From the author: Three friends on a road trip stop to pick up a little something for the boss. The boss doesn't like it when you show up empty-handed.
"Could you turn that off? I hate the fucking Smiths."
Brenna lifted her hand from the stick shift, glared at him in the rearview mirror and shot him the bird. “Bite me, Derek. My ride, my tapes.”
“I hate riding with you, Bren. You even know where we're going?” Derek shifted in the back seat, trying to get comfortable. At six and a half feet tall and well over three hundred pounds, he barely fit in the back seat of the antique VW Beetle. He resolved the issue by sitting in the middle with one foot behind each front seat.
She waved her middle finger at him but he didn't take the bait.
Tristan squirmed around and pressed his face in the gap between the front seats. “What's the matter, Dee? You want to listen to Usher or some shit?”
Derek grabbed Tristan's face and pushed him to the front of the car. “Fuckin’ fairy.”
“Troll,” Tristan grumbled.
Brenna slapped Tristan’s shoulder. “Turn around and watch for hitchhikers, fool.”
“Where we gonna put a hitchhiker?”
“I don’t give a damn. Strap it to the roof, for all I care. You want the boss pissed off when we show up with nothing?”
Tristan shook his head and frowned. He watched the road.
Derek sighed with relief. It was the first time the little motor mouth had been quiet for more than thirty seconds at a time.
“Shit. Car needs gas.” Brenna tapped the gauge with a claw-like fingernail.
Tristan pointed out a faded billboard that declared Eat Food and Get Gas! Two miles. She pushed the accelerator to the floor. The VW shuddered, took a second to get its spark plugs straight, then answered her command with a burst of speed.
The neon glow of the truck stop glared against the night sky. There were a few trucks in the back lot, their lack of cab lights indicating sleeping drivers. Derek could see two cars parked around back as they pulled in.
Brenna pulled up to a gas pump and ordered everyone out. Her feet clopped on the concrete as she moved to the pump. She hooked a thumb toward the entrance. “I’ll get gas. You guys get food. I want a Pepsi.”
Tristan bounced across the parking lot. “I gotta go to the little boy’s room!”
Derek wedged himself out of the back seat with difficulty. He wrapped his woolen scarf around his face and pulled the military surplus coat tighter around his burly body.
Brenna poked the gas nozzle into the tank of the car and squeezed. Nothing happened. She scowled at the pump and smacked the display with her hand. The numbers blinked and wavered until the LEDs resolved into a line of zeroes. She squeezed the nozzle again, and the fuel flowed. The numbers on the dial didn't change.
Derek pushed himself away from the car and shuffled across the lot. He paused, pulled a knit cap out of his coat pocket, and shoved it on his head.
He put his hand on the door, but something wasn't right.
Inside the brightly lit store, a skinny, deranged-looking man stood at the counter, pointing a revolver at the clerk. The man's finger was on the trigger, but his hand trembled so violently that the barrel shook like a crazed belly dancer. The clerk held up his hands in surrender, eyes locked on the gun.
Derek shoved the double doors open. The robber turned, panicked. The gun went off, and the glass door to Derek's left spider-webbed from the impact of the bullet.
The clerk looked between the gunman and the giant in the doorway, then dived behind the counter with a squeal of terror.
Derek tilted his head slightly to look at the door, then looked back at the gunman. He grinned under his scarf. The robber fumbled fruitlessly, trying to pull back the hammer for a second shot.
Derek took three long steps forward. He wrapped one massive fist around the gun and punched the gunman solidly in the nose with the other.
The doors slammed shut behind him. Glass shattered and fell to the floor.
“Rude.” He rumbled. He tightened his fist around both hand and gun until the man screamed. Derek grunted with satisfaction as he felt bone crack and metal twist in his hand.
Tristan stuck his head through the missing pane of glass in the door. “Derr-ick?” he called in a sing-song voice. “What did you fuck up?”
Derek turned around to face the door, pulling the injured man along with him. “I didn’t do it.” He pointed at the gunman’s bloody face. “He did.”
“Oh!” Tristan’s face brightened. “Good!” He pulled the door open and sauntered inside.
The clerk slowly pulled himself up from the floor.
“Sit down,” Derek said to the clerk, trying to reassure him, “It's all right, we’ll take care of this.” He punched the gunman in the face again. The would-be thief dropped unconscious to the floor, and the mangled gun clattered down the candy bar aisle.
The clerk promptly sat down on the stool behind the counter, unnerved and trembling. He picked up the phone and pressed two numbers.
“Not yet,” Derek held up one bloody hand. “Just wait a minute or two. I said we'll take care of it. You're just fine, man. Hold on.” The phone dropped back into the cradle with a clatter.
Derek shook out his hands, rubbing at one knuckle, and made a beeline for the cooler. He grabbed a half-gallon jug of cold milk, popped the top, moved his scarf aside and started chugging.
Tristan flashed the clerk a sunny smile as he slid past the counter. Spreading his arms wide, he paraded down the potato chip aisle, his trench coat flaring behind him like wings. He grabbed a few bags of chips at random and tucked them under his arm. He spun the rack of soft-porn magazines just for fun, then bounced over the display of beef jerky. Derek could hear him shout with every gleeful discovery of something “cool.”
Tristan vanished, then reappeared and hooked his arm around Derek’s elbow. He tried to get Derek to waltz back to the register.
“Get off me, ya fairy.” Derek pushed him away.
The man at the counter got off the stool and approached the register warily. Tristan giggled as he skipped to the counter and plunked the two bags of chips on the counter.
“That all?” The clerk muttered with a wavering voice, trying to maintain some sense of normalcy.
“No!” Tristan answered cheerfully. “I found so much great stuff in here!” He dug into his coat sleeves and into his pockets, producing a fist full of candy bars, a bottle of motor oil, baby food, a pack of tampons, a salt and pepper shaker set shaped like howling coyotes and a half-squashed moon pie. He piled it all on the counter. “And a cigar.”
Derek chimed in, “Two cigars.” He set the half-empty milk jug on the counter, then looked down and shoved his toe into the unconscious man’s ribs. The clerk crammed the items into a bag. He punched numbers into the register, and it rang with a clear chime.
“Fourteen eighty-two.” His voice wavered.
“Dee! Pay the man!” Tristan grabbed the bag, turned, and raced for the door.
“How much again?” Derek unwound the scarf from his face.
“Fourteen eight—” The man stopped and stared as the scarf fell away.
Derek grinned. His mouth was far too wide, full of misshapen pointed teeth that gleamed yellow in the fluorescent light. His broad nose squatted on his green face like a wart-covered frog trying to hide under a thatch of brown weeds that should have been hair. His red eyes didn’t blink as he smiled. The clerk paled.
Derek bent down and reached into the gunman’s pockets. Finding nothing, he searched the coat, groping around until he found a wallet. His thick-nailed fingers flipped it open and dumped the contents on the counter. He used one finger to push the meager bit of cash and coin to one side; he pushed the wallet to the floor at the clerk’s feet.
“Is that enough?”
The man nodded, short and sharp and terrified.
“Then you have yourself a lovely evening, sir. So sorry about the mess.” Derek grinned again, letting his long tongue loll out, dog-like. He grabbed his jug of milk under one arm and scooped up the unconscious thief with the other. He shuffled toward the door, the long scarf trailing through the blood on the shiny linoleum.
The door slammed open, sending another cascade of glass to the floor. Tristan came flying at him in a panic. The troll quickly stepped aside as the fairy hurtled past him.
“I forgot her Pepseeeeee!” Tristan squealed. Derek could almost see the shape of Brenna’s hoof-prints on his ass. Tristan streaked back out with two bottles in his hands.
“Derek!” Brenna shouted from the pumps. “Get your ass in the car. It's eleven o'clock! We have to go!”
“Hey, look what I got!” Derek yelled, hefting the unconscious man. “Open the trunk.”
The gunman was skinny, but the VW’s trunk was still a tight squeeze. Derek roughly folded the man's arms and legs inside the enclosure. Brenna shut the trunk with a decisive crunch.
Derek crammed himself back into the VW, grumbling.
“You're going to tell me all about this, right Derek?” She asked as she started the car. She sounded a little irritated, but Derek knew she had to be happy about having something to offer the boss.
“Yes, Ma'am. I think we got ourselves a bad one.”
She peeled out of the parking lot and took off down the road. Derek told her about the almost-robbery, Tristan giggled, and Brenna grinned.
The car hurtled down the desert highway as the minutes ticked away toward midnight. Derek saw a trail of tail lights in the distance. He reached between the seats and pointed. Brenna nodded, dropped a gear and floored it.
They pulled up close to a pickup truck with a pack of goblins riding in the back. Their captive had tried to crawl out the beer window, got stuck, and they were having a grand time tormenting the man. They hooted and waved at the old VW. Derek waved and grinned as they passed.
Hoopties, bangers, trucks, jalopies and rust buckets of all makes and models careened side by side across both lanes of the highway. Every fairy, hobgoblin, pookah, demon, brownie, troll, haint, and ghoul of uncertain origin within a hundred-mile radius had come out for the hunt. Vehicles full of leering Unseelie faces raced down the desert highway in a tight pack. They shifted for position, each one wanting to draw closer to the sleek black Corvette convertible in the lead.
The VW muscled up near the head of the pack. Tristan cranked the window down, shoved his head out into the wind and howled. His call was echoed up and down the line.
“Hey, guys!” He yelled, “We finally got one!”
The Corvette's brake lights flared in the dark.
Brakes squealed as the pack lurched to a stop. Derek winced at the occasional crunch of metal and fiberglass. Doors banged open and shut as the horde poured out of their vehicles.
The goblins hauled their tribute out of the truck by the hair. It took seven or eight of them to drag him close to the Corvette. A pair of winged nightmares swooped in and dropped a hard-looking woman to the pavement. One by one, the Unseelie deposited their offerings in a loose circle in the center of the road.
Brenna opened the trunk with a flourish. Derek grabbed the man by the front of his jacket and hauled him out to a smattering of appreciative applause from the crowd.
The would-be thief was awake, blood crusted on his face. He dangled in the troll’s grip, gibbering his innocence. Derek pulled the man close, making sure he got a good look. The man tried to turn away; he blubbered in fear as blood and snot ran down this face.
“Don't be rude.” The troll breathed into the man’s face. He set him gently on the ground and held him still while the driver of the Corvette approached the tributes. “You're in the presence of royalty now.”
The king was tall and lean, dressed in inky black leather that creaked as he walked. A bleached white deer skull with a massive crown of antlers obscured his face. He folded his arms across his chest and waited.
Each crew recited the crimes and failings of the souls they had caught, seeking his approval. When they received his nod of acceptance, their relief was obvious.
When he turned to Brenna, she curtsied elegantly, her ungulate legs folding neatly beneath her. “This one's damned for sure, Sire. A thief. Tried to kill an innocent man, nearly shot one of us. Will he do?”
The king stared at the thief in silent judgment. Satisfied, he nodded his head, somber and slow. Derek grinned with pride. He wanted to say, “And I caught him!” but he kept it in his head. Calling undue attention from the boss was a bad idea.
The Horned King gestured to the crowd on the west side of the road. He flicked his fingers once. The Fae split and formed a gauntlet of misshapen faces, gnarled limbs, and glowing eyes.
“Run.” The King's voice leapt from the tangle of vehicles, vibrating off metal and glass, wing and fur, finally settling on the terrified human flesh in front of him. They turned and fled into the desert.
The King held up his hand. His Court froze. They squirmed with excitement, ready to give chase. When his hand dropped to his side, the Corvette's horn sounded loud and low across the desert. The Horned King loped silently into the darkness, the pack at his heels.
This story originally appeared in Wicked Words Quarterly, Volume 2.