Thursday, July 9, 2015

Beware the Death Angel (From The Misunderstood and Other Misfit Horrors)

Everyone likes free stuff, right? 

How about one of the stories from my new collection, The Misunderstood and Other Misfit Horrors

This story has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies over the years.  It also forms the basis for a novel that I'm writing now that will incidentally be Book 2 of The Halo Group Series (Book 1 is The Tears of Nero)

So without further ado, here's Beware the Death Angel!  Happy reading!

 Beware The Death Angel

Heaps of dead leaves lined the streets of Smith’s Junction. Scarecrows, crudely fashioned out of broomsticks and old clothing, stood watch over the neighborhood. Fake spider-webbing clung to the eaves of each house like a fine layer of graveyard mist. White garbage bags filled with confetti had been made to look like ghosts floating above each roof. Stray strands of toilet paper dangled from a tree here and there-the remnants of teenage mischief. There was no denying that this was October country.
Wallace piloted his Buick through dark streets like the ferryman’s skiff through black waters. He kept waiting for his headlights to outline the small moving shape of a superhero or ballerina or a zombie with a meat cleaver buried in its head, but there didn’t seem to be any kids out yet. He checked his watch. Nearly 7:30. Weird.
He turned off on the boulevard, hoping to dodge as much Halloween traffic as possible. Above all else, he didn’t want to get trapped in a convoy of mini-vans. That didn’t seem to be a problem. The street was deserted, but it was far from empty.
Although they had lived in this town for a month now, Wallace still hadn’t gotten used to the way people in the South piled their trash at the edge of the street. Normally they just put out the customary bags of garbage in black bags. Tonight, however, the people of Smith’s Junction had put out everything but the kitchen sink…and upon closer inspection there were even one or two of those as well.
Old freezers, rusty wagons, wheelbarrows, galvanized metal buckets, trash cans, and a few discolored Igloo ice chests flanked either side of the blacktop. Wallace hadn’t lived here long enough to know if tomorrow was pick-up day or not. Still, it seemed like an awful lot of junk for one truck to haul. And this was a small town. One truck was all they had.
He was just thinking about how much he disliked this prideless community when his cell phone rang. The unexpectedness of the call made him jump. He didn’t have to look at the I.D. to know it was Martha. She was the only one here who knew his number. For that matter, she was probably the only one in this hick town who even knew how to operate a cell phone.
“Hey babe,” he said gruffly into the telephone.
“I need you to do me a favor,” Martha said, getting right to the point.
Wallace sighed. “I’m tired, sweetheart. I had a mess to deal with at work. Can’t I just come home to you for a while?”
“We don’t have any candy,” Martha said, unsympathetic to her husband’s problems. “I need you to go to the store and pick some up. This is our first Halloween in town.”
“I’m tired,” Wallace repeated. “I don’t really want to see any kids. Most of ‘em probably don’t have teeth anyway. This is the South, remember?”
“I’m from the South,” Martha said firmly. “You didn’t seem to have any problems with me when we first met. I wasn’t barefoot, clad in overalls, and snaggle-toothed.”
“No,” Wallace sighed, remembering the sight of her on the day they met. “You weren’t. But that’s beside the point. Do I really have to go to the store before coming home?”
“I’ll give you a kiss for each piece of candy you bring home. And if you‘re good maybe you‘ll get a bigger treat at the end of the night instead of a trick.”
Wallace smiled. He hated the way she could manipulate him sometimes.
Knowing it was useless to put off the inevitable, he turned the Buick around and headed to the market. Given that it was Halloween, he hoped the store would be deserted so he could make his purchase and run. But the parking lot was packed with people.
Disgusted after several minutes of circling the parking lot in search of a spot, Wallace had to park on the other side of the street and walk over to the store. He recognized a few of the faces inside, but he didn’t know anybody’s name. They all stared at him with curiosity then turned their attentions back to the meat counter where the majority of the customers were gathered. Wallace snarled at the hicks. He hated this town.
The shelves of Halloween candy were surprisingly full. Nobody seemed to give a rip about treating the children to a mouthful of cavities. They were more interested in what the butcher had to offer. The townspeople all looked like they were getting ready for a cookout, buying ribs and cutlets and sirloins and roasts. Strangely enough, the shelves with charcoal and lighter fluid were full too.
Wallace supposed there might be some sort of tradition in the town that he hadn’t heard about, a Halloween festival or something. But the stern, worried expressions on each face made him think otherwise. These people didn’t look like they were preparing for a good time. Instead, they wore the masks of mourners picking out graveside flowers in a florist’s shop.
“OK, folks,” the ruddy-faced butcher behind the counter said. “I’m down to a ribeye and three pounds of hamburger.”
A gangly man wearing a grease-stained work shirt stepped up to the counter. “I’ll take it all.”
The groans of disapproval from the crowd were immediate.
“You don’t need that much, Luke,” an old woman wearing a pillbox hat spoke up. “One pound of hamburger will suffice. What will the rest of us do come nightfall?”
“I don’t care,” Luke replied, slamming his money down on the counter as the butcher hesitantly wrapped all the meat in white paper. “Better to be safe than sorry.”
Like The Pied Piper, Luke left the store with at least a dozen people following along behind him. It was apparent in the way they muttered and shuffled along that they weren’t happy.
“I’ll give you $50 for that ribeye,” one man said as the mob surrounded Luke.
“Seventy-five,” another spoke up.
The little old woman with the pillbox hat quickly rifled through her purse. At last she pulled out a wad of fives and tens and counted it with the skill and ease of a bank teller. “A hundred and five is all I’ve got,” she said. “Sell it to me.”
Luke, seeing an opportunity to make a little profit, sold the ribeye and began systematically auctioning off the other two pounds of hamburger he’d just bought. He kept only one pound of hamburger for himself.
“What is the big deal?” Wallace asked the butcher. “You sell out like this every day?”
The butcher wiped his greasy hands on his blood-stained apron and leaned over the counter. “Not everyday. Just on Halloween. Today’s special. Always has been.”
“And why is that?” Wallace asked. Suddenly, all he wanted to do was to pick up Martha’s bag of candy and get home to his recliner.
“The Death Angel’s coming tonight,” the butcher said cryptically. “You’d do well to beware.”
“Fine, Moses. If you don’t want to let the new guy in on the secret, that’s o.k. with me. You don’t have to patronize.”
“I’m serious,” the butcher said, leaning over the counter to whisper his caveat. “Beware The Death Angel.” Something about the way he looked at Wallace made him realize the man truly believed what he was saying.
“All I came in here for is some Halloween candy for the kids,” Wallace said, picking up a bag of bite-sized Snickers. “I’ll just pay for this and leave you alone. You’ve obviously had a stressful day.”
“You’ll need more than candy,” the butcher said. “The Death Angel needs flesh and blood. He’ll get it one way or the other. If you don’t leave something for him, he’ll take what he wants. You may not be happy with that outcome.”
Outside a fight had erupted over the last pound of hamburger meat. Two mechanics were slugging it out like prize-fighters. Apparently they believed in the Death Angel just as much as the butcher. Wallace wasn’t buying it. It was probably some hillbilly trick these inbreds were playing on him because he was from the city.
“You’d better leave something for The Death Angel,” the butcher said as Wallace headed to his car. “Otherwise, this may be the first and last time we meet.”
“Only if I’m lucky,” Wallace muttered as he got in his Buick. Chunks of raw hamburger clung to his windshield like slugs, sliding slowly down the glass and leaving a slick spot in their wake. The remnants of that last pound of hamburger meat lay on the sidewalk. Obviously, both men had been so determined to get the meat for themselves that they had torn the package. Still, it looked like a lot of the meat had been scooped up and carried away. Ants had started to claim what was left.
Cursing, Wallace turned on his wipers and shot some washer fluid onto the glass. It just made a bigger mess. But after several minutes the windshield was clear enough to see through. Wallace threw the Buick in reverse and headed home.
Unlike before, there were people on the streets, but they weren’t trick-or-treating. They were carrying the meat they’d bought at Johnson’s Market out to the edge of the road and dumping it into the wagons, ice chests, buckets, and old freezers that Wallace had mistakenly confused for junk.
Although it was foolish, the scene reminded him of those days long ago when he would spend a week with his grandfather on the farm. They had done something very similar when filling the troughs with animal feed.
“The Death Angel,” Wallace muttered to himself. “You can tell we’re living in the Bible Belt. Wait until Martha hears about this.”
But Martha was busy dragging Wallace’s massive toolbox out to the side of the road.
“What are you doing?” Wallace asked, slamming the car door. “That’s my toolbox you’re scraping against the ground.”
“I know you’re going to think I’m crazy, but I’ve got something to tell you.”
“The Death Angel?” he asked.
“You heard it too, then?”
“You’re not going to tell me you believe it, are you?”
Martha looked at Wallace sternly. “It’s just a little raw meat, Wallace. It’s not like we’d be throwing our life’s savings out the window. The story might be true, and it might not be. But it’s a small price to pay for safety.”
“We’re not doing it. Put my toolbox back where it was. I don’t want a bunch of maggots crawling around in it before I even get to use it once.”
Martha stood up straight and glared at her husband. “I’m leaving it where it is. I’ll buy you a new one tomorrow.”
“Absolutely not. This is ridiculous.”
“Wallace, for once could you just go along with what I want to do? Even if it seems foolish.”
Wallace sighed and shrugged his shoulders. “Do whatever you want. You usually do anyway. Here’s your candy.”
Martha took the bag of Snickers and walked back toward the house.
“Oh, there’s one more thing,” Wallace said with obvious satisfaction. “I ate the last steak yesterday while you were out job hunting. And I can’t go and buy any more because the market is sold out. So I guess you won’t be able to do what you want after all.”
“What are we going to do?” Martha asked, suddenly fearful.
“We’re going to live our lives like we always do and prove to these honky-tonk bumpkins that they’re wasting their time.”
“Why don’t we just get in the car and go somewhere nice tonight,” Martha said. “Maybe go into Fairpointe and catch a horror flick for Halloween. Then we could rent a hotel room and enjoy ourselves. It would be so spontaneous. Not at all like the routine we normally lead.”
Wallace could feel his face turning red. “We’re not doing that because there’s no reason to. We’re not leaving our home because the citizens of Mayberry think the bogeyman’s coming out tonight.”
Livid, Martha stomped back inside. Wallace thought about moving his toolbox and then decided to wait until after he’d eaten supper. He was hungry. The toolbox could wait.
Martha didn’t say much during their meal. The doorbell didn’t ring either despite leaving the porch light on to hopefully attract a few sugar-hungry children. The unopened bag of Snickers sat in a kettle by the door.
“It’s odd, isn’t it?” Wallace said, trying to break through Martha’s icy mood. “No children trick-or-treating on Halloween night.”
“The town’s scared,” Martha said firmly. “No parent in their right mind would let their kids go out when something dangerous is skulking around the neighborhoods.”
“OK, let’s cut through all this superstitious garbage. How did you find out about all of this in the first place?”
“The Jacksons next door. I saw Tina dragging an old washtub out to the side of the road. I went to help her and asked what she was doing. That’s when she told me about the Death Angel.”
“And everything that Tina Jackson says is absolutely 100% true?” Wallace said before filling his mouth with a spoonful of mashed potatoes. “You’ve only known this woman a couple of weeks. She could be a paranoid schizophrenic or something. You don’t know.”
“I believe her,” Martha said grimly. “She said the Death Angel took one of her kids. She even showed me pictures of the little girl. Blonde hair. Green eyes. Pigtails. Missing since October 31st, three years ago. That was the year the Jacksons moved here.”
“Why didn’t they pack up their stuff and leave after the Death Angel took their child?”
“They thought she might have been kidnapped by one of the local rednecks and hoped they would get her back. Still do, I guess. Moving away would be a sign of giving up. Even now, I’m not sure they completely believe in the Death Angel. But it’s the explanation everyone else uses when rationalizing the girl’s disappearance.”
“This town is strange,” Wallace said, shaking his head. “We’re moving away from here the first chance we get. Tomorrow, in fact. I can’t stand the thought of living here.”
“Let’s be reasonable,” Martha pleaded. “We haven’t given this place a chance yet.”
“Because it doesn’t deserve one,” Wallace fumed, backing away from the dinner table.
They didn’t say anything to each other for the next couple of hours. Wallace watched an old John Wayne movie on TV. Martha busied herself with cleaning up the kitchen and washing a few loads of clothes. Neither of them mentioned the Death Angel although it was apparent that The Sands of Iwo Jima and dirty socks were the last things on their minds.
When they went to bed, Wallace faced one wall and Martha faced the other. There was more distance than love between them that night.
“11:40,” Wallace muttered, looking at the clock before shutting his eyes. “Seven o’clock is going to come early in the morning.” Martha didn’t reply.
The icy silence between them was broken at eleven-fifty when the screaming started.
At first Wallace wasn’t even sure he’d heard it. It was only as he sat up in bed and saw that Martha was awake too that he knew it was real.
“It’s just somebody playing a Halloween prank or maybe one of those haunted house soundtracks with all the screaming and rattling chains.”
“You know it isn’t,” Martha said. Even in the dark, Wallace could see how pale her face had become. She was trembling.
Wallace threw the comforter back and stumbled over to the window. Looking out, he couldn’t see anything. But the noises outside were louder. Trashcans and galvanized buckets were being knocked over. The noise was akin to the sound of a baseball bat smashing against a metal mailbox.
“Dogs,” Wallace said. “Just a pack of strays out there trying to get at the meat everyone’s been putting out. Or raccoons maybe. It’s bound to happen. Let’s go back to bed.”
“I can’t sleep with all that’s going on,” Martha said, slipping into her housecoat. “I’ve got to find something to put out and quick.”
Before Wallace could protest, she was already bounding down the stairs, heading for the kitchen. When he finally caught up to her, she was throwing icy bags of peas and carrots out of the freezer.
“What on earth are you doing?” he asked her.
Martha whirled on him. “I don’t have time to argue with you. The Death Angel will be here soon. I think there may be a bag of frozen pork chops up here somewhere.”
“Will you get hold of yourself?” Wallace growled, grabbing Martha by the arm and dragging her away from the refrigerator. She pulled away and began hurling ice trays across the kitchen in an attempt to unearth any stray scrap of meat that she might have missed.
“Martha, stop!” Wallace shouted, more worried than angry now. He’d never seen his wife act like this, and it scared him.
But Martha didn’t stop, and neither did the screaming from up the street. Only when the freezer was completely empty and the refrigerator’s shelves were bare did Martha allow herself to rest.
Wallace wasn’t sure how to proceed, but he did the only thing he knew. He kissed Martha on top of her head and pulled her close to him.
“Things will be fine,” he told her. “Just give it a little time. It will be morning before you know it.”
“I wonder how many people won’t be around to see morning,” Martha said. Wallace suddenly couldn’t help himself. She was being foolish, and he was tired of it. One way or another, he was going to knock this lunacy out of her head.
“I don’t want to hear another word about this,” he shouted, holding Martha at arm’s length.
“Then go upstairs,” she told him firmly.
And that was it. Wallace had had enough. He grabbed her firmly by the wrist. “Let’s go,” he growled. “We’re going to go outside and prove to you that there isn’t anything to be afraid of.”
“No,” Martha screamed, frantic.
But Wallace was stronger. Because Martha’s houseshoes gave her very little traction on the linoleum, she slid across the floor. Wallace didn’t stop pulling.
“Let’s go and see the Death Angel,” he said. “This should prove once and for all just how paranoid and backwoods this town is.”
Martha, however, had other ideas. She managed to grab one of the fireplace implements as Wallace dragged her toward the door. Before he could raise a hand to block her attack, Martha clubbed him in the back of the head. Wallace went down hard, immediately releasing his grip on his wife.
At that moment, she knew that she had to make a decision. And quickly. The Death Angel would be making his way down the street, taking the offerings from those who left one and taking the lives of those who hadn’t. There was no meat to be found in their house. But there was one alternative. It was her only chance at survival. Martha wasn’t quite ready to die yet.
* * *
Wallace opened his eyes slowly and was unsure of where he was at first. It was dark, and he seemed to be stuck in some sort of hole. But that wasn’t entirely right either as he realized that he was sitting in his oversized toolbox. Martha had knocked him out and somehow managed to drag him out here.
He could feel the rage building in him and struggled frantically to free himself from the work box. She had thrown him out with the belief that the Death Angel would take him instead of her, and it infuriated him. One, because she had bought in to the whole nonsense. Two, because it showed how selfish she really was.
Wallace stopped struggling when he heard Mrs. Olson from two houses down sobbing uncontrollably.
“Please don’t take Charlie,” she pleaded. “He’s all I’ve got. I put out a pot roast for you. Honest, I did. Someone must have stolen it.”
And then the lamentations started afresh.
Wallace strained to see who she was talking to, but all he could see was a dark furtive shape like smoke, a hazy black mist hovering around the empty toy wagon. Then the smoke began to clear. A pair of strong, translucent wings materialized from the smog. They were attached to a muscular frame made of black leather. Strong legs, powerful torso, arms that ended not in hands but in talons. A demon’s face with a masochist’s smile. White fangs tinted red. Yellow eyes. Two small spiraling horns ending in sharp points. A fallen angel in every sense of the word. It looked like something out of Gustave Dore’s depictions of Hell.
The Death Angel smiled at Wallace and headed in his direction.
“No,” he muttered to himself as he tried to free himself. It was only as he struggled that he realized Martha had bound his hands and feet with duct tape.
The Death Angel came closer, morphing into black fog that crept and eddied along the ground. It was like watching a brewing thunderhead form and churn.
“Martha,” Wallace screamed, hoping his wife would come to her senses and help him. But Martha made no move to come out of the house.
Wallace craned his neck to search for her and saw her worried face staring back at him from one of the upstairs windows. She quickly pulled the curtains shut, unwilling to watch what was about to happen to her husband.
Thankfully, the Death Angel was methodical and stopped one house down. Wallace tried to stand up and hop toward the house. But Martha had been thorough with the way she bound him. He managed to wriggle out of the truckbox only to fall flat on his face. The grass was wet and moist against his cheek.
“Martha,” he screamed. But the light in the upstairs room went off. Like a frightened turtle, Martha wasn’t sticking her head out until she was certain the coast was clear.
Wallace managed to turn himself over and watched in horror as the dark creature stuck its slanted head into what might have been a feeding trough and began to eat the raw meat. For a moment or two there was only the ripping of animal flesh and the smacking of black lips.
Then Wallace saw The Death Angel lift its head and look at him once again. He could tell by the way it bared its teeth that it was smiling. It had probably been quite a while since it had gotten a live offering.
He opened his mouth to scream when he heard something behind him. It was Martha with a pair of scissors.
“Hurry,” Wallace implored, watching the beast as it stalked him. Martha held up the scissors as the dark fog wrapped them up like a thick blanket.
“I should have listened to you,” Wallace said, trembling. “I’m sorry. Now cut me loose.”
“Oh, I didn’t come out here to cut you loose,” Martha said, keeping her eyes focused on the obsidian figure striding toward them. “I came here to make sure that it takes you instead of me.”
“What do you mean?” Wallace asked, horrified. “Let me go.”
“The Death Angel passes over the houses that offer it blood. So far as I can tell there’s no blood on you. Yet...”
Wallace screamed as Martha buried the scissors into his thigh. Immediately, crimson streams jettisoned into the air.
The Death Angel moved faster.
Wallace, seizing his only chance, lunged out at Martha with his bound feet. The kick hit her in the center of the chest, pushing her toward the beast. The Death Angel caught her and buried its teeth into her throat. The scream was short-lived, becoming little more than a watery gurgle.
Wallace cried out as he watched his wife fall to the ground. Most of her throat was gone, and her eyes had the faraway look of a morphine addict. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. But a split second of panic had changed everything.
And still the Death Angel moved forward. Wallace trembled as it stood before him, its mouth painted with Martha’s blood. He closed his eyes, waiting for the moment when it ripped his head away from his shoulders to get at the hot blood within. But that never happened. Instead, it moved quietly on to the next house. Martha had been sacrifice enough to save Wallace’s life, and he felt sick at the thought of what he had done. He had given his own partner over to the Death Angel, and he lived as a result. Yes, she had tied him up with the intent of offering him to the beast. But her mind had been clouded by fear, by the certainty that she was going to die if she didn’t do something quickly. The worst thing about it was that she hadn’t resorted to that immediately. She had wanted to put some meat out like everyone else had done. Wallace had been the one to squash that idea. Now his life had changed forever, and his wife was gone.
So much had gone wrong. Emotions had flared, and bad decisions had been made. Now there was nothing left to do but cope. Suddenly, Wallace thought he understood why the Jacksons hadn’t moved away yet. Maybe they realized what had taken their daughter and were simply unwilling to let her death go unavenged.
Despite their differences and the throbbing ache in his thigh where Martha had buried the scissors, Wallace had loved his wife and knew that her reactions had been the direct result of her fear. It saddened him to think that he could have prevented it all with a simple pork chop or a pound of raw hamburger. Or by simply taking her to the movies in the next town as she’d suggested.
Before he had been ready to leave town as quick as possible. Now he wasn’t sure he would ever leave. If need be, he would stay as many Halloweens as it took until he found the creature’s weakness. Then, he would kill it.
He raked his wrists along the rough edge of the toolbox until the duct tape frayed and eventually tore enough that he could free himself. Then, after pulling the scissors out of his thigh, staggering back to the house, and bandaging himself up, Wallace pulled up a lawn chair and sat out on his porch, listening to the wailing of families up and down the street who hadn’t heeded the warnings. He cried right along with them until the sun came up. Then he cried some more.


If you enjoyed the story, check other the other tales in the collection.  

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