The outhouse went up in a rush and Saul fell silent.
Mike nodded, satisfied. He watched the fire until it burned out, chucked a barrow-load of earth over the ashes and headed for his car.
He stood for a while; letting the rain wash over him, letting it cool his skin, soak through to his body. Lightning storms were his favorite. They were so good at hiding his work.
He slipped into the driver’s seat and fumbled under the dash. His fingers closed over a small brown notepad with a lightning flash on the front. He flipped it open, eased out the pen threaded through the spiral atthe top and began to write.
January 24th – Number 53 – Serial Killer – Hitched a ride on the lightning.
He closed the pad, tucked it away and gunned the engine. He headed south and pulled the newspaper clipping from his jacket pocket. The headline read ‘Serial Arsonist on the Loose. Police at a loss’
“Takes one to catch one” Mike muttered, smiled and headed into the storm.