Prologue: No Fear
Joycelyn hurried down the street, eager to finally reach home. An afternoon of high-impact aerobics had left her pleasantly exhausted, and she couldn't think of anything she wanted more than a nice hot shower. Actually, just getting off of the street would make her feel 100% better.
Her extra-long T-shirt covered her leotard-clad body down to the hips, but she still felt exposed... Naked. It was the men. Everywhere she went, men followed her with their eyes, or they did that ridiculously obvious double-take. Or even worse.. the 'look-behind,' where they nearly killed themselves to get a brief look at her ass, even if said ass was clothed in tights and covered with a thick cotton t-shirt. It was as if they could smell a woman in leotards five blocks away. Even though she was used to it, that type of attention still pissed Joyce off. She certainly had nothing to be ashamed of, but she didn't keep herself in shape just so men could ogle at her. Occasionally she would confront one of those drooling bags of testosterone and read him the riot act... but with the gangs growing more and more violent and now some new serial rapist on the loose in Atlanta... Joyce's reaction to most unwanted stares was more wariness than anger.
"Can't even walk down the fucking street anymore." she mumbled, then quickly looked behind her to see there was anyone there. There wasn't.
Joyce had no idea how nervous she actually was until she reached her apartment. She punched in her code and the metal-barred door buzzed... indicating it's unlocked and 'unsafe' state. She slipped inside without even opening it completely, then she waited to make sure it closed firmly behind her. When it did, Joyce gave a little sigh of relief that surprised even her. Her fingers played along the zipper of her gym bag... and she wondered if she would ever have to use the gun that she had kept there. She had taken the classes, visited he firing range... but could she actually shoot someone?
After pausing to check the street, Joyce trudged up the stairs. She always completed her workout with a climb to the third floor, bypassing the apartment building's slow elevator completely. Joyce emerged from the stairwell and continued down the hall. At the opposite end, a tall man in a police uniform was just disappearing around the corner. She only caught a glimpse at the back of his head, but it could only be Sam, the building's security guard. The curly-haired rent-a-cop and his gun were a god-send, even if his eyes DID linger a bit too long on Joyce's anatomy when they met.
"Hi, Sammy..." she called. The man rounded the corner and vanished. "Oh, well pardon me then," she added sarcastically.
Joyce waited a moment to see if Sam would return for a free look at her breasts... but he didn't. She unlocked the dead-bolt, entered her apartment and made sure to lock the door behind her.
"Home at last..."
Joyce peeled off her t-shirt and headed straight for the bathroom. On the way, she deposited her gym-bag in the hallway. Once in the tiny cube of a bathroom, Joyce pulled off her top and sports bra, freeing her perfect breasts from their sweaty confinement.
"Ahhh..." she sighed. She massaged the feeling back into her breasts and then removed her tights. Then, while examining her face in the mirror, Joyce shoved back the shower curtain and, without looking, reached for the faucet.
Her hand encountered a mop of curly wet hair.
"Oh GOD!" she jerked away and looked down at the naked body in the bathtub. Even with the eyes missing and the face smeared with blood... it was unmistakably Sammy. The security guard. The security guard who had master keys to all of the apartments.
The dead-bolt in Joyce's apartment door slid back... unlocked from the outside.
Oblivious to the fact that she was half-naked, Joyce dashed for the hallway. She reached her gym-bag just as the door was coming open.
"I'VE GOT A GUN!" she yelled as she leveled the weapon in front of her. There was no target yet, so she just aimed at the center of the door. "DON'T COME IN HERE!"
The door continued to swing open. Joyce saw the intruder's hand... then his arm, clothed in the dark-blue sleeve of Sammy's uniform.
Her heart pounding so hard she thought it was going to pop out of her chest.
"Now that's no way to treat a guest," said a high, almost girlish voice. The intruder stepped into view.
Joyce didn't recognize him. It was a man. Just a man. A man who had murdered poor Sammy and dumped his body in her tub. A man who was wearing Sammy's badge and uniform, with Sammy's gun strapped to his belt. A man who had Sammy's master key that opened apartment in the building. A man who, even as Joyce watched, was unzipping his stolen pants, revealing his obscenely turgid penis.
"HELP! POLICE! RAPE!!"
"And after I went through all that trouble to leave you a gift. Did you like my gift? In the bathtub? You must have... since you went ahead and got undressed for me."
The rapist reached behind him and pushed the door closed. With his other hand, he continued to stroke himself. Joyce's eyes focused in on the man's chest. She aimed.
The gun kicked in her hand, nearly knocking itself out of her grasp. Joyce stepped back and fired again.
The first bullet slammed into the man and threw him back against the door. The second joined the first in his chest. A dark stain spread across the front of the uniform, blood poured from two wet holes.
Joyce hesitated, the gun shook in her hand, but was still aimed in the general direction of the would-be rapist.
The next second lasted forever. The rapist was frozen in time... stuck to her door like an insect on a cork-board. Was he dead? Dying?
Why was his dick still hard?
His expression was neither shock nor fear... the man was actually smiling as he bled to death all over Joyce's carpet.
The long second ended, and the rapist's smile widened and he took one step away from the door.
Joyce fired again, and the man fell back against the door and then collapsed. Joyce moved toward the phone, then realized that the phone was on the table by the door. Reaching the phone would put her in grabbing range of the rapist. But the OTHER phone was in the bedroom. She would have to leave the intruder here on the floor. Alone. But he was dead wasn't he? He COULDN'T still be alive.
She eyed him. His chest wasn't moving, and the carpet was turning reddish-brown from the flowing blood.
He still had Sammy's gun, though.
With the her own gun aimed at the rapist's head, Joyce stepped forward and reached out for the phone. As her fingertip brushed the receiver and the man opened his eyes. His arm reached out towards her.
Joyce's finger tightened on the trigger, but she was a fraction of a second too slow. The man was up an on his feet in a flash... faster than anything she had seen before. As he rose, he swatted her hand with his own. It was like being smashed with a brick.
Her gun flew across the room. In a heartbeat, his hand closed around her throat... and hers lifted the phone from the table.
She smashed it against the side of the stranger's head. He grunted, and suddenly Joyce couldn't breath.
She hit him again. And again. A single spurt of blood poured down his cheek, but it halted almost as quickly as it began. She combined the fifth strike with knee to the groin. The man's grip loosed and she twisted out of his grip. His vice-like fingers left painful gouges on her neck and throat. She leaped over the coffee table, eyes fixed on the shiny black gun that lay on the floor in the corner.
She felt the man reach for her... his fingers again touched her flesh, leaving welts down her bare back as he barely missed a grab for her long hair. She threw herself to the floor and rolled over onto her back.
The gun was in her hand.
The rapist stopped and smiled. His exposed penis jutted from his crotch.
"Go ahead," he said. "Shoot. Won't do you any good."
The man reached up and began unbuttoning his... Sammy's... shirt. When the first four buttons were undone, he ripped the shirt apart, sending the final two button's careening across the room and exposing his bare chest. His bare, SCARLESS chest.
The skin was pale and pasty, covered with a thin sheen of silky yellow hair... but there wasn't a mark on it.
"See... You can't ki-"
Joyce fired one shot and scrambled to her feet.
The man staggered back, but did not fall. Instead, he stood before her and took a long, deep breath. Joyce saw the raw, bleeding holes that her bullets had carved in his flesh, but as she watched, the flow of blood stopped and the holes puckered like an obscene pair of lips.... then they closed completely, leaving not so much as a scar.
"See, bitch." he said. "I told you."
"Plenty of time for him later. You're mine now."
"The gunshots. The police are coming."
The stranger chuckled and shrugged off the remains of his shirt.
"You think I give a damn about the police? What are they gonna do... SHOOT ME?"
Joyce raised the gun once again... this time pointing it at the man's head. She wasn't sure she could hit it... but she was damn sure going to try.
"Don't you just hate that..."
Joyce threw the gun at her assailant and ran for the kitchen. She intended to reach her bedroom and barricade herself inside until the cops came... but as she passed the sink she got a better idea. Without slowing down, she reached out and grabbed the heavy frying pan. She turned and swung in the same motion, knowing the rapist was right behind her.
The pan destroyed the man's skull. Joyce saw the curve of his head flatten and she felt the bone give way beneath the stainless steel weapon..
Joyce swung the pan again, this time breaking the handle off in her hand.
The man stumbled and swayed as if drunk, then quickly righted himself. Joyce's eyes widened... refusing to shut out the sight before her. The rapist's head smoothed itself out, returning him to the picture of malevolent health.
"Had enough foreplay?" he said.
Joyce turned to run, but her scalp exploded in pain after her first step. The rapist had managed a grip on her hair and was jerking her back.
"LET ME GO!"
"Nooo.... can't fuck you if I let you go."
"HELLLP!!" Joyce pulled away, she felt her own scalp rip and nearly passed out from the pain. Joyce fell forward and tried to crawl away. Blood poured down from her head, coating her face and arms and making the floor slippery...
"Ohh, a FEISTY one!"
She felt the rapist's heavy boot kick her in the buttock, nearly breaking her pelvis. Then he swept her trembling legs out from under her and shoved her flat onto the floor. The man reached down and Joyce's panties were ripped away in a single yank. "I LIKE the feisty ones. Like it when they work up a sweat."
Joyce rolled over and planted her foot in the rapist's crotch. The man doubled over in pain, but was upright again instantly.
"Bitch, you know how much that hurts?"
Joyce repeated the kick, but the man caught her ankle and lifted her leg high into the air. She kicked with her other foot, but that just gave the rapist access to both her legs. He held them apart and looked down at her exposed sex.
"Oh, yeah. Yeah I love it when bitches let the hair grow like that."
"Help!" Bleeding profusely from the head, Joyce's strength was beginning to fade.
"Bald pussy is like fucking a six-year old. And now I bet you're wondering.... just how do I know what that's like?"
The stranger positioned himself... moving in between her suspended thighs, but Joyce clamped both her hands over her crotch.
"Don't be like that baby... I ain't got all night. Here-"
He released Joyce's legs, and she responded by raining kicks on his crotch and thighs. The stranger again captured one of her ankles, but this time he squeezed...
Joyce screamed bloody murder as her ankle was crushed in the man's supernaturally strong grip. Blood began to fountain as the sharp splinters of bone sliced through arteries and skin, and even jabbed into the rapist's hand.
"Bet you weren't expectin' that one, eh bitch? Now kick me again. Go ahead. I dare ya."
"Oh please.... oh please..."
"No need to beg."
Suddenly the apartment door burst open.
"POLICE! NOBODY MOVE! MA'AM ARE YOU OKAY!"
The rapist sighed and released Joyce.
"Just when I'm startin to have some fun. Wait right here, bitch..."
He walked out of the kitchen. On the way, he unsnapped Sammy's gun and drew it out of it's holster.
"FREEZE MISTER!" shouted one cop
"GUN!" cried another.
The repeated thunderclaps of gunfire shocked Joyce even further toward unconsciousness. She fought the encroaching darkness... straining to drag herself out of the kitchen. How many cops were out there? Did it matter? She had to warn them...
The shots ended suddenly, but Joyce's struggles continued.
"He's down!" said one voice. "Get his gun, I'll check the house. Ma'am are you okay in here?"
Joyce opened her mouth to scream, but was too weak from pain to do anything but sob.
"Ma'am? Hey, she's in the kitchen!"
Joyce heard someone approaching, and then saw him. Her savior. He stepped into the view, but a single gunshot spun the cop around and sent him running back to the living room. As soon as he rounded the corner, a second shot sounded. It was followed by a thud, and then by two more shots.
There was a ominous silence, and then Joyce heard the apartment door close. And then lock.
Joyce closed her eyes just after the rapist appeared from the living room. His clothes were riddled with holes and soaked with his own blood, but the underlying flesh was unharmed.
"Now," he said. "Where were we? Oh, yeah..."
He grabbed another fist-full of Joyce's hair and began dragging her toward the bedroom.
Part One: Daily's Encounter
Jerome Daily awoke to the blissful absence of an alarm clock. He opened one eye, saw that it was 9:03am, and then rolled over to go back to sleep.
Despite the fact that it was Friday, he didn't feel the least bit guilty.
Jerome had no reason whatsoever to get out of bed and subject himself to the torture that was his life. He was between. Between jobs. Between girlfriends. And between monthly charity-checks from good old mom and dad. To say that money was tight would be an understatement... but at least it wasn't as bad as it COULD be. At least his weekly "Urban Events" column in the paper paid him enough to dress himself and eat regularly. Rent and utilities was another matter entirely. Apartments in downtown Atlanta weren't cheap, and no matter WHAT Georgia Power says... electricity for his studio shoebox was expensive as hell. Until last week, Jerome had been gainfully employed as a waiter at Planet Hollywood, but one-too-many screw ups with customer orders had landed him in the ream of the unemployed.
So what Jerome thought. This was only temporary anyway. I CERTAINLY didn't go to college to be a waiter in some over-priced glamor pit.
But the bills still needed to be paid, preferably on time.
Jerome had wanted to get on full-time at the paper instead of this freelance crap they screwed him into. A reporter. REAL journalism. Even if it was dog-shows and book reviews, it would be one step closer to what he wanted. Unfortunately, a weekly run-down of events in the Black community was all that the Atlanta Journal and Constitution was in the market for right now. At least from Jerome.
The phone rang.
Jerome cursed himself for leaving the ringer on, then sat up to listen to the message as it was being left.
"Jer, this is Linda. You there?"
"No, bitch." Jerome immediately regretted his words, even though he was the only one who heard them.
"Jerome? Look... when are you going to come by here and pick up all your stuff? It's cluttering up my place and I need to clean, you know? Jerome?"
He wanted to pick up the phone and yell "NEVER!" or at least say something... but he couldn't. He just sighed.
"I REALLY need you to come get this stuff, Okay. Like... this weekend sometime. Call me before you come by." There was an uncomfortable pause. "Hey... uhh... we're still friends, right?"
"Fuck no." Jerome lied.
Linda hung up and the answering machine began rewinding the tape.
"Oh well," Jerome rolled out of bed and began going over his mental list of things that needed to get done. He had already submitted this week's column, which left the day pretty much free. Jerome showered and got dressed: Black jeans and a black T-shirt that read "Don't Ask Me for SHIT!" in giant white letters. It fit his mood perfectly.
He slapped some lotion onto his chocolate-brown skin and made an attempt to brush his hair. After failing to tame the thick forest of naps, he put on a baseball cap and headed for the door.
"Ready or not... here I come..."
The phone rang.
"Who is this NOW!" he waited for the message.
"Jerome this is your mother. Jerome, are you there?"
"Why do they keep ASKING that!"
"Well, I hope you're doing okay. Your aunt Eula isn't doing too good. She hasn't heard from Lonnie in a few weeks now..."
"Uh-oh... here it comes..."
"...and you know he hangs around with that bad crowd."
"It's called a 'gang,' mom."
"We was wondering if-"
"...you could go and check on him. I know you don't like to be around him, but he's your cousin. Do it for me, okay?"
"Oh... did you get the check we sent you the other week?"
"Very subtle, mom."
"If you need more, just ask. Call me when you get in. Love you. Bye."
Shaking his head in exasperation, Jerome stepped outside and slammed the door.
He decided to walk the seven blocks to Linda's apartment and use he bus fare for a cup of coffee. Jerome strolled down Peachtree street to a nearby cafe. He didn't even know the name of the place, and in fact he generally hated cafes. He didn't care too much for coffee, either. But the prices at this place weren't as inflated as the others, and the morning 'suit-and-tie' business crowd cleared out a little earlier than most places. It was 9:45 when he ordered his coffee (black) and a doughnut (glazed). He sat down and tried his best to think about nothing.
He was halfway though his drink when the shit hit the fan.
Three black youths dressed in tattered jeans, t-shirts, and wearing identical green scarves around their arms, burst into the cafe.
Gang, thought Jerome. He recognized the colors but not the faces. They were Black Lords, the same gang his cousin ran with. Several things struck Jerome all at once... One: what were these boys doing downtown during the business hours? Two: Why did they look scared as hell? And Three: Why was one of them carrying a gun out in the open... like he had just used it or was just about to?
Everyone in the cafe froze.
The boys paused in the center of the cafe and started looking around frantically.
They're looking for an exit... which means someone's after them. I hope it's cops...GOD let it be cops, 'cause if it ain't... The idea of being caught in a gang shoot-out didn't really appeal to Jerome.
A woman on the other side of the cafe started screaming. The three gang members all turned toward her, and Jerome took that opportunity to slide out of his chair and hide under the table.
"What the HELL'S Going on here!" shouted the cafe's manager.... an old man behind the counter. Either he was blind and hadn't seen the gun yet, or he was incredibly stupid. Ditto for the screaming woman.
"Shut the FUCK UP!" said a young voice. It had a distinct 'ghetto' accent. Someone else screamed.
"Yo! Where the back DOOR!" said another gang member.
"Oh shit, man. They COMMIN!"
Against all tenants of common sense, Jerome peeked out from behind the tablecloth. Two more figures burst through the door. They were a couple of years older than the others, which probably put them at about 18 or 19. One was a stark-looking, thin black man. The other was huge... a weight lifter of some sort. Also Black. Neither had any guns that Jerome could see, but the large on had a small camping axe hooked to his belt. It was one of the cheap models that was most likely stolen from a local sporting goods store. It looked like a toy hanging from the large man's waist.
What the hell is he gonna do with an axe?
"There them fools go!" said the smaller newcomer. "Git 'em!"
The gun-bearer raised his gun, while his two friends scrambled frantically for the counter.
Jerome wanted to close his eyes... but he couldn't. Some morbid sickness within him *wanted* to see someone get shot.
The bulled slammed into the thin man's shoulder, just as his large companion jumped for the shooter. The gunman pivoted, bringing the gun around. He fired a second shot directly into oncommer's chest... but that didn't stop him. The big man jerked once, but otherwise acted like he wasn't even hit. He reached for the gun and slapped it out of the youth's hand. Then he closed one fist around the boy's throat and lifted him up off of the floor.
"We TOLE you not to FUCK wit da YOUNG ONES, fool!" he reached for the axe on his belt.
Meanwhile, the other man... who had been shot once in the shoulder... was in pursuit of the others. He was fast. TOO fast. Jerome blinked once, and man was across the cafe, *in front* of the boys he was chasing.
"What the fuck?" mumbled Jerome.
The thin man punched one of the boys in the face. It was a hard punch, and the youth went down immediately. Jerome couldn't see clearly from his hiding place, but for a second it looked like the boy's face had *caved in,* like a lump of soft putty. His body was facing opposite Jerome, but there was *waay* too much blood on the floor for him to simply be unconscious.
Then the man grabbed the other boy by the head, one hand on either side. The boy pulled a knife out of his pocket and jammed it into the thin man's gut.
The man grunted. Then smiled.
"You tryin' to cut me? What the fuck you think this is, fool? Here... lemme SHOW you what this is..."
The man squeezed. Jerome saw his muscles bulge. They weren't large... but they were *strong.*
The boy screamed and tried to pull away, but without warning... his head collapsed. His skull gave way under the pressure, and his head exploded like an egg in a vice.
It made a sick, sick noise...
Spurts of blood painted the ceiling.
The cafe patrons that had been too terrified to run... ran now. The only ones left were the man behind the counter, Jerome, and a couple who were trapped at one of the rear tables.
Only Jerome's mostly empty stomach kept him from vomiting.
He looked away, and then he DID vomit when he saw what the other man was doing.
The one with the axe.
"oh god!" Jerome gasped.
Another wet chunk hit the floor.
"GIT the fuck outta there!"
A pair of bloody hands reached under the table and grabbed Jerome by the shoulder. Thin fingers dug into his flesh like some kind of *machine* and yanked him out of his hiding place. It was the other man...
He held Jerome tight. Jerome looked into his eyes...
"What de fuck YOU looking at, FOOL?"
"Man less KILL these motherfuckas!" said the large one. He was just finishing up with his... task.
The thin one opened his mouth to reply-
Something warm and wet splattered the front of Jerome's shirt. The man holding him went limp and they went down. The thin man collapsed on top of him. Most of his back had been blown out of his front... where it had ended up all over Jerome's favorite T-Shirt. The back of Jerome's head hit the hard linoleum, and the room spun. He heard bells. Bells....Sirens...
He shoved the dead weight off of him and tried to sit up. He saw the cafe man holding a double-barreled shotgun. The large gangster was running straight into it, as if he didn't care that his friend had just been killed by that same gun, or that the police were on the way.
The big man's head was gone in a spray of red.
Something moved, and the first man was on his feet again.
Wait... what? He's DEAD!
The cafe manager aimed and pulled the trigger. By the time the empty *click* reached Jerome's ear, the first man was swinging his long legs over the counter. He pushed the old man against the wall and snatched the gun away. He raised it above his head with the barrel pointing down.
"That HURT muthaFUCKA! HERE'S what you can do with yo fuckin' GUN!"
The old man screamed. Jerome looked away... and saw the large man slowly getting up off of the floor. His head was... was... it was literally *pulling itself* back together again, piece by piece. Brains... bone... muscle... skin...hair...
And then he was whole.
"Hey man... COPS!" he shouted with his new mouth. "Let's go!"
"FUCK da cops!" said the other one as he calmly stepped from behind the counter. The manager's screams had stopped. The old man was now stuck to the wall like an insect in a collection... except with a shotgun through his chest instead of a stick-pin. "I say we take dem bitches out TOO!"
"Naw man, we gots to BOUNCE. We can fuck wit the cops later!" The thin man took a second to decide, and then they both walked calmly for the door. Just before they left, he turned back to Jerome, who was still laying on the floor.
"Tell the cops what you saw, bitch," he said. "Tell 'em not to FUCK wit us or it's THEY turn next time!"
And they were gone.
The cops arrived so soon afterward that Jerome thought it was impossible for them NOT to have seen the men leaving the store. They couldn't have run off that fast... it isn't... physically... possible? Physically possible!?
He was laughing when the cops burst in, and he was still laughing when the paramedics loaded him into the ambulance. He laughed all the way to the hospital. When the doctor said he was fine except for the deep bruises on his shoulders... he laughed in the man's face.
How could he be fine!? He had just seen a man REGENERATE HIS OWN HEAD! What kind of FINE is that!? If fine was watching a man with his CHEST BLOWN OUT get up and IMPALE another man with the gun, then he wanted no part of it!
It was a few hours before the police got around to questioning him, and he tried his best not to laugh in their faces, too.
He really tried.
He DID manage to tell them what he saw. The Black Lords. The gun. The exploding head and the caved-in face and the butcher with the axe and the man with the shotgun. Then he told them about the science-fiction head and the man with no chest.
He knew they were going to say he was full of shit, but he didn't care. He told it the way he saw it. And when he finished telling the story, he started to laugh again...
...until he realized that they believed him. They hung on every word, writing it all down. And at the end, they had looks on their faces that Jerome never would have guessed he'd ever see on a cop. They looked a lot like those three Black Lords in the cafe. Scared. Nervous. That's when Jerome knew something was very wrong. He had told his story...his completely unbelievable tale... and the cops were absolutely terrified.
Part Two: Gang Related
Between the emergency room and the police station, it was well into early evening by the time Jerome saw home again. Sometime during those lost hours, the police confiscated his blood-soaked clothes gave him a few rags to keep from violating any decency laws... a pair of oversized jeans and a cheap, navy-blue T-shirt that screamed 'COP' to everyone who possessed a working pair of eyes. They dropped him off at his apartment and told him not to leave town for a few days... as if HE was the one who'd crushed a man's skull in his bare hands, gotten disemboweled with a shotgun, and then killed another man by running him through with his own weapon. In that order.
Jerome reluctantly agreed to remain local, and then instantly regretted it when he saw the crowd of media wildlife outside his door. A garden of Cameras, microphones, booms, and all their appropriate operators had sprouted along the street like mushrooms. They were all waiting for one person... him.
"Fuck," he mumbled just before shuffling up to the crowd.
Jerome just lowered his head and pushed through, managing to mumble a few choice comments during the long trek to the apartment building's main door:
"MR. DAILY! MR. DAILY!"
"CAN YOU TELL US WHAT HAPPENED, MR. DAILY?"
"...get the fuck outta my face..."
"MR. DAILY, WHAT DID YOU TELL THE POLICE?"
"...leave me alone..."
"DID YOU GET A GOOD LOOK AT THE PERPETRATORS, MR. DAILY?"
"...yeah, the looked just like your mother..."
The reporters crowded him, but no one touched him or overtly blocked his path. He waded through unmolested, and then when he had reached and unlocked the main door he turned to face the cameras.
All the shouting halted as each reporter waited for Jerome's statement.
"Uhh... are any of these camera's live?" he asked.
"Yes, sir, Mr. Daily!" shouted half a dozen reporters.
"Good." Jerome held up both fists... each with the middle finger fully extended. Then he turned, entered the building and slammed the door behind him.
As he mounted the steps to his apartment, Jerome felt a tiny pang of guilt. After all, they WERE just doing their jobs... pretty much the same job HE wanted to do eventually. He had no right to toy with them like that... but they'd get over it.
He reached the second floor and rounded the corner expecting the hallway to be empty.
"Hi, Jerome." called a voice with a heavy Spanish accent. It was Maria, the woman who lived in the apartment next to his.
"Ummm... Hey," said Jerome. He couldn't help but smile. The twenty seven year old waitress had been the subject of many... in fact MOST... of Jerome's late-night, between-girlfriend fantasies. Her body was the type that Jerome literally dreamed about in high school. Bountiful, perky breasts. Inviting hips. Smooth, golden-brown skin. Even a full-time job and a nine year old daughter didn't keep Maria from taking good care of her looks. But then again, maybe it came natural.
"I heard your name on the TV," she said. "You okay?"
"Yeah...uhh... it wasn't as bad as they say," Jerome lied. "You know how TV is."
"You wanna talk about it?"
About six hundred different replies all rushed to escape Jerome's mouth at once. The only thing that made it was...
"I'm right next door, okay?"
"Uh-huh." Jerome's pants were suddenly too tight.
Yeah, Like I'll ever get the nerve...
"So Maria, how's Juan?"
Maria sucked her teeth and waved her hand as if trying to drive off an annoying insect. That was the universal sign that meant that she and her boyfriend were on the outs again...
Jerome got his hopes up for one second, then dismissed the budding fantasy as just that... a fantasy.
"Okay... I'll, uhh... see you around."
Jerome entered his apartment and resisted the urge to slam the door. By sheer force of habit, he walked over to his answering machine and pushed the button.
"Hel-lo," said the mechanical voice. "You have... sixty-seven... new messages. Message one, received at 3:35pm..."
Jerome hit the erase button, effectively nuking all sixty seven reporters. Then he unplugged the machine and turned off the phone's ringer.
"Gonna need a new number now," he said.
Jerome plopped down on the bed and lay back, letting his mind go about the futile task of sorting itself out.
"I'm sane," he mumbled to himself. "I saw what I saw... and I'm sane."
Jerome didn't believe one word of it. Sane people didn't SEE what he saw... which meant that either he was a few aspirin short of a full medicine cabinet, or this had all been one HELL of a dream.
"I don't FEEL like I'm crazy... but then what does crazy feel like? And now I'm sitting here talking to myself..."
Jerome closed his eyes... he didn't intend to go to sleep, but his tired body didn't care about intentions. As soon as his eyes closed, his mind started regurgitating images from the morning... the man with the ax... chop...chop... a gunshot...chop... a headless man getting up and sprouting a *new head,* only THIS time the man picked up his ax and came for Jerome. Jerome couldn't move... he was frozen.... the man came closer, his head rebuilding itself with each step. All except for the skin... there was no skin this time... The dripping horror smiled and the ax went up in the air... the metal gleamed in the cheap florescent light... and then down it came.
He sat bolt upright in the bed and vowed to never close his eyes again. Ever.
"Now what am I going to do? If I'm not crazy NOW... then a few nights of that would definitely do it."
Jerome got up and began pacing.
"Reporters camped out outside the damn door. Nightmares. And I'm STILL not convinced I'm not... wait a minute..." Jerome froze in mid-stride, and his lips slowly curled up into a smile. "Reporters... but why should THEY get the story when I was in the MIDDLE of it! Oh, yeah..."
Jerome now knew what he had to do. The police believed his story, which meant he wasn't COMPLETELY crazy... or if he WAS, then THEY were too. Either way, it was a story. A story HE could write... an EXCLUSIVE! He'd find out just what the hell was going on, write the story and be... what? Rich? Famous? No... all he wanted was a damn JOB, and if he could pull this off, then the Atlanta Journal-Constitution would BEG him to come and work for them.
But how? Where would he start? His mind re-played the day's events, but instead of wincing at the horror of what happened, he looked for clues... opportunities...
Like the two other witnesses in the café... a man and a woman. Their names were probably on the news right now, just like his.
Like the gang affiliation of the victims... Black Lords. Same gang as his cousin Lonnie.
Like the name that one of the killers called himself... The Young Ones.
"Now THAT'S an odd name for a gang. But I've heard it before... it's been in the papers."
Jerome thought for a moment, then checked his watch. It was 6:00. The library was just closing.
"Damn... wait..." Jerome plopped down at his desk and powered up his computer... an ancient 486 that was one of the few luxuries he'd held onto from his college days. He had dropped his internet connection months ago, but just the other week he'd gotten hooked up with an advertiser-supported free ISP. He was online after only seven attempts, and when the annoying ad-box popped up on his screen, he shoved it over as far as he could and hit the web-browser icon.
His first stop was Metacrawler. A search for "Young Ones" pulled up forty-three links to some obscure British comedy series.
"Not even close."
The other search engines yielded the same thing... nothing. Undaunted, Jerome went to the AJC's online research page. There, a search for the "Young Ones" turned up more relevant results. Apparently, not too long ago there had been a few meager articles that the AJC called an 'in-depth series' on Atlanta gangs. Jerome pulled up the articles and began reading.
The Young Ones didn't exist until a few years ago, when a group of black teens in College Park formed a 'club' and began butting heads with the local bad-boys, the Black Lords. In skirmish after skirmish, the new kids got spanked by the more established Lords and were driven to the brink of extinction... that is, until four months ago when the Young Ones came back with a vengeance. Not only did they go after their rivals the Black Lords, but they set their sights on the Latin Kings and the Atlanta Gang Task-Force as well. Casualties were high.
Just what fueled the Young One's second wind wasn't clear... right after the slaughter started, the news coverage got fuzzy. Gang activity got remarkably little press in the AJC, or in ANY Atlanta paper... such news tended to be bad for tourism. But then there was the OTHER major story that broke about the same time: the serial rapist that cops STILL haven't been able to catch. The general reading public seemed to care more about one man with a sick taste in sexual release than about hordes of black youths killing themselves in the streets.... so when the killer came to town, HE got the press the Young One slipped off the front page and into media oblivion.
Until this morning.
Jerome searched again, this time for "gangs." He got mostly the same articles, but this time the list included a few dozen one-paragraph write-ups about various local crimes. Most were simply pegged as 'gang or drug related' and left to rot on page seven of the local section. At first, Jerome didn't want to waste his time reading them... but a reporter had to be thorough.
"...another shoot-out in College Park..."
"...identified as members of the Black Lords..."
"...police found illegal drugs and guns in the car, believed to have belonged to suspected gang-member..."
"...returned a few minutes later armed with a hunting ax that he used to savagely attack the other boy."
Jerome stopped. He stared at the screen as if expecting the words to suddenly vanish or dance off the edge of the display.
"Is this the same guy?"
He read the short article again. Two youths got in an argument at a high school. One kid left, came back with an ax and attacked the other one. The attacker was never identified or captured. Police, in their infinite wisdom, believed the matter to be 'gang-related.' The article was dated a good five years BEFORE the Young Ones were supposedly founded.
"Hell, I guess even Manson had to start somewhere," said Jerome. "But this isn't saying how he can suddenly sprout a new head after his first one gets blown the fuck off."
Forgoing the rest of the articles, Jerome ran another search. This one was for the words "ax" and "gang."
The results made Jerome's heart creep up into the bottom of his throat. News articles... all ax-killings, all gang related, and the vast majority of them taking place in the last four months. Jerome couldn't stomach the details, so he scrolled down the page, looking for any headline that stood out from the others.
He found two.
The first one read:
"Gang Members Hospitalized after High-Speed Chase. A thirty-minute car chase that ended badly for two gang members when their car slammed into an embankment on I-285. Howard 'Skinny' Roman and Elliot 'Ax-man' Jones were both admitted to Grady Memorial Hospital with multiple compound fractures and severe spinal injures. Their condition is listed as critical, but both men are expected to live. However, doctors say that, due to the nature of the injuries, it is extremely doubtful that either man will ever walk again."
The article mistakenly identified them as members of the Black Lords... but Jerome knew better.
Skinny and Ax-man.
Jerome was still trying to convince himself that those two COULDN'T be the same two guys from the café when his eyes came across the second headline. It was dated three days after the first, and it read:
"'Paralyzed' Gang Members Escape Hospital, Elude Police."
He didn't bother to read the article. He could see what happened without ever having been there... two paralyzed gangsters just get up and walk past their guards. The gunfire... if there even was any inside the hospital, didn't do SQUAT to stop them. They just walked out and continued their war against the Black Lords, the police, and the world in general.
The escape happened four months ago. Just when Young Lords started up again. The fact that there WAS a connection was obvious, but the details weren't going to be found on the internet. Jerome had to get closer. Fortunately, he had a connection that the media whores outside didn't... someone deep inside The Black Lords.
Jerome gathered a pen, a notepad and as many MARTA tokens as he could locate in ten minutes. Then he climbed out the window and started down the fire escape. It was time to take a little trip to College Park: home the Black Lords, cousin Lonnie... and the Young Ones.
Part Three: The Axeman Cometh
A ten minute walk and a twenty minute ride on MARTA took Jerome from the filthy streets of downtown Atlanta to the even filthier streets of College Park. Located just beyond the runway of Hartsfield International Airport, the city of College Park's main demographic group was people who simply couldn't afford to live anywhere else. Violence prowled its streets every night, and very rarely did it fail to find a victim. Gangs, drugs, and the ever-popular prostitution were so common that the newspaper didn't even report on them anymore. A PEACEFUL day in College Park was news... anything else was just the status quo.
Jerome left the MARTA station and headed east, into the heart of town. He kept to the grassy curb in order to keep as much distance between him and the street as possible. Very few people knew him here, and the local youth treated strangers with one of two options. They were either avoided or harassed... sometimes fatally. Fortunately, the cars the drove past him were in the 'avoidance' mode. A few slowed down to get a good look at him... but they all kept going. Jerome wondered if that would change once the sun went down in a few hours. Probably.
After a few blocks, Jerome found himself in a housing project similar to the one that he grew up in. A collection of three-story buildings with about twelve shoe-box apartments crammed into each one. The quality left a lot to be desired, but since the majority of the units were used as crack-houses it didn't matter. Why waste the effort?
Children played in the parking lot, oblivious to the trigger-happy youngsters that has passed Jerome on the street just a few blocks away. They eyed him with wary suspicion, but kept right on playing as he walked past.
He mounted the child-unfriendly concrete steps and rounded the corner. Apartment #909.
He stood in front of the door for a few minutes... not listening or spying... just standing there, waiting for his nerves to catch up with his body. It took a while.
Jerome finally reached out and pushed the button next to the door. Nothing happened.
No chime. No buzz. Nothing.
He knocked on the door VERY lightly.
"WHO THE FUCK!!!" came a shout from inside. There was some scrambling, and someone approached the door. More scrambling... and then a pause.
"Who is it?" said a female voice.
"Uhh... It's Jerome. Is Lonnie in?"
"Don no 'Lonnie' live here."
"Yes he does, I just heard him."
"You callin me a LIAR mothafucka? Don't MAKE me come out there!"
Nice lady thought Jerome.
"Look, tell him his cousin Jerome is here to see him."
Jerome took a few steps back from the door so that whoever was on the other side could get a good look at him through the peep-hole. He started to raise both arms and turn around, but that probably wouldn't help much.
Nothing happened for a while. And then...
"Yo!" called a male voice from behind the door.
"Yo, you by yo-self cuz?
The door unlocked and swung open a crack. A thin black man with a mat of thick black hair peered out.
"Come on in, man," he said.
Jerome stepped in. Before he could greet his cousin, Lonnie closed and secured the door with no less than three deadbolts and a chain.
"Want me to help you push the furniture up against the door?" said Jerome with a grin.
"Whussup, man!" said Lonnie. The two slapped palms and twiddled fingers in the usual greeting.
"What's going on, Lonnie?"
Lonnie shook his head and ushered Jerome into the living room... actually the living room/dining room. A young heavy-set woman was sitting their painting her toe-nails. "This is Nala," said Lonnie.
"Hey," replied the woman. Lonnie made a jerking motion with his head. Nala gathered her polish, cotton-balls and miscellaneous artifacts, and vacated the room. She went into the bedroom and closed the door.
"Whassup?" said Lonnie... this time in a tone that meant it was more than just a greeting.
"Ain't nobody heard from you in a while, man. Your mom was worried. You know how she is."
"She sent you all the way out here for me? Shit."
"So what's going on? You still hangin' with the Lords?"
"Man... man I don't know."
"What? I thought those were your boys."
"Yeah, they are. But shit's been so fucked up lately, man. I don't... I don't know if I can hang wit' what's been going on."
"Like what? The Young Ones?"
Lonnie's eyes narrowed into slits, and he looked at Jerome with suspicion.
"What you know about them?"
"Did you watch the news this morning?"
"Who the fuck watches the NEWS, man?"
"I had a run-in with 'em. Downtown Atlanta... they took out two of your boys."
"What? What the fuck?"
"You didn't know?"
"Naw... man, I ain't left his house in DAYS, man! I don't SEE nobody... I dont' TALK to nobody. Except for you. Shit is CRAZY out there, man!"
"You mind telling me what's going on?"
"Why, man? What difference-"
"Because one of those guys was about two seconds away from squashing my head like a grape. I saw one of 'em take a shotgun blast to the chest and shake it off like it was nothing. I need to know what's going on Lonnie... just for my own sanity."
"Fuck sanity. Ain't no sanity left man. Shit is-"
"Crazy, yes... but HOW crazy? WHAT is going on? WHO was that man with the axe that chopped up one of your boys like some kind of butcher?"
"Axe? You... you saw Axeman?"
"Big guy with a little axe? Yeah. He got his head blown off."
"...but he didn't seem to mind. Just grew a new one."
Lonnie stared at him, and Jerome saw in his eyes the same thing he'd seen when he gave his statement to the cops. Belief... and fear.
"Tell me, Lonnie. Who are these people?"
"Its a gang thing, man."
"I know. The Young Ones... but who are they?"
"Why? You wit the cops or some shit?"
"Good... cause the cops can't protect your ass. Them motherfuckas is hidin' just like me. They don't even come DOWN here no more. Some shit happens and they hide and wait 'til it's over, then they come sniffing around. The Black Lords is the only ones keepin' this place together. And THEY ain't doing too good now. We lost like... twenty brothers in the past week, man. Shit..."
"Who the fuck you think!? They pickin' us off like... like fucking BUGS, man!"
"Axe and Skinny are the ones I saw this morning. I think. Who are they... and how can they do what they did?"
"How the fuck should I know? They just DO! Them and the rest-"
"Rest? What rest? You mean there's MORE?"
"It started out wit just those two... but now the whole GANG is fucking... I don't know... SUPERMAN and shit!"
"Wait a minute..."
"They used to be Black Lords, you know? Skinny and Axe... long time ago. But they fell off and started they own group. We kicked they asses on a daily basis, man... but then that shit happened with the cops."
"Wasn't no fuckin' accident, man! The cops ran 'em off the fucking highway. I heard that the crash ain't what fucked 'em up... the cops dragged 'em out of the car and did a Rodney King on they asses for like a half-hour. Beat 'em real bad... broke they backs and shit... made it like they wasn't never gonna walk again."
"Yeah. I read that somewhere."
"They got out... just up and walked the fuck outta the hospital. That's when... that's when the shit started."
"Four months ago? About the time the rapes started?"
"Man who gives a FUCK about some cracker rapin' white women... there's some mothafuckas walkin the street RIGHT NOW that I KNOW should be dead, man. I... I fuckin' SHOT 'em myself! But they STILL walkin around!"
"Gang members. Like Axeman and Skinny."
"They came on like fucking... MANIACS, man! Axeman and Skinny... they was the first. I was at a party when they busted in and took out FIVE of my boys. We put so many bullets into those mothafuckas it's a wonder they could even STAND UP with all the lead weighin' 'em down. But they KEPT comin!"
"Were they wearing vests?"
"On they're FUCKING HEADS, man!?! I shot this bastard in his FUCKING HEAD and he just... he..."
Lonnie looked away... it was clear that he didn't want to say anything else. But Jerome wasn't satisfied.
"So what happened next?"
"They hit us. Hard. Every night... sometimes two or three times a night. Huntin' us down like fucking cattle. The drug spots. The parties. The hangouts. Everywhere. But we didn't go out like no punks, though. We'd bust caps at 'em... hit 'em with just about everything we had. Axeman and Skinny would just stand there and laugh."
"You said there were more..."
"The ones we shot... the ones that would go down... Axeman and Skinny would just drag 'em off. Next time they made a hit, they'd be there. Only... only they'd be like Skinny. Something happened to 'em... something happened after we shot 'em. They went down one time, but damn if they wouldn't go down again!"
"How the fuck should I know? Ten? Twenty? Man... after these mothafuckas started takin shots an not goin' down... I got out, man. I stay RIGHT here... I ain't leavin' this mothafucka til-"
"Until what? The police can't do anything, Lonnie. They're just as scared a you are."
"Yo! I ain't SCARED, mothafucka!"
"Lonnie, what happened to those guys? The Young Ones? What made 'em like that?"
"Who YOU askin?"
"You said you shot 'em, and they died..."
"No, no... they' wasn't dead. Just hurt. Like... fucked up, you know? They SHOULDA died..."
"But they lived."
"They ain't alive, man. Ain't no real live mothafucka can do the shit I seen 'em do."
"Lonnie... there's something going on here that's deeper than the Black Lords. You know that, right?"
"Something is happening to these guys. Something is making them... superhuman. We HAVE to find out what it is. Do you know anybody that-"
"What the fuck is this WE shit? I ain't leavin this room!"
Lonnie motioned for Jerome to be quiet. The two of them sat on the sofa for a while... listening.
A car was pulling into the parking lot. Doors opened.... and slammed shut.
"Nola!" whispered Lonnie. There was no response, so he got up and crept into the bedroom. Lonnie walked low, almost bent in half... like a man who expected to be shot at. Jerome didn't move.
Lonnie and Nola returned, and Nola went to look out the window.
There was something about sending a woman to investigate a suspicious noise that didn't sit well with Jerome, but he decided not to say anything. After all it wasn't HIS apartment.
"Who's out there?" said Lonnie.
"I don't recognize that car," said Nola. "I ain't never seen it before."
Someone was walking up the concrete steps. Jerome could hear the footsteps.
The footsteps approached the door and stopped.
It was the longest two seconds Jerome had ever experienced. No one moved. No one breathed.
The door burst open... literally thrown off of its hinges by some incredible force. Three black youths entered the small apartment. Two of them were strangers to Jerome, but the third...
Lonnie reached in between the cushions of the couch and pulled out a nine millimeter semi-automatic. He turned toward the door at the same instant that Jerome hit the floor. He tried in vain to fit himself under the coffee table.
Nola ran for the kitchen. Lonnie started firing at the intruders.
Lonnie's shots sank into Axeman's wide chest without doing a bit of lasting damage. The two other Young Ones stepped around Axe and followed Nola into the kitchen. Jerome heard the woman screaming. Whatever they were doing in there, it wasn't pleasant...or quick. Jerome wanted to help, but he was frozen in fear. The Axeman. The Axeman was HERE!
"Put that gun down muthafucka!"
Axeman reached for Lonnie's gun, but Lonnie backed away and kept firing. He emptied the clip in to the huge killer even as Axeman backed him into a corner.
Jerome now had a clear path to the door.
Nola was still screaming.
Jerome leapt to his feet and ran for the kitchen. Behind him, her heard Lonnie's stream of obscenities turn into an agonizing wail of pain.
In the kitchen, he found Nola naked on the floor. One thug was pulling out chunks of her hair while the other took his turn between her legs. The first youth looked up at Jerome.
"Who the fuck are you?"
"Git his ass," grunted the other.
The first man released Nola and ran for him.
Jerome snatched a butcher-knife out of the wooden block on the counter. When the boy reached out, Jerome sank the blade into his abdomen.
Shocked, Jerome let go of the handle and backed away. He had never killed anyone before.
The boy grabbed the knife and pulled it out of his stomach. He held it up, letting the blood drip onto the floor...
"Man, what the FUCK is THIS SHIT?"
Jerome was out of the kitchen before he even knew he was running. He turned the corner and saw Axeman standing by the door, looking out of the peep-hole as if expecting company. He was holding Lonnie's arm in his left hand. The rest of Lonnie's body was on the floor across the room. Axeman turned towards Jerome, and the two of them locked eyes for an instant.
"GET THAT MUTHAFUCKA!"
Jerome ran for the window. He was going to run straight through it, just like on TV. The fact that he was on the second floor didn't make a damn bit of difference. He knew it was bullshit... but he had to get out! Axeman was here! He had to RUN!
At the last moment, the tiny part of Jerome's brain that was still functioning took control. He stopped and grabbed the end of coffee table. In one motion, he picked up the cheap furnishing, turned, and swung it at the boy that had followed him from the kitchen. The sharp corner caught him on the temple and he went down. The boy was getting back up when Jerome swung the table again... this time at the window. He put all his desperate strength behind it....
The glass shattered. The table took the blinds and thin curtains with it as it sailed out into the parking lot. Jerome felt something give in his shoulder, and pain shot down his back. He didn't care. Three running steps carried him out of the slaughterhouse and into mid air...
He opened his mouth to scream, but the landing knocked every ounce of air out of him. He had landed in the bushes just under the window. The sharp, pointed leaves had turned him into a human pincushion, but at least the greenery had broken his fall.
Leaving streaks of blood and strips of clothing behind, Jerome fought free of the bush and stumbled out into the lot.
Something hit the ground behind him, and Jerome made the mistake of looking back.
One of the Young Ones was picking himself up off the ground. He had missed the bushes and landed on the unyielding concrete walkway... The man's leg was broken, and the jagged bone jutted out through the skin just below his knee.
With a grin, he shoved the bone back into his flesh. An instant later, the leg *snapped* back into place like a replacement part for a child's toy.
Up in the apartment window, Axeman and the other man looked down on the scene with obvious amusement.
"GET HIM!" shouted Axeman.
Jerome ran. He ran for the street as fast as his bruised body would carry him.
Part Four: Run
As fast as he was running, Jerome wasn't surprised to hear his pursuers footsteps gaining on him. He didn't look back... he kept his eyes straight. Focused on the street.
Oh, GOD please help me!
"Come back here, muthafucka!"
He felt a hand clamp down on his shoulder... fingers digging into his flesh... He was yanked backward...
And then he was on the ground, looking up at the sky. The young black killer straddled his chest and leered down at him.
"Lemme go! Lemme go PLEASE... I didn'tDOnothingtoyou! PLEASElemmego!"
The boy's face went from sinister sneer to confused annoyance.
"You Black Lord?" he asked.
"Then who the FUCK are you, then?"
"Axe says you gotta die... so guess what..."
The boy reached down for Jerome's face. Jerome tried to wiggle away, but the boy put his foot down on his chest and nearly crushed his ribcage. Jerome grabbed the boy's leg and tried to throw him off balance, but he had neither the strength or the leverage. It was like trying to move a telephone pole by looking at it cross-eyed..
Suddenly, Jerome heard footsteps. The boy looked away, and then...
The youth was thrown off by the force of a shotgun blast. He hit the ground beside Jerome, but immediately rolled to his feet. The side of his face was a bloody crater, but the ruined flesh was rapidly sliding back into place.
"What the fuck?"
"Black Lords, fool!"
There were three of them standing side by side several yards away. One was armed with a sawed-off pump shotgun, and the other two had handguns.
"This is OUR spot!" yelled one of the gangsters.
"Not any more..."
The shooting began. Bullets and buckshot zipped through the air over Jerome as he tried to scramble out of the way.
Guns?!? Are they CRAZY! They're gonna be KILLED!
Jerome managed to make it to the trees that surrounded the complex. He threw himself into the darkness just as the shooting stopped. Everything was quiet for a few precious seconds, and then the shooting started again.
Jerome already knew how this was going to end.
He pushed forward and emerged on the other side of the trees. He was on the main road that lead back to the Marta station. A car was just disappearing over the hill in the distance.
I could wait here and flag down the next car...
Someone screamed... a high, terrified screech that rose in pitch and then came to an abrupt end.
Jerome ran. He had no idea how long or how far he had gone before the first car passed him. He waved and shouted, but the dented Toyota actually *sped up* when the driver saw him. The next two cars did the same.
A fourth car passed him going the opposite direction. He stopped running and watched it go, and as the tail-lights vanished around a corner, Jerome saw a single figure emerge from the trees about a hundred yards behind him.
The figure started running. Fast. Faster than any human being should be able to.
It was a race he knew he was going to lose, but he ran anyway. His only thought was the Marta station. How far was it now? Two blocks? Four? A hundred?
He had to get there before that THING caught him.
How fast was it running? How close was it? Were those IT'S footsteps behind him or echoes of his own.
The road came to a steep upward incline, and Jerome used every ounce of energy he had to keep up his speed. The footsteps behind him were clearer now... they WEREN'T his.
A vehicle appeared at the top of the hill and started down towards them.
Jerome heard smooth, fluid breathing behind him, a stark contrast to his own panicked huffing.
The vehicle, a green Ford Explorer, got closer.
So did the breathing. His own heart beat so hard and so loud that he thought it was going to burst through his shirt and start running alongside him.
He saw the truck's driver at the same time that he felt four fingers rake down his back.
Driven by impulse and pure terror, Jerome veered right... running across the street, right in front of the Explorer.
He made it with inches to spare.... the wind from the passing truck nearly knocked him down. But as he had hoped, the Young One behind him was struck head on. The driver didn't even have time to slow down or swerve. Jerome didn't stop to look... he kept running. Behind him, he heard the Explorer's tire screech as the driver stood on the brakes. He heard the truck's door open.
Don't get out! For GOD'S SAKE... DON'T GET OUT!
Thankfully, Jerome was out of earshot before he could hear what happened.
He ran on to the top of the hill, and there it was.
The Marta station was like an oasis in the desert. The sight of the bright lights put an extra measure of speed in Jerome's stride. He saw the few evening patrons that were going through metal turnstiles. On the other side was an armed Marta security officer who nodded and smiled at each person as they passed.
When he reached the station, Jerome was running faster than ever had thought possible. He gave up the idea of stopping at the turnstiles... with a flying leap he was over the top.
The Marta-cop tried to grab him, but Jerome-the-human-cannonball was already gone.
Jerome didn't slow down when he reached the steps leading down to the platform. With one hand on the handrail, he took them in giant leaps, five and six at a time.
A train was just pulling into the station. In a few seconds it would stop and the doors would open.
Thank you GOD!
"HEY!" shouted the cop.
Halfway down the stairs, Jerome looked back and didn't see anyone. The cop wasn't yelling at him... he was yelling at what had come in after him.
Below him, the train stopped.
Above him, Jerome heard a man screaming... and then gunfire.
Five or six people ran down the steps as if the devil himself was after them. Jerome was one of them.
The train doors opened with a squeak.
He turned the corner and ran for the nearest car. About ten people were gathered around the door, waiting for a few passengers to disembark.
"MOVE! MOVE! MOVE! MOVE!"
Most of the crowd saw him coming and either boarded or stepped out of his path. One old lady was still blocking the way. Jerome shoved her violently to one side and flew through the door like a some cartoon supervillian.
He was running so fast that he nearly bounced off the opposite set of doors before he could stop. A man sitting by the door jumped up...
"Hey, you hit that old lady!" he yelled.
"SHUTTHEFUCKUP!!! You Hear Me... Just SHUT! THE FUCK! UP!"
The man sat down and re-acquainted himself with his evening newspaper.
Jerome heard someone running down the steps.
The train's doors started to close.
"comeoncomeonComeOnCOMEON CLOSE DAMMIT!"
The doors slid closed... and then...
Something slammed into them. Everyone in the train car yelped and turned around to look. Except Jerome. As the train started to move, he was running to the front end of the car where there was a door leading to the next compartment. It was supposed to be locked, but thankfully this one wasn't. Jerome ignored the warning signs and quickly stepped into the next car. He closed the door behind him and wished he had the key to lock it.
He looked through the glass at the car he had just exited. Its doors were still closed, and now the train was leaving the station. It reached cruising speed, and Jerome slumped down into a seat.
His heart slowed its rapid-fire dance in his chest. Sweat poured down his face like a fountain. Slowly, the pain from his exertions began to seep into his brain. His legs felt like thick ropes tied in a series of painful knots. His arm, shoulder and back were on fire. Even his skin hurt from his encounter with the thorn-bush. His bleeding had stopped a long time ago, but the expression on his face must have made him look like a man about to give birth. He drew quite a few stares from the other riders, but no one said anything.
He was alive. It had probably cost the lives of three Black Lords, one Marta cop, and one unidentified driver, but at least HE was still alive and breathing. So far.
At every station, Jerome struggled to his feet and watched the passengers board on his car and the car behind it. There was never any sign of his pursuer, so he sat back down and tried not to pass out before the next stop.
When he reached his station, Jerome hobbled to the door and managed to make it off the train without falling on his face. As the doors closed behind him, and he eyed the huge set of steps leading up to the street with weary reluctance. He wondered where the elevators where. The station was empty except for him, so there was no one he could ask.
The train started to move, and then he heard a strange noise.
Something hitting the ground behind him.
Jerome turned to look...
The Young One was mid-leap... erupting from his perch on top of the moving train and flying straight for him!
Jerome tried to run, but his legs were like stone columns. The boy slammed into him and drove him to the ground. Then he grabbed Jerome by the throat and lifted him up onto his feet. Behind them, the Marta train was disappearing into the dark confines of the underground track. Jerome felt the iron grip tighten, and his impending death spurred one final reaction from his tired legs. He kicked the boy in the crotch.
The boy's grip loosened, but not enough for Jerome to snatch himself away. So he didn't.
The sudden shove was unexpected, and it drove both of them over the edge of the platform. The fall was only about six feet, but somewhere along the way the Young One released Jerome. Jerome landed near the edge, but the gangster fell exactly in the center of the tracks.
Right on top of the third rail.
Sparks lit up the dim platform like a fireworks display. The boy's clothes, already in tatters from his pursuit, immediately burst into flame.
The boy shook and jerked like a grounded fish as the heavy amperage... enough to drive several Marta trains...used his body as a conduit. The electricity sent his super-charged muscles into convulsions so strong that his bones snapped like twigs. His skin bubbled and charred. His hair was gone in a bright flash, taking most of the scalp with it as well.
Crouching in a corner, Jerome watched in horror... he couldn't turn away. The stench of cooking flesh assaulted him in waves. Sparks and droplets of sizzling flesh flew everywhere, threatening to ignite Jerome's sweat-soaked clothing.
One particularly fierce convulsion threw the youth clear of the rail. He bounced off of the far wall of the track-pit and slid to the ground.
The smoking slab of charred meat lay still.
Jerome tried to pull himself back onto the platform. After failing twice, he looked back at the corpse.
It hadn't moved.
I've got to get out of her before he gets up!
Jerome tried again.
The groan was from behind him.
Jerome's hand slipped and he fell back down. He looked at the corpse as it tried to move. It lifted itself up onto its spindly, trembling tooth-pick arms. Smoke was pouring off of it in billowing clouds now, even though it was free of the electricity. The smoke thickened as it turned its head towards Jerome.
"...unnnngh... hellp meee..."
It reached out with one arm, but the remaining one snapped. The man-creature collapsed, throwing another cloud of smoke up all around it.
Only it wasn't smoke.
Jerome brushed the tiny flakes off of his face and clothing.
It was ash.
Jerome watched in awe as the blackened form slowly turned gray. It began in what was left of the extremities... then it spread inward. Instead of regenerating, the flesh began to crumble away like spent charcoal.
The boy was disintegrating before his very eyes.
"...Fuck me..." gasped Jerome. He looked around for some explanation. There was no sunlight... no steak through the heart. Nothing except...
The blaring horn of the approaching Marta train scattered his thoughts. Jerome turned and scrambled up onto the platform after only two attempts. He backed away as the train drew closer. The body on the tracks was nothing more than a rapidly vanishing chunk of flesh sinking into a pile of ash. When the train hit it, the ash scattered, becoming cloud of fine powder.
Jerome limped over toward the stairs. He fell when he tried to go up, but he just crawled on his hands and knees until he reached the station entrance. He grabbed hold of a trashcan and pulled himself to his feet.
He started toward home and, despite the pain, the smile on his face grew wider with every step.
"I've got you now, motherfuckers... I've got you now..."
Part Five: When a Stranger Calls
Limping with every step, Jerome slowly made his way toward his apartment. Every muscle and joint ached, and the pain was slowing him down considerably. But Jerome knew that it was nothing compared to what he was going to feel in the morning. It had been a long time since he had even come close to his recent level of activity, and somehow, running track in high school doesn't prepare one for jumping out of windows and running for one's life on the streets of College Park.
But at least he was alive.
The thought made Jerome smile. He had come close to death twice in the past twelve hours and survived. Yes... he survived by SHEER LUCK, but the fact remained that he was alive.
And at least one of the Young Ones wasn't.
That was the part that frightened him. One of them was dead... ONE. What were the rest going to do now? Hunt him down like they were doing to the other gangs? Was he going to die like Lonnie?
"They can't find me," Jerome mumbled to himself. "Can they? No.. no, they can't. Can they? They don't know where I live. Unless... no, they don't know. Do they?"
The uncertainty grew, and soon it blossomed into full fledged paranoia. Everyone on the dark Atlanta street became a spy. Was that bum looking at him? Was that a person hiding in the alley behind him? Why was that woman staring at him?
Jerome lowered his head... more to keep from driving himself crazy than to prevent recognition... and finished the walk back home.
Walking up the stairs was pure murder. He took them slowly, pausing on each step. It took forever to reach his floor, and another eternity to make it down the hall to his apartment. Standing before his door, Jerome breathed a sigh of relief when he reached in his pocket and felt the familiar shape of his keyring.
Not that he needed it. The door was open.
It was barely cracked. Jerome didn't even notice it himself until he reached out to grab the knob. Paranoia instantly gave way to terror. Every ounce of moisture vanished from his throat. His heartbeats were like thunderclaps in his ears.
Jerome froze; his left hand outstretched and almost... but not quite... touching the doorknob. His mind raced back to when he left earlier that night... did he lock the door?
Shit... I didn't even USE the door when I left. I climbed out the window...
Then why was the door unlocked? Why was it open?
He tried to push his mind back further.. .maybe he didn't close it all the way when came in. Did he? Jerome couldn't think back that far.
They're in there, he thought. They're waiting for me...
He didn't know how long he stood like a statue in front of his own door, afraid to even touch the knob. All he knew was that this was wrong. Maybe he had left it open, maybe someone had broken in after he left... but after the night he had, Jerome wasn't taking any chances.
He backed away from the door slowly and carefully, and walked on tip-toes to the neighboring apartment. With his eyes still locked on his own door, he rang Maria's doorbell. He winced as the annoying buzzer sounded inside.
"Yo!" called a voice that wasn't Maria's. Jerome didn't recognize it, but he assumed it was Juan, his neighbor's boyfriend.
"Hey, don't be answerin' the door in MY fuckin' house, whas wrong wit you!" said Maria. Her thick accent made the entire sentence sound like one long word. Then she added "Who IS it?"
"It's...uhhh... it's...." Jerome couldn't even speak. Did his apartment door just move? Did it? DID IT!? "...ummm...."
"Yo, who is dat?"
"It's ummm.... J-jer...."
"Oh, I think it's my neighbor..."
Jerome heard the deadbolts being unfastened. Each *CLUNK* nearly made him wet himself.
His door HAD moved. Hadn't it? Or was it a shadow. Could a shadow move by itself? They could... couldn't they? Maybe not...
"...oh God...oh please..."
Maria's door opened just wide enough for him to see in.
"Hey, Mister Daily-"
"What? Yo, who DIS, Maria?" said Juan, a skinny Hispanic youth wearing jeans. No shirt or shoes... just jeans. He stood behind Maria and gave Jerome several variations of the same suspicious glance.
"Yo, who DIS, Maria?"
"Will you SHUT UP, Juan, GEEZ you sound like a broken record or somet'ing!"
"MariaIneedtocomein!" Jerome shoved the door open and rushed inside. Maria stepped out of his way, but Juan confronted him.
"Yo! What the FUCK, man!"
Ignoring him, Jerome pushed the door closed and engaged the locks.
"Someone's in my apartment," he whispered. "I... I THINK someone's in my apartment. I mean... the door's open and-"
"Yo, Maria, who is this dude?"
"My NEIGHBOR, Geez! What happened to you Mr. Daily? You look like shit?"
"Don't ask. You don't want to know."
"Shhhh!!!! I need to use the phone..."
"Yeah, yeah, call the police..." said Maria. She grabbed the cordless phone off of the sofa and gave it to Jerome. He looked down at the keypad as if it were some strange alien artifact.
Calling the police would not only be useless, but if they were aware of what had happened in College Park less than an hour ago, their involvement would complicate things tremendously. No... police were out of the question.
Jerome dialed the first number that came to mind. He listened to it ring three times, and was about to hang up when someone answered.
"Hello?" said a familiar female voice.
"Jerome! I saw you on TV this morning-"
"Shhhh.... listen. I need a place to stay."
Typical Linda... always question everything. As if the fact that he was even CALLING her didn't mark this as a dire emergency.
"Look... that stuff from this morning... it's deeper than they're saying on TV. It's... it's bad and I think that gang is after me. There's someone in my apartment now and-"
"What? Then call the police!"
"Nonononono! The police can't do anything-"
"Why not? Jerome what did you get into? Who's in your apartment?"
"I... don't know."
"Then how do you know it's not the POLICE in your apartment?"
Good Question. Unfortunately, Jerome had no intention of going next door to check for badges.
"Linda, please help me out. Just for tonight, okay?"
There was a nerve-wracking silence on the other end.
"This isn't some kind of trick or something, is it Jerome?"
"Okay. Come on over-"
"Nonono... I need you to pick me up. In front of the building"
"Fuck you, Jerome."
"Linda... some people I know DIED tonight and I was right there. I SAW it. I just got chased halfway across the fucking state by some... person... and now there's somebody in my apartment waiting for me. It's gonna take everything I've got just to make it down the fucking steps, so PLEASE be there!"
"Jerome... this is for real, isn't it..."
"No FUCKING SHIT this is for real!"
"Oh, ...okay... okay I'll be there in ten minutes."
Linda hung up.
"You're not gonna call the police Mr. Daily?"
"What's the use in getting good cops killed? I'm going downstairs... lock the door behind me. And I was never here."
Jerome unlocked Maria's door, and it took every remaining ounce of courage he had just to look out in the hallway. There was no one there. Fortunately, Maria's apartment was closer to the stairwell that his, so he wasn't forced to walk past his own door to reach the stairs. He crept down to the first floor and out into the street. He hid in the alley behind the building until he saw a black Corolla pull up to the curb in front of him.
The woman inside was wearing a halter top and cut-off jeans that exposed most of her smooth, light brown skin to the night air. Her shoulder-length black hair was stuffed hastily underneath an old baseball cap. The baseball cap belonged to Jerome.
Keeping his head low, Jerome opened the door and hopped in.
Linda put the accelerator to the floor and the car sped away.
"This better not be a joke, Jerome."
"It wasn't funny this morning in the cafe. It wasn't funny an hour ago in College Park. And it wasn't funny ten minutes ago when I found my apartment door open. So if this is a joke then I sure as HELL don't want to know the punch line..."
"What happened in College Park?"
"Same thing that happened in the cafe. Same thing that PROBABLY would have happened if I'd walked into that apartment."
Linda reached back and grabbed a cell-phone off of the back seat. She handed it to Jerome.
"Call the police," she said.
Jerome wanted to throw the phone out of the window... until he realized it was HIS phone.
"Your phone. My service. You can't afford it anyway... now call the police."
"No," Jerome tossed the phone back onto the rear seat. "Police will only make things worse."
"Make things worse? Jerome what did you DO?"
"DO!? I'm a witness to several murders OTHER than the ones that happened this morning... and now some people are AFTER me. If I call the police now then at the very least I'll be left a sitting duck at some police station-"
"If you're in that kind of trouble then the police station is where you NEED to be."
"No. Not with these guys that are after me."
"What guys, Jerome? Wait... wait, it isn't the POLICE after you, is it?"
"I'll explain everything when we get to your apartment."
"Damn right you will. Then we'll call the police."
Linda's apartment was small, but immaculately clean... just like the woman who lived in it. The furniture had been selected and arranged to fit the lifestyle of a deposed countess, and not a lowly marketing rep for BellSouth. A leather sofa and chairs sat around a plush throw-rug... all positioned in front of one of the largest televisions Jerome had ever seen. Glass-front wooden cabinets held expensive crystal glasses and gold-trimmed curios, displaying them to everyone who cared to look. And, knowing Linda, they had been seen by quite a few people. Jerome wondered how much of the money for this place came from Linda's boyfriends.
Linda sat down on the leather recliner and grabbed the cordless phone from the table. She placed it in her lap and motioned for Jerome to sit.
"Talk." she said.
He spared not one gruesome detail about the cafe and the carnage that occurred there. He told her about the cops and their eagerness to believe the unbelievable. Then he told her about his idea to write a career-making story. The research. The Young Ones. His cousin Lonnie. He told her everything.
When he was done, Linda just stared at him.
"I'm not crazy," said Jerome. "It's all true."
"I mean, LOOK at me! Don't I look like I've been through hell!?"
"Jerome, when people get shot, they die... they don't just get up and keep on like nothing happened."
"I don't think these guys are people anymore."
"Well what are they? Vampires? Aliens?"
"I... don't know."
"Jerome, you spend WAAAY too much time on the internet... now it's affected your brain. You need help."
"Yeah, I need help all right. But not the kind of help YOU'RE talking about. I'm telling you, everything I said was TRUE!" Jerome looked at his watch. "Here, the news is on. I can prove it...."
The remote control for the television was sitting on the table next to him. He picked it up and turned on the TV. Jerome flipped through the channels until he found the local news.
"...for the second time today, gang-related violence has shattered an Atlanta community. Right here in College Park, seven people were brutally slain in a manner similar to what police found at a local cafe in downtown Atlanta this morning. Two victims, a man and a woman, were found dismembered inside this apartment complex. Just outside, three more youths... believed to be gang members... were also found literally torn apart. But the killing spree didn't end there. A motorist was killed just a few blocks away when he apparently stopped to help a pedestrian, who was most likely one of the killers. Shortly afterward, a Marta police officer died trying to prevent the assailants from entering the Marta station.
"Assailants?" mumbled Jerome.
"He failed, and one suspect boarded a Marta train, where he allegedly threatened passengers during a short ride to downtown Atlanta. Both suspects... two black men... are still at large, and police are still questioning witnesses. The assailant who entered the Marta station is a black male, age approximately 25, height: 5 feet 11 inches, wearing blue jeans and a navy blue shirt. Police say that they expect to have-"
Jerome turned off the television.
"Oh shit. Oh shit, they think I did it."
Linda was slowly reaching over toward the table... her fingers extended toward the small drawer in the front.
"Linda what are you-"
Linda leapt off of the chair and snatched the drawer completely out of the table. The contents of the drawer scattered across the floor. Linda turned towards Jerome... she was clasping a .45 semiautomatic firmly in her hands. Jerome's mind sprang into a hundred different actions... but his body just sat on the couch and stared down the barrel of the gun.
"You're a killer. God, I always knew you were strange, Jerome.. but a MURDERER!?!"
"What? ME!?! You can't believe-"
"Don't move. Don't talk. Just sit there while I call the police."
"Linda, we were friends! We still ARE friends!"
"Uh-huh. Yeah. Don't move."
Linda's eyes scanned for the phone, which had hit the floor when she jumped up. She took a step forward and... keeping the gun leveled at Jerome... bent her knees and sllloooowwwwwlllyyy reached out for the handset.
As soon as Linda's fingers touched the phone... it rang.
Jerome was flipping over the back of the couch when the startled Linda pulled the trigger.
The gun was empty.
"Shit!" they both yelled at once.
Jerome stood up and threw himself at Linda, who was frantically searching the floor for the gun's magazine. She reached down to grab something, and was standing up when Jerome collided with her, knocking her to the floor.
"It wasn't ME!" yelled Jerome. He grabbed Linda's arms and pinned them to the floor. Of course, that didn't stop her from jamming her knee into his crotch.
"OOOOOO!" Jerome rolled off of Linda. She started to get up, but Jerome swung his legs around and tripped her. She hit the floor, and the gun flew from her hand. She started to crawl towards it, but Jerome grabbed her foot, narrowly avoiding getting kicked in the face.
He pulled her back towards him, and way from the gun. Suddenly, Linda twisted around and reached for his arm. There was something in her hand.
At first Jerome thought it was a knife, but his ears caught the distinctive crackle of electricity.
He reached out with his other hand and caught her arm an instant before the stun-gun would have touched him. He twisted her wrist.
"AAAAIGH!" The small device tumbled from her fingers. Jerome couldn't help but appreciate the irony... the stun gun had been a gift from him. It supposedly packed enough juice to incapacitate a grown man for several minutes. This was probably the first time it had ever been used.
"HEEEELP!" Linda screamed as Jerome continued to pull her back. "RAAAAAPE! SOMEBODY HELP ME!"
"Shhhhh! Will you SHUT UP!"
Jerome clamped his hand over Linda's mouth.
She bit him.
Linda went limp. Jerome hadn't intended to hit her so hard, but he didn't feel guilty about it either.
She deserved that... he thought. Still, it probably won't be a good idea to be here when she wakes up.
Jerome stuffed the stun-gun in his back pocket, and then walked over to retrieve the gun. After some searching, he found the loaded magazine, which had slid under the sofa.
The phone rang again.
Jerome stared at the receiver. He knew it would be ridiculous to answer it, but he got a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach. The same feeling he got when he was standing outside the door of his apartment less than an hour ago.
He let it ring again... and then the answering machine picked it up. After Linda's greeting, there was an eerie silence for a few seconds. And then...
Jerome didn't recognize the voice. It sounded like a white man, and there was no discernible accent. Yet the voice sent chills running up Jerome's spine.
"Jerome, I know you're there. Don't you know it's rude to keep company waiting."
Jerome walked over to the table and hit the Caller ID button. The caller's phone number flashed across the tiny screen. It was Jerome's number. The man was calling from Jerome's apartment. But who WAS it? It couldn't be one of the Young Ones. Cops? But why would a cop call HERE?
"I'm still here, Jerome. Don't make me wait too long or I might get bored. But then maybe your next door neighbor can keep me company, eh? See you later..."
The voice hung up.
"What the fuck?" said Jerome. "Okay... that's it..."
Jerome slammed the magazine into the handgun, then loaded a round in the chamber. Then he took the stun gun out of his pocket. He pushed the button...
A brilliant arc of electricity leapt between the two pointed terminals on the end of the device.
"I've had enough of this shit..."
Jerome stepped over Linda, walked out of the apartment and headed down to the street. There, he went west... towards home.
Part Six: Questions
Jerome paused at the top of the stairs and peered down the hallway at his apartment door. It was closed. Even from a distance, he could see that the door was shut tight... certainly NOT the same condition he left it. Jerome tried to convince himself that he wasn't about to do something incredibly stupid... Maybe some neighbor closed the door on their way to the stairs. Maybe there was never anyone in there at all. And if there was, maybe they were gone now.
And maybe blue monkeys will fly outta my ass...
Jerome checked his... Linda's... gun. Loaded. One bullet in the chamber. Hammer cocked. The stun gun was sticking out of his back pocket like the mandibles of some huge black insect. Jerome had no idea how much voltage it carried, or if it would be enough to stop whoever or whatever was inside. At the very least, it should stun them enough for him to make a hasty exit if necessary... 'should' being the key word.
Jerome walked to his apartment door and grabbed the doorknob. That single act took more effort than anything he'd ever done before... and actually *turning* the knob was an order of magnitude higher. But he did it.
The door was unlocked. It swung open silently.
"Oh, my God..."
Everything was smashed. The television and the computer monitor both looked like someone had thrown a brick through the screens. The computer itself was in several pieces... the case ripped open and the various components strewn about. Ditto for the telephone and answering machine. Jerome's bed was sitting up on its side with huge wholes ripped into the mattress. The sheets were stretched out on the floor, and his clothes and other belongings were thrown about the apartment like a tornado had been through the place.
So much for nobody being here.
Keeping his back to the wall, Jerome slid down to the bathroom. He wanted to look inside, but it took a while to gather the courage. They could be in there.
Jerome managed a quick peek before jumping back against the wall. Nothing. No one there. He looked again, and then moved on to check the closets...
Thank God for small apartments... He said as he checked the last one.
Jerome sighed and uncocked the gun.
Somebody HAD called him, he hadn't imagined that. Or had he? Maybe he was crazy and imagining the whole thing? Would he KNOW if he were crazy? Jerome glanced around his apartment. It looked real. His apartment was trashed. Someone besides him had done it. Or maybe not. Isn't this how split personality worked? Maybe he trashed his own computer and telephone. Maybe he ripped holes in his own bed and threw the sheets...
... on the floor?
The sheets were laying neatly on the floor in the center of the room. Not torn up and tossed into a corner, but stretched out like someone was about to have a picnic.
Jerome knelt down and grabbed the corner of the sheet between his thumb and forefinger. He yanked the sheet back, fully prepared to scream in horror at whatever he found underneath.
Someone had written a message on the floor in what looked and smelled like toothpaste. The writing was simple and child-like, but the message...
Jerome stood up to read it again:
"GOT BORED. WENT TO VISIT YOUR NEIGHBORS."
And underneath was an arrow pointing to the wall. Pointing to the apartment next door. Maria's apartment.
Jerome burst out of his apartment and ran next door. Maria's door was open slightly, just like his had been before. Jerome pushed it open and stepped inside.
The first thing that hit him was the smell. Thick and sharp and metallic. It made him gag, but he continued inside. There was a trail of blood leading from the sofa all the way around towards the bedroom. The trail got wider as it went. Jerome followed it around, and found Juan's body laying just by the bedroom door. He would have been face-down, but his head had been turned all the way around so that the young Hispanic's eyes were looking up at the ceiling while his chest rested against the floor. His eyes and mouth were wide open... the look of surprise frozen on his dead face.
Juan... Juan was alive just an hour ago... Fighting the rising tide of nausea, Jerome backed away. He entered the living room... his eyes still locked on the body in the hallway.
"The prodigal son returns."
Jerome spun around and pointed his gun. The man was leaning on the wall by the window. A white man in his early thirties. Tan raincoat. Dirty, torn clothes underneath. Filthy blond hair.
Fresh blood all over him.
"Don't move!" yelled Jerome.
"You want to start that already?" the man sighed. "And what's with the gun? You haven't been paying attention, have you?"
"Who are you? Where's Maria? What did you do to her?"
"Same thing you wanted to do, sport.... I fucked her. Then I killed her. She's in the bedroom if you wanna go take your turn. I didn't mess her up too bad."
"I'm... I'm gonna call the police! You stay right there!"
"Sorry. No time for that kind of fun tonight. I ripped the phones out anyway... didn't want anything interrupting our little heart-to-heart."
Jerome glanced around for the phone. It wasn't where Maria kept it... which meant it could be anywhere. He looked toward the bedroom, but all he saw was the trail of blood. Maybe she was still alive in there...
The man moved. He stepped away from the wall, moved in front of the window, and sat down on the sill. The cheap wood creaked under his weight. Jerome kept the gun on him the whole time.
"That looks like a .45," said the man. "Got hollow-points in there? Those things hurt. Maybe you should point it somewhere else?"
"Not on your life!"
"Oh come on... even if you get a lucky shot and hit something vital, you'll buy yourself thirty, forty seconds tops. Maybe not even that. And with the way your hand's shaking, you'll be lucky if you even hit this wall behind me. Trust me... I've done this before."
"Who are you?"
"You haven't heard of me? I'm disappointed. Surely you've read about my handiwork in the newspapers..."
"The woman knew who I was right away. One guess and she had it. Her and that retarded spic with the severe upper spinal problem over there. They knew me. They knew what I came for. It was sweet, too..."
The man made a wet, slurping sound with his lips and tongue.
Jerome's finger tightened on the trigger. This man was one of THEM. But how could he be... he certainly wasn't a Young One... his skin was a few dozen shades too light to even walk down the same neighborhood as the Young Ones. Jerome eased his left hand back to the rear pocket of his jeans. The stun gun was still there... but he would have to get close to use it. Would it be enough?
"What do you want?" said Jerome. He kept the gun on the man and took a few steps forward.
"Want? I've already GOT what I want. This here is just a little bit of business. A favor."
"I don't know you."
"Not a favor to you, asshole."
"The Young Ones? Is that it? That gang sent you here to kill me? Axeman? Skinny?"
"Now do I look like someone who'd do odd jobs for a bunch of crackhead delinquents?"
"You're a murderer. And... and a rapist-."
"I'm THE rapist," said the man. His smile broadened... he was clearly proud of himself.
"Which makes me a higher caliber individual than those clowns. They're just crazy... but me, I'm on a mission."
"Oh yeah," Jerome took another step towards the man. Each step was exponentially harder than the one before. His hand was shaking. If this man was one of THEM, then he could take Jerome's arm off with one good yank. "W-what's that?"
"Heh, heh... FUCK THE WORLD! Fuck the whole goddam world... one lying, stinking, diseased goddamn bitch at a time. And I can do it, too. Wanna know how?"
The man stepped away from the window and moved toward Jerome.
"Don't FUCK with me, man!" Jerome began to pull the stun gun out of his back pocket... a slow, agonizing motion...
"Whatcha got behind your back there, sport? Another gun? Better be a fucking grenade launcher if you wanna hurt me. And I don't even think THAT'LL work."
"I can hurt you," said Jerome.
Just a little closer, asshole... just a little closer...
"And I can hurt you more. But I'll get better, you on the other hand, will just bleed and bleed and bleed... Like Maria in there."
"I can KILL you. I've already killed one of you..."
The man stopped walking. His smile faltered... but it wasn't fear. Confusion. He was confused. Thinking about something...
"Maybe you haven't been paying attention," he said. "You can't kill me. You can't kill that stupid fuck with the axe or any of his buddies, either. We've got something, and you want to know what it is. You've been asking questions. Someone's been watching. He likes your work. You've got potential... so he says. So here I am.... taking a little time out of my busy schedule-"
"What are you talking about? Who's been watching me?"
"Let me ask YOU a question, sport... how much is power worth to you? I mean REAL power... do whatever you want to whoever you want. Never be afraid of any-fucking-body ever again. Not cops. Not gangs. Not little retarded fucking Mexicans with switchblades. Not even God. Never get sick. Never be afraid. What would you do with that kind of power? What would you give up to GET that kind of power? Would you trade a few years of your life? Six? Seven? How about twenty or thirty? What if you-"
"I'm not listening to you"
"Sure you are. You want to know what the hell I'm talking about... I can see it in your eyes."
"No I'm not," the rapist took another step closer. Jerome matched it with a step of his own... "Not any more. Traded the rest of my misery for a new option..."
"Option THIS, motherfucker!"
Jerome pulled the trigger.
It was the first time he'd ever fired a gun, and the recoil nearly jerked the weapon out of his hand. The stranger's face vanished in a spray of blood, and Jerome was already swinging his other hand around. He pressed the button on the stun gun, and a bright blue arc of electricity danced between the points. He jammed it right into the man's chest...
"AAAAAGGG! GODDAMMIT!!!!" Jerome saw the man's muscles lock...he saw the surprised look on his face.
"Die, you sick fuck!"
Jerome brought the gun around again...
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
He put three shots into the rapist's face, which was already reforming from the first bullet. The man stiffened, and then fell backwards... away from the stun gun.
The rapist fell back against the window. Then he quickly turned and yanked the window open.
Jerome couldn't tell if the man jumped, or if the shot knocked him out of the apartment. Either way, the rapist went tumbling out into the night...
"DAMN!" Jerome ran to the window and looked down. The rapist was lying on the sidewalk, surrounded by a growing pool of blood.
No dust. No screams of death. Just blood.
The man's leg twitched. He lay still. It twitched gain, stronger this time.
Jerome turned and ran out of the apartment. He hit the steps going full speed, torturing his already exhausted legs. He burst through the main door with the .45 in one hand and the stun gun in the other.
There was no one there. He was on the wrong side of the building!
Jerome raced around the corner...
The fist caught him completely unaware. It was like running full speed into a brick wall. When he opened his eyes he wasn't even on the ground... he was flat against the wall, with the rapist's forearm pressed against his throat like a steel beam.
"Ungh! Lemme go!"
"That HURT, you fucking nigger!"
Jerome's hands were empty... he didn't have the .45 or the stun gun. He grabbed the rapist's arm and tried to force it away. It wouldn't budge.
"What the FUCK do you think you're DOING!"
Jerome heard police sirens in the distance. Someone must have heard the shots and called 911.
"Let me GO!"
"Oh, no. I'm not done with you, sport."
With his free hand, the man reached into his coat and pulled out a small black book. An address book.
Jerome's address book.
"Thought I'd hang on to this... now I'm glad I did. What was that bitch's name? Lindaaaa.... yeah. How convenient... you got her address right here. Bet I can get there before YOU can..."
Suddenly, the man was gone. Jerome heard his footsteps in the distance... they were quickly drowned out by the approaching sirens.
Jerome looked around for the stun gun. Both it and the .45 were on the ground... but the gun was empty. Jerome took the stun gun and ran off after the rapist.
The man was already a block and a half away... headed towards Linda's apartment
"YOU LEAVE HER ALONE!!!" yelled Jerome as he ran.
"Oh, come ON! I thought you guys were supposed to RUN FAST! HAHAHAHA!!"
Jerome wished he had more bullets... he could slow the man down and take another shot with the stun gun. But all he could do now was run. The man turned onto a cross street and vanished. Jerome was a few seconds behind him... and saw him running across to the next block.
Jerome followed, his desperation forcing his legs to move even faster. He ran out into the street. The man stopped and looked back. Jerome looked into his beady eyes as he ran straight for him.
"YOU BASTARD!" he yelled. "YOU STAY AWAY FROM-"
Jerome never even saw the car coming. He ran out in front of it with no time for the driver to react. By the time the horn blew, it was already over. One instant, Jerome was looking across the street at the rapist's sinister grin, and the next... nothing.
Part Seven: The Visitor
He couldn't see. That worried him at first, but when the nausea hit his stomach like a sledge-hammer, Jerome's mind quickly shifted priorities. Where was he? What happened? He opened his mouth to call out, but even moving those few tiny muscles in his jaw was like trying to shove a brick wall down with his bare hands. After a while, the nausea went away... and so did everything else.
Someone was in the room with him. Even though he had no concept of what the 'room' was, he knew he wasn't alone in it. Jerome opened his eyes and saw nothing but a large, dark blur. After a few seconds, the one blur separated into several smaller ones. He started to recognize things... like the bed. He was in a bed, but it wasn't his. There was a movement off to one side. A shadow. There was also a noise... a steady beeping and the hiss of machines. Jerome was afraid.
"You bastard," said a woman's voice.
Someone spat, and Jerome felt something wet hit his face.
The shadow walked away, and before Jerome could protest or call out, the nausea-laced darkness overwhelmed him once again.
Everything hurt. His head. His ribs. His arms... especially his arms.
His stomach felt like someone had yanked the entire works out, ran through a blender, and then poured the bloody mess back down his throat.
He felt terrible.
Except for his legs. They felt fine. Perfect. In fact, he couldn't even feel them at all.
Jerome lay still, silently struggling to get his mind around the pain. He didn't know how long he fought, but he was finally able to open his eyes. Bright light seared into his head like a laser.
"Turn it down," said a man's voice.
The lights dimmed. Jerome saw the there were people in the room. One was a man in a white coat. The other was a woman. A nurse. He was in a hospital. He looked around the room. It was very small, and crowded with machines. There was no window. Jerome didn't know why that bothered him, but it did.
"You're in Grady Memorial Hospital," said the doctor. "I'm Dr. Veltsin. Do you know what happened to you?"
A stream of images flashed through Jerome's mind. None of them made any sense.
"Nnn.. no." he managed.
"You were hit by a car. Last night."
Jerome tried to sit up.
"Don't," said Dr. Veltsin.
Jerome relaxed. The effort had been too painful anyway.
"Mr. Daily, I won't beat around the bush here. Besides a broken arm and cracked ribs, you suffered some severe spinal trauma-"
"You had some crushed vertebrae and... well... at this point it's too early to tell for certain but..."
"It looks as if you're paralyzed. From the waist down."
"Huh? F-for how long?"
"Forever, Mr. Daily. But like I said, it's too early to be sure-"
"No.... no, I can't be paralyzed. I have to..."
Jerome tried to move his legs. Despite the fact that he could SEE them under the covers, as far as his brain was concerned they weren't there at all. He couldn't feel them. He couldn't move them.
"Save your strength for healing, Mr. Daily."
The doctor looked away, and Jerome didn't like the look on his face. There was something else. Something the doctor wasn't telling him. He whispered something to the nurse, and she began adjusting one of the machines sitting by Jerome's bed.
"Mr. Daily," said the doctor. "The police are right outside and they've been waiting to talk to you."
"I'm going to let them in for a few minutes. Just a few minutes. If you start to feel ill, just push that button."
The nurse put a plastic tube in Jerome's hand. One end had a large white button.
"Police? What about?"
The doctor shook his head and walked out... followed by the nurse. Two more people entered. One was a man in a police uniform, and the other was wearing slacks that were a couple of sizes too big... probably made it easier to hide the gun and holster 'hidden' under his belt.
Both men looked down at Jerome with such disgust that it was a wonder they didn't spit on him right then.
Wouldn't be the first time.
"I'm Detective Michaels," said the man in plain clothes. "And you... are under arrest."
The cop ran through the Miranda rights, which went straight in one of Jerome's ears and out the other. He kept droning on even while Jerome was protesting.
"Hey... hey what's this about? I didn't do anyth-"
"Rape?" said the detective. "Murder? MULTIPLE murders? Any of that sound familiar?"
"I didn't do any of those things."
"Any of WHAT things, Mr. Daily?"
Jerome felt the nausea rising as the images he'd seen before finally re-assembled themselves in the correct order. They STILL didn't make any sense... but they made Jerome want to throw up.
"I didn't to anything..."
"Were you in College Park any time in the last 24 hours, Mr. Daily?"
"Yes. Those people... I didn't kill those people..."
"What people, Mr. Daily? I didn't mention any people."
"It was on the news... I was there but I didn't kill anybody."
"What about the apartment of Linda Parks? That name ring a bell?"
"I... she.... I... I had to borrow her gun-"
"Is that why you raped and killed her?"
Jerome's mind went numb. His mouth hung open... Linda...
"Or is that killed and raped?" said the detective. "Hard to figure out the correct order with all the mess you made."
"L-linda... oh, my God..."
"How about Belinda Payne, Shirley Brickenworth, or Joycelyn Herns? Pay any visits to those women lately?"
"...Linda... that bastard... oh, God..."
"Pay attention, Mr. Daily. Keep up with me here. What about your neighbor, Maria Rosa? When was the last time you saw her? Was it when you were raping her? Was she alive at the time, Mr. Daily?"
Jerome's stomach lurched.
"It wasn't me. It wasn't me it was him..."
"I don't know. I saw him... he's... he's not human. I was chasing him..."
"Uh-huh. Any more bodies we need to be out looking for, Mr. Daily?"
"I didn't do it. I didn't do anything."
"Sure. We'll sort it all out soon enough. And just so you know, there's only one door to this room and there's a cop sitting right outside. This is a secure ward...just for scum like you. We've got armed officers all up and down this hall. So don't get any ideas about goin' anywhere."
The uniformed officer chuckled and nodded at Jerome's legs.
"Oh, well I guess you wouldn't be going for any long walks anyway then.," added the detective. Both men were laughing when they left, despite the fact that there wasn't a damned thing funny.
Jerome lay back and stared up at the ceiling... which was about all he could to. There was no television or radio in the room, and shifting into any other position was too painful to even consider.
But at least his legs didn't hurt.
He tried to move them again, but they wouldn't respond. His legs were just so many pounds of dead weight attached to his body. He was paralyzed.
But at least he wasn't dead. Like Linda. And Maria. And his cousin Lonnie. And about a dozen other people he'd seen slaughtered in the last two days. How many of those deaths were his fault?
He knew of at least one.
Jerome's stomach gave another lurch when he thought about Linda. Was she still unconscious when that monster broke into her apartment? Did he even have to break in? Did Jerome lock the door when he left.
No. He didn't.
He had taken her handgun and her stun gun... the only two things she could have used to protect herself. Then he had left her unconscious on the floor in an unlocked apartment. All that bastard had to do was walk up the stairs and turn the fucking knob.
And then what did he do?
Had Linda been raped and killed? Or killed and raped?
The police couldn't tell from the mess.
Jerome managed to turn his head to one side before his tortured stomach ejected what was left of its contents out onto the pillow. He pushed the button for the nurse. She arrived a short time later to clean up the mess.
"It's the medicine," she said curtly. The nurse pulled back the sheet, and Jerome saw a tube sticking out of his lower abdomen. It ran to a bag hanging on the side of the bed.
"Catheter. For urine."
"You mean I can't even-"
"I wish I could have sympathy for you. "
"I didn't do those things," replied Jerome.
"They never do."
After changing the pillow and wiping Jerome's face, the nurse adjusted the medicine flowing into Jerome's arm. She quickly looked toward the door, and t then back down at him. Her face hardened into a twisted mask...
"I could kill you," she said. Her finger rested on a little dial on the IV. "Make it look like an accident."
"Why don't you?"
"Too quick. After what you did to my sister, Joyce-"
"I didn't know her. I didn't do anything. Please, you've got to believe me."
"All I have to do is what the doctor says. So far, he hasn't ordered me to believe you."
"I want to talk to the doctor."
"He wants you to sleep... and that's what you're going to do."
The nurse adjusted the dial.
"You'll be sleepy in a minute," she said. "Thing is... it'd feel the same way if I'd just overdosed you. No way for you to tell whether I've just put you to sleep... or killed you."
"But you said-"
"A lady can change her mind, can't she?" The nurse grabbed the call-switch and placed it on the table... well out of Jerome's reach. "My shifts over, thank God. Maybe I'll be seeing you tomorrow... but then again, maybe not. "
"My mother said she wants to go to your funeral just to spit on your casket. Maybe I'll tell her to go ahead and buy that ticket to Atlanta..."
The nurse left the room, and the drowsiness descended on Jerome like an inevitable tide. All his pain went away... which frightened him even more. Was this the way it was supposed to feel?
"...help me..." he mumbled before his consciousness slipped away.
Jerome awoke to more nausea and pain. He was alive, but the malignant numbness still hugged his limp, useless legs. The room was dark; he couldn't even tell what time it was. How long had he been asleep?
He saw that someone had placed the call button back in his hand, but Jerome was reluctant to push it. The next nurse could be as malicious as the last.
But then, if she had killed him she probably would have been doing him a favor.
He'd never walk again. And those THINGS were still out there. One of them had killed Linda... but only because of him. Were they still after him? Did they know he was laying here helpless?
He couldn't say how they knew, but Jerome was sure that they did. Now there was nothing he could do but wait. It wasn't as if the police could do anything... and besides, the cops already had him on the fast track to the electric chair. Their evidence... if they had any... was ridiculously circumstantial, but that wouldn't stop the great wheels of corruption once they got moving. The people of the city wanted an end to the madness, and Jerome Daily just volunteered to be the sacrificial lamb. He'd probably never make it to trial. They'd find out he was really innocent five or ten years from now... well after he was found dead in a cell, or a hospital bed.
Jerome closed his eyes, lay still, and waited. Waited to die. Waited for the feeling to either return to his legs... or to begin easing up his body until he couldn't move at all. He waited to wake up from this nightmare.
He didn't know if he had fallen asleep or not... but there was a sudden change in the room. It was unbearably hot, yet he had goosebumps and his teeth were chattering. He opened his eyes and saw nothing but shadows...
...and one shadow that shouldn't have been there. Someone was standing at the foot of his bed, watching him. Whoever it was tall... and they were wearing some odd type of clothing that made them look 'lumpy' and misshapen. Either that or the darkness was playing tricks on Jerome's eyes.
"Come to spit on me again," said Jerome. Part of him hoped the sadistic nurse would go ahead and kill him. Death couldn't be worse than whatever his future held.
The shadow stared down at him. Jerome reached for the call switch.
"It won't work," said the shadow.
The voice was a loud, serpentine hiss... like steam from a cracked radiator. But when the words reached Jerome's mind they exploded into the angry bellow of some giant beast. No... not a beast... force of nature. If a tornado or an avalanche could talk, Jerome knew that this is what it's voice would sound like.
But it was only in his mind. Wasn't it?
"We are between," continued the voice. "You and I... alone."
"Who... who are you?" Jerome squinted at the shadow. Whoever it was must be using some kind of voice-altering device. Jerome used to have one of those himself when he was a kid... although his never even came close to what this guy was using.
"I bring you good tidings of great joy..." The shadow shifted slightly, as if shuffling its weight from one foot to the other. Only it's movement was too fluid... too quick... "An offer. You will entertain us well, I think. Will you join our show?"
"What are you talking about?"
The thing's chuckle was like a series of explosions in Jerome's mind.
"It is hard to see the truth when you are inside it."
"Get out of my room!" Jerome pushed the call button repeatedly, but there was still no sign of a nurse.
"Get up, Jerome."
Instead of screaming for help, Jerome found himself trying to move his lifeless legs. If this were a dream, or a nightmare, then at least he should be able to walk. But he couldn't. His legs wouldn't move.
"I can't." spat Jerome. "You know I can't. Who the HELL are you!? You're that sick bastard, aren't you?! You killed Linda!"
"Get up, Jerome. Or perhaps you are not man enough. Perhaps I was mistaken."
"STOPPIT! GOD DAMN YOU, GET OUT OF MY ROOM!!! HELLP! NURSE!"
"Don't waste your effort. We are between."
Jerome felt sick. The odd combination of cold and heat was getting to him. He didn't like this dream... not at all. He wanted to wake up... but he couldn't do that any more than he could get out of this bed and walk across the room.
He couldn't do it because he was already awake. He knew it. And he couldn't convince himself otherwise no matter how much he wanted it to be true.
"Do you want to walk again, Jerome Daily? Or do you want to live the rest of your life as half a man?"
"...go away... just go away..."
"Pissing in a bag. Never knowing the pleasure of a woman. Or a man. You can live a long time, Mr. Daily... a long time as only a fraction of a man."
"I'm afraid that is impossible for you in your current state."
"Get the fuck out!"
"How many years of that hell would you trade?"
"Trade for what?"
"There's only one God," said Jerome.
The shadow laughed so loud that the thunderous voice drowned out Jerome's thoughts. His entire head rang like a giant bell.
"There are as many gods as there are humans who have ever lived. And more. You can be one of them. I can free you."
"In exchange for what? My soul?"
The shadow laughed again.
"Souls! You think your soul has value? The soul is a brief whistle of flatulence... it dissipates into nothing, leaving only a light stench and a smear to mark its passing. You think that is worth what I have to give?"
"And what are you giving, exactly?"
"I already have life."
"You only THINK you do. Your life is but a tiny trickle from a cracked jar... a meandering creak not strong enough to heal even the tiniest of nerves in your spine. I can open up that stream... make it a roaring flood. You will be rejuvenated. Made whole... and beyond. Your strength, your speed... you will be like unto a god."
"And when the jar is empty?"
"The same fate that awaits you now. The end will always be the same. Use my gift wisely and you can live a long, healthy life. You will never be sick. You will not grow a day older than you are now. And one day... decades from now... you will simply cease to be. But why live fifty years as a man... when you can live five years as a god? As strong and fast as your own imagination... with no fear of man or beast. Your wounds would heal instantly, no matter how severe-"
"This is what happened to the others, isn't it? The Young Ones. Axeman..."
"Most entertaining, are they not?"
"I see your game now. You give this 'gift' to some psycho and get off while he rapes every woman he sees."
"I cured Mr. Beavin from his condition. AIDS. I freed him from his fate... the rest was his own choice."
"Then you give it to a bunch of delinquents and laugh your ass off while they tear the city apart. They even recruit the rest of the gang for your little show. That's what it is to you, isn't it... a show. A game."
"And that's how you found ME. You're watching all of this like the sick FUCK that you are. So tell me, I'm not a psycho or a gangbanger, so what's your game for me? Where's your entertainment?"
"Accept or decline. The choice is yours."
"I'll pass. Now get out."
The shadow remained at the foot of the bed, swaying back and forth slightly. It showed no signs of leaving.
"I said get out!"
"What a pity... and a waste of good entertainment."
"This is my LIFE we're talking about here... not a fucking peep-show for you!"
"Life IS a show." The shadow began to back away from the bed... gliding as if afloat. "I only wished to make yours more interesting. To help you make a difference..."
"Difference," said Jerome. "What are you talking about?"
"Like all good shows, ours must have a cast... and a conflict. The cast is almost complete."
"Wait... wait just a damned minute! You KNEW, didn't you! You knew what that freak and those fucking Young Ones would do before you gave it to them. Just like you know what I would do..."
"Farewell, Mr. Daily. I shall find another to entertain us..."
"Wait! You're going to just let this go on until somebody STOPS it, aren't you?"
The shape ignored him.
"These are people's LIVES! You can't just let these monsters run around loose!"
The shadow reached the wall and began to pass through. The heat/cold in the tiny room began to dissipate.
"COME BACK HERE! You HEAR ME! COME BACK HEEERE!"
Part Eight: Damage
The elevator doors slid open, and Bobbi Simmons stepped out onto the third floor of the apartment building.
"Home at last," she sighed. She fumbled with her keys as she trudged to the end of the hallway. Digging them out of her pocketbook was becoming more and more of a chore due to the pain in her wrists.
Must be that carpal tunnel whatchacallit, she mused. At 29 she was much too young for arthritis, and she had been a data entry clerk for more years than she cared to admit. Great... something else to worry about.
Bobbi walked right past the door to the stairwell and stopped outside her apartment. She disengaged the two locks and opened the door. The hinges creaked unusually loud. In the split second it took for her brain to register that the creaking was from the STAIRWELL door and not hers, the rapist hiding at the top of the stairs had already slammed into her and shoved her into her apartment.
"GET in there, bitch!" The man, dressed in a filthy, tattered trenchcoat, threw Bobbi to the floor. She nearly dislocated her shoulder as she hit.
He closed the door behind them and quickly twisted the dead-bolt lock. Bobbi tried to run. He grabbed a fistful of her short brown hair and yanked up.
"SHUT UP, BITCH!"
A slimy hand clamped down over her mouth. Bobbi bit down on the heel of his hand as hard as she could.
The man shoved her way, and then punched her in the back of the head. Everything got VERY bright for an instant, and then the room began to spin. Bobbie staggered towards the phone.
"Uh-uh. Nope. No cops today..."
The man grabbed Bobbi's shirt and pulled her back once again. Then he clamped on hand on her shoulder and ripped the flimsy blouse off of her body. He spun her around and mauled her right breast through the bra.
The backhand launched her head-first onto the sofa. She never remembered being hit so hard. Not by her ex-husband. Not even by her father. And both of them were much bigger than this man was. Her jaw felt like it was broken...
"Time to make you famous, babe," taunted the filthy man. He fiddled with the zipper on his jeans. "Ya got any friends we could invite? No? We'll I'll just have a look at your address book once I'm done with you."
He grabbed Bobbie by her trembling neck and ripped her bra, exposing her small breasts.
"Oh come on," he said. "I went through all this trouble for THESE little things? Fucking padded bras... this is the new millennium bitch... get some FUCKING IMPLANTS!"
He grabbed her left breast and squeezed it painfully.
"Don't scream," he said as he pinched the nipple. It felt like he was trying to pull it right off of her chest.
The apartment door flew open as it was struck from the outside. The deadbolt... the one that the cops recommended... exploded out of the wall and skidded across the floor like a giant metal cockroach.
At first, Bobbi thought she was saved. The cops... the cops were here!
But it wasn't the cops.
It was a man. A skinny black man wearing blue jeans, sneakers, and a black T-shirt. He stood in the doorway as if it was the most normal thing in the world so break down someone's door and find a woman being raped.
The rapist turned and looked at him. He smiled.
"Hey, boy. Come to join the fun?"
"Let her go."
"Well I'll admit she ain't much... but why waist the trip, right?"
"I said let her go." Jerome stepped into the apartment and walked towards them.
The rapist pulled Bobbi up and spun her around to face the black man. He held her in place with a firm, painful grasp on each shoulder.
"Look at those tits," he said. "Seen bigger tits on a twelve-year old. I see you decided to join the club. Either that or you been workin' out a whole hell of a lot."
"Somebody has to stop you."
"Ohhh... THAT'S what this is about, huh?"
"Yeah." Jerome paused just a few feet away. "The hero has arrived. Time to start the show."
"Well you've got a problem then, boy. See, I don't WANNA stop. And we're both the same, so fighting would just be a waste of time."
"No we're not the same," said Jerome. "Unless you just started doing this yesterday, I've got an advantage you don't"
"Whats the matter... you weren't paying attention to the rules? How many buildings have you jumped out of? How many gunfights have you walked through? How much time do you have left, Beavin? If we go toe to toe, who's time do you think will run out first?"
"Shit," The rapist backed away, dragging Bobbi with him.
"Ashes to ashes, asshole."
"You come any closer and I'll snap her neck."
"And if I leave you alone what are you gonna do to her?"
Jerome leapt for Beavin and grabbed the man's wrist.
It broke like a dry branch.
"FUCK!" He released the girl, and Jerome pushed her away. He misjudged his own strength and sent her crashing into the far wall. Jerome didn't check to see if she was okay... he immediately stepped back and buried the tip of his sneaker in the rapist's crotch. Beavin staggered backward and threw himself over the couch. When he stood, his left wrist was already whole.
"You fight like a bitch!" hissed Beavin.
"Then why do you keep looking past me at the door? Not thinking about running, are you?"
Beavin grabbed the heavy sofa lifted it off of the floor. He threw it straight at Jerome. Jerome ducked, but his foot slipped and he fell. Beavin was already rushing past him. Jerome grabbed the man's leg and pulled the man to the ground.
"Get OFFA ME!"
It was a wild kick, but the rapist's heavy boot cracked Jerome's jaw nonetheless. The pain shot through him as he rolled away. He felt the bones grating against one another as they slid back into place.
It hurt like hell.
Beavin made a run for the ruined door. Jerome got to his feet and threw himself at him. He landed on the taller man's back and forced him to the ground. He grabbed a two fistful of filthy hair and smashed the man's face into to the floor.
Jerome couldn't tell if it was the wooden floor or Beavin's skull. Or both.
He did it again. Harder.
CRACK! Blood flew everywhere. Anger spurred Jerome on..
CRACK! CRACK! THUD! CRACK! THUMP! SQUISH!
Beavin rolled over and thrust his arm out. The elbow caught Jerome across the neck and knocked him aside.
"You FUCK!" Beavin hissed. The man's face was a ruin of bone and blood. "I'm gonna- OOOF!"
Jerome had launched himself at the rapist once more. He tackled Beavin and they both went staggering backward. Beavin pushed Jerome away from him, but Jerome threw one punch as hard as he could.
"What the fuck?"
Jerome backed away. His punch had crushed Beavin's already fractured skull. His own hand felt like a bag of broken glass, but Beavin...
The rapist was sprawled out on the floor with an enormous crushed tomato where his head should have been.
My God... how strong AM I? My fist almost went right THROUGH-
Beavin rolled over and got onto his hands and knees. Jerome remembered the cafe... a shotgun blast to the head hadn't even slowed one of them... one of HIM down. As impressive as his punch was... it wasn't even close to being enough.
"That... fucking... HURT!" hissed Beavin through rapidly regenerating lips.
"Yeah? Well try THIS!"
Jerome kicked the rapist in the side. He felt ribs snap... as well as a painful twinge in his own ankle.
Jerome hopped back as the ankle straightened itself and became whole again. Beavin turned and leapt for him. Jerome felt the man's hands close around his throat with both thumbs pressing onto his windpipe.
"Let's see how you like YOUR head being ripped off!"
Jerome's windpipe collapsed like a cheap straw. Beavin's thumbs sank into his throat and began up pull it open. Jerome placed his own hand on the Beavin's abdomen and made a fist.
Beavin's bloody face tightened into an "O" of shock. Fresh blood splattered Jerome as he ripped into Beavin's abdominal cavity with his bare hand. He grabbed a handful of something soft, warm, and disgusting... and yanked it out.
Beavin staggered backwards, trailing about a yard of intestine from his open gut.
"fuck... fuck... you..."
Beavin made for the door. Jerome rushed to grab him, but the man stopped, spun, and tried to punch him.
Jerome grabbed his arm and created a brand new joint between the wrist and the elbow.
"You wanna go outside," Jerome's voice was a raspy murmur... is throat hadn't healed yet. "Then let's take the quick way down."
Holding Beavin like an unruly child, Jerome ran straight towards the window.
They sailed through the glass, and Jerome rode Beavin's back all the way down.
It was a remarkably short ride.
Everything was dark for a second. But then, as Jerome's brain and spine repaired itself, he felt the searing pain of the jagged bones jutting from his arms and legs. A single rib erupted from his chest like some kind of alien creature. Blood was everywhere... and more was spurting from the open wounds like a fountain. He was laying on top of Beavin, who was in worse shape than he was.
The pain was unbearable for about five seconds. Then it lessened to horrendous... then just bad. Jerome watched the wounds heal. Bones sank back into their proper places, and the muscle and skin healed over them. In twenty seconds, Jerome was rolling over onto his side and trying to get up.
Beavin would be right behind him. This wasn't working out the way he had planned. He had to find a way to restrain him...
Beavin got up on his knees... and then stood.
Jerome reached out for him,
He hadn't seen the backhand coming at all. The left side of Jerome's skull shattered like a cheap vase. There was a flash of darkness, and then more pain descended on him. By the time he forced his eyes open, all he saw was Beavin disappearing around the next corner.
He was still dizzy and disoriented, but he ran after him. He turned the corner and saw a long alley. There was a high fence at the other side, and Beavin was running towards it. Beavin was slow... but getting faster with every step.
no way I'm chasing this guy again...
Jerome grabbed a brick from the building and pulled. It shattered in his hand, but he had much better luck with the second one. He hefted it... took aim... and threw it as hard as he could...
Jerome wished he'd been close enough to hear what it sounded like when the brick sailed completely *through* Beavin's body, taking one lung and a heart out through his chest as it exited. Beavin hit the ground. The brick continued into...and through... the metal fence before shattering on the ground beyond. When Jerome reached Beavin, the thin white man still had a gaping hole in his chest. The organs had re-grown, however. Jerome saw a functioning pair of lungs and a heart quite clearly through the mass of blood and crushed tissue.
There was a door in the building just beyond the fence. On the door was a plaque... and the plaque read:
DANGER - KEEP OUT
He grabbed Beavin and hauled him through the fence. The rapist went peacefully for perhaps the first three or four steps, but by then enough of him had regenerated to allow him to put up a fight.
Jerome paused, grabbed him by the head and twisted it. The neck snapped... and reformed in about four seconds.
He broke it again, and then yanked the metal door open with one pull. He dragged Beavin inside and tossed him down the short concrete stairway that lead down into the transformer vault. Jerome hit the switch the turned on the light, and then followed.
The vault was a huge concrete room with two monstrous electrical transformers in the center of it. Each was at least a foot taller than Jerome, and about as long as a Ford Taurus. A network of ancient ductwork and wiring criss-crossed the ceiling above them. Together, they powered every building on the block.
Beavin was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs
"What the fuck is your PROBLEM!" he yelled.
"My problem?" said Jerome.
"How long are we gonna DO this!"
"Until you're dead."
"This is about that Linda bitch, isn't it?"
"Oh yeah," said Jerome. "Thanks for reminding me."
"I hurt you, you hurt me. We're even."
"No. Not even close."
"Come on, boy... we got a good thing goin' here!"
"Good? You call this good?"
"Oh, don't give me that good and evil shit, boy. You think you're the hero now... but power corrupts. And this is more power than anybody EVER had."
"How long did it take to corrupt you?"
"Heh.... Hell, I started out that way. I'm willin to put all this aside. Join me, boy, and we can have TWICE the fun!"
"That 'join me' shit went out with Star Wars."
Jerome's arm shot out and grabbed Beavin around the throat. He crushed it, let it reform, and crushed it again.
"And my name isn't BOY, asshole!"
Beavin grabbed Jerome's forearm and twisted it... snapping the bones. Jerome had already grasped Beavin's face with his other hand.
He ripped the nose completely off of Beavin's skull.
Jerome punched him in the stomach. Hard. His hand didn't go through him... but it was certainly enough to rupture something.
"Unngh... Lemme go!"
"Hey, you ever see The Fly? Not that old shit... but the new one. Remember at the end when the guy does THIS!"
Jerome grabbed Beavin's jaw with one hand and his head with the other. One quick snap, and the jaw came away. Jerome yanked it free and tossed it into a corner.
"I bet that hurt."
While Beavin clawed at the empty space where his jaw used to be, Jerome pulled the massive front panel off of the transformer, exposing the huge cables and their connections. Bare metal. Bare ENERGIZED metal.
"Now-" said Jerome. He grabbed Beavin again and dragged him over to closest transformer. "For today's fucking science lesson..."
Beavin had half his jaw back... but it wasn't enough to reply.
"You know how much damage electricity does to the human body? Lets find out-"
Jerome shoved the struggling rapist into the bowels of the transformer.
The explosion was more than Jerome expected. A ball of fire threw him back against the wall, hard enough to break several bones. Meanwhile, while huge arcs of electricity ripped into Beavin's body like the claws of some ravenous beast.
Even if Beavin could scream, Jerome couldn't have heard him over the screeching of electricity as it tore through him. Then a SECOND explosion blasted the rapist clear and deposited him... most of him... on the floor near Jerome.
Beavin was a mess. His bloody clothes were gone. As was his hair and his skin. The underlying muscle was crispy black ... but it was still moving.
Jerome ripped the front off of the OTHER transformer, and picked up the regenerating Beavin.
"THAT one was for Linda. THIS one is for ME!"
This time Jerome moved clear before the transformer blasted him. The electrical monster chewed on Beavin for almost a full minute before finally belching his corpse out onto the concrete and showering it with hot sparks.
The lights in the transformer light went out... and then came back on as the battery back-up kicked in. The entire block... maybe more... was blacked out now.
Jerome didn't care. He stood over the charred lump that was Beavin. He looked like nothing but scorched bones held together by a few sizzling tendons.
The bones twitched.
"Awww FUCK!" spat Jerome. He stomped on them, grinding them into the concrete. He crushed as many as he could... but they were regenerating too fast. Muscles... ligaments... nerves... skin...
Jerome crushed the nascent spinal cord and saw it knit itself back together as soon as he moved his foot.
A brand new jaw-bone hung open as the skin and lips filled in around it.
And then it stopped.
Beavin's face was almost recognizable... his mouth still open... but nothing was happening.
The lips and tongue moved...
And then the whole thing began to collapse. Dust and ash began billowing up from the nearly-complete body as it disintegrated. Jerome moved back and watched the scene that he had witnessed once before. . Brand new muscles deflated like balloons. Bones snapped under their own weight.
"My God..." he murmured. By the time he drew his next breath, the Atlanta Rapist was nothing but a pile of ash on the concrete.
"One down," he said. "Now for the hard part."
Part Nine: Just Dead
Bob Rose waddled confidently down the street towards his pawn shop. This morning he'd gotten the duty of opening up the shop, which meant that his would be fighting the gnomes at the drive-through for fresh bagels and cream cheese. Derek figured he'd gotten the easier job... he hated drive-throughs. He rounded the corner and stopped in front of the store.
"What... the.... hell?"
His cup of coffee-flavored warm water slipped from his hand and spilled all over his pants leg. Derek didn't even notice.
The first thought through Derek's mind was that someone had broken into the store. The very humor of that thought almost made him laugh out loud. Of COURSE someone had broken in... The huge set of iron security bars that he had installed over the door... bars that were, in theory, strong enough to repel a speeding minivan filled with high explosives, was lying in the street at the end of the block. Someone had quite literally torn it off of the building and tossed them aside like wrapping paper on Christmas morning. The heavy 'unbreakable' lock he installed on the metal security door was missing... along with the door. The pawn shop lay wide open.
Derek pulled up his shirt and drew the pistol the kept tucked in the waistband of his pants. He stepped inside, and wondered if he should even bother announcing his presence. He decided against it... he'd just shoot the first thing that moved.
The Rose Gun and Pawn was a small specialty shop. Guns and Jewelry. No electronics, clothes, musical instruments or other crap... just Guns and Jewelry. Especially Guns. And right now there wasn't so much as a cap pistol or a fake gold chain in site. The place had been cleaned out. The display cases had all been smashed and emptied of their contents. Double and single-barreled shotguns, hunting rifles, pistols, semi-automatic handguns, extra-capacity magazines, scopes, laser sights, and ammunition available in every legal caliber known to man. Gone. It must have taken a whole gang of people to carry it all off, and Derek was too much of a realist to expect anyone to have seen a damn thing.
Derek found the door... and his expensive 'security' lock... laying against the wall near the cash register. At least they left that.
Derek walked over to the cash register and picked up the phone that hung nearby. He called 911, and while he was on hold, he opened the register.
There was an envelope inside. He opened it, and unfolded the letter he found inside.
SORRY ABOUT THE DOOR. I HID THE JEWELS IN THE TRASHCAN SO NO ONE WOULD
COME IN BEHIND ME AND STEAL THEM. I TOOK THE GUNS AND AMMO. TRUST ME... I NEED THEM MORE THAN YOU DO. I'LL RETURN WHAT I DON'T USE. IT SHOULD ALL BE OVER SOON.
The 911 operator finally connected him to the police.
"911, can I help you?"
"Yeah," said Derek. "Who the HELL is JD?"
On the other side of town, Bud Stokes's pulled his rusted pickup into the parking lot of his feed and farm supply store. The large man straightened his CAT baseball cap, shut off the engine and started toward the front door. He didn't even notice the damage until he tried to put the key in the lock... which was missing.
The lock was gone, as was a small chunk of the door frame.
"I'll be dipped in shit..." Bud mumbled. He pulled the door open and walked inside. He flipped the switch and stood in the doorway for a moment, trying to see if there was anyone inside. There wasn't. Bud couldn't find anything missing, either. Some of the hardware looked like it had been rummaged through, but if the thieves had taken anything it couldn't have amounted to much. Bud made his way to the back area where he kept the fertilizer.
It was gone.
All of it.
"Damnation!" Bud swore. "What the HELL could anybody do with a shitload of fertilizer. Unless... OH SHIT!
Bud ran for the phone.
Finding them was turning out to be harder than he expected. The Young Ones had no reason to hide, but after almost a full day of driving up and down the streets of College Park, Jerome hadn't seen a single one of them.
"Maybe they know I'm here," he grumbled.
As he steered the stolen van down main street for what had to be the six-hundredth time, Jerome turned on the radio and zipped through the stations until he found the news. He was still the featured attraction...
"...no further information on the dramatic escape of suspected serial rapist, Jerome Daily-"
"Least they got the 'suspected' part right this time."
"-suspect that he may have fled the city for his home town-"
"Where do they GET this shit from?"
"-is described as-"
"I know what the hell I look like."
Jerome turned off the radio and fixed his attention on the street. He'd already been past the apartment complex where he last disastrous encounter with the Young Ones had begun. There was nothing there except a unusually large number of U-Haul trucks and moving vans. People in this part of the town may be poor... but they weren't stupid. The gangs were about to add yet another section of the city to their 'official, uncontested turf.' He'd also prowled several residential areas, but the only thing he found were several crackhouses and some new, interesting ways to get completely lost. The crackhouses looked promising, but no one was wearing any obvious gang colors, so Jerome drove on.
Amazingly, Jerome hadn't seen a single cop since his escape from the hospital. They were probably covering the interstate highways leading into and out of the city. Fortunately, leaving wasn't in his plans. At least not yet.
There was the one police car parked across from the Marta station, but it was empty with no sign of the driver anywhere on the street.
Jerome turned off of main street and started down a row of low-income apartments just blocks away from downtown College Park. He'd been here before, too, but not in the past few hours. It was almost dark now, which meant that there'd be more activity. There SHOULD have been more activity, but everything was unusually quiet, just like it was in most of the city. Parents brought their kids in early, if they let them out at all. There were monsters running around. Rapists. Street-gangs. Him.
"Come on," he mumbled. The more he drove, the more he realized that he may have to actually park, get out, and walk around in order to find anything. THAT was something he didn't want to do. Too many cars get stolen in this part of town... Some kid could come across this van and-
"Whoah!" Jerome stomped on the brakes as someone burst out of an apartment building and ran right out in front of him. It was a boy, probably in his late teens. He was wearing the colors of the Black Lords.
"Talk about an endangered species..."
The young gang-member was running full-speed, so frightened that he wasn't wasting any energy to scream. A second later, two more black youths emerged from the apartment. One stopped and fired a few shots at the fleeing Black Lord with a 9mm semiautomatic. Jerome instinctively ducked, but then realized he was in no real danger from the bullets. Both youths chased after the first boy, running right in front of Jerome's van, rounding a corner, and vanishing down a side street.
Jerome leapt from the van and ran after them. A Black Lord on the run could only mean one of two thing... cops or Young Ones. And those two boys certainly didn't look like cops.
All it took was three steps before Jerome felt the unnatural strength flowing into his legs. It was like his muscles were being inflated like balloons... only with raw energy instead of air. He ran faster than he ever had before. The impact of his footfalls placing incredible strains on his bones and tendons, but they healed almost instantly.
Ahead of him, the Black Lord turned another corner. The two Young Ones were right behind him, and Jerome was gaining on them all like a speeding cheetah.
Someone fired shot. Someone screamed. Jerome was at the corner... running so fast that he almost couldn't stop in time. The Black Lord was laying face down in the alley. Not dead yet, but there was a gun leveled at his head.
Jerome grabbed one of the boys and slung him face-first into the brick wall. Something cracked... .and it wasn't the brick. The gun hit the ground and skidded away. He closed his hand around the other boy's throat and shoved him backwards.
"WHERE ARE THEY!" shouted Jerome.
"Who the FUCK-"
Jerome squeezed, and the boy's neck and windpipe collapsed like a cheap straw. Jerome turned his attention to the first boy. He was laying on the ground... his encounter with the brick wall had left his face looking like a pepperoni pizza with extra tomatoes. He had no forehead that Jerome could see. Thinking he had a few more seconds before the boy pulled himself together, he turned back to the second boy. He was limp, with no signs of coming around any time soon. His pulped throat squished uncomfortably beneath Jerome's fingers as he loosened his grip.
"Come on... it shouldn't take this long..."
Nothing happened. The Black Lord on the ground was still breathing and moaning, but the two Young Ones still looked dead. One with a crushed neck and the other with a cracked skull. Neither of them were moving. Their wounds weren't healing. Bones weren't sliding painfully back into place. Muscles and skin weren't regenerating.
"Oh, shit," said Jerome.
These boys were human. Of COURSE they were human... why would they have had a gun? And how could he have caught up to them so damned easily if they were...like him. He couldn't have. They were just human... and now they were just dead. He'd killed them.
Jerome released the corpse he'd been holding, and the boy slid to the ground. He couldn't have been more than 17 at the most. Jerome couldn't even tell what the other boy had looked like. A twinge of nausea made Jerome wince. He'd killed somebody. Not some half-immortal freak... but somebody REAL. Yes, they were trying to kill someone at the time, but did that give him the right to-
"Hell, yes." mumbled Jerome.
"...hey..." It was the Black Lord. He was leaning against the wall, bleeding from a bullet wound in his upper thigh. "hey man... hey man help me.... c'mon...."
Jerome knelt before the boy and looked at his wound. He had no idea what a bullet wound was supposed to look like, and even less of an idea of how to treat it. He pressed his hand against the bloody hole in the boy's blue jeans. He applied a little bit of pressure, taking extra care not to pulp the boy's flesh with a supernaturally strong grip.
"The Young Ones," said Jerome. "Where do they hang out? Axeman and Skinny? Do you know?"
"...hell, man... everybody know that..."
"Where are they?"
"... c'mon man, I ain't never been shot before, man... I'm bleedin...I... I gotta get to the hospital..."
"Singewood, man. Herod street... they got that whole neighborhood. Ran all the people out... cops 'fraid to go in...."
"How many are normal?"
"What? I don't... I...." the boy went limp, but stayed conscious. "I don't feel so good..."
Jerome checked the wound and saw that it was still bleeding despite the pressure. Maybe the bullet had nicked an artery. Or maybe this kid was going into shock. Either way, Jerome couldn't do jack shit about it.
He had to get the boy to a hospital.
But he also had a job to do. He knew where they were, know. He didn't know where Singewood was, but he had a street name and a road map, which was all he needed. They weren't ALL monsters... like HE was... but it didn't matter at this point. He'd have to get them all, which could be a lot harder to do at night.
"Come on, let's make this quick," said Jerome. He scooped the boy up and carried him effortlessly back towards the van. "And you didn't see me."
Singewood wasn't so much a neighborhood than a collection of run-down houses that had escaped the latest attempt at urban renewal. It was a rotten core of mostly burnt-out husks and drug dens that was surrounded by a thin crust of more modern, respectable homes. Jerome remembered the area from one of the stories he'd read in the paper. It was called something other than 'Singewood' at the time, and it was all owned by some rich family out west who'd rather see the place go straight to hell than sell it or do anything to improve it.
And that's exactly where it went. Hell. First the drugs moved in, and it became the location-of-choice for every dealer who'd ever been run out of anywhere else. At least that's what Jerome had read. The residents, mostly old folks with too little money to move, either died off or ended up caught in somebody's crossfire. The city condemned house after house, which did nothing but hasten the influx of crack-heads looking for a place to get high. More often than not they ended up setting something on fire, and yet another ghetto blaze would be reported on the last page of the local section. The cops rolled through every few months and busted as many folks as they could carry, then they'd leave and the whole thing would start all over again. Jerome didn't know when the gangs moved in, but they did. They ran off whoever hadn't been run off or killed before, and claimed the entire three-block hellhole for themselves. As far as the cops, the city and everyone else was concerned, they were welcome to it. They kept to themselves for a long time.
Then a couple of heavy-hitters from a two-bit gang got 'Das Boot' from the cops, made a deal with the devil, and suddenly the gangs became EVERYBODY'S problem.
He rolled down the dark street his headlights out... which was the preferred method of travel in this area. They were here. He could SMELL 'em.
Jerome had dropped the Black Lord off in the parking lot of the closest hospital and sped back to College Park as fast as he could. He switched vans on the way. He'd stolen TWO earlier in the morning... one for the guns, and other for something else. The gun van was stashed nearby. He'd twisted the metal doors so that only someone like him could open them. This was the 'other' van.
Now that he was here, he had no idea what came next. It had just turned dark, and the little monsters were just crawling out of their holes. Dark shapes, dressed in baggy jeans and baseball caps, lurched up and down the cracked sidewalks like zombies. Jerome couldn't tell which ones were on crack and which ones were trying to 'walk cool.'
The van drew more than a few hard stares from the denizens of Singewood. Some drew guns, and held them ready at their side until he rolled past. A few saw him and immediately ran back into whatever ruined shack they had emerged from. Most simply stared at him as he rolled past.
It was soon obvious that he wasn't going to be sneaking up on anybody. But he had to find out where THEY were... Axeman, Skinny, and whoever else had made their deal with the dark visitor. He had to find out where they were hiding and-
Something landed on top of the van. Jerome swore under his breath. He'd been concentrating on the boys running back into the houses that he wasn't watching his rear-view mirror. Perhaps the runners weren't running from HIM.
Jerome grabbed some of the weapons he'd brought with him. He stuffed a 9mm in each pocket and grabbed a pump-action shotgun.
Someone walking on the roof of the van.
Jerome's shotgun blast perforated the metal roof... and probably whoever was standing on top of it as well. He started to fire more shots, but suddenly realized the LAST thing he needed to do was start a shoot-out while still inside the van.
Jerome threw the door open and jumped out. He turned around and saw the dead boy on top of his van. At first it didn't look like the boy would be getting up, but then the suddenly-healthy youth leapt at Jerome.
Jerome stepped back-
Double-O buckshot blew the boy's scalp clean off. Jerome took a few steps away from the van and continued firing
BOOOM! BOOOM! BOOOM! BOOOM!
From the head up, the young gangster looked like a bloody sponge wearing a T-Shirt. The wounds started healing, and Jerome started reloading. He slipped shells out of the pouch he was wearing around his waist and slid them into the shotgun one at a time. ...click...click...click...click...click...click...
The boy took a step forward at the same time that Jerome racked the first shell into the chamber
Two eyes glared at him from the bloody non-face....
...and quickly vanished.
Jerome emptied the shotgun again. After each shot, he took a nervous look around to see who else was coming out to play. Nobody that he could see. There were a few faces pressed against the windows, and a lot of them were smiling.
The shotgun was empty. The body fell to the ground, and it would be a few seconds before he regained consciousness again. Jerome's ears were ringing from the loud blasts of his weapon. He realized two things... first was that standing out here shooting his kid was a waste of his time, and second was that he couldn't hear a damned thing, which would make it really easy for somebody to-
Something sank into the back of Jerome's skull. It cleaved the bone like rotten wood, and tore deeply into his brain. Jerome couldn't tell from experience, but just before he lost consciousness he realized that this must be what it felt like...
...to be hit in the head with an axe.
Part Ten: Surprise!
Jerome felt himself being dragged across grass. His head hurt, especially the part where his skull was reconstructing itself. There were people around him... he couldn't tell how many...
"Tie his ass up," said one voice
"Not any more."
There was a bright light, more pain in his skull, and then darkness.
He was standing up. No... he was being STOOD up.... He heard the rattling of a chain, and then there was intense pain as something sank into the meat of his back, hooked onto his backbone, and hoisted him
up into the air.
"Heh, heh, just like inna movies."
Jerome's eyes finally focused through the pain.
He was hanging from the ceiling in a darkened garage. His hands were tied together behind his back. It felt like rope. Six or seven people were standing around him, studying him. All were Young Ones. One had a bloody hunting-axe sticking out of his belt.
Jerome remembered thinking once what a silly weapon that was for someone to carry around, but now that he was helpless, suspended from the ceiling like a slab of meat, it was the most frightening thing in the world.
He head had stopped hurting, but now he had a meat-hook in his back and he couldn't move his legs. That would all straighten itself out in a few minutes, but what were his captors going to do in the meantime.
"Did you see that shit outside?" said one of them. "He's one a us."
"No he ain't." said another.
"Yes he is... watch this."
One boy, who couldn't have been more than seventeen at the oldest stepped forward and put a gun to Jerome's head. Jerome strained at the bonds, trying to free his hands. All he had to do was break the-
"...told ya he was one a us."
"Fuck. Now what we suppose to do?"
"I done called Skinny. He'll be here in a minute."
Jerome blinked the blood out of his eyes and tried to see what was going on. The bullet through his brain had knocked him out for only a few seconds or less. Fortunately it went straight through and didn't lodge itself in any sensitive areas. All he needed now was a lead lobotomy.
Jerome's hands were still tied. He pulled, and felt a few strands of the rope break. He pulled again.
"I seen this motherfucka before," said Axeman. "Yo... who the fuck are you?"
"Nobody." said Jerome.
"You dat mothafucka from downtown. And from the apartments. You killed our boy on the subway."
"He was already dead," said Jerome. "We're all already dead. You ought to know that by now."
"Hey, a philosopher," said another youth, who mispronounced the word 'philosopher' terribly.
"Hey, I don't like the way this bitch is lookin' at me. Poke 'is eyes out."
"What?" Jerome jerked and tried to move. The feeling had returned to his legs... and when one of the boys got close Jerome kicked him in the chin.
The boy backed away, more from surprise than any actual injury. He was bleeding from a small cut on his chin... which healed perfectly even as the rest of the gang rushed in and grabbed Jerome. They jerked him downward, and the hook in his back scraped against his spine. Jerome tried to struggle, but there was no traction. Even with his new strength there wasn't a whole lot he could do while hanging from the ceiling. They held his arms to his side and someone came up beside him.
Something moved in the general direction of his face, and then Jerome felt a sharp pain as something long and thin was inserted into his left eyeball.
"Get the other one!"
A pen. A simple ball-point pin. Jerome saw it for only an instant before one of the thugs drove it deep into his undamaged eye socket.
The boy pushed the pen all the way in... piercing his brain.
"HOLD HIM, DAMMIT!"
One of Jerome's legs slipped free just long enough to kick someone. Then they grabbed it.
"Dis mothafucka kicked me!"
"Cut it off, Axe."
Jerome's knee shattered as the thug's axe sank into the flesh.
"Le'ts see how long it takes to grow back."
Jerome couldn't feel his left leg. He knew that it was lying on the floor beneath him. Blind, mutilated and helpless, Jerome screamed continuously while the Young Ones laughed and chattered like hyenas. He could hear his blood splattering on the ground like water from a faucet.
"...he sure is loud," one of them said.
"Shut up, bitch!"
The ax severed his throat from the front all the way back to his spine, neatly silencing the screaming Jerome. Blood poured in spurts from the ruptured windpipe and arteries. Someone pulled the axe free, and the flesh immediately began to regenerate.
"...hey, look at dat leg."
"I missed it. Do the other one."
Jerome coughed up a clot of bloody tissue, which exited through the still-regenerating hole in his throat. It was the closest he could come to screaming
"MAN, this is better than that Faces of Death shit!"
"Lemme do some shit!"
"You ain't' touchin my axe mothafucka what the fuck's wrong wit you?"
Jerome's windpipe sealed itself...
The second blow to his neck nearly cut his head completely off. That probably wouldn't have been such a bad thing... at least he wouldn't be awake to feel the nerves in his legs growing back.
"Get the stuff."
Jerome heard something being dragged across the concrete floor. A box, with something heavy inside of it. Or several somethings.
There was the unmistakable sound of metal scraping against metal. What was it? Jerome couldn't see... What was it?? For God's sake WHAT WAS IT!
Something hard struck Jerome across the abdomen. Jerome felt his stomach burst, and blood pouring into his abdominal cavity.
His right hip shattered.
"Hey, get the bat."
The gang began pummeling him with tire irons and baseball bats, turning him into an inhuman pińata. They beat him continuously for several minutes, breaking bones with every hit. His arms. His ribs. His back. Bones jutted out through the blackened, bruised skin. The onslaught reduced his muscles and internal organs to a spongy pulp. And when the bones knitted back together, they just broke them again. And again. One hit dislodged the axe in his throat, and a few seconds later Jerome's screamed joined the sounds of his bones breaking and the Young Ones laughing.
Someone hit him in the throat with a tire iron, and that promptly shut him up.
Eventually his legs grew back, and then they, too, became a target for destruction. They especially enjoyed cracking his kneecaps. One after the other... CRACK... reform... CRACK... reform... CRACK...
Several times over, they turned Jerome's body into a skin-bag filled with blood, chunks of meat, and fragments shattered bone.
The hits got stronger and faster. Once, someone rammed a tire-iron through his lower chest, and then pulled it out again. Jerome blacked out then. When he came around, they were still hitting him.
He was in hell. Worse than any nightmare... and 100% real. They were going to kill him, and keep killing him... and KEEP ON killing him until there was nothing left.
Jerome didn't know how long it lasted. The pain just kept coming and coming. And the Young Ones never got tired. Never.
Every once in a while he tried to break the rope binding his wrists, but since his arms spent so much time broken, getting the leverage he needed was impossible.
Jerome heard a door open and close, and then the assault paused... after one last shot to the chest that sent a sharp rib fragment into his right lung.
"Who the fuck is this?" said a new voice. Jerome recognized it. Skinny. One of the two founders of the Young Ones. Jerome hadn't seen him since the morning in the café. And he wasn't seeing him now thanks to the pens sticking out of his eyes.
"Dis that mothafucka I told you about. He's one a us."
"What the fuck you talkin bout."
"Check it out."
Jerome felt himself being tilted to one side... placed on display so Skinny could see his shattered bones sinking back into his skin and snapping painfully back into place.
"Well what's he doing here?"
"I THINK he came here tryin' to kick a little ass. He was shootin' the hell outta Rob outside 'fore I snuck up on 'im."
"That shit wasn't funny."
"He bring anybody with him. Cops? Punk-Ass Black Lords?"
"And you call me here for THIS shit? Fuck... when you finish fucking with him, cut im up into pieces and bury him somewhere. Deep. Real deep. And don't take all night."
"And why does he have fucking shit sticking out of his eyes?"
Everyone burst out laughing.
Jerome coughed the blood out of his lungs, and his left and right shoulders slid back into place with an audible *click*.
"KICK HIS ASS!"
Both lungs deflated from multiple rib-punctures.
Jerome's pelvis shattered, and his left kidney ruptured. The new wave of impacts rocked him back and forth like a swing. The hook in his back bit deeper. Then it twisted sharply and
He was on the ground, but a big chunk of his flesh was still hanging from the hook. He landed on his right shoulder and rolled over onto his back. His head and abdomen were exposed... but his arms were shielded. The Young Ones kept hitting him, and some added kicks to their repertoire.
Behind him, Jerome's arms... whole for the first time in what must have been an hour... grew tight. The rope bit into his wrists... and then broke.
Jerome knew that this was his only chance. Ignoring the pain, he rocked from side to side to get momentum... and allow his pelvis a few seconds to heal. Then he rolled over and jumped to his feet.
Jerome grabbed one of the pens sticking into his eyes and pulled it out. It came free with a sickening, painful 'pop.' Someone grabbed his left arm. Jerome removed the other pen and stabbed at the person's hand.
"OWW!" The thug let go.
Jerome didn't know what made him duck at that moment. He eyes hadn't regenerated and he couldn't possibly have seen the axe swinging towards his head. But duck he did...
He slipped in puddle of what he assumed was his own blood. Someone kicked him in his side, and he felt his ribs crack. But Jerome grabbed the offending foot and, in a fit of rage squeezed and twisted it until the ankle cracked came loose in his hand!
There was a sudden blast of light.... His eyes! He could see!
Jerome scrambled backward just as someone swung a baseball bat at his head. The thick wooden bludgeon cracked in half on the bloody concrete.
"WHAT THE FUCK'S WRONG WIT YOU PEOPLE!" yelled Skinny. "GET HIS ASS!"
Jerome turned and ran straight for the garage door. It was closed, but that didn't make any difference. Not to him...
He burst through it like paper and found himself outside of some old house. It was dark... probably well past midnight. They had been torturing him for hours! His van was parked in the yard. Jerome ran for it, but had only taken too steps when one of the Young Ones collided with him and wrestled him to the ground.
Jerome twisted and back-fisted the boy across the temple. His own wrist snapped, but the boy was stunned for the fraction of a second that it took for Jerome to get up and start running. He heard... and felt someone right behind him. But Jerome had a slit second-lead, and whoever is was was no faster than him.
He reached the van's front door and grabbed the mirror jutting out from the frame. He snatched it off and spun-
The metal twisted around Skinny's skull like a chrome pretzel. The skull was fractured... he'd be down for a second, but there were three more people running for him.
Jerome leaped into the van and immediately jumped into the rear... where he was keeping his surprise, among other things
One of the Young Ones didn't even bother with the door. He jumped through the windshield. Jerome grabbed his stolen .357 from the floor and turned-
The boy's throat exploded, but at the same time, someone ripped the rear doors off of the van.
It was Axeman. He leapt into the van, and stopped as he saw the collection of fertilizer- and fuel oil- loaded barrels separating him from Jerome. Each barrel had a set of wires leading from it, and the wires led to a crude switch connected to a car battery next to Jerome. Jerome dropped his gun and reached for the switch.
"Fuck you. And Good-bye."
Jerome threw the switch.
He had never been blown up before.
Having no frame of reference to which he could compare the experience, Jerome wasn't quite sure what to expect. There was no bang or boom... no white light... no flames or shockwaves... everything just went black. In truth, all those things DID occur, but by the time the sensations were halfway to Jerome's brain, his flaming head was traveling down the street at a velocity approaching the speed of sound. It was accompanied by a few tons of twisted, unrecognizable wreckage from the van and several nearby houses. Then there were the body parts... his own and those of just about everybody else who was nearby.
Of course, it was never part of Jerome's plan to blow himself up along with the van... but circumstances dictated a drastic change in plan. One of his last thoughts before he threw the switch was...
I wonder if this will do it?
At the instant where everything went black, he was trying to compare the amount of damage they'd done to him to what they must have endured before his encounter with the car. Was it even close?
The next thing he knew, there was a searing wave of pain... not from the explosion, but from his body as it pieced itself back together afterwards. The pain was so bad that he only felt it for an instant before he blacked out.
He felt it again a few seconds later... with the same result.
The process repeated five... six times before Jerome's mind could handle it. By then is was mostly over.
His skin was just reforming.... steadily darkening layers sprouting over the fresh muscle and exposed nerve endings. His eyes were still filling with fluid, and new teeth were pushing their way out of his fresh, tender gums. He couldn't see or hear yet. He was still probably a minute away from hair and fingernails... and external sexual organs... but he could move.
When he finally pushed the pain out of his mind, concentrated on trying to figure out what had happened. The bomb had obviously worked... thank God for the internet. But did it WORK? How much damage did it do? How much did it do to HIM!? He had no idea... but then that wasn't what he should be worried about. What did it do to the Young Ones?
Hearing and sight both returned at about same time. They both started out as a new and different kind of pain that quickly resolved itself into sight and sound. He was laying in the grass amid a pile of rubble. None of it looked like it came from the van... which was strange considering he had been INSIDE of it when it went off. He was naked. And hot. He heard what sounded like fire engines in the distance. Here? Jerome didn't even know the fire department CAME to this neighborhood.
Or was even still IN the same neighborhood.
The debris shifted a few yards to his right. Something moved... a figure emerged. A teenager. Naked. Covered with blood. Jerome recognized him as the one who'd been climbing through the windshield earlier.
And like Jerome, he was very much alive.
"Fuck," said Jerome... the first word out of his new mouth.
The boy opened his eyes wide... and then fell down onto his hands and knees. He began coughing violently, like he was trying to dislodge a lung... and then a large clot of something flew out of the boy's mouth.
The boy hacked up his own desiccating innards right before Jerome's eyes. After a moment, he collapsed, and his body threw up a cloud of dust. A second later it was gone.
Jerome was so enraptured by the display that he never saw or heard the arm until it burst from the debris and clamped around his ankle.
Jerome hopped backwards, and fell down hard. He grabbed the arm and pulled it free... it was attached to a shoulder, head and torso. Neither of them were recognizable, but all were too big to be Skinny and too small to be Axeman. Whoever it was, their regeneration had halted at the abdomen, and now they were turning to dust.
The hand squeezed Jerome's ankle... involuntary convulsion... and then the fingers snapped off and the whole arm disintegrated.
"...Jesus Christ..." mumbled Jerome. Two gone, right next to him. But where were the others?
Jerome got up and stumbled towards the street. He was on a hill, several blocks away from the explosion. He looked behind him.... there was nothing but a large crater where the van had been. The house where he'd been tortured, and the houses immediately surrounding it were gone. Not even rubble or debris remained.... just a large smoking hole in the ground. Around it was a ring of smoldering junk. Other houses were demolished. Cars and buildings looked like the burnt-out husks he'd seen on CNN footage of Beirut or Lebanon.
The fire trucks arrived, and the fireman hopped out and began extinguishing the small fires and looking for survivors. Jerome hoped they didn't find too many. It didn't matter if they'd made The Deal or not, there was nobody in this area except Young Ones and affiliated scum.
Jerome lurched down the street, trying to make it to the trees. His other van was nearby. Too bad there weren't any clothes in it.
Jerome found the van, got inside, and rested his forehead on the steering wheel.
"What now?" he sighed. He listened to the far-off sounds of he firemen for a while, then he started his van and pulled out onto the street. He had no idea where he was going... His apartment was out of the question, and his parents would probably be under surveillance. He could live on the streets... but probably not in this city. Sooner or later the police would catch up with him, and he didn't want to risk a gunfight after already having been literally beaten to a pulp and blown to pieces. But perhaps it would be best NOT to be found driving a van full of stolen weapons when they DID find him.
Jerome hit the brakes. There was a car in the middle of the road... a red car with police lights on the top and "Fire Department" stenciled on the side. The fire marshal must have been blocking off roads... but why was there no one in the car?
Jerome opened his door, then immediatly closed it again. He'd find another way around. He looked in his rear-view mirror and saw two people standing behind him. One was large and bulky, and one was rather slim. They were wearing uniforms, but Jerome couldn't tell what type in the dark. He COULD see that the clothes didn't even come close to fitting correctly.
They started walking towards the van.
Jerome hit the accelerator and plowed through the abandoned car. The van roared down the street. He'd hit sixty miles per hour before he glanced in the rear-view mirror. He wasn't the least bit surprised to see the two men still behind him.
And gaining fast.
One leapt for the rear of the van....
Jerome reached for a weapon... ANY weapon...
The van's rear door vanished... ripped off, and thrown aside. Axeman thrust his head into the van...
"Guess what mothafucka!"
Part Eleven: Game Over
Jerome grabbed the shotgun from the seat beside him and stood on the breaks. The van's wheels locked, and the vehicle screeched to a sudden halt, throwing everything that wasn't secured toward the front. Heavy boxes slammed into the back of Jerome's chair, and Axeman flew through the front windshield. He rolled to a stop on the street in front of the van. He looked up at the van.
Jerome's foot pressed the accelerator to the floor.
The heavy van rolled over him and kept going... picking up speed as it headed towards the highway.
Something landed on the roof. Jerome grabbed the shotgun from the floor and fired a single blast of buckshot up through the van's metal top. The recoil made him loose control, and the van swerved violently.
Skinny, the leader of the now-defunct Young Ones, slid off of the van and hit the brick wall of a building beside the road. Jerome turned the steering wheel hard, and the rear of the van skidded around. He was now facing the way he had just come, looking at Axeman charging straight towards him.
Jerome calmly pumped another shell into the shotgun's chamber-
Axeman leapt for the van's broken windshield.
Axeman was out on the street again... minus his face and a good portion of his skull.
They both began to reform as Jerome watched.
Dammit, what the HELL is this! There's no WAY they could still be alive!
The passenger side door disappeared, and Skinny jumped into the van.
Skinny jerked backwards, but managed to grab onto the side of the van
Jerome put the van into reverse and floored it, dragging the bleeding Skinny across the asphalt. Jerome couldn't see where he was going, but at this point it didn't matter. Axeman was up and running straight for him...
Jerome jerked the steering wheel hard while putting his foot to the floor. The van went up on two wheels, came back down again, spun completely around, and slammed side-long into a brick wall. Skinny was crushed like a insect, blood and a chunks of flesh splattered Jerome. And yet, he was already beginning to regenerate. Jagged, exposed bones were receding into the crushed body cavity. Skinny's head thrust into the passenger side window.
"Gonna have to do better than THAT, motherfu-"
Jerome floored the van once again, and kept the steering wheel turned slightly to the right as he sped down the street... grinding Skinny between the wall and the side of the van. The sparks flew as the friction reduced him to a long red smear down the bricks.
Between the screeching of the tires and the scraping of the van against the wall, Jerome didn't hear the noise on the van's roof until the Axeman started tearing a huge hole in it with his bare hands. Jerome looked up, but before he could do anything but grab the shotgun, Axeman reached in, clamped down on his shoulder, and yanked him up through the hole. Axeman cracked the bones in Jerome's right shoulder with one strong squeeze, then threw him down onto the top of the van.
Axeman reached for Jerome, and Jerome brought the shotgun around.
The blast was wild and unaimed... ripping a hole in Axeman's side, but doing no other damage. Axeman snatched the gun from Jerome's fingers.
"Remember this from the cafe?"
He raised the gun over his had and brought it down barrel-first... right through Jerome's upper abdomen.
The gun tore through his body, and through the roof of the van as well. Jerome was impaled... stuck to the top of the vehicle by his own gun. His head spun... dizzy from the pain and the blood pumping out of his ruptured gut. He didn't know how much damage he could repair before his energy was used up... but after the torture and the explosion he had to be close. How much more could he take? And what about the Young Ones? They MUST have taken a lot more damage than he did. The others had expired... but why not THESE two?
"You're... you're supposed to be dead," said Jerome between grunts of pain. His stomach was trying to repair itself, but it couldn't due to the continued presence of the shotgun barrel. "I blew you up. I blew you ALL up!"
"Consider this an encore presentation, motherfucker. Extra innings and shit!"
Axeman grabbed the butt of the shotgun and shoved it further into Jerome's gut.
"You can't fuck wit the Young Ones, bitch! We don't DIE! REAL niggas don't die! We got CONNECTIONS, bitch! You can't FUCK wit us!"
"...that bastard... he gave you... more... time..."
"Yeah... JUST to come back and FUCK YOU UP!"
Jerome screamed as the psychotic gang member shoved the shotgun even further into him. The trigger was now resting on his skin... the entire barrel was sticking through his flesh and protruding through his back and into the van.
Jerome's mind reeled with pain and realization. Realization that he was going to die... and that his death would mean absolutely nothing. He had been used. It was all a game. A spectator sport where the spectators could change the rules at their leisure. He thought he was going to do some good... but all he had been was cheap entertainment.
"Now guess what I'm gonna do," said Axeman. "I'm gonna pull your fuckin' head off.. .and when it grows back, I'm gonna pull it off again... and again..."
Axeman reached down with both hands and grabbed Jerome's head.
"...and again! If the man wants a show, then I'm gonna give 'im a goddamn show!"
Jerome grabbed Axeman's forearms, then reached higher to grab him just above the elbows.
"You're forgetting one thing," said Jerome through clenched teeth. "He told ME that I could be as strong as my imagination. And right now I'm imagining I'm strong enough to pull both your arms off."
Axeman stumbled backwards, waving the spurting stumps that were his arms. Still screaming, he slipped and fell off of the van. Jerome was still holding the man's arms, which continued to pump blood all over him. He dropped the limbs and grabbed the shotgun that was holding him to the van. He pulled it out.
Jerome tried to stand, but lost his balance and fell. He rolled off of the van, and hit the street hard. His shoulder shattered, but the pain was nothing compared to his gut rebuilding itself. A few feet away, Axeman was trying to stand. Jerome swept his legs and tripped him. With no arms to break his fall, Axeman's head hit the street with an audible crunch. Jerome rolled over and, still suffering from his own wounds, grabbed Axeman by the neck. His throat turned to mush beneath Jerome's hands.
Suddenly the van moved. It jerked away from the wall as if being pushed from the other side. But the only thing over there was the brick wall and...
Jerome jumped up and pushed the van back as hard as he could.
He heard a grunt from the other side, and the van moved away from the wall again. Jerome pushed it back...
Behind him, Axeman was rolling over... still very much alive. In just a few seconds it would be two against one.
Jerome leaned into the open driver's side door and grabbed the .357 that was lodged under the seat. He turned-
And put a bullet in Axeman's head. He fell, but immediately began to get up.
POW! POW! POW!
Axeman collapsed, blood spewed from his head. His arms continued to grow back.
The van lurched suddenly, slamming into Jerome and knocking him forward. Jerome stumbled, then turned to look. Skinny was still pushing the van back, trying to free himself. He was almost completely regenerated... all he was missing was the majority of his skin.
Jerome backed away. Skinny stumbled from behind the van. Axeman's legs twitched.
Jerome heard police sirens in the distance. He continued to move back.
"Yo, punk!" hissed Skinny. His lips hadn't finished growing back. "This shit ain't over!"
"We'll see about that."
Jerome fired at the van's gas tank. The first shot ruptured the tank, and gas began to pour out of it. Just as Skinny's head was turning towards the van, Jerome's second shot ignited it.
The tank exploded, creating a violent fireball that engulfed Skinny and Axeman, and sent waves of searing heat washing over Jerome. He felt his skin blister and char. Jerome ran to a safe distance, and had just
reached an alley when the guns and boxes of ammunition in the van began to ignite from the heat.
It was like an insane fireworks display. Bullets and shells perforated what little was left of the van. The deadly missiles ricocheted off of the wall and the street, going off in every conceivable direction. Jerome threw himself to the ground as a few rounds whizzed past his ear.
The fireball continued to consume the van. The police sirens got closer.
And then they emerged.
Two shapes walked out of the inferno. They were both on fire... dark forms outlined in the flickering flames that consumed them. One was thin. The other large. Jerome couldn't see their faces... if they even HAD faces... but he knew that it wasn't over. They were walking straight for him. Jerome raised his gun and fired at Skinny.
The gun was empty.
But that didn't stop Skinny from faltering... stumbling... and finally falling to the ground. Axeman stopped to look at his cohort, but even from a distance, Jerome could tell that Skinny was gone. His body was dissolving... the flames died suddenly as the flesh on which they fed quickly turned to fine gray ash.
Axeman looked up at Jerome and started towards him again.
Four police cars skidded around the corner and screeched to a halt. Police officers leapt out and pulled their guns as two more cars approached from the other direction.
"FREEZE!" one of them yelled.
"My GOD, he's on FIRE!"
Axeman just looked at them.
"DON'T MOVE, ASSHOLE!!"
"Somebody call paramedics!"
"Hands in the air RIGHT NOW!"
Jerome wanted to scream at them... tell them to fire on the living horror before it slaughtered them all. But that would give his position away. They'd just as likely fire on HIM as they would a flaming, presumably injured man.
"Who the FUCK ARE YOU!" Bellowed Axeman. "FUCKIN' COPS! CAN'T NONE OF YA'LL FUCK WITH ME! YOU HEAR ME! COME ON! COME ONN!!"
Axeman charged the first police car. At he same instant, another volley of ammunition erupted from the still-burning van.
That was all it took.
Every police officer opened fire at once. The hail of bullets knocked Axeman backwards, but he didn't fall. Axeman stood there and took it as the Atlanta police... true to their reputation... kept on shooting. Bullets tore his flaming flesh to shreds. His head flew backwards as some marksman blew the brains right out of his skull. Jerome watched as several uniformed men retrieved riot-shotguns from their trunks and opened fire with buckshot. Police on the other side of him set up a crossfire. Axeman looked like he was dancing now... jerking involuntarily as the bullets tore hem to pieces. Finally he fell. The gunfire didn't stop until he'd been on the ground for ten seconds or more... by which time he was a smoking hunk of charred flesh with enough lead in it to stop a thermonuclear blast.
Cautiously, two cops approached with their weapons drawn. Jerome watched as they stood over the body. One nudged it with the tip of his boot.
Axeman reached out and grabbed the officer's leg.
The officer fired into Axeman's back. The second offer pulled his nightstick and brought it down onto his neck.
Axeman collapsed... but only for a second. He reached for the second cop.
Officers swarmed over Axeman, and soon the night was alive with the sound of swinging nightsticks and cracking bones.
"HE'S GETTING UP!"
"His LEGS! GET HIS LEGS!"
"BREAK HIS BACK!"
"KICK HIS ASS!"
"...my God..." Jerome watched in horror as the nightsticks went up and came down repeatedly... over and over... again and again... each with as much force as the arm swinging it could muster. His stomach, only recently healed, heaved. The brutality of the cops had always been a humorless joke... something to read about in the paper and promptly forget because it didn't happen to anybody you knew.... but now that he was actually seeing it with his own eyes it made him sick. But then he had to remember who... or what.. was underneath that pile of bloodthirsty cops.
The irony wasn't lost on Jerome.
This is how it all started, he thought. Just like this. Exactly like this.
"BEAT HIM! BEAT HIS ASS!"
"GOT YOUR ASS NOW! HIT HIM!"
"KICK HIS FUCKING ASS!"
"What the FUCK?!"
Suddenly the curtain of blue parted, and a small plume of gray ash erupted before them. It got all over them... on their uniforms... in their hair. Some tried to breathe it, resulting in fits of violent coughing.
"FUCK!" said one of the cops.
They backed away and watched as the dust settled. There was no body left. No blood. Nothing but the dust that covered some of them from head to foot.
"All right," said another cop. "What the fuck just happened here?"
"Game over," Jerome whispered. He eased away from the mouth of the alley and disappeared into the shadows.
Don Ross wished he could see out of the window. He'd always liked the outdoors, even in the city. He imagined that the view from his seventh-floor hospital room was spectacular... or at least much better than the fake art that stared back at him from the opposite wall.
He'd had the dream again. Rock climbing in the mountains of north Georgia.. How ironic. He could climb every mountain in the southeast with no problem, but one drunk driver could end everything. Paralyzed. He couldn't believe it. His mind couldn't accept it even with the complete absence of any sensations below his neck. Not one muscle spasm. Not one itch. Nothing.
And he couldn't even turn his head toward the window. All he could see was the opposite wall and the closet beside the door.
Don closed his eyes. He was still undecided as to whether he WANTED to have the rock -climbing dream again, or if he'd be better off not punishing himself with visions of things he'd never do again. When he opened his eyes it was as if he'd never been asleep. But he had... he MUST have, because the room felt different. It was cold... no, hot... no... both? The air smelt stale, and everything felt... frozen somehow. It was darker than it was before, even though the lights had been off in the room for the whole time.
And there was a shadow.
Someone standing at the foot of the bed. Don was looking right at him, but still couldn't make out the details of his face. The man's body was shaped wrong, though... strange.... strange in a malicious sort of way.
"Who are you?" said Don.
The man made a sound like a loud hiss. Don would have winced if he could. What was it... some kind of snake the man had? Or a machine of some sort? It took Don a second to realize that the noise was forming patterns... words... someone was speaking to him.
"Get up," said the visitor.
"Who are you?"
Suddenly, the closet door burst open and ANOTHER shadow flew out of it. It was only a few feet away from the man at the foot of the bed, yet it covered that distance with almost superhuman speed. Don saw something in the man's hand. Knife? Gun? The first man turned to look just as the second man collided with him.
The blade sank deep into the first man's chest. The resulting hiss was like the bellow of some great, unholy beast. He raised his misshapen hands, but the second man still had the advantage of momentum. He propelled them both backward toward the window, and out of Don's field of vision. Don head the man shouting
"Recruiting for another GAME!? Here... how about YOU and ME play this time! I'll go FIRST!"
Don heard a gunshot. Large caliber. And then more hissing. Another gunshot.
Then the sound of breaking of glass as both 'men' went through the seventh-story window, presumably tumbling to their deaths on the street far below.
The peculiar quality of the room suddenly vanished. The air resumed its 'hospital' smell, and the temperature returned to normal.
"What the fuck?" whispered Don as his mind tried to make sense of the past few minutes.
It all seemed like a dream. A dream so quick that Don didn't even have time to be afraid. But it was a dream that didn't properly clean up after itself. The closet door was wide open, and there was the light scent of gunpowder in the room. But it couldn't possibly have been real, could it? It was his imagination, right?
Don felt the cool breeze blowing onto his face through the shattered window, and wondered.