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  February 2006
volume 4 number 1
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  Joseph Armstead
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  Wayne E. Popelka
  Adrian Potter
  Anca Vlasopolos
 
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Joseph Armstead
February 2006
   

 

bio


photo by jerry garcia

    Joseph Armstead is a horror/dark fantasy writer, a member of the Horror Writers of America organization, and the author of six novels: Nocturnes And Neon, Painmaker: First Tale in the Book of Dark Memory, Bleeding Twilight, Darkness Fears, The Screaming Season, and The Demogorgon Agenda.
    His work has been published in Burning Word Magazine, Poetry Super Highway, Poetic Voices Journal, Eratio, and the poetry anthologies Percussion (Mystic East Publishing), and The New Pleiades Anthology (Kedco Studios 2005).

   

 

The Saint Of Bloodstained Children

    He wished that idiot he'd ridden out to the edge of the city with would turn down the car radio. The guy seemed to be trying to live his life like he was in a rock video: slick European designer clothes, aviator sunglasses, driving gloves, and a silver Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet. The noise trying to pass for music that was blaring from out his expensive car stereo speakers was little more than a stultifyingly dull electronic drone with whispered atonal vocals. It was supposed to be chic and cutting edge.
    Maybe if he listened to it long enough he'd see those qualities in it, but he doubted he could wait that long...
    He hated to wait for things. He wasn't an impatient man nor was he a hard-charging Type-A personality, but he was a person who prided himself on staying focused and completing any task he'd begun. He believed that if you entered into a project or began an enterprise with some sort of a plan, you could reasonably expect to see it complete with some degree of success. It was about timeframes. Time and motion. Efficacy and efficiency.
    Behind a dilapidated warehouse. It was not about standing around in the dim firelight of a dying afternoon after the passing of a summer storm. It wasn't about waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.
    Cort Terwilliger looked into the muddy depths of the pollution-stained sky over the deserted industrial park, hunting for the cyclopean orb of the summer moon, before he finally found it just northwest of the horizon, over the city's skyline. Drifting in and out from view in a shifting sea of copper streaks and metallic flamingo glare as the day ended, it looked old and as tired as he felt.

    *** memory stirred unbidden:
    He used to come to desolate, tumbledown places like this when he was young, back when each new day brought him the opportunity for new adventures where he could reinvent his life, a life already off-the-tracks and careening downhill toward an amoral world of meanness and criminal misadventures. Places with deserted, lonely buildings and empty parking lots seemed to call to him. They were his desert horizons, his Antarctic plains, his Amazon jungle glens. These were the places where his tainted soul could breathe. He felt clean when he would come alone and stand out under the open sky, away from skyscrapers and billboards yet still close enough to feel the pulse of his precious city, and he would commune with that slightly twisted part of nature that had spawned him.
    He had once dreamt of being an explorer, a wanderer through the last wild places on the planet, like the adventurers in the novels of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, finding his way through the maze between myth and legend as he hunted for legendary El Dorado, Atlantis and the continent of Mu, as he discovered the secret entrance to the underworld nation of Pellucidar, as he uncovered the secrets hidden in the temples of Machu Picchu in the Andes or the Nazga Plains in Peru… his dreams and ambitions were wound deeply into the fabric of fantasy and legendry because his real life, his real world, seemed so damnably small.
    In his mind, in his secret fantasies, he became a knight-errant, a paladin, the last good man in a world gone bad…
    He was a doctor fighting the ravages of a world–threatening ancient plague. He was the lone survivor from an expedition into the tomb of a dead sorcerer, the last man standing as a demonic curse laid waste to his disbelieving colleagues. He was an engineer able to create a mighty vehicle to explore the earth’s core. He was a chemist who invented a serum that imbued the drinker with incredible longevity, if not outright immortality. He was the guy who discovered proof of UFOs and a hidden alien civilization in the Siberian wilderness. He was a maverick scientist who corralled the Loch Ness monster and displayed it to the astonished eyes of the world.
    He was anything except for what he really was: a cunning and cruel juvenile delinquent who was well on the way to becoming a violent, hardened street thug, twice imprisoned for felony crimes and survivor of four bullet wounds and one stabbing.
    He discovered that, on the cosmic stage of the play of Life, he was cast in the thankless role of villain.
    those fantasies belonged to long ago, decades past, and now he went to places of concrete and abandoned brick in the company of crass, venal creatures masquerading as people...
    memory dissipated, insubstantial as smoke***


    He shouldn't have agreed to come out to this place with Daytona and Sung. Red-haired Drake Daytona, who often referred to himself in the third-person and was fond of adding the title "the famous" before his full name, was not a man who planned things. A transplanted midwesterner, he was a sales junkie, always looking to close on some nebulous deal he had fast-talked someone into joining. He was a human pinball, slamming into and rebounding off from one set of ill-advised events to another. He was the kind of guy who could always be found in the vicinity of some accident or another. Julia Sung was his on-again-off-again girlfriend and business partner, a second-generation Korean woman raised in Simi Valley and addicted to all the excesses of southern California's oxymoronic suburban mall-culture. She, like the famous Drake Daytona, was not fond of pre-arranged long-term planning.
    But they were both extremely fond of money, especially the variety of ill-gained cash popularly called "easy money." "Cheddar" was the coarse street vernacular currently in-vogue. Jesus, they even spoke an abbreviated, vapid language based on speed and convenience.
    He regretted hooking up with them. They weren't business-oriented like himself. They wanted everything quick and easy and seldom thought about the ramifications of what they were involved in. He, on the other hand, was a pessimist and thought of damn near nothing else.
    He'd been doing this for sixteen years and seen a couple dozen Daytonas and Sungs in his time. They never lasted. They never made any impact on The Trade, that being the phrase he used to refer to what he did, and they never contributed any innovations to make things easier. The Drake Daytonas and Julia Sungs of the Los Angeles underworld never amounted to a damn thing. He, on the other hand, tried to keep some measure of sanity and professionalism alive in the rabid illegal marketplace where he plied his business.
    At least that's what he told himself when he was justifying what he did and his own place in the world.
    Sixteen years... Christ.

    *** the damn memories kept on rolling across the movie screen of his mind in one wave of uninvited images after another… an ocean of soul-sewage surging toward a garbage–strewn shore.
    He’d killed a man for very little reason, his first killing, when he’d been nineteen. Up close and personal. Shoving a serrated edged steak knife in through the man’s ribcage and then twisting the blade in the wound. He truly didn’t recall the why behind the crime at all. It was lost in the jumbled haze of emotional trauma and buried under psychic armor protecting what little was left of his morality and self-esteem. All he really remembered was that it had not felt cool or thrilling nor had it filled him with any sense of power and purpose.
    It was just some bad shit that had happened one very discombobulated day when he was working as a street soldier for a lower-rung mob boss.
    He hadn’t gotten sick nor had he felt guilty over the killing. As a matter of fact, he hadn’t felt much of anything at all.
    Well, maybe one thing.
    Disappointment.
    And in that moment, recognizing at last the vastness of the chasm of disconnect he’d created between himself and the world around him, Cort Terwilliger knew that he was forever damned and beyond redeeming.
    Somehow that made the four other homicide he’d committed in the ensuing years as he plied his criminal skills, that much easier.
    Memory fractured like shattered glass, leaving a fragmented mirror reflecting the face on a soul that had drained away down rain gutters of his hard-shelled city.***


    Nights like this, though, nights where the veil of darkness dropped over the sun while it bled its brilliance away slowly across the L.A. skyline and over the Hollywood Hills, he despaired of what it was he had become. He feared he'd been infected by the diseases of attention-deficit and superficiality that ran rampant through the criminal underworld. He didn't want to be like that.
    But he still hated to wait for things.
    The sun slid past the crest of the hills and the gloom of the sky deepened and he felt a painful twinge in the ball of his gut as he witnessed the arrival of their business associates for this exchange...
    They called themselves the "Samurai Gunslingers" and the oldest of them was all of eighteen. Five teenaged boys and three adolescent women, urban blacks and Asians in an unexpected, but even, mix. They were all of mixed blood heritage, "Amerasians" they were called in the politically-correct media. Half-breeds and chiggers and yellow-bloods were what they were called on the streets, Kung Fu Leroys. They preferred the slang "Wah-Dawgz". They had a reputation for fearlessness and ferocity in defense of their south central territory and they received a lot of grudging respect for the fact that they all had computer skills and iron nerve. They were also respected for the hardware they frequently carried: the Wah-Dawgz were all fond of Russian Stechkin 9mm automatic pistols and 9mm Micro-Uzi submachine pistols. The Samurai Gunslingers didn't play games nor did they suffer fools gladly. They were all business and on their best days were often seen as humorless and unfriendly.
    Cort Terwilliger hoped that tonight they were in a very good mood.
    "White Boy, you sure blasting that nightclub ambient-trance shit is the best way for us to conduct a secret meeting?" snarled the tallest of the Wah-Dawgz, a young man in denim fatigues under a leather jacket, his elfin triangular face eclipsed by his wraparound mirrored sunshades.
    The famous Drake Daytona beamed a smile of purest bullshit at the group of young gangbangers.
    "Just killing some time in as pleasant a manner as possible," he said lightly.
    "Well, why don't you just go over to your little Nazi Autobahn dick-with-wheels and Turn... That shit... OFF!" The lead Wah-Dawgz's tolerance level for dealing with Drake and his sports car's stereo did not seem particularly high. One of his crew, a short thickset girl with multicolored ponytails, giggled nastily. The rest of the gang simply looked bored.
    Kids, Cort observed wearily, they were little more than kids. Very, very mean kids.
    Anger flashed across Daytona's face for a millisecond, but it was quickly replaced by his usual jolly, life-of-the-party smile and he complied.
    Julia Sung made a displeased face and glared at the group over the top of her Oscar de la Renta glasses.
    "Whutchu got ta say?", snapped a thin reedy member of the gang, a young man with skin the color of coffee. Sung's eyes briefly flared, but she remained quiet. The gangbanger nodded and regarded her through eyes narrowed to slits. "Yuh, thass whut I thought."

    *** memory intruded:
    Bravado. Bragaddocio. Balls. Thunder coursing through his veins, the unwavering knowledge that he could do as he pleased and that whatever he felt he needed to do was fully justified by the lightning hard-coded into his DNA, driven by manifest destiny.
    Youth.
    He never again felt as recklessly courageous as he had felt then, in the years back before his fall from grace. So much had changed since then...
    A marriage that had ruined a storybook romance.
    Vices that had taken him to the edge of sanity.
    A wife dead from a cancer diagnosed too late.
    A world of fortune and favor denied him.
    The stinging slap of Reality across his face.
    A dark depression that had long since turned to anger and self-loathing.
    The feel of a gun in his fist and the sight of life leaving another man's pain-filled eyes.
    Guilt.
    A return to the demons that lived in his vices.
    A lifetime of worry, anxiety, fear and desperation each time the phone rang, each time he had to go out amongst his fellow underworld dwellers, each time he tempted the darker Fates as he engaged in unsavory transactions with the bestial men and women who now populated his small world.
    His manifest destiny had been denied him.
    He was reminded of this as he looked into the hard eyes of angry children holding guns in hopeful defense against the relentless march of cold destiny as their time slowly ran out...
    memory dissipated, leaving a hollow ache in its fading wake.***


    They were kids. They were hollow little animals who had lost their dreams and their ideals on the mean streets of a city shaped by the spike-studded fists of people like him. They never had a chance. Cort looked into the eyes of the young women and he saw fear and anger and a hopelessness that men like he himself had put there.
    They had been baptized in the squalor and greed of the amoral streets, washed in the blooded waters of Holy Larceny.
    Things should never have gotten like this.
    In his mind, in his secret fantasies, he became a knight-errant, a paladin, the last good man in a world gone bad…
    "We have to go," he said suddenly, his voice resounding with firm determination. "We need to get out of here now. Right now."
    "W-w-what!?" Drake Daytona sputtered as he wheeled about to face Cort.
    "I smell a set up," Cort lied. He gave the Samurai Gunslingers the benefit of his most baleful stare. "This feels wrong."
    “Terwilliger, what are you BABBLING about?” Julia Sung raged.
    “This shit ain’t square. I got a feeling about it and it ain’t good,” he replied, acting the part of the frightened paranoid street hood, letting his true anxiety fuel his performance.
    “Whut tha FOCK is DIS shit?” The leader of the Samurai Gunslingers wore an expression of utter disbelief and it was quickly dissolving into a mask of fierce rage. “Hey, we came here ta do BIZNESS, ya damn gwai-lo shitbirds, so whut is dis about?”
    Cort spun toward the teenaged gangbanger with a fury and aura of raw animal menace that startled everyone around him. It was as if he were possessed of a vengeful meanness of spirit that could no longer be contained. He slowly and purposefully drew his gun, a massive .44 magnum automatic, and pointed it at the face of the gang leader.
    “Aw crap,” someone wheezed.
    The air filled with the sound of hammer being cocked as the rest of the gang raised their weapons and trained their sights on Cort, a sputtering Drake Daytona and a shaking Julia Sung.
    “I said this ain’t happening tonight,” Cort hissed through clenched teeth. If a rattlesnake could make a sound like human speech, it would have sounded exactly like he did as he spoke.
    The gangbanger stared into Cort’s eyes and he squinted against the force of the maelstrom of conflicting emotions awaiting release within him.
    C’mon, kid, c’mon! Even an arrogant uneducated piece of shit like you should be able to get this one. C’mon!
    “Uhm, listen there’s no need for this, you know? My colleague is maybe a little too high-strung, what with all the recent police crackdowns going on around town. You know, feeling paranoid. We all fell that way sometimes, especially dealing with new people. We’re all professionals here, right?” Drake Daytona’s voice, normally smooth and phony as a radio disc-jockey’s, cracked as he spoke. “We’re all on the same page -- this is just a mercantile exchange. No egos. No bullshit. No one’s trying to get over on anybody else. Just some supply and demand shit…”
    “Put the gun down, Terwilliger,” Julia Sung said evenly, struggling to keep her composure as she stared into the barrels of half a dozen cocked automatic weapons. “Put it away.”
    “Shut. The. Fuck. UP!” As he spoke, Cort’s eyes never left those of the gang leader. Their eyes were locked as their wills and their minds engaged in a furious mental tug-of-war.
    C’mon, kid, c’mon! Goddamn it, look around you, wake up! Your future is dissolving and slipping away like so much muddy sludge. Clue in!
    “This don’t feel right,” the hawk-faced young man said suddenly. “I dunno whut’s going on here, but I don’t like it. Homeboy’s right. This deal ain’t square.”
    “So what do we do, Wah?” one of the Wah-Dawgz lieutenants asked. “You say it, we make it so.”
    The teen hardcase ran his tongue over his dry lips and raised an eyebrow. “We fade is what we do. We outta here.”
    There was no more discussion after that. The Samurai Gunslingers began to walk away, backing off and keeping their weapons leveled at the trio of older hoods from downtown. In moments they were gone.
    “You want to tell me why you just blew an easy hundred sixty thou?” Drake Daytona said in a voice edged with acid. The man’s stare was one of pure murder.
    To Terwilliger it was rainwater off a duck’s back.
    “No. I don’t,” Cort responded without looking at the grifter. He holstered his .44 automag and shrugged.
    “So that’s IT? That’s IT!?!” Julia Sung exclaimed, wringing her hands and stomping dramatically in place near the car. “Are you KIDDING me?”
    “You’re through, old man! No way I’m going to let this crap stand! I’M PUTTING THE WORD OUT ON YOUR CRAZY ASS! No one is going to want to work with you again! You hear me? YOU’RE THROUGH!” Drake Daytona bellowed to Terwilliger’s back.
    He didn’t care.
    He started walking away, walking out from the deserted industrial park. He thought of towering pagan idols in Amazon rain forests and ancient treasures in hidden Cambodian temples and heretofore undiscovered tombs in crumbling Egyptian pyramids. He was a doctor fighting the ravages of a world–threatening ancient plague. He was the lone survivor from an expedition into the tomb of a dead sorcerer, the last man standing as a demonic curse laid waste to his disbelieving colleagues…
    In his mind, in his secret fantasies, he became a knight-errant, a paladin, the last good man in a world gone bad…
    And for this day, for this one gloomy concrete twilight, he was satisfied with having to wait for something.

copyright 2005 Joseph Armstead