(Author’s notes appear at the end)
Time Flies and a Six-Gun
by J N Keir
Zeke covered his ears against the shrill shrieking of brakes. The train was loud and angry, but quieted to a thumping that carried on and on until it slowed just enough to exchange the mail. It passed the post office platform at a slow saunter and a clerk jacketed in blue appeared at the top of the mail car.
The clerk reached out and pulled a steamer trunk off the station platform, hauling it aboard. It made a rattle and a thump of its own, and in Zeke’s head it went “tick tock”. At the same time a second postal clerk appeared atop the platform and hurled a few dark bags onto the car’s roof. The whistle blew, and with a huff and a rumble the train started onwards, a coal-snorting worm. The clerks nodded to each other.
“Tick tock, Mari-my-love. The clock will be ours today,” Zeke said to no one in particular.
The flies crawling on a nearby saguaro made a funny sound when they flew off toward the platform. They disappeared under the overhang and started a row with local hornets. It didn’t end well for the hornets. Zeke spit dirty chaw onto that same cactus, watched the slime splatter and start to run, then slow down to a Vermont molasses in winter crawl. Time was on Zeke’s side. A thumb in his belt to hold it up, he lumbered out from the tumbleweeds, up the platform stair, and pistol-whipped the love of God and gold right out of the hapless clerk.
“Tick tock, Mari.” Zeke smiled at the creeping train.
With a preternatural leap, he hurled himself bodily upon the great iron beast now held captive in time. An instant later he flipped a ragdoll of a broken clerk off the train. The flies following Zeke made their funny sound again. Reinvigorated, the abandoned spit flowed down the cactus into the burns around the base, and the train chugged on.
With a little applied physics, Zeke managed to bust the lock off the steamer, and it swung open sideways. Inside, packed up like some kind of holy relic, sat a small mantle clock. The face wasn’t quite right though: it hadn’t been keeping time, leastways not in English. The images graven in the old metal faceplate were squarish, blocky and primitive. It flipped open easy enough, and steady stream of new flies joined the others crowding around the corrupt Zeke.
“Tick tock, flies came out of the clock, and the whole world stopped.” He flipped the plate closed.
“You’ll forgive me, won’t you Mari?” Zeke asked. He tucked the clock under his arm, closed the trunk, and shambled out of the mail car.
Marianne’s compartment had some kind of grudge against sleepers. A constancy of sounds jostled like elbows in her mind, kept time with the rattle of the rail, and the infernal ticking of that damn clock. It drove her to drink and smoke poppy weed with a self-destructive abandon. The ongoing opera running in her head had made her stomach sour. Her one-time lover – the madman Ezekiel Alhazred – was cold and dead. He’d been crossed-over by the Ragman’s goons in Louisiana. Of course he was dead, but he was too dumb to stop. He’d found a way to ride his own corpse from beyond the dream, and he meant to have her back.
Onward the train chugged through the panhandle, and blue smoke took Marianne to the Crossroads.
“Tick tock, Mari. The clock’s struck men down, and there’s blood all over your hands,” Zeke announced to no one.
He made his way through a rough car full of life’s litter and pushed through a swinging door into the bar car. Instead of spurs jangling there was only the predictable time-keeping of the clock under his arm.
“Tick tock, rustlers. Let’s have a round; Mari will be back in my arms soon,” Zeke announced.
“Aw, hell. Is that you Zeke? You’ve got some brass to show your face on the lower states trans-conti’,” the barman answered. His look was sour. “‘Sides, as I heard it you’re dead.”
“I am dead, Joe. Pour me two and if you reach for it, I’ll send you to hell.” Zeke’s chin jutted out to the bar, and he winked at himself in the mirror behind the bottles. The barkeep’s lever-action rifle rested long-unused along the shelf below.
Zeke slapped a pistol onto the counter and added, “I’ll probably send you there anyway.”
“Still shithouse crazy, Zeke?” Joe asked. He pulled a mug of draught then filled a shot glass with whiskey. “I don’t need none of your trouble in here,” he added.
“Tick tock, barkeep. It’s too late for that. Nice clock.”
Joe looked back over his shoulder at the recent addition on the mantle.
“Just arrived from N’awlins last week.
Zeke picked up his pistol and shot the bartender, but what issued from his gun was not a bullet. It made a funny noise.
“Tick tock,” Zeke whispered, “the clock struck three.” He set the Ragman’s Clock on the bar.
Marianne jerked up from a slouch. Her sleeping car stunk of weed, and her bottle of Kentucky Straight had fallen and spilled. She rose and opened the window to watch the countryside rumble by. Cactuses stretched up towards the hell-vault. The vault in turn leaned upon distant mesas. The desert sprawled.
She’d consigned the Ragman’s Clock to the postal service in hopes it would cross through unnoticed. But Ezekiel was drawn to it now that he’d gone over, and by association drawn to her. From here within the dragon’s breath she’d watched him come on like a force of nature. If she could keep him back long enough, Ragman’s security would pick up the clock and it would cease being her problem.
Sore, and tired of the anxiety, Marianne reached for the pipe again.
“Why thank you. I will have another,” Zeke said. He leaned over bar and retrieved the bottle. Joe, meanwhile, stood ramrod straight and grave-dirt still, his eyes focused on the crossroads living men don’t often see.
Zeke turned his decomposing mug to the bar car patrons. “Any of you other whoresons care for some? Firewater burns, and all.”
Around the bar were only wide eyes filled with frightful unease.
Zeke pulled himself across the heavy wood bar counter with without the slightest hint of grace and pushed the catatonic Joe out of the way. He poured shots and slid them down the bar to men with shaking hands.
“Tick tock a toast, gentlemen.” He lifted his glass. Three others hesitated then followed suit.
“To Papa Legba’s cane!” Zeke roared.
“…the hell does that mean?” one asked.
Zeke looked at the speaker. He was a nothing of a man; a ghost likely headed west looking for gold like the rest of them. Maybe he was just a parasite throwing cards for a living. His spirit was near the crossroads.
“Tick tock, the clock struck four.” Zeke’s pistol clicked, the clock ticked, and flies filled the room.
“Fuck it,” Zeke added, “five and six too.”
When the flies were done, Zeke retrieved shot glasses from catatonic hands.
“Waste not, want not. Thus spoke a dead man. Tick tock.” He drank, and chuckled at his joke.
Marianne struggled back to consciousness and vomited the bile, booze, and nothingness out of her stomach. Cold evening air whistled in through the open window.
“You bastard… they weren’t even in your way, Zeke.”
Marianne opened her valise and drew out a book, setting it upon her lap. It was old, hand-tooled and bound using techniques forgotten in Baghdad long before the Louisiana Refund. It was the book Ezekiel once tried to steal from the Ragman back in New Orleans. It might even be the center of this whole mess. Marianne shuddered in unwelcome delight as her fingers teased the lock-latch open. The words within fueled her, pushing the bouquet of toxins out through her pours and buying her some time. The images in her mind took clearer focus.
She loaded up her pipe, and went back to the dreams.
“C’mon, Mari. It was a mistake; you forgive me, don’t you?”
Zeke leaned on a bar stool bolted to the floor. There wasn’t much left to see in the bar car or those others he’d already passed through. Instead, he watched swarms of flies swirling in front of the windows. The flies reminded him of the drum rituals back home where he’d rolled the dice against the Ragman and lost. He’d almost been beheaded right then and there, but he’d escaped with a handful of his own balls and little else – escaped for a while, at least. The Ragman caught up to him in Hunter’s Paradise.
The maddening ideograms on the clock face were also tattooed on the Ragman’s hands. They were the shapes found in forgotten pyramids hidden under the mounds in Mexico, and translated in the Ragman’s beloved Livre de Temps du Rêve. Zeke had tried to steal the book and the clock, but lost out. He’d left Marianne behind to endure the fallout.
“How much did you have to take, Mari? Tick tock.” He finished off the bottle of rotgut then hurled its corpse in amongst the stack of catatonic travelers. He made his way forward toward the luxury cars.
Marianne managed to sedate herself long enough to miss the crossing into Arizona and dream herself to the crossroads where Ezekiel went through.
She found the book out on the compartment floor, laid open. The pages were smudged with blood and incriminating stains marred her fingertips. Curious, she risked a quick look in her mirror compact. She rubbed the dried blood away from her nose. Time was on her side.
Marianne returned to the window and gulped in the desert air.
The train had one more transaction to make along the postal circuit. A Wells Fargo armored carriage waited at the station, but when the train thundered on without so much as slowing down, riders went in all directions with dispatches and instructions.
Marianne watched the activity, sticking her head outside the window to see it unfold. The train had missed its transfers, the steamer trunk was officially gone and its contents missing. With luck, she’d still be on this side of the tracks when Ragman’s people caught up.
She stepped out of the sleeper compartment for the first time since she’d boarded. There was nothing beyond but the familiar, infernal ticking.
Everywhere she went, passengers were catatonic. Zeke had been busy.
Marianne watched herself step into the empty passenger car. She had an unfamiliar deliberateness to her movements, a swiftness and surety she didn’t recognize. It wasn’t the real her, but some version of her transferred into the dragon-dream augmented by the book’s formula.
The station platform was empty except for the nightmare riding what was left of the man that used to be Ezekiel.
“You look like shit, Zeke.” She heard herself say.
“No worse’n you, Mari. You’ve been at the pipe, haven’t you? Tick tock. No matter; we’ll get you right as rain again.”
Marianne raised a .38, her grip steadier than it should be. Zeke’s head cocked and an over-exposed eye twitched.
“Can’t hurt me, Mari. Dead’s dead, you know that.”
“I think you missed something, Zeke.”
“What’s that, Mari?”
“The Ragman’s hands burned me when you ran. He gave me the damn book, sent me here to put you down, you bastard! Ragman will get it all back on the other side.”
Marianne pulled the trigger. It made a funny noise.
“Aw, hell. Really?” Zeke touched his face where the issue hit him. His fingers came away stiff. “Don’t reckon we’re going to set right between us, then?”
Marianne ran a finger along the rough surface his chin. The rigor was taking hold.
“Don’t think so, Zeke,” she said.
“I still love you.”
“Hush, Zeke; it’s over. Tick tock.”
This is my first attempt at completing a Terribleminds FF challenge. I’m pretty happy with the outcome, though I struggled with the setting of “inside someone’s mind”. I wanted badly to make this literally in someone’s brain, but resisted the urge to depart from the boundaries given. It definitely forced me to think…and read it to the wife a couple times.
Thank you to Chuck Wendig for the prompt and the forum!
Terribleminds Flash Fiction Challenge: Super-Ultra-Mega Game of Aspects
Subgenre: Weird West
Setting: Inside someone’s mind
Conflict: A ticking clock
To include: Ancient book
Theme: Love will fuck everything up.
Relevant Chuck Wendig Blog Post (clicky)