New Pulp Press

"Bullets, Booze and Bastards"

Sample chapter from The Bastard Hand by Heath Lowrance

My Apocalypse began without the fanfare you might expect. No trumpet-blaring angels, no Horsemen riding out of a sky split asunder, no seas turning to blood . . . nothing like that.

No, my particular Kingdom Come rang in on a more humble note. It began with me getting kicked out of a bar in Memphis on a rainy night in May.

But you know, you get kicked out of enough bars, it doesn’t even faze you. I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d done to warrant it this time, but after the brief scuffle, the feel of my skull slamming against the door, the scrape of the hard cold sidewalk on my face, I pulled myself up and walked away from it. I left my dignity behind, but what the hell, I almost never used it anyway.

I was drunk, I’ll admit it. A pretty sorry state for a potential Messiah. The rain misted down out of a pale sky, tinted red and yellow and green by the neon lights of downtown Memphis. I caught the earthy scent of beer and steamed crawfish. The chill night air hummed with noise and music.

Only six hours before, I’d been baking in the Arkansas sun, hitching a ride just on the other side of the bridge. Memphis hadn’t been my destination, not exactly, but once I’d caught a lift, crossed over the Mississippi, was dropped off near Front and Union, I thought it might be all right to stay awhile.

Almost a year had passed since I’d left Washington with the hazy notion of making it to Florida. My brother’s voice had been nagging me the whole time in the Institute to go there, to see his wife and son and maybe even to visit his grave, but it was still up to me in the end. And besides, I wasn’t even sure if the voice was really my brother’s.

Point being, there was no real prize waiting at the end of my journey, and I kept getting bogged down along the way.

I turned into the first alley I came to, just to get away from everything, and came out on Vance Street. More cars everywhere. Noise. I made my way farther and farther away from the crowds, away from safety or danger or whatever lay behind me.

I was feeling strange. My stomach all tied up, like. My brain sort of fevered. Anxiety or something; I got it all the time in those days, those first months away from doctors and medications and therapies. And it would always come on me out of nowhere. Honestly, drinking didn’t help matters, and being alone in a strange city just put the crazy cap on it.

Cloaked in darkness, empty lots burst with rusty auto parts and broken glass. Unfriendly old buildings, all rotted wood and jagged brick. I stumbled on, clutching my belly, not sure where I was going.

You’re probably thinking I’m crazy. All this talk about Apocalypse and Messiah, anxiety and fevered brain. But I’m not. I’m not crazy.

The rain had died down to a fine drizzle by the time I stopped walking, who knows how much later. I was soaked, tired as hell, and sober.

My fingers ached. I looked at them, noticed that in the vague glow of the streetlight they seemed to be glowing—glowing a soft golden, like sunlight through amber.

I shook my head, flexed the muscles of my hands.

Old factories everywhere, walls of rusted sheet iron, a strange network of tracks that I could only assume had once belonged to the old trolley car system. Street deserted and unlit. The sidewalk broke and buckled, sprouting weeds, snagging trash. A logical voice in my head told me that if I followed the tracks I would end up somewhere, but I couldn’t muster the energy to listen to it. I sat down right where I was, right in the middle of all that darkness and dead industry.

Maybe I fell half-asleep then, I don’t know, but for a while my heart was still and no thoughts vied for attention in my head. Stupid man’s Tao: screw yourself up enough, wear yourself out with frantic anxiety, and you’ll eventually reach a kind of numb Zen.

A sound snapped me out of it—scuffling footsteps. I straightened, alert.

Nothing. The rain had stopped and the faraway sound of water draining into a sewage grate gurgled and gushed.

I listened closer, heard another vague footstep, something kicking and skipping across concrete. A slight misstep right behind it.

Then a dark form appeared out of the blackness, less than ten feet away.

I clamored to my feet, faced the threatening figure. Whoever it was took a short step backwards. A female voice, “Please. I’m just . . . I’m just walking through.”

A pale oval face and slitted, oriental-looking eyes, looking at me fearfully. Dark hair parted in the middle and so short it only reached her jaw line. She wore a blood-red bolero jacket over a white t-shirt. Tight black Capri slacks. She’d either just left some post-modern nightclub or was coming home from a long night of B&Es.

I said, “I’m not going to hurt you.” My tone sounded strange. If I’d been her, I would have doubted me.

To show her I meant it, I stepped back, out of her path, made a sort of grandiose gesture. She stared at me.

“Really,” I said. “I was just sitting here. Nothing to worry about.”

I noticed her purse then, only because her hand started straying toward it. I stepped back again. The last thing I needed was an eyeful of mace.

I said, “Look. I’ll just head off in the other direction, okay? Don’t worry.”

“Right,” she said. “Then what are you going to do? Wait for me around some corner?”

“You got it all wrong, girl. I was just sitting here. Why don’t you just go on your way?”

Her hand was in her purse now. She said, “I’m not stupid, you know. You expect me to believe you were just sitting here in the middle of nowhere, doing nothing?”

“I don’t care what you believe. I got lost, understand? All I want to do is find a bed somewhere and sleep. Now why don’t you just go on and leave me alone?”

She seemed to relax slightly, but her hand stayed near her bag. Stepping out onto the curb, she skirted around me, watching for any sudden moves. I kept my hands in my pockets.

When she’d made it completely around me and I hadn’t made a threatening move, the idea that maybe I wouldn’t rape her finally hit home. Still on guard, but with a touch of friendliness, she said, “You say you’re lost?”


“Well . . . if you go down this street—” she pointed in the direction she was heading, “—you’ll come to Third. Go left and it’ll take you back downtown.”

“Back downtown?” I repeated stupidly.

“Yeah. Do you know your way around there?”

“Um. Sort of. I’m not from here.”

She grimaced, already sorry she’d gotten involved. She asked me if I knew Beale Street and I nodded.

“Okay,” she said, then gave me directions past Beale to a cheap motel on Union.

I tried to look properly intent on what she was saying, but it was all so strange. Standing on a dark, menacing street in the middle of nowhere, getting directions from a beautiful young girl who if she had any sense wouldn’t have been there in the first place. And nodding, hands in pockets, as if it was all perfectly normal.

Exasperated, she said, “Well, how did you get here in the first place?”

I shrugged. “Long story. I’ve had a real bad time tonight. I’m thinking of writing your mayor and complaining.” Then, “What about you? This isn’t exactly the safest place for a girl to be walking around by herself.”

She said, “It isn’t a safe place for anyone, not at this time of night. During the day, people work in these factories, but by six o’clock it’s like a ghost town.”

“So what are you doing here?”

“Going home. This is the fastest way.”

“Kinda foolhardy, isn’t it? I mean, you walking around here all alone.”

She shook her head. “I’m fine here; I know my way around. I’d say you were in more danger than me. A stranger in town and all that, hanging around in the dark.”

I shrugged.

“Don’t you have anything to protect yourself with?” she said. “In case you run into trouble?”

I smiled. “No. No pepper spray in my pocket.”

She smiled back. “Oh, that. Well, I guess I’m not entirely foolhardy after all, am I?”

“Not unless you count the part about talking to strange men in the dark.”

“It’s a small risk. But if you’d wanted to hurt me, you’d have done it already. I just can’t believe you don’t have a weapon or some way of protecting yourself.”


“No gun? Or a knife?”

I laughed. “No.”

She laughed with me. “I’ve never met an unarmed drifter before. Not even a toothbrush that you can jab someone’s eye out with?”

“No. I left my bag with my toothbrush and a change of clothes in a locker at the bus terminal. I thought at the time I’d be able to find my way back to them. I’m completely alone, unarmed and helpless.”

You probably think I’m a world-class sucker, right? I must have been tired, that’s my only excuse, because I sure as hell didn’t see it coming.

She nodded and all the humor went out of her face. In a completely different voice, she said, “Okay. Let’s do it.”

I started to say, “Do what exactly?” but I never got that far. The first syllable was out of my mouth when a black shape appeared in my peripheral vision and a huge weight barreled into my side.

I sprawled out on the broken concrete—second time that night—and two more shadows appeared. One hefted me up, swung me around, and let me go.

I slammed into something hard, heard sheet metal thwang with the impact as currents of pain shot up my spine. A flash of gold teeth, grinning, and a huge gold pinky ring coming at me fast.

My face exploded. Everything went black and red and I hit the sidewalk.

Dark shapes hovered over me, rough hands gripping my shoulders and turning me over onto my back. Then they were moving all over me, searching my pockets.

I groaned. A gruff voice said, “Shit, man. There’s only twenty bucks here!” Then another said, “Hold up, hold up. Lookee here—” and hard fingers pulled open my shirt and yanked at the money belt tied around my waist. “Yeah! Here’s the jackpot, Bone.”

The one with gold teeth and a gold ring pulled at the belt, jerking my body hard. I groaned again, swatted at his head. He finally found the buckle, undid it, and my money belt came off in his hand. Someone whooped, and it echoed up and down the street.

“Kill the stupid bastard,” someone said.

“No,” said the girl. “Just go. Let’s go.”

“I wanna kill him.”

Laughter rang in staccato bursts. And then they were moving away from me—all but one of them. My eyes were closed but I could still see, still see the blade as it appeared out of the dark and gleamed viciously and came down at my chest and sent currents of fire through my body.

From somewhere far off, I heard the girl, the sweet pretty girl who was so scared I might hurt her, call back to me, “Don’t get lost on your way back downtown, you hear?” Then she laughed, a lilting innocent laugh, the way the ancient sirens must have sounded after luring a ship onto the jagged rocks. The one who stabbed me shuffled off after the others.

While the sounds of their revelry died away into the night, I lay there examining the inner mechanics of my death. I didn’t feel particularly troubled. It hurt, but even that wasn’t too bad. It occurred to me that this might very well be the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me, and I wondered where the hell Kyle was, so he could talk me through it.

But after a few minutes, I began to think that maybe I wasn’t going to die after all. I slowly sat up, wincing with every inch of movement. My fingers were glowing golden again. I ran them over my torso and they came away bloody. Pulling open my shirt, I touched my chest, where the blade had entered—a short, thin slit, but the bleeding had already stopped and it even looked like the healing process had begun.

“Huh,” I said.

I felt my nose. Bleeding, but it didn’t seem to be broken. Pain in my jaw, though, along the lower left side, and I tasted blood. I had an awful feeling a tooth was cracked. Over all, though, it wasn’t too bad. I’d had worse.

You’ve been stabbed. You should be dead. What do you mean, you’ve had worse? Not my brother’s voice, but my own, prompting me to think about something I didn’t want to think about.

No, it wasn’t too bad. But my money. I still had a fifty-dollar bill hidden in my shoe, but everything else was gone.

Still sitting, I screamed as loud as I could, “Bastards! You bastards!” It didn’t make me feel better. In fact, it made me sick. I crawled to the curb and puked my guts out.