Alright peeps… here it is – renamed, rejiggered and ready to rock. Hopefully this will be the last revision for the time being, but writing being a serious addiction just like sex, drugs or Rock n’ Roll… you never can tell. No longer are Sigfreid & Roy in danger of their lives being taken by an Indian midget and a pair of rabid tigers, instead…
Read on to check out BLOOD ON THE STRIP
BLOOD ON THE STRIP
By A.R. Howerton
The old cowboy tumbled through the front door of the diner, breathing hard – obviously panicked – and threw his back to the door behind him. His eyes darted across the confined space of the greasy spoon, then back again. He jerked around to take another look through the glass of the door, nervously hustling his face around the frosted logo that said ‘Georgia Rose Café’ in 20’s style block letters, frantically checking to see if somebody was coming up on his heels. A gleaming silver six-gun was held aloft in his left hand, pointed to the sky, the way TV cops did it in the 70’s. The inside of the café was quiet as a graveside as the scattered handful of customers and workers kept their eyes glued on this whirl of odd activity at the door.
The old man, sure that he wasn’t followed, sunk to the floor, like an exhausted fighter collapsing in the corner of the ring. As he turned to face the room again, a weight seemed to drop from his face, its relief pulling the tension from his frame and shrinking his body by inches. Someone coughed nervously, breaking the silence and the novelty of the old mans strange entrance. The diners, the busboy and the cook all turned back to their meals, their race sheets and the comfort of their palms on their faces. Vegas was a town full of weird on its very best day, and it had been a long time since anybody in the Georgia Rose had seen anything worthy of more than a passing interest.
The stranger pulled himself to a full, standing, six-and-a-half feet. He was thin and pushing through his seventies, but he had the tough, tensile rigidity that evinced a man who had known hard work. He straightened the clean white-straw hat on his head, smoothed the sleeves of his black western shirt and the downslopes of his oversized moustache. He twisted his head to one side, cracking his neck, and took a deep breath before striding to the lunch counter with the pistol at his side. He cast a single cautious glance behind him. By the time he reached a stool and parked himself, he seemed to have regained whatever composure he had lost before entering the diner. He stretched himself into the seat, leaning forward onto the counter, one foot planted solidly on the floor as he hooked the worn heel of the other dust-beaten boot in the circular footrest. He placed the heavy pistol on the counter, resting his hand over the polished wood handle of the butt of the gun.
“Can I get some coffee there, fella?” He said to no one in particular. His voice carried a thick West Texas twang with an almost undetectable tremble.
The cook stood behind the counter like an immovable wall of flesh. He was a heavy-set man with thick arms and a thick neck. He was bottom-heavy and his short, slightly bowed legs gave him the appearance of a hairless Grizzly. He stared at the stranger from mean, blunt eyes under dark, heavy brows.
“What you think you’re gonna do with that gun, old man? This ain’t the kind of place you wanna try to rob… if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“I just want some damn coffee. Ain’t startin’ no trouble.” The cowboy nodded submissively from under the wide white brim of his hat.
The cook grumbled, unfolded his meaty arms, stepped forward and muttered under his breath as he reached under the counter, coming up with a yellowing mug. He poured it full of dark liquid from a coffee pot that had seen its best days a few decades ago. The glass was stained in gradients of grey to black, getting darker as the rings got closer to the bottom of the pot. The old cowboy, turned his stool to take in the rest of the place. Glancing around the diner, he could see that the coffee pot made a matching set with the layers of mildew around the baseboards. His eyes moved over the six tables that made up the dining area, identical 50’s style formica-topped tables with aluminum chairs. It was the kind of standard-issue furniture of greasy spoons around the country, making every place seem like a sad copy of the last. Even in Las Vegas, shining symbol of optimistic greed, a place like the Georgia Rose still held the same sad faces you’d see in any other dive. On the left was a fat, balding, middle-aged man in a pink golf shirt and a giant garnet pinkie ring, pouring over the race sheet with three empty beer bottles and a half-eaten club sandwich in front of him. A young couple, dirty and desperate looking, sat huddled together, whispering harshly back and forth at the table nearest the door. On the right was a bruiser of a man, his heavily muscled torso barely contained inside a shiny purplish dress shirt with smatterings of diamond-shaped embroidery covering his mass like a bias-relief map. A tiny gold chain with a simple crucifix strained at the base of his neck. His black hair was slicked into an impeccable pompadour and gaudy rings adorned almost every one of his fingers, which impatiently tapped out rhythm on the tabletop. The front wall of the diner was floor-to-ceiling window, with the thin, metal-framed man-door in the middle. Every face in the room turned to face the windows, as if by mutual instinct, as a blur of lights and wailing alarms flew through the street outside. The old man turned away and sat with visible discomfort as the parade of sirens sped past. The cook let his gaze turn to the cowboy and spoke in a low growl.
“Guess if the cops were chasing you, you wouldn’t stop in here, now would ya? All the same, I don’t need any crooks or troublemakers in here. So what do you keep lookin’ for out that window, pops?” asked the cook as he hammered the cup of coffee down, spilling an easy quarter of the fluid on the counter around it. He kept his sharp eyes on the old man, ignoring the pool of coffee that steadily spread over the countertop.
The old man turned to face the cook, coming around slowly on the stool, his rheumy eyes hardening to a concrete stare as he leaned forward to respond, implying that his answer was for the cook alone. The cook leaned forward on the counter in kind and found himself transfixed by the intensity of the grey-green eyes staring back at him from the weathered face behind the big grey moustache.
“I ain’t one to tell tales now…”
“I’m not worried about your stories old man, just make sure you keep your hands off that pistol”. The cook leaned his bulk towards the cowboy as if to impose his point.
The cowboy looked from the cook to the pistol, then set his eyes down into the bottom of his cup.
“I ain’t aimin’ to cause no trouble here. I’ve seen enough crazy tonight to last 10 lifetimes.”
The old man’s voice was a gravelly whisper and the words seemed to hang in invitation. The cook could sense the foreboding in those words, but he’d always been more curious than he was cautious, and nodded for the cowboy to continue.
“Was over to that magic show – the one over at that Casino with all the animals and that fella in the white jumpsuit – The one used to be dirty and long-haired with the whore make-up? Now he’s doin’ the casino show, wearin’ a white jumpsuit full of glitter and a couple a white tigers to match.”
The cowboy took a long swallow from his cup and smacked his lips, wiping the excess from his moustache with his bottom lip.
“That’s some fine goddamn coffee right there. None of that fancy ven-see cup-a-cheen-as or lattays or whatever the hell they serve at them other places. Cain’t nearly even get a plain old cup’a joe no more.”
The cook quickly lost interest and turned to rest his wide back against the counter, flipping open a newspaper and ignoring the cowboy, hoping he would drink his coffee and leave if he paid no attention to the old crank. The old man paused, staring into the oily black pool in his cup, as another raucous choir of sirens charged past the diner. When quiet had fallen back over the room, the old man continued.
“Yep. Free tickets to keep ya spending money ‘stead of making it at the tables. Wrong goddamn show to see tonight… That’s fer fuckin’ sure. Never seen no crazier shit in all my days.”
The cook flipped and rustled the paper straight as he turned a page and shook his head in annoyance.
“Yeah, it’s a crazy magic show all right. That’s Vegas, Pops.”
The old man sneered. “T’weren’t the show. There was this spooky lookin’ East Indian was settin’ in the back of the theatre. Wearing one of them white suits with no collar, like James Coburn in them spy pictures.”
“Nero.” Said the bus boy, hustling back with an armful of greasy dishes and bottles full of cigarette butts.
“What?” Asked the cook. “Who the fuck was talking to you, Tommy?”
Tommy cowered slightly behind the pile of dirty plates and cups. He spoke in a timid, trembling voice.
“Nero. The guy was wearing a Nero suit.”
“There’s no such thing. It’s called a NEHRU suit, you retard. Go wash some dishes, fuckhead.”
The cook turned back to his paper, shaking his head in disdain. Tommy stepped into the kitchen and dumped the dishes in a clattering heap next to the stainless steel wash basin. Then he scuttled back to the counter. He was small and slight and had a vague hunch in his posture. Too little care and one too many harsh words from bullies like the cook had left him nervous and twitchy. He came around the counter and sat on a stool next to the cowboy, reaching across to the coffee pot and filling the half-empty cup. Tommy hesitated at the sight of the barrel of the pistol, poking from between the old man’s fingers.
“Obliged.” Muttered the cowboy with a nod.
“So there was some Indian guy in a white suit? Everybody wears white in that show.” Tommy prodded. His voice was shrill with nervousness.
“He weren’t with the show. He was just standing in the back watching. Was big for an East Indian, barrel chest and long black hair, wasn’t wearin’ one a them turban hats. He looked real mean and real angry. I only noticed him there because I was up to get to the head and he was next to the exit. He didn’t do nothin’ at first. Just stood there lookin’ angry and staring at that fella in his shiny jumpsuit.”
The cowboy paused for a second, closing his eyes as his voice began to thicken with the mucous in his throat.
“… Figure you gotta be some kinda queer to wear them things? Them… glitterin’ damn… jumpsuits?”
The old man was caught by a hacking fluid cough and struggled to catch his breath. He shuddered and wavered on his stool, his feet slipping to the floor. Tommy looked to the gun as if gauging the likelihood of keeping it, but instead reached out to steady the old man.
“I’m allright goddamn it! I don’t need no goddamn help!” The cowboy sputtered weakly as he slapped Tommy’s hand away as he began to cough again. The cough was wet and croupy and it took a full minute for the old cowboy to recover and set his legs stable beneath him.
“GODDAMN IT!” He shouted, willing vitality back into his old body, and pounded a fist on the counter. “GODDAMN IT!”
The fat man with the pinky ring looked up to the counter and the big man stopped drumming his fingers. The young couple in the corner just kept whispering. The cook spun at the sound with a stern look on his face.
“Settle down old-timer, or you’re out on your ass!”
The old man chuckled, ruddy color flushing in his pale cheeks as his strength returned.
“We’re all gonna be out on our asses soon enough, son.”
The cowboy righted himself on the stool, moved his eyes from Tommy to the gun and back to Tommy, who was leaning as far away from the cowboy as he could without falling on his ass. The old man slowly removed his hat and set it on the countertop to cover the gun, gave Tommy a conspiratorial wink and ran his fingers through his thinning grey hair.
“Hey kid, you got a cigarette to spare an ol’ bastard?”
Tommy shook his head and quietly cleared his throat.
“No, sir, uh, I don’t smoke. I mean, uhm, no. Sorry”
“Ahhh.” The cowboy scratched at the widows peak of white threads on the top of his head. “Just as well, I guess. Ain’t had one in damn near 10 years. Probly knock my lungs out my ass now.”
Tommy snickered and drew a harsh glare from the cook, who threw his head back towards the kitchen, the obvious signal for Tommy to return to work. Tommy ignored the gesture as another round of sirens sounded in the street.
“Must be some serious shit going on” said the cook, “Where’d you say this happened?”
“Out on the strip, big hotel with all the palm trees and silvery shit everywhere.”
“This is Las Vegas. Every place in town is silvery with fuckin’ palm trees.”
The cook snickered at his own joke and flipped the paper back open as Tommy turned back to the cowboy, who was staring straight ahead, his eyes full of water and his grey moustache full of brown liquid. Tommy inched forward on his stool.
“So what happened after that?”
The cowboy turned and squinted at Tommy, the teary eyes sharpening with some mix of anger and regret before he answered.
“You ever seen somebody get killed? Badly? Up close, I mean, not like it is on TV or the movies.”
The cook perked up behind his newspaper, cocking one ear to the conversation beside him as the cowboy continued.
“Fuck of the thing was, when them white Tigers come out, that Indian fella stormed up to the stage, hollerin’ to wake the sun. Two security guards tried to grab him and he just waved his hands…”
The cowboy was waving his hands in front of him like a 3rd base coach calling off the steal. The big man in the purple shirt and the fat man with the race sheet had been watching the old man intently and, drawn into the conversation, moved slowly up to the opposite end of the counter as the cowboy carried on.
“Never seen nothin’ like it. Waved his hands like this and the security guards… big fellas, mind… they went flying back as if they was kicked by a horse gettin’ gelded.”
“Then what happened” the big man asked.
The cowboy leaned back to look down at the source of the new voice and nodded as if accepting him into the circle. All four of the men were rapt with attention. The cook had turned to lean on the counter, newspaper crumpled and forgotten in one hand.
“Well, like I said, he shot them security boys off to the side and then, no word to a lie, that big ol’ Indian bastard leaned backand put his arms out like Jesus on the cross… Then he just kinda flew up there onto the stage like a goddamn Genie or somethin’!”
“What? Like levitated?” Asked the cook.
“That’s the word. Like he just lifted straight up off the ground and set down there in front of the magician. Then he started yellin’ something bout desecratin’ the sacred Tigers, callin’ that magician a charlatan and a fraud. Then he held his hands out and I’ll be goddamn if those white Tigers didn’t step up, nice and pretty, like a couple of housecats lookin’ for a pet.”
“White Tigers are from India… originally” said the fat man “They were a symbol of the ancient royalty of India and they were supposed to be a kind of animalistic representation of the Hindu Gods, some people say…”
The group turned to the fat man and glared. He immediately fell silent and hunched, sulking, on his stool. The cook sighed in annoyance and shook his head, then gestured for the cowboy to continue.
“So he threw some security guys around and crashed the stage to pet the Tigers? That’s it?”
“Lord no” exclaimed the cowboy, tipping up his cup to drain the last of the coffee into his gullet.
“That’s just how it started. Once them big cats were sitting at his side, he leaned down and whispered in their ears. The magician was stompin’ and yellin’ and lookin’ all over for more security to get the guy off of the stage. The Indian stood up and clapped his hands together and held em’ there and yelled something in whatever the hell tongue he was speakin’ – Indian, I guess – or maybe it was the very language of the devil, judgin’ by what came next.”
The cook rolled his eyes and jammed the crumpled paper into the garbage can behind him.
“Fuck sakes, you take a long time to get to the point!”
Tommy stiffened on his stool, straightened his back and glared at the cook.
“Shut up and let him finish, Earl.”
Earl stepped back and flushed from his neck up, as if he had been slapped in the face. The old man smoothed the edges of his moustache, nodded and continued.
“Chaos hadn’t quite broken out yet, we was all just settin’ there wonderin’ what the hell was going on, but when he slapped his hands together and hollered, those two Tigers jumped like spring-loaded death machines and took the magician down with one pounce. Blood came sprayin’ up from the man and stained dark across the sides of the Tigers. Now all this show was up on big screens so you could see close up. Magician had the full left side of his face tore clean off to the bone, big flap of skin just hangin’ there like a flap of wet leather slappin’ back n’ forth against his naked teeth, he was screamin’ and flailin’ about, that white jumpsuit black with his own blood. Well, soon as the blood started flyin’ and the Tigers were tearing chunks off of the magician, and he was screaming like a banshee, well, then the shit hit the fan. People started stampedin’ to beat the band and folks were getting’ trampled left and right. I was already up and at the exit, holdin’ the door open and trying to wave the women and children through. That goddamn Indian he stood up in the middle of the stage, suit still spotless and white as the heavens, biggest smile on his goddamn face you ever saw, he reaches up to the rafters and shouts out some more of that gobbledygook and then he starts jumpin’ about like he was callin’ down a thunderstorm…”
The cook had been hurriedly rummaging through the cupboard at his knees and, not finding what he was looking for, rushed back into the kitchen shouting.
“FUCK! Where’s the goddamn radio?!!”
As the cook disappeared into the back of the kitchen, the other men began muttering amongst themselves, before turning back to the cowboy, who was helping himself to another cup of coffee from the scorched glass urn.
“Good goddamn coffee, that’s fer fuckin’ sure. Only goddamn vice I got left at my age. Sure enjoy a good cup of coffee…”
“So this just happened?” asked the fat man.
“Bout 20 minutes ago, yep.”
The big man had turned a sickly yellow, sweating profusely and glancing nervously to the front windows of the café, fidgeting with his rings and wringing his hands.
“Did they catch the guy? Did they trap the Tigers? Are there fucking Tigers running around out there?”
“Worse than fuckin’ Tigers, friend.” The old man took another slurp from the cup.
The big man shuffled nervously on his big feet, pulling at his rings one at a time. Tommy was looking out over the counter, trying to see into the back of the kitchen.
“HEY! EARL? EARL?”
The old man ran a leathery hand across his scalp, leaving a red streak through the thin wisps of grey.
“Hey, are you bleeding old man?” asked the fat man as he eased off of his stool and stepped behind Tommy to look at the cowboy’s hand. As he came to the cowboys side he realized that the hand was sitting in a pool of blood on the counter.
“That doesn’t look too good. We should probably call a doctor…”
The old man kept staring ahead and paid no mind to the fat man pulling at his hand to examine the wound.
“Ain’t nothin’ to be done about that. Like I said before. We’re all of us gonna be out on our asses soon enough.”
“EARL?!” Tommy climbed down from his stool and crept back to look into the kitchen.
The big man was still fidgeting and glaring out towards the window as if he expected two rabid Tigers to burst through the store front any second.
“Those are fucking bite marks” declared the fat man, still examining the wounded hand as the cowboy lifted his cup with the other. “Did you get bit? Did you get bit by a fucking Tiger? Shit! Hey! Hey! Call 9-11” he shouted back to the room.
“Ain’t no Tiger bite.” The old man explained. “Set yerself down and let me finish the goddamn story while I still got time. They ought to be here any minute now.”
“What? Who’s going to be here? What in the hell are you talking about? You need a doctor!”
The old man chuckled again and sighed, ignoring the panic slowly building in the men around him.
“What happened next was, after he made that sign and shouted out that spell, or curse or fuckin’ voodoo-hoodoo-whatever-it-was, the lights blew out. Exploded, like there was some kind of power surge they couldn’t rightly handle, and, now this part’s pretty fuckin’ clear in my mind, cuz I wondered how they made these lights without power, but a big ol’ wave of green light kinda pushed from the stage out over the crowd. I felt scared then, like I ain’t never been scared before. I been bit by a rattler, shot in the guts, held my own wife dyin’ in front of these old eyes and watched her last breath fly away without being able to do a goddamn thing for her… and I ain’t never been so scared as I was right then. I saw that goddamn light comin’ right for me… and though I oughta be cursed for a goddamn coward, I let that door slam shut and I hit the fuckin’ deck.”
“Look, mister. I really think you need to see a doctor. I think you’re in shock. You’re not even making any sense.”
The fat man was trying to tie an apron around the cowboys mangled hand while the big man muttered about Tigers and fumbled at his rings. His hands were red and chapped and blood was starting to show around the edges of some of the rings where he was frantically working the fingers raw.
“What the hell were you running from?” the big man asked, his voice quaking as it grew louder and his hands became more manic, “You came barreling in here like a bat out of hell. If this was true, wouldn’t you be calling the cops or calling in the fucking army? Isn’t that what they always do in the movies? THIS IS BULLSHIT! YOU’RE BULLSHIT!”
The big man staggered back towards the far wall of the diner, still frantically pulling at his rings.
“I done told you already, I don’t need a goddamn doctor.” There was almost no emotion in the statement and the color had completely drained from the old man’s face. It seemed obvious to the fat man that the cowboy was going to pass out or die from shock, blood loss or, most likely, both. The cowboy leaned into the counter, his energy was failing, but he carried on talking nonetheless.
“What I saw when that door opened, was like to what hell itself must look. Every person inside that place was climbing on the others, clawing, tearing, ripping each other apart with fingers and teeth and hunks of bone and flesh, the whole place muddy with red like a goddamn slaughterhouse. It was a goddamn reckoning is what it was…”
“WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU JUST SAY?!” hollered the big man. His voice was sharp and full of fear, but he posed the question like a threat. He was quickly pacing the same four feet of floor, still rubbing his bloody fingers, still frantically eyeballing the front door.
“I SAID THEY WAS EATING EACH OTHER! You fuckin’ half-wit.” The strain of yelling his reply sucked the last bit of life from the old man. His body was failing him. He was swooning on his stool and seeming more and more like a pass-out drunk. He continued in a hoarse whisper, angry and determined, fighting the weakness that was fast overtaking him.
“They were chomping and tearing and feastin’ on each other like there was no tomorrow, which I guess there ain’t. There was a few the light must not of hit, they got the worst, still alive, getting’ torn to shreds by those things that the rest become. Then the dead ones, they started getting’ the fuck back up. End of the fuckin’ world I tell ya. I ain’t never seen nothin’ like that. Was a little girl, maybe 6 or 7, she was settin’ there chewin’ on her Mama’s throat, just settin’ there in a pretty blue dress, covered with her Mama’s blood, chewin’ and smilin’ at me like she was eatin’ some taffy. She had the dead eyes. Them cloudy goddamn dead eyes. Her Mama was layin’ there, soaked black with blood and twitchin’ like a spastic and that little girl just kept on chewwwii…”
The cowboy slumped sideways from his stool and hit the floor hard. The fat man caught the old man by the skull as it bounced off the linoleum and called out for help.
“HEY! Where in the FUCK is everybody?! Where’d that little guy go?! HELP! SOMEBODY CALL A DOCTOR!”
The big man jumped and was backing away nervously, tripping over chairs and bumping into tables until his back hit the plaster of the wall. He was still pulling at the rings, which were now wet with the blood that was dripping from his fingers and left a trail of red droplets in front of him on the linoleum. He cowered against the wall, clutching his hands to his chest and staining the purple silk dark and slick. The young couple at the front table had finally stopped arguing and sat, wide-eyed and still, staring at the fat man cradling the old cowboy and calling out for help.
“WOULD SOMEBODY FUCKING CALL A DOCTOR!!” He shouted. The fat man set the cowboy down on the floor and scuttled on his knees around the counter, stumbling to his feet as he dug through the cupboards and countertops, throwing miscellaneous items on the floor as he scrambled to find a phone.
The cowboy stirred on the floor and, half-rolling to put his hands beneath him, slowly got up on his knees, then clawed at the counter and dragged himself up to sit back on the stool. He reached for the coffee cup in front of him and fumbled, sending it tottering off the far side of the counter and crashing to the floor a few inches from the fat man.
“Fuckin’ hell!” the cowboy mumbled, and grabbed at the near-empty urn.
“Just one more cup of coffee for the road.”
He lifted the pot to his lips and threw his head back, sending a full half of the dirty brown sludge down his throat and the rest cascading down the sides of his face. He dropped the pot to the tabletop as if he had no more strength to hold it up. It shattered as it hit the surface, chunks and slivers of glass bouncing to the floor and littering the puddles of thick red blood and brown water on the counter.
The wailing of sirens broke the silence of the café as another batch of vehicles tore through the street. The harsh sounds had barely faded when the screams and clamoring of at least a dozen people came past the front window, running in the opposite direction.
The young man at the front table looked at his companion as if looking for instruction and then turned toward the far wall as the big man began to wail. He was screaming uncontrollably, clawing at the cross at his neck and pointing one blood soaked hand towards the front window. A hundred hands were slapping at the window, smearing it with dark grime and tapping out a discordant jazzbo beat. The young couple was still staring at the big man screaming and flapping his bloody fingers towards them. The young man had barely registered the thought to look behind him before the windows blew, dirty glass and sticky spray disintegrating over his head and around his face as another scream filled the air, this time from a familiar voice. The young man lunged toward his girlfriend as her legs disappeared through the window in a sea of arms and faces, bloody and furious with movement. He jumped back, unleashing a girlish shriek as a wet gush of crimson mist flew from his lover as a frenzied mob of filth-covered monsters tore the skin of her bare midriff open with clawed fingers and shoveled her guts into their mouths and onto the dark, wet pavement.
The arms, hands and hungry teeth came crashing through the window, burying him under a mass of diseased fiends that tore and ripped and shredded his flesh. In a split second his screams turned to panicked gurgling and moans as the noise of flesh torn from bone and the spatter of blood and raw meat splashing to the floor became secondary to the satisfied grinding of teeth and smacking of undead lips.
The big mans squalls reached fever pitch as a blur of red and white flew over the scrambling arms and yowling mouths of the cursed mob. The tiger landed almost soundlessly and hunched its massive shoulders forward, breathing a mist of red fog from its nostrils and growling from the depths of its chest. It stalked forward, stepping slowly, its dead eyes milked over a filthy grey. The big man’s eyes rolled back into his head as he collapsed in a bloody silk heap on the floor and was immediately set upon by the big cat. The tiger set in, tearing an arm straight off of the unconscious man, tendon, skin and purple silk tearing in unison. The tiger threw its head back and roared at the ceiling, pictures clattering from the wall as the terrible rumble filled the ears of the old cowboy, still laying across the counter, praying for strength and salvation with whispered breath. The tiger went back to its meal, rending flesh from the big mans chest and sending a fresh cascade of blood showering into its face. Fresh screams erupted from the back of the diner. Tommy scrambled on all fours across the kitchen floor towards the counter, desperate to escape the voracious fiends clamoring for a grip on his legs. He was bleeding profusely and staggered forward, falling to the floor next to the cowboy as the crazed once-humans clamored over each other in a heap to grab at Tommy’s legs. Tommy beat at the creatures with his fists, but it had no effect, aside from some of them detaching from the heap long enough to strike a bite toward his arms. They began to drag him back into the kitchen as he dug his fingernails into the linoleum, kicking and twisting to get free of their weight.
“HELP ME!!! GOD’S SAKE!!! PLEASE!!! HELLLLP MEEEEEE!!!”
The cowboy sucked in a deep, wheezing breath and pushed himself up from the counter and back on the stool. He stared down at Tommy holding for dear life to a support beam that marked the boundaries of the kitchen and the counter area. A dozen filthy, bleeding hands clawed at Tommy’s legs and dug into the flesh of his calves. Tommy was slowly losing his grip on the beam, his fingertips sliding further away from each other each time the creatures yanked at his legs. The cowboy steadied himself with his injured hand and winced before slowly reaching for his hat. The old man’s withered hand trembled as he set the hat on his head and pulled it down tight to his forehead. He took a short, tight breath and reached out for the pistol, heaving its weight by pulling his shoulder back towards him. He sighted down at Tommy on the floor and squeezed the trigger. The shot rang out, pitting the floor where Tommy’s head had been a millisecond before as Tommy and his screams faded back into the mass of undead flesh in the kitchen. The cowboy slumped against the edge of the counter and lost his hold on the butt of the gun, vainly throwing his hand out as it clattered to the floor. In a single rush of willpower, he twisted and pulled himself down from the stool to crouch against the counter. He heard Tommy’s sobbing pleas fade off as the monsters dragged him back into the darkness of the kitchen. He heard panicked screams and protestations, the slam of a heavy door and then silence.
As his fingers fumbled blindly to regain their grip on the pistol, the old cowboy could smell the hot stench and hear the low rush of heavy animal breathing as the tiger crept towards him, pieces of purple silk and bloody flesh still dangling from its jaws. The old man shuddered and curled into his chest, vainly trying to inch away from the tiger like a child hiding under the sheets. The tiger edged closer until the cowboy could feel the gore-ridden moisture of its breath on the side of his face. He closed his eyes tight and shriveled further into the tiny space between the stool and the counter, still struggling to get his fingers in the right places to handle the weapon.
The shot thundered through the silence and the tiger shuddered and fell back on it’s haunches in perfect synchronicity, as the air around the cowboy hung thick with the smell of cordite and the heat of burnt gunpowder. At the familiar scent and deafening sound of gunfire, the cowboy opened his eyes, flush with adrenaline and bolted out from his niche and spun to dive over the counter, holding the gun aloft as he leapt. He threw himself forward, his momentum carrying him over the tabletop and bringing him crashing down, face first, to the blood-pooled linoleum. He scrambled to his knees, wiping Tommy’s blood from his eyes as he felt around him for the gun, which was half-hidden beneath the edge of the counter.
The cowboy rolled back into a crouch and crabwalked a few steps back through the ocean of red around him. He continued to creep backward, slowly cocking the pistol as he made his way back towards the end of the counter. The cowboy heard the rumbling roar of the tiger, scrambled and fell back into the shadows of the dark kitchen as the gargantuan beast flew over the counter and landed on all fours, circling slowly before raising its snout to test the air for its prey. The cowboy stifled his own scream and began fumbling through the dark recesses of the kitchen for somewhere to hide.
The undead fiends had finished with their victims in the front of the diner and had shambled on down the street in search of new victims. Tommy’s attackers had dragged him clear through the kitchen and back out the rear exit. The heavy metal door had locked behind them, leaving no sign of the struggle but the copious amounts of blood and a single disembodied hand near the back exit of the kitchen. That left the old cowboy and the tiger. The cowboys feet went out from under him as he slid across another slick puddle of Tommy’s blood. He hit the linoleum with a sickening thud, moist and heavy. He could hear the pads of the huge paws slapping the wet floor, the tiger slowly stalking him in the darkness, seeking out his smell and his warmth with each rushing breath.
The cowboy felt his way back into a corner of the kitchen, beneath a stainless steel table and waited, breathless. The beast came within a foot of where he was hiding, sniffing the air and licking its red chops, trying to search through the darkness with its dead grey eyes. The cowboy sat hunched under the table, holding his breath and fighting the mounting pain in his chest. He held the pistol out with quaking arms, waiting for the animal to get close enough for what he hoped would be a kill-shot. Coming into the Diner, he’d known the world was ending, he was ready to die. Now, with the tiger practically tasting him in the air, he was possessed with an instinctual need to survive. As the razor-sharp pain in his chest began to explode into his temples and eyeballs, the old man could feel his tongue swelling and a cold sweat poured down his face. The darkness of the kitchen began to deepen and what he could see of the room began to spin. He let out a burst of air, followed by a long wheezing suck of air back in to his burning lungs as necessity finally outweighed his will. The tiger pushed its head in under the table and roared, bathing the old man in a hot stinking shower of gruesome air. He threw the pistol up purely out of instinct and fired, glancing a bullet off of the animals skull with a moist ‘thwack’ and causing the tiger to stagger back on its back legs, shaking its head in confusion. The old man pulled himself out of the space under the counter and turned to run, then felt his legs give out beneath him as he fell in a heap mere feet from the tigers deadly maw.
A wave of pure, unrelenting, maniacal panic gripped him as he tried to claw his way across the floor and will his old legs to work. He felt lightning race up his spine and into the base of his skull, and heard a small snap as the tigers paw came down on the small of his back, pinning him to the floor. He pulled and clawed and swing his arms in every direction, desperate for some purchase that might give him a last chance at escape. The paw lifted and, before the old man could find his grip on the floor, he was batted across the wet linoleum to the other side of the kitchen. The tiger growled from deep in its throat and stepped towards him through the shadows.
He tried to roll and found the bottom half of his body completely lifeless. He twisted his torso until he could face the animal and then unloaded three more thundering shots from the pistol, lighting up the room just long enough for the cowboy to see the true horror of his own certain death, black blood oozing from the corner of one eye, flesh and gore matted into the fur of its face, blood still dripping from its jaws. The tigers eyes had sunk into its head and gone near black and its lips had been torn away from the gleaming jagged teeth, giving the implication of a demons grin. The Cowboy dragged himself to sit, propped against the wall, as he sighted down the cylinder of the old six-gun, and rolled the last bullet into the firing chamber.
“I guess it’s better goin’ out as meat for a beast, even a demon beast the likes of you, than them damn cannibal freaks out there. Lord help us sinners.”
The old man sobbed as he brought the gun, shaking, into his open mouth, the heat of the barrel singing his tongue and causing him to gag as tears began to stream from his weary eyes. He felt the first searing heat of hungry teeth tear into his chest as the final shot thundered in his ears and the world went eternally dark.
(previously “The Living Dead at Sigfreid & Roy”) 5th Rev. June 19/2009