Author: Michael Panush PM
La Cruz looks like an average Southern California small town, but it has some dark secrets - and it has its guardians. They are the supernaturally adept drivers of Donovan Motors, including zombie greaser Roscoe, who stand between La Cruz and chaos with only their wits and some fast hot rods to help them. Read on for monsters, muscle cars, magic and mayhem in this Fifties Fantasy.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Adventure/Supernatural - Chapters: 25 - Words: 222,754 - Favs: 4 - Follows: 2 - Updated: 04-01-13 - Published: 07-15-12 - id: 3042058
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The Damned and the Dangerous
He called himself Roscoe. That was the first thing he said, after he'd recovered from being struck by Captain Donovan's Buick at fifty miles per– and that name was all that Roscoe could remember. There was something else odd about Roscoe too, besides his lack of memory. He was a dead man. His skin was a sickly green, his eyes were unblinking and his pulse was non-existent. The Captain pulled three slugs out of his chest, more than enough to kill a man. And Roscoe had indeed been killed, even though it didn't seem to slow him much. The Captain wasn't too surprised. He ran a garage in the small Southern California town of La Cruz, which had its own strange history. He was used to oddities. He offered Roscoe a job. Not having much else to do, Roscoe accepted. He'd worked for the captain ever since.
He wasn't alone. Captain Donovan had three other drivers, all as unique – in their own way – as a living dead man like Roscoe. They worked together, taking odd jobs across the country to keep the garage going. Sometimes the jobs were easy. Sometimes they weren't. Coming back from getting lunch in a diner on La Cruz' Main Street, Roscoe didn't realize that a job was waiting for him – and that it would be something unlike anything else he'd ever done.
Donovan Motors was at the end of the block, a rambling set of garages with apartments above them, all constructed of dull red brick. Roscoe strolled towards the garage, his green gator skin shoes tapping on the sidewalk as his hands rested in the pockets his oil-stained jeans. Those shoes were close to the waxy, emerald tint of his face. His dark hair crept down over his forehead, making a slight spit curl above his drawn, craggy face and the unblinking eyes he hid between sunglasses. A black leather jacket, the collar raised, completed his appearance. A hamburger and fries sat in his stomach, slowly being digested. He had discovered that his body could process foods – it just took longer – and taste was something that he could only dimly recall. Such was life as a zombie.
Next to him was Angel Rey, a fellow driver at Donovan Motors. Angel had been the one who crashed him into, driving the Captain's car. Now they were best friends. Angel was a young Mexican, his skin the color of coffee. He wore a crimson zoot suit, with matching trousers and a fedora shading his face. There was a wary calmness in his dark eyes, and a slight smile above his neat, dark moustache. He pointed ahead with a thin finger set with a ring made of Aztec jade.
"What you think, Roscoe?" he asked. "Trouble?"
Roscoe's car was parked on the curb. It was the pride of his life, a V8 Ford Deuce dating back from the 30s that he had stripped down, rebuilt and painted midnight black with silver flames along the side. The motor was partially exposed, gleaming pale as a vulture-cleaned rib cage. The deuce was the first car the Captain had entrusted Roscoe with. Roscoe couldn't remember a bit of his past – but he knew how to repair the car. He'd taken it from a wreck to a Holy Grail of Hot Rods. And now three kids from La Cruz High School – all wearing letterman jackets – were examining it and circling it like sharks.
"Nah." Roscoe removed the toothpick from between his lips. "Just some punks needing a lesson." He walked over to them, his fists swinging at his side. Angel hurried after him, keeping pace with Roscoe's long legs. "Hey!" Roscoe cried. "Leave the ride and get lost."
The largest of the high schoolers looked up. He was a blonde kid with too much brylcream in his hair, good looking but with no intelligence in his eyes. "We was just admiring it," he replied. "Swell chassis it's got, and a nice motor too." His eyes darted over to Angel. He began to grin. "No harm in us just looking at it, you know? Still a free country, after all." He smirked to himself. "I heard all about how we're not supposed to go near Donovan Motors, but I think that's a load of crap. The drivers there ain't nothing but some freaks who happen to work on cars. No need to be afraid of them."
By now Roscoe had neared them. Roscoe took a step closer to the high schooler – when Angel put a hand on his shoulder. Roscoe could feel the weight of Angel's hand. His friend was right. La Cruz citizens wouldn't like him beating down teenagers in Main Street. Instead, he grabbed the edge of his sunglasses and lowered them. He let the high schooler stare into his white, dim, dead eyes and then barred his gleaming teeth.
"I told you to go," Roscoe hissed. "Now go."
The three teens scrambled away from the roadster. Roscoe followed them with his dead eyes and then replaced his sunglasses. The teenagers ran down La Cruz's Main Street, past the hardware store and the market and the town hall and all the other little businesses that kept the city running. Roscoe walked over and examined his car, like the teens might have left stains on the paint job.
Angel stepped next to him. "I didn't think that was necessary, man," Angel said. "We could have just talked to them. They'd have left."
Roscoe glared at him. "I look like a monster," he replied. "Might as well act like one."
"Why, exactly?" Angel asked. "That written in stone somewhere?"
Before Roscoe could reply, another driver stepped out of the shadow of the garage. She was Betty Bright, the youngest of the drivers and the only woman at the garage. She was just out of high school and her father – a major folklore professor at UCLA – had let her work there part time while she took college classes. Her father had taught Betty everything he knew. Her knowledge of the occult may have been purely academic, but it was still helpful.
Betty approached them, with a slight smile. She wore a pair of pale slacks and a collared shirt under a thin red sweater. Her blonde hair, cut just past her ears, gleamed in the late afternoon sun. It framed her pretty face, with its upturned nose and horn-rimmed glasses. "Hello, fellows," she said. "Ingratiating yourselves with the locals?" She was chewing bubble gum, and puffed up a large pink bubble that obscured her face. She waited for it to shrink before she spoke again. "Anyway, the Captain wants to see everybody in his office. We better get moving."
"He say what it was about?" Angel asked. Angel's mother was a witch and healer – a Bruja – in Los Angeles. He learned magic practically, while Betty learned it academically. Still, both of them got along fine. "Or we just supposed to guess?"
"You know the Captain." Betty led them to the door in the side of the garage. It opened up to a skeletal steel stairwell that led to the second floor and the Captain's office. "Cards close to the vest until he has to reveal them."
"There's some truth," Roscoe agreed. He still didn't know how the Captain had appointed himself supernatural defender of La Cruz – or why. Still, he trusted the man with his life. After all, the Captain was the one who had given Roscoe everything he had. He followed Angel and Betty up the stairs and to the Captain's office. Betty pulled open the door. They stepped inside.
The Captain's office was a simple room, surprising in its normalcy. Apart from the misshapen skull – far too pointed to be human – sitting at the corner of the Captain's desk and the various rifles, shotguns and revolvers mounted on the wall, it could have belonged to any small town businessman. The Captain himself sat at his at the back of the room, his hands folded behind his rolodex. He was a distinguished-looking fellow in a gray suit and vest, with a thick white moustache like icicles growing under his nose. Roscoe didn't know much about him, though he knew the Captain had served in both World Wars. Right now, his eyes were grim.
There were two other men in the room. One was Sheriff Leland Braddock, the chief law officer in La Cruz. He was a plump, contented fellow in the khaki uniform and badge of a law officer. He was the kind of cop who would focus on littering and keeping lawns clean if he had his way. In a larger city, he would have been kicked off the force. In La Cruz, he thrived. Next to him was Wooster Stokes, the fourth driver of Donovan Motors. Stokes was the descendant of Okie migrants, a broad-shouldered fellow with a wolfish grin, curly sand-colored hair and thick sideburns. He wore a suit with square shoulders and a bolo tie with a turquoise clasp, not bothering to hide the knife in the leather sheath at his side.
Wooster turned to grin at Betty, Roscoe and Angel. "Well," he said with a Midwestern twang. "Nice of you to show up. We was gonna have the meeting without you."
"That's enough, Wooster," the Captain said. He could silence any of his drivers. "I'm glad to see we're all here. Sheriff Braddock? Why don't you tell them what you told me?"
Sheriff Braddock nodded his thick head. "Yes, captain. We've just been alerted about a robbery, up in the old Mission. That Mission overlooks Playa Rojo and it's been around since Spanish days. School kids tour it occasionally and the local Catholic priest keeps it in shape." He nodded to Angel. "He's of your kind, son. Anyway, the Mission was just robbed."
"So tell the Pope," Roscoe said.
The Captain glared at Roscoe. He fell instantly silent. "Continue, sheriff," the Captain ordered.
"Ah, well, not too much was taken. A few old coins, some ornaments. But the big crucifix they keep in the main altar, the one they always have candles around – the Crimson Cross, it's called – that was stolen as well."
"Oh no." Betty winced. "You guys know about the Crimson Cross, right?" Betty looked at her friends and then cleared her throat and began. "Well, it was originally a holy relic, supposedly constructed with a fragment of the True Cross. It was taken to the Middle East by Sir Roderick the Red, a Crusader Knight – but then it all went wrong." Betty smiled weakly as everyone stared at her. "The Crusade went poorly. Sir Roderick's men were languishing in the desert and being harassed by Saracen raids. Sir Roderick went mad. He renounced God and praised allegiance to Satan and the forces of Hell, then sacrificed some of his priests and bathed the cross in their blood. Since then, it became the Crimson Cross – a religious icon with the energies of Hell and Heaven bound inside."
"Jeepers…" Sheriff Braddock whispered.
Angel pushed back his fedora. "So how'd it end up here?"
"Well, one of the monks survived and spirited it away. Without demonic help, Sir Roderick was doomed to die. The monk was able to work special charms to nullify the Crimson Cross's power. He and his descendants took it as far away from civilization as possible, eventually bringing it to the New World and California. It's rested there ever since, with special wards around the altar that prevent any supernatural agent from touching it."
"And what happens if they do?" Roscoe asked.
Betty shrugged her slim shoulders. "Kaboom," she said. "The Crimson Cross is such an odd contradiction – a relic for God and Satan – that it will give almost total power for the angels or demons who get it. That means the other side will go and try to steal it back and that puts the divine and infernal into a conflict. That means apocalypse."
"Jeepers…" Sheriff Braddock repeated.
Wooster nodded. "Sums it up nicely. So I figure we ought to get that cross back."
"Indeed. And Hell and Heaven may already have their forces in the area, closing in on the Crimson Cross." The Captain nodded to the sheriff. "Luckily, we have a lead. You mentioned that you had ascertained the identity of the thief?"
Sheriff Braddock nodded. "That's right, Captain. One of my deputies got the license plate of a Studebaker driving away from the crime scene. He couldn't catch the car, but we got the plates, called up the DMV in Los Angeles County and they said the car belonged to Bert Stanton, a small time burglar and sneak thief wanted across the state." He pulled a picture from his suit. "We even had a picture of him in our office!" The photo showed a small, rat-faced guy in a disheveled white checkered suit jacket. Sheriff Braddock set it on the Captain's desk. "Ah, Captain?" he asked. "This whole business with Heaven and Hell – it's a little out of my jurisdiction, I think. Would it be okay if I went back to the office? I'd be right near the phone if you wanted to call…"
"Go right ahead, sheriff," Donovan agreed. "And my best to Marsha and the kids." He turned back to his drivers as Sheriff Braddock waddled out of the door. "All right, drivers," Donovan said. "The Crimson Cross was stolen. I want it back. I won't have this town turned into a battlefield for the forces of Heaven and Hell. Is that understood?"
Roscoe shrugged. "You want to go to war with God, chief?"
"God's never done much for me," Donovan replied. "Besides, it will be angels and demons we're dealing with – or their human servants. But what's most important is getting this whole operation done quickly, before divine authorities realize the Cross is missing. That means locating Bert Stanton. Angel, Roscoe – you know the Purgatory Road House and Tourist Court, just out of town?"
"I know it," Roscoe replied. "It's a dump."
"Stanton might be lying low there. You go and investigate. Wooster, Betty – I'd like you two to stay in town and examine Butcher's Row." That was the poorest section of La Cruz and home to its Negro and Mexican residents. "Stay in contact and be prepared to help each other." He folded his hands. A hint of tenderness crept into his voice. It seemed strangely out of place. "I have faith in you, more so than in any God. Now get moving."
They headed out of the office and back to the garage. Wooster pointed to his own car, which sat in the shade of the garage's awning. It was a monster of a Packard, with armored plating on the side, all-terrain tires, a two-tone gray and brown paint job and a pair of bull's horns mounted on the front bumper. "Come on, little sister," Wooster told Betty. "We'll take my ride."
"Sounds good, as long as you keep the country music to a minimum," Betty agreed. She waved cheerfully to Roscoe and Angel. "Good luck, guys! We'll stay in touch!"
"Thanks, chica - and you be careful! Don't let a demon take a bite out of you or nothing!" Angel waved back. Roscoe did too. They headed over to Roscoe's car, which was fully gassed and ready to go. Roscoe got behind the wheel and started the engine. He had a miniature silver skull on the stick shift. Roscoe twisted the key in the ignition. The engine purred. Angel looked over at him. "You got heaters, man?"
"Got everything we'll need," Roscoe agreed.
"Good. What you think of this job – taking on angels and devils and crap. I think it's crazy."
Roscoe snorted. "It's lousy," he replied. He twisted the wheel and shot into the open road. Roscoe kept the engine humming at a dull roar. The ride was smooth. They didn't have long to go.
They reached the Purgatory Roadhouse and Tourist Court around sundown. The court was on one side, an old set of rotting cabins dating back to the Twenties. Across from that was the roadhouse itself, a circular lodge with jukebox music blasting from the open windows. Roscoe slid his automobile to a halt by the entrance to the lodge and killed the engine. He reached back, where several of his weapons waited below the seat. He drew out a crowbar. As a zombie, his motor skills weren't the best. A crowbar solved that problem – and Roscoe had a feeling that he'd need it. He slipped open the door and hopped out, the crowbar at his side. Angel joined him.
Side by side, they walked to the batwing doors of the roadhouse. A double set of motorcycles were parked out front. Angel nodded to them. "Bikers, man," he said. "And this is Speed Fiend territory. Could be some trouble inside."
"Yeah," Roscoe agreed. He grinned at his friends. "But we can handle it."
They walked into the roadhouse. It was a dingy place, with peanut shells coating the floor and crunching under their feet. Roscoe scanned the room. Sure enough, the place was packed with bikers. They were of the Speed Fiends, a Motorcycle Club prevalent in this part of California with a reputation for brutality. Roscoe saw their black leather jackets, with the winged pentagrams emblazoned on the backs. They clustered together drinking and talking. Roscoe had thought the demonic imagery was nothing more than a clever gimmick – but now he wasn't sure. Then Angel pointed to the back of the room, where shadows clustered thickly.
Bert Stanton was there. The thief looked out of his element, like he was sitting in an oven instead of a table. He had thin ginger-colored hair and kept tugging at his collar. His white checkered coat looked like it had been spun through a hurricane.
"I see him," Roscoe said. He tightened his grip on the crowbar. "Brace him?"
"You got it," Angel agreed.
They crossed the room, skirting the crowd of Speed Fiends. Roscoe kept his crowbar in his coat, hiding it from sight. Angel stayed next to him. They neared Bert. He looked up from the little booze left in his shot glass, his small eyes squinting nervously. Roscoe sat down on one side. Angel took the other. They boxed Bert in between them.
"Hello there, fellows," Bert said. He grabbed his shot glass and downed what little whiskey was left. "Nice night."
"That it is," Roscoe agreed. He withdrew his crowbar and set it gently on the table, near Bert's hand. "I'd hate to spoil it." He turned his head to face Bert, letting his greenish skin show through in the roadhouse's low light. "Tell me something, Bert – you ever tangled with a dead man?"
"I'm not sure, exactly, ah…" Bert turned to Angel, as if he was looking for help.
In response, Angel drew a switchblade from his coat. He snapped the thin blade to life and let the silver glint in front of Bert's eyes. Bert's hopeful expression died on his lips. He turned back to Roscoe, his eyes pleading.
"I think you know you made a mistake," Roscoe explained. "And guess what, Bert? You did. But don't worry, there's an easy way out. You know the cross you stole? I bet you got it stashed someplace close by. You can keep all the other junk you stole. We don't give a goddamn about that. But you're gonna get up and lead us to the cross. If not, I'm gonna take that crowbar and start knocking out your teeth. Now, you know how to do a B and E, I guess, but don't tell me for a second you can take some pain." He reached out and grabbed the edge of the crowbar. "Want to prove me wrong?"
"Christ!" Bert whispered. "Who are you guys? Cops or—"
"We look like cops?" Angel asked.
"Just consider us the Mission's defenders." Roscoe grinned. "And the creatures of your nightmares." He stood up and slid aside, letting Bert move out. He gripped the crowbar tightly. "Now what's it gonna be?"
In answer, Bert stood up. He hung his head. He wouldn't be a problem. They moved through the bar, Angel and Roscoe flanking Bert and preventing him from running. Bert trudged ahead like he was being led on a string. They neared the door. They almost made it, when one of the bikers stepped in front of them and blocked their path. He was an ox of a man, with dark hair, stubble on his cheeks and a lean scar slashed just past his eye. He was hunched over too, like his head had sprouted straight between his shoulders.
He pointed to Bert, jabbing his finger nearly into the thief. "You leaving already?" he asked. He sounded like he had ground gravel trapped in his throat. "The party's just starting. You should stay here, friend. I guarantee it'll go easier on you." He held out his hand. "Name's Tex. I think you'd be much happier with me and the boys than running around with some dead greaser and a Mex in a bad suit."
"Beat it, biker trash," Roscoe replied. He let his crowbar fall into his hands. "Unless you want to rumble right here."
"And don't insult my suit," Angel added.
Tex stared at them, with half-closed eyes. Roscoe tensed his hand, preparing to swing. But then Tex stepped aside and held out his hands to the door, an exaggerated gesture. "Well, I see how it is," he said. "Go on and get."
Quickly, they hurried past him and went out the door. Bert headed to the row of cabins, breaking into a slight run as he looked nervously over his shoulder. Roscoe and Angel followed him. Roscoe kept his eye on the roadhouse. He could see motion inside. Something told him that Tex and the Speed Fiends wanted the fight in the open, which would play to their strengths. He needed to have a gun. Roscoe didn't know much about his past – but he knew it involved guns. He knew how to handle heaters, and he was used to using them on people. Right now, his gun was back in the car. Roscoe cursed himself for not bringing it along.
Bert moved to the nearest court. His Studebaker was parked outside. Quickly, Bert slipped inside. It was a barren wooden room, with only a wireframe bed in one corner. It looked like a prison cell. Bert pulled a suitcase out from under the bed. He undid the clasp with shaking hands and dug inside, pulling aside old clothes until he got the Crimson Cross. He pulled it out and extended it to Angel and Roscoe like it was a friendly hand. Angel took it and tucked it under his arm. The Crimson Cross was a small icon, about as long as two forearms crossed together. It was made of some shining metal, like gold or silver, but its color was a deep and burnished crimson. Roscoe could see his reflection in the cross. It was distorted and strange. He didn't like it.
"There you go. I wouldn't make nothing on fencing this thing anyway," Bert muttered. He laughed nervously. "You know, I don't think I'll be coming back to La Cruz. Something tells me it'd safer to burgle mansions in Beverly Hills."
"A wise decision, man," Angel replied.
Roscoe looked back at the roadhouse from Bert's doorway. The Speed Fiends had left the door. They were walking out and standing in the dust, staring at Bert's cabin. Some of them had pulled knives or chains from their coats – while a few others drew out automatics or revolvers. They were assembled like a battalion of soldiers, awaiting an order.
"Que pasa?" Angel asked. He turned and stared at the Speed Fiends. "Damn," he said. "What do you think? We run past them?"
"And get to the car," Roscoe agreed. Bert huddled in the back of his cabin. It wasn't him the Speed Fiends were interested in.
Then Tex walked to the head of the Speed Fiends. He cupped his hands over his mouth. "Bert!" he called. "I lied to you! My name ain't truly Tex – it's Texogorath, first Infernal Duke of Hell!" With that, Tex began to change. His head popped forward as his lips curled back, revealing large obsidian fangs. Claws ripped from the ends of his fingers, as his head bulged and shifted into a far more lizard-like shape. His eyes rolled and shifted, seemingly popping out of their skulls. Wings ripped from his back, seemingly composed of the same black leather as his jacket. He roared at them.
"The car?" Angel asked.
"Yeah." Roscoe gripped his crowbar. Angel gripped the Crimson Cross. They ran.
They pounded straight for the main group of Speed Fiends. Roscoe went ahead first, swinging his crowbar wildly. He crashed into the main body of bikers. One Speed Fiend came at him, switchblade slashing low. He poked the blade into Roscoe's chest – it felt like a pinch. Roscoe swung the crowbar against his arm. He could hear the bone cracking under metal. Roscoe whipped the crowbar around, driving it into the throat of another biker. The man choked and gagged as he went down. Angel was close behind, a pearl-handled automatic pistol blasting away in his hands. At least Angel had been smart enough to bring a heater along. A bullet punched through Roscoe's shoulder. Flesh ripped, but Roscoe could hardly feel it. Being dead had its advantages. He kept swinging. He cleared a path.
They burst through the thin line of Speed Fiends. Roscoe was moving towards the car, cursing the way his leaden limbs almost limped through the dirt. Another switchblade plunged into his back and Roscoe stumbled. He turned around swinging and the crowbar's tip struck skull. The biker sank motionless to the ground and Roscoe turned and kept running. Angel was at his side, still holding the Crimson Cross. They neared the deuce. Roscoe could hear Tex coming after them, the demon making a ragged panting noise as he lashed out with his claws. Roscoe forced his legs to pulse and moved. He reached the door of the deuce and pulled it back. Angel hurried around and scrambled into the passenger seat.
Roscoe started the deuce's engine with one hand, and then slammed it into reverse. With the other hand, he reached to the backseat. His fingers wrapped around the wooden butt of his sawed-off shotgun. For some reason, Roscoe liked that sort of hand cannon the best. He liked the grip of the gun and the feeling of the trigger under his finger. Whatever he had been in life, Roscoe figured it wasn't nice. The deuce rocked back and Roscoe twisted it into drive. He gunned the engine.
"Roscoe!" Angel cried. "Ugly demon – twelve o'clock!"
Sure enough, Texogorath was approaching them. Before Roscoe could step on the gas, the demon leapt into the air. Tex slammed down hard onto the roof of the deuce, just as the auto rocketed forward. Claws ripped through the roof like it was paper. The deuce rocked back and forth, dust rising in torrents from its tires. Roscoe looked away from the road and stared up through the growing hole in his car's roof. Tex was leering down at him, tasting the air with a forked tongue. Roscoe could smell the demon's stinking, sulfurous breath.
Tex reached down with a clawed hand. "Give me the cross!" he snarled.
In answer, Roscoe raised his sawed-off. "Get out of my car," he said and pulled the trigger. The sawed-off shotgun roared to life, sending a barrel's worth of lead straight into Tex's face. Texogorath reeled back, snarling as his head changed shape. Bits of gore sprayed away in a black showered. Roscoe gave Tex the second barrel and then he flipped off the roof and struck into the front of the car. Roscoe felt the demon's body slam into the bumper, which caused the whole car to shake. Then he was under the deuce's wheels and they were running him over and speeding down the road.
Angel grinned at Roscoe and patted the cross. "Man, remind me never to touch with your car."
"You could touch it whenever you want," Roscoe replied, returning the smile. "I just don't like demon breath on my upholstery." He gunned the engine and they rolled down the open road. There was nothing but moonlit desert on both sides of them and La Cruz straight ahead. "I guess we gotta through the city and then Cowl Canyons before we reach the Mission," Roscoe said. "We better stop somewhere in town and phone up the Captain. He can tell Wooster and Betty where we are, in case we need back-up for the final drive." He looked at his shoulder and jammed his finger in the hole. He dug around a little and finally wrenched the bullet out. "Preferably somewhere with food." He'd need the food to regenerate the flesh he lost. Luckily, he healed quickly.
"Sounds good to me," Angel explained. "But we got to hurry. Hell was bad – but I got a feeling that Heaven might be worse."
Roscoe kept the engine roaring. They neared La Cruz. They didn't have time to waste.
The city streets were only a little busy when they arrived. La Cruz didn't have much of nightlife. Roscoe drove evenly down Main Street and quickly found a diner. They probably had a payphone inside, not to mention plenty of grub. He rolled into the parking lot. It was a good-sized diner, one of the largest in town. It was pearl white, with wide glass windows providing a panoramic view of the entire street. The customers, families with kids or teenagers getting a quick bite before heading home, sat in pale booths and munched on burgers and milkshakes. Roscoe and Angel headed in through the main door. Roscoe nodded to the back, where there was a pair of payphones.
Angel headed towards them with a nod. Roscoe selected a booth and sat down. A waitress with a beehive hair-do came with menus, but Roscoe already had his order ready. "Pair of chili dogs and black coffee." He nodded to her. "Get moving." The waitress turned away without a word. Roscoe sat back on the red leather seat. The jukebox was playing some slow crooning song. It sounded like crap. Roscoe stared ahead. The wound in his shoulder itched.
He was being eyeballed by the guy in the booth right ahead of him. Roscoe stared at the stranger. He hadn't seen him in town before. He was a thin fellow, with a calm smile on a strangely ageless face. He wore a white suit and vest, a white fedora held low over his eyes and a pair of round, silver driving goggles that hid his eyes completely. He was sipping on a vanilla milkshake. There was something about his smile that Roscoe didn't like. It was like the guy was thinking of a joke that he didn't want to tell anyone. Roscoe stared right back of him. His shotgun was in his coat, but he began to wonder if it would have any impact on this stranger.
The man in white stood up. He walked across the aisle, his white loafers slapping on the tile. He stood in front of Roscoe's table. "May I sit here?" he asked.
"My buddy's already sitting there, pal," Roscoe replied. "And he won't like to find someone in his seat." He could tell this guy knew the score – and it was pretty easy to guess what side he was on. "So how about you take that fancy white suit of yours and split?"
The stranger sat down. "My name is Uriel," he said. "Politeness matters little to me."
"I'll bet." The waitress arrived, balancing Roscoe's hot dogs and coffee on a tray. She set them down and Roscoe scarfed down the grub, then drained the cup of coffee. It was still steaming and hot, but he hardly felt it burning its way down his throat. Roscoe looked back at Uriel as he ate. "Let me guess – you want the Crimson Cross, to make your divine masters happy."
"Indeed. A chance like this only comes around once every couple millennia. The Crimson Cross is a paradox – a holy unholy relic. It is a true contradiction." He folded his hands and smiled. "Just like you, living dead man." Then he leaned closer. "I know about you, Roscoe."
"Oh yeah?" Roscoe did his best to sound bored.
"Oh yeah. I know everything – including what you were before your present condition." Uriel drew closer. "Would you like to know as well? I can tell you everything – your career, date of birth, your friends and family." His smile was blinding. "Your real name."
Roscoe stared back at him and said nothing. The coffee sat forgotten by his arm. His mind reeled. He'd long ago made his peace with not knowing. His ignorance seemed as unchangeable as time. It would be pointless to worry about it. But now maybe that wasn't the case. He looked at Uriel. Behind him, he could see Angel coming in from the back.
Uriel continued. "I could give you another gift as well." Uriel reached out. His hand landed on Roscoe's arm. Suddenly, Roscoe felt a strange sensation – a tingle that traveled from his fingers to his elbow. He stared down at his hand. The greenish tint was gone. Instead, his arm was a healthy pink. And he could feel. He could feel the linoleum under his fingers and the pleasant breeze coming through the dinner doors. He tapped his fingers and the sensation was electric. As a zombie, every feeling always seemed dull and indistinct. True feeling was something he'd nearly forgotten. He stared at Uriel in silent awe. Uriel merely smiled. He removed his hand. The feeling vanished.
Then Angel walked back to the booth. "Roscoe…" he said, pointing to the window. "We gotta move. Got some unwanted company outside."
Several engines cut through the air. Roscoe looked over his shoulder. He saw the Speed Fiends, sitting on their bikes in an orderly row just outside the diner. Tex was with them. He had returned to his human form, but was barely keeping his face together. Bits of his skin kept splitting and breaking, letting scales pierce through like strange, obsidian acne. His eyes were darting around his forked tongue continued to slip in and out. All the Speed Fiends were packing.
"We got bigger problems than biker trash." Roscoe turned back to Uriel. "You're here alone?"
"I am archangel of Almighty God. I am all that is needed." Uriel came to his feet. "My offer stands, Roscoe – you give me the cross, I give you your life and your past. It's more than a fair deal. It's your only chance for humanity."
Angel turned back to Roscoe. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. Roscoe knew his friend didn't know what to say. Of course, Roscoe didn't either. Luckily, the Speed Fiends took it all out of their hands. "Fiends!" Texogorath roared. "Get me the wretches who stand against the indomitable will of Hell! Kill all who oppose us! Find the Crimson Cross!" He pulled a long-barreled revolver from his coat, leveled it at the diner and opened fire. Roscoe moved, leaping from the booth and kissing the floor as the main window shattered. Angel landed next to him. A waitress screamed. Diners scrambled back, running as the Speed Fiends drew their own guns and shot into the restaurant. They were packing bigger artillery now, with a few chattering sub-guns added to their pistols. More glass shattered. Roscoe's coffee cup exploded, spilling black liquid over the tabletop. But Uriel didn't bother ducking for cover. He simply stood up and stared at the demons.
He reached into his coat and withdrew a pair of long-barreled automatics, both gleaming white. Angel fired them both, ignoring the bullets cutting through the air around him as he gunned down the satanic bikers. One of his bullets struck the gas tank of a bike and it exploded, sending bits of burned metal and the blazing remains of his driver crashing across the street. Roscoe winced. Heaven and Hell were going at it. They didn't care how many mortals were caught in the crossfire.
Quickly, Roscoe looked over to Angel and nodded to the door. "None of them know the Crimson Cross is in the deuce," he explained. "But they'll go after us once they see us leaving – and leave the civilians alone." He drew out his shotgun. "So we lay down some covering fire and run for the doors, then go for the car and drive like…like hell." He grinned a little at his pun. "Ready?"
"You got it," Angel agreed. He already had his pistol.
They stood up and ran. Roscoe swung barrel of his shotgun towards Uriel and fired. The shot ripped past the archangel, making him duck down. Angel cracked away with his pistol, throwing lead at the Speed Fiends. Both men were running – or speedily limping in Roscoe's case – and it was impossible to see if they hit anything. They made it to the doors. Roscoe kicked them open and ran for the parking lot. Some of the bikers noticed them. They turned their guns in Roscoe and Angel's directions. Bullets cut through the air. A few cracked into the side of the deuce, rupturing the metal. Roscoe winced. It would take a long time to get the car fixed. That did nothing to improve his mood.
He wrenched the door open and slipped inside as Angel raced around to the passenger seat. Texogorath headed their way. This time, Tex's mouth slammed open. It seemed to crack all the way back, like he had no jaws to speak of. His tongue shot out. It was as thick as an arm and ridged like barbed wire. The tongue zoomed towards the deuce. Roscoe raised his sawed-off out the window with one hand and fired. The tongue shattered. Black, boiling blood sprayed in the air. Roscoe could smell the sulfur. He hit the gas and rolled into the street.
But the Speed Fiends followed. Most of them were already on their motorcycles. They simply turned around, revved their engines and shot down the street after the deuce. Roscoe kept both hands on the wheel. There was no time to reload the sawed-off. Angel was firing the last shots from his automatic out the window and then the pistol clicked empty. Rubber burned under Roscoe's wheels. He kept the car on track, swerving around other motorists and slamming his horn. Screams followed. The Speed Fiends were drawing closer. Roscoe didn't think they could outrun them. Then he remembered something else – the entire reason why they had stopped.
He turned to Angel. "You get in touch with Wooster and Betty?"
"Yeah, they were at the garage. Said they'd be close by and—Cabrone!" A Speed Fiend buzzed by his window and tried to reach inside. Angel popped his switchblade and plunged it into the biker's gloved hand. The biker screamed, withdrew the bleeding hand, spun his bike to the side and rammed it into a telephone pole. Angel cleaned the blood from his switchblade and then pointed ahead. "Roscoe!" he cried. "Over there – looks like some good timing!"
Wooster's massive Packard was coming down a side street. Betty was driving, pounding the horn with one hand as the wind tossed her short hair back. Wooster was riding shotgun – with a blazing tommy gun in his hands. The Packard barreled into Main Street. It crashed straight into the back of Speed Fiends. The bulky vehicle did its job, smashing aside bikes and knocking their riders into the air like they were toys before the hand of an angry child. Betty spun the car around, cruising just behind Roscoe's deuce. Wooster turned back and kept his tommy gun blazing. It chattered away, making the fallen Speed Fiends duck for cover as bullets danced and cracked on the street. Betty honked the horn again. Roscoe looked into the rear view mirror. He saw her waving. He waved back.
They shot down the street and then Betty brought the Packard to their side. The end of Main Street was up ahead, and then the roads that led to the various suburbs spiraling out from La Cruz and another path leading to Cowl Canyons and the Mission. Betty pointed down that road. Both cars turned.
She raised her voice, shouting over the roar of engines. "Pull over up ahead!" she cried. "I got tools you're gonna need!"
Did they have time to pull over? Roscoe wasn't sure. The Speed Fiends had been banged around good, but they'd be back on their feet soon enough. Tex wouldn't let them rest. And Uriel was an archangel. He didn't have to worry about vulnerabilities at all. Still, Betty's tools might mean the difference between success and failure. He trusted her, just like he trusted Angel and Wooster and the Captain. Roscoe took his foot off the gas pedal and began to let slow towards the side. He'd go a little bit further before stopping completely. It was good to get out of La Cruz.
Right before the entrance to Cowl Canyons, Roscoe pulled over and stopped the engine. He slid to a stop by the side of the road and stared ahead. The Canyons were a wild set of badlands, with valleys and rises of harsh rust red stone reaching all the way to the coast. The Mission was there, set on a cliff overlooking the beach and the pounding Pacific. The roads through Cowl Canyons were poorly maintained at best. Kids sometimes came up here to hike or play around, while teenagers would do the same to make out or smoke reefers. It was poorly suited to driving – but it was the only way to the Mission. Roscoe stared at the entrance to the canyons, a natural stone archway forming a slim, sliver of a bridge over the wide stone passage. It was completely dark now, with the only illumination coming from their headlights or the moon and stars.
Angel sat next to him in silence. Behind them, they could hear Wooster's Packard drawing closer. "Hey," Angel said suddenly. "That pendejo in white, in the diner – he offered you your life back, didn't he? He said he could make you human again if you gave him the Crimson Cross?"
There was no point in lying. "Yeah," Roscoe agreed.
"You gonna take his offer?" Angel asked. "I couldn't blame you if you did."
Roscoe sighed. "He'd take the Crimson Cross and try to drag it to Heaven. The forces of Hell would follow. La Cruz would be ripped apart. So would the surrounding country and then the world, as it became caught up in a tug-of-war between Heaven and Hell."
"I guess it would," Angel said. "But the world ain't done much for us." He shifted in his seat and opened the door as Wooster's auto pulled up behind him. "You know, a few years ago, when I was growing up in Los Angeles, I would have taken that offer in a heartbeat. I didn't care much for the world. Nothing but racist anglo cops who enjoyed roughing up some Pachuco kid just for kicks and corrupt politicians and businessmen making their dough off of exploiting the poor. All those things are still there. I think they always will be."
"So what changed your attitude?" Roscoe asked.
"I found friends," Angel replied. Betty honked the horn and Angel opened the door. He hopped out and Roscoe followed. They walked over to the Packard, leaving the Crimson Cross back in the deuce. Betty and Wooster stood at the back of the Packard. They had popped the trunk. Wooster was reloading his tommy gun and Betty was looking through a crate filled with strange supplies.
She looked up and smiled weakly at Angel and Roscoe. "Well," she said. "You boys certainly know how to stir up trouble."
"One of my many talents," Roscoe replied. He jabbed a thumb at the crate. "What'd you bring?"
Betty pulled out a wine bottle, with crumpled up papers tucked in the thin neck. "Okay," she said. "I had a feeling we might be taking on some of Heaven's toughest fighters. Demons are simple. You just carve some crosses on bullets. That's what Wooster used on the Speed Fiends back on Main Street. But for demons, I had to be a little creative." She held the bottle out to Roscoe. "It's got defiled communion wine, topped off with defaced pages from the bible. Just light the fuse, let it fly and voila – instant unholy Molotov cocktail."
"Little sister, you outdone yourself." Wooster chuckled. "And I think we're gonna need that kind of firepower. Those canyons up ahead are twisty and riddled with side passages and slopes. The Speed Fiends and that goddamn archangel can sneak in and try to head us off. Going through to the Mission will be dangerous." He looked up, his eyes dark. "We might not all get through."
Roscoe took the unholy Molotov cocktail. He let it set in his jacket pocket. "We'll get through," he muttered. "We have to."
Then Betty noticed the cut in his shoulder. "Roscoe! Oh God, you took a shot to the shoulder. Are you okay?"
"It's healing already. I can't even feel it." Roscoe looked back at Betty. "No need to fret."
"Sorry." Betty bit her lip. "It's just, I'm a little worried, about all you guys." She looked them over. "I guess, I've never really fit in much of anywhere. I've been too interested in cars to stick with the other girls and my academic father was never really accepted in the suburban world of garden parties and bridge clubs. You guys – and Donovan Motors – you're all I got."
That was just what Roscoe needed to hear. He walked back to the deuce, hearing the cursed communion wine in the fire bomb swish as he moved. He reached the deuce and pulled open the door, then got behind the wheel. Then he poked his head out the window. Wooster, Betty and Angel were staring at him, in some confusion. He started the engine and Angel started running to the car.
"Hey!" Roscoe cried. "Don't wait up!" Then he slammed on the gas and shot into the canyon. He rode on along, under the archway and down the gravelly road. His deuce bounced and jolted along the jagged path, and Roscoe could hear the wind whistling through the bullet holes and the growing gap in the roof. Behind him, his friends were piling into Wooster's Packard. Roscoe grinned. He was already twisting around the corner and heading further into the canyon. In that jalopy, they'd never catch him.
He pressed the gas pedal down completely. The canyon walls seemed to catch the moonlight, making them glow a deeper, rusty red. As he rode along, he could hear other motors buzzing closely – like a swarm of far off insects. Roscoe snapped his sawed-off open and slipped in two more shells. He kept the automobile running, as the canyon walls seemed to draw closer together. Sprays of dust and gravel kicked up from the tires. Roscoe stared in the rear view mirror. He saw other, smaller dirt roads weaving through the canyon. Headlights gleamed on those side roads. It was the Speed Fiends. Roscoe gripped the sawed-off tightly.
The motorcycles roared into the canyon. They were drawing closer, kicking up gravel behind them. Soon enough, they started to shoot. More rounds c racked into the bath of the deuce, blasting spider web cracks in the window and crashed into the dashboard. Another shot punched into his back and erupted out from his ribcage. Bits of bone poked out of Roscoe's chest, along with black, rotten flesh. Roscoe cursed. That would take a Christmas turkey's worth of meat to heal. He bit his lip and kept the deuce roaring down the road.
The Speed Fiends were coming alongside now, riding out to flank the deuce. Roscoe twisted around, leaned out of the window and raised his shotgun. The sawed-off flashed, and several bikers went down in the spray of bullets. He fired the second barrel outside the other window. The shots were wild, but they kept the Speed Fiends back. Roscoe kept the engine roaring and his car pulled ahead. The canyon was growing narrower, forming one last choke point and then the open road. Roscoe bit his lip. He couldn't hear a thing but the roar of the engines. He was nearing the chokepoint and he began to wonder if his deuce would fit. In a second, he'd find out.
Roscoe heard the sides of the car streak across the rocky walls. This whole job was hell on his car. Roscoe still held the gas pedal down. Metal screeched on stone. Sparks rose from the sides. The Speed Fiends were close behind, but Roscoe kept driving. Then he was through the narrow passage, past the canyon and rushing into the open road. He turned around and saw the Speed Fiends zooming after him, making their way through the chokepoint. Texogorath was their head, his wings unfurled and his mouth open and his long tongue wiggling in the wind like a scarf.
Now was the time. Roscoe snapped open the sawed-off. He rammed in two more shells, twisted around and fired them both out the rear window. His shots tore into the foremost bike. They struck the gas tank. The bike went up, spraying fire across the stones. The wrecked bike blocked the path. The other motorcycles crashed into the wreck, tossing their riders down. Texogorath was with them, snarling and roaring his pain to the night as more motorcycles crashed. The chokepoint was packed. There was no way for the Speed Fiends to get through. Roscoe grinned to himself, despite the gaping hole in his chest and ribcage. He turned back to the road.
Up ahead was the Mission. It was past open desert ground, spotted with tall prairie gas. The Mission itself sat on a hill, with the dark Pacific Ocean roaring in the distance. The Mission itself was a rambling stucco structure, all of arch-roofed buildings behind a tall wall. Crosses topped the buildings. Roscoe could see them, silhouetted against the night sky. Then he looked down to the road. A figure in white stood straight in the road. It was Uriel. There was no time to stop. Roscoe reached for the Crimson Cross. He grabbed it and held it close.
The deuce slammed straight into Uriel. The car broke. Uriel didn't. The bumper wrapped around him. The remainder of the windshield cracked and burst. Roscoe was hurled up, out of his seat, onto the dashboard and through what was left of the window. Bits of glass dug into his cheeks and shoulders. He skidded across the hood of his car and then bashed straight into the road. The asphalt ripped into his skin and clothed. He rolled over twice. He felt his bones grind against the road.
Then he was still. Roscoe looked up at the open stars. The pain was dull, but coming from every inch of him. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to look up. The Crimson Cross lay next to him, resting on the road. Roscoe grabbed it. His crowbar lay next to his body, the prongs pointing down the road. Behind him, his car was smashed completely. It looked like had driven it into a tree. Uriel stood in the wreckage and slowly turned around. Quickly, Roscoe's hand dropped to his pocket. The wine bottle was still there. Roscoe reached into his coat. His lighter waited there.
"Did you think about my offer, Roscoe?" Uriel asked. He walked back towards the fallen driver, a pair of automatic pistols seemingly appearing in his hands. "I have a strong feeling that you have been unable to shake it from your mind."
"Yeah..." Roscoe got out the lighter. He held it close to his face and snapped it to life, then brought out the unholy Molotov cocktail. He looked back at Uriel. The angel's face was still and impassive. "And I got my answer…" He thought about what it would be like, to have his memory back—to live his life without being hated or pitied and to feel and age and live like anybody else. But there was a stronger desire and one which he couldn't deny. "My answer is no."
"No?" Uriel stood right next to him. He leveled his pistols. "You're content with ignorance, then? You know, if I don't get that cross, then will never know who you truly are."
"Listen, pal," Roscoe said. "I know exactly who I am."
He touched the lighter to the defaced bible pages. They crackled to life and burned. Then Roscoe stood up, spun around and hurled the cursed fire bomb straight into the archangel's face. The bottle burst, bathing Uriel's face in bright red flames. Uriel screamed as the fire scorched his flesh. He sank down. Roscoe pulled himself to his feet. He tucked the Crimson Cross under his arm and grabbed the crowbar. As Uriel writhed, Roscoe slammed the crowbar hard into the angel's skull. Uriel collapsed. Roscoe swung down the crowbar a few more times. It wouldn't stop the angel – but it would give him pause. Roscoe finally pulled back the crowbar. He gripped the Crimson Cross tightly and started limping up the road to the Mission.
It seemed to take him an hour, but he finally made it. A priest stood by the open door, with outstretched hands. The priest was a Mexican named Father Ignacio Montez. He served a congregation in Butcher's Row and was a friend of the Captain. "Mr. Roscoe?" he asked. "You are all right?"
"Swell," Roscoe muttered. He handed Father Montez the Crimson Cross. "Go and put it back. Power up all those wards and magic spells in the altar. Keep Heaven and Hell from getting interested in the damn thing."
"Of course." Father Montez took the Crimson Cross and hurried inside.
Roscoe leaned against the wall of the Mission. He fumbled for a cigarette and jammed it into his mouth, then snapped it to life. The taste of tobacco barely edged out the dull taste of blood. Roscoe looked down at his broken body. He'd have to eat several Christmas dinners to grow it all back, but that was okay. The Captain would square it with some local diner and they'd bring the grub in by the cart. Then Roscoe stared down the hill as another pair of headlights shone in the darkness. It was Wooster's Packard. He could see Wooster behind the wheel, with Angel and Betty in the back. They stopped at the wreck of the Deuce and Roscoe waved to them and got their attention. They started driving up the hill.
Then Father Montez returned. "It is done, Mr. Roscoe," he said. "The Cross is safe."
"Thank Christ." Roscoe spat out a cloud of smoke.
"I will pray for you, Mr. Roscoe," Father Ignacio said softly. "I will pray for you."
"Don't trouble yourself, padre." Roscoe tossed away the cigarette. He started walking towards his friends. "I've got everything I want right here."