Wastelandby Keith Crews / Horror
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Copyright © 2010 by Keith Crews
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THE LAST CHANCE
Angelo Marchetti was a killer.
Vengeance had tempered the hitman’s long journey with a test of age while death had come to season with a harvest for the worthy. The end would be heralded upon a gun’s barrel as an empire of corruption collapsed into the barren dust. It was a dream realized, yet stolen, bittersweet and satiated with hollow sentiment for fate was a thief and a whore that sold its virtue to the cruel.
But then the hitman was also cruel. Surely his currency had paid the way with suffering.
Should not the hitman suffer as well?
The night breathed neon from an urban jungle while the world below turned upon an axis of pandemonium. Sirens screeched into the ebony, damning the hitman to that place which would soon lay claim. Death had ripened the man with the steel gray eyes and soon the scythe would separate the stalk from the chaff.
It was to be expected.
The hitman’s piercing eyes faded under the fall of heavy eyelids as the blood let. His slender fingers touched the scarlet fissure at center chest where a fire burned fiercely. The bullet had torn clean through the heart, not a trace of lead to be found therein except for its spicy aftertaste.
The end drew nigh.
He stared upon the bleak nondescript horizon and to a deaf city that marked his passing with an indifferent shade of boredom. Here, he had finally come to the end of all things and nary a soul batted an eye nor ventured a glance in consideration.
Death offered a lonely bed of sorrow to lie upon.
In the soul’s dying light, dreams succumb to darkness. The woman that never was had departed him, lost forever to circumstance and a love unrealized. Perhaps their paths might chance to intertwine in the hereafter. A fool’s dream suffered to the hard spike, but it would be there that Angelo Marchetti’s journey would truly begin.
The hitman’s eyes slowly parted to an open. A pale horizon of silver-gray lay beneath a depressing canopy of charcoal sketch, the land a flat barren waste of gray ice and dull snow. Angelo crawled into a stiff slouch, that fearsome pain within his chest a faded memory. Carefully, his fingers inspected the wound: no hole nor stain of blood, just a dark denim shirt with black ebony buttons in store bought condition.
Angelo’s skilled hands ducked beneath the narrow lapels of his full length leather coat and swiftly withdrew Thunder and Lightning. The guns were composite black, ammo clips loaded down on eleven hard spikes with two additional nails chambered into the pipes. The howitzers were cold to the touch but felt good inside the skilled grip of the hitman’s slender hands. The weapons were dark trophies, harbingers of death and the fire with which the hitman struck. The guns were reliable tools of the killing trade and they had come to be in the hitman’s possession at a great personal cost. The weapons were more than just guns, they were symbolic of an unimaginable hardship both endured and conquered.
The Archer Howitzers had been paid for in blood.
The guns retreated back into their well-worn, well-oiled leather strap shoulder holsters, where they nested beneath his muscular arms in perilous wait. His fingers, cold and raw slid into the mild warmth aside his ribs, soaking up heat as the vicious wind kicked sharpened bits of ice into his eyes and stern lined face.
The hitman did not know where he was, but understood it was not the world he’d come from.
Perhaps an alternate universe?
Wherever it was, Angelo needed shelter or else he would die from hypothermia, and he had already suffered the weight of death once this night and would not bear its company again.
His keen eyes scanned the horizon in search of civilization only to find the desolate plateau of a frozen wasteland. In the distance a subtle light glowed dim on a shade of ethereal amber: a destination. Removing the belt from his coat’s waist, the hitman tied it firmly around his head like a bandana, covering the aching ears aside his head from the bite of frost. The buttons of the expensive Italian coat were fastened up to the neck, the thin lapels tucked awkwardly beneath the press of his square chin as a breaker.
It would be a long walk.
His snakeskin boots trudged forward through the snow, carrying him off across a frozen waste towards what could only be described as a slight glimmer of hope on an otherwise bleak frontier.
The town was small, a series of humble wooden shacks surrounded by a horse paddock of barn board fencing and the sight brought to mind where such timber had come from.
Angelo’s toes felt frozen within the wedge of his snakeskin boots, his fingers beaten by a frigid hammer, the cold flesh tied around his skull ached to a split. Regardless of who or what lived here, Angelo could not deny the immediate need for shelter. Despite the danger, the hitman staggered forth, eyes blurred by a gale force wind that seemed driven by a sentient will.
A wooden hand painted sign flapped overhead inside the gusts of an angry wind which simply read “Boondocks.” Angelo’s cubed feet stumbled through the town’s rickety gates and down its solitary street which separated a sum of twelve humble wooden buildings. The snow lay thin along the cracked tundra but had drifted neck deep in some corners. A cold dull light spilled through several frosty windows of each building, a wispy shade of orange as thrown from weak oil lanterns and dim candles. A few silhouettes fleeted behind the panes which ran the length of main street.
Someone lived here and they were watchful.
From beneath his hide of leather lay the guns.
What would they feel like inside his cold hands?
He doubted his frozen fingers would even recognize their touch. Still, the howitzers wanted to be held, to protect their guardian, but Angelo kept them holstered. Despite the fact that the hitman was vulnerable, he felt a show of strength would not work in his favor in these cursed lands. He needed the kindness of strangers and he wouldn’t invoke much sympathy with angry gun barrels.
At the far end of the modest shacks stood a two story building constructed from black castle stone and ashen barn board. It had a tall fort door that was flanked to either side by sectional plate windows that were buried beneath a thin layer of white ice. From behind the translucent panes, a bright orange glow promised both warmth and untold knowledge, perhaps the very meaning of life, or in this case, death.
The hitman’s boots stepped up onto the open porch of warped boards that ran along the building’s forward veneer like broken piano keys. The sound beneath their heels was dull but nonetheless glorious. Angelo’s hand came out of hiding from within the folds of his jacket and laid itself upon a wrought iron door handle. The metal’s touch barely registered and the hitman couldn’t help but think on Thunder and Lightning again.
If he had to throw down, would he even be able to pull their triggers?
The handle clicked and the heavy beam door swung open.
Aromas greeted Angelo: cigar smoke, booze, cooked meat and old wood that had eaten more than its share of hard age. But there was also something else in the mix, subtle and faint, a staleness associated with rot, dead that had died.
Logs laid piled within the colorful quartz hub of a stone hearth fireplace that cast off an inviting warmth. The pine wood kindling popped and hissed under the burst of red-orange embers with an almost musical rhythm.
The old man behind the mahogany bar was tall, lean, had hungry eyes. He worked a white dishrag into a clear shot glass with long slender fingers. He regarded Angelo without the slightest hint of surprise as if he’d been expecting the hitman all along.
Despite Angelo’s concern that he might be walking into trouble, he nonetheless lumbered inside on legs that felt weighted down on blocks of granite. The hitman casually assessed the bartender with the thick dark moustache and crooked nose.
There was a tense pause, an ominous quiet that only gave up its silence to the snaps and pops of explosive sparks.
“Howdy,” the bartender said in a calm even voice. “Welcome to the Last Chance Saloon.”
“Evening,” Angelo said with a courteous nod. “Mind if I cozy up to your fire?”
The bartender gave a crooked grin, one that was knowing and spoke on many different levels. “You and I both know what you really need, Angelo.”
If he wasn’t already frozen, Angelo would have given a shudder. It wasn’t that the bartender had known his name, it was how he had said it. There was a strange note of authority within the old man’s cadence, words spoken by someone who wasn’t quite human.
Angelo shuffled over to the bar on heat deprived legs, still wondering just how heavy Thunder and Lightning would feel inside the mitts of his cold dead hands. The hitman lifted an arm and removed the leather belt that had kept his ears from falling off the sides of his head. It was an arduous effort, a struggle he kept hidden from the barkeep with a well practiced poker face. However, the bartender’s eyes knew better and could see through such bluffs, because he wasn’t of the natural world, but rather a creature of the hereafter.
“What’s your poison?” the bartender asked as he slapped a shot glass down onto the bar.
“Dark rum,” Angelo replied, unable to stop his voice from stammering ever so slightly from the cold.
“No…I don’t think you understood the question,” the bartender said as he leaned onto the bar, arms braced wide, eyes locked with Angelo’s as if peering into the dark recesses of the hitman’s soul. “I said---what’s your poison?”
Angelo managed to crawl up onto a barstool with a fair amount of grace. His body, though dead, still had some life in it. His eyes never left the bartender’s and Angelo’s face never hinted once that he was confused.
What’s my poison?
Deluca came to mind, but Angelo knew intuitively that wasn’t the answer the bartender sought. What was his poison?
The bartender gave a slow nod of understanding. “A man who can answer that honestly, deserves a goddamn drink.”
The bartender reached beneath the bar and withdrew two more shot glasses, which were casually set next to the empty glass the barkeep had just cleaned.
Angelo gave a faint smile. “Line’em up barkeep. I’ve had one hell of a night.”
The hitman managed to say this without a tremor.
The bartender pulled out a transparent glass bottle which he sat beside the small trio of empty shot glasses. This unlabelled bottle was half full with a crystal clear liquid that Angelo pegged as homebrewed moonshine. It may not have been rum, but anything that could kick like a mule was welcome company on this side of the rainbow.
The bartender poured out a measure of hooch into the first glass, a strange concoction that was the color of dark russet. Angelo immediately studied the bottle, noted how the liquid inside had not changed from its transparent texture.
How was that possible?
The second shot glass was filled, except this recipe wasn’t brown, but a deep shade of sunset scarlet. The bottle’s mouth then kissed the third glass and out spat three fingers of watery black oil. Still, the transparent solution within the unmarked bottle remained ever clear.
“And one more for the sinner,” the bartender said as he touched the bottle to his lips and tossed back a good stiff hit. The bartender then set the bottle back down where Angelo once again examined it closely.
There was still no sign of discolor to be found within.
“Neat trick,” Angelo said with a curt laugh. His voice sounded a bit breathy, chilled, but steady just the same. “What do you do for an encore?”
The bartender fixed Angelo with an expression which may have been either respect or cold calculation. “You’ve still got your wit. That’s good…for a dead man.”
There it was, dead man, those telling words, the goddamn finality in them.
“So, when do I get to meet God?”
The bartender crooked a smile and then gave the slightest hint of a chuckle. “Got a bunch of questions flapping around inside that mean head of yours, don’t ya Angelo?”
“Riddled with them,” Angelo replied.
The hitman felt as though he should be relieved, that finally he was going to get some answers. But that weird feeling that had given him the unfortunate news that he was dead earlier said words to the contrary. It told him to keep Thunder and Lightning close, and to be extremely cautious of the bartender.
Angelo let his eyes fall onto the drinks.
They were beautiful, but that gut feeling could sense their danger. They were supernatural potions as prescribed to the damned, and although Angelo craved a good hard drink, the warning within his heart wanted no part of those eerie tonics.
Still, his curiosity was ravenous.
What did they do?
Why had the bartender poured out three?
Was the barkeep expecting company, some other drifter to come waltzing in through the door?
Angelo could feel the fireplace pour heat back into his icy body, and as a result his hands and ears ached terribly as the blood slowly made its way back into his frozen veins. Still, the hitman took it as a good sign that on some level, part of him was not only human, but alive as well. However, questions continued to rattle around inside the hitman’s head like bats in an attic, the biggest question of them all involved the ghostly drinks on the bar.
“I’m not your guardian angel, Marchetti,” the bartender said with a serious intonation. “I am what I am, and what this is depends on if you want to know.”
Angelo went to harbor a question on just that, but the bartender raised a finger in silence.
“I’m not a sympathetic ear nor a priest to absolve a confession of sins, Marchetti. You’ve come to Boondocks and like those before, you will adhere to the house rules.”
Angelo thought to ask, or what, but kept silent. He didn’t need a confrontation at the moment, even though the pain inside his hands had slowly begun to fade. True, they were recovering, but they were far from being useful in a shootout.
The ladies would have to sit and wait regardless.
“Take your fill death merchant and lets have at it with due diligence.” The bartender’s eyes briefly caught sight of the door as if to look beyond and out into that bitter darkness that sucked the life out of the very soil. “There’s sinister work to be done this night, and as always my service is to Sartomonius.”
Again, Angelo thought to field a question, but he could tell that the bartender had yet to finish his nonsensical spiel, which didn’t sound so much like a riddle, but a rant.
“Three drinks have been poured before thee, and three drinks you shall bear, fates damn you.” The bartender then let his hollow eyes sweep along the shot glasses with such a fierce gaze, that Angelo was almost certain that they would burst into flame. “See them well death merchant, and see them through from brown to black. Taste of one, and a question shall be granted an answer. Taste of another, and an answer shall favor curiosity once more. Drink the third and the last words asked shall be met with certain knowledge.” The barkeep crossed his arms and nodded decisively. “These are the house rules of The Last Chance Saloon, death merchant. So as they were…are…and forever shall be.” A wide pompous grin aligned the barkeep’s thinly wound lips. “Complete these three tasks and then safe passage from Boondocks shall be granted, so say the house rules, amen.”
Angelo shuffled uncomfortably upon the barstool, wanting very much to knock the shot glasses and the bartender onto the floor. The hitman didn’t care to be spoken to in such absolute terms. The only orders Angelo received came from a fat guy they called the Big Greasy---Romulus---not some ugly suds monkey with a shiny handlebar moustache.
Thunder and Lighting suddenly felt as though a heat had begun to emanate from within their well-oiled chambers. They didn’t care much for the bartender’s tone either, but Angelo kept them leashed as he didn’t yet fully grasp what he was up against. Perhaps on this side of the rainbow bartenders were bullet proof and ate mafia hitmen for nice light snacks. Angelo would play it cool, drink his fill of magic hooch and then ask three paltry questions.
What could the hitman possibly hope to learn from such a limited exchange? Directions to the bathroom---where to get a good cigar---if they sold those beef jerky strips that he enjoyed so much back in the land of the living.
What would he ask?
But more importantly, what did those drinks on the bar do?
Angelo examined the shot glasses with a mindful eye. The drinks had an almost incandescent quality, a glow that seemed to pulse like a faint heartbeat.
Were they alive?
Parasitic organisms that wormed their way into the brain via the liver?
Angelo’s cold but steady fingers picked up the first shot glass of brown and raised it in a toast salute. “Here’s mud in your eye, barkeep.”
With that said, the hitman threw back the muddy drink in one quick toss and then slammed the glass back down onto the counter. The aftertaste was like damp soil that had been laden down with a snarl of slick earthworms, the kind of vermin that fed on funeral casket parfait. The hitman wanted to gag, but he kept that reflex in careful check lest he appear weak in the barkeep’s eyes.
Always the tough guy.
As for Angelo’s eyes, they were a completely different story.
They had a mind of their own, rolled lazily around inside his head as if their owner were totally exhausted and ready to pass out. However, the hitman’s mind remained wholly alert, its thoughts plotting a course of action, like the most efficient way to aim Thunder and Lightning with his vision on the fritz, and how much those special ladies would weigh inside his cold grip.
The killer hands at the ends of his wrists prepared to respond, to bring on the storm, when his eyelids suddenly steadied. The hitman regarded the bartender with a not too impressed sentiment, to which the barkeep grinned fiendishly.
“Tough as nails and thrice as sharp,” the bartender said with a shake of his ratty head.
The bartender had seen many a soul pass out over the ages, some even die. Very few stayed conscious after tasting a good stiff shot of yester, let alone remain seated on their barstool like this mean spirited thug had.
“Now death merchant, gaze into my mirror and show me your poison. Then I’ll fancy thee with an answer to your first question.”
Angelo thought to sarcastically ask for another tip of brown, but worried that might constitute a genuine question. Instead, he bade the bartender’s request and let his keen eyes examine the mirror on the back wall, his body always warming, hands always preparing.
The mirror was enormous, framed in by golden ornaments which resembled human and animal bones alike. It stood before a huge selection of spirits, booze that came in many different sizes and colorful bottles. Of course part of that bounty was an illusion, the mirror’s reflection added dimension to the room and exaggerated the amount of liquor by a factor of two. Still, it was a good stash, perhaps even enough to get a few dozen loan shark leg breakers nice and jagged.
As for the looking glass: it changed, resembled a pool of liquid chrome, a surface whose boundary could not easily be plotted. Its high sheen surface rolled like a seamless wave upon a lake of silver sterling. It had taken on an entirely different dimension, one that perhaps did not reflect images but imitated them, because in truth there had never been a mirror there to begin with, just a large smooth eye that showed what it saw and saw what it coveted.
Angelo tried to look away, but was unable to pry his eyes free from the freaky sideshow mirror. The mirror hooked the hitman’s sharp wits by the brainstem and pulled his soul out through the apertures of his unblinking eyes like a black hole swallows light. Angelo’s posterior remained planted upon the barroom stool but his mind tumbled through time and space, thoughts dizzy on a stiff shot of yester. But before Angelo Marchetti’s essence impacted with the warped border of the barroom mirror, he heard a recognizable sound.
It was grating and made the stomach tighten in a way that only one noise could.
It was none other than Mount Hope’s mid-morning recess buzzer.