“Do you dare? Do you dare? Do you dare set eyes on the Death Car?"
“Six young girls, butchered like pigs in the back of the Meatwagon! This evil ol’ hearse is soaked in blood, steeped in murder, cursed as a corpse in unhallowed ground. Do you dare set eyes on this auto-mo-bile, once owned by Hiram Wayne Hescox, used by him as a rollin’ slaughterhouse?"
“Well, do ya?”
Serpentina finished her spiel and slumped against the tentpole, arms crossed, irritated. Black sunglasses shaded her eyes from the white-hot Arizona sunlight. Three days in Yuma seemed like three months in the suburbs of Hell. She shook her hips in a lazy shimmy, and the fake jewels in her bra and belt flashed a blinding rainbow.
“C’mon, ya cheap bastards,” she muttered. There was less than an hour before her next bellydancing show, and she wanted to make a few bucks before she had to close up the tent.
A skinny, zit-faced kid came up, big-haired girlfriend hanging from his arm. He grinned like a jackal at Serpentina’s boobs. Serpentina arched her back a little and smiled at him. A fine sheen of perspiration made her golden skin shimmer.
“That really Hiram Hescox’s hearse in there?” he asked. The girlfriend giggled nervously.
Serpentina took a fluid step toward them, giving the kid an eyeful of her heart-stopping curves. Full breasts, lithe waist, flaring hips, strong thighs, she made the scrawny little thing he was with look like boy.
“Sure is, honey. You wanna see?” She pulled aside the tentflap just a little bit, giving him a glimpse of gleaming chrome.
“Yeah!” said the boy, staring at Serpentina’s legs.
“How much?” grumbled the big-haired girl.
“Five bucks, for the two of ya.” Serpentina knew that if the kid had been alone, he would have paid ten just to spend another five minutes looking at her. Oh well.
She took the crumpled fiver from the kid and made a little show of tucking it into her bra.
As she was pulling the tentflap back, A deep voice rumbled next to her ear: “I wanna look too, baby.”
Serpentina turned with a grin, and found herself staring into a broad, denim-covered chest. She looked up into the newcomer’s narrow, jade-colored eyes. He was handsome, in a mean-looking way. Square jaw, good cheekbones, black hair slicked back in a retro DA. Jailhouse teardrop tattooed at the corner of his eye. She’d seen his type at the carnival plenty of times before. She’d fucked his type more than once. They tended to be selfish in bed. But that was worth it sometimes, if the jackhammer was big enough.
He tucked a five-dollar bill into her bra strap, his fingers rough on her skin. He didn’t ask for change, and Serpentina didn’t offer it.
“Well, c’mon,” she purred. The three rubes followed her into the stifling, oven-hot air of the tent.
She heard the girl gasp. The old Caddy was impressive, Serpentina knew. It crouched beneath the string of light bulbs, black paint glossy as a panther’s haunches, chrome glittering like the wink of an eye. Serpentina caressed the Deco flying goddess hood ornament, cast her eyes up to the split windshield. It was dark inside the car, but the naked lightbulbs cast feral points of light on the glass so they looked like the eyes of a predator, a great beast staring down its own long snout at its quivering dinner-to-be.
“He sat right there.” Serpentina pointed to the driver’s side of the cab. “As did his father before him. But Zachariah Hescox used this hearse to take God’s own dead to their final resting place. His boy Hiram used it as a rolling abattoir.”
“A whut?” said the girl, denting her boyfriend’s arm with her long, pink-painted nails.
“A slaughterhouse,” the tall drink of water muttered.
“That’s right.” Serpentina smiled at him. He gave her a hot stare. She opened the driver’s side door, stroked the red leather bench seat. “Right here. Hiram Hescox sat right here…” she stepped aside, giving the rubes a look.
The kid and his girlfriend stared with bugeyes at the elegant black steering wheel, the gleaming chrome-rimmed displays, the burgundy-and-cream velvet on the doors. Not much different from any well-kept classic car, but Serpentina knew what they were thinking. They were picturing the Mad Mortician sitting there, cruising through the night in his long black hearse, wearing his grim black suit, looking for sweet young flesh to savage.
The Tough Guy, as Serpentina thought of him, was looking not at the car but at her, his expression unreadable. She gave him a wink
“Hiram was a sly one,” she whispered. “He had a fine reputation as an undertaker. He took good care of the families who came to him in their grief, preparin’ their loved ones for viewin’, handlin’ every detail of the funeral. But they didn’t know…they didn’t know that while he was standin’ at the graveside, hands folded and a look of sorrow in his eyes, he was watchin’ them. Studyin’ the mourners, lookin’ for a young girl in black, tears on her face, pain in her heart. And if one of one of the mourners was a pretty young girl…well, God help her.”
She slammed the front door, making the young couple jump.
Serpentina ran a finger along the side of the coach, over the big suicide door, the attenuated back window with the solemn cross etched on the glass. Below the cross was a metal sign mounted in the door reading “FUNERAL COACH.”
“She’s twenty-two feet long, in case you’re wonderin’. Six thousand pounds of all-American deathmobile.”
She turned the sinuous chrome handle and swung the back door wide. The inside of the car seemed to go on forever, a corridor of burgundy velvet and plush carpet, red like the throat of a yawning wolf. Deep-red velvet curtains over the windows, gold satin fringe somehow obscene in a car meant for hauling corpses.
“Looks like a fuckin’ whorehouse in there,” the kid muttered.
“Watch your mouth!” Serpentina hissed. “They say that Hiram’s ghost is trapped in this car. He wouldn’t like to hear you say that. Not at all.”
Tough Guy let out a low, rumbling laugh. He reached out and spun one of the rollers mounted in the carpeted floor. “What’s this?” he asked.
“Those helped the coffin load in smoothly.”
He ran a big palm over the thick carpet. “Sumbitch knew how to take care of an auto.”
Serpentina nodded. “He did. I b’lieve the hearse has only been reupholstered once since Hiram’s daddy bought it new in ’47.”
“Where’s the, uh, s-shaped thang? Ain’t there usually a metal s-shaped thang?” The scrawny boy was looking at the back window suspiciously.
“The landau bar? There isn’t one. Y’see, this here is a combo. It served as both a hearse and an ambulance. Didja notice the red lights in the grille?”
“No way!” squeaked the girl.
“’Fraid so. Small towns didn’t have EMTs back in the day. If somebody got hurt, they’d call the local undertaker. He’d come pick ‘em up in the hearse and take ‘em to the doctor.” Serpentina chuckled. “Or if it was too late, he could make a u-turn back to the funeral parlor.”
Tough Guy laughed along with her. “That’d give ya pause, wouldn’t it? You fall off a ladder and break your arm, and here comes the hearse!”
“That’s fucked up,” said the skinny kid. His little eyes narrowed. “If Hescox really killed all them girls in here, how come there’s not blood everywhere?”
“Yeah,” from his girlfriend.
Serpentina laughed. “I’ll tell ya why. After Hiram had picked out his victim, he’d stalk her. He’d find out everything about her routine. Wasn’t hard, in the little Tennessee towns his funeral home catered to. Everyone knew everything about each other anyway. So he’d catch up to that poor girl some night, find her walkin’ home alone, and offer her a ride in the hearse. She wouldn’t want to go with him, of course. Oh, Hiram was a handsome fella, never married, but he was an undertaker, ferchrissakes, and he was drivin’ a deathmobile. But then she’d remember how kind he’d been to her family, how he’d given her mama a break on the price of her daddy’s coffin, how he’d held up Aunt Flossie when she was just about to faint at the graveside. And she’d take him up on that ride.”
Serpentina had them spellbound. Even Tough Guy was riveted, eyes glinting green sparks, a slight smile on his face. She played it for all it was worth.
“But Hiram wouldn’t take that poor girl home. He’d take her to the local graveyard instead. When she started to protest, he’d slap a rag of chloroform over her face. When she woke up, she was naked, wrapped in clear plastic, lyin’ in a coffin in the back of the hearse.
“Hiram would sit by that coffin’, waitin’ for the poor girl to open her eyes. When he was certain she was lookin’ at him, he’d hit her between the eyes with a hammer. Then he’d just keep beatin’ her, beatin’ her, until she was nothin’ but dead, bloody meat, still under the plastic, like a piece of steak in the Piggly Wiggly.”
The big-haired girl made a noise like a strangling rabbit.
“Then he’d take that dead girl back to the Gates of Heaven, his mortuary. He’d take the coffin and the girl into his embalmin’ room. Then he’d spend hours, days sometimes, puttin’ her face and body back together, makin’ her look as beautiful as she was before he killed her.”
Serpentina leered at her little audience. The girl’s eyes were perfectly round, her big hair wilting in the heat. Sweat ran down her boyfriend’s thin neck, soaking the collar of his Harley-Davidson t-shirt. Tough Guy was as still as the superheated air around him.
Serpentina chuckled. “Well…at least he’d try to make her look like new. He’d put her skull back together, piece by piece, with wire and pins and glue. He’d pull her flesh back over her bones, fill it in with wax where it was missin’ or pounded to goo. He’d paint her, powder her, sprinkle fancy perfume on her cold, dead flesh.
“Of course, it wasn’t perfect. Some of his victims looked kinda lumpy, like melted wax. Others were lopsided, or just plain…wrong. But they were all beautiful to Hiram.”
“I’m gonna puke,” whined the big-haired girl.
Serpentina didn’t miss a beat. “When he was done with a girl, he’d…keep her. He’d put her in his cold room, draped in satin, like a work of art. He had six of ‘em by the time the cops caught up with him in some little jerkwater town called Possum Kingdom.”
“Did he fuck ‘em?” the kid wanted to know. “TraVIS!” his girlfriend squeaked, hitting him on the shoulder.
Jackass, thought Serpentina. “No, he did not. He kind of, well, worshipped ‘em. He’d wash the bodies over and over, redoin’ their hair, puttin’ on new make-up. Of course, the older ones started to shrivel up a little bit.”
“Sick sumbitch,” the skinny kid muttered. He ran his hands through his mullet nervously.
“So why ain’t there no blood?” his girl asked.
Tough Guy sighed. “’Cause he wrapped ‘em in plastic while he killed ‘em, honey.”
Serpentina smiled. “That’s right. Expensive coffins are watertight. Nothin’ leaked out through the bottom. He always used the same coffin to kill the girls, and he never cleaned it. They say that three cops puked when they found that bloody bonebox.”
“What happened to the coffin?” There was a strange gleam in Tough Guy’s eye.
“Some carny from Georgia got to it first, the sumbitch. Now look here.” Serpentina pointed a long finger at a crusty spot on the velvet, at the base of the hearse’s inner wall. “This here’s the only blood ever spilt in this car. Or on this car, I should say. After each murder, Hiram would hang the hammer here.” She pointed to a hook mounted between the side and back windows. “Each time, that hammer would drip a little, right there. This is the blood of six murdered women. This is all that’s left of six human lives, just this little stain on the carpet.”
Her audience was silent. The girl really did look queasy. “This spot was here the day Hiram was arrested in ’75, and it’s been here ever since. Don’t touch, honey.” Serpentina smacked the skinny kid’s wrist. Eedjit, she thought.
“Some folks say that blood spot is a portal to Hell,” she intoned. “Some folks say that touchin’ it would release Hiram Hescox’s spirit into the livin’ world.”
“How do we know that’s even blood? It could be ketchup or A-1 sauce or somethin’.” Mullet Boy crossed his arms and stuck his chest out. His pride had clearly been wounded.
“It’s blood,” said Tough Guy. “I know it when I see it.” Mullet Boy turned to look at him, a sneer on his face. Tough Guy stared him down. “I’m a hunter,” he said, showing his teeth.
Serpentina edged over to the light switchbox duct taped to a tent pole while the boys were having their pissing contest. She flicked it off. Inky darkness, except for the hearse’s door lights, glowing like fireflies. The motionless air of the tent felt suddenly suffocating. The big-haired girl screamed.
“This deathcar is curssssssed,” Serpentina hissed. “When Hiram Hescox was fried in the electric chair, the very moment they turned on the juice, it’s said that the hearse’s engine started up all by itself. Five men have owned this car since Hiram Hescox. Those five men are dead. Three of them died right here, in this black ’47. Don’t stand too close, now, or the curse might reach out for YOU!”
The girl with the big hair squealed, whimpered. “Git me outta here, Bobby!” she screamed. Serpentina flipped on the lights.
“Thanks for comin’, folks. If you enjoyed my talk, feel free to tip me.” She pulled open the tent flap. Bright sunlight flared on the hearse’s grille.
Mullet Boy silently lead his sniveling girlfriend out. He shoved a greasy dollar bill into Serpentina’s hand as he went by, not meeting her eyes. Tough Guy tucked a ten into her jeweled belt, letting his big knuckles brush the soft skin of her belly. She met his hungry stare with one of her own. “Come watch me dance,” she said.
He did. Tough Guy (whose name turned out to be Jake) stood at the very edge of the stage, taking in Serpentina’s every bump and grind. He must’ve tucked a dozen bills into her belt, not all of them ones.
She put on a good show for him. She was trained in authentic Middle Eastern dance, but what she did at the carnival was all cabaret; high heels, bust shimmies and enough hip shakin’ to turn cream into butter. Serpentina liked to watch the men in the audience as they watched her, as their eyes turned glassy with lust and sweat popped out on their foreheads. But Jake was a cool one. He was watching her like a hunting dog watches a rabbit, all right, but he wasn’t drooling. That made Serpentina like him, a little bit.
While Serpentina was putting her CD of Egyptian pop songs away, Jake asked her to dinner. She said yes.
It was nothing special. After she traded her belt and bra for jeans and a Devil Dolls tank top, they took Jake’s battered Chevy pickup a few miles down the road to the Denny’s. The outside air was still hot, but the Arizona sunset was glorious; an explosion of crimson, rust, violet and gold. As they pulled into the parking lot, Serpentina wondered if the Pearly Gates themselves were as beautiful as that sunset.
Jake was good company. He actually talked to her, asked her questions about her life with the carnival, her dancing. And, of course, the hearse.
Jake smiled, leaned across the table as he pushed aside the remnants of his Moon Over My Hammy sandwich. “Did the car’s last five owners really die, sugar?”
Serpentina smiled back. “Naw. That car’s only had two owners since Hescox died. My daddy, and me.”
Jake grinned. “Whoa! How did that happen?”
“My mamma—she was Hiram Hescox’s last victim. He got her right after my aunt Junie’s funeral.” Serpentina stared into her cup of coffee. “I was just a baby then, a happy little baby named Sabrina. My daddy sued the bastard in civil court after he was convicted. He got some money—and the hearse. He specified in the suit that he wanted the hearse.”
“He wanted to destroy it. He told everybody that he was gonna take a sledgehammer to it; pound it until every inch of it was flat as a dime.” She took a drink, then another. “He never did that.”
“Hmm,” said Jake. “Why not?”
“I was never sure. But I think he took one look at that big black monster and just got heartsick. I don’t think he could stand to even look at it, much less take the time to bash it up. But he wouldn’t sell it. He put it in a storage locker, and just left it there.”
“But he gave it to you?”
“No. My daddy—after Mama was killed, he took to drinkin’. And after awhile, he started hittin’ me. Just slaps at first, when I was really little. Then punches. Then sometimes he’d just keep hittin’ me until I passed out.” She let out a little laugh. “You know, same ol’ boring-ass story. So I left on my seventeenth birthday. I went down to the storage locker with a pair of bolt cutters and a gascan, and I drove out in that ol’ hearse.”
Jake took both her hands in his, swallowing them to the wrists. “I’m sorry you had it so hard, honey.”
She smiled. “Yeah, well, as my daddy used to say, here’s my sad song on the world’s tiniest violin.” She rubbed her thumb with her forefinger.
Jake laughed. “My daddy used to say ‘my heart pumps purple piss for you.’ You done with that?” He pointed at her congealing scrambled eggs.
Serpentina made a face. “Yeah, unless you know a good place to bury it.”
“Then let’s get outta here, honey.”
They went back to the carnival. It was nearly closing time, but they had fun munching cotton candy and necking on the creaky Ferris wheel. A few of the other carnies hooted and hollered at the sight of Serpentina in the tall stranger’s company, but she blew them off with a cool stare. Her business was her business. She had to laugh when Jake won her a huge, sappy-eyed stuffed kitten at Rat Glendale’s pitching booth, knocking down the unfairly-weighted wooden clowns with sheer brute force. She blew Rat a kiss as he handed her the godawful kitten and muttered curses from under his yellow, drooping mustache.
“Not a friend of yours?” Jake asked with a chuckle. All around them, the carnival’s lights began to go out.
“Ah, he’s a cheap bastard and everybody knows it. He’d nail those damn clowns to the shelves if he thought he could get away with it.”
He looked at her sideways. Even in the dark, his eyes were very green. “You don’t have many friends here, do you.”
Serpentina took in a sharp breath. “No. I pretty much keep to myself. How did you know that?”
“Just guessed. I’m a loner myself.” The Ferris wheel went dark, then the funhouse.
He slipped his arm around her waist. They walked quietly for awhile. Serpentina was sure he was going to ask to go to her trailer, but then she realized he was leading her back to the Death Car tent.
“You mind if I take another look at the old girl?” His lips brushed her ear, his breath warm on her cheek.
Serpentina opened the padlock on the tent’s heavy zipper. Without a word, they slipped inside. She flicked on the lightswitch. The hearse’s black paint gleamed like the shell of a scarab.
“She sure is pretty,” Jake said. Serpentina nodded, wiping a fingerprint from the front bumper with the tail of her tank top.
He sighed. “I have to admit, I’m kinda disappointed that she isn’t really haunted.”
Serpentina looked at him sharply. “I never said that, Jake.”
He gave a little laugh. “I thought you said all that was just made-up.”
“The part about her past owners dyin’ was made-up. But from the first time I got into this car, I felt somethin’. A presence.”
“No shit. You’re gonna laugh at me, honey, but I can feel it, just over my shoulder, sometimes when I’m drivin’. In fact, I don’t even drive her at night, when I’m by myself. I—I guess I’m scared.” She laughed, looking at her red sneakers.
“Mm.” He sidled up next to her, slipping his arm around her waist and pulling her close. “I don’t blame ya. I wouldn’t wanna be alone with the Mad Mortician’s ghost, either. But…would you feel safe in the hearse with me?”
“Well, I don’t know…”
He nibbled her neck, making her knees go wobbly. “Let me drive her, Serpentina. We won’t go too far. And I’ll protect you from the boogeyman.” She could feel his lips, smiling against her skin.
Bombing down the highway at eighty miles an hour, Jake driving with one hand on the wheel and the other arm wrapped tight around Serpentina. She rested her head on his shoulder as the hearse’s big flathead engine ate up the road. Jake had a wide grin on his face, a wild look in his eye. Every man wants to get behind the wheel of a Cadillac, that’s what her daddy used to say. Not that he’d ever even sat in one in his whole whiskey-soaked life.
Saguaro cactuses whipped by. A lizard scuttled across the road, stark in the glaring headlights. The desert was just too goddam dark at night. Serpentina closed her eyes.
“This ve-hicle sure drives nice, for bein’ so old,” Jake said. Serpentina nodded. Jake kissed her on the head. “I think it’s got a problem, though.”
“Yep. It’s slowin’ down now, for no reason at all.” Jake was pulling off the highway, down a narrow, pitch-black dirt road. “Uh-oh, I can’t stop it!” Serpentina laughed, low and husky.
They made out for awhile. Jake was a good kisser. Aggressive as hell, but his type always was. His sandpaper fingers felt good on her back, her breasts.
“You ever done it in the back of this bonewagon, honey?” A hot whisper, and his tongue in her ear.
Serpentina laughed. “If I only had a dollar for every time somebody asked me that…”
“Well? Have ya?” His lips traced her jawline, making her shiver.
“To tell you the truth, Jake, no. I—I guess I was afraid that Hiram would get jealous.” She let out a nervous little laugh.
“Don’t you worry about that. I’ll kick his Casper ass right out the window. Come on, honey.”
Serpentina paused to look up at the endless desert sky before crawling into the back of the black ’47. So many stars. So very many. A cool breeze caressed her cheek like a kiss.
She made sure to lie between the rollers, so they wouldn’t bruise her back. The carpet was thick and soft. She barely had time to lie back before Jake was all over her. He was good, if a little speedy. It wasn’t long before her bra was hanging from the doorlock and he was peeling off her jeans. When there was nothing between them but her panties, Jake put both big hands on her face, and kissed her hard. His hands slid down to her throat.
“You’re an awful trusting soul, Serpentina. You don’t know a damn thing about me. You never even asked me if I’m from around here.”
She looked into his eyes. They had taken on a flat, predatory glint. The pit of her stomach went cold.
“I’m not from around here. I’m not from anywhere. But everywhere I go, I leave someone behind.” His hand tightened on her throat, just a little. Serpentina felt tears sting her eyes.
“Everywhere I go, I find a whore like you. You’re not special, Sabrina.”
He said her name like a curse. She turned her face away from him, her chest aching with sorrow. Damn it all, don’t I know how to pick ‘em? Her eyes fixed on the spot of blood on the upholstery. She could feel his breath on her cheek.
“You’re not special. But this car is. I’ve never killed a girl in a car this special.” His hand tightened more. Little black spots appeared in Serpentina’s vision.
“You’re gonna die in the same car your mama did, whore. Ain’t that just a kick in the ass? Pretty fuckin’ funny, if you ask me.” His hand clamped down.
Serpentina couldn’t breathe, but she could still see. She could see the spot of dried blood, now wet and shiny, black as tar in the moonlight. She could see the blackish-purple mist come roiling out of the spot of blood, see it coming together like a stormcloud over Jake’s broad back.
She had so hoped that she was wrong about him. She had hoped it so much. With infinite sorrow, she watched it happen, watched what she had watched five times before, starting with her very own daddy.
The bruise-colored stormcloud split apart; with a hiss, it split into six twisting shapes, six stormcloud women with eyes like rage-maddened lightning.
Jake heard them, and he let go of Serpentina’s throat and twisted around to see. He didn’t have time to scream before they were on him.
The angry ghosts enveloped him, lifted him off Serpentina to hover in the cavernous length of the hearse. A transparent bubble formed around him, a ghostly caul. It looked very much like a plastic bag. A body bag. Jake went rigid with fear.
Serpentina wanted to close her eyes as they took him, but as always, she found she couldn’t. It was silent in the hearse when they shredded him with claws and teeth. Silent as blood splattered the inside of the bubble. Images in red: his hand clawing, his feet kicking, his face pressed against the weird membrane like a kid doing a crimson blowfish. The fucker looks like a frog in a blender, thought Serpentina. They tore at him until there was nothing left to tear.
The back of the hearse swung open, and there was a sucking sound, and a splash as the six ghostwomen sprayed Jake over thirty feet of desert.
It was over then. Serpentina rubbed her throat as the shades slipped back into the spot of blood, weaving themselves into the structure of the old hearse, or wherever it was they went when they were done. The last one, Serpentina’s mother, pressed cold lips to her daughter’s cheek before she was gone. Serpentina managed to take her hand for a moment, to squeeze her mother’s weirdly solid fingers before she dissolved into cold, damp mist.
She lay on her back in the hearse for awhile, until the blood spot was dry. She put on her clothes, and dry-eyed, got behind the wheel of the deathcar
“We’re done now, Mama,” she said quietly. “That was six. Six for six, that’s what you said.”
Silence, for a moment.
“Just one more, ‘Brina,” her mother whispered into her ear. “Just one more, and we’ll be done.”
Serpentina wanted to scream. She wanted to cry, to run howling through the desert night.
She blinked the sting from her eyes.
“Yes, Mama. Just one more.” She started the engine.