Neon Blue (suspense) and This Shoal of Space (SF) by John Argo were the first two e-books ever published online for download, in the history of the world, 1996-7 in innovative weekly serial chapters. More info at the museum pages. If you enjoy this free read, which is offered in the spirit of the Golden Age of the World Wide Web, please consider buying a print or e-book edition as a way of thanking the author. A fine E-book is typically priced at the cost of a latte, yet offers many more hours of enjoyment than a cup of coffee. Thank you (John Argo).
Chapter 58. On Interstate Highways
Vincent Brady pulled over onto the shoulder of the long, empty highway leading into Canada. Let Mother think he had fled to Canada. He simply would never call her again. Done with the Angel of Death! He laughed. He was free, free, free!
The freezing cold sunny weather made Canada gleam as though it were made out of jewels. Vincent ate a sandwich and burped. Mayonnaise oozed between his fingers, and he took a healthy swig of ginger ale. The chameleon, he thought, survives because his markings blend with his surroundings. Not Canada. He took out one of his credit cards marked Vincent Gordon the last of themand hid it under the seat where they'd be sure to find it. He left the car where it was parked, suggesting he'd had second thoughts about crossing the border with those plates.
He walked along a country road lined with stunted trees, crowns beaten down but unvanquished by the Arctic winds of North Dakota. On either side the earth wrinkled and undulated in shades of purple and olive. At a drainage ditch, he dumped the big suitcase with all the fancy clothes he'd bought in Chicago. He buried the suitcase under rotting reeds and loaded rocks on top to be sure. Let them search Canada from end to end for a middle aged man with a big suitcase.
The border receded as he walked south, last thing they'd expect. Cars and trucks rushed by, insinuating icy cold through his clothing. He stopped in a gas station and washed up, letting hot water thaw his cold hands. Then he went into the restaurant filled with cigarette smoke and bustling waitresses in beehive doos and truckers loading up on flapjacks and chipped beef. He bought a cup of coffee and sidled among twangy drivers. He avoided the other people, the tired locals, the people who did not want to put miles and states behind them. He drifted from conversation to conversation, until he heard a familiar twang. "Howdy," he said.
The young man nodded. "Hiyuh." He was a tall guy with dungaree pants and jacket, cowboy boots and hat. He had a tattoo of a curled up dragon on one veiny forearm.
"I'm headin' south," Vincent said sipping his coffee.
"I got a load of wires and cables that's got to get to Natchez day after tomorrow. I could use another driver."
"I can drive a semi," Vincent said. "Been down on my luck lately. Spent a spell at Bible college, but didn't finish. Ran out of money. Done all sorts of work the last two year or so. I'm just plumb tired of eating Yankee bread. I'm just ready to head on back down south and maybe start a little Bible church."
"Ah know a town could use a preacher," the young man said.
"What's your name, son?"
"Tommy Ledbetter. I reckon there's room for you, Reverend."
Vincent his emptied his styro coffee cup across the frozen asphalt, where wind blew up little devils of snow, and as he held the door open, Tommy Ledbetter asked: "What's yore name, Reverend?"
"Call me Andrew," Vincent said with a cheerful little smile. "Andrew Vincent. Just call me Andy." They drove all day through blinding snow that swooped down from the roof of the Arctic and inundated highways in South Dakota. The big rig just purred along. Tommy Ledbetter, driving nonstop since Yellowknife, crawled into the cab for a snooze and Vincent had the road and the mighty truck all to himself.
In Nebraska the wind picked up, rocking the rig, shaking snow from its coiled tons of wire. By the time he passed Kansas City and Council Bluffs, the blizzard eased off, though the radio said roads behind him were being closed. He was getting sleepy as he passed into Missouri. There they stopped for a late lunch, and Tommy Ledbetter took over the driving while Vincent crawled back and slept several years' weariness away.
He awoke hours later to the shouting of a radio preacher. Lightning flashed, and rain pelted the cab. He poked his head in. "Where are we, Tommy?"
"We just crossed into Arkansas, Andy. 'Nother coupla hours, we'll be in Mississippi. Cain't you jest feel that rain wipin' down the sides?"
"I sure can," he said. "I'm going to start a little church of my own, dedicated to the Lord." Five years, he figured as they drove further south and the rain got gentle on dark green hills. Maybe it won't be three million, but I'll have enough to find Jana Andrews again.
They were almost home. Sunshine perked through rain clouds. Vincent dreamt of Jana Andrews when the big rig pulled slowly into a gasoline station in a mountain hamlet so isolated you could hear crickets chirping a mile away. While Tommy tanked up, Vincent stepped around the side of the gas station. The mountain air smelled wholesome. He found the men's room boarded up, weeds growing up around the broken door. Vincent walked away from the half-ruined building with its broken window panes and peeling paint. At the edge of the pavement, he unzipped his fly to relieve his full bladder. Whistling softly, he twiddled preparing to pee. The whistle died in his throat. There, behind a dusty cracked window pane, was She. The Angel of Death. Sour disapproving face, mouthing words he could not hear. Bile rose in Vincent's throat. He could not pee. She, the Angel of Death, stared and grinned hideously.
"I'm going to beat you now," he said, "I'm going to erase you, I'm going to be done with you."
She grinned a cold stinking skeletal smile. "I'm never going to let you go."
"You can't do this to me!" the boy cried. "No! My Daddy!"
"Straight into the hell fire of damnation!"
"No! No! No!"
Tommy Ledbetter got a cup of coffee while the meter clicked happily and gasoline gurgled into the big rig. Country music twanged among the pumps, and he smiled as a pretty girl crossed his path. She smiled back. He was about to ask her name, when he heard a weird shouting from the outbuildings. Sounded like that passenger of his. Warbling, or some shit. Odd fella, come to think on it. A man and a woman ran out pointing.
Tommy dropped his cup and said "Oh Jesus."
The passenger. There was a sound like curtains burning. Draped in flames, staggering, a scarecrow ball of fire, silent, mouthing words as fire belched around him, insulated by a blanket of black smoke, the man-like figure staggered effortfully toward Tommy Ledbetter's rig. Fell. Rose, reaching out. Tommy's passenger just made it to the pumps before collapsing in a consuming ball of fire. The fire flashed to the pumps and down into the underground tanks. Wwwoooosshhh" went the whole pump island, exploding in a giant fireball. "Jesus!" Tommy mouthed and threw himself over the pretty blonde. Black billowing smoke could be seen for miles. And miraculously, nobody was hurt. Or killed. Except Tommy Ledbetter's passenger. It was a mystery Tommy Ledbetter would talk about for years, when the mood struck him. "Like something evil went up in smoke," Tommy would tell people. "I swear there was a scream as the pump burst into that fireball, but it wasn't his voice. It was more like a
a old woman's or something."
Copyright © 1996 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.