Scalp Collectors 4: Stars in the Wind

Scalp Collectors 4: Stars in the Wind

The red gate opened and the jeep rolled into the settlement of Queensmen. The Scalp Collectors drove over the Way Station where Georgie greeted them. “How was it?” Georgie asked, picking at some honey colored crust that was growing out of his left ear.

“A bust.” Kramer said sounding annoyed.

Since their massacre in Petersburg, the Scalp Collectors have been on a dry streak. The last three missions they took ended in no payment. The first was a three-day drive that lead to the jeep breaking down, it took them a week to walk to the destination. On arrival, they found the scalp had already been claimed. They paid what little money they had to be driven to their jeep and to have it fixed. The next mission was far closer and only an hour drive, that ended with the target killing himself before the scalp could be collected. They waited a month for the most recent contract to come in, and they found they were late again, as some other collectors have come and claimed their prized scalp. One of the residents in the town spat at them, and Kramer scalped him just on good principle and to let some frustration out.

“Well, look at it this way,” Georgie began, slipping his finger into his mouth to suck the scum he tore out of his ear. “You brought back all those extra scalps last time, that maybe the Gods in the world think you have had enough for a while. Maybe it is time you pick up some new work until contracts come around here?”

“Like what?” Jones asked, brushing the dirt and dust out of his long hair.

“Why, I just had a fellow wondering around here asking about you two! He’s looking for a driver and some extra protection to take two people to an Oasis for some trade he is doing. I gave him both of your names, and said you would be back in a day or two. You can’t miss the guy. Real ginger prick wearing an eye patch. I usually see him over by the Saloon on Cricket Lane. He seems to like that pretzel stand right by it. Looking at his size you would bet he loved him some pretzels. Damn, Head Hunters could have damn feast eating off his corpse. Nice fat and marbled just like my mum!”

Kramer and Jones looked at each other half amused. “We aint stagecoaches.” Jones said. Kramer nodded in agreement and added. “Why doesn’t he hire one?”

“He didn’t say. The day is still young, go find the ginger freak. I heard they don’t have any more dough down at the pretzel stand, so he is probably drowning his sorrows at the saloon.”

“Thanks.” They said and drove off. “You wanna do it?” Jones asked, almost disinterested.

“I guess. I mean, we could use some money. I mean I am almost broke.”

“Same,” Jones agreed. “Let’s just find out how much he will pay.”

“True.”

When they arrived on Cricket Lane, they parked the jeep and avoided the small farmer’s market that was happening in the middle of the road. They stuck to the sides walks on the edge. Odd eyes from the town’s folk kept Jones hand on the butt of his gun, even though most of the stares were at Kramer carrying a ridiculous blunderbuss over his shoulder. The gun was so impractical Jones was surprised he carried it around.

They approached the pretzel stand and Kramer walked up to it. The girl working behind the counter was young with dead blond hair that hung in greasy strands across her face. She looked like she dove head first into five stages of depression. “What’s good here?” Kramer asked. “The girl looked up at him, her hand keeping her head off the counter. She didn’t answer him.

“Pretzels?” Kramer asked, stating the obvious for her.

“We don’t have any dough.” The girl said between her fingers.

“What do you have?”

“Drinks.”

“Lame.” Kramer walked back to the Jones and they entered the saloon. “Selling drinks outside of a place like this. Because people want watered down lemonade when they can have beer in here.”

“I guess, I don’t even know why you wasted your time.”

“I was just curious on what she would say.”

They walked around the saloon, heading towards the bar in the back, keeping their eyes open for Ginger Prick, or whatever Georgie was calling him. The locals at the saloon, surrounded the bar and all the tables. Waitresses were wondering around serving mugs and bowls of food. A sign pointed to the steps leading up the stairs in the back. It was a well-known brothel in town and was said to be far better than others in the settlements. Not that the Scalp Collectors themselves were familiar with it, even if they were they wouldn’t admit it, not even to themselves.

Finding a spot at the bar, they took their seat and ordered a couple of beers from the bartender. They drank their drinks in silence while Kramer talked a bit with the bartender. He eventually tapped Jones and whispered, “I see our guy over there at the corner table, laughing with some people, he has one of the waitresses sitting on his lap sliding credits down her shirt.”

Jones stared and saw a jolly fat guy with the most attractive waitress in the saloon on his lap. His face was flushed red and glistened in sweat, mouth surrounded in chunks of red hair, making up for the bald spot on the top of his head. The eye patch was the only thing that seemed intimidating about the man.  She flirted with him, but that is because the guy seemed eager to spend his credits.

“That Fire Crotch Santa Clause is the guy who needs a ride?” Jones said.

Kramer laughed, “Let’s wait till his lap dance is over and we will talk to him.”

They went back to their beers and waited. Every few minutes they would order another round and Kramer would order a couple shots for them to take. When good and buzzed they still saw the girl sitting on his laugh, whispering into his ears, she kept moving her thigh into his crotch.

“Am I drunk or are her tits bigger?” Kramer asked.

“I think she just has her shirt stuffed with lots of credits.” Jones said, swallowing large mouthfuls of beer.

“This guy must be rich. Let’s go talk to him.” They stood up from the bar and walked over, glasses still in their hands. They slipped past him and stood on either side of his chair. The people at his table scooted back a bit and stared, fearing the worst. When the waitress got up from his lap she ran away as if she had forgotten she was working.

He turned and looked at them. “Good going you cock blocks! I was a few minutes away before I would put my cock ring on!”

“I think you were a few minutes away from giving her all your credits.” Kramer said.

“And you are going to need them, if you want to hire us to drive your ass around.” Jones said.

“Oh, I see your dog tags! Kramer and Jones! I heard about you two! You have driven through Devil’s alley! I heard you’re some hard-killing sons of bitches!

“We have great personalities, but no one ever brings that up.” Jones said, Kramer laughed and spilled his beer some. “Especially this one!” Jones said, pointing at Kramer.

“I am Spencer Walker, dealer of fine goods.” He said, holding out one of his fat paws to shake. “Chaz Kramer, Scalp Collector” Kramer said taking his hand.

“Alpaca Jones, Scalp Collector, not a driver.” Jones said, taking his large, soft hand.

“Well met friends, well met. I need your skill though. Need to get my package off to an Oasis to be picked up for transport. It’s located at the end of Devil’s Alley and I need a driver and protection. I can’t find a single soul to take the task, even when I throw butt loads of credit in their face!”

“Or down their tits.” Kramer added.

“Right! I need people who are not afraid, experienced in the alley, good killers, and in need of credits! Rumor has it that you two lads are who I am looking for.”

“Do you know what is in the alley?” Jones asked. “Do you have any idea what this is going to cost you? You are better off just trying to go around it.”

Spencer sat back in his chair and a loud crack escaped from the wooden legs. The Scalp Collectors were half expecting the chair to burst under the massive body. “Now, boys you know just as I do that the alley is in a No Man’s Land, and the Oasis is located between a mountain. It is nearly impossible to make it from the sides. The Alley is the safest way.”

“Why the fuck, do you have to deliver your package to the Oasis? Those are death traps!” Kramer said.

“I don’t expect you both to believe me, but I have delivered many goods to dangerous territories. Why do you think I wear this eye patch?”

“Because you think you are a pirate?” Kramer said.

“Old Halloween costume?” Jones asked.

“It’s because I had it cut from my face from a Head Hunter and I watched him eat it before me!”

“No, you didn’t.” Jones said, laughing.

“Bullshit, show us the hole!” Kramer yelled.

“I have nothing to show you boys, except what is in this bag.” He lifted a black bag that had been sitting under his chair.

“That’s where you keep your eye?” Jones asked.

“Better than that…” Spencer said and unzipped it. An untidy mess of rolls of credits took up most of the room in the bag. The credits were in large amount as most of the bills were in pink sheets, which were worth a thousand each. He had stacks of the pink sheets, ready to be spent. Neither of the Scalp Collectors even heard him ask, “How much?”

Kramer broke his trance, “What is this package?”

“That knowledge is only for me and my business associate. I will pay you to not ask questions.” Spencer said.

“Fair, but you must have a price in mind to pay us. I am thinking you have no idea what lingers there.” Jones said, guzzling the last of his beer.

“Thirty thousand seemed fair, I believe.”

Kramer looked at Jones wide eyed and looked back at Spencer. “Let us talk for a minute.”

Spencer raised his hand in the air to gesture a waitress over. “Will do, I’ll order all of us another round.”

They stepped back to have a bit of privacy. “We could probably ask for more.” Kramer began. “He shouldn’t have showed us the inside of the bag.”

Jones thought for a moment. “How much more did we need to join the Dwellers?”

“Twenty-six thousand.”

“Fuck…. Let’s ask for more. A lot more. Show him that scar. Might be easier to persuade.”

“Alright, I’ll let you handle this.” Kramer said.

They came back to the table as the waitress brought three mugs and three more shot glasses.

“So, what did you boys decide?” Spencer said, wiping foam from the top of his upper lip.

“Fifty-thousand credits.” Jones said.

“Done.”

“Each.” Jones said, glaring at him.

“A hundred thousand credits to deliver a package. They said you were both crazy, and now I believe it. How about seventy-five for the whole package.”

“It’s called Devil’s Alley for the Dust Devil’s that linger there. Last time we should have been killed!” Kramer said, lifting his shirt to show a grotesque scar that went from his belly button to the edge of his left nipple. “I mean when you add in the risk, the discretion of the package, and with the cost of gas these days, it will be a pretty penny. It’s a fair trade, but of course you could try to find somebody else.”

“No, no. It’s a fair trade. I have never been much for trying to Jew people down their prices. So, do we have a deal?” Spencer said.

“Is that all? Anything else you need to mention, details, weapons at all?” Jones asked.

“I suppose you boys have your own weapons, they should do just fine, and I will need to mention I have a partner joining me on this journey.”

“Really? Well that will cost you more.” Kramer said, nodding to Jones.

“Seventy-five thousand each.”

“Jesus Christ! You two leeches are trying to suck me dry.”

“You don’t deserve it wet.” Kramer said.

“Fine! It’s a deal! I’ll get a lot more for this package anyways. Have a shot, cheers to our agreement?”

They each took a shot from Spencer and sealed the deal. “We ship out tomorrow morning at first light. Better call it early tonight, lads.”

“Buy a couple more and we will.” Kramer said.

 

 

 

In the morning, they sat in the jeep outside the saloon and waited for Spencer to make his appearance. They each had a hangover they needed to cure before the trip ahead of them. Their Scalping salt was always the best medicine. They each dipped the tips of their knife blades into the bag and took out a little mound of salt. They held it to their nose and snorted it fast. It burned their nostrils and throat, but sent a pleasant sensation through their bodies, curing the hangover sickness, and eradicating the headache, but it also caused dizziness.

Spencer approached them while into a fresh bump and froze in spot. “Drugs this early in the morning! You are going to get me killed!”

“Not drugs. Medicine. Helps with the hangover.” Jones said, taking another dose.

“It does get us high though.” Kramer said laughing.

“If you need to cure a hangover just go find someone selling breakfast! I had a big pile of eggs and roasted pig for breakfast and I feel great.”

Kramer looked at Spencer’s exposed belly sticking out of his tiny shirt. “We can tell.”

During their drug use, they didn’t even see the man standing behind Spencer. In all fairness, he would have been hard to spot behind Spencer’s fat ass. “Gentlemen, this happens to be the partner I told you about.” The man was wearing a tight black mask and garment looked uncomfortable and stuck to his skin. A slot was left in the crotch so his balls could hangout and a ball gag was in place so he couldn’t speak. A collar and chain was around his neck and the lead was in Spencer’s hand. “I proudly introduce, the package.” A large smile grew on his face, and the masked man moaned.

“What the fuck, man?” Kramer said, cackling.

“Are you fucking serious? A gimp! You want us to deliver a fucking gimp!” Jones said, stunned.

“Why, yes! It is very important, but I believe we agreed that I am paying you for discretion?” Spencer finished his statement with a spank on his gimp who he pushed forward. “Now, shall we go?”

“Alright, you both in the back. I hope to god you brought your money with you.” Jones said, adjusting his gun to make it easier to draw while sitting.

They drove on, heading west into the region that no one liked to go. An origin story for why the western area was worse, is undetermined, nor would it ever be explained to either of the Scalp Collectors, they just rolled the dice when the destination took them there. Everyone knows the area was distasteful all the way till California. Most who wonder in are never heard from again. The Scalp Collectors are one of the few who made it back, and are the only ones known to have done it twice. The less vegetation, the closer they were getting to their destination. They drove in silence, watching the barren wasteland as it began to appear, like a disease on the earth, ripping away the greenery until they drove on dried dirt and skeletons from long ago. Animals or people, the bones crushed all the same.

They approached a rock valley at midday. Two rock hills separated by a strip of valley. These hills were tall and impossible to cross with a vehicle. Numerous things that kill linger in the hills, a person’s best bet was to take the alley in between. Dust Devils lingered there, and occasionally Head Hunters.

“This is it.” Jones declared. “Last chance to turn back.”

“Ha! We are going in!” Spencer barked. The gimp had fallen asleep, his head was resting on Spencer’s shoulder. “Wake up, you bitch!” He pushed the gimp off him and adjusted himself in the seat.

“We have to trade seats.” Kramer said to Spencer. “I need to stay in the back to watch our tail.”

“Have it your way. Gimp! Stay here. Spencer got out of the jeep, taking only his bag full of credits with him. He crawled into the passenger seat next to Jones and his body odor slid in after him. A combination of musty corn.

They trade seats and Kramer reached underneath the seat for a suitcase that he laid in his lap. “Ready when you are.”

Jones laid his knife in his lap, sighed, and said. “Let’s go.”

The tires spun to life and the jeep jerked forward. The gimp moaned something in the back but no one could hear, nor they cared. Things were going to take a turn for the worse and it was only going to be a matter of minutes. Both times they crossed this region, it all began in the first two minutes. Kramer kept his handgun out, ready to jump shoot the first thing that flew their way. His arms twitched every single time they crossed a bump in the path. His knee was cramping up something terrible. Blood would be shed soon.

A gust of wind was coming down the alley and straight into the jeep. “Goggles!” Jones roared and he slipped his on and Kramer followed. Dirt slapped across the windshield of the jeep, Spencer cursed and covered his face, the gimp moaned. The wind picked and the jeep jerked to the left a bit. “It’s coming!” Jones roared. Kramer aimed his tommy gun and waited for it.

“The walls, they are moving!” Spencer cried.

Jones ignored him but Kramer paid attention. He watched sides of the rock walls and saw several sections moving, like a thousand ants moving across the ground, but then he saw more clearly. It was hordes of the Burned Ones, and they were wearing clay to camouflage into the walls. The crawled the sides of the walls like spider and they were looking towards the wind and the jeep. They all hissed at the same time. Jones heard it and looked up. “Oh, shit!”

“What are we going to do! What are those things?”

“That’s what’s going to kill us! Straight ahead!” Kramer pointed.

In a massive cloud body, frail and small corpses were riding the wind, hissing as they did, heading for the jeep, several more jumped from the sides of the wall and were landing all over the jeep. Jones ran a couple over that jumped to early. The ones riding the wind hit the glass of the windshield and broke their frail selves. One grabbed the top of the windshield and threw himself over onto Jones.

Jones caught him in the middle of his chest with his knife and chucked him out of the side of the vehicle. “We need to get a roof!” He screamed.

Kramer was laughing as he was jump shooting the ones trying to land in the jeep. He was a solid shot for a gun known for its inaccuracy. The Burned Ones split in chucks from the bullets and pieces of them landed all in the jeep. “Ah! It’s on me! It’s on me!” Spencer cried.

“Quit crying you ginger prick!” Jones yelled and sped up. He didn’t know how many of the corpses were landing all around him. The jeep jerked every time he ran one over, hoping one wouldn’t burst the tires. That’s all they needed. The wind grew worse, it was numbing the sound of the tommy gun. Jones struck at several of the corpses with his knife, sending them flying off course. Some hit the windshield so hard the cracked it into spider webs. The gimp lost control of his chain leash and the wind took it into the air. One of the corpses fell from the wall and took the lead when he hit the group. It hit with enough force the gimp flew out of the back of the jeep and rolled on the ground. Kramer not only noticed the gimp’s balls hanging but his ass was hanging out too. “My gimp! My gimp! Spencer cried. We have to go back for him!”

“We can’t turn back for him.” Kramer yelled and shot a few rounds into the gimp. “There, he won’t have to suffer what they are going to do!”

“You killed him! I was going to sell his ass!”

“I thought we were just transporting him!” Jones yelled.

“Fuck no! He was a slave! I was selling him to the Slave Underground.”

“The Queen outlawed slavery, bitch!” Jones yelled. “You’re going to get us killed for this!”

“Yeah, and I aint paying you a fucking thing!”

“Fuck you!” Kramer screamed. “This is what is going to happen! We are going to get out of here. We will take turns shooting your knee caps out, scalp you, then take that bag full of credits and leave you fat fire crotch ass to die! You hear me you ginger fuck! You are going to die today!” Kramer ripped the eye patch from Spencer’s face, revealing a perfectly good eye. “You are lying mother fucker!” Kramer struck him over the head with the butt of his gun.

“There is nothing wrong with his eye!” Kramer said. Jones struck Spencer in the eye with the tip of his knife. “AAAAAAHHHHHHH!” Spencer screamed.

“There is now.” Jones said.

The jeep jerked back and forth as more bodies hit the car. One landed on Kramer’s tommy gun, carrying it under the car. “Fuck!” He screamed, opening the briefcase.

“Should I use these?” He said, to Jones.

“You better!” Jones yelled. The dust devil was coming up on them and he was about to lose control of the vehicle. He could see two dozen more corpses riding it and more were coming their way. The wind in the alley was sucking the ground in, taking the car and the wind above began to circle.  The dust devil was seconds away.

Kramer threw the ninja stars, little pieces of tin and metal they made to fight the flying Burned Ones. He threw dozens of them as fast as he could, letting the wind catch them, some broke against the rock wall while others found the Burned Ones. He threw handfuls of them, just letting the wind direct their course. One struck Jones in the arm, but he hardly noticed. He yanked it out and let it bleed freely.

“Hold on!” Jones screamed and everyone did the best they could. Jones jerked the jeep to the right trying to stay out of the dust devil. The bumper of the jeep struck the rock wall and he lost a bit of control. The wind picked the jeep up and turned it upside down, everyone screamed but held for dear life. The jeep rolled on the ground and fell out of the vortex of the dust devil as it rode on its way down the alley. The scalp Collectors were thrown out of the jeep during the rolls, but Spencer was still locked into place, all the way to end. He was stuck inside the jeep, with it being upside down.

More burned ones were still littered on the ground and began crawling towards Jones and Kramer, before either of them could draw a weapon. Machine gun rounds shot all around them, blasting the corpses into pieces, rotted organs and black blood spilled all around. Someone was saving them. At least that is what they thought.

The machine gun blasts came from a cave in the rock wall. One of the gunners was on Kramer before he could draw and pointed a bayonet against his throat. Another smacked jones in the back of his head and pushed the gun barrel into the back of his skull.

One of the gunners walked between them. Look it here! Look it here! We got some heroes trying to cross the alley. Lucky for us, because we haven’t had dinner yet! Jones could see Kramer on the ground. “Cannibals!” he yelled to him.

“Yeah….” He responded. “Shit!”

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Scalp Collectors 2: Missionary Position

Scalp Collectors 2: Missionary Position

The red door that gated the civilization from the outside world widened like open arms. The jeep pulled through it and pulled into the Way Station. The door slammed shut behind, locking them in to Queensmen, home of the pair of Scalp Collectors. They both jumped out of the jeep and headed towards the Dealer, Georgie.

“Chaz Kramer and Alpaca Jones! How the hell are my favorite Skinners doing?”

They walked up to the widow where they saw his melted face. Georgie was recognized as a Burned One. They were people affected by diseases and radiation as infants, the ones that lived had melted and scarred skinned that looked like they were burned all over. Most lost their minds and roam the wastelands like brainless animals. Georgie was an exception of this rule.

“Seriously you two are the only twisted motherfuckers that I would allow to scalp my sorry ass.”

“Your skin aint worth shit!” Kramer said, handing the scalp in through the window.

“Oh, but this is! Contract completed. Let me run this through our DNA Database.” Neither of the Scalp Collectors have ever seen how they scan the skin in the DNA Database, it was some type of computer screen that was kept below the window. “Yes, yes, a perfect match!” His smile was obtuse and sent cracks through his blistered face.

A ghastly sight Georgie was. Bald in a milk white with red blotches across his skin that cracked and peeled, with a clear liquid that soaked his skin like sweat. The whites of his eyes were blood red with brown pupils swimming within. He could blend in well with a crowd of his own kind, but Jones was sure he could pick him out in a line up.

So, let’s see…. three thousand credits for the single. Same as last time, two three hundred checks and the two thousand four hundred in one check””

Kramer looked to Jones who nodded in agreement.

“Pleasure doing business with you boys.” Georgie said. Blood oozed from one of the cracks in his face. “Oh, you know it!” Kramer said, taking the three checks that he was handed from the window.

“So, tacos!?” Jones asked.

“Drop off first, then tacos….and booze.”

They walked to the Dwellers Door. It was a medal tube that stuck out of the ground. A sliding door was present but sealed almost 100 percent of the time. A tiny drop off box was next to the door.

“State your name?” The drop off box said. “This Chaz Kramer and Alpaca Jones.”

“Welcome Scalp Collectors! Insert your payment into the box. Have a good day!” The voice was robotic and fake. It left a sick feeling in the stomach of the average person. Luckily none of them survived to see this.

After Kramer inserted the check Jones asked, “How much more do we have to pay?”

“Sixty thousand two hundred and twenty-seven credits.”

“A lot better than three hundred thousand.”

“Long time ago.” Kramer nodded in agreement.

“Tacos?” Jones asked.

“Tacos.” Kramer agreed.

The headed towards the cantina with the rush of the dinner meals endings. Hordes of people left the outside patio. Civilians from Queensmen, protected by the walls and the few men with guns to protect them. Queensmen was a nice settlement, far from most of the dangers with people of all types working different divisions of jobs. Teachers say that this place is the closest to a city from the past. Long before the destruction of man and the Last Plague.

They walked to a table in the corner, ordered their food, and a waitress brought their drinks. The mugs were nearly the as tall as wine bottles and filled to the point of overflow. Foam rolled down the side of the glass and Kramer took a long drink before wiping the foam from his beard. A couple locals were gathered in the corner and were playing music, a mix of fiddles and guitars. People gathered around them and clapped to the music. Jones and Kramer watched and drank, but cared little for the music. The tacos arrived and they ate quietly. The meat wasn’t beef, but it wasn’t baby either. Kramer guessed it was skunk, Jones was sure it was rat. At least the cheese and lettuce was real.

When they finished, Jones pulled himself from the table after draining the rest of his beer. “I got to buy a dead pig. Gotta feed the beast.”

“How big is she getting? I can’t remember the last time I saw her.”

“You don’t wanna know.” Jones said, turning from the table. As he did he stopped in his tracks at the couple entering the cantina.

“Alpaca!” Amaryllis said, cradling the arm of her date. Her blonde hair was curled at the tips around her shoulders, make up was thick and worn, but she made it work. She always did.

“Chaz!” Allocer said, scratching at one of the blue crosses on his cheeks. His silver hair stood out to the bronze skin of his muscled body. Tall and strong, it was no wonder he was the best scalp collector in the land. Jones and Kramer begged to differ.

“Hey…” They both said at once. “What is the Great Duke himself doing here?” Chaz said with every drop of fake happiness he could muster up.

“Why, I just came to try some of these famous tacos that all you Queensmen get to feast on. This is my hot date, Amaryllis. I believe you all know each other…You both do think she is a hot date? I bet Jones does…”

The words struck Jones across the face. The look in her eyes made it worse. She was an ex-lover for many years when he first started scalp collecting. Whatever they had burned away and now the ashes were before him, locked with a man in charge of committing horrid crimes. Jones noticed her hand was wrapped around the handle of Allocer’s short sword, still sheathed to his hip. That was his weapon for scalping. Her hand squeezed and rubbed up and down the handle.

“She is, but we have been hearing tales of you just snatching up whatever you see fit.”

“Well, I can’t help that woman throw themselves at my feet.” Allocer said, whipping his silver hair back off his eyes so you could see the diamonds that shined.

“Funny, if they are lying at your feet I bet you put them there.”

“Somebody is just jealous about my date! I bet you still think about fucking her repeatedly. Tell me, will you imagine me fucking her next time? When I am deep inside her tonight, I am going to imagine you are standing outside the window looking in. Crying and jerking off your prick. That thought might make it a little harder.” Allocer said. Amaryllis looked to Jones with a small smile. Her eyes cut into him and he tried not to feel sick to his stomach.

“The only thing we are jealous about is how you fucking suck at collecting scalps, but you get more rewards than we do!” Kramer yelled.

“We will ask the Queen and see what she says. I do control thirty-six settlements. Soon to be thirty-seven.”

“Good luck.” Jones said, his tone darkened. Amaryllis looked back once as she walked away. He noticed she wasn’t wearing her razor fingers. A good scalp collector always carries their knife.

“Where is her razor fingers?” Kramer asked.

“Maybe she bought her way out. You know he is rich enough to do so.”

“Maybe she is just sharing his sword. She was almost jerking off the fucking handle.

Jones looked to the dirt floor when he saw her staring back at him. “I need to buy that pig. I’ll check for any contracts in the morning.”

“Alright later man.” Kramer said, finishing the rest of his beer. He got up from the table and walked towards Clinton Avenue, the name of the street he lived on. He watched children run passed him, kicking a ball in the street. Other people walked hand and hand, smiling as they did. He saw some men crowded around a burning barrel singing a song and some people had gathered to watch. Kramer had always thought Queensmen had been a great place for people to live. He had visited several others in his days and they were dumps. Kramer looked to the walls they had. Reinforced with logs and steal. They were so thick the guards could walk on the top. Guard rails were intact after too many had fallen off. Guards for the guards. Kramer lit a cigarette and moved on.

Jones parked the jeep in an old parking lot where he always did. Jones did own the double garage and the apartment above it, but his beast lived in the double garage. He threw his purchased dead pig over his shoulder and entered the building. He hit the second floor ignoring the burned wall paper and blood-stained carpet. He found the garbage shoot that lead to the garage and opened it. He took the rattle sitting on the floor and shook it. His pet always heard the rattle before food. He dropped the pig down into the dark. No sound was made in the darkness, this indicated to Jones that the beast caught its dinner. “Night, Girl.”

Kramer unlocked his home door and walked in. He had shelves lining the walls with toys from the old days. Many were still in good shape. He had more figures of super hero’s than any one he knew. Over the years his collection grew. He would take them as keepsakes from filling contracts. There was a humor in the hobby he had. He once said, “If super heroes were a real thing then they really shit the bed when it came to the world.”

Undressing, Kramer took a shower, hardly aware of the scars across his body. Old gunshot wounds, stabbings and even bite marks from a girl with metal teeth. The scars across his back where the oldest and the thickest. Whip marks from his childhood. Jones had them too, they both saw each other get whipped nearly to death. The training for their future was the worst thing they ever had encountered.

Jones was in a similar state in his small apartment. Only he rubbed the claw scars across his chest. “Cross your heart, hope to die.” Amaryllis had said to him when their relationship ended and her claws cut deep. Seeing her still hurt him and she knew it. One day when the cards were in his hand he would kill her, and he would do it to keep himself from sleeping with her. Her scalp would be the prettiest one he would ever take.

Neither one of them knew at that moment but Kramer and Jones were kneeling in front of their beds at the exact same time. Each mumbled the prayer they were taught as kids, on the day they learned of their bloody future. “I hunt for my Queen’s Hand, I skin for my Queen’s Grace, I kill for my Queen’s Love.”

Jones laid in bed and tried to get Amaryllis out of his head. He slept with his skinning knife under his pillow for sweet dreams, but they were all the same. Kramer stared at picture of the Queen on his wall. She was Knighting him with her jeweled sword, some say that was the Queen’s own personal scalping tool. Kramer looked younger in the photo, clean shaven and wearing the coat of scalps he had to collect and sewed together to complete his training. “The Knights of New”. Kramer read the banner in the background. It was the happiest day of his life.

Sleep was similar for both. They heard the cries of a thousand people but only saw their childhood, they felt the whip and could still smell the bucket of piss they poured on the open wounds. They could still feel the pain, it had been imbedded in their brains so well that when they are ever in a conflict and take on pain, the horrible memories come back and it makes them kill any opponent in front of them.

Kramer awoke first and sat up covered in his own sweat. He looked from his window and saw the sun was peeking into the darkness. Getting up from his bed, he winced at the slight pain in his knee, wondered into his bathroom and ate his daily vitamin, that enhanced his senses but dulled his pain receptors. This was his favorite medicine. Afterwards, he went to his kitchen to get breakfast. He lacked any motivation to go back to the dreams that his memory tried to repress. He lit one of his rolled cigarettes as snacked on strips of jerky. Today would be a day when he grabs the contract first, if there were any available.

Slipping into his leathers, goggles, and gun belt, Kramer took his way out into the street and towards the Way Station, seeing that the sun rising was bringing the towns people out. A line of people was out in front of the way station, mainly the poor looking for a job to keep them busy for the day. No other Scalp Collectors were in line, so this was a good sign for Kramer.

“Good morning, Sunshine!” Georgie said when it was Kramer’s turn in line. “You actually beat Jones up today.”

“Hey man, got to get paid.” Kramer said, keeping himself from yawning.

Georgie scratched at his ruined cheek, “And if you complete this one, you could get double what you had yesterday.”

“Two scalps then?”

“Yeah, couple runaways took refuge in a church some ways from here. Dead or alive. Looks like it is in Farm Top.”

“Easy, I hope he gets his ass up so we can get going. We can make it back by dusk if we hurry.” Kramer said, referring to Jones.

Georgie handed him the contract and Kramer took the paper quickly, being careful to avoid Georgie’s yellowed and green fingers.

“Heading back out two days in a row?” A deep voice said from behind Kramer. He turned and looked up into the beast of a man, Mika. A man built on long bones and a thick muscles body mass. His skin brown and dark, eyes bloodshot and looked half dead. He carried a great sword in front of him, that he used as a cane. This made the sword less intimidating. There were disadvantages to being his size. His legs really couldn’t take his weight anymore. He spends his days sitting on top of the walls that surround the town, surveying and keeping the bad out.

“Yeah, when there’s Queen’s justice to give out.”

“Where are you heading on this day?”

“Some Church in Farm Top.”

Mika looked taken back. “Taking skin in a church?”

“More like taking skin from a church.” Kramer said, walking away from Mika.

“Those are places of sanctuary and peace!” Mika said, stunned.

“There is no sanctuary that protects anyone from the Queen. “Kramer said, smiling.

Mika squinted at Kramer and said, “So the bad guys will lose, right? Just to be clear, the people looking to be forgiven from their crimes, they still are the bad guys, right?”

“I guess so.”

“What does that make you?” Mika asked.

Jones pulled around the corner in his jeep, his goggles worn to cover his eyes from the morning light. “You are up early!” He yelled to Kramer.

Kramer turned back to Mika. “Have a good day. Hope your legs feel better. You got to be dulling that blade when you lean on it.”

Mika squinted at the collectors in the jeep. The red door swung open and the pair drove off into the morning light. The tires of the jeep kicking up dirt from behind them, and trailed behind until the entered the forest that surrounded the civilization. Half dead trees amongst dead grass, it was still surprising that some animals were still hunted in there.

“What’s the contract?” Jones asked.

Kramer handed the paper over. “It’s at Farm Top, in the old church. Sounds like missionary position and not the boring kind.  We have to get two in there.”

Jones read the paper, slowing down the jeep as he did. “Mattie Loven and Kirk Myers. Wanted for aiding Head Hunters that lead to the deaths of four Queen’s men at Outpost Z. Scalps to be taken dead, or alive.”

“Another day closer to the end.” Kramer said.

“Maybe, remember when that Scalp Collector got killed in a church?”

Kramer scratched his beard. “Chris, Amaryllis’s old partner.”

“Yeah, walked right into a church and they had a sniper up on the balcony. Blew out his right lung.

“I doubt bullets will ever kill us. Most people are terrible shots.” Kramer said.

“True, but I remember Chris being full of church. Converted after his first professional kill. He said he scalped for God, not the Queen.”

“Funny that he was murdered in a church. God didn’t love him that much.”

Jones sipped from a water bottle and turned the radio on to static. Occasionally they could find music, or some religious propaganda. A couple times the found an old broadcast from the old world. A guy named Riley, who was thought to be long dead by now, but for some reason his voice still lived on.

“After all the shit we have seen, do you believe in God?” Jones asked when he gave up on the radio.

“I don’t know.” Kramer said, lighting one of his rolled cigarettes. “Which God are we talking about? I mean there’s too many to pick from.

“They say the Christian one is the most popular, or that shadow religion.”

“Well, we are driving to that Christian church so let’s say that one.”

“Christ?” Kramer asked. “The one with the cross, right?”

“Yeah, what do you think?”

“Man, I really don’t know. I don’t even know what it is, ya know? I can’t even give an honest opinion on it.”

“We run across so many fucking people who hide behind fairy tales, you know? I remember that one guy who meditated while I scalped him, he said his faith would keep him from crying. I guess his God didn’t hear him because he sobbed like a baby.”

Kramer laughed. “Oh yeah, we burnt that church to the ground….”

“We have seen some shit in our time, but the worst thing we have ever seen is people. People hide behind fairytales to feel better about how useless they really are. They create fairytales to make them feel better about who they rape, kill, or maim, and act like they deserve some grand reward. People are terrible, and they created their religion, in return their religion is terrible.”

“I think a lot of them can’t help it. Many of them were brainwashed when they were children. Forced to believe what they believe.”

Jones sat back and had a familiar feeling. “Like how we are about the Queen?”

“No, not like her. She is real and we are right.” Kramer said, smiling.

“We sound just like them.”

They drove in silence for the remainder of the trip, feeling the sun change course into the sky. The early signs of dusk were coming across the horizon. The moon was showing its mutated face, sharp points revealing a piece that had broken off years before. Each of them appreciated a cold front that accompanied the open plains at night.

They approached the town before dark. A civilization that consisted of three streets. An old school house is where the settlers slept, each classroom consisting of another home. The church was in the center of town. They both have collected scalps in this town before, but they were all in the school house. The church was new territory for Jones and Kramer. All the homeless and guilty slept in the basement of the church, and this close to dusk would have them all inside, hiding from the horrors of the night.

They parked the jeep between a few other cars. A rare sight in a lot of locations. “We need more ammo. You think the church has some hiding underneath the organ or something?” Kramer asked, adjusting his gun.

“It looks like they have cars, unless some other Scalp Collectors beat us to the contract.”

“Well, maybe they will have ammo?” Kramer said. “It has been a long time since we shot some of our own kind.”

“The worst kind of prey. Can’t even believe the Queen tolerates that.”

“Competition. Everyone likes a good game. Lucky for us, we always score when we need it the most.”

“With knifes and our dicks.” Jones said, rubbing dirt from his knife blade.

“Could be some broken whores hiding in here, if we get a couple fingers in, then we are in.”

“Remember Rocco?” Jones asked. “The girl did whatever he wanted, just to save her husband from being scalped. When he finished on her back, he took her scalp because she was too rough with him. She didn’t even notice that he took her husband’s skin as well.”

“Wasn’t he eaten by a pack of wild dogs?” Kramer asked.

“Live like a dog, die like a dog.”

“Alright, lets focus.” Kramer said, adjusting his shirt. “Get into character. We don’t know what could jump out at us.”

They walked side by side on their way up the steps. Each churning to look over their shoulders. They couldn’t feel eyes looking on them, but they were positive people knew they were in town, and a warm welcome wasn’t going to be likely.

They both opened each door and wandered in, instantly looking up to see if a balcony was above them. When none was present they now had the advantage. Their awareness was sharp and they kept it focused on the seats going up the aisle. This was not their first time in a church and they have plenty experience having gun fights within them.

They noticed the large crucifix that hung from the back wall. It was a statue of Jesus Christ but his head was missing. In its place was a human skull with a crown of thorns wrapped around it. A man came through the door behind the podium, sweat rolled down his bald head. He was nervous, but his voice didn’t show a crack of weakness. “Gentlemen! Welcome to The Second Baptist Church of the great town of Farm Top. What brings a couple wonderers this late in the afternoon?”

“Well, we were looking for a place to hang our gun belts for the night and we found this place to look nice and cozy.” Kramer said.

“Are you children of God?” The man asked.

“Last we knew, we were children of the Queen, I am not sure who knocked her ass up, but God is a suspect.” Jones and the stranger both smiled. Kramer really did have a way with words.

“Well, all children are welcome here. We do not turn a single person away. Currently, my flock is making a supper consisting of fried egg sandwiches and milk. Would you two gentlemen like to join us.”

“Cows and chickens doing well out here?” Kramer asked.

“We provide with what the good Lord blesses us with.”

“This is not exactly why we are here.” Jones said, handing the man his paper contract.

“But we will take those sandwiches to go!” Kramer added.

The man looked over the paper and a frown crossed his wrinkled face. His pointed nose moving back and forth in disapproval. He looked Jones in the eyes with the most sorrow. “Oh dear, oh my dear. So, this is a business trip?”

“We apologize to interrupt, but we can scalp them out back if that would help?” Jones asked.

“We don’t wish to kill them or spill any blood in the church.” Kramer said in his most sincere liar voice.

“Very well. There is a well outback. I will send Kirk outback to grab a pale of water. Meet him there.” Jones nodded to Kramer.

“On it.” Kramer said, drawing his knife and he headed toward the door. When the door was shut behind him Jones turned to the man and watched as he wiped the sweat from his brow.

“I didn’t get your name.” Jones asked.

“Jack. I guess I am the new pastor of this church. Pastor Watkins went out looking for another of the flock and he never returned.”

“Strange. How long has he been gone?”

Jack scratched at a small scar at his chin. “A couple months. He was only going to The Oasis of Faith. He received word that he was to find someone seeking sanctuary. A bit worried that he wouldn’t be welcomed to the town.”

“There was never a person there. Watkins is dead.” Jones said, making the room seemed colder.

“How would you know?” Jack said suspiciously.

“We got a lot of reports from all around about how cannibals usually camp at Oasis’s waiting for people to stop by for clean water. They have been sending false messages to people to get them to stop by. If he has been gone this long, then I bet he has been killed, gutted, roasted, eaten and digested by now.”

“Well, that’s …”

“Maybe you should show me Mattie Loven. She is a part of the contract. It is odd you did not mention her to attend the well?”

“I meant them both. I-I haven’t seen Mattie in some time.”

“So, she isn’t in the back, making sandwiches and pouring milk?”

Jack froze in place; the sweat was soaking his shirt now. “Can we just say she wasn’t here?”

“You love her?” Jones asked, annoyed.

“No, yes, maybe. Look, if you heard her story, you wouldn’t want to see her scalped as well.”

“Well, she helped some Head Hunters murder some people, so I don’t need to hear her bullshit. Now, you don’t want to get scalped I bet, and you are trying to protect her and I have the authority to scalp you at this given moment. Your bald head won’t get me much for a rebel scalp, but I do need more credits to buy some more ammunition, so it’s worth it.”

“Let me ask you something?” Jack said, with the last bit of courage in his face.

“Alright.”

“Do you see yourself as a shepherd or a wolf?”

“I see myself as a Scalp Collector who honors his Queen. What do you see yourself as?”

“A shepherd guiding his flock.”

“Maybe, but you are going to lead a couple of your sheep away. We will shear them, they will stumble back, and we will be on our way.”

“Give me a moment.” Jack said.

“I’ll give you three minutes. After that I am coming in gunning.” Jones threatened, tapping the handle of his revolver.

He watched Jack walk back up the stage to the door he came from. Jones didn’t feel threatened here. Moments later Jack stumbled out with a sad look and a red-haired man followed him, and a dark-haired woman walked out behind him. The red-haired man was carrying a couple of empty pales. “Howdy, friend! Always nice to meet a new face.” He opened one are for half a hug.

“Not a friend. Back off.”

“Sorry, some people just can’t feel the love.” Kirk said as he walked towards the front door.

“Someone is going to feel a lot of love in just a minute or two.” Jones mumbled.

During this, Kramer sat outside on the edge of the well and used his knife to dig the dirt out from under his fingernails. Staring up at the stars that began to shine down upon him. He was whistling a song he had heard them play at a pub years ago. He was halfway into a second song when Kirk wondered on up to him.

“Howdy, friend!”

“Howdy, friend!” Kramer said with excitement. “You wouldn’t happen to be Kirk, would you?”

“Why that is the name my dead mother gave me!”

Kramer opened his arms to embrace Kirk. “Come here you!” Kirk dropped the pales and went in for a big hug. Moments later Kirk was screaming and Kramer was laughing, fresh blood spilling down into the well.

Back in the church Jones watched Mattie argue with Jack. “Why do I have to go to the well? You know I am assigned to kitchen duties!”

“Mattie, I would you to meet this gentleman…”

“Why the hell do I care! Why!?”

Jones interfered. “Look, I asked him to call you out. I need to see you.

She turned to him, glaring with distaste. Jones could see how the girl could been beautiful in a different setting. Her hair was black, curly, and he knew she was going to miss it where it had always grown.

“I have seen you before! I watched you scalp Marty back at a gang I was hiding with.”

“Not ringing a bell, but I probably did.”

“So, you found me! Now what? You want my scalp?”

Jones walked towards her till they were nearly a foot apart. From the corner of his eye he saw Jack walked towards him and Jones held a finger up to keep him in place. Jack lowered his head and looked down at the floor. When Jones closed in on her he drew his blade and held it up to her nose. “It has never been this easy. Thank you.” Jones asked.

“You don’t scare me; your knife doesn’t scare me. If you heard what I had to say you would understand.” Her eyes looked ferocious and deadly. Jones could almost see the past events fly passed her eyes.

“I’m all ears.” Jones took a step back and lowered the knife.

“You stand there will all the confidence in the world, thinking that I am such a terrible person. That I did what I had to do to keep myself alive, and now I am guilty in the eyes of a woman who I have never seen, never met, who decides I deserve no trial but an active punishment! You stand by and hurt and kill the people over what a piece of paper says. You have no idea what I have done or what I have been through. I watched my parents and my brother get killed and they tied me down and force fed me pieces of their meat, while they took turns using me for whatever they wanted, tearing me up in every single way. Soon after I was used for their slave labor during the day and raped every night. Soon I had a child, and I never got to meet him since he was taken from me, to be eaten elsewhere. When I was pregnant again, I escaped the gang and fled through the woods and before they could trail me, I found another gang who protected me and allowed me to have my child. A child conceived by horrible men, so many I had no idea which one it could be. I wanted to hate him, but I couldn’t since he had my eyes. One day this gang wanted me to help them, sneak into Outpost Z, steal some supplies. I didn’t want to, but they held a knife to my son’s throat. I helped them and they killed four of the guards at the gate, but we never made it in. When I got back to the camp they killed my son for failing. They threw me out into the wild on my own. I couldn’t find any food till I found a frail old man. I had to kill him just so I could eat. In the middle of eating his leg was when Pastor Watkins found me and lead me here to clean my life up. Since then I have been doing well. I am part of a descent community, doing good for others. I never wanted what I had to do, but can I ask you that? Do you want to scalp me, do you want to hurt me, add another blow to my life, punish me for making the right choice for once? How many people have you hurt or killed? I watched you cut Marty’s throat after you scalped him and you did it with a smile on your face. I want you to question yourself, ask yourself that fucking question. Then, I want you to tell me what you want?”

Jones walked closer to her until their noses were nearly touching. He raised the knife up to her lips, the tip nearly kissing it. “I honestly understand what you are going through. I have scars you wouldn’t believe on the inside and out, but you know what? Who gives a fuck? Everyone has a fucking story and yours sounds practiced and true, but your nothing special, just like my story isn’t special. No single person is special. We all have seen shit, we all have done shit we shouldn’t be proud of. But you’re not special, sweetheart. After today I won’t remember a single word of this conversation. See, your story isn’t important to this story. This story is meant for others. The only reason you’re in my story is for me to scalp you, nothing more, and nothing less. Now, you asked how many people I have hurt? Hundreds, probably killed close to the same amount and I do it with a song in my heart. You asked me what I want? Well, I don’t need to ask myself these questions. I really do understand you, I really do…but what I need is that scalp of yours.”

Kramer walked into the church, still whistling a song. He treated the fresh scalp like a warm, clean towel, folding it kindly. “C’mon man, you’re talking forever!

Jones smiled. “So, shall we begin?”

Sample Chapter: One Day Sober

Sample Chapter: One Day Sober

Alrighty….This is a chapter for my upcoming novel (The Devil in the Details) I am polishing it up and making last minute changes, but most people don’t really know what its about or the feel of it. Here is a taste……..

One Day Sober

 

For once in his life, Hoagie’s sleep was undisturbed. Tossing and turning, waking to the sweat stained pillow, fresh tears rolling into his white beard. His wife Meryl would wake up and try to comfort him on those nights, anything from holding him to small whispers of reassurance. Meryl was a strong woman and that is why he married her, but he found it hard to believe she never had a nightmare about their dead daughter.

He laid awake trying to remember what part of the dream lingered in his head the night before. Willow, his only child. Hoagie saw her in his dreams most nights, usually they consisted of how he found her, blue face submerged in the pool. She was only eight at the time and nowadays she would have been 34. The dreams he tried to repress but last night’s had got him thinking.

“Did you have a nightmare?” Meryl said. The sun was coming through their bedroom window and lit up her bright face. Hoagie could still see traces of the young woman he fell in love with in college. Her hair was blonde with many gray streaks, but her light brown eyes still showed so much life. Meryl’s cheeks were wrinkled now but the smile still powered through all of it. Hoagie pulled his arm around her and cradled her in their bed.

“Wouldn’t call it that,” He said. “I did see Willow though.”

“Tell me about it.”

Hoagie knew that Meryl loved to hear his stories, he had always been a story teller and his requests were famous. When he is drunk at the bar he will go on about anything, some people did see him as the town drunk, but everyone seemed to love him anyways. Hoagie loved people and wouldn’t harm a soul and some of his stories came straight out of his heart.

“She was standing across the room playing with the pictures on the desk. She moving them around and I watched her and I didn’t think I was dreaming. Willow had her hair tied back and she was wearing this little yellow dress. I had never seen that dress before. When she looked at me she was smiling. She came over to the bed and kissed me on the check. I wrapped my arms around her and felt the cold. I grew scared for a minute but then she reassured me. ‘Don’t worry daddy. You can come see me real soon. I won’t be cold anymore.’ I wanted to speak but no words would come out. Her face was just a beautiful as it was all those years ago. Still our baby girl. She walked to the doorway and said, ‘I will see you soon daddy.’ She walked out and disappeared and that’s when I woke up.”

“That’s much better than the usual dreams,” Meryl said. “Did you drink a lot last night?”

“I wondered that for a minute, but what was strange is, I caught a drink with Ronnie last night, but only one. When I came home you were already in bed and I pulled out that 18 year scotch and had a single glass. Normally I can’t sleep without a buzz, but I did last night. It was like something in the air didn’t want me to have a hangover.”

“Maybe your drunken dreams are why you have nightmares all the time, you know?” Meryl said turning to him. “You are a good man to the bone and even your drunken self is still likeable. You know I have never been hard on you for your drinking. I think maybe you are just growing old.”

“I think my white beard and hair already prove that. I don’t think that’s it.” Hoagie said. “I think I am going to quit drinking.”

“When?”

“Today. My drink last night was the last one. I have always had thoughts that maybe my drinking with Ronnie had really helped push him to the bottle.”

“You can’t put that on yourself,” Meryl began. “That boy had been through hell with his momma dying and his dad’s accident last year. You know better than anyone that Gary Queen wasn’t afraid of that bottle. He could drink a case of beer to himself and he wasn’t the happiest of drunks.”

“No, I think I kind of hated that man a little bit. I would have never have treated Willow the way he treated Ronnie.”

“I think it’s great you look after him.” Meryl said smiling. “He is like the son we never had.”

Ronnie Queen was a boy in his twenties that Hoagie has known his entire life. After Willow died, Hoagie and Meryl moved from Champaign, Illinois to the riverside town of Talon, Illinois right by the border of St, Louis. His first week here he met a man at a bar known as Gary Queen. A mean Texas drunk who had a scar down the side of his head. At the time his wife, Joanna was pregnant with their first and only kid. Hoagie and Meryl have seen Ronnie grow since he was a baby and into his mid-twenties now. Ever since Gary died last year, Ronnie moved into his dad’s house with his dog and became really reclusive. Only Hoagie visits with him and he only shows his face in public when he’s working or down at the bar.”

“Is Ronnie going ice fishing with you today?” Meryl asked.

“No, boy’s working. Sucks too, because the weather for ice fishing this year has been shit.”

Meryl got out of the bed, “Well, I’ll make you some breakfast and some lunch to take with you.”

“You’re the best, you know that right?” Hoagie said.

As she walked towards the doorway she turned and said, “You couldn’t do any better.” Her smile matched Willow’s. She headed down the stairs. Hoagie sat up in bed and looked over at the pictures Willow had been playing with. He stretched and heard all his old bones pop as he stumbled over to the desk. His legs weren’t as good as they used to be.

What Hoagie did notice was that Willow had moved Ronnie’s picture from the back towards the very front right next to hers. Those photos had never been moved and now Hoagie could see a dust line from where the picture used to sit. Ronnie’s photo was angled so it blocked a photo of him and Meryl from their wedding, Now, Ronnie’s photo stood out with Meryl and Willow around him.  He did not have the urge to ask his wife if she had moved these. No reason to fill her mind that their daughter was a ghost.

“I will see you soon daddy.” Her voice still echoed in his mind. He kissed her picture and sat down, but still left Ronnie’s where Willow had left it, blocking Hoagie out of view point and in that moment he saw the faces to the three people he cared about the most, Meryl, Willow, and Ronnie.

Hoagie wondered into the upstairs bathroom and brushed his teeth. He admired the fact his eyes weren’t bloodshot and that he didn’t need to throw up. When finished he got dressed and headed downstairs where Meryl had already got some bacon fried. “Did you want any eggs to go with this?” she asked.

“Afraid not. I think every ice fisherman in town knows this may be our only day to fish this year. I can’t wait around too long.” Hoagie grabbed a piece of finished bacon, crisp and nearly burnt. Hoagie’s favorite kind of bacon.

“I got a turkey sandwich for you on the table right there. Make sure you grab a bottle of water to take with you! Don’t forget your tackle box this time!”

“I know. My head wouldn’t be screwed on right without you, dear.” Hoagie said, shoving more bacon into his mouth.

“It still isn’t but I can manage with a few broken things.”

“Love you too.” Hoagie said, wrapping his arms around his wife. “Seriously, I do.”

She turned and grabbed Hoagie’s bearded face and kissed him deeply. “I know you do. That’s why I chose to stick around so much.” Her smile warmed Hoagie’s heart. He saw so much of his daughter in her face. Some beautiful things could be hidden in the deepest places. It was in these moments that Hoagie could sense his daughter was still alive. Her spirit was in their love, the very love that created her in the first place. It was a constant cycle, a rotation that his heart went through with his family. He knew that when they all are dead and buried, they would find each other in another life and live through all the pain and joy again. Hoagie wouldn’t trade anything else in the world.

Hoagie knew Ronnie was haunted by the deaths in his family and what the boy never understood was how Hoagie always tried to explain it to him. The only way he got over Willow’s death was by the love he shared with his wife. He saw the pieces of his daughter fall from their companionship like a massive puzzle he could put together. Ronnie shared no love with anybody and the only girl that ever loved him was thrown away after his dad died. This angered Hoagie and Meryl to death. Ronnie and his ex-Stephanie were together for so long. They almost saw her like another daughter. It was these tragic turn of events that bothered Hoagie the most about Ronnie. Some things you just couldn’t teach certain people. He always tried to tell Ronnie, “It takes life and death to help us break free.” But he never understood. Hoagie guessed that he would have to keep telling the boy. At moments he wanted to tell Ronnie to do some real soul searching.

Willow’s death still haunted Hoagie’s dreams, but that is only because he found her dead and those images can’t leave his mind. In his nightmares he still feels guilty for an obvious accident. It’s nothing he could have been prevented. It’s the dice God rolled for their family. That is what Walter, the pastor used to say. Walter was no longer the pastor these days. He recently stepped down to spend more time with his family. Hoagie didn’t blame him.

The bacon was scarfed down in minutes, washed down with coffee. He grabbed his supplies and was heading out the door. Meryl grabbed his arm, “Bring back dinner.” She kissed him and Hoagie went on his way.

He felt the sun touch his face and Hoagie wanted to get lost in it. Most January days were always so gray. The sun could always help represent a good day and he knew Ronnie was kicking himself for missing this. Work was important in some matters of Hoagie’s life, but he would drop his job if his life needed a change. When Willow died he quit being a teacher. The drive and the passion was lost because of this invisible veil that was thrown around a room of teenagers. He knew one day she would become a teenager and he might have been her teacher, as the years would grow closer to this it began to drive him crazy. So, Hoagie quit and moved himself and his wife into Talon for a new start. Meryl worked as a florist in town and Hoagie took a job down at one of the factories down by the river. He mostly did assembly line work with little trinkets like pens and such. As the years past he took a shift manager position which worked out well when he would roll into work with a hangover. Then a couple years back he took over as the lead floor head, where he mostly just managed the place for the owners. Paperwork at a desk felt good for Hoagie. His aged body just didn’t have the strength it once did.

This beautiful Saturday wasn’t going to make him think about work. Hoagie jumped into his car and drove down to Crowclaw Lake. A strange lake with it being the shape of a bird’s foot. Talon was a town full of abandon coal mines, now they were deserted tunnels, some of which were turned into a lake.

Crowclaw Lake. Hoagie had heard people around town referring Talon as Crowclaw. He assumed there wasn’t much of a difference. The town had its share of a strange past. Hoagie looked into a lot of it in his early days when he was curious to learn of the strange town. Native Americans had left the area for unknown reasons. They were quoted as saying the ground had gone sour. This was a lost to the white settlers in the area, since they were able to grow crops a few miles away from the shore of the Illinois River. The river itself was full of fish and the land was full of wild game. It wasn’t until the town began to grow did it all become a little strange. It started with a man who killed his entire family with a pitchfork, before locking all of his life stock in a barn and burning it down with a barrel of gun powder. He revealed to the town that a mysterious man in a fancy suit had told him to murder his family and his livestock for they were “tainted.”

When Hoagie had discovered a hidden pond known as “The Pit,” he had to investigate its history. That was when he learned about the witch burnings that occurred in the town. Children had apparently gone missing and the town went insane. After the mining was finished and the lake was filled, the mayor at the time was found dead by the water. A crow’s foot was stuck in his throat, he had apparently tried to eat the bird. It was then they began calling the lake, Crowclaw.

The mayor’s widow was so upset she drown their children in the lake and hanged herself from a tree nearby. They eventually cut the tree down when they built a park there and it became known as “Widow’s Park.” Hoagie thought of how fascinating and creepy the town’s history was. Talon had blood, thick, red, and dripping in the pages of the town’s history book. Every time he walked passed Widow’s Park, he had to stop and think about all the dark history in that very place. He almost wished the tree would still be there. It would almost be too real for him.

Yes the town was dripping in red. A few times Hoagie borrowed some books from the library to take home. He would sit in his favorite easy chair, with a drink and read all the horrible tales the town had. There was the disaster in 1874, where a Ferry boat exploded right out by the riverside when travelers got on. It was loaded and ready to go when it erupted, killing everyone on board. They said barrels of bourbon were in the storage and maybe a small flame from a lantern may have erupted them. The school burning on 1901 was a fascinating one. 57 children were burned up inside. No reason for the flames was ever given. Hoagie’s personal favorite of the dark tales was the one of a giant bird. A giant bird had attacked a small child in 1904. A boy was walking to the newly built school when a bird flew down and picked him up. Reports say the bird had a wingspan of over forty feet, with a black body, a white ring around its neck and rows of razor sharp teeth inside of its needle sized beak. The bird had flown off into the woods with the boy and his body was never found, nor was the bird ever seen again in Talon.

A recent thing that Hoagie had experienced was the missing girl, Marissa Lynch. A girl in her late teens that was seen ice skating around different frozen water holes in Talon. She had been seen everywhere, from little ponds that farmer’s owned, to Crowclaw Lake, and it was rumored even at The Pit. Hoagie had seen the girl many times before she vanished. A real pretty girl he thought. The town seemed more devastated by her loss than most. Her family moved away out of depression. The same way Hoagie and Meryl moved away when Willow died. The pressure could be too much to handle and the only cure was an escape from reality. The body was never found and the worse was feared. Her family declared her dead and a tombstone was erected in the Talon Cemetery. Just another reminder of a missing girl, so gone that even the ground was estranged of a body. Hoagie shuddered at such thoughts. These memories led to him thinking of Willow, decomposing in a tiny little casket.

Hoagie’s mind tended to wonder. He always had to retrieve it or the depression would sink in and he would become thirsty. Today was the first day sober so he had no intention of breaking the seal so early. Never in his life did he ever think that he would be trying to get sober. Meryl never pushed him to, and no one ever said he should. He did have a reputation as a town drunk, but even Hoagie knew he was a fun town drunk. He did do some things that he was glad he couldn’t remember, like the time he pissed in the corner of a bar as he apparently said, “To mark his territory.” He was banned from that bar but that didn’t seem to bother him much since the owner was arrested for apparently having some involvement in some sex trafficking. The bar was closed and reopened as “The Talon Pub.” Terrible drink prices, so Hoagie never went back.

Usually, Hoagie went drinking after a day at the lake. Today was not that day. Ronnie will probably be a bit confused that he quit drinking. He wouldn’t see as much of the boy now. He would have to have Meryl invite him over for dinner soon.

As Hoagie approached the lake he grew excited. This place was his sanctuary and his home of a good time. The lake was vast and a popular fishing place for everyone in town. Hoagie had pretty good luck with the walleyes out on some of these points. Three years ago, he caught his biggest walleye through the ice. Gary Queen laughed at Hoagie trying to wrestle the fish out of his hole. It seemed rare at times to see Gary laugh. Normally he would just complain. If there was one thing Hoagie could clear up about the late Gary Queen was that man spent most of his talking in the field of complaints.

If Gary was still alive he would be out there for sure. That man never passed up a good Saturday for ice fishing. Gary told Hoagie that the only reason he moved to Illinois was for the different weather seasons. He claimed the deer hunting and fishing was much better in Illinois over Texas. Hoagie didn’t have much of an opinion on it. The outdoors were ways of dealing with stress, something he used to do with his grandpa when Hoagie was a little boy. He just enjoyed doing it as a hobby, plus Meryl was an extremely good cook with wild game. He could appreciate a woman who could take a simple rabbit and make it into a fine dining quality dish.

The drive took Hoagie off from the city and farther into the country where it was mostly farmland and wilderness. The roads whipped around with tight curves, whitening the knuckle of every driver who flew around the curves. With not much reaction time Hoagie usually got a kick out of this. The adrenaline of his youth still flooded him to take things to the limit. It did feel good to be young some days. Today was the perfect day to feel like this. Passing the sign that read, “Widow’s Park” Hoagie pulled into one of the parking spots, trying to be extra careful parking in between the lines since the snow and ice was still thick in some parts of the spot.

Getting out of his truck he walked towards the ice, noticing the several cars in the parking lot and seeing the ice shacks out in the middle. That was fine by Hoagie because he was going to take one of the points instead. Stepping on the ice Hoagie walked, almost following some coyote prints that have left their mark in the fresh powder that was still on the ice. The trail took him to the point he wanted to be with the prints heading off onto the bank. Hoagie wondered if the wildlife every really benefited from a frozen lake. Easy access for a predator on the hunt, but what if they little guy just fell in? He doubted it happened often, but couldn’t be sure on the survival. Falling through ice was something Hoagie had never done before and he didn’t plan on starting it at all.

Hoagie dragged his ice shack behind him. It slid easily on the ice, his auger and bucket were sitting on top. Sometimes he found it difficult to put the shack up by himself. Gary and Ronnie usually just sat on buckets even on the coldest days. You could envy someone like that, Hoagie thought. Gary Queen was especially good in terrible climates. He got hurt a lot but he could sit for hours in the pouring rain. The outdoors never seemed to bother the man, just everything else that was around him, like his only child.

Ronnie was a lot like his father. He seemed miserable for a good amount of the day and he spent a lot of his free time in the outdoors. There were times where Hoagie was thrown off guard by how Ronnie could swear and drink like his late father, they even looked alike for the exception of Ronnie’s dyed hair and his eye color. Hoagie would say Ronnie had his mother’s eyes but Hoagie saw something else in him. They weren’t as bright as his late mothers were. They were a dark green, almost the color of evergreen leaves in the heart of the summer

Ronnie also had something else different from his father. He had heart, something Gary always took for granted and the one thing his mother broke. No matter how much shit occurred in Ronnie’s life, Hoagie knew there was a brilliant person inside of him. It came out during the times he was most comfortable. Hoagie attended both his father and his mother’s funerals and he never saw the boy cry. He mourned on his own time he guessed but the thoughts did cross his mind. Is something hiding deeper within him? What is he holding in? What is behind those eyes?

Meryl treated him like her own son and Hoagie always appreciated that. He was a good kid with an even better head on his shoulders. Gary and Joanna Queen went to their graves without ever knowing who their son truly was, but that’s because they weren’t his parents, Hoagie knew Meryl and himself were. They gave him the care he needed, but something’s they could never fix.

When Hoagie was a teenager, he got angry at the world when his grandpa died. He once spent an entire weekend hiding in the woods. He had no food and was drinking out of a nearby creek. Hoagie did a lot of soul searching that day and really found himself. He would feel and hear his grandfather’s voice telling him how to live. It was like a vision quest that Native American’s used to do. He wondered if Ronnie should attempt the same.

It seemed as if a heat wave had fallen across the lake as Hoagie began nearing his position. It felt hard to breathe like the air was thick and heavy beads of sweat was glistening down his face. Unbuttoning his coat, he pushed on trying not to sweat too much. As soon as he lays still the air will freeze it too him. He wished Ronnie was here at that moment to take the load off of his back. Stopping for a minute hoagie sat on the shack and took his bottle of water out of the bucket and slammed half it down, a little bead of water had fallen into his beard. Hoagie wasn’t feeling much better as his stomach tossed and turned the liquid. When he stood up he felt a bit dizzy, but he kept on, marching to the next stop. A chore it became for him to lift each leg up to take another step, a process he has done a thousand times before that was becoming a hassle.

“Boy, I sure am getting fucking old.” Hoagie said. He tried to never swear around Meryl. He never understood why men swore around women at all.

A slow aching pain was occurring in his shoulders and began to grow rapidly. Hoagie still trekked on with nothing but his desire to fish to help motivate him to his destination. The dizziness was growing worse and the pain in his shoulders was moving to his chest. Feeling weak all over Hoagie could feel himself falling before it happened. He fell face first down onto the ice of the lake. Fresh powder of snow greeted his left cheek when he landed. Hoagie tried to pick himself up but he had become short of breath and the dizziness was worse.

He tried calling for help but he couldn’t spare the lack of oxygen to get his voice going. The pain in his chest was becoming fearsome and he rolled over to get to his little cell phone that was laying in his bucket. Hoagie almost never used it, but he was going to need to get to it to call for help. Dragging himself up onto the bucket, he knocked it over, spilling the contents out onto the ice. His poles rolled and his tackle spilled all around in front of him, the sandwich Meryl made him, and his phone slid the farthest away from him.

Hoagie launched himself at the phone, it was a black flip phone and he opened it to turn it on but couldn’t remember what the button was. By the time he got the phone’s logo to appear on the screen, Hoagie could no longer read it, his vision was blurry and he could barely breathe. His chest was made of fire as it felt like everything was collapsing inside of him. Hoagie had to lay his head back down on the ice, not because he wanted to, but because he had no choice too. He closed his eyes wishing Ronnie was here to help him. He was such a good boy.

“Daddy what are you doing? Wake up!”

Hoagie opened his eyes to see Willow standing over him. Hoagie jumped up and wrapped his arms around her, feeling her soft skin, smelling her beautiful hair, he kissed her warm cheeks multiple times. “I told you I would be seeing you soon daddy!”

“Oh, Willow!” it was all Hoagie could say. The image of his daughter made him unaware that the pain in his chest was gone or that all of his strength was back. His little girl was in his arms after all these years.

“Daddy can you teach me how to fish?”

Hoagie was shocked by this. “You really want to fish? You never wanted me to take you before.”

“Yeah, well you have to bait my hook. Worms are gross.”

Hoagie stood up and held her little hand. He almost couldn’t believe she was real. “Let me grab my stuff and I will show you how.” Hoagie said, sobbing wildly as he did.

“No, daddy!” Willow began. “This way! I know a better place. We can catch fish all day, but you have to bait my hook and take the fishes off my pole. Fish are gross!”

“Anything you want sweetie. Anything you want.”

“Is Ronnie gonna be alright, daddy?”

Hoagie was taken back for a second. Was he dreaming? Honestly he couldn’t tell. “How do you know Ronnie?”

“You’re always with him. You think about him a lot.”

Memories of Ronnie flooded back to him, the boy had heart and could conquer anything. “He is going to be fine sweetie. You don’t worry about him. He will find himself, he just has to.”

“This way daddy!” Willow yelled as she ran, tugging on Hoagie’s arm. He ran and they both laughed as they ran into the bright distance. Hoagie had no idea where he was, but Willow was with him and he had never been happier.