An excerpt from
THE IRON DEAD
a new novella available in Lesser Demons, a short story collection from Subterranean Press
Falling leaves danced in the truck’s headlight glow, and the hitchhiker up ahead wore their shadows like graveyard beetles scuttling over a corpse.
“Wanna pick him up?” Cody asked, his hands tight on the wheel.
“Uh-uh,” Mason said. “That bastard looks poorer than us. Carve the skin off that apple and we wouldn’t get a plug nickel.”
“Then let’s have some fun with him.”
Mason thought: Middle of the night. Middle of nowhere. Stuck in this rig with a white-line maniac jacked up on coffee and cocaine. What could it hurt?
“Gun it, junior,” Mason said.
Laughing, Cody stomped the gas and yanked the steering wheel to the right. The big Ford took to the shoulder of the road, tires chewing dirt still dry from a hot Montana summer. In the covered truck-bed, forty cases of Canadian whiskey jolted in wooden cases, the bottles rattling as if they were riding a polished mahogany bar in a San Francisco earthquake. The two gunsels didn’t care. Especially Mason. Fuck Eddie Bartlett, and fuck his whole Irish mob. Those micks weren’t paying near enough to run this Canuck laughing water from Whiskey Gap to Denver, not when you considered the risk he was taking to earn a quick Prohibition buck. So if a bottle of that shit got broken…well, a bottle of that shit got broken. That was just the way the world worked if you were the kind of guy who needed to shake up the night in a dice cup just to see if you rolled a seven or craps, which John Mason definitely was.
Right about now those dice were rattling hard. That meant it was time to roll the bones. Mason reached into the glove compartment and snatched the .38 he’d lifted from a dead Mountie at the border, aimed it out the side window, and fired. Briskly. Three bullets screamed through the headlight’s glow, casting shadows no human could see, finding their targets.
Blood geysered from the hiker’s leg… a red flower bloomed on his belly… a shower of sparks exploded from his head….
Wait a second… sparks?
Yeah. Definitely. Sparks. That’s what Mason had seen—white crackles of electricity, sizzling from a bullet trench on the hiker’s forehead as the guy crouched in front of the approaching truck.
That’s right. The guy was still there.
He wasn’t running.
He wasn’t even moving.
Jesus, Mason thought. This nutcase was some piece of work. But whatever his deal was, it wouldn’t matter long. A few clicks of the second hand and the hiker would taste bumper.
But that wasn’t the way it went. Not at all.
Instead, it went like this: the hiker stood there, tattered trench coat billowing across the road like a matador’s cape. Cody booted the clutch and shifted, the engine notching RPM’s as his foot buried the gas pedal in the floorboard—the hiker dead in his sites, the Detroit juggernaut racing faster now.
Headlights washed the hiker. The clean glare seemed to solidify into a white frost, stealing the shadows from his clothes. And then a burning gleam melted through that frost—a smile that shone on the hiker’s face like fresh-poured steel from Vulcan’s own forge.
Mason blinked... squinted… and suddenly that smile wasn’t there. Neither was the hiker. He had vanished in the darkness, swallowed in less than an eye-blink by a patch of night. Impossible. And then there he was again, just as suddenly, much too close, whipping through the red glow cast by the raised turn-signal on the passenger side of the Ford, dragging a dark smear of coat behind him that the bumper tore to ribbons at the same instant the hiker grabbed the front fender with one dead-white hand.
Fingers tore through the fender like cellophane, clawing Goodrich rubber beneath as if it were gooey candy wrapped up inside. The front tire exploded. Metal screamed as the bumper ripped loose, but the hiker’s hand held firm, speared fingers clawing ragged strips in the passenger door then holding the line until the rear tire exploded in shreds and that impossibly strong hand caught the spinning axle. At the same instant the hiker’s shoulder bucked under the bed and the truck jolted sideways, riding on two wheels now as the hiker released it, headlights burning a wavering path in the Montana night as the Ford traveled inexorably forward at an angle much too impossible for any gear jockey to hold.
Gravity exerted its will. Cody screamed, fighting a losing battle with the steering wheel. Two-wheeled driving be damned, this truck was going over on its side.
The steering wheel jacked hard right. Mason slid across the seat from the passenger side and piled Cody against the driver’s door. Three of the kid’s ribs snapped instantly and the two men tumbled together like dice, their bones rolling hard in a stone cold loser’s cup.
Metal found blacktop. Mason’s world went black as his skull cracked against Cody’s. Glass shattered, the driver’s side window tearing Cody’s face to scarlet ribbons as momentum slammed the twisting metal chassis forward. Macadam smoked and scorched paint curled and lug nuts and axles sent up a shower of sparks as the wreck traveled on. Cody’s flesh and bone and teeth smeared across the pavement along with the muscle and sinew of his left shoulder. Forty cases of Canadian whiskey tumbled in a shattering rain of bottles and booze behind him, glass shards gouging holes in the canvas canopy, liquor dousing Cody’s spilled blood and washing the highway clean.
But nothing could drown the hail of screams from the broken driver trapped in the cab.
Nothing except the sure and certain hammer of unconsciousness.
* * *
Mason’s eyes flashed open. He didn’t know how long he’d been out. He only knew that he lay in a heap on top of a passed-out hunk of truck-driving meat whose pulse was pumping all over the road. Worse than that, Mason was drenched in Cody’s blood, jammed in a mashed tin can of a Ford that lay on its side in the middle of nowhere, jammed straight to the bottom of that rig as sure as some bastard had driven him down into the Devil’s guts with a plunger, and—
That was when Mason remembered the hitchhiker.
Or whatever that bastard was.
And that was when he heard him moving. Whatever he was. Whatever it was. The hiker was in the back of the truck, laughing or something like it—a metallic sound ratcheting through the night, a sound that burned like an icy wind traveling a gullet lined with stilettos and a throat that could swallow both whiskey and broken glass and be dutifully amused by the miseries brought by both.
Laughing. That’s what the thing was doing back there, rummaging through forty cases of Canadian whiskey. Laughing, as it dug through broken bottles. Laughing, as it tipped them back and drank whiskey and chewed broken glass. Laughing, as it drained bottles and tossed them into the road. Laughing, as fresh liquor and broken glass spilled down its gullet—
Jesus! Mason’s hand shot out, searching for that dead Mountie’s pistol. No way did it not belong in his grasp right now. He’d never wanted anything so badly as he wanted that .38. But it was darker than buried midnight in the cab, and his palms were slick with Cody’s blood, and he couldn’t find the damn thing.
But the gun had to be there somewhere. It had to be.
Mason’s hands jittered through the shadows.
His fingers found no gun.
He found only the dying driver’s mutilated shoulder.
He found only Cody’s skinned face.
The kid jerked into consciousness, screaming as if he’d been dipped in a vat of acid. In a flash, Mason’s bloodstained fingers closed over Cody’s mouth and his whisper sliced through the darkness: “Shut up shut up shutup!”
But it was too late. That thing in the back… it had heard them. The stiletto laughter evaporated. Other sounds replaced it—the gear-wrought click of a metal spine straightening… heavy steps pistoning over glass as the thing exited the truck bed… measured footfalls that scarred blacktop as they approached the twisted cab, and—
Mason’s heart pounded. That damn gun. That damn gun! Where was it?
The gangster’s hand was sticky with gore, but he didn’t give up. Cody bucked beneath him like a gutshot animal, but Mason was determined to find the pistol. At the same time, another pair of hands was working just as eagerly, and much more quietly. For these hands, covered in skin once just as weak as Mason’s, were not of the same architecture. Their bones had not been fashioned through the union of man and woman. No. These bones were cast iron, and they had been hammered on a forge in hell itself, and the hands that housed those bones were built for bad business a sinner like John Mason had never conjured in his wildest dreams.
Distant thunder pounded the night with a tympani beat. Those metal hands traveled the wrecked Ford’s undercarriage, grabbing fistfuls of transmission and exhaust pipe as the thing powered atop the the battered passenger’s door. And there it stood, staring at John Mason down in the darkness, a man smeared with his moaning partner’s guts.
Nothing filled Mason’s hand but his partner’s blood. An electric gleam shone in the thing’s downcast eyes, a cold sizzle that crossed its sawtoothed grin like thousand-watt icicles. There was nothing in the creature’s hand. It didn’t need a gun. It didn’t need a knife. It didn’t need a broken bottle. There was nothing there at all, because that hand had been stripped down to essentials. The skin had been shredded from it. All that remained was an architecture of metal bone and wire tendon that twisted into a claw more dangerous than a drawerful of knives in a butcher shop.
That claw came down for John Mason.
It came down fast.
* * *
The hell machine pulled Mason out of the wreck and sent him flying through the air like a sack of guts wrapped in denim and leather. The road came up for him like a black wave, and he shattered a half-dozen ribs pounding against it.
Still, Mason tried to crawl away. His feet scrabbled against the blacktop. The thing launched itself from the top of the cab, descending quickly, hammering Mason’s legs and pelvis with swift fisted blows until the whiskey runner had no more mobility than a slug dosed with salt.
With a laugh, the thing turned away. It tore the guts out of the truck’s underbelly, then reached into the gaping hole and grabbed the driver. Cody’s only possible means of escape was a final heartbeat, and the thing’s gleaming metal fangs tore flesh and gushing artery and sent the driver on his way. The hell machine drank the dying man’s blood, and it must have been a fine salt scorching the brutal trail left by liquor and broken glass because the thing drank deeply, and when it drank its fill it went to work on Cody’s husk with claws as sharp as honed blades.
The young man’s tattered skin was peeled like the pink hide of waxed apple. And now it was Mason screaming as he tried to escape the horror, his useless legs twitching beneath crushed hips and shattered bones. But Mason could not stand on those legs. Neither could he drag them behind him. So he screamed, and when his throat was raw with the effort he screamed again.
The thing only laughed its stiletto laugh. It snipped Cody’s ribs with metal fingers sharper than poultry shears, and it took the kid’s heart, and it wrapped that heart in the same peeled skin that had once given it shelter, slinging the whole mess over its shoulder like some monstrous traveling bag. And when it had done that, it came for Cody’s partner.
“No!” Mason begged. “No no nooooo!”
Without a word, the thing grabbed Mason by one wrist, dragging him down the road. Pain dynamited the whiskey runner’s broken legs, and he clawed the pavement like a man being dragged to Charon’s boat, wailing as men who guarded their own heartbeats had wailed once, a long, long time ago.
* * *
There was other salvage work to be done in the black of night, but this was not a task for the hell machine. It was not such delicate work, for it did not involve muscle, or flesh, or blood.
The pickup truck roared out of the shadows, pulling close to the wrecked Ford. A twist of the key and the engine died. The thing behind the wheel was not altogether different than the monster that stalked the road. It too was a creature dressed in the husk of a man, and while it was not dressed as well—with naked metal hands beneath tattered cuffs of flesh, and split seams that wept both blood and oil over its massive arms—it moved with swift, mechanical precision.
This it did now—a dead man’s heart pumping in its chest, iron bones grating in ball-and-socket joints, flesh-and-wire muscles tensing as it stepped from the pickup. The odors of bootleg whiskey and blood had already been swept clean by a cold wind charging down from the north, but the bitter tang of gasoline drizzling from a ruptured tank was still ripe beneath the cold breath of the night. Breathing the elixir deeply, the thing worked without wasted movement. First in the bed of the Ford, salvaging whiskey bottles not broken in the wreck. Then in the twisted undercarriage, its serrated fingertips cherry-picking the best scrap from the rig. This too was tossed into the rear of the pickup.
The world barely stirred as the monster worked. The moon shone down. Trees rustled in the wind-lashed breeze. A coyote yipped in the distance, but otherwise the night was still. All was as it should be, so the creature grabbed a bottle from the pickup bed. This it tipped back twice, for it had two heads on its shoulders, and two iron-jawed mouths to fill. When the whiskey bottle was half-drained, the thing gagged the bottle’s throat with a rag and set that rag burning.
Four eyes stared down at the flame. Two mouths filled with twisted metal teeth smiled. The bottle flew through the night. Glass shattered. Gasoline ignited. Blue flame washed the Ford’s cadaver. As fire spread over the wreck like a roiling blue shroud, metal-jointed fingers twisted an ignition key and a mechanical foot stomped a gas pedal.
Two headlights blazed in the night.
Two mouths spit laughter.
Two sets of eyes watched the road as the truck bulleted through the night.
* * *
The bootlegger’s rig was an inferno. Engine oil bubbled and gaskets melted. Canvas and paper and shattered wooden crates charred, then blackened and shrunk in upon themselves, consumed by the same fuel that had once powered the machine.
A mile away, the truck pulled even with the hell machine. Rubber screamed against road as the pickup’s brakes locked. The broken man screamed in the grasp of the monster that had masqueraded as a hitchhiker; the remains of the dead man wrapped up in a skin sack did not.
The hell machine tossed that sack in the back of the pickup with the rest of the scrap. It snatched a bottle from one of the crates, broke the neck on the tailgate, then slapped its hand against the fender with a dull clang. The driver winked taillights, and the pickup truck roared on. The broken man screamed still, but his voice was a weak, tattered thing now, and easy to ignore. So the monster grinned its icicle grin, watching the pickup shrink in the distance, secure in a certain knowledge. Machines needed fuel. Men needed the same. And it was the same for monsters which were neither man nor machine.
This one tipped back a broken bottle and drank deeply. Whiskey burned the blood weeping from cuts in its throat, drained into a belly that was filled with blood. The tastes were good, washing together like that. Still, what the hell machine wanted was more. It always wanted more. That was how it was built. It drove on, burning blood and energy. It consumed both. It fed. It killed and it built, and the cycle began once more.
Fuel was for fire. Blood was the pulse of the world.
Fire burned hottest in a forge.
Blood burned hottest in a hungry belly.
That was the way of the world.
It was the way of the hell machine, too.
* * *
That night, in a workshop equal to any the Devil himself might fashion, fire burned in a forge stoked with coal and human bone. The fire was the light, mated with sparks ignited by grinding wheels, and gas spit from a blowtorch, and the cold clear inferno stoked in the hell machine’s stolen eyes.
The monster had shed its tattered skin and sewn another over its metal bones, and in the hinged and welded cage of its ribs beat a new heart—one charged just hours ago by coffee and cocaine, one that now pounded trip-hammer steady. The thing flexed its metal hands, testing the stitched limits of its new cloak of skin. Iron and wire tendon bulged, threatening to shred its mortal casing. But that strong new heart drove fresh blood through that waxen flesh, and the color began to change. This pleased the monster, so it turned to other work.
The broken, screaming man was chained to a table, fighting against the case-hardened links that held him, his mouth a black empty hole. But the noise that issued from that hole was not worrisome. No humans came near this place, and soon other screams would eclipse those of the man. These screams would be of power rather than pain, for they would issue from grinding wheels, and circular saws, and metal harvested from the wreck of a bootlegger’s truck.
The hell machine set about its work.
It was time to build another soldier for its army.
THE IRON DEAD continues in the short story collection Lesser Demons.
Copyright © 2010 Norman Partridge.
Artwork by Kevin Nordstorm. Reprinted with permission.