Friday, October 21, 2011

"Karma's Messenger," from D.M. Anderson's "With the Wicked"

Many of the stories included in With the Wicked were previously published in various small press magazines. "Karma's Messenger," however is new, and I still may make some revisions to this one, so what you read here may not actually be the final version. I'm posting it just to see what readers think of it so far. I've never solicited feedback for a work-in-progress before, and thought doing so would be interesting. So feel free to let me know what you think.


            Andy felt the front tire explode before he actually heard it.
            “What the fuck, Hanks?” Sovereign screeched from the backseat, eyes suddenly huge and white.
            If they weren’t doing 90, Andy probably would have been able to guide the car to a stop. Instead, the dusty black Charger swerved to the shoulder, struck a small mound and became airborne. Helpless, he released the wheel, wrapped his arms around his head and braced for impact. In the backseat, Sovereign and McPherson screamed. The car seemed to fly through the air forever before Andy felt the nose dip back toward Earth…
            This is gonna be bad.
            And it was. The Charger’s front end struck the ground, immediately crumbling. The air-bag exploded from the steering wheel, shoving Andy backward and breaking his nose. The windshield shattered. The shriek of tearing metal drowned out everything else. Gravity shifted. Andy was suddenly upside-down, then right-side-up again; being pinned to the seat by the airbag was the only thing which kept him from bouncing all over.
            Then, sudden stillness. Andy sat with his eyes squeezed shut as desert dust filled his nostrils. The ringing in his ears slowly gave-way to eerie quiet; aside from the dying hiss from the mangled Hemi-powered engine, and his rapid breathing, he heard nothing.
            He slowly fluttered his eyes open; the blood-stained white airbag rapidly deflated. Empty Arizona desert stared back. Before engine smoke stung his eyes closed again, a tiny prairie dog scurried across the sand, ducking behind a cactus.
            He looked into what was left of the rearview mirror. McPherson was dead, face frozen in eternal torment.
            Good riddance. The man was a fucking psycho, anyway.
            But Sovereign was nowhere to be seen.
            Pain settled into Andy’s face and chest. Both throbbed from the force of the airbag. Blood poured from his busted nose, but at least he was able to move and breathe, meaning he didn’t break any ribs.
            Could have been a lot worse, he told himself as he hurriedly unbuckled the seatbelt. He knew he had to get out of the car quick and get the hell out of there. Cops could be descending on them that very moment.
            He froze, thinking he heard a distant siren, then exhaled in relief when, upon closer listen, it was obviously a hawk or vulture flying overhead. But his relief was short-lived. He knew unless he got off his ass right now, the next sound he heard really could be sirens.
            Where the hell did Sovereign go, anyway? Did he ditch us?
            Andy yanked the door handle. Initially, nothing happened. Bracing himself, he threw his shoulder into the door, wincing in pain. With another shriek of bending metal, it popped open easily. He climbed out, squinting up at the desert sun. Heat blasted his face,  like he’d just opened an oven. This time of day, it must have been 110 degrees. He regarded the wreckage of the Charger. Once a pretty nice set of wheels, the car was now a steaming, mangled heap of junk, almost unrecognizable. Too bad; this was the best getaway car anyone had ever provided him with.
            A hundred feet behind the wreckage was the highway - wow, we really flew some distance, didn’t we? To his relief, the road was empty, meaning nobody saw the crash. Thank God.
            Then, turning back to the wrecked car, he spotted what was left of Sovereign, lying in a heap several feet in front of the car. His pastel shirt and Bermuda shorts were ripped and bloody; his face was sliced up, almost unrecognizable. His neck looked broken The man must have flown through the windshield on impact. Too bad. Andy didn’t know the guy too well, but he seemed okay. At least Sovereign wasn’t blasting clerks and security guards on the way out the door.
            Incredibly, Sovereign’s left hand still clutched the briefcase. The case itself had popped open; hundreds of shiny stones dotted the desert sand around it, sparkling in the sun.
            Not good, he thought as he checked his watch. We still got a buyer waiting for this shit in Phoenix.
            Dropping to his knees, Andy started scooping handfuls of diamond-encrusted sand back into the case. The sand was scolding hot, his bare knees burned, but he ignored the heat. He had to get as many rocks as possible before-
            Andy’s palms suddenly tickled. Several hairy black legs popped from the sand in his hands, kicking a few diamonds back to the ground. He gasped and dropped it, backing away a couple of steps. A large tarantula scurried from the discarded pile and scampered around in a quick circle.
            “Jesus Christ!” Andy cried, eyes bulging. He watched the confused spider in revulsion before swallowing hard, stepping forward and stomping it flat. There was a sickening pop as its innards squirted out from beneath Andy’s tennis shoe. “Fucking little monster.”
            Despite his urgency, Andy took a minute to regain his composure, feeling a bit stupid at his reaction to such a tiny critter. But he couldn’t help it…as far back as he could remember, he always hated spiders.
            The beating sun remind him of another problem, of far more concern than the spider under his heel, or getting to Phoenix in time for the exchange…
            How long can I stay out in this heat? And I must be miles from the nearest town…
            Still quaking from his encounter with the tarantula, Andy gingerly hunkered  down, closed the case and pried the handle from Sovereign’s dead hand. There were probably a lot more stones lying around in the sand, and he plucked up the few he saw, stuffing them in his shorts, but time seemed to be a growing issue. He had to get out of there, away from the wreckage, away from the bodies and away from that smashed fucking thing under his foot.
            The guys in Phoenix would just have to settle for what they got.
            He spotted Sovereign’s gun, the ivory handle protruding from the man’s Bermudas. Being a wheelman, Andy had no use for guns and never carried one himself on a job. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he even fired one. But things were different today. Thanks to fucking McPherson, who laughed as he blew away at least three people during the getaway, the cops weren’t just looking for thieves. They were looking for killers.
            Just in case, Andy took the revolver, tucked it into his own shorts and lumbered toward the highway, clutching the briefcase.
            He heard the sound of an approaching car, maybe a half-mile away. Just by the sound of the engine, he could tell this was no cop. Cop cars never rattled or pinged. This engine had at least 100,000 miles on it. But it would be enough to get him where he was going.
            Andy bolted to the side of the highway and ducked behind some sagebrush. He peered through the thickets; waves of heat billowed from the black pavement. A white sedan - it looked like an old Ford Taurus - approached from the north at a leisurely pace. Compared to the Charger he just destroyed, it wasn’t the sexiest getaway car in the world, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.
            He felt butterflies; confrontation wasn’t really his forte, nor was car-jacking.           
            Just calm down, man. You’ve got the gun, for Chrissakes. Flag them down and take the car.
            Andy was just about to step out onto the highway when, less than a hundred feet away, the Taurus slowly pulled off to the shoulder and stopped.
            Oh shit, did they see me? Or the wreckage? What if they’re calling 9-1-1 right now?
            The driver-side door cracked open. A white-bearded old man, donned in thick eye-glasses and an Arizona Diamondbacks ball cap, slowly climbed out. Decked-out in black boots, white shorts and a sweaty Megadeth T-Shirt, he was certainly odd looking. He squinted at the sun, then yanked a handkerchief from his rear pocket to dab his neck. Then he casually reached back into his car and pulled out a small plastic box and yellow gloves. If he had seen Andy or the crashed Charger, he sure was being casual about it.
            Andy kept crouched and rigid, ready to attack if the old fart reach for a cell. Instead, the man shut his door, crossed the highway and marched out into the desert, snapping on the gloves like a doctor prepping for surgery.
            What the…was the guy going off to take a leak or something? With gloves? Must be OCD or something.
            Who cared? What matter was that he left his car behind, ripe for the picking. And it looked like he wouldn’t need to use the gun after all. After waiting a few more seconds, Andy sprang from the sagebrush and bolted to the Taurus.
            His heart sank when he tried to open the driver-side door. Locked.
            Shit, that means he’s got the goddamn keys with him!
            If he had his kit, he’d have this old beater jimmied and hot-wired in less time than it would take for that old man to drain his dragon. But out here, in the middle of nowhere? Andy nervously glanced across the highway, squinting into the desert. Nothing but cactus waved back. The old man was nowhere in sight. Andy quickly paced back and forth before kicking the front tire in frustration.
            Think, dammit!
            Stopping to stare at his bloody-nosed reflection in the driver-side window, he supposed he could smash out the window and hot-wire the car the old-fashioned way, but that would be loud, and take precious time he probably didn’t have.
            “What the hell are you doing out here in this heat, young man?” barked a voice behind him.
            Andy’s heart leaped into his throat as he whipped around, hand on the gun butt sticking out the back of his shorts. The old man stood across the road, clutching the plastic box with both gloved hands. Behind those thick lenses, his eyes stared back curiously before his face contorted into a wince.
            “Geez, buddy, you okay? What happened to your face? Have an accident or something?”
            Andy released his grip on the pistol, slowly exhaling, and brought a hand to his busted nose. Despite his throbbing pain, relief swam over him; the old fart seemed harmless enough. “Yeah, you could say that.”
            The man frowned, looking around. “Where’s your car?”
            Andy cocked a thumb back to the wreckage.
            The man’s eyes grew large. He shook his head and whistled. “Damn, look at that mess. Haven’t seen a wreck like that since the Daytona 500. You okay? Anyone with you?”
            “No, just me. I think I blew a tire.”
            “I think you’re lucky to be alive. I also think you’re lucky I came along. Not too many folks travel this road anymore, not since they finished the freeway. In this heat, your goose might have been cooked.”  He crossed the highway and extended his hand. “Name’s Jackson, Art Jackson. You want me to get on my cell and call for-”
            “No, no,” Andy quickly replied before returning the handshake. “I’m not that badly hurt. Maybe if you just give me a ride or something, that‘d be great.”
            Art Jackson frowned, stroking his fuzzy chin. “Hmm…well, I’m sorta working right now and it’s a long way back to town. I mean, if you wanna wait ‘till I‘m done, I guess I could give you a ride. Got bottled water in the trunk if you need to clean up your face and cool off.”
            Andy clenched his jaw impatiently. He did he best to sound congenial. “How long are you gonna be out here?”
            Art shrugged. “Dunno. I’m about half-done…maybe an hour or two.”
            Andy shook his head. “I can’t wait that long.”
            The old man stretched a glove off with his teeth and dug into his pocket, tugging out a cell phone. “Well, then, let me go ahead an call-”
            “I don’t think so, Mr. Jackson.” Andy set down his briefcase, pulled out the gun and aimed it right at Art’s chest, doing his best to sound calm and cool, like he did this all the time. The truth was, he had never actually aimed a gun at anybody. “Drop the phone and give me your keys.”
            Art backed away a couple of steps. “But-”
            Andy cocked the hammer. “Now!”
            Startled, the old man opened his fingers; the phone dropped and clattered on the pavement. He never took his eyes off the gun barrel.
            “Now drop the box, toss me your keys and get on your knees.”
            Again, Art complied. He let go of the box - it popped open as it hit the road - then reach into his other pocket. His lower lip trembled as he tossed the keys.
            Andy caught them in mid-air. “Now, Mr. Jackson…on your knees.”
            Tears started to roll down Art’s face and he slowly dropped to the road. “You’re gonna kill me now, aren’t you?”
            “Not if you do what I say.” While outwardly remaining cold and hard, his heart sort-of went out to the old dude, being so terrified. Andy would never kill anyone, but Art Jackson didn’t know that. “I just need your wheels, Mr. Jackson.”
            Art blinked. “You…you’re gonna leave me out here? In the middle of the desert? I‘ll die out here.”
            “Want me to shoot you instead?” Andy replied. But the man was right…about two things. First, hardly anyone used this old highway anymore; that’s why Andy chose it for their escape route in the first place. Second, how long could an old man last in this blazing sun and scorching heat in the middle of nowhere, miles from the nearest town?
            But I can’t bring him along with me. Isn’t that kind of like taking a hostage?
            He leaned down and snatched up the phone. “We can’t be more than an hour from Phoenix. I’ll call 9-1-1 once I’m there and-”
            Sharp pain suddenly struck just above his right ankle, so intense that Andy almost lost his footing. He cried out and looked down. Attached to his foot was a big brown tarantula, fangs buried in his flesh. Andy flailed and kicked wildly, dancing in agony on the pavement until the spider finally let go. It flew threw a few feet through the air before plopping to the road between Andy and Art.
            “Son of a BITCH!
            The old man fell from his knees to his butt, clutching the empty plastic box and reclosing the lid.
            Andy gawked down at his rapidly-swelling ankle; two tiny rivulets of blood snaked from the puncture wounds into his shoe. The skin around the wound became pasty-white. And it hurt like a motherfucker. Gasping hot desert air, he spotted his attacker, eight legs fluttering as it scurried toward the old man.
            Before he realized what he was doing, Andy limped over, trained the gun right down at the spider and fired.
            The shot was deafening.
            The recoil jerked his arm back.
            The spider disintegrated.
            The bullet ricocheted off the pavement…
            …and buried itself in Art Jackson’s brain.
            The old man’s head flew back, a perfect hole between his surprised blue eyes. They stared straight up at the hot afternoon sky, the last thing they would ever see.
            “Oh, shit,” Andy gasped, watching the old man drop to the ground, left leg kicking a couple of times before he ceased moving altogether. Momentarily forgetting his own wounds, Andy stared dumbstruck at the dead body, still reeling from what just happened.
            The last echoes of the gunshot finally dissipated in the distant desert hills.
            Jesus Christ, I just killed a man. I just killed a man for no reason. Just like McPherson.
            Andy shot a panicked glance in each direction, seeing nothing but heat billowing  from the road. Not another car was in sight, thank God. He tucked the gun away, grabbed the old man by both arms and dragged him behind some nearby bushes.
            After dropping Art’s lifeless arms, Andy checked the highway again, his stomach doing summersaults. Sweat plopped into his eye, stinging it shut. He squished a finger in his socket to clear it out, then regarded the body at his feet.
            I’m not longer just a wheelman, he lamented. I’m a murderer. I’m no longer looking at doing time if I’m caught. I’m looking at a needle in my arm.
            The thought made him wretch; Andy leaned over and hurled. Vomit splattered the sand. His leg pounded painfully; the bite wound had ballooned to the size of a gold ball. Blood still seeped into his shoe. As he reached down and rubbed around the wound, which only made it hurt worse, another thought crossed Andy’s mind…fuck, how poisonous are tarantulas anyway?
            Goddammit, worry about that later! Get your ass outta here first, or the state of Arizona’s gonna stick something in your skin a hell of a lot worse than spider venom!
            Andy limped to the old Taurus, stopping to pick up the briefcase. Because his hand was trembling, he missed the lock a few times before finally being able to stick the key in and open the door. He tossed the case into the passenger seat and jumped in, wasting no time before starting the car and hitting the gas. The rear tires kicked-up sand and gravel. The rear-end fishtailed as Andy cranked the wheel, climbing off the shoulder onto solid pavement.
            Within a few seconds, Andy Hanks was once again speeding down the road, picking up where he left off. The further he got away from the dead body of Art Jackson, the better he started to feel.
            Sweat oozed from every pore in his body. Whether it was from the heat, the bite or his own anxiety, Andy wasn’t sure, but he countered it by cranking the AC. Cool air blasted from the dashboard, bringing relief as it began to dry the sweat on his skin.
            Ignoring the nagging sting of his ankle, he pinned the gas pedal to the floor. The speedometer shot from 70 to 90; the sudden acceleration caused some of Jackson’s junk to slip off the top of the dash, empty water bottles, wadded napkins, a few CD cases and a lot of stray paper. Some of it dropped on the passenger seat, some onto the floor. A single yellow business card fluttered into his lap. Keeping the wheel steady with one hand, Andy  snatched it up, eyes darting back and forth from the open out the windshield to red-embossed font on the card:

Tarantulas, Scorpions, Small Reptiles
Supplying pet stores throughout the Southwest for over 40 years.
Arthur T. Jackson, Owner

            Andy frowned, tossing the card to the floor. Tarantulas? He suddenly remembered the plastic box Jackson was carrying, the one which popped open when he dropped it.
            Geez, is that what the old fart was doing out here? Collecting spiders? Was that what…
            Renewed pain pumped beneath the skin of Andy’s ankle. Somehow, knowing it was one of Art’s captured spiders made his leg hurt worse. He tried reaching down to  massage his open wound and keep the steering wheel straight at the same time. Bad idea. At this speed, the Taurus veered onto the shoulder; gravel pelted the undercarriage, brown dust spewed from the tires. Something loudly bounced around in the back seat. Andy sat back up straight, slapping both hands back on the wheel before guiding the car back onto the road. He let off the gas a bit; maybe doing 90 wasn’t such a great idea anymore.
            Regaining control, he craned his head to see what was making all the noise in back. He frowned, then took a quick look forward to make sure he stayed on the road. Glancing back again, fear struck him. On the seat was a large cardboard box. It was tipped over, and inside were several smaller plastic containers, just like the one Old Man Jackson was holding.
            There must have been a few dozen of them, in the box, spilt on the floor, strewn  all over the backseat. Most of the lids had popped open, probably from being tossed around so violently.
            Panicked, he faced the road again. He spotted the business card on the floor. Something big and black scurried across it. He remembered some of Jackson’s last words before a bullet ended his life: I’m about half-done…
            Andy’s skinned crawled.  Half done? A spider wrangler? That means-
            His neck tickled, then instantly erupted in fiery pain. Andy yelped, slapping at his neck, his hand striking something thick and hairy; it wiggled under his palm, then bit again. Another stab of agony.
            The car careened onto the shoulder again.
            Andy roared, squeezing his fist closed and crushing the spider in his grip. Pulling his hand down, he looked down at his clenched hand in horror. Fuzzy black legs poked between his fingers, still twitching.
            His foot inadvertently punched the gas pedal to the floor.
            “Jesus!” Andy screeched, frantically shaking his hand. Spider pieces flew everywhere; a single leg stuck to the windshield.
            Another bite, this time to his left thigh. Andy screeched and released the wheel altogether, using both hands to swat the spider that had crawled up the seat to join him.
            Out of control, the old Ford Taurus slid sideways. It skidded loudly along the road, tires shrieking. One of them finally exploded; sparks erupted from the naked rim before it dug into the pavement, flipping the car over.            
            For the second time that day, Andy bounced around in the driver’s seat, arms flailing. Boxes, bottles, business cards, loose diamonds, his gun, as well as dozens of huge black tarantulas, sailed all around him as the car rolled over and over.
            After what seemed like an eternity, all movement ceased. The Taurus came to rest in the middle of the highway, upside-down. Smoke and dust filled the car. Lying on the interior roof, Andy coughed and wheezed. His left leg was in agony; he managed to lift his head to check it out, wincing in horror at the bloody shin bone that had punched through the skin.
            God, I’m a mess, he thought crazily.
            Something dropped onto Andy’s chest…another frisky tarantula, courtesy of Creepy Critters, Inc. This one seemed to be staring right at him. Andy tried to raise a broken arm to squash it, only to be greeted by more unbelievable pain. The spider scampered forward, towards his face.
            Another one dropped from the floor above him, landing on his groin.
            Movement from the corner of his eye. Andy turned his head. Another spider raised up, waiving its front legs defensively before leaping forward to bury its fangs into his forehead.
            More fangs chomped the hand on his broken arm. Another spider crawled up the left leg of his shorts to bite him in the ass.
            Andy wailed in torment. Collective venom coursed through his veins, slowly shutting down organs one-by-one. His limbs, both in-tact and broken, convulsed uncontrollably as more and more of Old Man Jackson’s captured spiders joined in on the kill.

Copyright 2011, D.M. Anderson

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