Heaven doesn't want them. Do they stand a chance in Hell?
Bass player Mike Archuleta is down on his luck in a major way. The shattered survivor of a misspent youth, he is haunted by the ghost of his dead brother, and is now driven to planning his suicide. Halfway through the show that's supposed to be his last, a hellhound bursts into the club and attacks the band. The band members pull out karate moves, guns, and even a sword … and then things start to get strange.
Can Mike survive the show? What can he do about his brother's ghost? And what kind of band is this, anyway?
Hellhound on My Trail is the first installment of Rock Band Fights Evil, a pulp fiction serial by D.J. Butler. Read more about D.J. Butler's books at http://davidjohnbutler.com.
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
Wah wah, ch-ch-chang! The guitar crunched out the end of the chorus with a cymbal crash.
Across the room, the bouncer of Butcher's looked like he was having a bad night. He leaned against the slightly lopsided bar and scanned the thin crowd with contempt, arms crossed over his denim jacket and a semi-automatic pistol visible in his belt. He shook his scarred, buzz-cut head every minute or so like he was trying to knock the sound of the music out.
Mike didn't care what the bouncer thought of the music. He hadn't seen his brother's ghost all day, and he needed a drink to keep things that way. The only reason Mike even noticed the bouncer was that the man was between him and the alcohol. The booze would keep his brother at bay for a little while. Also, after the set, Mike planned to shoot himself, and he preferred to die drunk.
Mike launched into the break, his memory guiding him through the changes. He'd arrived minutes before the show and Eddie had barked at him through the first part of the set, scrawling some notes on a greasy paper bag. It had been enough. After getting his marching orders, Mike had headed straight for the bar—and Eddie had corralled him back onto the stage before he could get his hands on even so much as a warm beer.
The drummer rode with Mike into the break while everyone else fell quiet. Twitch, that was the drummer's name, and he hit the skins with a light touch, but perfect timing. Mike nodded and grinned at Twitch and he grinned back as they held down the groove together, Mike boogying with a chromatic run that was probably more jazz than this shabby little blues-rock band was used to, up to the fifth over and over. Maybe he was showing off, just a bit, but it was his last gig. Ever.
The drum kit was a little minimalist, just a kick, snare, one tom, and a high hat. The drummer played with thick sticks that looked more like cudgels than something you'd buy at Guitar Barn. Twitch wore shiny black leathers from head to foot, the kind with studs in all the impossible places, so that he looked like some kind of black and silver sex porcupine. Mike thought of him as a guy, but actually, looking at the drummer now, he wasn't so sure. Twitch could have been a woman with a slightly strong jaw line or a man with a thin nose and eyebrows. Man or woman, the worst thing about Twitch's get-up was that it had a tail, a full horse's tail, silver-colored like the drummer's own long hair, that came right out of Twitch's backside and brushed the floor as he drummed. Twitch looked like he'd whip you, if you paid him.
Then Eddie jumped in, workmanlike power chords chomping over the beat, with the occasional blues flourish curling in the treble. Eddie was a slight black man with short curly hair, in a green military-style jacket with lots of pockets and jeans that had too many holes for any thrift store to take them. Mike had played with lots of guitarists who swanned and clowned and danced, but Eddie shrank back from the edge of the stage. He huddled over his instrument and carefully watched his fingering, which was good, because his playing was okay, at best. The axe Eddie worked on was a crummy red Toronado, a Fender like Mike's P-Bass, but made in Mexico. And discontinued, he thought, because nobody wanted to buy the things. It was red and worn to the wood where Eddie's forearm rubbed it, but the sound, running through a small bank of pedals at Eddie's feet, was crisp.
Eddie had some kind of manager role, too. It had been Eddie who had called him that morning, woken him from a scratchy, uncomfortable sleep into throbbing, painful wakefulness. Eddie had said he'd gotten Mike's card off the bulletin board in a guitar shop in San Antonio, and that there was gig for him tonight, if he could find a crappy little bar outside a crappy little town that wasn't on most maps, on a road that might or might not be indicated as a lumber trail. Bass and amp could both be provided.
That was good, because Mike's amp was in hock.
The crowd mostly ignored Eddie. Hard roadside drinkers that they were, they kept to their seats under the buzzing fluorescent tubes nailed to two-by-fours undergirding the tin-sheet ceiling, sucked their beer and spirits and watched Jim—the singer—like at any moment he might collapse to the floor or take flight. Some of them sent shots up to fortify or reward him, which made Mike lick his lips in anticipation of the first break.
Except there was this one guy, at the little round table nearest the stage, who stared at Eddie the whole time. He was a short guy in a polo shirt and a sport coat and a straw Panama hat, and his shoes were way too shiny for rural New Mexico. He gripped the little table with both hands like he had fallen off the Titanic and it was his raft, and he talked the whole time, though he was alone. After staring at the guy long enough, Mike thought he could read his lips. Tambourine, he was saying. Tambourine, Mr. Marlowe, please play the Tambourine. His face shone with sweat, though Butcher's was, if anything, a little cool.
Marlowe was Eddie's name, Mike remembered. Eddie didn't have a tambourine, he didn't look at the guy who stared at him, and as Mike looked at Eddie, the guitar player spat on the floor.
Then the organ player piled in like a Mac truck. He was loud and had a big sound, like he was playing with all ten fingers and both feet simultaneously, but Mike thought he could hear dropped notes, and the guy's timing was off. Adrian was short and square and dressed in something that looked like a sharkskin suit, but much cheaper. He was dwarfed by his Hammond electric organ, with upper and lower manuals. Other electronic gadgets were piled up around the Hammond, effects pedals and a MIDI controller and a drum machine and other stuff that Mike didn't recognize. Mike was strictly a bass man, really, and didn't go in for toys.
Adrian hit the big climax, flatted sevenths blaring like a rock-and-roll thumb in the eye, and then Jim jumped in with the last choruses.
"Keep your head down," Jim sang.
"Sleep between shows, and watch out
For the punches love throws!"
Jim's voice boomed and echoed surprisingly loud in the small bar. It sounded like it had reverb in it, but Mike couldn't figure out where that might be coming from. It wasn't the mic—that was a plain vanilla SM58, standard issue for bar bands the world over. Mike didn't think it could be the PA, either; he'd watched Harry the bartender set the faders before the show started and then shuffle back behind the bar, and no one had touched the PA system since. The mixer was some eight-channel piece of junk from Malaysia, anyway.
Jim was a tall, broad-shouldered Viking, with long black hair and the kind of pale skin that you got if you never went out in the sun. He looked so rugged and handsome in his long white prairie-style shirt and blue jeans, even Mike noticed, and he was not a man who looked at other men. Women probably loved Jim, Mike thought bitterly. He probably had no trouble at all with the ladies.
Mike amped up the last chorus with the rest of the band, picking up the tempo slightly and then sustaining as Jim belted out the last lines—
"Keeps your eyes on the waves, boy,
Thar she blows!
And watch out for the punches love throws!—"
and then Mike dove into one last round of tonic-sub-dominant-tonic to close out the song, hammering on all cylinders with the rest of the band. He hit his last note short and sweet, then stepped back and ignored the hoots and applause of the crowd, gripping his lovingly polished P-Bass with both hands and staring at the bar.
Butcher's was a real dive, a roadhouse made of concrete with the rebar showing in middle of nowhere, and had a crowd to suit it. Neon spangled the plywood over the bar, advertising mostly low-end beer and tequila, though there was a glowing Bacardi clock in the middle of it all, to add a little class and to warn the drinkers when closing hour drew near. Mostly the place smelled of sour alcohol and cold air breathed way too many times, but there was a distinct note of piss buried in the stink. Mike hoped it was just because the stage was too close to the restroom.
He was a little bummed to be about to shoot himself in a place that reeked, but not bummed enough to make him change his plans. The gun was in his Impala in the parking lot, anyway. He could just shoot himself out there, or get nice and hammered and walk out into the sand somewhere where no one would notice and the coyotes would eat his body.
In the rowdy crowd were truckers in baseball caps and flannel shirts, Indians wearing cowboy hats from the reservation Mike dimly knew was out in the hills somewhere north of the bar, Mexicans, and two or three hard-bitten, sand-blasted people who might have been local ranchers or farmers, or whatever it was people did to make a living out here in Hell-and-Gone, New Mexico. They were clapping with at least half a heart now, and a slab-faced woman with forearms like whole hams sent another beer up to Jim.
His vision swam, just a little. He needed a drink. After years of boozing to keep his brother away, he needed the alcohol not only for Chuy, but for himself, too. He hadn't had a drink since that morning. His throat itched and his belly hurt and he was sweating like a pig in a parka, though the bar was only warmed by a couple of battered space heaters in the corners. He badly wanted to open up a bottle of Jack Daniels.
The bouncer caught Mike's gaze and snarled at him.
Or, Mike thought, he could just go out into the parking lot and shoot himself sober.
It was hard to be sure, because of the tangle of neon that hung there anyway, announcing Miller Light and Budweiser and Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, but Mike thought there was something red and flashing, hanging over the bar. He was pretty certain that, whatever it was, he hadn't seen it there before.
Red and flashing and pouring out smoke.
"Is that a fire?" he stepped sideways and muttered out of the corner of his mouth to Adrian, the guy at the organ, just loud enough for the rhythm section to hear over the buzz of the crowd and Eddie's first choppy chords for the next song. His mouth felt like sandpaper as he spoke.
Adrian shrugged and scowled. "I wouldn't know, there's a light in my face. The blind leading the blind, et cetera."
Mike looked at Twitch; the drummer made a pouty face and air-kissed Mike. Mike tried to smile back, but he was pretty sure it came out as a grimace.
Eddie shambled half a step forward, chunking out a basic rock riff that he half-muted with the palm of his right hand.
"Tambourine!" Shiny Shoes bellowed from the front row. "Please!"
"This next song is called 'Falling Rocks,'" Eddie announced gruffly over his chords. Jim stared at his guitarist while he made the announcement and said nothing; Mike wondered why the singer didn't announce the song himself. "It doesn't have a tambourine in it."
"Key of G," Adrian reminded Mike as Eddie squeezed out the first gnarled riff.
"I remember," Mike said. "Also, I'm not deaf."
The bar exploded into red light and fire.
"Duck!" Eddie yelled, and then he and Jim threw themselves left and right, clearing the path between Mike and the lights—
and the thing that burst out of the red smear in the air, crashing onto the floor in an explosion of flame. The creature landed front legs first—it was built like a lion in size and shape, but smoke and fire, red and blue and black, licked up from its scaly skin—onto a table beside the bar and shattered it instantly into toothpicks. Drinkers flailed backwards, shouting and spilling their glasses.
The thing snapped open enormous jaws and let out a bellow like a police siren and a train wreck mixed together and overdriven into snarling distortion. Mike felt his own jaw drop open.
The beast swung its head and sent two more tables flying across the room. A man in a checked and yoked shirt with pearl buttons shrieked like a little girl as his shirt burst into flame on contact with the creature's snout.
Mike couldn't think, and he couldn't look away. He stared.
The bouncer lurched into the center of the room, pulling his pistol. The man was brave, anyway. Maybe his buzz cut meant he used to be a Marine or something. He fired, bang! bang! bang! and the creature took no notice. Its head, like a dog's, but hairless and scaly, wreathed in multi-colored flame, snapped open. Its jaws were too long, Mike noticed, transfixed and unable to look away. They were like the jaws of a crocodile.
They snapped on the bouncer's neck and decapitated him in a single swift munch.
The switchblade in Mike's pocket had never felt more useless.
Mike finally found his voice again. "Mierda!" he shouted.
"Get down!" Adrian shouted, and then a spray of bullets snapped past Mike. He threw himself sideways and found Eddie grabbing him by the front of his cracked leather jacket, dragging him off the stage to one side. A gout of flame ripped through the air behind him, singeing the back of his neck.
Mike struggled to break free, out of reflex more than anything else. Eddie knocked his hands aside like he was a child, though Mike had six inches and easily a hundred pounds on the guy, and slapped his face. "Get out of here!" the black guitarist shouted, and shoved Mike off the stage, through the swinging door under the tilted sign that read PISSOIR.
The last thing Mike saw before the hallway door swung shut again was Adrian, standing at his Hammond and holding something that looked no bigger than a pistol, but had a really long clip and was firing like a machine gun. And for a split second, he thought he could make out Jim, somersaulting forward off the front of the stage with a sword in his hand. He looked like Errol Flynn in the old black and white movies, if Flynn were six-and-a-half feet tall and had rock-and-roll hair.
"Die, beasty!" Adrian howled, and then Mike was alone in the hall, with a bathroom door, a payphone missing its handset, and the mixed stink of roadhouse piss and his own fearful sweat.
He staggered to lean against the wall, needing the feel of the cold concrete against his forehead and the solidity of the wall under his arm. The concrete was real. He clutched at the knot of charms around his neck—a cross that had meant a lot to his grandfather, a rabbit's foot, an ankh—he knew it was all junk, it had never helped him before, but it made him feel better to touch it. He pulled out the switchblade and flicked it open. The knife was useless—he'd stabbed other people more than once as a kid, but he knew it wouldn't do anything to the monster rampaging in the bar, and he knew that he didn't have the guts to slit his own throat with it, either.
Then he threw up, all over his own shoes. The gas station tuna sandwich tasted on its way up exactly like it had tasted on its way down, Mike thought, his mind still reeling, no better or worse.
He could hear the rattle of gunfire in the bar, and an enormous animal howling, something like a lion's only more throaty, like the creature had a saw blade in his vocal cords or was a chain smoker. He wiped sweat from his eyes and blinked at the hall he was standing in, looking for an exit.
Chuy stood there. Grinning.
"You gonna knife me, cabrón?" Chuy asked. He had Grandpa Archuleta's smile, and like Mike, he'd learned to curse from the old man, chewing tobacco out in the weeds behind the trailer in between long hauls in his big rig. What Chuy had that Grandpa Archuleta didn't, which had broken Grandpa's heart when he had dragged Mike down to the city morgue and forced Mike to help him identify the body, was all the wounds.
Chuy's scalp, long black hair still attached, hung open like a flap covering a pocket, exposing the bloody skull beneath. Blood ran down from the scalp and the flesh around it, but quickly became indistinguishable from all the rest of Chuy's blood. He'd been cut everywhere, not stabbed or slashed but carved artfully, like he'd been tattooed or even simply written on from head to toe by someone who was an artist. Chuy's throat had been slit—that was the last cut, the police had said, the one that had finally put him out of his misery—all the way to the spinal cord. Every cut bled, and Mike would have sworn he could smell the reek of Chuy's ghostly blood.
It was the stink of guilt.
"No," Mike said weakly. He really wanted a drink.
"Is that how you treat family, Mikey?" When he spoke, blood spilled from Chuy's lips, too. "I mean, you went and left mom alone, now you gonna knife me? Is that what you meant, with all that bullshit about being a man?"
Chuy hadn't aged, after all these years. He still looked sixteen years old, under all the blood.
Mike tried to ignore his brother, though both his hands trembled with the adrenalin and he felt like throwing up again. He wiped sweat out of his eyes again and examined the hallway—no exit, unless maybe the john had a window.
"What, you don't want to talk to me? You feeling guilty, pendejo? Maybe what you need is a woman, huh? Well, hey, brothers gotta help each other, don't they? When I needed a woman, you got me one… I think I still know where to find her!"
Horrified at the thought of what Chuy might produce next, Mike fled from his brother's ghost, heart racing. He slammed back into the chaos of the bar, elbow first and knife at his hip, ready to jump up and into the belly of anyone getting in his way. Except Chuy, of course. Mike had tried attacking his brother's ghost once, years ago, and the only effect had been to make Chuy even angrier.
Butcher's was on fire. Smoke filled the upper half of the room, so Mike coughed and bent over to run. His gut got in the way, and his lack of stamina, but fear propelled him and he scuttled as fast as he could.
He was so afraid, he didn't even try to grab his bass.
He was halfway to the door, the only exit he knew of, when a new eruption of gunfire and a sheet of flame that spun sideways across the room in front of him forced him back. In the confusion, he lost his grip on the knife and dropped it. He stumbled on something, and when he looked down he saw that it was the bouncer's headless body, jeans jacket scorched to a charcoal gray color.
"Huevos," Mike muttered, but the bouncer had a pistol. Mike picked up the gun. Five seconds of fumbling through the dead guy's pockets were rewarded with a second clip.
The gun was nothing fancy, a simple, straightforward semi-auto, the kind of pistol that cops and guys in the army carried. Mike felt reassured by the weight of the pistol in his hand, though he was no soldier. He gnashed his teeth to bite back a flood of bad memories: gangbanging and robberies and worse.
The lizard-lion barreled across the room in front of Mike. As it reared back, its skull smashed out pieces of the ceiling, bringing a rain of flaming timbers and smoking sheets of corrugated tin. Plunging forward, claws the size of microwave ovens cracked and gouged the concrete into hot gravel. It paid Mike absolutely no attention, but the lash of its long tail—a tail that, Mike now saw, was forked at its tip—nearly knocked him over. Crocodile jaws snapped and fire jetted from its nostrils and it chomped at the singer, Jim. Jim retreated slowly, his white face whiter with fury.
And he fought it back with a sword. With his free hand Jim snatched a bottle off a table as he passed and hurled it at the monster. He retreated over a chair, rising to the top of the chair back to stab down at the creature's face and then tipping heel-first gracefully to the ground, to then hook the toe of his boot into the ladder of the chair's back and snap-kick it into the lizard-like face.
Mike would have laughed, if he hadn't felt sick, exhausted, hurt, suffocated, and afraid of burning to death. The big singer wielded a long, slender sword, like a French or Italian fencing weapon, not that Mike was really in a position to know. He wasn't a sword guy. But it wasn't the big two-handed sword, or better still, axe, that Mike would have guessed based on the guy's build and complexion, and his fighting wasn't hack and slash.
It was dancing. The lizard-lion lunged and snapped, aiming for one of Jim's legs and then the other, and the tall guy stepped neatly back and aside each time, tipping away the beast's head with the hilt of his sword, which was wrapped in a fancy steel basket, or poking it back with the point.
He almost looked like he was having fun.
Except that whenever he stabbed the creature, which happened over and over again, the point skidded off the beast's skin without leaving a mark.
The beast was between Mike and the door, blocking his escape. He raised the pistol, thumbed off the safety and squeezed the trigger. No silly turning the gun sideways to show off now, he just aimed for the big monster's chest and emptied the clip, bang! bang! bang! bang! bang!
Actual sparks flashed off the creature's hide where he'd hit it.
The creature drew back from Jim and turned to stare balefully at Mike. Its eyes were black and glassy but seemed to dance with flame, and the smoke and fire wisping off its body made it look like the hottest burner in a barbecue. Only moving, and angry.
Jim lunged to the attack once more, stabbing at the flesh around the lizard-lion's black eyes. The thing roared again and turned back to Jim, lunging in a threshing hurricane of long, smoking teeth.
"You can't stay here!" Mike heard yelling in his ear and a hand clutched his elbow. He recognized the voice as belonging to Twitch, the drummer, so he turned to look at the guy—
but there was no Twitch. Instead, a smallish white horse or a pony—Mike didn't really know the difference—stood beside him. The creature had Twitch's coloring, though, and his long silver hair. Mike grabbed the charms around his neck and wondered.…
But no, that was crazy. Twitch wasn't a horse. Then the animal tapped one of its front hooves on the concrete floor and held its head low, keeping its mane out of the flames that engulfed the bar's ceiling, and then it lowered its front shoulders, almost like it was bowing to Mike before a dance.
Or inviting him to climb on.
Mike hesitated a moment, and then laughed himself out of it. "Why not?" he asked, coughing from the smoke. Weirder things had happened to him. "Jeez," he dragged himself onto the horse's back, a clumsy and awkward assault for which the animal held perfectly still, "weirder things have happened to me tonight."
Besides, after the grisly spectacle of Chuy's ghost and the terrifying force of nature that was the lizard-lion, the white horse looked more ridiculous than anything else, and positively benign.
Mike still wanted a drink.
The white horse plunged forward into the curtain of fire, just before a chunk of the roof collapsed in fiery ruination, shattering into sparks and charcoal on the floor. Mike wrapped his arms around the animal's neck to keep from being thrown off on its second jump, through another sheet of flame, and then he could see the door. It gaped ahead of him like a black spot in a wall of orange and red, and the horse raced for it.
Someone stepped into the door. The horse reared up, like it might attack the person, but then it dropped back onto all fours and galloped past. Mike saw that the person who'd almost gotten himself trampled was Adrian, his suit all singed and tarnished from the smoke.
The horse broke into the cold night air and Mike sucked oxygen into his lungs, coughing as the good air fought with the smoke for possession of the territory. Just as he finally felt he could breathe again, the horse bucked and he fell off, crashing to the gravel strip that served the roadhouse as a parking lot.
Whoosh! All the air immediately left his lungs again and he gasped.
Mike stared up at the sky, seeing the glittering brilliance of the desert at night and a yellowish moon squinting suspiciously over a dark sandstone butte. He heard screaming, the squealing of tires and the sputter of aged car engines as the bar's patrons fled in terror. By the time he could breathe and rolled to his feet again, the horse was gone.
Adrian stood in the doorway of the flaming roadhouse. His guns were put away and he had both his arms raised, like he was saying some kind of prayer. Eddie burst out of the flames first, racing full-tilt past Adrian and toward Mike. Mike almost turned to run, but realized he was standing next to the only car in the parking lot besides Mike's own dented Impala, a big old Dodge van with a bumper sticker reading I BREAK FOR LAMIAE, and instead he stepped out of the way.
Eddie jerked the van door open and started rummaging inside for something.
The beast bellowed from inside the inferno. It isn't over, Mike realized, and fumbled to switch the full clip into the pistol.
Twitch rushed out of the smoke and fire next, and Jim ran with him, half-leaning on the shoulder of the much smaller man. That's where the drummer was, Mike thought, and dismissed his silly thoughts of people changing into horses with an ironic snort. Jim still held onto his sword, and as they cleared the door, Jim peeled away, staggering and almost falling, but keeping his feet and bringing his blade up into an en garde position, like a Viking Zorro.
Mike raised the pistol.
More of the roof collapsed, sending sparks and flames higher into the silvery darkness of the night.
"Come on!" Eddie shouted, inside the van. "Where are you?"
In the fire, Mike saw movement, and the creature crawled forward. It moved slower now; maybe Jim had wounded it. Maybe he had wounded it, he thought, and felt a little pride at the idea.
"Now!" Twitch yelled, but he and Jim didn't move out of the way and Mike didn't have a clear shot at the thing advancing out of the flames.
Adrian shouted something that Mike couldn't understand and waved his hands in front of his face—
and collapsed to the gravel.