Drivin’ with Mr D by Richard Wall

Crime Fiction, Fiction, Flash Fiction, Music, Punk Noir Magazine, Richard Wall

Richard Wall

Mr D, he tells me where we gotta go.

Most folks get it. They kinda nod and get in without any fuss.

Those who don’t, they try to argue.

Or beg.

But it don’t make no difference.

The end is always the same.

Sitting next to Mr D, in the back seat of a 1954 Pontiac Star Chief.

It ain’t a long journey. Just a coupla blocks.

Don’t matter where you are in the world, it’s always just a couple of blocks, and the same destination: a multi-storey parking garage in the French Quarter in New Orleans.

Now, I growed up in New Orleans and I told Mr D I ain’t never seen no garage in the French Quarter.

Mr D, he just smiled and told me I ain’t been looking in the right place.

Anyhow.

I pull into the entrance. In front of me there’s two barriers.

I flash my headlights and one of the barriers will lift. If it’s the one on the right then that means the up-ramp, a concrete spiral that leads to the roof.

It’s kinda hard to explain what it’s like up there. You come off the ramp and out into a bright, white mist. Like a fog comin’ off the Mississippi river, but it ain’t cold or wet.

I stop the car and I get out and open the door. The white mist gets kinda thinner and shapes begin to emerge, figures that walk a few steps, raise their arms in welcome and then gather around the passenger and walk back ‘em into the mist.

It’s kinda peaceful.

When we got children in the car they always goes up to the roof.

It ain’t heaven. That’s a notion invented by man.

Mr D told me that.

He said earth-bound religion is what keeps me and him so busy.

Where was I?

Oh yeah.

If it’s the barrier on the left that raises, well, you can guess where that leads to.

Down to level nine. A place so dark it smothers my headlights.

It’s an evil kind of dark. The kind that would cut your throat just to watch you bleed.

First time I drove down there I nearabout pissed my pants. Couldn’t see a damn thing.

Mr D told me where to stop. Told me to stay in the car.

The client was a preacher. Started to moaning and crying and repenting and such.

Mr D told him to get the fuck outta his car.

The preacher got out.

Shapes appeared. Shapes so black they stood out in the absolute darkness. I heard a scream and then the preacher was gone.

After that I told Mr D that I was sorry for every bad thing I ever done. Said I didn’t want to end up like the preacher.

Mr D said, “That’s OK, son. You just keep on drivin’ this big ol’ Pontiac.”

© Richard Wall 2019

RICHARD WALL IS HERE

Fiction: Hank Williams’ Cadillac by Richard Wall

Blue Collar Noir, Fiction, Music, Punk Noir Magazine, Richard Wall

HWC

It didn’t happen. You haven’t seen me.

It was my buddy, Stu, who came up with the idea.

My name’s Vince, and when this story began, Stu and me, we were 19 year-old high-school drop-outs and occasionally reformed stoners sharing a broke-down, drunk-leaning, leaky old double-wide on a third-world trailer-park in a small town in Nowhere, Texas.

Sometimes in life you don’t know where you’re headed until you reach that point where you lift your head, take a look around, and then have to decide if that’s really where you want to be.

Somehow Stu and me ended up in entry-level jobs at Walmart. That was two years ago.

Need I say more?

Notwithstanding our ongoing education from life and the internet – majoring in popular culture and low animal cunning – two years of the real world made us realise that maybe we should’ve made more of an effort at school.

As a fat man once said, “It is what it is.”

It was late one Sunday evening, both of us dreading the prospect of another year-long week at the nowhere branch of a multinational retailing corporation, when Stu experienced a bong-inspired epiphany that he and I would join the US Marines. All we had to do, he said, was serve long enough to qualify for a college education, get ourselves a degree and then all our dreams would come true.

“Well, hell,” I said. “That’s pretty random, let’s do it.”

We had nothing to leave behind, Stu’s mom was dead, and mine was in jail, partly for dealing in meth-amphetamines and Oxycontin, but mostly for trying to kill me (but that’s a story for another day), and so we were raring to go, both of us excited to embark on this next stage of our lives.

Anyway, as a kind of last hurrah to civilian life we decided to set out to explore the back roads of the Texas boondocks and see if we could get some anecdotes under our belts before the maelstrom that we knew would befall us at Boot Camp.

We’d heard horror stories from “One-eyed Joe”, an enigmatic Marine Corps veteran with a drink problem and a kickass record collection, who lived three trailers down from us.

Joe told us he was part Navajo; and wore a tattoo that said ‘Semper Fi’, and was never seen without a USMC baseball cap that crowned a waist-length, silver-grey pony tail. He also wore a dime-sized puckered scar just below his right shoulder, and a patch over his left eye, both of which he told us he got in 1968 at a place called Khe San.

Joe said he’d always been lucky.

Once our enlistment day at San Diego was finalized, we organized the road trip and set out in Stu’s 30 year old, shit-box Honda Civic – he’d christened it “Brian”, after Brian Wilson, because ‘Little Honda’ was his favourite Beach Boys song.

What can I say? When it comes to music, Stu is a borderline savant.

Anyhoo.

Day one passed without incident, culminating in a night spent first in a strip bar (thanks to a couple of forged IDs), and then in a dive bar next to a sleazy motel at a down-at-heel truck-stop, where Stu got lucky with a rinsed-out waitress called Irene.

We set off on day two, nursing weapons-grade hangovers. Around midday we came across the Cadillac Ranch on the I-40 just outside Amarillo. Stu slowed the car so we could pay homage to ten Cadillacs half-buried nose-deep in a field, and then informed me that the cars were positioned at an angle corresponding to that of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

“Why, that’s fascinating, Stu,” I said.

“Well, fuck you, Vince,” said Stu.

Once past the art installation, he tuned into a country music station playing Johnny Cash back to back, cranked up the music and buried his right foot. I fell asleep soon after.

When I woke up, we were driving in thick fog, immersed in a swirling cloud that coated the Honda in moisture that the windshield wipers struggled to clear. Soon after; the radio packed up, and then, crawling at ten miles per hour, the Honda suddenly lurched as the engine began making a clank-thump noise that sounded to me like a mechanical death rattle.

The car stumbled onwards, black exhaust-smoke staining the fog behind us.

“Shit,” said Stu. “The temperature gauge is off the scale.”

“How long’s it been like that?” I said.

“Beats me, dude.”

Great.

“We may as well keep it going,” said Stu. “If we stop, we may not get it started again.”

I had no argument with that and so we limped along for a while, wincing at the sound of mechanical carnage taking place deep inside the Honda’s engine.

Eventually the fog began to disperse; thinning at first to reveal brief glimpses of a deserted Texas landscape, and then clearing completely as we approached a green road sign with serious gunshot wounds, and defaced and weather-beaten lettering that put me in mind of the last words of a dying man:

“Welcome to Rambling.” It read.

“Where the holy fuck is Rambling?” said Stu.

My iPhone said ‘No Service’, so I opened the glove compartment.

“What are you looking for?” said Stu.

“A road atlas?” I said.

“Dude, seriously?”

Just as we passed the road sign the Honda backfired and then rolled silently to halt at the side of the road, steam erupting from beneath the hood like the passing of its soul.

D.R.T. Dead Right There.

“Well,” said Stu. “That’s the end of this suit.”

We got out of the car. Behind us, the road converged to a shimmering vanishing point. Ahead of us sprawled a handful of tired-looking buildings, the closest of which was a used car lot, about a fifty yards away and bedecked with sun-faded and wind-tattered red, white and blue bunting that hung limply in the still morning air.

“I’ve still got no service,” I said. “Let’s go see if we can use their phone to call Triple-A.”

“Triple-what?” said Stu.

Stuffing the Honda’s keys in the back pocket of his jeans, he gave me a shit-eating grin as he donned fake Oakley wraparounds (a dollar-ninety-nine from Walmart), and then patted me on the shoulder. “It’s all good, bro’,” he said. “Maybe they got a mechanic who can fix us up?”

“Good luck with that,” I said.

We set off towards the used car lot, Stu leading the way. As we drew closer, he whistled.

“Holy shit,” he said. “Those are some sweet, sweet rides.”

He was right. Every single automobile in the lot was an American classic. Ford Model B Coupes, Chevrolets with gleaming fenders, Cadillacs with sweeping fins. It was a cornucopia of chrome and whitewall tires. All the cars were in mint condition and not one was made after 1967.

At the front of the pack was a powder blue 1952 Cadillac convertible with Alabama plates. The roof was down and as we approached, a large crow settled on the top of the windshield, flapped its wings a couple times, folded them and then tilted its head to one side, its beady eyes tracking us as we wandered around.

Stu checked out the license plate. “No way,” he said.

“What?”

“This looks like Hank Williams’ car.”

“Hank Williams?” I said. “The country singer, Hank Williams?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you serious?”

Stu took a breath. “I seen a picture of him sitting in a car just like this, and I recognise the license plate.”

“Bullshit.”

“Dude,” he said. “How many powder blue Cadillac convertibles do you think were registered in Alabama in 1952?”

The crow lifted its wings and then settled, its head to one side, staring intently at Stu.

“That means nothing,” I said.

Stu shook his head, grinning like a maniac.

“This is it, man. I’m telling you. This is Hank Williams’ Cadillac.”

“He ain’t wrong,” rasped the crow.

Stu and I did a comedy double-take and “WTF’d” simultaneously.

“He ain’t wrong.”

The bird spoke with a sandpaper voice that put me in mind of Tom Waits after a night smoking Lucky Strikes.

Stu looked at me. “You heard that, right? Tell me you heard that.”

“A talking bird,” I said. “Well, shit just got weird.”

The crow dipped its head a couple times, and then flapped its wings as it skittered for a few steps, lifted into the air, turned a 180, dropped back onto the windshield and then nodded towards the rear seat.

“Hank Williams croaked right there,” it said.

Both Stu and I peered into the back of the Caddie. In the foot well lay a few beer cans and handwritten notes on scraps of paper.

“Mah associate is right.”

Startled, I turned to see a tall, thin white man who looked about 60. He had thin, wispy hair, a white goatee, and wore a cream suit that had seen better days. He was sweating profusely and wiped his face several times with a large white handkerchief.

“Somewhere near Oak Hill, West Virginia, Hank Williams took his last breath, right on that back seat.”

“D.R.T.” said the crow. “Dead Right There.”

The old guy’s shabby appearance, and measured, polite southern accent put me in mind of a plantation owner who was down on his luck. Yet the glittering hardness and intensity of gaze from his steely blue eyes as they locked onto mine, raised hairs on the back of my head.

He extended his hand. “They call me Bubba,” he said. “And this here’s my car lot.”

My mind was still trying to process the talking bird, but I heard myself ask, “Where exactly are we, sir?”

Bubba winked. “You seen the road sign, son. This here’s Rambling.”

“Well, we’re kinda lost,” I said. “And our car’s broke down. Can you maybe show us where are on a map?”

Bubba laughed once, and then gave a wink that made me shiver. “Oh, we ain’t on no map, son.”

“Well then, is there any place nearby that can take a look at our car?”

“All in good time, son,” he said. “All in good time.”

He turned to Stu. “I can see you are a man of discernment.”

“That is one sick car, my man,” said Stu.

“Interestin’ choice of words.”

Bubba gave another wink that walked over my grave.

“How much?” said Stu.

“Stu…” I began.

Bubba flashed me a look and then stepped between us.

“How much for what, son?” he said.

“This car,” said Stu. “How much?”

“That depends, son. How bad do you want it?”

Stu shook his head. “Are you kidding me? It’s a mighty fine automobile, an’ I’m fairly certain I cain’t afford it, but I’m kinda interested to know by how much.”

I tried to step around to get to him, but Bubba placed a fatherly hand across Stu’s shoulder and maneuvered them both to a position that put their backs to me.

“Well,” said Bubba. “In my experience, if you want something bad enough, then you’ll find a way to afford it.”

“You’ll find a way,” rasped the crow.

“Stu, we need to get going.” I raised my voice, partly to get his attention, but mostly to hide the tremor of apprehension that hummed through my body.

I failed on both counts.

Bubba turned and gave me a terrible smile. “Son, your friend and I are in a business discussion, and besides, you ain’t got a car. Where you gonna go? Now, we got a lotta fine automobiles in this lot, why don’t you take a walk around and check ‘em out?”

He turned his back on me and resumed inaudible muttering.

“Take a walk,” rasped the crow.

Using up the last of my false bravado, I flipped the bird to the bird and then turned away. I reasoned that there was no way Stu was going to be able to afford to buy the Cadillac, so I may as well take a look around until he came to his senses.

I caught sight of an old car that looked to be from the 1920s. Up close it turned out to be an old Packard. Its square, wooden body looked like it belonged in a black and white gangster movie. Behind the Packard was a midnight blue Lincoln convertible with DC plates. Like the Caddie, the top was down, and at 20 feet long it was a whale of a car, with three rows of seats.

As I wandered around the lot, distracted by thoughts of talking birds, something about the random collection of cars sparked a glimpse of recognition, something I couldn’t put my finger on.

Whatever.

I looked around. Bubba and Stu were nowhere to be seen, and I was about to head towards an old Porsche that I had spotted, when I heard voices.

At the rear of the lot was a small, single-storey office-building that I hadn’t noticed before. I walked across to it, and glanced through the open door. Bubba was standing over Stu, who was sitting at a cheap wooden desk, holding a fountain pen and sucking a blood-smeared finger.

“Don’t worry about that, son,” chuckled Bubba. “All we need is your signature.”

Bubba looked up, caught me staring and gave a grin that froze my heart. For the briefest of moments, I swear that his eyes flashed red and his mouth widened to reveal sharp pointed teeth, and then I blinked and Bubba was back to normal.

Whatever normal was.

“Your buddy scratched hisself,” he winked. “A little blood sure goes a long way.”

Documents signed, Stu slid his chair backwards, and as he stood up I caught a glimpse of a few red spots on and around the flamboyant scrawl of his signature.

Stu licked the tip of his finger as he replaced the cap on the fountain pen, returned it to Bubba and then turned, his shit-eating grin flashing wide as he spotted me. “I got it, Vince,” he said. “I got Hank Williams’ Cadillac.”

Standing behind Stu, Bubba looked directly into my eyes, gave a smirk that almost made me shit my pants, and then picked up a sheaf of documents and a set of car keys and handed them to Stu.

Stu thanked him and then winked at me. “C’mon man,” he said. “Let’s get our stuff.”

Putting his hand on my shoulder, Stu steered me out of the office, and once clear he leaned in close. “He’s taking my Honda,” he said. “Didn’t even want to look at it.” His eyes glittered. “My car, plus six-hundred bucks, and we’re driving away in a Cadillac.”

Stu’s grin stretched wider. “He even took a check for the six hundred and said she’ll be ready by the time we get our stuff together.”

I gave a half-hearted return to his fist-bump and followed him back towards his now previous car. My mind raced as I struggled to catch up with what had happened, words scrambling in my head as I attempted to give voice to the serious concern that I felt.

In the end the best I could come up with was a bad feeling that some heavy shit was about to go down.

Another shiver ran through me. I looked back over my shoulder, Bubba remained by the door of the office, his steel blue eyes locked onto me like a laser-sight.

I turned back and ran a little to catch up with Stu.     “What happened back there?” I said.

Stu sucked on his bleeding finger. “What do you mean?”

“How did you cut your finger?”

He thought for a moment. “You know? That was some weird shit. The dude gave me a fancy pen and as I took the cap off, something scratched my finger. It was like it hit an artery.” He paused, and then grinned. “Bubba said he didn’t expect me to sign it blood.”

A spoonful of vomit hit the back of my mouth and then burned down my throat.

“What about before?” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” I said. “When Bubba was showing you the car, he blocked me out and I heard him saying something, and…”

The words died on my lips. Saying them out loud made me feel stupid.

Stu shrugged. “After you walked away, we talked about the car. He said that it was meant for me, that I was meant to drive it.” Stu grinned. “At first I thought it was pure salesman BS, but then I kinda believed him, the car IS meant for me. It all kinda makes sense.”

“Sense?” I said. “We chance upon a car lot in Christ knows where, run by Colonel Sanders, who convinces you that you’re meant to be driving a ’52 Cadillac. Putting aside the matter of a fucking crow with a voice like throat cancer, in what dimension does any of this shit make any kind of sense?”

“Always with the negativity,” said Stu. “But that’s what I’m talking about. Bubba told me I deserve this car. With all the shit I’ve had to put up with, he said that it’s only right that I get something back.”

He put his hand on my shoulder. “It’s all good, Bro’,” he winked. “I got me a car, it’s as big as a whale and we’re about to set sail. Chill out, man, these are some righteous wheels, and we can road trip in style, now. Just think of the panties that are gonna drop when we roll into town driving this bad boy.”

“Stu,” I said. “Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is?”

“No, I have not,” he said. “Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘my buddy is acting like a prissy little bitch because I secured the used-car deal of the century.’?”

“The deal of a lifetime,” rasped the crow.

Startled, both Stu and I spun around to see the crow observing us from the vantage point of Bubba’s left shoulder.

Insanely, I wondered if the bird had ever shit down Bubba’s back, and I had to bite my cheeks to quell hysterical laughter.

Ignoring me, Bubba smiled at Stu. “The Cadillac is good to go,” he said. “Thought I’d come and help y’all with your bags.”

A few minutes later we were heading out of the car lot. As we reached the exit, I saw Bubba start the Honda and drive it towards the entrance. Stu sounded the horn, gunned the engine, and gave a rebel yell as he swung the Caddie out onto the road, the big ol’ car twerking on its springs before straightening, and then leaping forward with a V8 roar as Stu gave it the juice.

“Oh MAN, listen to that motor.” Stu cupped his groin. “Yeah baby, we gonna get us some serious poon-TANG with this m’fucker. Know’m sayin?”

Now that we were driving away from Bubba I felt myself begin to relax.

“This is indeed,” I said. “One righteous automobile.”

It didn’t take long to blow out of the other side of town, and soon we were out in the Texas desert, barreling down a nowhere road that was straighter than a preacher and longer than a memory. Apart from distant hills, there were no landmarks, road signs or any sign of life. Just an asphalt scar bisecting miles of Texas scrubland.

Stu frowned and began to shift in his seat. “Something’s sticking in my ass,” he said.

Just as I was about give an obvious reply, Stu leaned to one side, slid his hand into the back pocket of his jeans and produced the keys to the Honda.

For the second time that day we both said, “What the fuck?”

“I thought you only had one set of keys?” I said.

“I do,” said Stu.

“Then how did Bubba start the Honda?”

“Not only that,” said Stu. “How the fuck did he start the Honda? I mean, that engine was dead, man.”

We drove on in silence, and then Stu said, “He must have had a master key or something, and maybe a car dealer’s trick to get the engine going.”

I could tell that Stu believed that about as much as I did, but in the absence of an explanation I gave a non-committal grunt. Better to leave it there.

After a few more miles of silence, Stu slapped the rim of the steering wheel. “Man, where the hell are we?”

I checked my phone. Still no service.

“Beats the hell outta me,” I said. “Just gotta keep going that way, I guess.”

“Anything on the radio?”

I shrugged, twisted the chrome knob on the dashboard, and shook my head at the static hissing from the speaker as I punched all the preset station buttons and wound the tuning needle from left to right and back again.

“Nope,” I said.

I switched off the radio, and then idly ran my fingers along the chrome trim and across the walnut panel. As I pushed the latch on the glove compartment, the lid dropped down and a plastic object skittered towards me.

“What the hell’s that?” said Stu.

I picked it up. “Looks like an eight-track,” I said.

“Do what now?”

“An eight-track cartridge,” I said. “Used to play music in the days before cassettes, CDs or iTunes.”

“No shit? Who’s on it?”

I turned the cartridge over, it was well-worn, the faded label barely legible. “Looks like a Hank Williams album,” I said.

“Hank Williams, you say? Would that be THE Hank Williams? Erstwhile owner of this fine automobile? Defence rests, your Honor. Well, what are you waiting for? Put it on, my man.”

Now, I could have sworn it wasn’t there when we first got in the car, but beneath the dashboard hung a bulky Motorola eight-track cartridge player. Switching it and the radio on, I pushed the cartridge into the slot. The hissing ceased and the hypnotic pedal steel and rhythm guitar intro to ‘Rambling Man’ burst out of the speakers.

For three and a half minutes, Stu and I were entranced by Hank Williams’ melancholic voice singing about how the sound of a freight train gives him itchy feet. The song finished, and after a brief pause, started again.

“Must be on repeat,” said Stu. “Put it on shuffle, let’s see what else is on there.”

“It’s a tape,” I said. “It just plays, there’s no shuffle. You can’t even fast forward.”

The song repeated three more times before we both had enough and I switched it off.

“Man, where ARE we?”

The road continued to stretch ahead of us, the landscape unchanged.

“You know,” said Stu. “Since we left Rambling, we ain’t seen no road signs, or buildings, or cars or people.”

I was about to reply when in the distance, what looked like a small wooden cross, planted by the side of the road, came into view. As we drew closer, it became clear that the cross was the first of six signs, painted red with white lettering, spaced at intervals of about a hundred yards, and which, when read in sequence made up a message.

Six more miles/you took the bait/signed in blood/accept your fate/enjoy the ride/Burma Shave

“Burma Shave?” said Stu. “Like in the Tom Waits’ song?”

“It was an old advertising campaign,” I said. “For shaving cream. They used to put up signs just like that along the road. I wonder what ‘six more miles’ means?”

“To the graveyard,” said Stu.

“What?”

“Six more miles to the graveyard, it’s a Hank Williams song.”

He paused. “And I signed in blood, what the fuck does that mean?”

I turned to Stu. “It probably means nothing,” I said.

He pointed ahead. “There’s some more signs.”

The Cadillac slowed as we approached them, Stu reading the words.

Too late now/too late to weep/you are the company/that you keep/enjoy the ride/Burma Shave

“Man, this is fucked up.”

“It’s just some old saying,” I said. “They probably used it because it scans across the signs.”

“Maybe.” Stu didn’t sound convinced, or look any less scared.

“Holy shit.”

Stu’s eye’s widened. I looked out of the windshield to see the horizon filled by a bank of black storm clouds that rolled and tumbled towards us, releasing a curtain of rain that drew steam from the hot asphalt.

The Caddie skidded to a halt. The torrential rain sounding like a standing ovation as it raced towards us. Stu stabbed a button and we heard the reassuring purr as the powered roof unfolded and closed over us just as the first fat raindrops hit the windshield and then pelted the roof with a sound like gravel pouring onto a tin roof.

Stu shook his head. “Where the fuck did this come from?”

“It’s just a storm,” I said. “It’ll pass over us.”

“That ain’t just no storm,” he said. “Look at the size of that mother-fucking cloud.”

I’d never seen Stu spooked like that. I slid across the bench seat and put my arm around his trembling shoulders. “Take it easy, man, I said. “It’s just a dumb old sign and a rainstorm. Hell, we’re gonna be US Marines, bro. Two weeks into Boot Camp at San Diego this is gonna seem like good times.”

He seemed to calm down. “I guess,” was all he said.

Stu put the Caddie in gear, and with the wipers barely keeping up with the onslaught of rain, we set off slowly along the road.

We drove in silence, and then I caught Stu staring intently at the dashboard.

“What’s up?” I said.

“I’m watching the odometer,” he said. “We’re about two miles away.”

“Away from where?”

Stu shrugged. “From whatever was six miles away from that sign.”

Stu frowned, and then sniffed. “Eww, gross. Have you unloaded? That stinks.”

I gagged as an unholy stench filled the car. “Dude,” I said. “That was not me.”

Rain hit the side of my face as I dropped the window to let in some air. It helped, but not much.

I felt the car slow and looked over at Stu. He had one hand holding his nose, his eyes lifting and dropping as he checked first the road ahead and then the odometer.

The Caddie pulled over and rolled to a halt.

“Why are you stopping?” I said.

“I’m not,” said Stu. “The car’s driving itself, look.”

He stamped on the throttle, mashing it to the floor several times. It made no difference, the Caddie’s engine idled briefly and then the glorious V8 rumble lapsed into silence.

“Way to go, Stuart,” I said. “You broke two cars in one day.”

Stu flipped the bird as rain continued to batter the car, the heavy clouds closing in, reducing visibility outside to only a few feet.

The stench grew stronger, now a foul taste soiling the back of my mouth. I gagged again, and then heard something move behind me. Stu heard it too, we both turned to look back and screamed in perfect unison with a thunderclap and a flash of lightning that illuminated the body of a man slumped across the rear seat.

The man shuffled to sit upright; his features hidden in the shadow of a battered Stetson hat, his skeletal form draped in what looked like the tattered remains of an ornate country and western stage costume.

Another lightning flash obliterated the shadows. The man looked around and then leaned back into the seat as if to get comfortable. Pausing for a second, he crossed his legs, raised a finger and tipped the Stetson to reveal desiccated skin stretched over the prominent cheekbones of a once-handsome face now gaunt with decomposition.

A thousand miles away, I heard Stu scream again as the man scratched his narrow, pointed nose, cleared his throat with a sound like a coffin lid being prised open, and then parted his thin lips in a macabre smile.

“Howdy boys,” he said. “My name’s Hank Williams. Now, which one of y’all bought my car?”

I choked back a gasp as the fetid breath carrying his words washed over me. Over the sound of the rain I heard a retch followed by liquid splatter and turned to see Stu leaning out of the door like a seasick passenger, his body convulsing in a post-vomit shudder.

Hank Williams winked at me. “That can happen,” he said. “Now start the car and drive about a hundred feet and turn into them gates up ahead.”

I stared at Stu, and Stu stared at me until Hank Williams broke the spell.

“Well go on, goddamit,” he said. “They’ll all be here soon.”

Stu’s hand shook as he fumbled and then turned the key. The V8 rumble reintroducing a brief sense of normality as the Cadillac moved forwards.

I looked over my shoulder just in time to see Hank Williams press a finger against the side of his nose and snort a bloated maggot from his right nostril.

“Who-all’s going to be here, sir?” My voice sounded small.

Hank Williams sniffed, paused, and then said, “The rest of ‘em.”

“Rest of who?” I said.

“All in good time, son,” said Hank Williams. “All in good time.”

I felt the Cadillac sway as it turned to the right, and then straightened to glide beneath a huge wrought-iron archway that stood at least twenty feet high, topped in large, ornate letters that spelled two words:

Rambling Cemetery

“Rambling?” I said, “We’ve been driving for like hours and we’re still in Rambling? How big is this place?”

“Oh, Rambling ain’t a place, son,” said Hank Williams. “Not as such, you could say it’s an existence, an actuality.”

The rain stopped as we passed through the arch, the clouds rolling away into the distance and leaving behind a freshly scrubbed blue sky.

“Drop the hood, son,” said Hank Williams. “Let’s get us some fresh air around here.”

Stu stopped the Cadillac, dropped the hood and then rolled forwards. The world was quiet save for the sound of the V8 and the crunch of tires on a tree-lined gravel track that stretched ahead for what looked like a quarter of a mile.

Hank Williams leaned forwards. “Up yonder, the track opens out to a big ol’ circle. Like a lollipop on a stick. Imagine it’s a clock and we’re driving up from the six. I want y’all to park at the twelve, facing back this way. You got that, son?”

Stu nodded, his face ashen.

Hank Williams relaxed back into the seat until Stu finished maneuvering and the car was pointed at the archway.

“Switch off the engine, son.”

Stu turned the key and the Cadillac fell silent. In the back, Hank Williams hummed a tune that collapsed into a racking cough and ended with something being spat out of the car and hitting the gravel with a sound that will live with me forever.

“Here they come,” said Hank Williams.

I looked up as a procession of automobiles turned into the cemetery and made their way slowly towards us, and it took me few seconds to realise that all the cars came from Bubba’s car lot.

The old Packard led the way, driving counter-clockwise around the circle, stopping in front of us, and then reversing to park about ten feet to our right.

“Bessie Smith,” mumbled Stu. “1937, on Highway 61, between Memphis, Tennessee and Clarksdale, Mississippi.”

I looked sideways, Stu was slumped low against the back of the bench seat, and locked into a classic thousand-yard stare.

“You OK, buddy?” I said.

“James Dean,” said Stu. “1955, Cholame, California.”

“Do what now?”

“James Dean,” he said. “Crashed at the junction of California State Route 46 (former 466) and California State Route 41.”

I looked out just in time to see a Porsche 550 Spyder, reversing to park on the other side of the Packard.

After that came a 1966 Buick Electra, which reversed next to the Porsche.

“Jayne Mansfield,” said Stu. “1967, Ringlet’s Bridge, between New Orleans and Slidell, Louisiana.”

Next to the Buick came a 1937 Cord Phaeton.

Slumped even lower in his seat, Stu stared at the steering wheel, his lower jaw slack, a pool of saliva building up behind his lip.

“Tom Mix,” he said, saliva drooling down his chin. “1940, Highway 80, Arizona.”

A 1950 Oldsmobile 88 pulled in.

Almost catatonic, Stu grunted, “Jackson Pollock. 1956, Springs, New York.”

The final car was the midnight blue Lincoln convertible. As it too took its place, Stu’s eyelids fluttered, his voice a faint whisper.

“November 29, 1963, Dallas, Texas. Hail to the Chief,” he said.

“Time to go, boys,” said Hank Williams, the Cadillac rocking gently as he climbed out.

“Go where?” I said.

Hank Williams walked around to the driver’s door. “Well son,” he said. “Things are gonna change, and we’re a-gonna leave.”

He placed his hand on Stu’s shoulder. “And this’n, he’s comin’ with us.”

I heard doors slamming and the scuffling of feet.

“He’s not going anywhere,” I shouted. “Get your fucking hands off of him.”

“It’s meant to be, son,” said Hank Williams. “He signed in blood.”

I lunged towards Stu, but a strong hand grabbed my arm and pulled me back. I looked up to see a tall man smiling down at me, he turned slightly as I tried to pull away and I saw that the right side of his head was missing, the gaping hole revealing an empty brain cavity.

As I began to scream, the man smiled and then spoke with high-class Boston accent.

“It’s meant to be, son,” he said. “Time to say goodbye.”

“Hail to the Chief,” giggled Stu, as Hank Williams helped him out of the car.

“Leave him alone,” I shouted. “Let him go.”

“Your friend’s going to be just fine,” said the man. “It won’t be long now.”

He released his grip on my arm, and then turned to follow Hank Williams.

“It’s meant to be, sugar.” I turned to see a one-armed black lady wearing a floral dress and a cloche hat. She had a kindly smile as she took my hand. “You friend gotta go now, honey,” she said. “Like the fat man said, ‘it is what it is, and it ain’t no more’n that.’”

She also turned and walked towards Hank Williams, who had led Stu to the centre of the circle, quickly surrounded by the occupants of the vehicles.

The crow landed on the windshield, “Time to go,” it rasped. “It’s meant to be.”

“Go fuck yourself,” I said.

“Aww now, there’s no need to be like that, son,” Bubba appeared from nowhere, stood by the door and leaned into the Cadillac. “It ain’t nothin’ personal,” he said. “Yo’ friend gotta come with us, and you gotta go back.”

“Back where?”

“From whence you came, son,” he said. “From whence you came.”

“What about Stu?”

“Like I said, he’s comin’ with us.”

“To where?”

“To where we’re going, which ain’t for you to know.”

He paused. “Things are gonna change, son. And you’re gonna leave.”

“I want to know where you’re taking Stu,” I said.

“We ain’t takin’ him nowhere. He comin’ with us, on account of it’s his time.”

“Fuck that, and fuck you.”

As I tried to climb out of the car, Bubba snapped his fingers.

The crow attacked before I had chance to react. I heard the flap of a wingbeat, felt talons rip at my flesh and then my eye erupted in a red mist. The noise was deafening, the crow screaming continuously as it attacked, and then lifted just out of reach before dive-bombing me again and again, from different directions and with a disorienting ferocity as it slashed, pecked and pummeled me.

I scrabbled for the door handle, fell out of the car, and grazed my hands as I scuttled across the gravel, stooping low as I tried to protect my head and neck from the frenzied aerial assault.

And then it stopped.

I heard a lonesome “screeee”, and saw a golden eagle circling high above me.

For a second all was still, and then the crow came in fast from the left, hitting the side of my head like missile. As I tried to fight it off, I saw the eagle’s wings fold and then I lost balance, tripped over and everything went black.

I don’t know how long I was out but when I came to, the cemetery was empty. Staggering to my feet, I swayed a little before my head cleared and then took stock. All the cars were gone and no one was around. I was alone, the back of my hands were cut to ribbons, my face felt sore and I could taste blood in my mouth. A few feet away a large black feather, its quill stained with congealed blood, ruffled in the light breeze.

I began to walk, crunching footsteps into the gravel as I headed out of the cemetery. When I reached the archway, I turned right and continued walking. The sun was low over the horizon and my shadow lengthened as I tramped along the side of the road.

After about a mile or so I came upon another bunch of signs.

All things pass/all hardships end/respect the memory/of your friend/enjoy the ride/Burma Shave

At the side of the road, a golden eagle stood over a black, feathered carcass. As I approached, it lifted its wings, flexed a huge talon, gripped the remains of the crow and lifted majestically into the air.  I stared after it until it disappeared and then I turned and watched the sky catch fire as the sun kissed the horizon. Overwhelmed with exhaustion, I lay down beneath the Burma Shave sign.

*****

I woke up hooked up to a machine in a hospital just outside Amarillo. The first thing the nurse told me was that I’d been in a coma for six weeks.

The second thing she told me was that Stu was dead. Apparently we were going at better ‘n eighty miles an hour when the Honda blew a tire. An eyewitness said the car rolled about a dozen times before it left the road. Stu died instantly, the same eyewitness said that he saw Stu’s body hanging out of the car, flopping like a rag doll each time the Honda went over. Someone said it took firefighters an hour to cut me out of the wreckage. They said the crash had shut the interstate for a whole day and made the TV news.

I was in hospital for another two weeks. On the day of my discharge, “One-eyed Joe” turned up to fetch me. Turns out, he’d phoned around all the hospitals in the area, and then called every day to check how I was.

When I thanked him, he smiled gently. “Semper Fi,” he whispered.

As we drove back in his old Chevy pick-up, two good eyes between us, Joe told me that on the day it happened, he’d seen us in a dream and had woken up to find himself gripping the remains of a dead crow.

Said his fingers were locked with cramp.

Said they hurt for days.

Said he’s been sober ever since.

I have no memory of the crash, and while I refuse to think about the manner of his death, Stu is never far away from my thoughts.

In my version of events he’s still somewhere out there, driving the back-roads of Texas, the hood down, wearing fake Oakley wraparounds, bopping his fingers on the steering wheel of Hank Williams’ Cadillac.

The End

IMG_8830Bio: Born in England in 1962, Richard grew up in a small market town in rural Herefordshire before joining the Royal Navy. After 22 years in the submarine service and having travelled extensively, Richard now lives and writes in rural Worcestershire.

His first short story, “Evel Knievel and The Fat Elvis Diner” (available on Kindle), was soon followed by “Five Pairs of Shorts” a collection of ten short stories, and another short story called ‘Hank Williams’ Cadillac’.

Richard has also collaborated with Hull musician, Andrew McLatchie (aka ‘Half Deaf Clatch’), writing a short story to accompany Clatch’s supernatural spaghetti-western concept album “Beelzebub Jones – A Good Day to be a Bad Guy”.
Richard’s stories reflect his life-long fascination with the dark underbelly of American culture; be it tales of the Wild West,  or the simmering menace of the Deep South, or the poetry of Charles Bukowski, or the writing of Langston Hughes or Andrew Vachss, or the music of Charley Patton, Son House, Johnny Cash, or Tom Waits.
A self-confessed Delta Blues music anorak, Richard embarked on a road trip from Memphis to New Orleans, where a bizarre encounter in Clarksdale, Mississippi inspired him to write his début novel, Fat Man Blues.

 

PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A CONSUMER: RICHARD WALL

Films, Music, Portait Of The Artist As A Consumer, Punk Noir Magazine, Richard Wall, Televison., Writing
IMG_8830
Music
Charley Patton
Rolling Stones up to and including ‘Some Girls’
Blind Willie Johnson
Drive By Truckers
Joni Mitchell
Patty Smith
Talking Heads
Blind Willie McTell
Half Deaf Clatch
Half Man Half Biscuit
Hank Williams
Howling Wolf
Furry Lewis
Elmore James
Son House
Mississippi Fred McDowell
Television
The Young Ones
Vic and Bob’s Big Night Out
Budgie
Line of Duty
The Sweeney
Luther
Beck
Books 
Andrew Vachss
Elmore Leonard
James Lee Burke
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle
Ran Walker
Jim Dodge
Limmy
Spike Milligan
John Steinbeck
Stuart Ayris
Films
Vanishing Point (the original)
Alien
Blues Brothers
O Brother Where Art Thou?
No Country For Old Men
The Italian Job
The Great Escape
Places
Clarksdale, Mississippi
Glasgow
Barcelona
The Live and Let Live, Bringsty, Herefordshire
Grenada, West Indies
Oklahoma City
Del Norte, Colorado
Other Stuff
Cigar Box Guitars
Land Rover Defender
iTunes
Blues books
Ancient MacBookPro
Guinness
Lists
Bio: Richard Wall. Born in Herefordshire in 1960. Joined the navy in 1980. Left the navy in 2002. Wrote the novel Fat Man Blues in 2015. Has performed onstage with blues musicians Tone Tanner and Garrington T Jones, Trevor Babajack Steger and Half Deaf Clatch.
The difficult second novel, Last Rites at Sing Sing is due out in 2019. Married to Barbara, and living in rural Worcestershire.

Two Turtle Doves By Richard Wall

Christmas, Crime Fiction, Fiction, Music, Noir, Punk Noir Magazine, Richard Wall

IMG_8830My first guitar saved my life. And I wish now that I’d never set eyes on it.

It was 1973.

I was on my way to step out in front of an express train. I knew a place where it would pass at full speed and I could walk onto the track at the very last second, giving the driver no time to brake.

I had it all planned.

When you’re a skinny, underdeveloped, bespectacled, thirteen-year-old, stammering ginger bookworm with bad skin and acute social-anxiety, you become the target of choice for every thug, wanker and bullying dickhead looking for a docile recipient for their anger issues.

Dave Scott was Dickhead-in-Chief, with Alex, his twin brother, a very able lieutenant. They were two years older, and their joint mission in life was to seek me out and kick the living shit out of me at every given opportunity. This they did often, and with an amount of pleasure, imagination and attention to detail that was terrifying.

Not that I was a stranger to the dark side of life. I had a brother in the army. He was my hero. Hard as nails he was. But he was killed in Northern Ireland, which caused my dad to drink himself to death, leaving me and my mum on to struggle through life as best we could. Victims don’t attract friends, and with no one to turn to, I lived in my head. It was, and still is, a dark and wretched place.

Welcome to my world. Welcome to my story.

When you’re the victim of a bully your mind takes you to places where rules don’t exist. Alone with your thoughts, a maelstrom of anger fuels your imagination such that in your head you create evermore violent acts of retribution. You fantasise about revenge; a hammer to the temple, a knife to the throat, a knitting needle pushed slowly into the ear, a razor blade dragged across an eyeball, bending a finger back until it snaps with a loud crack. Make them scream, make them bleed, make them hurt, make them beg for mercy. Taunt them. Humiliate them. Debase them. In your mind you’re ready for them.

Until the next time. When you turn the corner, and you see them waiting, and you literally piss yourself with fear because you haven’t got a hammer, or a knitting needle, or a knife, or the muscle, expertise or bravery to fight back, and you know damn well that very soon it will be you begging for mercy.

And the more that happens, the louder the voice in your mind tells you that you’re worthless, and with no case for the defence you reach the point where the only way out is to make an appointment for a meeting with the business end of a speeding locomotive.

I was on my way to that meeting when I spotted the guitar propped up next to some dustbins outside the Oxfam shop in the High Street.

Up until that point I had never seen any kind of guitar up close, much less had any desire to learn to play one, but when I saw that cheap, wooden acoustic, with nylon strings and plastic tuning pegs. I picked it up, ran my fingers across the strings, and something about the sound it made temporarily distracted me from the dark side of my brain.

There’s a first time for everything, and there would be another express train tomorrow.

I took the guitar home, borrowed a couple of tuition books from the library, and set about devoting every spare minute to practicing. In a very short time I reached the point where I needed a better guitar.

Back then, Mum bought everything from a Mail Order catalogue, just about scraping together the bare minimum payments each week.

Our neighbor, next door-but-one, was a representative, and Mum had borrowed a copy from her and left it on the kitchen table. I was flipping through it one evening when I found the “Musical Instruments” page.

That’s when I saw it. The object of my dreams and the cause of my nightmares.

“El Diablo” was a cheap Chinese copy of a Gibson SG electric guitar. It had accentuated double-cutaways, and when you held it upright they resembled the horns of the devil. The body was painted in a red so vivid that it reminded me of a stab wound and branded the outline of Satan’s head behind my eyelids every time that I blinked.

I spent over an hour staring at it (I even took a Polaroid photograph of the page, which I carried everywhere), a dark obsession growing inside me like a tumor as I pored over the technical specifications whilst ignoring the reality.

The price was an eye-watering £250. Even at the lowest weekly payment, spread over three years was beyond my meagre budget. Asking mum for help was out of the question. We didn’t have pot to piss in, and an electric guitar was right at the very bottom of a very long priority list.

That night I dreamt of it. And in my dream, I stood centre-stage in a dark, stinking dive-bar, playing to a crowd of slavering, writhing and fornicating scarlet demons. Demons that worshipped me as El Diablo screamed out a blistering, elongated siren call laden with reverb and feedback.

As I played, the room began to shudder, the dirt floor erupting ripe mud pustules through which corpses in various stages of decomposition scrabbled from their graves, stood upright, and then got their bad selves on down to the hellish groove. El Diablo screamed louder still, and then dive-bombed to a heavy, low-down 12-bar blues riff. Demons grunted like rutting pigs, shitting everywhere as the guttural power chords and driving bass line resonated deep within their bowels.

In the midst of this rancid, rocking, satanic hell-hole, one of the demons separated itself from the undulating mass, turned and lumbered towards me, its breath inundating my world with unholy stench as it morphed into Keith Richards.

“You get that axe, it’s gonna change your life, man,” Keith growled. “How much of a deposit would you need to afford the payments?”

Another corpse shuffled across the stage, strips of rotting material flapping and dangling from its bones, wisps of dirty grey hair creeping from beneath the rim of a filthy top hat. As it drew closer, scraps of desiccated facial muscle twitched in an obscene representation of a grin as the corpse laid its bony hand on my shoulder.

“Today is Friday,” it hoarsed. “People always pay their bills on a Friday.”

I erupted gasping from the nightmare, my pyjamas and bedclothes wringing with sweat, my heart thumping as I switched on the light and waited for the demonic images to fade.

The catalogue was on the floor where I’d left it. The photograph of El Diablo wiggling her curves at me, looking every bit as seductive as a Playboy magazine Centre-fold.

At the back of the catalogue was about ten pages of small print. I speed-read through to the payment terms and worked out that a 20% deposit would halve the weekly payments over three years. Putting El Diablo well within my limited means.

All I had to do was find fifty pounds.

*****

It was dark when my alarm went off, and freezing cold when I slipped out of bed. Outside, the clear sky glistened with stars, the ground with frost and icy treachery.

I was halfway along my paper round when from behind I heard the familiar clinking bottles and low whirring electric hum of Sid Davies’ milk float.

Sid gave a cheery wave as he drove past and then steered across the road to stop outside a block of flats.

I watched him step out of the cab, and reach for a crate of milk bottles.

I watched him heft the crate onto his shoulder, and then turn towards the flats.

I watched him take three steps, and then his feet shot from under him.

I saw his head hit the pavement, and from twenty feet away I heard his skull crack through the crash of breaking glass.

When I reached him, Sid wasn’t moving. Blood poured from his ears, running along the camber of the pavement, mixing with spilt milk to create a grotesque strawberry milkshake pooling in the gutter.

I remembered my brother telling me that if someone is bleeding from the ears, then it’s not a good sign.

I knelt down and felt Sid’s neck for a pulse like my brother had shown me.

Nothing.

I grabbed his wrist.

Nothing.

Sid always wore a battered leather satchel on a thin strap slung over his left shoulder. The satchel lay to one side, the flap was open and in the weak pool of sodium light I could see banknotes inside. Lots and lots of banknotes.

“It’s Friday. Everyone pays their bills on a Friday.”

You get that axe, man, it’s gonna change your life.

I looked up and down the street. It was still early, still too early for signs of any movement. No lights coming on. No curtains twitching. No one around.

I looked back at Sid. Once more I checked his neck and his wrist for a pulse.

Nothing.

I checked the street again. All clear. My heart pounded as I slipped my hand inside the satchel, grabbed fistfuls of notes and stuffed them frantically into my paper sack.

“Whu…whu…whu…”

My body twitched and I stifled a scream as a hand grabbed my wrist. Sid was awake, staring up to sky, gripping my arm, his cheeks puffing and deflating as he blew strange words into the cold morning air.

I leaned over him. “Can you hear me, Sid?”

“Whu…whu…whu…”

“Do you know who I am, Sid?”

“Whu…whu…whu…”

His left foot began to quiver, and then his leg shuddered violently.

“Sid?”

By now his head lay in a lake of blood, his eyes staring wildly. I pried his fingers from my wrist.

“Do you know where you are, Sid?”

“Whu…whu…whu…”

I looked around. The street was empty. Still no sign of anyone.

El Diablo flashed into my vision. Its body pulsing like arterial blood.

You get that axe, man, it’s gonna change your life.

I took a deep breath, grabbed Sid’s head in both hands, lifted it and then with all my strength hammered it onto the pavement.

I felt something give, like the shattering of an eggshell.

“Whuwhuwhuwhu.”

Sid’s breathing became ragged.

I lifted his head again. Took a deep breath and began smashing it down with all the force I could muster. Again and again and again.

Crack.

Crack.

Crack.

Sid’s eyeballs rolled upwards, his throat gave a final clattering gasp, and then he fell silent.

I smashed his head once more, saw something ooze from the back of his skull.

By now I was panting, my body sweating, my arms aching.

I stood up and looked around again. Still nobody about.

I stepped over Sid’s body and carried on with my paper round. When I was out of sight from the street I started pulling banknotes out of my sack and stuffing them into my pockets.

Nobody saw me walking away.

Back at home, I laid the cash out on my bed.

One hundred and twenty five pounds.

*****

Fast Forward to 1975.

By now I was getting pretty tasty. I was still underweight, still stammering, still short-sighted, still anxious and still ginger. But I could play the guitar just like ringing a bell.

Hours and hours and hours of finger-shredding practice, night after night was finally beginning to pay off. I could play pretty much anything, any style. I had inherited my brother’s record collection and developed a preference for early electric blues, and listened to everything by the Rolling Stones up to Exile on Main St. (the last album he bought before the IRA blew him up).

The bullying had lessened somewhat. Encounters were fewer, but no less violent. Going out was safer, but the effects of my anxiety lingered on and my mind was still feeding me dark and sinister thoughts.

El Diablo was my comfort blanket, soaking up most of my anger, calming most of my fears and converting most of my bleak thoughts into sweet tones. Whatever mood I was in, she made me sound good, and when I thought the voices in my head weren’t listening, I would daydream of a playing in a band and becoming a rock and roll hero.

The Turtle Doves were formed at my school in your standard rock group formation: lead singer, two guitarists, bassist and drummer.

Mick Taylor, the lead singer was a tall, skinny narcissist who thought he was Mick Jagger. He really wasn’t.

Dave Scott was the original lead guitarist. The very same spiteful, loudmouth bastard bully who had made my formative years a living hell.

Rhythm guitarist was Alex Scott, Dave’s twin brother and partner in crime.

Bassist was Jimmy Morton. Dedicated to music. Later on, Jimmy co-wrote all the songs with me.

The drummer was Tom Cornwell. Tom was a legend.

I’d watched them practice a few times at school, and soon noticed that cracks were beginning to appear. Jimmy wanted the band to record original material (he was a prolific songwriter), whereas Dave and Alex insisted on playing covers because they couldn’t be arsed to put in the work to learn new chords and create something new. No one else in the band could write music and so Jimmy was outvoted every time. After one particularly memorable argument, the practice session ended with the Scott brothers storming off.

I walked out of school that afternoon to find both of them leaning against a wall, passing a cigarette back and forth. Dave’s face twisted into a sneer.

“What are you looking at, you scrawny little cunt?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Leave me alone.”

I didn’t see the first punch, just felt the explosion on my face and the familiar taste of blood in my mouth. The second punch put me on the ground, my head bouncing off the asphalt. After that, all I could do was curl up tight and try and protect myself against the volley of well-aimed kicks from Dave and his bastard brother.

I heard someone shouting, and then a scuffle, and then the kicking stopped and I was being lifted to my feet.

“Four-eyed ginger twat.” The Scott brothers laughed as they swaggered away.

“Are you alright?”  Jimmy looked genuinely concerned.

I sniffed back tears of humiliation. “I th-think so.”

“Pair of wankers,” said Jimmy.

He stepped back. “I’ve seen you watching us practice,” he said. “You like music?”

I nodded. “I p-play guitar,” I said. “Mostly b-blues-rock.”

I showed him the latest Polaroid of El Diablo.

“That’s a nice guitar,” said Jimmy. “I bet it sounds amazing. Listen. We’re playing at the Rose and Lion pub on Saturday night, why don’t you come along? I’ll make sure those two wankers won’t bother you. Maybe we can hear you play?”

“M-maybe,” I said. “Thanks.”

“See you on Saturday, then.” Jimmy turned and walked away.

When he’d gone I stared for a long time at the picture.

By now the Polaroid was about six months old, the glossy paper well-worn and creased, the image beginning to fade. But as I stared at the picture the colour of El Diablo seemed to become more vivid.

“Burning like the flames of hell.”

The voice made me jump. Its sinister tone suggesting another kicking was inbound, but when I looked around there was no one there.

*****

The Rose and Lion was a down-at-heel pub in a shabby side street that led to a small park and kids’ playground.

The gig didn’t go well. Early on, a burly, shaven-headed punter made his way to the stage and began to heckle Dave loudly. At first Dave tried to ignore him, but the shaven-headed guy was relentless and seemed to know which buttons to press.

He kept on heckling until Dave stopped playing, grabbed his guitar by the neck and hit the floor swinging. Punches were traded, Dave was pulled away, and Shaven-Headed Guy was bundled out of the pub. The gig never recovered and I went home soon after.

The next morning Jimmy turned up at my house.

“We’re looking for a new guitarist,” he said. “It looks like Dave’s gonna be out of action for a long time.”

Jimmy told me that after leaving the pub, the Shaven-Headed Guy hung around outside. Later that night, witnesses saw him grab Dave and frog march him into the park.

Next morning, Dave was found unconscious near the swings. Every single bone in his body had been systematically and expertly broken.

A couple of weeks later, on a Friday afternoon, I went to visit Dave in hospital. He was out of Intensive Care and in a room on his own. Encased in a body cast, and hanging from traction wires, he looked like a wounded marionette.

I walked up to the bed and leaned in close. The bruising on his face had ripened to a midnight blue, with patchy clouds of sickly yellow. His broken jaw was wired shut, rendering his trapped words unintelligible.

“Not so scary now, are you? You fucking wanker.”

Swollen, bloodshot eyes stared back at me, first with anger, then uncertainty, and then widening in fear as I licked his face, dragging my tongue from his chin to his forehead.

I leaned closer, to whisper in his ear.

“Take a good look, because my face is the last thing you’re ever going to see. I hope you burn in hell, you piece of shit.”

I grabbed a pillow from an armchair next to the bed, placed it over Dave’s face and pushed down hard.

It was over in seconds. The bed shook violently at first, and then calmed, and then silence.

I looked up at the sound the scratch-flare of a match, and the smell of burning tobacco.

Sid, the milkman, stood in the corner of the room, dragging on a Woodbine. His pallid, death-mask creased into a grin as cigarette smoke poured from his nostrils and mouth.

“It’s Friday,” he said. “People always pay their bills on a Friday.”

Sid winked at me. “You did a good job,” he said. “When they lifted me up my brains fell out of the back of my head. Have a look.”

He turned around. Jagged edges of skull framed a gaping hole in the back of his head, it looked like a window pane after a brick has gone through it.

Sid turned to face me, and then nodded at Dave’s body. “He’s on his way. Probably burning as we speak. Nasty little cunt.”

His cheeks hollowed as he drew on the Woodbine. “You better go,” he said.

I put the pillow back on the chair. When I looked up, Sid was gone.

I took a moment to stroke Dave’s head, felt myself smile as I whispered, “Fuck you,” and then I walked out of the room.

*****

I joined the band and very soon Jimmy and I began writing together, and gradually we built up a decent repertoire of original, hard-driving songs.

Without his thug twin for back up, Alex left me alone. But he still hated my guts, and I hated his. There was still a score to be settled, but I bided my time.

In 1976, The Sex Pistols (or Malcom Maclaren’s Monkees, as I called them) hit the UK like a lightning bolt, sparking a wildfire that swept across the country.

By 1977 our back catalogue captured the zeitgeist perfectly and we were soon compared with The Pistols, The Clash and The Stranglers.

Our name began to spread. A demo tape played by John Peel begat a local radio interview, which begat more gigs, which begat an offer of a deal with an up and coming indie record company, which begat a hit single, which begat another one, and another one.

And then we hit the big time.

We did Top of The Pops three times, became regulars on the John Peel show, and even supported the Rolling Stones for one show (John Lee Hooker was ill and we happened to be the only band in town. But still…).

After the Stones gig, Keith Richards asked if he could play my guitar. When he picked up El Diablo, he looked at me sideways, chuckled and then winked knowingly as he played the opening riff to Sympathy for the Devil.

Later that night, Keith posed for a picture with me. Later still, his dealer introduced me to heroin.

We made it onto the covers of New Musical Express, Melody Maker and Smash Hits.

All through this El Diablo never left my side, and never let me down. She became my trademark, and part of music lore, almost as famous as BB King’s ‘Lucille’. I made sure she was on every album cover, picture disc and concert poster.

Gibson got to hear of it and offered to give me a real SG, and a very lucrative sponsorship deal that would’ve set me up for life,  provided that I agree to get rid of El Diablo. I declined, which sent Alex over the top in a thermonuclear drunken hissy fit.

“Are you fucking mad?” He screamed. “The biggest guitar company in the world have offered to give you one of their guitars, and you’d rather play that cheap piece of shit?” His foot lashed out, kicking El Diablo from her stand

Even though I’d killed two people, Alex Scott was the first and last person that I had ever punched. Drawing on a lifetime of experience, I knew exactly where to hit him. The first punch broke his nose, the second his cheekbone, the third and fourth resulted later in an eye-watering bill for cosmetic dentistry and the kicks to his nuts made him scream like baby.

That was in the Green Room at the BBC studios, just before we played on The Old Grey Whistle Test, which explains why Alex didn’t appear that night.

A week later, a couple of days before Christmas, we played the legendary gig in Belfast.

I hadn’t seen Alex since I smacked him. He flew to Belfast on his own, joining us for the sound check before the gig. He didn’t speak to anyone, and no one spoke to him.

I felt nervous at being there. We were an English band playing in Belfast at the height of The Troubles, and you could feel the tension in the venue. But we played a storm, the crowd roared their approval at every song. Half way through the set, Mick was introducing the band like he always did, when Alex stalked across the stage, grabbed the microphone and pointed to me.

“And this little shit is our lead guitarist. The IRA blew up his brother, and if any of you lot are in tonight I’ll buy you all a drink.”

El Diablo buzzed in my hand. Its devil-shape burned behind my eyelids.

Half the crowd cheered, the other half booed. And then it all kicked off. All of us had to duck as a hail of bottles and broken seats clattered onto the stage.

Mick froze centre-stage. I can’t say I blame him.

Jimmy came across to me. “We’ve got to do something,” he yelled. “This is like the Stones at fucking Altamont.”

I played a familiar riff. Jimmy nodded, patted me on the shoulder, and then looked at Tom.

“Stiff Little Fingers,” he shouted.

Tom nodded. Mick looked petrified. “I don’t know any,” he said.

Jimmy shrugged. “I fucking do.”  He stepped forward to his mic, “1-2-3-4…!”

I played the riff again, and the crowd roared as we thundered through a monster version of “Alternative Ulster”.

When we finished, the house lights came on and I saw the full extent of the ongoing carnage. The auditorium was a frenzied mass of vicious sectarian fighting. In the midst of the violence I saw a familiar face battling his way to the exit.

It was to be our last ever gig.

Backstage was chaos and the band got separated in the melee. When we all made it back to the dressing room, Alex was nowhere to be seen. The unspoken assumption was that he’d made his own way to wherever he was going.

Jimmy looked at me. “What he said was out of order. Are you OK?”

I said I was fine.

El Diablo continued buzzing in my hand, and in my mind.

Alex’s body was found three days later. He’d been shot through both knees and through the back of the head. His hooded body left next to a burnt-out car on a patch of wasteland in Bandit Country.

The Turtle Doves split up after the Belfast gig, I haven’t seen them since.

After that I bummed around. When a solo career didn’t work out, I did some session work and got by. And then my mum died of cancer, I lost interest in everything, and that’s when my habit really got a hold of me.

When you’re in the money, a heroin addiction is something you can manage. Something you can laugh off, or justify to yourself. When I stopped earning, my life spiraled into a nosedive towards yet another “Live Fast, Die Young” rock and roll cliché.

Looking back I’ve forgotten more than I can recall. Can’t even remember the last time I played. Every last piece of my music memorabilia has gone now. Squirted through a filthy syringe to give me ever-shortened bouts of blessed oblivion.

All I had left was my guitar. I tried to pawn it the other day. The pawnbroker laughed at me as he offered me a pittance, and then laughed even louder as I stumbled out onto the street. People can smell desperation, and when you’re a fallen rock star and drug addict the only place you’ll find sympathy is in the dictionary, somewhere between shit and syphilis.

Most of my veins have collapsed now, I’m half blind (injecting yourself through the eye will do that), my teeth are rotten and I’ve got ulcers all over my body. My worldly possessions are this notebook, a pen that I nicked from a betting shop, a sleeping bag and the clothes that are hanging off me.

And that fucking guitar. Still burning red and as immaculate as the day I bought it, while my life has turned to shit.

This morning I woke up under some bushes. At least it didn’t rain in the night. One of the newspapers I’m lying on is a couple of days old. The front page story is about a British Army patrol killed by the IRA in Londonderry. There are pictures of the victims, one of whom is Shaven-Headed Guy, AKA the late Sergeant Major Adam Lane, 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment. Best friend of my late brother, and pall-bearer at his funeral.

The last time I saw him we were standing over the body of Alex Scott, Adam’s Browning 9mm still smoking in my hand. Adam had broken both of Alex’s ankles so that he couldn’t make a run for it – he was good at breaking bones, was Adam – and then told me where to shoot him, to make it look like a punishment shooting.

Alex screamed like a baby, said he was sorry for all the times he and his brother beat me up, snot pouring down his face as he begged for mercy. I was as high as a kite but I remember laughing when I blew his kneecaps out, and the stench of him shitting himself when pulled the hood over his face and pushed the gun barrel against the back of his head.

After a lifetime of imagining scenarios of slow, violent revenge, I thought killing the Scott twins would make me feel better. Instead, all of my dark fantasies of retribution turned into terrifying nightmares of remorse – hideous dreams from which I always wake screaming. And when I go for too long without a heroin fix, my night terrors appear as daylight hallucinations.

The gift that keeps on giving.

When I’m not high or hallucinating I think of Sid the milkman, how it felt to batter his head on the pavement, cracking it open until his brains leaked out.

Lately, I’ve seen him every day. Sometimes he talks to me, but mostly he stands to one side, a Woodbine in his mouth, blowing smoke rings, smiling quietly, looking at his watch and biding his time.

I realise that I’ve shit myself in my sleep. I pick up the damp newspaper and read the story about the IRA bomb.

Sid’s waving to me now, beckoning me towards him. I guess it’s time to go. I stand up, and sling El Diablo’s strap over my shoulder for one last performance.

As I stagger towards Sid, the railway line’s vibrating and I can hear the train a’coming.

“It’s a Friday,” said Sid. “Everyone always pays their bills on a Friday.”

Rock Star Suicide

Rich Anthony, troubled lead guitarist with the punk rock band, The Turtle Doves, has been found dead in an apparent suicide.

Anthony, 27, of no fixed abode, was hit by an express train at approximately 7am on Christmas Eve.

Since leaving The Turtle Doves, Anthony suffered from drug addiction, and mental issues brought on after the recent loss of his mother.

A police spokesman said that Anthony’s trademark red guitar was found undamaged near the scene.

©Richard Wall 2017

Bio: Born in England in 1962, Richard grew up in a small market town in rural Herefordshire before joining the Royal Navy. After 22 years in the submarine service and having travelled extensively, Richard now lives and writes in rural Worcestershire.

His first short story, “Evel Knievel and The Fat Elvis Diner” (available on Kindle), was soon followed by “Five Pairs of Shorts” a collection of ten short stories, and another short story called ‘Hank Williams’ Cadillac’.
Richard has also collaborated with Hull musician, Andrew McLatchie (aka ‘Half Deaf Clatch’), writing a short story to accompany Clatch’s supernatural spaghetti-western concept album “Beelzebub Jones – A Good Day to be a Bad Guy”.
Richard’s stories reflect his life-long fascination with the dark underbelly of American culture; be it tales of the Wild West,  or the simmering menace of the Deep South, or the poetry of Charles Bukowski, or the writing of Langston Hughes or Andrew Vachss, or the music of Charley Patton, Son House, Johnny Cash, or Tom Waits.
A self-confessed Delta Blues music anorak, Richard embarked on a road trip from Memphis to New Orleans, where a bizarre encounter in Clarksdale, Mississippi inspired him to write his début novel, Fat Man Blues.