Story art by Wendy Saber Core.
From the author: Following a psychotic break, Eli Carver finds himself on the run, behind the wheel of a car that’s not his own, in the company of a terrified woman he doesn’t know. As he slowly rebuilds his memories, layers of ugly truth are peeled back and dark secrets are revealed. Before long, the duo find themselves on the wrong side of Eli’s old criminal syndicate, in a struggle for survival against the most dangerous forces in their lives.
With the release of the third ELI CARVER Supernatural Thriller later this year, I thought I'd put a teaser here for the first one. So here's the opening pages of MANIFEST RECALL: Eli Carver 1.
by Alan Baxter (c) 2018
“The souls that throng the flood
Are those to whom, by fate, are other bodies ow'd:
In Lethe's lake they long oblivion taste,
Of future life secure, forgetful of the past.”
The Aeneid (Book VI), Virgil, 19 BCE
I bought a used car off a woman as thin as her hand-rolled cigarettes. “It’s a good price,” I told her. “Why are you selling?”
“Last year,” she said, beginning to tremble, “I had a business and a husband. Now I have neither. I can’t wake up in the middle of the night any more, unable to breathe, panicking about debt.”
I remember that clearly. Her wide, bloodshot eyes, her stained teeth and rat-tail hair. I feel it like a weight on me, my sympathy for that terrible, mundane predicament. It’s indelible that memory. So I know exactly who I got this car from, even if I have no idea where it happened. Or when. Or where I am now.
Or who the hell this shivering girl beside me might be.
Her knees are pulled up to her chest, dirty bare feet on the seat, arms wrapped around her shins. She’s wearing her seat belt, and her hands are secured together at the wrists with a black plastic cable tie. All that I see from the corner of my eye. I dare not turn to look directly at her. Not yet. She stares ahead through the windshield, unmoving. Her face is almost as dirty as her feet and she’s wearing an oversized T-shirt. Whether she has on shorts or only underwear underneath, or even nothing at all, I can’t tell.
The road ahead is dark, no streetlights, only the car’s headlights spiking onto the grey, dirty asphalt. Trees flicker by on either side, occasionally a glimpse of stars in the night sky when the canopy over the road briefly breaks.
Where the hell am I?
I feel as though I’ve just been switched on, like a light in an old house, flooding a room with illumination for the first time in years. Or ever. A flicker of story from Greek mythology comes to me. Lethe. One of five rivers in the underworld of Hades, the river of unmindfulness. The shades of the dead were required to drink its waters in order to forget their earthly life. Maybe I've died and drunk a gutful of Lethe and this is some strange Hell.
I need to take it back a bit. Instead of trying to figure out why I can’t remember all this stuff, let’s see what I can remember. Can I remember anything?
My name is Eli Carver.
I’m twenty-eight years old.
I killed a man in New Orleans and it made me vomit.
Jesus fuck, I put that gun against his ear and pulled the trigger and his head exploded like a fucking watermelon. I can still see my hand trembling as I did it, recall the wash of terror and disgust. I didn’t want to do it, but something made me. Someone made me. It was a hot night, a warm breeze blowing gently across that balcony overlooking Bourbon Street, carrying the aromas of fried food and cigar smoke. My knees were knocking like saplings in a gale. But I did it. I killed him.
“You back, you fucking weirdo?”
Her voice startles me out of my thoughts and the car weaves slightly left and right.
“Don’t drive off the fucking road and kill us now, you dick.”
She’s still staring straight ahead, still clutching her knees. Her voice is hard, hateful.
I glance across at her, she can’t be more than eighteen or nineteen. “Back?”
“You’ve been a robot since Vernon’s, man. You gotta pull it together.”
She clearly knows more than I do, but I can hardly ask her to fill me in. Can I? She’s the one tied up and filthy. I’m driving. Have I kidnapped her? I suck a long breath in through my nose and try to stay calm, act like I’m not a blank page in an empty notebook. Vernon’s, she said. Do I know any Vernons?
“Can you at least turn the damn heater on?”
It is cold in the car and I’m wearing jeans and boots and a short denim jacket over a black T-shirt. No wonder she’s shivering. I crank up the heat and it blasts from the vents in an instant, warm and musty, stinking of burned oil. Maybe this car isn’t what it used to be. In the memory of buying it, the thing was almost new, smelled of air freshener and the seats were clean. That must have been a long time ago and I obviously had some money back then. I’m not sure what’s in my pocket now.
And it’s cold, but the night I shot that guy was warm. How much time has passed? He was the first, I realize, long ago. But not the last. He was the catalyst, the one who changed me. Here and now, this night, this dark road, was kick-started that night as I turned and vomited into a potted palm on that sweaty balcony. Someone laughing, saying, “Damn, kid, I didn’t think you had it in you. Thought we’d be burying two bodies tonight.”
And through the haze of my vomit tears I see the broad back of a man with a bald head, trailing acrid cigar smoke, walking back through double leadlight doors into the house. His shoulders move as he’s still laughing to himself. Vernon. Vernon Sykes, mobster extraordinaire. Of course. That’s him, but I can’t see his face. Still can’t remember that. Two burly guys clap me on the back, one says, “That puking will stop. You’ll get used to it.”
It’s not something I ever want to get used to.
“We got this,” the other says. “You’re done for tonight. Go and get drunk, get laid. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
The first one leans in, dark skin glittering with a sheen of sweat. “But this is your virgin special. After this you take care of your own stiffs, you get me?”
I just nod, catch a glimpse of the dead guy’s head smeared up the wall, his neck leaking ichor onto the white deck, half his face staring back at me with a blank eye, and I turn and puke again.
Michael. His name was Michael Privedi, he was a rat, and Vernon had me take care of it, because he thought I was a rat too. But I wasn’t.
“We need to stop before I piss my pants,” the girl says.
So she’s wearing pants then. “You just want to run away.”
“Fucking right I do!” she spits. “You’re gonna get us both wasted! But out here in nothing but a T-shirt and panties? I’d be dead before morning. How about you stand beside me and hold my fucking hair while I squat? That work for you? I just need to piss.”
She is so angry, and I can’t blame her. But she’s clearly terrified too. Not even twenty years old. Something jolts through me. Twenty years old. That’s how old I was when I shot Michael in New Orleans. I don’t know how, but I know I’m twenty-eight now. Why do I remember that and so little else? Eight years ago. No wonder the car looks crappy. I pull over to the shoulder and get out, go around to her side and open the door. She looks at me and then tips her head towards my hands.
“I don’t want to hold your hair. Just stay nearby.”
She makes a hissing sound of disgust and moves a yard away to the edge of the trees. It’s awkward for her to pull her underwear down with her hands bound up in front, but she does it, sits, and a stream of steaming piss hits the dirt. She really did need to go. It makes me want to go too, so I move away and piss into the trees with my back to her.
“You really know how to take a girl on a date, Eli,” she says, and there’s a tone of amusement in her voice, the anger a little dissipated.
I can’t help laughing a little. “I bring all my girls to this stretch of highway for a piss.”
She huffs, half a laugh, and I hear her scuffling around as I zip up. I expect her to be hightailing it into the woods as I turn back, but she’s already back in her seat, pulling the car door closed. I get back into the driver’s seat, start the engine, pull away again, the dark highway sliding by. As dark as my still empty mind.
“Where do you think we’re going?” she says.
I don’t even know her name. “North.”
“North? How much further north can we go? There’s nowhere you can go and outrun Vernon.”
Michael leans through the gap between the front seats, one side of his head and half his face a ragged, bloody mess. “She’s right, man. You know she’s right.”
I scream and the car swerves, gravel sprays from the tires. The girl slams her hands to the dashboard to brace herself. “What the fuck, Eli?”
My heart is hammering, my throat feels swollen with it. In the rearview mirror, the back seat is empty. I twist around to see and there’s no one there.
“The fuck is wrong with you?” She glances back too, smooth brow creased in a frown.
Man, she’s beautiful. It’s like I’m only just noticing that, but I’ve known it for a long time. I’ve known her since she was a child, ten years old, maybe less. As she got towards thirteen and fourteen, I hated myself for the carnal thoughts I had. Then she got to sixteen and seventeen, started looking like a grown woman, and everyone agreed she was a stunner. Long, black hair with a soft wave, startling green eyes, smooth skin. The body of a dancer and a heart-shaped face with full lips.
Her name rises up like a bubble through tar. Carly. Oh shit. Carly Sykes.
I’ve got Vernon’s daughter.
“If you hadn’t smashed my phone we could find out where the nearest motel is,” she says after a few miles of silent driving.
She looks at me, her gaze searing as I drive and I refuse to take my eyes off the road. “You were blanked out for a long time, Eli. You really scared me.”
“You don’t remember?”
“It’s a little blurry.” Understatement of a lifetime.
“Fucking days, man. You remember driving for two days with me in the trunk?”
I can’t help looking at her and my shock must be written across my face, because her own hard gaze softens.
“You really don’t, do you? You were like a zombie. You didn’t even feed me for the first day and a half, or give me any water.”
I lick my lips, shame burning my cheeks. “I’m sorry, Carly.”
She shakes her head, stares down into her lap. I catch the glint of a tear reflecting the dashboard lights as it falls to her thigh, soaks into the dirty T-shirt. “I thought you were going to kill me too.”
Who else did I kill?
“I guess there’s a part of me that wouldn’t blame you.”
I remember I have a bag behind the passenger seat with a couple of changes of clothes, some cash, a few other survival bits and pieces. For whenever I found myself out on the road for a day or two, unexpectedly, sent on some mission for Vernon. I could maybe give Carly something else to wear from there. I get a flash of her standing in that oversized T-shirt, clean but shocked, the room around me drenched in blood. I gasp and my brain shuts down on the recollection.
“Hey! Hey, asshole!”
I blink and shake my head, turn to look at her.
“Don’t you blank on me again, man. I need you to hold it together. I’m so hungry and so tired, and so fucking filthy. We have to rest. Find a motel, get ourselves sorted out. You stink, man. You need a shower too.”
I let my eyes roam over my hands, realize I’m dirty as hell. There’s dried blood on my pale knuckles, and jammed under my nails. A sidelong look at the rearview mirror shows my face is smeared with dirt like hers, more blood there too. Pretty sure none of it’s mine. My green eyes are hooded, my dark, curly dark hair matted and greasy. I have a hell of a bruise across my right cheekbone, swollen and yellowing around the edges of a midnight blue lump.
“Okay.” I know she’s right. We’ve been driving like this two days? Surely there’s enough space and time for me to catch up, figure shit out. “No names, no credit cards.” The words come to me as easily as breathing. I know I’m good at this stuff.
“Like I’ve got those any more than I still have my phone.” She leans back, gestures at herself with both hands. “Maybe I can at least get some fucking shoes?”
I grind my teeth. I have to stay in control of this. “No phone calls. You stay in the room.”
Her eyes flash fury, she opens her mouth to speak. But I interrupt before she can get going.
“You give me your sizes, I’ll get us both new clothes and whatever else we need. Meanwhile, I might have something here you can use.”
She presses her lips together, staring daggers at me, but I keep my eyes on the road. Eventually she subsides, slumps back down into her seat, staring balefully out at the night.
Nothing more is said for over an hour and the whole time I’m searching the blank cavern of my brain, but all I come up against are dark walls. Except for one thing. My second kill.
Now, I know Vernon made me kill Michael Privedi. He was my first and made me puke. We’d come up together, Michael and me, both making good at Vern’s heel. But Michael had always been a little unstable. I remember Vernon took me under his wing when I was eighteen, that memory is clear enough now. My parents died at the hands of a drunk driver when I was five, I remember that too. Well, I remember being told about it. In all honesty, I have precious few recollections of any kind until I was into my teens and in state care. I guess I’ve always had this propensity for lost memories. I recall hundreds of books though. Giant fantasy romps and science fiction space operas. Thrillers and mystery novels, Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes. I’ve been mocked my whole life for being a bookworm, but I’m a big guy too and learned early on how to fight, so I’ve never really taken too much shit off anyone. And I’d always retreat into books to hide from the pain of real life.
When I was fifteen or sixteen I used to skip out from school by hanging around in Privedi’s Workshop with Michael. He’d skip classes too, his dad owned the garage. His old man didn’t give a crap whether his son was in school or not, let us both hang around and talk shit with the mechanics, drink beer and smoke cigarettes while they fixed cars, or chopped them. When you think about it, Michael’s dad was an asshole. But he was connected too, a wingman in Vernon’s crew. And soon enough, Vern started showing an interest in me and Michael. Brought us both in when we turned eighteen, after grooming us for a good year or so.
Then only two years later, a jack mysteriously failed and dropped a ’97 Buick right on Michael’s dad. Except it was only a mystery to the police. We all knew Vernon made it happen because Mr. Privedi had been into the Colombian cartel for about fifty large and face had to be saved. The fool was playing around with all kinds of gamblers, and one of Vern’s made men owing that kind of cash to the Colombians? Unforgiveable. These memories are flooding back now.
But Michael couldn’t forgive Vernon. He kept raving about how come Vern couldn’t make some other retribution, save face some other way, why did his dad have to die? Michael knew the truth. He just didn’t want to accept it. And so he started looking for a way out and that kingshit detective, Rob Bradon, got his claws in. Made Michael start giving stuff up. Of course, Vern had considered that possibility and was watching closely. As soon as Michael started to crack, Vern called a meeting at the house on Bourbon Street.
“I wanna make things right between you and me, about your dad,” Vern had said to Michael.
Right then I started to get chills, I could tell something was up. So could Michael, he started looking left and right like a cat that’s forgotten to check a room for exits. Vern’s main wingmen, big black Charles and equally big, white and red-haired Peter, shifted up to either side of Michael and led him by the elbows.
“Let’s go on the balcony for some air,” Vern had said. “Eli, come on.”
I’d started to tremble, wondering what the hell was up. Me and Michael, we were close like brothers, everyone knew that. If Michael had done something fucking stupid, was he going to take me down with him? At that point I’d no idea he was giving intel to Bradon, but I was getting concerned about him, wondering if he might do something unforgiveable. I was so damn young and naïve then.
When we walked into that sticky night, out of the cooling comfort of the fans and AC, Vernon dabbed his sweating forehead with a white handkerchief and passed me a gun with the other hand. Now I can see him, square-faced, granite jaw, eyes a little too close together, dark and penetrating. Skin like cement, always a little bit grey. But he was strong and healthy too.
“We all know why we’re here,” he said, almost like he was too tired to even bother.
“You got this wrong, Vern,” Michael said. His teeth were chattering like he was cold, and his eyes darted left and right, tears sitting on his lashes. “You know I wouldn’t rat you out, you know I wouldn’t cause you any grief, Vern. You know I’m not my old man.”
Vernon shook his head. “Seems I know a lot of stuff. I’ll tell you the only thing I don’t know.” He looked at me and the weight of his gaze was like a punch.
The gun seemed to weigh a ton in my hand, but it was only a revolver. A thirty-two with six bullets. I already knew it would only spit one tonight. I had no choice.
Vern’s face was blank. “I don’t know whether it’s just you, or you and your buddy here.”
His eyes didn’t leave mine, so I straightened up and met his gaze. I’d suspected Michael might crack, but I’d also ignored it, distanced myself a little since Mr. Privedi got flattened by a Buick, waiting to see how Michael would shape up. Self-preservation is a strong instinct. I had nothing to hide, nothing to be guilty about.
“I don’t know what he’s done wrong, Mr. Sykes. But whatever it is, it hasn’t been with me.”
Vern had smiled. “You only call me Mr. Sykes when you’re nervous, Eli.”
“Damn straight I’m fucking nervous now, Mr. Sykes.”
“So prove to me you’re not a rat. I know for a fact that he is. He dies tonight.”
Michael had started gibbering and gabbling, crying and wiping at the snot flooding his top lip. Charles cuffed him into silence and he quietly hitched breaths while Vern stared at me.
“He dies tonight by your hand, to prove you’re with me,” Vern said. “Or he dies by Charles’s hand and Peter kills you.”
I shook my head, mind spinning, feeling like I was about to explode from the sheer pulse of nerves. “Mr. Sykes, I’m for you all the way, but please don’t make me kill Michael. He’s my friend. I’ve never killed a man before.”
“It was bound to happen sometime.”
“Sure, I figured that, but not my best friend.”
Vern’s eyes narrowed and a cold wave broke over me. “Your best friend?”
“Mr. Sykes. Vernon! I’m not a rat!”
And Michael’s sobs grew louder.
Vern gestured to the gun hanging loose in my hand. “Prove it, Mr. Carver.”
So I put that gun to Michael’s ear and I pulled the trigger, before I could stop to think about it any more, because I knew I was a dead man otherwise. And I couldn’t bear to hear another second of Michael’s panic and distress.
And then I puked in a potted palm.
And Charles said to me, “But this is your virgin special. After this you take care of your own stiffs, you get me?”
Seems I remember more than I thought.