The band is eating at a cheap diner with the local club manager, making arrangements for the evening's gig, when they are attacked by a swarm of flying snakes. Adrian, the organ player and wizard, is bitten. Before he puts himself into a magical coma, face turning purple, he warns his band mates that they only have three hours to save him.
Can the band find a cure before Adrian's time is up? Why is the town's preacher obsessed with the ancient Israelite serpent icon, the Nehushtan? And can the band get out of town before the snake god Apep arrives?
Snake Handlin' Man is the second installment of Rock Band Fights Evil, a pulp fiction serial by D.J. Butler.
Humour and hellhounds, killer guitar riffs and lost souls. Oh yeah, and laughs, lots of laughs. Who doesn’t love laughing at a hero in that much trouble? Okay, maybe I’m just mean… – Steven Savile
"I assume none of you guys has anything against strippers?"
Owen had the dusky olive skin and dark hair that said he was a classic American mutt, some Eastern Europe in him, maybe Serb or Greek, some Latin America, some who-knew-what. He was a heavy man, not in the this-guy-eats-Twinkies-for-breakfast way, but in the this-guy-can-wrestle-a-Peterbilt-to-the-asphalt way. Also, Eddie had noticed as the man waved at them coming in through the door of the diner, he was packing. It was a big pistol, not particularly hidden in a shoulder holster under Owen's slightly shabby sport coat.
Eddie respected that. He had his Glock in a shoulder holster, too. When the rubber hit the road, of course, he preferred his Remington 870 Express Magnum, a twelve-gauge pump action with its stock shortened and its barrel cut down. He had other guns, other shotguns, even, but the 870 was his favorite. A single slug from the 870 was enough for any human attacker, and most minor minions of Hell. But you couldn't just walk into a diner with a sawed-off shotgun and ask for coffee.
Not even in Oklahoma.
"We ain't proud," Eddie grunted.
"Good," Owen pounded the Formica table with one meaty fist. "It's a small stage, and you're gonna to have to share."
"They have boobs, right?" Mike asked. The big bass player grinned like he was kidding. He was jumpy, but he'd handled himself well in New Mexico, and Eddie didn't mind having him along, even if Jim did see the Left Hand on the guy. For that matter, the fact that he was on Heaven's bad side made him fit in better with the band.
"Mike's no homophobe," Adrian sneered. "Women or trannies, either way. Beggars can't… well, you know what they say about beggars."
Owen roared with laughter and pounded the table again. Behind the club manager, Eddie saw a sheet of flame. Men hung in it like worms baiting fish, the tips of enormous hooks protruding through their chests. Their feet twitched, gore ran down their bellies and legs, their mouths worked the shapes of tormented howling, but Eddie heard nothing.
He could see Hell, thank Heaven he didn't have to hear it. He rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands while the vision faded. He'd needed the money, he reminded himself. He'd sold his soul because he wanted to be a good man and wanted his kids to eat bread that wasn't marked down because it was stale for once. The visions didn't come from him, didn't reflect him—they were his punishment for one really stupid choice.
He'd screwed it up six ways to Sunday, but he'd meant to do it for Sharon and the girls.
"This ain't that kind of town," Owen chuckled, "and Correia's ain't that kind of joint. But I got a tip on a place in Amarillo, if that's what you're into. Never been there myself, you understand, but I'm an open-minded guy."
"Jeez," Mike grumbled, elbowing Adrian in the ribs.
"What'll you have?"
The waitress was clean and pretty. She had the look of a self-improver about her, her uniform clean even though it was a horrible orange and brown polyester, her flat shoes shined and spotless even though she'd obviously bought them at PayLess, her hair back in a neat ponytail. Also, she wasn't chewing gum, which was a plus. And she was very pregnant. The plastic rectangle pinned to her chest read SAMANTHA.
"Coffee," Eddie said instantly. "Don't bother making a fresh pot."
"In fact," Twitch said, his eyes sparkling across the corner booth, "if you can use water from the urinal, Eddie would prefer it. He likes his punishment self-inflicted."
Eddie harrumphed, ignoring the jab from the fairy drummer. "Chicken-fried steak and gravy for the big guy," he added, jerking his thumb at Jim. Jim nodded quietly and smiled, big pale goth-looking son of a bitch that he was. Big but thin, no matter what he ate. Probably got that indestructible physique from his father, who was Azazel himself, head of the Infernal Council and Prince of Darkness. "And a large Pepsi."
"Ooh," she said, making a tight circle of her lips and exhaling sharply. She rubbed her own belly and then grinned. "He's kicking." She wrote down Jim's lunch.
"Pie, Samantha," Mike jumped in. "A slice of your best. No, one slice each of your two best."
"That would be coconut cream," she said, "and coconut cream. She leaned in close to the bass player, her breasts brushing his shoulder. "The rest of it is Alpo."
"Thanks." Mike laughed.
She nodded and noted the pie on her pad. "You can call me Sami."
"Are your eggs from free range chickens?" Adrian asked.
"Nope," Sami said. "They're from the Costco in Guymon."
Adrian sighed and shook his head. The wizard was finicky. He seemed to think his new age lifestyle was a necessary component of his sorcery; Eddie doubted it but didn't care. The patchouli oil and the incense and the morning exercise routine didn't get in the rest of the band's way, any more than Eddie's visions did.
"Don't fret about it," Eddie told him. "You do enough yoga for you and the chickens both."
"Besides," Mike got in a lick, "free range eggs aren't going to be enough to keep you awake."
"I'll take two eggs anyway," Adrian shrugged, glaring at the bass player. "Scrambled. No toast, unless you have whole wheat without high fructose corn syrup."
"Mmmm," purred Sami, the waitress, in a friendly way, "a man who takes care of himself." Her accent was pleasant and twangy, more deep Texas than Oklahoma, it seemed to Eddie.
"This body is a high performance instrument," Adrian sniffed, "called upon frequently to perform extraordinary feats. You drive a Formula One car, you can't just pull into the Chevron and fill the tank with Unleaded."
"In fact," Twitch said, "if you drive a Formula One car, it turns out that you mostly leave it in the garage. Scrambled eggs for me, too, darling, and I'll have the toast, as long as it's made out of bread."
"Two eggs," Sami noted, "one toast." She frowned a sad frown at Adrian and patted him on the shoulder. She wasn't wearing a wedding ring, Eddie couldn't help noticing. "And for you, Owen?" she asked.
Owen shook his head. "I got a sack lunch in the desk," he said. "You know me."
Sami smiled at all of them. "I'll be right back," she promised. As she turned to go, Eddie got a good look at her swollen belly. She was just about ready to pop, he realized. He remembered when Sharon had looked like that, in the last days of each of her pregnancies. He shut out the memories, concentrated on the table.
"Cash," he said to Owen. "Cash is the important thing."
"I remember," Owen nodded. "No worries."
"Your accountant okay with it? We don't exactly do our taxes."
"I am the accountant," the big man said. "And I'm okay with it. Most of our local traffic pays in cash, so it'll be easy to fix."
"That's what I like to hear."
"I don't get you," Mike said to Eddie, gulping his ice water. One sip of the water had been enough for Eddie; it tasted like sand and chlorine.
"Yeah?" Eddie looked around the diner, staying alert. Cracked linoleum, peeling faux-wood, dirty glass. Ageing donuts and cookies in a bell-shaped glass display next to the khaki-colored cash register, vintage 1980 or older. Posters of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe and James Dean peeling away from Scotch tape faded into yellow visibility. A truck driver scarfing down a foot long sandwich in one corner and two old women yammering over coffee and biscuits. Or maybe it was black tea. And a big wheel, silver-gleaming, on which the bodies of four young women were impaled and spinning. No one else but Eddie saw this last, of course. "What's not to get?"
Mike looked thoughtfully at Owen, which was good. At least the new guy was conscious enough of what he was saying to be careful around outsiders. "I mean, you live so careful, Eddie."
"Yeah. If I was you, I'd try the pie. Mierda, if I was you, I'd eat nothing but pie. Pie and donuts."
Mike meant: if I knew exactly when and how I was going to die, Eddie, like you do, I'd go crazy and stuff myself with pie because it wouldn't matter.
Well, not exactly when and how.
"You'd go crazy with the women, too," Eddie predicted.
"Or the trannies," Adrian threw in.
"Hey," Mike objected.
"Probably skydive and mainline heroin and do anything else, right?" Eddie asked. "Smoke like a chimney, drink like a fish. Because you wouldn't give a damn about the consequences."
"So what you're saying," Eddie ground out the logical conclusion of Mike's line of thought carefully, "is that if you were me, you'd give up." He realized that he was inadvertently clenching both his fists, and he made a conscious effort to relax them.
"Uh…" Mike struggled.
Owen scratched his head. "I think he's just saying live a little, man," the club manager suggested. "I mean, coffee? You gotta have more than coffee."
"I do live a little," Eddie said. "Sometimes I add cream."
"You're a wild man," Owen laughed. "Tonight, I'll run your tab at cost. And the first beer's on Correia's."
"Help!" the voice was Sami the waitress's.
Eddie jumped out of his seat and Owen jumped with him, shoulder to shoulder as they both whipped out guns. Behind him, Eddie heard the rest of the band struggling with the confines of the circular table and the corner booth. Twitch could become a falcon at will, but he wouldn't want to do it with this many witnesses. Not unless it was really necessary.
"It's okay!" the cook called. He was scrambling out from the kitchen to the area behind the counter, waving at the diner's customers. "She's okay, she just slipped!"
Eddie noticed Owen's gun. "Desert Eagle," he said admiringly. "Fifty caliber?"
"Made by bad-ass Hebrews," Owen agreed. He nodded at Eddie's pistol. "Glock 18? Selective fire?"
Eddie grinned. "Sometimes you just gotta shoot automatic."
"Hey," Owen shrugged. "You can't always choose when you're gonna have multiple assailants. I respect an informed decision."
"I respect a man whose gun can punch holes through brick walls."
"Aw," Twitch sighed. "They're in love."
"Sami?" the cook yelped. He was a burly man in jeans and a greasy white t-shirt, with no hair to speak of on his head and arms covered in burn scars. He stood up and backed away from the spot behind the counter where the waitress must be lying.
"Aaaaaaagh!" she screamed.
"Jeez!" Mike grabbed the bird's nest of superstitious junk that hung from his neck. Eddie holstered his gun and ran for the counter.
He vaulted over the counter as the cook turned and ran, filling the space the man vacated. Sami lay sprawled against a big plastic bag full of Styrofoam cups, legs akimbo and knees up. Her brown and orange skirt was dark and wet, and Eddie's sadly experienced brain instantly identified the cause.
Samantha sat in a puddle of her own blood.
"Aaagh!" she screamed again, throwing her head back and bucking her hips.
"Easy, girl," Eddie tried to calm her. He'd delivered his own first child, on a midwinter Chicago night when the air was frozen so solid the hospital couldn't force its ambulances out the door, at least not when the call came from Eddie's shitty South Side row of tenements. His own car had been broken down, as always, brakes totally shot. He'd never had a car worth owning. He didn't want to deliver the waitress's kid, but he wasn't about to leave her to her own devices, either.
"My baby!" she shouted at him. Her face was red and straining, the cords of her neck muscles standing out like rope.
"Owen!" Eddie hollered. The old ladies had looked up from their biscuits at the commotion. The trucker was staring, too, mayonnaise and barbecue sauce dripping from all his fingers and staining his flannel shirt. "Who delivers babies in this town?"
"Doc Jensen!" Owen snapped, and dug into his pocket for a cell phone.
"Tell him it's the bottom of the ninth!" If there was already blood, Sami wasn't going anywhere to have her baby.
Eddie turned back to the girl.
"You're going to be okay," he promised her. He tried to ignore the river of fire he saw drifting lazily beneath her hips and the skeletal hands that seemed to be reaching up from within it. "Just hold my hand and tell me where it hurts. Focus on breathing." He felt like an idiot. He hadn't been able to do much for his wife when she'd delivered, either, just held her hand and took her abuse and then caught the baby and toweled it off.
"Aaaagh!" Sami screamed again, twisting her neck like she was riding a bucking bronco, and clawing a handful of Styrofoam from the pile she lay on.
A snake stuck its head out from under her skirt. A really big snake.
"What the hell?"
Eddie stumbled back, falling onto his own butt. As he did, a flash of movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention.
Eddie had been freestyle fighting champion of his company in Iraq, unofficial but also uncontested. He had lost muscle since then, but his sinews, nerves and reflexes were as good as they'd ever been. He kicked himself back, slamming upward with the blade of his right hand, deflecting the missile darting in to strike his neck—
his blow connected with a heavy thwack—
he knocked the missile straight up into the air over his head, where he got a good look at the thing that was attacking him. It was another snake, this one more normal in size, maybe four or five feet long, red and green and vicious.
Only the snake had wings. Leathery bat's wings, and its wingspan was almost as long as the snake's body.
Then something grabbed his feet. Eddie looked down and saw thick, scaly knuckles tightening their grip on the ankles of each of his combat boots. They dragged forward the thing that emerged from underneath Sami the waitress's skirt, tongue slithering in and out of its diamond-shaped head.
It wasn't a snake. It was a Komodo dragon, or something so similar that Eddie couldn't tell the difference. When it cracked its jaws Eddie saw teeth like shards of glass.
"Jim!" Eddie yelled. "Adrian!"
Another snake popped out from under the waitress's skirt, another flyer that launched itself into the air. She shrieked, a high-pitched, wordless sound of pain that was more like the squeal of a deflating balloon than a noise a human would ever normally make.
Eddie scissor-kicked his boots together, thumping them into the lizard's head behind its jaw, where he hoped the tissues would be soft. His boots were steel-toed and he kicked as hard as he could, but the kick only freed one of his feet, and then the Komodo dragon snapped its mouth at him in rage.
He managed to yank free his pistol as a third flyer popped from underneath Sami's skirt. He felt sick, guessing what was going on under there. She squealed and shuddered like an epileptic. Poor kid.
"Adrian!" he yelled, and pointed the Glock—
and shot Sami right between the eyes. Her head snapped back in a flower of bright red blood and then she collapsed, still.
Then the Komodo dragon was on top of him, and Eddie struggled to get an elbow up in front of his face. The thick cloth of his old green jacket saved him from a scratch of the beast's teeth, and then he forced the open mouth away from his face, pinning the jaws between his forearm and the counter's support column under the cash register.
He could still smell the reek of the thing's breath. It stank of sewage.
Eddie heard gunshots as the rest of the band, out of his vision, got into the fight.
"Chingón!" That would be Mike.
The lizard's hind claws scratched at Eddie's hips and pelvis, and again his jacket protected him. Eddie jammed a hand down decisively and grabbed one of the creature's knees. He rolled himself backward, yanking the thing with him—
and hurling it down along the space behind the counter—
to where it slammed home against a stack of soda syrup canisters. Like bowling pins, they tumbled around the reptile and rolled in all directions.
Eddie jumped to his feet and thumbed the Glock's selective fire switch to automatic. The old ladies screamed and slapped at a snake with handbags. The truck driver clutched at his throat, staining his blond beard with the sauces on his fingers. A snake had bitten him, and the man's face was already turning purple.
Eddie had no time for the dead trucker, but the sight strengthened his resolve not to get bitten himself. He stepped towards the lizard, ducking as he realized that the swarm of winged snakes was thicker than he'd thought, and opened fire.
He squeezed off the entire clip into the canisters and the thrashing body of the lizard. Whatever it was, if bullets could kill it, it was now dead.
The air was full of flying snakes. Adrian chanted something and struggled not to swoon; Jim slammed a pitcher down onto a Formica table top, trapping a serpent under it; Mike swung his M1911 pistol, the one he'd taken off the dead bouncer in New Mexico, looking for a target that would hold still; Owen, the club manager, blasted away at flying snakes with his hand cannon, wearing an expression on his face that might have been contentment; Eddie didn't see Twitch. Another winged viper darted at Eddie's head, and he batted it aside with the Glock.
"Oil!" he shouted. The cook peeped out through the order window, wide-eyed and open-mouth. Eddie pointed at him, careful to point with his empty hand and not his pistol. "Oil!" he yelled again. "Now!"
Hissss! he heard behind him, and turned to see more snakes slipping from Sami's skirt. He caught a glimpse of what was behind, and shuddered in sympathetic pain—there was a writhing mass of snakes, and a river of blood.
Eddie heard the pounding of feet and the slamming open of a door. He looked into the kitchen and saw a back door swinging slowly shut, the cook gone.
"Damn!" Eddie raced for the kitchen, slamming the second clip into his Glock and thumbing the fire switch back to semi-automatic. As he passed the big lizard on the floor, the one he'd filled with lead, it stirred, slightly. Eddie cursed through his teeth.
A winged serpent whipped out of the kitchen heading for Mike's neck, too fast for him, and he knew he was a goner—
but then a silver wing flashed in his vision and a falcon torpedoed past him—
snatching the serpent from the air with both its claws and crushing its skull with its powerful beak. A long silvery horse's tail snapped behind the falcon like a pennant.
Another serpent hummed in through the order window as Eddie stepped into the kitchen and spotted what he needed—the frying vat, and, under it, a spare jug of oil, like a gas can. The snake attacked, but Eddie saw this one coming, and was ready for it.
He stepped aside, grabbed the snake by the tail and flung it into the hot oil.
Sizzle! A frying meat smell filled the air. Eddie grabbed the handle of a fry basket and jammed it down on top of the winged snake, forcing it deeper into the fry oil in its writhing protest.
"Six piece Quetzalcoatl nuggets," he muttered, "coming right up." He grabbed the handle of the jug, a white plastic five-gallon container, in his left hand, and turned Glock-first back to the fray.
The lizard crouched in the kitchen door, staring at Eddie with beady black eyes. It bled from multiple bullet wounds in its body, but it was moving and it looked pissed.
Beyond, in the chaos of the diner, he saw Adrian drop to the ground. And then the wizard's fallen body was swarmed by flying serpents.