There was a dead body in the back seat, and it was staring at Mike.
"It's not staring at you," Sandie told him. "Actually, I'm not sure that it can see."
"Well, it's not a he or a she. I
didn't exactly check, but it was kind of hard not to notice
"I don't think I needed to know that."
And still it stared.
Mike kept a firm hold on Sandie's hand until they got on the Loop and she needed both hands to drive. She looked grim and determined in the green glow of the dashboard lights. It talked to her, she said, talked to her in dreams the way angels were said to do sometimes. Whatever was riding in that weird, hairless body, it was no angel. He watched Sandie's face carefully, keeping tabs on the thing in the back seat from the corner of his eye.
The bluegrass bar was called Hat Bands, and business was just beginning to pick up for the night. Rows of cars clogged the tiny parking lot, forcing Sandie to look for a space around back.
There was a noise from the back seat as Sandie shut off the engine. The thing had not moved, but its eyes were closed. The noise came again in time with the strains of twelve-string that drifted through the parking lot. It was humming along.
"Better?" Sandie asked. "Do we need to go inside? God, I could use a drink."
The thing thrummed softly, a sound that was almost like a voice.
"Not really," Sandie answered. "I mean, I guess, but it's pretty much just for communicating feelings, unless you use a code
Mike frowned hard. The thing in the back fell silent.
"What's it telling you?" he asked.
Sandie rolled down the window to let the music in. In the open yard behind the fence, a fiddle was reeling.
"It wants to know why you're pissed off," she said. "And if you could maybe stop it, because everyone inside is having a good time, and you're kind of ruining it."
"You mean I taste bad?" He shot a glance back at the dead body, half expecting to see it making a face. Nothing had changed.
"Pretty much, yeah."
Mike bit his lip. "Sandie, this isn't right. Whatever that is, it's not human. We don't know anything about it. I would really rather know what's going on, here
"Wouldn't we all?"
Then she was out of the car, adjusting her ponytail and the light jacket she had put on over her tee shirt. She popped open the back door and pulled the creature out, leaving Mike to scramble to catch up.
"You're missing the point," he said at the door. "I'm afraid you're putting yourself in danger. Physical, mental
"Yeah, well, so did the Good Samaritan." Sandie plunged into the bar, dragging her eldritch shadow, bellowing for a beer even as she searched for a table.
"Five years of sleeping through homilies," Mike muttered, wide-eyed, "and that's the bit she manages to pick up
" He rolled up his collar and stuck it into a pocket, trailing after his friend.
The thing sat there glassy-eyed, as still as the salt shaker that seemed to command its attention. It was unnatural, Mike thought, but that only made sense, given what Sandie had told him. What he was seeing was constructed. What was inside was the problem, be it spirit or demon or artificial intelligence. Mike could not even be sure that he believed that there was something inside, but those blind black eyes made it easier to imagine the incredible.
The eyes were what made it hard, Mike decided. Sandie said that the thing was in pain, confused and sick and lost, but the eyes did not show it. The windows to that soul were heavily shuttered. Blackout drapes. If there was anything inside, not a flicker of it showed.
Sandie leaned over. "Hey," she said, half-shouting over the noise from the stage. "Don't worry about it, okay? We'll get this done and get out of here. No problem."
Mike managed a halfhearted smile, but he seriously doubted that. Sandie had gotten herself saddled with far too many stray dogs for him to believe this would be any different.
The thing blinked and moved its spidery, white fingers on the tabletop, probing at the profanities scratched into the wood. PENNY MORALES IS A B- trailed out from underneath a pale hand. One fingertip followed the lines of the P, picking up some marker and potato chip crumbs as it went.
"Where is it going to go?" Mike asked. "If it's going to heal up or whatever and then you're done with it, where will it go?"
Sandie shrugged. "Dunno. It's got to come from somewhere, right? Maybe it can suck up enough happy to go home."
It did look healthier than it had, or at least as healthy as one could expect from a dead body. The eyes moved occasionally, and it had actually turned its head slightly toward the stage, where two banjos were dueling to the death. Still, Mike did not think that it would be going anywhere any time soon, at least not under its own power. It had barely been able to walk a straight line when they came in, and flying off into outer space or wherever it belonged had to take a lot more energy.
"I'm gonna get a beer," Mike said. Maybe it would help with the urge to run far away from that thing. He stood up and went to the bar rather than flagging down one of the waitress in the heavy-duty ranch boots; they had a tendency to dangle their winnebagos in one's face, and the last thing he needed was an asthma attack.
"Shiner Bock," he roared at the tiny Hispanic man behind the bar. The man had a panicked look about him, like someone who was very new to the business of bartending. He cupped a hand to his ear and shouted something back, but the drum kit had started up a decidedly non-bluegrass percussion interlude, and placing an order became an exercise in lung capacity.
Mike flapped one hand and pointed at the tap, then traced the silhouette of a bottle in the air with two fingers. The patron next to him was laughing hysterically into her whiskey.
"SHINERBOCK!" Mike shrieked as the drum fell silent. Half the bar turned to look at him with understanding grins.
"That's how you know the band is good!" someone called from the corner. He hoped that it had been Sandie.
The band packed up, and a dozen couples vacated the dance floor. A dull throb of conversation picked up to replace the music, and a few people left.
The chalk board by the door said that there was one more band scheduled before closing time, but no band was in evidence. Either way, there were perhaps forty-five more minutes before everyone was kicked out. Forty-five minutes for Sandie to decide how she was going to handle this, whether she was going to leave the thing to fend for itself or commit to keeping it around for an indeterminate length of time. Mike wished that he could be a good shepherd and recommend helping those in need, but that thing just creeped him out too much. He felt an unpleasant conviction that it was eventually just going to up and eat someone.
And when he turned around, it was looking at him. At least, it was looking in his general direction, though with no more focus than ever. Sandie was saying something to it, though he still could not figure out why she talked when it apparently could read her mind. Then he saw an expression on its face, a real expression, one of understanding, and the thing opened up like a twenty-piece ensemble.
It was deafening. The wood floor shook, and the beer in Mike's hand bubbled up and foamed over. It was a perfect encore of the last tune, a fiddle piece with some spiffy mandolin work in the middle, note for note, pitch for pitch, beat for beat only amplified by a factor of twenty. A few light bulbs exploded.
Every patron ducked and clapped their hands over their ears, and Sandie was shouting, and somehow all three of them got out without being stopped. His ears were still ringing too loudly for him to hear the sirens, but Mike saw red and blue lights racing West down the Loop as they sped away.
In the back seat, the thing looked very lost.