From the author: A serial killer meets a bluesman at the crossroads at midnight, hoping for an opportunity to kill the Devil. A standalone story featuring Bad Jack Saunders from the Aurealis Award finalist for best horror novel BLOODY WATERS.
Hellhound on My Trail
by Jason Franks
The mood in the bar was low, as it usually was in such places, and the bluesman played his tunes without acknowledgement.
Drawing chords from the scarred old steelstring, stomping rhythm from the loose wooden boards, the bluesman filled the room with stories. In his rumbling basso he sang of loves lost and hatreds kindled; of devils and drinking and gambling and rambling; of theft and murder and jealousy and despair.
The bluesman filled the room with all the badness he knew, for in those matters, above all others, the bluesman was learned and wise.
Jackson sat at the back corner table, sipping his bourbon and watching the stage. His left hand rested beside the unlit candle. Black marks from its wick stained his fingers. Jackson sat there patiently, imagining himself to be a part of the smoke and shadows and waiting for the bluesman’s set to end.
The bluesman played on, moaning and growling and crooning; his hands wringing music from his instrument. The single low-wattage bulb hanging above the dais did little to draw him from the darkness. Aside from the lacquer in his shoes, the metal on his thumb-pick, the bluesman sat awash in shadow.
Jackson watched and listened and drank. He didn’t much care for the blues. Didn’t much care for music, truth be told. Jackson didn’t mind the liquor, but that wasn’t why he was there either. Jackson was going to kill the Devil, and the bluesman was going to help him.
When his set was done the bluesman stood up, picked up his guitar by the neck, and disappeared into the back room without saying a word. Jackson finished his bourbon in a single gulp and abandoned his table for a place at the bar.
He was on his second bourbon when the bluesman emerged with a travel-stained guitar case in hand and an army surplus duffel slung over one shoulder.
The barman counted out thirty dollars, consulted a note beside the register, took back eight, and handed the rest to the bluesman. Jackson waited until the bluesman had shoved the money into his hip pocket and turned his back on the barman before he spoke.
“You’re Bad Jack Saunders.”
The bluesman turned to face Jackson slowly. It was difficult to tell the musician’s age: his short-cropped hair was grey, but his face was unlined. He was broad-shouldered but thin inside his suit, which was sharply pressed for all the shine of its age.
“Yessir, I’m afraid so.” The bluesman’s speaking voice was higher-pitched than his singing voice, but no less resonant.
“Well, damn,” said Jackson. “Bad Jack Saunders his-own-self. Let me buy you a drink.”
The bluesman looked him over. Jackson knew what he was seeing: a lean old redneck in a flannel shirt, worn open over a yellowing wife-beater. Faded jeans that were stained with battery acid. Long, dirty-blond hair. Jackson was over six foot tall, but the bluesman had him beat by an inch.
The bluesman nodded slowly. “Don’t see as I can stop you from buying,” he said, “But then, I don’t see as you can make me drink.”
“Surely one drink with my all-time favourite ain’t too much to ask?”
The bluesman adjusted his burdens. “Over there,” he said, indicating a table near the door with his guitar case.
Jackson bought the drinks and took them over to the table. The bluesman was waiting for him; the guitar leaning against the wall, the duffel crouched by his side.
“Hope bourbon’s okay,” said Jackson, putting down the drinks and taking his own seat. “You didn’t say what you wanted.”
The TV above the bar came on, now that the bluesman had finished his set. The sound of gunfire filled the room. The barman adjusted down the volume and started flipping through the channels even before the picture had fully formed on the tube.
“Don’t want nothing at all,” said the bluesman. “Not from you, anyways.” He dragged one of the glasses across the table to himself, but he did not drink from it.
Jackson took a sip from his own drink, moistened his fingers and reached out to snuff the candle. The bluesman caught his wrist. “I like the shadows as much as the next man,” he said, “But I also like to be able to see who I’m talking to. What’s your name, son?”
Jackson took a sip from his glass and smiled. “Almost the same as yours. I’m Jackson.”
The barman settled on a network channel that was showing snippets of a golf tournament in between advertisements. Tiger Woods was winning. Jackson liked Tiger Woods. Liked the man’s name. Made him think of huge beasts stalking through the jungle, looking for prey. ‘Tiger’ was a good name. He wondered if the golfer had chosen it for himself.
“So tell me, Jackson,” said the bluesman, “Where y’all from?”
The bluesman leaned back in his seat and laughed; two long, deep barks subsiding into a chuckle. “White Chapel, West Virginia? Now that is as podunk a town as I ever played.”
“You don’t sound like no Englishman.”
“My great-great-great grandpappy from there,” said Jackson.
“From England,” said Jack, after a while. “Could be Whitechapel, I don’t know for sure.”
“But you like to think it,” said the bluesman. “You like to think you an Englishman?”
“No, sir. I’m an All-American boy. You better believe it.”
The bluesman laughed again.
On the TV, an anchorman with a high coif and a sincere look in his eye read the news headlines. Guerrilla fighting in Chechnya. Riots on the West Bank. Corporate Anti-trust proceedings. A family of five found butchered in their SUV under a highway overpass. A pair of firemen eaten by an alligator. A pet cat that had lived to be twenty-three years old.
“Lemme ask you,” said Jackson, “You know them stories you hear? About making a deal with the Devil?”
“You know,” said Jackson. “You go down to the crossroads at midnight and the Devil comes to you, and you sell your soul to be able to play the guitar real good. Like that.”
“You wanna learn guitar?” said the bluesman.
“I just wanna know about the devil stories.”
The bluesman smiled.
“Well ... are the stories true?”
The bluesman's smile spread into a grin. “I can tell you right now, ain’t no bluesman ever made that particular deal.”
“The stories are lies?”
“Ain’t exactly lies,” said the bluesman, still grinning. “They just ... inaccurate.”
“Well, for one thing,” said the bluesman, “The Devil don’t come to nobody who can’t play. You got to be special afore old Jack Scratch will visit with you.”
“Ain’t his real name, neither.”
Jackson frowned. “If you can already play, why would you sell your soul?”
“There's plenty of problems a man can have that no amount of guitar playing can solve. Although, now I think about it, the guitar playing might actually be the cause of most of ‘em.”
“So, like ... for money, then?”
“Ain’t no business transaction,” said the bluesman. “The Devil wants your soul, he ain’t going to dicker for it at no crossroads.”
The bluesman just looked at him. “We all got our reasons – don’t we, Jackson?”
“You ever met with him?”
“So, what was your reason?”
“Tell me,” said the bluesman, “you get the chance to meet the Queen of England, you gonna say no? You being a subject of Her Royal Majesty, and all.”
“I guess not.”
“Same thing goes for the Devil. It’s a chance to sit down with someone famous and important.”
“Besides,” said the bluesman, “I reckon he’s one hell of a lot more interesting than the Queen of England.”
Jackson laughed, shook his head, glanced back at the TV. Tiger was still winning.
“So tell me, Jackson,” said the bluesman, “Why you wanna waste your money buying drinks for a no-good bluesman?”
“You kidding?” said Jackson. “You’re a legend. Bad Jack Saunders. Someone like you shouldn’t have to play some little flea-shit bar in the middle of Ass Poke, Mississippi for twenty-two dollars?”
“Thirty dollars,” said the bluesman. “Not including beer.” He still hadn’t touched his drink.
“Brother,” said Jackson. “You’re Bad Jack Saunders. Why do you need to play for thirty dollars, not including beer?”
“Maybe you ain’t heard – there’s a recession on.”
“Come on. You’re a legend – you could play anywhere you like.”
“This is where I like to play.”
Jackson looked around the room. “This?”
“This.” The bluesman wasn’t smiling now. “Record deals and arena concerts and all... that’s horseshit, Jackson. That ain’t real. Only the blues is real. The blues, and the road, and my own two feet.”
“I understand,” said Jackson. “I’m a traveling man, myself.”
“Which kind are you?” said the bluesman. “Kind that’s running or the kind that’s hunting?”
Jackson nodded slowly. “Bit of both, I guess,” he said. “Like a bluesman.”
“But you ain’t no bluesman, are you, son?”
“You a bad man, is what you are. You walk the roads doing all manner of evil.”
“I done some wrong,” said Jackson. “I can’t deny it.”
“You think you’re like me,” said the bluesman. “We walk the roads alone, not even a dog for company. No one will remember us after we gone, but that’s okay – we got the blues.”
“That’s real pretty,” said Jackson.
“It’s a song I wrote yesterday,” said the bluesman. “But it’s just a song. Ain’t no more true than the Easter Bunny.”
“And the Devil?” said Jackson.
The bluesman slammed back his bourbon and set the empty glass carefully back down on the table. “Son,” he said, “You meet me at the crossroads at midnight, we’ll see if we can find ourselves some rabbit eggs.”
The bluesman was sitting by the crossroads with his guitar by his side and an old notebook computer open on his lap. His seat was a jagged piece of rock in the depression that lay between the shoulder of the roadway and a grove of bare black trees. The still air stank of hydrogen sulfide and rotting leaves. Above, the sickle moon had slashed a swathe of night from the cloud cover. It was six minutes till midnight.
Jackson tromped across the road and came to stand before the bluesman. The bluesman did not look up from his screen.
“I didn’t know if you’d be here or not,” said Jackson.
The bluesman looked up. “Well, Jackson from Whitechapel,” he said. “Now you do.” The bluesman touched the keyboard and the laptop played a snatch of synthetic music. He waited, then folded it closed and looked at Jackson again.
“Why you want to meet the Devil, son?”
“He’s more interesting than the Queen of England,” said Jackson, keeping his hand in the rucksack.
The bluesman shook his head. “Well, you shit out of luck. Mister Scratch got more important things to do tonight.”
Jackson let the rucksack slide off his shoulder, catching a strap in his right hand. “So what are you doing here, then?”
“Walking the dog,” said the bluesman, putting his computer aside.
“You told me you don’t have no dog.”
“I’m just looking after him for this evening.”
Jackson unzipped his threadbare denim jacket with his free hand. Four pairs of ears hung from a loop of wire he wore around his neck.
The bluesman looked at the ears for a time. Then, he raised his face to the night sky and smiled. “Tell me, son, what were you gonna do if the Devil showed up?”
Jackson pulled a MAC 10 sub machinegun out of his rucksack. The bag fell to his feet with a muted clank.
The bluesman chuckled. “You was gonna shoot him?”
“That’s the best you could think of?”
“I don’t like to mess around.”
“All the things you done – you thinking shooting the Devil gonna save you, your time is up?”
“Way I figure it, Hell is like any other prison. A reputation goes a long way.”
“You think Hell is like a stretch in the big house?” The bluesman let the question hang for Jackson, but Jackson wasn't biting. “That’s exactly why there ain’t no Devil coming to parlay with you, son. Y’all got no imagination.”
“I imagine this works just as good on bluesmen as it does on devils,” said Jackson, switching the MAC 10 to full automatic and racking the slide. “But there ain’t no devils coming here tonight, so I guess we’ll never get to compare.”
“So now you just gonna shoot me?”
Jackson pointed the weapon at the bluesman. “Yep,” he said. “Unless that Devil shows up to save you.”
“Ain’t no need for that,” said the bluesman.
“Oh, yeah,” said Jackson. “I forgot. You got your dog to protect you.”
The bluesman just smiled. His gaze went to the muzzle of the MAC 10, then to something behind Jackson. “I told you, he ain’t mine. Are you, boy?”
Jackson’s eyes narrowed. Something rustled behind him. Light, quick footfalls on the drying grass. Heavy, panting breath. Keeping the MAC 10 on the bluesman, Jackson glanced over his shoulder.
A dog sat on the blacktop, directly behind him. Looked like some kind of short-haired mastiff, though it was marked like a jungle cat: black as a bluesman’s heart, with stripes as yellow as a coward’s back. It stood six-six at the shoulder. Red mist curled from its darkly shining eyes.
“Like I told you, I been looking after him for a friend of mine.” The bluesman looked fondly at the dog and smiled. “And I ain’t fed him yet.”
For more adventures of the bluesman, Bad Jack Saunders, check out Jason Franks' Aurealis
award-nominated novel, Bloody Waters.
This story originally appeared in an Amazon direct publication.