He moved to the left of the carriage and tried to look in through the side window as he ran, but a wooden board sat in place of the glass. He eased back and ran to the other side, keeping an arm’s length from the large wooden spoked wheels spinning in a blur, and found the same true for the window on the right-hand side. The horses kicked up thick grey clouds, which made it hard for him to see anything. The carriage continued to roll along at a jogging pace.
He was sure there was one person at the front, driving the horses; it was the potential passengers within the carriage that caused him to hesitate. The driver could be caught off guard and pulled from his seat, and then a swift blow from the bat would deal with him. As he schemed, Jason’s legs started to fail him and his breathing became laboured. It’s now or never, he thought.
He swung the bat at the left-hand side of the carriage. It impacted with a satisfying thud. The noise went unanswered though. He swung again. And again. A crack formed in the wood from the assault.
“Whoa there,” the driver called to his horses. “I said, whoa! Damn you.”
Jason ran to the edge of the path and dove into the sand, then scooped more over himself. The carriage slowed and stopped. As it dipped to the left when the driver made to disembark, Jason remained motionless and watched.
The vague impression of the man in the top hat came into view through the swirling clouds. He studied the crack left by the bat. Jason held his breath as the man looked in his direction. A long moment had passed before he breathed again. The man was wearing a three-quarter-length black jacket and large round glasses. He leaned on the silver handle of a black walking cane. No one else appeared from the carriage to join him. He looked around once more before disappearing from view as he walked back to the driver’s seat.
Jason leapt to his feet and ran towards the carriage, listening for any voices as he went, but all he heard was the storm rising again. He had to act now or his ride would fade into the grey wash once more. The man raised his foot to the metal rung of a short stepladder to climb back aboard. Jason swung the bat at the man’s other leg and swiped it away from beneath him. The man lost his hat and glasses on his journey to the ground. He looked up at Jason with cloudy eyes.
“What d’you do that for?” he asked through his obvious pain.
Jason raised the bat high, readying to bring it down on the old man’s head. He paused and stared into his old eyes. The man looked to be at least eighty and appeared to have not one straight bone in his scrawny body.
“Don’t get up, old man,” Jason said. “I’m sorry, but I have to take your ride. I don’t want to hurt you any more than I have, but if you move I’ll smash your skull. You understand?”
The man laughed, winced with pain, and then said through a crooked smile, “Umm, yeah, okay. If you think you’ve got the balls, you go right ahead. But I’m sure you’re soft as cow shit, and my horses won’t move for soft as cow shit.”
“They’ll move. Now, just stay there and don’t fucking move.”
“You’ve busted my leg, moron. I can’t move.”
Jason stepped over him and climbed up into the driver’s seat. He grabbed the silver-topped cane, which lay on the wooden seat, and threw it over the side. It landed a few feet away from the old man.
“You heartless bitch,” the man spat back.
“Yeah, well. Like I said, sorry.” Jason picked up the leather reins that hung over the foot bar. He noticed a coiled whip below the seat. I’ll get them going with the reins first, he thought, placing the baseball bat next to the whip. He had no experience with horses, and as he looked to the front and watched the sandy veil disperse, he realised with sickening horror that it didn’t matter, because horses were not what drove this carriage. The leather reins fell from his hands.
The man laughed. “Not so easy, is it? I was right about you—soft as shite.”
Through the dissipating fug, Jason saw twelve abused faces staring back at him. Six on either side of a long wooden beam. They had their wrists tied with barbed wire, which bound them to the beam. More barbed wire, wrapped around their necks, connected each man to the front of the carriage. Another man stood at the head of the human train, untethered and looking past the others and at Jason. The bare-chested man rippled with an obscene amount of muscle mass.
“Can I, Pops? Can I break this one?” the enormous man asked without looking away from Jason.
“Yes, my boy, you can. But Lee…”
“I want to hear this one curse louder than the others.” The old man looked up at Jason and asked, “So, what’s it gonna be? You a fighter, or a nancy-boy faggot? I hope you’re not a whore’s pussy, because my son likes the ones who fight back.”
Jason picked up the bat and jumped down from the carriage. As he stood over the old man with the bat raised high, he called out to Lee, “One step and you’re picking your dad’s brains up with a spoon.”
“It’s better if you let him, Lee, he’s busted my leg anyway. Make sure you don’t crack his skull, though, I want to tow this one.”
“He’ll be waiting for you, Pops, don’t worry.”
Lee walked with an awkward, limping swagger. He held another whip, which he let trail out beside him as he lurched towards Jason. This whip wasn’t like the single-tailed one which lay under the driver’s seat; the whip Lee held had four braided tails, about six feet in length, with thick fishing hooks fastened to each end.
Jason looked down at the old man.
“Oh, are you in for a whipping now, boy,” the old man said.
If I smash his skull, Jason thought, he’ll come back. He’ll turn into a screamer, a caretaker will come and do its thing, and the old man will come back. The old bastard knows this. But where will he return to? Is the carriage where his sin took place. A mobile return destination? A useful tool for insidious hunters in hell. Jason raised the bat, smiled down at the old man, and then brought the bat down on the kneecap of the old guy’s good leg.
“You bastard whore!” the old man screamed as he jerked upright and reached for his busted knee.
Jason stepped away from the old cripple and backed away from his son—the approaching mountain of muscles.
“Don’t worry, Pops, I’ll crack your head once I’ve caught me this dumb old fish. You’ll be good as new quicker than snot.” Lee stepped over his father.
“Make it quick, my boy, this does hurt me some.”
Jason stood level with the back of the carriage and held the bat in a solid grip with both hands. No chance he was going to turn and run. He wanted, no, he needed this carriage. He pushed the thoughts of the men in barbed wire bondage from his mind and watched Lee preparing the whip for flight. He expected Lee to make a lavish display of using the whip. He waited for the giant to swing his arm back, which would be followed by a swift forward motion, guiding the working end towards its intended target. At which point he would jump aside from the fast-approaching hooks and club him down. That was what Jason was expecting and was preparing for, but the lavish display never came. He saw a fleeting flick of the big guy’s wrist, followed by a glimpse of the leather braid and a flash from the hooks in flight. Before he could dodge out the way though, he fell crashing to the ground. All four tails had wrapped around both his legs, with one of the fish hooks sinking deep into his calf muscle. Lee had caught his fish and reeled it in.
“Ah, shit, it’s a tiddler. It does wriggle though. Look, Pops.”
Jason grabbed for the carriage wheel as he was dragged by, and his fingers touched the wooden spokes, but he couldn’t get hold of them. He kicked out against the embrace of the whip and reached for the hook embedded in his leg, but it was too late. He lay at the feet of the towering man. Jason swung the bat from his unfortunate position, catching Lee on his thigh, but it had no effect on the man. He swung the bat again, but Lee caught it before it hit and pulled the bat from Jason’s hands with little effort. Then he threw it over his shoulder.
“Stop messing around,” the old man yelled. “Get him tied, and help me. I want to break this bitch in.”
Jason pulled his legs back and then kicked out into Lee’s knees, causing him to stumble backwards and trip over his father. He fell and landed on the old man’s legs. Jason freed himself from the whip and pulled the hook from his flesh, then he rolled underneath the carriage and out to the other side, grabbing the whip and taking it with him.
“Get off me, damn it!” the old man howled. “Get off, you dumb lump.”
Jason jumped up onto the driver’s seat. He picked up the reins with one hand while holding the four-tailed whip with his right. He snapped the reins. “Move!” he shouted to the men up front. “Fucking move!” He snapped the reins again.
The men didn’t move. They looked back at him with pitiful, deep-set eyes.
He looked down at the old man and his son. Lee staggered back to his feet, and the old man rolled from side to side, moaning as he caressed his smashed and crushed legs. Jason tried to use the whip to motivate the twelve men, but the four tails became caught up in the barbed wire. He retrieved the other whip from beneath the seat and attempted to make it crack over their heads, but it was harder than he expected and didn’t make a loud crack as he had hoped. The single tail glanced the head of one, causing the man to flinch, but still they didn’t move.
“Shit,” Jason exclaimed. He looked down at Lee, who moved towards him once more. “Shit!”
“Round two, little fishy.”
“Come on, you steroid junkie gym rat,” Jason yelled as he jumped from the carriage and onto Lee, ploughing his elbow into the man’s nose with shattering effect. He took hold of his adversary’s globular head and pressed livid thumbs into his eyes. Lee swung his fist without aim, catching the side of Jason’s chest with insignificant force. While still gripping Lee’s head and pulling him forward, Jason thrust a knee into his solar plexus, causing him to stagger. Lee gathered himself, reached forward and grabbed Jason by the throat with a crushing grip and lifted him up. While swinging inches above the ground, Jason kicked Lee in the groin—with no result whatsoever. Lee threw Jason to the ground and rubbed his bloodshot eyes, cringing as he touched his broken nose.
Jason climbed back on his feet with little delay.
“What are you doing, Lee?” The old man croaked. “He’s a bug, squash him.”
“Shut it, Pops. I’m working on it.”
Jason backed away, giving himself a moment to ponder the value of this situation. He wasn’t sure if he could force the twelve men to pull the carriage, or whether he could even try. They’re people, he thought. People just like me. Not horses, not cattle. I can’t use them. I could free them… Jesus, Jase, you’re weak and stupid. I should have let it pass on by and not started this. Not got involved. I should run…
Lee came at Jason once more, a look of pure hatred writ large across his bug-eyed face. “I’ll enjoy ripping that damned tongue from your head.” He launched an unstoppable right fist, this time with a good aim. It slammed into Jason’s ear, knocking his head to one side and into the door of the carriage. Jason collapsed in a daze. Lee leaned over and grabbed Jason by the hood of his top and lifted him back to his feet. While still holding him up, he leaned in closer. Jason felt Lee’s stale breath on his cheek as he said, “I collect them. I like the way they still twitch after I rip them out.”
Jason brought the palm of his right hand up at speed to meet Lee’s chin. With a crack, the big man’s head jerked back. Without thought or pause, Jason lunged for the exposed throat and sank his teeth deep. He bit down as hard as he could and wrapped his arms around the back of the man’s head, holding him in place while he chewed on his Adam’s apple. He could feel Lee’s flesh turning to sand within his mouth.
Lee punched and pushed, over and over again, until he knocked Jason away. He threw one final hammer blow and knocked Jason to the ground again. Then he stumbled backwards, clutching at his throat and making a shrill sound.
“What the buggering Alice are you doing, Lee?” the old man yelled.
Lee sounds like a pig at a slaughterhouse, Jason thought. This gave him hope the man-mountain could be beaten. He climbed to his feet, spat out a mouthful of sand and also a couple of teeth, then he ran at Lee and planted his elbow in the gaping throat wound. He stood back and looked at the man’s bulging eyes, then kicked out and landed the sole of his boot flat on his washboard stomach. Lee teetered, almost tripping over his father’s legs again. Jason ran at him once more, shoulder first, slamming into Lee’s chest and sending him toppling to the ground. Sand billowed out from beneath his body as he landed. Jason stood over him, the triumphant gladiator—no time for a call of mercy though. He remembered the poor man in the church and the demon girl’s voice in his head telling him to, stomp, stomp, stomp. He stamped on Lee’s face once, twice… “Break!” Jason screamed. “For fuck’s sake, break.” He stamped again and again. Lee gave little resistance as his head jerked from side to side with every blow. Jason imagined the head smashing apart like a melon beneath his boot, but this was no melon and it wouldn’t crack… A sudden realisation stayed his foot in mid-fall: if his head does break open, he’ll turn into a screamer, and the big bastard will come back. Cripple him instead. He glanced around, looking for the bat. It lay at the edge of the desert path, about ten feet away. He was about to run to get it when he felt a thump and searing pain in his left thigh. The old man had stabbed him with a large hunting knife and was now looking up at him with a broad grin.
“Playtime’s over, boy.”
“Son of a bitch,” Jason exclaimed, grabbing the handle of the knife. He tried to pull it free, but it had stuck fast and every touch of the handle increased the pain. He collapsed to one knee.
“You can keep that one, I have another.” The old man stabbed Jason in the foot with another, identical, hunting knife. “Hurts some, don’t it.”
Jason dragged himself away from the old man’s reach and fell against one of the carriage wheels.
“Come on, Lee, I winged him for you,” the old man shouted as he crawled after Jason. “Get to your feet and finish the hunt. You can’t leave the animal wounded. Damn it, boy, get up.”
Jason leaned over and took hold of the handle of the knife in his leg. He bit down on the pain as he pulled it free. He breathed fast and hard while he removed the one from his foot too.
Lee whimpered and clutched at his throat with both his enormous hands.
“Never mind that, you bloody abortion,” the old man yelled. “Get over here and bash this one down. Hurry, boy…”
Jason cut the old man’s cries short as he pushed him over onto his back and fell on him, plunging both blades into the old man’s scrawny chest. He coughed and reached up for Jason’s face.
“Hurts some, don’t it, you fuck,” Jason said with cold, sadistic pleasure. He pressed down hard on the butt of both knives, forcing the two blades deeper into the old flesh. At that moment he realised he could and would make those twelve men pull the carriage.
Brutal thoughts rose within him like weeds that’d hitherto lay dormant below abandoned soil, wrapping their searching tendrils around any glimpse of compassion he might have left. If this was his soul in the afterlife, wandering the grey deserts of hell, then his soul had atrophied, without the slightest rumour of empathy remaining within the decay.
He looked over at Lee and watched him wince every time he touched his open throat; the damn fool sat like a sullen child, poking himself. Jason looked back down at “Pops” and, while kneeling on him for leverage, pulled both knives from his chest. He held the blades crossed against his throat like a pair of shears ready to cut through a troublesome vine. In one swift motion, he pressed down hard and pulled the blades apart, slicing deep into the sagging old throat. It took six more slicing cuts to remove his head. You were right, Xavier, I would have preferred a little blood, too.
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a figure in the distance, running along the ridge of a dune. He would have to act fast, The Devil’s Taxi had other interested parties. I’ll finish the bastard son off, he thought, then—
Jason felt a blow to the side of his head and collapsed next to the old man’s headless body. He rolled over and looked up. The man-mountain stood over him with the baseball bat in hand. Jason pushed himself up onto his elbows and tried to sit up, but Lee knocked him flat with a swift kick.
Lee grabbed Jason by his legs and dragged him to the back of the carriage. He lifted him to his feet and punched him to the ground again. He did this a further three times, then walked back around to the side of the carriage.
Jason had a broken nose and his left eye had swelled, almost closing over and reducing him to monocular vision. He reached for his good leg, but couldn’t focus and fell back, his strength all but spent. Stretching once more, he managed to grab his trouser leg, pulling it up as he fell back again. He bent his knee to bring the lower half of his leg closer to his reaching hand and then fumbled at the black electrical tape. He found a loose end and pulled. The hacksaw blade soon came away from his leg, and he worked to remove the tape from the serrated edge. Once it was free of the tape, he held the blade in his palm and waited for Lee to return.
The carriage rocked from side to side as the big man move around inside. A moment later the carriage door slammed shut and Lee walked back to where Jason lay. He held a large pair of pliers and one of the hunting knives in one hand and a roll of barbed wire in the other. He unravelled the barbed wire and tied one end to the baggage rail on the roof of the carriage. Once secured, he wrapped the other end around Jason’s legs using the pliers to make the knot tight.
Jason tried to move, but he had no strength left. Just wait and rest, he thought. When the carriage starts to move, I’ll cut the wire.
The next moment, Lee was on him, his knee impacting Jason’s chest and holding him flat. He punched him about the face with many rapid blows and then placed his left hand over his face, covering his eyes and pinching his nose closed. He pressed the head of the pliers against his lips.
Jason grabbed Lee’s arm and then pulled the hacksaw blade across his wrist, causing him to let out a high-pitched squeal and drop the pliers. He reached up with a feeble hand to cut his face, but Lee knocked the approaching hand away with ease. Lee grabbed his head, lifted it a few inches from the ground then slammed it back down again. He did this again and again until Jason’s flailing arms went limp and he dropped the saw blade. Lee picked up the blade and put it against his throat.
“Ram it up your ass, dipshit,” Jason heard himself say, his own words sounding as though they came from a long way off. Maybe he just thought he spoke, he wasn’t sure. The world was spinning as he looked up at the sky with tunnel vision. He heard a sharp crack but felt nothing. He looked at Lee’s face and watched in wonder as the big man’s eyes rolled back, white. Jason looked back to the sky.
He felt soft hands touch his battered face.
Jason’s fuzzy perception focused on beautiful hazel eyes. “Glad you found it.”