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Tuesday Edition


"Angels"

by Jon Juniman
1/1/2000


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Ace sat at a booth near the back of the bar and sipped his beer. The Midnite Club, a private club in the French quarter of New Orleans, was where he liked to go when he had to lay low. Right now, Ace was laying lower than a snake's belly, at least until the heat died down. He'd had a terrible run-in with the sheriff of a small town in South Carolina that had resulted in a heinous whirlwind of felonies and violence. He had even stowed his beloved chopper in a garage at a self-storage facility. The damn thing was a cop magnet even when every cop in the country wasn't looking for it.

The Midnite Club was swanky, upscale and very, very private. The highly coveted membership was by invitation only, and all new applicants had to be vouched for by a current member in good standing. It was, needless to say, very expensive.

The club's patrons were the hippest of the hip; 24-year-old millionaires from Silicon Valley, Wall Street power brokers, East Coast mobsters and Hollywood stars, with the occasional outlaw type thrown into the mix to add just a touch of danger, completing the scene of wild and erotic mystery. The Midnite Club was a place where the well-heeled could relax, unwind and be entertained by everything from jazz bands to live sex shows.

The club was owned and run by the strange and mysterious Papa Senegal. Papa was, in fact, not from Senegal. He was Jamaican, but Ace supposed that "Papa Senegal" had a better ring to it than "Papa Jamaica," and none of the patrons gave a damn anyway. Papa Senegal had a fine sense of drama and played the New Orleans voodoo thing to the hilt. The club was decorated in occult black, with plenty of candelabras, skulls, mirrors and stuffed ravens sprinkled about. He was always fashionably late; just late enough to make the club's newer members wonder whether he was going to show up at all. Then he would suddenly appear, long dreadlocks flying from beneath a tall top hat, wearing a tuxedo with tails and no shirt or cummerbund underneath, washboard abs rippling, carrying an ebony walking stick topped by a small ivory skull, smiling, shaking hands and passing out samples of everything from Cuban cigars to premium cocaine.

Ace worked sporadically for Papa as a procurer of the various commodities that were necessary to keep the club running, and he had negotiated some of his pay in credit, which was the only way he could have afforded to be there at all. Now Ace was watching the band set up and waiting for Papa to make one of his classy appearances.

Suddenly, there he was in the middle of the room as though he'd appeared out of thin air, smiling, milling around and pouring shots of 100-year-old scotch. A murmur of satisfaction went up from the crowd and Papa was temporarily hidden from view again. Ace waited until the crowd died down a bit, then he got up and walked toward Papa. Papa squinted at Ace, who was moving toward him in the dark, before his face broke into a wide grin of recognition. "Ess, my friend!" (When Papa said "Ace," it came out sounding like "Ess.") "Eet's been a long time!"

Ace clasped Papa's hand warmly and agreed, "Too long, too long."

"Ahh Esss!" Papa screamed, "thee wan and onlee in-dee-spen-sable Ess!" clapping him on the shoulder. "Eet's always a pleasure to see you! Tomorrow we talk business, ah? But tonight, tonight we have a good time!" That was fine with Ace; a good time was just what his jangled nerves needed, and it was widely agreed that nobody in New Orleans knew how to have a better time than Papa did.

As if on cue, the stage lights flared to life and the band started up -- a wild jazz act with a swinging beat. Mostly-naked waitresses circulated between the small round tables taking food and drink orders, $20 bills sticking out of their G-strings like the plumage of some strange and exotic bird. The tenor man, a tall, gangly white guy with a protruding Adam's apple, was blowing his horn like his life depended on it, jumping up and down, writhing, twitching and sweating, and the crowd was rising to an almost erotic frenzy as the tenor man struggled to grasp the elusive it, because they knew. An old man in a blue suit sat in a chair by the stage, stomping his feet and yelling, "Blow, man, blow!" at the top of his lungs. Papa tapped Ace on the shoulder and placed a glass of amber liquid into his hand. Ace nodded and smiled, and Papa went off to mill around in the crowd. Ace took a small sip; after all, it's not often that a man has the opportunity to drink 100-year-old scotch. It went down smoother than silk, with no harsh bite at all. In fact, oddly enough, Ace thought that it almost reminded him of butterscotch. He looked over at the bar and smiled at a pretty young blonde who appeared to be by herself. She looked over and smiled back.

 

***

In a garbage-strewn alley in another part of town, the air was crackling faintly as before a storm, even though the sky was perfectly clear. A faint breeze kicked up, stirring scraps of newspaper around in circles and making a rustling sound. Then suddenly there was a body in the alley where there had been none a moment before. If anyone had been there, they would have felt the dull, sub-sonic thud of a concussion wave radiating outward from the figure, whose instantaneous appearance had displaced an amount of air equal to its own volume. The demon gasped for its first breath, then began panting like a wolf. It slowly uncurled from its crouch, painfully and awkwardly, like an infant struggling to learn control of its new physical shell. It tensed, then sprang and took off down the alley, covering 8 feet at a shot with its awkward, loping strides.

 

***

Ace slowly cracked one eye open, exposing his throbbing brain to the bright daggers of daylight that were stabbing in through the window. For one terrifying moment he had no idea where the hell he was or how he had gotten there. Then he remembered, New Orleans... Papa Senegal... Business. The long smear in front of him slowly focused into the hourglass form of a woman. Of course, the blonde from the club. That was why the tips of his fingers were tingling; she was lying on his left arm. For a long moment he wondered whether he should wake her or simply chew his arm off like an animal caught in a trap. Then he had an idea. He rolled over and pushed the mattress down with his right hand, slipping his left arm out through the indentation. She stirred faintly but didn't wake. Ace dressed hastily, then quietly slipped out of the apartment, clicking the door softly shut behind him.

 

***

Ace handed the cabbie a $5 bill and stepped out of the cab in front of the Midnite Club. Seeing the club in the light of day, without its neon pizzazz, reminded Ace of an old coat that had hung on a hook on the back of his bedroom door as a child. In the dark of night, the coat had always loomed huge and terrible, casting menacing shadows across the wall like a vampire, but every morning when he awoke it would again become an ordinary, lifeless coat. The Midnite Club seemed to acquire the same sort of drab lifelessness when the city awoke in the morning like a whore, hacking, coughing and blowing trash around in the streets.

Ace made his way through a narrow alley and around to the service entrance in the back. He rapped on a beat-up sheet metal door, which was opened a moment later by a gigantic white man in a tux. Ace smiled and said, "Hey, Tiny, long time no see! How's it hangin', big guy?"

Tiny smiled back. "Ahh, same shit, different day, you know how it is, Ace. Heh heh... Papa's waiting for you in the office." he said, pointing with a thumb that was more than an inch in diameter.

A narrow spiral staircase, made of welded sheet metal and painted black, led from the service entrance to an office on the upper floor. The stairway was dark and the walls were bare cinder block, as gray and forbidding as any prison. But once you stepped past the threshold of Papa's office, you stepped into a different world. All of the woodwork was polished mahogany, and the carpet was the color of red wine, which shone like blood against the white walls. Expensive paintings lined the walls, each in an antique, hand-carved frame, and a crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, such as one might expect to see in a ballroom. The door was open and Papa sat behind a gold table lamp, which threw a small circle of light onto a large mahogany desk, which was rather like a banker's. This room was Papa's concept of luxury, much more so than the club itself; not vulgar ostentation, but tasteful elegance. Papa looked up from his laptop computer when he heard Ace's boot heels punishing the staircase with a dull clang, clang, clang that echoed around the stairwell. He stood up and smiled, stepping around the desk with his right hand extended. Papa was dressed casually (for Papa) in expensive gray slacks and white shirt sleeves... Come to think of it, Ace couldn't remember ever having seen him wear jeans. Ace clasped Papa's right hand warmly. He was genuinely glad to see the old bastard again.

They chatted for a while, a ritual to which Ace had grown accustomed. Papa thought it rude to open a conversation with business, as is the American habit. After a while he leaned forward with his elbows on the desk, making a steeple with his fingers, which Ace recognized as the sign that Papa was ready to come to the point.

"I have a small job for you, my friend," said Papa. "I need you to go to a man across town and peeck up a small vial for me. Thee pay is wan-thousand dollars."

"Wow," Ace replied, "that must be one hell of an expensive drug. How 'bout a tiny sample for the courier? Like my grandma used to say, those who handle honey always lick their fingers."

Papa shook his head. "Not thees time. Eet ees not a drug in the sense which you are theenking; eet ees a component for use in magick." His eyes became very intense. "Eet's powerful magick, eet geeve powerful visions! One must be equeeped to handle eet; a drop thee size of a match head would turn you into sometheeng out of a medeecal encyclopedia!"

Ace smiled. "All right, all right, I get the message. Jeez, I think you're starting to take your own hype too seriously. Anyway, where is this guy?"

Papa handed Ace a slip of paper with a name and an address. Ace nodded, took the paper and started to go. Papa stopped him at the threshold and said, "Remember, no tasteeng!"

"Right," Ace replied, "got it. No tasting."

 

***

Ace had waited until after dark to get the chopper out of storage. It was probably a bad idea to be seen on it again so soon, but Ace had been taking buses and cabs everywhere for two entire weeks and he was dying to get his knees in the wind. He rationalized the decision by reasoning that he could stay on the back roads where it was dark and avoid attracting attention. His pipes were fiberglass-baffled and they weren't obnoxiously loud if you were gentle with the throttle.

Ace putted slowly down the small commercial street, scanning the storefronts for Harry's Occult Shop. The bottle, whatever it was, was already paid for; all Ace had to do was pick it up and take it back to the Midnite Club.

Presently, Ace spotted a small shop with skulls and jars of colored powder in the window. Bingo. Ace stopped in front of the store, killed the engine and leaned the bike over on its kickstand.

A small bell jingled on the door when Ace opened it. Harry's Occult Shop was lit by dozens of candles that burned on candelabras throughout the store. Every wall was covered with shelves, which were crammed full of skulls, powders, candles, daggers and old leather-bound books covered in strange symbols. There was a gnarled old tree stump in the corner of the shop that made Ace jump when it moved and he realized that the stump was, in fact, a man.

"Uh, Harry, I presume?" asked Ace.

"Yeah," the man replied. Hack, cough, wheeze. "What can I do for you, young man?"

"Papa sent me," replied Ace. "I'm here for the pick up".

Harry squinted at Ace for a moment, then said, "Yeah, yeah, hold on." He shuffled into the back room, which was hidden behind a black velvet curtain. He emerged a moment later carrying a glass vial. He put the vial into a brown paper bag and handed it to Ace, who took it with a nod. "Interest you in some powdered bat wing?" asked Harry. "It's on sale this week."

"No thanks," Ace replied, "I'm trying to cut down." Harry chuckled in a most unpleasant way, and Ace was suddenly glad to be leaving. Harry made his skin crawl.

Once outside, Ace stood on the curb next to the chopper and peered into the bag. The vial was bulb-shaped, about the size of a baseball, with a long stem sealed by a cork stopper. He pulled the bottle out and held it up to the street light. The liquid inside was a faintly shimmering sapphire blue, which, from certain angles, appeared to be green. What the hell is it? Ace wondered. He had never seen or heard of anything like it before. Finally, curiosity got the best of him. Hell, there was no way Papa would be able to tell if he took just one little tiny taste. Remembering Papa's warning about the dosage, Ace tore off a paper match and just barely touched the butt-end of it to the surface of the liquid. Then, with slight apprehension, he put the match in his mouth and waited for...

Nothing. It tasted faintly like almonds, but it didn't do a damn thing. Ace replaced the stopper and put the bottle back in the bag. He wondered if he should tell Papa that he'd been ripped off, but then thought, better of it. Papa would find out soon enough anyway and there was no point in pissing him off by admitting to disobeying orders.

Ace straddled the chopper, thumbed the starter and the big engine roared to life. He eased the bike out of the parking space, whacked the shifter into first and headed for the highway. He was relatively sure that he wasn't carrying anything illegal and he was eager to get back to the Midnite Club quickly in case the stuff had some kind of hellish delayed reaction.

The highway was mostly empty and Ace didn't have far to go anyway. The cool night air was a welcome relief from the daytime heat and swamp-like humidity of Louisiana. The sky was clear, the stars twinkled brightly and the crescent sliver of the moon seemed to flash him a conspiratorial wink. Ace suddenly felt that this was the America that Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper had searched for in "Easy Rider" but had been unable to find. This was the real America, land of endless skies and wide-open roads, not the other America, the one where they made you piss in a jar if you wanted a job and threw you in jail if you didn't pay your taxes.

The exit appeared like a specter, materializing out of the inky darkness. Ace slid the bike around the off-ramp and stopped behind a short line of cars waiting for the tolls.

It began faintly at first, quickly growing louder, a shrill scream like the rending of metal, accompanied by a loud, sibilant hiss, which nearly made Ace jump straight off of his seat. He looked in the rear view mirror and saw a tractor-trailer slowing down, pumping its air brakes as it approached the tolls. The trailer was a cattle car made of gray metal slats, and Ace could smell the faint but rising odor of shit. The brakes screeched and squealed as the truck approached. The din rose to a deafening roar and the brakes gave one long, last hiss as the truck stopped right next to Ace.

The goddamn smell was nauseating. Ace imagined that this was what it must be like to drown in an ocean of shit. He tried to breathe shallow breaths to avoid puking all over his bike. Then, a soft, wet sound emerged from the bowels of the truck. A sludge of greenish-brown shit oozed from between two of the slats, then poured sickeningly to the pavement, splat, splat, splat. The shit was coming in torrents now, splattering all over the ground and spraying drops of filth everywhere. Ace was gagging. Fuck the tolls, he thought, I'm getting out of here.

Then he saw two red points of light winking in the darkness inside the truck like a pair of burning eyes, right above the source of the shit. Cow eyes don't glow like that, he thought, and even if they did, cows don't have eyes in their assholes. Ace was transfixed by horror and nausea, like a gawker at a traffic accident, unable to look away. Then the eyes flared up and he could almost see inside the truck; the source of the shit was not an asshole, but a mouth, like a frog's, but bigger than a basketball hoop, with small, pointed teeth. The demon belched one last torrent of shit onto the pavement, then wiped its befouled lips with a long, thin arm. It turned its baleful gaze slowly upon Ace and laughed, hrf, hrf, hrf.

His mind fused by panic, Ace whacked the bike into gear and twisted the throttle, squeezing through the space between a small hatchback car and the side of the booth, then he roared away into the night. In the rear view mirror, two tiny points of light followed his movements as he sped away.

 

***

Ace awoke the next morning not at all rested, having spent most of the night thrashing and sweating through nightmares about giant frogs and shit. He had washed the bike, laundered his clothes and taken no less than three showers before going to bed, an attempt to erase the indelible stink from his skin and hair. Even after all that scrubbing he imagined that he could still smell it, even though he knew that it was all in his head. Fucking hallucinogens, he thought; I'm getting too old for this. Indeed, and there was no time for it either. Papa was waiting for his delivery with $1,000 burning a hole in his pocket.

Ace pulled his jeans on and grabbed his shoplifted wraparound Ray-Bans. He suddenly had new doubts about the legality of whatever the hell was in that bottle, and it simply would not do to be seen by the cops, staggering around the streets of New Orleans with pale skin and bloodshot eyes, cringing from the light of the sun like a sick mole.

Right. Keep a low profile, he thought; get in a cab, give Papa his bottle of Satan-juice, get your thousand bucks, and then we'll find out if there's enough whiskey in New Orleans to drown out the memory of that goddamn horror show in the truck...

 

***

The short cab ride to the Midnite Club gave Ace the opportunity to somewhat regain his composure. The bright sunshine of a brand new day already made that horror in the truck seem silly and distant, no more than a cobweb to be casually swept away by the omnipotent hand of Good Old Reality. Papa had not yet arrived at the club when Ace knocked on the service door, but Tiny was there to take the bottle, and he had been authorized to pay Ace what he was owed.

So now Ace was walking down the street with $1,000 worth of bounce in his step, feeling the warm sunshine and whistling a little tune. He was, in fact, so preoccupied with the thoughts of how he would spend the money that when he turned the corner, he nearly ran straight into the angel.

It stood nearly 6 feet tall with long raven-black hair, eyes with no pupils at all and pale white skin like a corpse. The feathers in its wings shone like metal, all sharp points and lethal razor edges. It was an automaton, as lifeless as any killing machine. Behind its eyes lurked a terrible intellect that knew neither anger nor pity, a ruthless logic that always calculated the shortest distance between two points, and woe betide the man or beast foolish enough to stand between the angel and its goal. A maelstrom of energy swirled and crackled around the figure. Every primal instinct inside Ace's skull screamed "run" but his limbs somehow refused to obey, and for one terrible moment, he was certain that he would be charred to a cinder, immolated right there on the sidewalk, leaving nothing behind but a pair of smoldering boot prints melted into the pavement like an obscene mockery of an Arthur Murray dance diagram. The angel turned its withering gaze upon Ace. Its dusty lips cracked open and a hot desert wind blasted forth. It spoke with a voice that made no impression upon Ace's ears, but seemed instead to implant itself directly into his mind. Nonetheless, the voice was terrible to hear; it sounded like the dry grating of metal-on-metal.

A demon is loose in the city, said the angel. Thou hast been chosen to drive it out.

Not me, Ace protested in his mind. I'm a thief and a drunk, I haven't been to church since I was 12 years old, I'm not any kind of a prophet.

The angel's eyes flared to life, smoldering like two coals. "Do not give me that 'I'm not worthy' crap", it shouted with a harsh new timbre in its voice, like bags of nails being dumped onto sheet metal. "Have thee any idea how many times I have had to listen to that rotten old swill?"

Sorry, Ace replied. But still, it's a valid question. Of all the sinners in New Orleans, why me? You're the freakin angel, why don't you do it?

I cannot risk provoking a war, the angel replied. Therefore I have obtained permission to choose a man to act in my stead. Thou art the only one in the city who can see the demon for what it is; by tasting the sacrament, thou hast put thyself upon the threshold of their world. A chosen one is not always a saint, Ace. Sometimes, when something must be done, one is chosen simply because no other is able do it.

"I don't believe it!" Ace shouted. "You're not real! You're just another goddamn hallucination!" He was dimly aware on some level that it made no sense to scream at a hallucination.

I haven't the time to argue, the angel replied. With a lightning-fast motion, it whirled around and struck Ace in the middle of his chest with its open palm. The force of the blow swept Ace off of his feet and smashed him into the brick wall of the alley, knocking the breath out of him and pinning him against the wall. Its palm felt like ice, but Ace could smell a smoldering odor like the smell of burning chicken, and he knew that he was smelling his own flesh.

A few seconds later, the angel released him and Ace slumped to the pavement like a rag doll. His vision began to grow dark and the silhouette of the angel, towering above him, was beginning to dissolve like smoke. Fear not, it said. Thy hand shall be made strong by the hand of the Lord. Then Ace blacked out as the figure vanished, but he wasn't really sure which happened first.

 

***

Newspaper. Big newspaper, filling his entire field of vision. Smell of newsprint. As Ace's vision swam groggily into focus, he realized that he was lying on his back in an alley with sheets of newspaper covering his face. What the hell am I doing here? Right, the angel. Just another bad trip; don't sweat it, you've seen worse on acid. Just get up, before anyone notices you and calls the cops; dammit, get up.

Ace swept the newspapers from his face and struggled to his feet. His whole body felt sore and there was a sunburn-like pain in the center of his chest... Oh, no. With trembling hands, Ace lifted his shirt. In the center of his chest was a red, hand-shaped welt, except that there were four fingers instead of five, and at the end of each fingertip was a small laceration right where the angel's talons would have been. Holy creeping shit, he thought, I have to talk to Papa.

 

***

Papa examined the welt on Ace's chest with great interest and a grave expression on his face. "What the hell is happening to me?" Ace asked.

"I have already told you," Papa replied, "that thee drug is not really a drug in thee ordinary sense of thee word. Eet ees a holy sacrament; an instrument of magick which opens thee door between thee seen and unseen worlds. Many sorcerers would geeve everytheeng they own for that bottle."

"Yeah, well, I would give everything I own never to see it again. OK, so the door's been opened. How do I shut it?"

"You don't," Papa replied. "Thees ees not like returning a pair of pants. Eet cannot simply be undone. You have been chosen. Now you must see eet through."

"Great, so now I'm an exorcist, too. I think I'll put that on my card: Ace Calhoun - Obtainer of Rare Commodities and Banisher of the Undead - no job too small, no zombie too ugly. Call for special introductory offer."

"Bee serious!" Papa snapped. "Thees ees no laughing matter!"

"OK," Ace replied. "Fine. How do I get rid of a demon then? Crosses? Garlic? A silver bullet in the heart?"

"You have been watching too many Bela Lugosi films. Demons are powerful, but they are bound by certain rules. They are obligated to abide by their own contracts. They are clever but greedy, and their greed makes them careless. Eef you are patient and astute, the demon may be treecked".

"Trick it? I don't even know where to find it!"

Papa leaned forward on his elbows and smiled in a very unpleasant way. "Do not worry," he said, "eet will find you."

 

***

Although certainly no scientist, Ace did consider himself a rational man. As such, he had always lived his life comfortably sure of certain facts -- the earth is round, there is no Santa Claus and demons don't run around New Orleans like baboons that escaped from the Bronx zoo. Now he was experiencing the same kind of mental inversion that bedeviled the medieval Catholic clergy when Galileo informed them that the earth revolves around the sun; his basic a priori presumptions of the world were being turned inside out. However, Ace was a man who was well accustomed to rolling with life's punches, so he chose neither to believe nor disbelieve the evidence of his senses, but instead to simply ride this strange torpedo to its conclusion. At some point, maybe he would wake up. Or maybe not.

At any rate, he now sat in a back storeroom in the Midnite club, munching a salami sandwich and reading intensely. He had read more in the past four hours than he had in the previous four years. He was, in fact, reading as though his life depended on it, which it very likely did. Tiny had set up a small table for him amid the shelves and boxes, and the table was piled shoulder high with books from Papa's library; books like "The Necronomicon"' Malleus Malificarum" and dozens of tomes that defied description, except to say that they were bound in cracked, dusty leather and they were very, very old. Ace had never been aware that there was so much to say about demons, but what the hell, live and learn.

 

***

Ace leaned back in his chair, swirling the ice around in his drink and trying to relax. It was nearly midnight, which meant that the Midnite Club was in full swing, band and all. This band was a mellower affair than the previous one had been; four elderly black gentlemen smartly dressed in suits and ties, playing cool jazz with an easy virtuosity that came with many decades of experience. All around the club, crowds of people were eating, drinking and smoking, with an occasional card game here and there at the tables near the back. Ace impatiently scanned the milling crowd for a sign of anything unusual. He wasn't quite sure what he was looking for, but Papa had assured him that he would know it when he saw it. At any rate, he had been orbiting around the crowd once every 20 minutes for the past three hours or so, and he was relatively sure that he hadn't seen it yet. It was an effort of will not to pace the club like a caged animal. He was actually getting impatient for something to happen, even though he knew that he probably wouldn't like it when it did.

Ace got up and elbowed his way through the crowd. He moved slowly, like a sleepwalker, peering into peoples' eyes as he passed. He was aware that he was making people nervous, but he felt fairly certain that the demon would betray its presence through its eyes, which are, they say, the windows to the soul.

Ace was near the back of the club now, where the gamblers were playing cards and smoking cigars at little round tables, each with a lava lamp in the center which threw a circle of sickly yellow radiance around the players. One table was filled with Southern gentlemen who looked like Texas oil tycoons with white suits and 10-gallon hats. Another table was occupied by Mafioso. And another...

Ace's heart stopped. The third table was populated by two geeky-looking fellows who were probably software tycoons, (one of whom looked remarkably like a fatter version of Bill Gates), and a biker type with long brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard. The biker was facing Ace, and his skin seemed to pulsate and wriggle as though it were alive. As he got closer, Ace saw that what looked like skin was actually a mass of crawling maggots. In fact, it looked to Ace like there was really no head there at all, just a pulsing horror of little white worms, pushed together by some unseen force into the shape of a human head. If you were to hit it with a baseball bat, the bat would encounter no bone, no blood, just a pile of insects that would splatter everywhere like a watermelon being shot with a .300 Weatherby magnum.

The demon looked up at Ace and smiled, its eyes flashing red. Its skin looked normal now as it said, "Gentlemen, I believe we have another player. Deal you in?"

It took considerable self-control for Ace to hold his voice steady and reply, "What are you playing?"

"Five card draw, fifty dollar ante, jokers wild," the demon replied as it shuffled the deck with a card-shark flourish.

"Fine. I'm in."

Ace flagged down one of the g-stringed waitresses and tried to look nonchalant as he bought $1,000 worth of chips. He sat down at the table facing the demon, with one programmer on either side. Each player threw a $50 chip into the pot, and the demon deftly dealt each player five cards with a snapping flick of its wrist.

Ace examined his hand with a stony poker face that had been carefully perfected in more taverns than he cared to count. He had a 3, 4, 5 and 6, all spades, plus a jack of diamonds. Four parts toward a straight flush and open ended to boot. That gave him about one chance in four of completing the hand as either a straight or a flush, pretty good odds but still a risky proposition. If it didn't pan out, he would be left holding nothing.

The programmer to the demon's left sneered in a disgusted way, then tossed his hand face down on the table to indicate that he was holding nothing and would not open the betting. Ace opened by throwing a $100 chip into the pot. 'Bill Gates,' who was sitting to Ace's left, eyeballed his hand, then tossed it on the table with a grunt. That left only the demon, who smiled and raised Ace by tossing in two $100 chips.

Ace was not rattled because Providence was on his side. After all, hadn't the angel said that his hand would be made strong by the hand of the Lord? He smiled cockily and did something an experienced player never does, he threw in $700 worth of chips. Hmmph, that oughta make the ugly bastard back down.

The demon looked at Ace and chuckled, then it tossed in a fistful of chips, seeing Ace's $600. It paused, locked eyes with Ace and hissed, very quietly, "It's not the money I want." The software tycoons looked at each other nervously. "Are you a religious man, Ace?"

"Never have been."

The demon flashed a predatory grin and rasped, "Then I'm sure you wouldn't mind betting me your soul."

OK, thought Ace, this is it, the showdown, High Noon. "You're on," he replied. "You win, you get my soul. I win, you go back to wherever the hell you came from."

"It's a deal," the demon replied. Ace wondered whether he ought to shake the demon's hand to make it official, but the thought of touching that pulsating white skin filled Ace with unspeakable revulsion. The demon smiled, licked its lips and said, "Draw!"

Ace discarded the jack, flicking it face down onto the table. The demon also discarded one card, which meant that it was either trying to fill a flush or a straight, or else it was holding a pair or three-of-a-kind and was trying to make its hand look stronger than it really was. The demon dealt two cards, one to itself and one to Ace, deftly flicking Ace's card across the length of the table. Ace reached over confidently, scooping up his card, then felt his heart sink into his boots when he picked it up and looked at it -- 10 of hearts. He was holding a big, fat bust. Shit! Shit! Shit! Trying desperately to stave off internal panic, Ace threw his last $50 into the pot, delaying the inevitable for a few more seconds. Think, dammit, think! The demon smiled as it scrutinized Ace's poker face, which Ace sincerely hoped was really as good as he thought. The demon called Ace's bet and paused, savoring the moment. "Do you know what hell is like, Ace?" the demon whispered. It leaned in closer and Ace could see orange flames smoldering behind the empty facade of its eyes. "I'm going to tie you down to a bed of razor blades with a roll of barbed wire. Then I'm going to use a pair of rusty pliers to pull out all the bones in your feet."

Ace leaned back in his chair, flashing his biggest, cockiest grin, and replied, "You're pretty damn sure of your hand. What about your wrist?"

"What?"

"You got a bike?" The demon nodded affirmative. "I'll race you for the whole enchilada, from here to the court house, winner takes all."

The demon sized Ace up for a moment, then shouted "You're on!" It threw its cards face-up on the table and laughed triumphantly. "Pair of threes! Ha! I bluffed you out!"

Ace smiled back. He showed his own worthless hand and replied with a bad Crocodile Dundee accent, "That's not a bluff, mate. This is a bluff!" The demon cursed and sputtered, incoherent with rage. Ace flagged the waitress down again and said, "Hey, darlin', would you mind watching my winnings for me? I'll be back for 'em soon." Ignoring the flabbergasted expressions on the faces of the waitress and the software tycoons, Ace stomped out of the Midnite Club with the demon hot on his heels.

On the curb outside the club, parked right next to Ace's chopper, was a gleaming yellow sport bike, a hot-rodded Buell. It was obviously built with the singular purpose of speed in mind, and there was no doubt that the demon would have the advantage in the turns. However, Ace had picked the courthouse for a reason; a good bit of the ride would be comprised of straight-aways. The chopper, with its raked front end, couldn't corner worth a damn, but in a straightaway its huge engine and long wheelbase made it a speeding missile. As Ace saddled up, it occurred to him that if the cops caught him racing, he would really be screwed, but the thought failed to land with any impact. It was a thought from another lifetime, a thought that seemed pale and insignificant when hell itself was breathing down his neck.

Ace straddled the chopper, pulled the enrichener knob all the way out and fired it up. The rich mixture forced the engine into the high rpm range, which made a staccato machine-gun sound that ricocheted off the stone face of the Midnite Club and echoed down the empty streets. He pushed the knob a quarter of the way in and the machine-gun tempo slowed to a loping potato potato potato, like a drummer playing paradiddles. Ace found the sound soothing. The demon fired up its bike as well, and the two of them sat there until both bikes were completely off choke. Ace pointed to the closest traffic light, which had just turned red, and shouted over the roar of the cycles, "When it turns green, we go!" The demon nodded affirmative and did a burnout to heat the rear tire, blackening the pavement and filling the street with acrid smoke. Ace didn't bother; he knew that the demon would beat him off the line anyway. The speed of Ace's takeoff would be limited by the fact that he couldn't risk a power-wheelie; if the front wheel came off the ground, the impact when it landed again would bend the 12-inch-over forks, and that would be the end of the race. Ace wasn't worried about it, though. He was betting that the chopper's 50-to-100 time was far shorter than the Buell's. The race was long enough that giving up a few seconds off the line wouldn't ultimately matter.

The light that was aimed at the opposing traffic turned yellow, then red, and the demon gunned the Buell's engine mercilessly. When the light turned green the demon popped the clutch and took off, lifting the front wheel 24 inches off the ground and instantly gaining a three-second lead.

Ace took off smoothly, quickly up-shifting into fifth. There were lines of tar across the pavement where some road crew had covered the thermal expansion joints in the concrete. As Ace accelerated, the sound of the tires rolling over the bumps sped up from a slow gadump... gadump... gadump to a loping wumpwumpwumpwump and finally to a singular sort of braaaap, all within about three seconds. At 3000 rpm, the high-lift cam turned on hard, and the chopper responded to the throttle like a bucking horse to a whip. Ace leaned his body forward and clutched the handlebars fiercely to prevent his ass from sliding off the seat and onto the rear fender. The wind scream in his ears rose to a deafening pitch, and tears streamed from the corners of his eyes. The demon also had its throttle pegged, but the Buell wasn't designed to be a drag bike. Ace shot forward like a rocket, quickly closing the gap.

Traffic lights and street lamps sped by in a luminous blur as the racers blew every red light in their path at speeds in excess of 100 mph. If a car happened to pull out in front of them, there would be no time to stop. Both bikes would strike the car broadside, erupting in a volcanic ball of fire, showering the street with bright orange sparks and spraying bits of hot metal everywhere. There would be no need for body bags; there would be nothing left for the fire department to clean up except for a big red smear on the pavement and the occasional ear or finger hanging in the bushes or splattered against the curb. Ace desperately hoped that the highway on-ramp would appear soon.

After what seemed like the longest 60 seconds of his life, the big, green sign for the on-ramp appeared. The demon hit the clover-leaf interchange at 100 mph, leaning way over into the turn and dragging its leather-padded right knee on the ground. Ace maintained his speed until the last possible second, then braked hard and slowed to 50. Even so, the chopper's low-slung frame only had about 4 inches of ground clearance. The right foot peg touched down when Ace hit the ramp, spraying a shower of white sparks behind him and costing him even more time.

By the time Ace had merged onto the highway proper, the Buell had gained a lot of ground, but the highway was where the chopper was at home. Ace nailed the throttle and braced for the acceleration. The chopper responded like a guided missile, with a massive surge of power. The needle of the speedometer quickly rose to 140 mph, and the gap began to close once again.

The road was long and straight, which was perfect for Ace, since the Buell topped out around 145, while the chopper still had plenty of top end left. The Buell's taillight grew quickly from a tiny red point of light in the distance, until the demon was clearly visible again. The wind blast was nearly unbearable. Ace put his feet back on the passenger pegs and leaned forward with his chest on the tank, trying to escape the vicious slipstream. Gradually, the chopper pulled ahead of the Buell; Ace was finally in the lead.

Everything screamed by in a blur. Insects sand blasted Ace's face and neck, stinging like hell and plastering his face and glasses with guts. The speedometer was vibrating so badly that it was barely readable, but the needle seemed to be shaking somewhere around 155. The exit for the courthouse was coming up too quickly. Ace had hoped to put more distance between himself and the demon, but there wasn't going to be enough time. He began to slow the chopper down. It would be suicide to try to take the off-ramp any faster than 50 mph.

As Ace eased the chopper around the clover-leaf, the demon roared up from behind and slipped around him, once again seizing the lead with one knee dragging. The off-ramp let out onto a city street, straight and full of traffic lights. The courthouse was visible in the distance, no more than four or five blocks away.

As Ace wrapped the throttle around, he realized that he wasn't going to make it. The demon had once again gained about three seconds worth of lead, and there wasn't enough distance left to make it up. There was only one option left. Ace flipped the switch that armed the nitrous oxide. The last time he had used the nitrous, the force of the exploding gas had caused the front connecting rod to snap the Evo's skimpy crank pin. The rod had then piled down through the crankcase, destroying the motor's bottom end and dumping oil out all over the road. Of all of the bad ideas Ace had tried out on the chopper over the years, the goddamn nitrous was definitely the worst, but if he didn't use it, this race was lost. The courthouse was two blocks away now. He silently prayed that the bottom end would hold, then he hit the button.

The acceleration was comparable to the Batman ride at Great Adventure. The G-force pulled the flesh of Ace's face back, turning it into a grotesque, grimacing mask. Ace could feel his internal organs being pressed against the back of his rib cage, and it took all of the strength left in his exhausted arms to cling to the handlebars and not fly off the back of the bike. The chopper blew by the Buell like it was standing still, flying into the courthouse's huge, empty parking lot, beating the Buell by about 20 feet. Ace hit the brakes, rode in a big loop around the lot and came back around to face the demon.

The Buell had stopped dead, frozen in time, as though it had hit an invisible brick wall. The bike stood up, flexing its limbs, and Ace suddenly realized that it was not really a bike at all. How could he have ever mistaken that abomination for a bike? The steed writhed and thrashed, spitting and gnashing its long yellow fangs before dissolving into a cloud of yellow smoke. The demon, meanwhile, was raging and screaming in some language that Ace couldn't understand. It wanted nothing more than to tear Ace to shreds, to mash him into a pile of bloody hamburger and bone splinters, but it had lost the race, and a deal is, after all, a deal. The life force that had held the demon's body together was being drained out, and the body was losing the cohesion that had held it together. It was, in fact, turning into a pile of little white worms that fell in heaps upon the ground and crawled away. Within minutes, the Buell and its rider were no more.

 

***

In the days and weeks that followed, Ace spent a great deal of time mulling over the recent events, trying to decide if they were real, wondering for the first time in his life, what is reality? But Ace was a man who had always survived by rolling with life's punches, and sometimes the wisest course of action was not to think. Sometimes, it was better to just ride.


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