Vance Sangler’s guts twisted with fear. He could not submerge the memory of Tom Yazzie’s corpse sitting up and talking with the top of its head shot off.
A passenger in his twinjet Dassault Falcon he had christened the Black Wasp, Vance flew with two other men, Perry Levitt and Munk. At 500 mph, they played a losing game of chase with a scarlet-wash sunset, heading west from Detroit to Arizona to finish a messy job.
Vance hid his anxiety with hard words through a forced toothy grin. “Pop-pop...pop. Two to the head, one to the heart.”
Stretching out on the co-pilot seat, imitating a gun with his hand, Vance said, “with the silencer, no more noise than a knock at the door.”
Perry had set the jet on autopilot while he calculated the profits from Vance’s operations on a laptop computer. Perry’s overall demeanor matched his hair, clean-cut and professional.
He looked over at Vance with a grin, then back to his computer. “Pop-pop...pop? Damn, you’re as warm and cuddly as a dental drill.”
Vance tensed in anger, then relaxed. Just a joke. Only Perry could talk to him that way. Munk sat behind them in the passenger section, cleaning the entrails of his dissected .44 Silver Talon pistol.
Vance tolerated Perry’s wiseass comments and Munk’s stupidity because he needed both of them, especially Perry. Perry kept the flow of money straight from his quickly growing gambling empire.
Vance had loaned seed money to construct Indian casinos in Arizona. From his Detroit operations he controlled a business with his winning the games a mathematical certainty. Legal, voluntary extortion.
Anxiety gouged inside Vance again. But he couldn’t show it in front of the men. He shook his head. He needed something to keep his mind off what had happened earlier that day. But what had happened? Nothing. Nothing had happened. Yazzie broke the rules. That’s all. Vance told himself again he hadn’t seen the Indian’s corpse speak after the execution.
* * *
That morning, Tom Yazzie had flown up from Arizona to die. He had come without his wife, Dovesong. Vance convinced him to come all the way up to Detroit to reckon profits from the casino, but Vance’s real reason was to murder Tom.
Information in the syndicate had a relentless “trickle up” effect and it wasn’t long before Vance learned of Tom Yazzie’s actions.
Tom, a pure Apache, wore two iron-grey ponytails falling beside a disarming closed-mouth smile. Dovesong was unlike the usual bimbos inhabiting Vance’s world-they were simply currents of slippery jelly candy in the rivers of cash-she was different somehow.
Vance, Munk and Tom gathered later in Vance’s office. Munk blended into the nondescript decor, holding a cross-armed vigil over the meeting.
“What’s this I hear about you paying protection to a local gang again?” Vance asked after the profits were calculated.
“The Anasazi,” Tom Yazzie said with a nod. “They are not a gang. They gave me this.” He pointed to his forehead, showing a circular, black-and-white tattoo divided into quarters with odd characters in each quarter-circle.
Vance flashed. “A gang sign! I can’t believe you’re paying protection again!” He stood up, knocking over his chair and continued yelling in disbelief, “I told you what I’d do!”
Tom’s steady smile disappeared and his expression narrowed. “I pay out of my share this time. For Dovesong.”
“I don’t give a giggly-good-God-damn!” Vance’s bear-trap temper had sprung, catching Tom. He broke his glare to yell at the ceiling, punctuating his words with his arm stabbing the air above him. “Vance Sangler don’t pay protection to nobody!”
“It’s not that kind of protection,” Yazzie answered. His expression then had relaxed. With closed eyes, head tilted up and a slight smile, he said, “When a man sleeps with vipers, he must know his eventual fate.”
Yazzie stood and began to chant. Vance then received his first taste of Anasazi sorcery-the Apache began to vibrate, the edges of his form blurring. Yazzie’s skin darkened to the shade of a black man. The big Indian dropped to his knees, chanting in what sounded like backwards talk. The color of his eyes transformed while Vance watched, turning sickly yellow with the pupils slit like a cat’s, except longways from side-to-side.
Though Vance couldn’t understand the meaning of the chant, the cadence creeped him out. His fear doubled his rage and he shouted, “You and your squaw are dead!” He nodded to Munk and muttered, “Give him wings.”
Munk turned and with a silver flash off the pistol casing, nonchalantly shot Yazzie twice in the head. The Apache fell and Munk fired once more into the body. The torso bucked with the final shot.
What had just happened got to Vance. The eyes were so yellow. Glowing. People’s eyes couldn’t get that way. Could they?
With the top of Yazzie’s head mostly a textured splash of crimson on the wallpaper and carpet, Munk turned away and nestled his gun to his face. He caressed its barrel and Vance could hear him speaking softly to it, like a lover, while slowly dancing and holding the gun’s new warmth to his cheek.
Munk had his back to the body and did not see what happened next. First, the legs of the body twitched. Vance took no alarm, bodies do that sometimes.
Then from nowhere, a swirling mist surrounded the corpse. The fog had no substance, but formed a slow whirlpool of nothingness leaching color from the dead man. When Yazzie’s color completely drained to gray, the twitching turned into deliberate movement.
Vance’s mouth hung open and his throat constricted shut as he watched the corpse propped itself up awkwardly on the stained carpet. It looked at Vance with sallow eyes, the top of its skull blown off, exposing white edges of bone like a great broken eggshell crowning a twisted face. It bent forward and vomited a mixture of stone, tufts of hair, and clittering bone. The purge ended, it lifted its head and spoke in a cavernous voice-
“Dovesong is protected.”
The body suddenly dropped into a limp heap.
“Munk!” Vance pointed at the body. “Did you hear that?”
Munk turned. “What?” He looked around and said, “I don’t hear nuthin’”
“The guy just...” Vance stopped. “Nothing.” Munk had not seen what happened. And though Munk was a Grade-A psycho, he would talk. That news would have Vance prancing through the cracker-patch, and Vance couldn’t have that on the street. He waved Munk away. “Never mind.”
* * *
Now Vance sat in the jet, smoking a cigarette, struggling with the memory. He had handled hundreds of confrontations, getting to the top of his world with unfailing self-confidence. So could he tap into it now? The answer again came in the sweet balm of anger.
Yazzie was paying protection.
Vance seethed at the thought but repressed his anger to calmly say to Perry, “Yazzie paid protection to some Nazi Indians. What’s up with that?”
“Nazi Indians?” Perry smirked, shook his head and said, “I can’t even guess.”
Vance turned to Munk back in the terry-covered cabin. Munk had a face and body that nature had pounded squat, always unreadable, but an efficient emissary of murder.
Vance blew a cloud of cigarette smoke directly at him and smiled. Munk glowered through the foul exhaust, finished reassembling his pistol with a crisp snapping of the bolt and said, “Ya know, those things’ll kill you.”
This struck Vance as funny. “I’m not going to die from cigarettes.” He laughed, then said, “I don’t flirt with death, I ride her to a froth.”
“Sure, boss.” Munk holstered his weapon under his arm.
Perry monitored the twilight sky ahead as he spoke, “No one there? No witnesses?”
Vance sat up. “It went down perfect. Munk capped Yazzie before he knew it. Pow! Brain-burger wallpaper. Munk’s a fuckin’ master.”
“Compliment me in cash,” Munk grumbled, gazing out the porthole.
Vance sat back, breathing a little too hard. Sweating. Lips working soundlessly like an addict on a crank-jag.
Perry looked at Vance out of the corner of his eye.
Brightening, Vance turned to Munk. “Ya know, this Dovesong chick’s a real snake-charmer. You might wanna blow your noodle before you clip her.”
“Hey!” Munk snapped. “I’ll kill her but I ain’t no rapist.” He turned back to the window. “That’s disrespectful.”
Perry then squinted and asked, “Isn’t Tom’s wife that Native American beauty who came to your party last summer?”
“Yeah. Even you, Perry, wanted to wax her happy place. And Tom Yazzie was a fuckin’ goof.” Perplexed, Vance turned to Perry. “How did a strange ranger like him end up with such a savory bitch?”
“Yeah, she is a sweet little cinnamon sugar-drop. Why do you need to whack her?” Perry asked, “I mean, why don’t you just pick another manager?”
“Sending a message to that new manager,” Vance replied. He sat back, pulling a scowl down over his face like a ski mask. “She’s good as dead.”
He took a pack of cigarettes from his coat, tapped one out and stuck it in his mouth. Yazzie’s murder played in Vance’s mind like a fever dream. He could never show fear of anything, real or imagined, in front of his crew.
Maybe something was trying to get a message to him. But life on the streets had chewed away his decency like rats gnawed the insensate fingers off sleeping lepers. He dismissed the thought with a shrug.
Vance heard a voice from behind. “Would you look at that...” Munk murmured, gazing out his porthole.
Vance drew his shade up, and although he was never impressed by nature scenes, he stared in awe at this one.
Twilight ended. The sun had slipped completely behind the horizon, trading positions with a full moon in the planetary tango. Overhead, an unbound dome of ebony flared with an uncountable number of trembling stars.
The silver moon lit the sight below-a cloud cover spanning the horizons of Vance’s sight. An ocean of sculpted polished billows in charcoal powdered ivory.
“Whoa...” Vance said. Wait. There was motion out there-flurries of movement between the swells of the cloud bottomland. Movement he recognized. Something... something... Cockroaches. He could spot them anywhere. Vance shook his head. Impossible!
Like crows rising in unison from a snowfield, hundreds of the creatures took flight. They collected into a swarm and then veered toward the jet. From a distance they were miniscule, but as they neared Vance saw they were actually huge creatures the size of cattle but like no cow he had ever seen.
The beasts had clawed feet, long snouts and thick, mossy horns above almost human eyes. They sidled the jet at an easy gallop, out of sync with their needed speed to stay along side. One of them creased its brow as he bared saber-sized fangs spraying saliva in an ice-vapor whip. Then it twisted its head in an unheard roar.
“Perry.” Vance said shakily with his hand clambering to grab Perry’s arm. “What do you think they are?”
Perry looked outside and sighed. “The ancients thought stars were pinholes in the night sky with Heaven’s light showing through. Nights like this make it easy to see why.”
His cozy admiration of the scene showed him oblivious to the approaching hell-herd. Vance turned back to the window. It happened again. He was the only one who saw it. The only one.
A moving dark form suddenly filled the passenger window. Vance seized a breath in shock. An enormous hide of tangled and matted hair appeared directly outside his window. One of the beasts flew alongside the plane.
“You okay?” Perry asked.
Vance couldn’t see the whole thing. The mottled black fur moved down and stopped, revealing a rider. Using the beast’s mane for reins, he positioned himself outside Vance’s window. His skin was pitted and corroded like metal from sunken ships. Wind ripped furiously past his head, spinning streamers of black hair knotted with beads and feathers. His skeletal legs disappeared into the fur, clenching the beast. The rider had a razor-cut grimace with staggered, sharpened teeth and florescent yellow eyes. The pupils were slit like a cat’s, except longways from side-to-side.
And on his forehead the circular, black-and-white tattoo of The Anasazi.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Perry asked again. “You’re making noises like a lost puppy.”
“Don’t tell me you can’t see him!” Trembling, Vance thrust a finger at the window and leaned back so Perry could see the whole spectacle.
Perry squinted and shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Vance grabbed Perry’s collar again. “Listen, you little number-crunching shithead. You can’t tell me you don’t...” Vance looked over his shoulder. The rider peeled away to join the surrounding herd. Vance looked down at the airborne tribe. When they punctured a bulge from the cloud floor, silken finger wisps trailed them.
Vance turned forward. Chest heaving. Heart jackrabbiting. He only needed a second. Needed to sort things out.
A hazy image floated up in front of the jet. It quickly solidified into someone Vance recognized-Dovesong.
She sat cross-legged in mid-air. A withered old man dressed as a wolf poured a circle of glowing blue sand around her. She raised her head and her delicate throat pistoned as she trained a gaze of hatred through eyes welling with tears.
Icepicks of fear and confusion machined in his chest as Vance stared back. She couldn’t be a spook. Dovesong was still alive. This had to be some trick.
Behind him, Vance heard Munk talking with the feeble rasp of a 1920s radio transmission, “Boss, can I ask you something?”
Vance turned and could only manage a dopey smile and nod through his shattered composure.
Looking perplexed, Munk asked, “Those animals the Indians are riding-would you say they’re bears or some kind of lions?”
Vance gave a yap of joy. Munk saw them too! He pointed at Munk and beamed at Perry.
At that moment, one rider plunged its steed into the tail of the jet. A concussion with the simultaneous shriek of ripping metal sounded the explosion of one of the tail engines.
The jet pinwheeled into a flat spin. Pinned against the cockpit by the gyration, Vance knew reality had been wrung from him. He slipped into a trance at the way the moon repeatedly raced across the windows of the twirling plane.
Perry wrenched the jammed steering yoke. The jet simply settled into a whining nose-dive.
They fell into the cloud cover. Outside, instant black serenity contrasted with the chaos inside. Vance heard sobbing cries-the lamentations of Munk.
Munk had his gun out. Vance turned away after seeing Munk stick the barrel into his own mouth. He heard a muffled Pok! over the jet’s screaming dive. Munk preferred the fatal kiss of his one true love to the certainty of the coming impact.
Another rider appeared through the mist at Vance’s window-Tom Yazzie. A grainy red plume trailed his open skull. With demoniacal glee, he pointed to the ground and eagerly nodded.
They broke through the clouds. The horizon showed by a thin pink glow drawn by the earth’s curve. Only the lights of a solitary highway showed the earth leaping ever closer.
Vance Sangler looked out at Tom and matched his eager nod. Vance screamed his final words through alarm buzzers, flying debris and whirling terror, “No flirting! Let’s do this! Riding you! I’m riding you to a-
back to the Short Story Page.Flight of the Black Wasp, 28 October 2001