Barefoot With Scorpions is a thriller. Dark, menacing and uncompromisingly brutal! Definitely not for the faint-hearted!
Barefoot with Scorpions
South-west Texas, 1997
HE REGISTERS MOVEMENT, out there somewhere, at the further most reach of his senses. He feels like a fly detects the approach of a swatting hand, nothing more than a subtle change of pressure in the air.
Inside he curses.
He had been drifting toward the middle of a recurring dream - the one where he lies on a mortuary slab, his flesh cool to the touch, eyes blood-shot and bloated, blind to the harsh flourescent light, a surgical blade slicing without sound down over the length of his abdomen, cold, dark blood pooling in its wake. It happened to be one of his favourite dreams. A dream he dreams without the need for sleep.
Now though, his tormentors - or so they thought - had returned. Two overweight guards, twirling stubby night-sticks like tail rotors, their bodies exuding the smell of nicotine and a lifetime shovelling TV dinners. The cologne of a nation turning obese.
In his mind's eye, he pictures them as crows, squatting at the edge of a deserted highway, wary and hungry for carrion.
"I hear," the one with the gravely voice is saying, "their eyeballs just flat out explode."
"That's what they say," the other eagerly agrees.
"Jeez, can you imagine that? All that piss and shit . . . don't think I could stomach it."
"Hell no, me neither."
"Remember the last one? . . . The negro?"
"Sure as hell do. Big fucker, as I recall. Had to blast him three times, I heard. Say he screamed like a baby for fully five minutes."
"Boy, I tell ya - that's a whole lot of dyin'."
He lies motionless on his bunk - eyes closed, head turned to the wall - listening to them snigger as they move away, puffing out their flabby chests, he has no doubt, pleased with their little double act. Had he felt the least inclination, he knows he has the power to reach inside their fat heads and pulverise the grey mush that passed for brains.
As it is, he has better things to do with his time.
What little there was left.
* * *
RAYMOND J TRICKELL stomps the break pedal of his Sheriff's Department GMC, sluing the big four-by-four over onto the gravel strip at the edge of the highway, fifty yards ahead of the prison bus.
Decision time. End of the line.
For a while he does nothing more than sit there, eyes fixed on the rear view mirror, listening to the sound of the engine at idle. He watches two prison guards step down from the bus, leaning to the strong wind, struggling to keep ahold of their wide-brimmed trooper hats.
His gaze shifts toward the southern horizon and the storm clouds gathering there, rolling in off the Sierra Madra like huge pyroclastic flows. Ever since he blew past Odessa, heading west toward the Pecos River crossing, the building storm has shadowed his every move, setting the dust-devils twisting, the amaranthus and the fast-food litter, racing helter-skelter round the vacant lots of towns and settlements along the way. Skeletal places, as dry and as desolate as the moon.
He has been driving through these forgotten lands for close on eight hours. Eight hours of nothing but mindless radio commercials, local weather stats, Tex-Mex . . . and rage. Always rage. He rubs at the back of his neck, trying to ease the tension, but there's nowhere for it to go. He has barely eaten in days. Slept even less. Fatigue threatens to overwhelm him, dragging him into numbed, functionless inertia.
He grips the steering wheel and glances at his watch.
Decision time indeed.
He kills the engine and cracks open the driver's door. Outside is a blast furnace of heat and dust, the wind high-pitched and unrelenting. The air, what little there is of it, invades his lungs like a chemical spill.
He turns up his collar and starts toward the bus. The guards move out to greet him, shotguns resting easy in the crook of their arms.
"Glad you decided to join us," one of them hollers above the wind. He can't tell which one. And cares even less. He keeps moving forward. Says nothing.
"We'll be taking your vehicle on in from here," the voice says, toneless and matter-of-fact.
Trickell glances toward the bus. Just the thought of riding it makes his stomach turn. Behind the wheel, the driver looks to be dosing; hat pulled down low over his eyes, feet resting idly on the dash.
"I don't much care for public transport," Trickell says.
"Well now - we're real cut up about that," the guard says.
Trickell eyes the bull neck, the narrow mouth, the Marlboro-stained teeth. The eyes are mean in a six-feet-four, two-forty pounds sort of way.
"How about you let me drive in with you guys," Trickell asks.
"Totally out of the question," the guard snaps back. "Prison policy," he adds.
"I'm sure," Trickell says.
"And I'm afraid we're also gonna need you to surrender your weapon," the guard says.
"I don't carry," Trickell says.
"That's as may be," says the guard. "But we'll need to check that for ourselves . . . Prison policy," he adds again, grinning slightly.
Trickell shrugs and makes like a scarecrow. He stares out across an unending wilderness of rock and scrub-strewn foothills, up and away from the highway, toward a known but unseen destination. Out in the distance, the plateaued shape of higher peaks rise dark and menacing; huge limestone ridges, once among the most massive living structures of the Permian world - two-hundred-and-fifty million years' worth of geological history - vast coral reefs, heaved skyward over the millennia from the warm depths of a primordial ocean. Now they lie stranded in the middle of a continent; magnificent leviathans of fossilised limestone, towering like giant gothic cathedrals into the rarefied air of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
* * *
SILENCE SPREADS LIKE spilt molasses back through the length of the segregated block.
Now . . . finally . . . he feels the weight of everything to come, pressing down on him, forcing the chill of anticipation through to the very marrow of his bones. His mind has become a Moviedrome, reeling through the celluloid, the director's cuts, taking him back - way, way back - back to the delta, back to the source of everything he has become. The images come raining in like napalm - like in that scene from Apocalypse Now - bombarding the combat zone inside his head with an unholy ordnance he knows will remain too dangerous to handle for a thousand years.
He begins to float outside himself, drifting effortlessly into the clouds, gliding high upon a flow of damp salty air as it tumbles in off the gulf ahead of a creeping tide. He is staring down now, down through the mists to a sunless sea, to that other time, that other place . . . that other him.
Soon, the slow, brown waters of the Mississippi are sliding quietly by beneath him.
So tranquil. So welcoming. So very familiar. He catches a glimpse of himself as he was back then, a tiny figure easing a small, snub-nosed rowboat through a thin Atchafalaya mist, paddles dipping noiselessly into glassy-smooth water, dark as the under-belly of a storm. He is picking his way carefully along the shallow creek; drifting in and out of view; finally nudging up to a big old windfall, its hollowed-out trunk lying half-submerged in the choking mud.
He secures the tiny craft to the gnarled stub of a branch, steps ashore and enters the loamy clearing, pausing momentarily - just long enough to register the absolute brutality of this place. Satisfied with what he sees, he slowly raises his head, breathing deeply on the scent of flesh in slow decay. For this place, this temple of suffering, shrine to the glory of pain, has remained what it always was . . . his secret laboratory.
His little piece of Hell on earth.
Better yet, the animals are all still there. Exactly as he'd left them. Muskrats in a neat row of wire cages, two wild-eyed mongrels and a goat tethered to a network of exposed cypress roots, all muzzled and shivering, emaciated to little more than hide and bone. And, of course, the moment they sense his intent, register the glint of metal in his hand, they begin their ritual frenzy; twisting and jerking, yanking at the cords that hold them secure, choking themselves half to death in their futile effort to get away.
Away from him.
He stands and watches them awhile, his mouth turning dry as it always does, the knots in his young belly tightening into fists.
Pleasure and pain. The thin divide.
He knows he can spend no more than an hour out here with his captives - two at the very most. Any more than that and he might have to explain where he's been. What he's been doing. So he settles on his haunches, laying his instruments neatly before him, removing his precious notebook from makeshift waterproof wrapping, its brutal contents encrypted by the immature hand and haphazard spelling of a nine-year-old bayou rat short on regular schooling. Nonetheless, this is his sacred Bible, his tract on the anatomy of pain, every detail recorded with meticulous care.
He selects a length of steel wire and sets to heating it over his prized Zippo lighter - the one he stole from his old man's tobacco pouch - holding it steady until the tip glows orange. A pair of gold-speckled eyes stare up at him from a wasted body, paralysed as much by terror as from the delicate incisions of the previous day.
He reaches out and, with the back of one hand, gently strokes the animal's snout. Then, with the other, he pushes the wire home. Slowly. Surgically. First one eyeball, then the next. The creature makes one last pathetic attempt to buck its head, but he holds it down easily with his knee, listening carefully as the eyeballs pop and fizz until a clear, gooey liquid oozes out over fur, matted and crawling with lice.
Shock and deprivation take their final toll. After only a few seconds, the skeletal form ceases twitching.
Only then does he reach for his sharpened pencil and begin to make his notes; leaning closer; totally engrossed. As always, he misses nothing, recording every minute detail. A last faint breath, the smell of bowel gas escaping, and the way the lice seem to know their host is no more.
Already, he is aware these primitive experiments represent nothing less than art. The greatest and most unique of all. Absolute brutality. Motiveless self-expression in its purest form. Acts so unconscionable they are paradoxically unsullied. And despite his youth and ignorance, he knows that there will come a day when he alone will be ordained the Braque of Brutality . . . the Picasso of Pain . . . the one true Master of his art.
One thing's for sure. He came to know the beauty of terror out there on that tiny island. The nature of fear, in all its forms. Its sights, its sounds, and the way its sweet odour hung like incense on the dank, salty air. But most of all, he recalls how it made him feel so good inside. How time spent out there, in that special place, seemed suspended somehow. A microcosmic universe, bending to his will.
There are other memories of course. Deeper traces. Faint recollections of sticky heat and rain, of smoke hanging limp above an iron fire-stack and the smell of damp wood burning. And always the subtle redolence of chicken and rice stews, crawfish, shrimp and ham, pastry and bread. Of the woman who created those heady aromas, however, there have remained all these years only vague shadows that refuse to form. A presence in the void. A permanent stain on his unconscious mind. Stigmata, of a type.
The move, on the other hand - Franklin, Louisiana to Dallas, Texas - he recalls with a clarity he reserves solely for his deepest loathing.
Nineteen-seventy-five. The year the beatings started.
From then on it was Mexican junk food all the way, that and the smell of cheap booze and still cheaper perfume. All those nights he spent cross-legged in the bathroom of some flaky roadside motel, sitting with the roaches and the geckos, and the giant, hairy-legged spiders, waiting for the gruntin' and the cursin' to end and his old man to come take a leak, that enormous cock of his still bloated and glistening. Then, of course, there were the real freaky ones. The ones that insisted he stay and watch. The 'chem-heads' - with all that gothic shit tattooed on their stomach and thighs, there just to hide the needle marks.
He remembers how they would display themselves in front of him, legs splayed wide, pouting their greasy lips, cigarette in one hand, the other stuffed inside their panties . . . rubbing hard.
'Oh - come on, honey,' they would whine. 'The kid gotta learn somehow, don't he? Do him good to see a real man give this little pussy her favourite saucer of milk.'
Without doubt, these were the bitches he hated the most. The ones he used to fantasise about burning alive. Fucked-up, cock-sucking whores.
But no matter . . . soon all such detritus would be washed away, like so much bar-puke from the gutter in a tropical storm.
He imagines he can hear the seconds tick-tocking somewhere outside his head, time dribbling away into the distance, yet all the while seducing him, coaxing him, slowly offering up its most precious reward, digit by digit. His destiny has become as relentless as time itself, something unstoppable - a silent, unseen juggernaut - and any moment now it will hit the buffers at the end of the line, like a freight train pulling half-a-mile of ore.
He smiles imperceptibly.
He has every right to feel satisfied.
Before the night is through, he knows he will have every miserable con, every corrupt, cock-sucking screw on The Island, pleading with their false Gods to protect their worthless souls. Not one of them could even begin to conceive the magnitude of his powers. They were nothing but a sorry collection of brain-dead assholes, and by the time this thing was over he knows he will have each and every one of them howling like wild dogs at the moon. After all, his is a very special kind of potency, gifted only to those with a totally liberated mind. That's why, tonight, their would be no bitchin', no muscle buildin'. No bellowing wrath of TV evangelists. No endless vomiting of game shows and low-budget sitcoms.
And, best of all . . . no more Rap . . . no more Tex-Mex.
No sir - not tonight. Tonight, all that shit was on hold.
It was as if Death Row had been quietly evacuated while he'd been faking sleep. So much so, even the crazy ass-wipe in the cell next door had quit trying to scrub the blood of two slain daughters from his hands. Electric Avenue had gone into deep freeze, a cryogenic suspension, and it was all down to him. Finally, the day was drawing to a close, when he - the man all America had condemned as raw, undiluted evil - would make The Walk.
The moment was nothing short of reverential.
And out there beyond the watchtowers and the motion sensors, the dog runs and the razor wire, an entire nation would be holding its rancid breath, anticipating the moment when, at the flick of a switch, Calvin Brennon Mitchell got his sorry ass catapulted straight into the bowels of hell. Not for him some pissy bag of chemicals hooked up to an IV drip. Fuck, no. For him there could be no gentle slide into unconsciousness, strapped to a surgical gurney in the hospital wing. Shit like that they kept for women and rapists. For his kind, for the true demons of this world, there could be no mercy. No half-measures. They were sending him off, full-bore all the way . . . because that was the American way . . . the righteous offering up their grandest of grand finales, delivering their ultimate sanction - gift-wrapped - to a nation eager for spectacle.
Fascism with dental floss.
The Lone Star State at its best.
It had been almost five years to the day since he'd created his final masterpiece, his parting gift to the world. He'd declared it his seminal work. The new Guernica. Death in Tableau. Of course, the good citizens of Dallas hadn't quite seen it that way. Even after JFK, they'd still been totally unprepared for the ultimate realism. Unable or unwilling to comprehend the purity of his art. Instead, just like always, they'd gone and gotten themselves all worked up. 'SICKENED' . . . 'STUNNED' . . . 'OUTRAGED' - so went the headlines. Then, of course, began the inevitable media frenzy. That much blood and that many victims had been guaranteed to attract a whole bunch of sharks to the kill-zone, all thrashing about, each one clamouring for their very own bit-sized piece of flesh.
And as for all those Talk Show gurus, the super-slick anchor jockeys, the evangelists, the politicians - all shaking their heads and wringing their hands in contrived indignation. It was enough to make anyone puke. Truth was, they'd never had it so good.
It was all so utterly predictable.
But then, he'd known all along exactly how society would react, because he'd studied its every weakness, knew how willingly it gave in to hate, how little it wanted to truly understand. Just like he'd known - right from the very start - how loudly, how vehemently, they would revile him for daring to utilise the most potent medium of all.
Real corpses and real blood.
* * *
TRICKELL SITS ALONE toward the front of the bus, staring out through windows, steel-meshed and streaked with grime. Up ahead, his four-by-four is being driven hard, spiralling thick plumes of crimson dirt up off the smooth, unsurfaced track, out into the thin, mountain air. Behind and below, the El Paso-San Antonio highway ribbons like a junkie's vein across the dry, pocked-marked skin of semi-desert.
He presses himself into the narrow confines of his seat, battling the onset of nausea. Saliva fills his mouth. Although he can't be totally sure, he assumes motion sickness; an affliction that has plagued him his entire life. He recalls all those hot, dusty trips he made as a boy, out from the old, wooden farmhouse, through the cornfields to the highway and the school bus. He can still picture his old man, sitting grey-faced and sinewy behind the wheel of an ancient Chevy pick-up, waiting patiently while his good-for-nothin' kid puked one more wasted breakfast into the shallow drainage ditch that ran the length of the rutted track.
He closes his eyes - partly against the memory, partly against the piercing glare of a late-evening sun.
Out of nowhere, the taste of Jack Daniels rises in his throat, the indelible smell of it swilling around inside his head, squeezing at his temples like a vice. Deprivation or indulgence, these days it makes no difference. It is his conduit back to The Land of Endless Screams, that realm of violence where Death had shadowed them all, a spectral stalker, striking out at will, gorging with impunity on the life-blood of a generation. In a callous twist of irony, he is able to remember it all. Each and every moment when Death had stolen in close enough to leave an indelible cicatrix upon his all too fragile soul. The killing . . . the savagery . . . the fear. The capture . . . the torture . . . the cage . . . the deprivation . . . the unstoppable descent into de-humanisation.
And yet where she was concerned, someone, somewhere had decided he would be left with nothing. Not the memory of her smile. Her laughter. The sweetness of her soft voice. The way she used to feel against his skin. Not a single, goddamn thing.
He screws his eyes shut even tighter. Feels oblivion beckoning. Knows that, for him, it's not a particularly long trip. Right now, all it would take is a couple good shots of the hard stuff and he knows he would be out there on that dark and windless ocean, naked and exposed, marooned once more under the blood-black rays of dying sun.
He opens his eyes and tries to refocus. Scans the horizon. Triangulates. Judges they are still heading north-west, toward New Mexico's southern border, climbing high into the foothills, snaking through an endless vista of sun-baked earth and stunted vegetation. Up ahead, the sun begins to belly into the ragged jaws of the higher peaks, slipping out of a pale blue sky, flawless still over the western horizon but for a few high stranded wisps of cirrus.
It's getting close to sunset by the time they finally begin to slow. The grinding of gears pulls him back to full consciousness. His fellow passengers - hitherto studiously ignored - begin massaging the journey from their limbs. They slow to a crawl, air-brakes wheezing in mild protest, edging past a complex of low buildings. On either side, multiple ranks of high perimeter fencing, topped with glittering loops of razor wire, stretch out into the distance like some vineyard of the Apocolyps. Beyond a steel barrier, a phalanx of prison guards stand square-jawed and resolute, pump-action shotguns resting on their wide hips, mirrored aviator shades catching on the last filaments of sunlight. To his still unfocused mind, they have the unnerving mien of clones - all roughly the same height, all of visibly generous bulk - with the dark forms of dogs, snarling and straining at their sides.
For no particular reason, he is suddenly conscious that he sees only white, mom's-apple-pie faces out there. He tries to shake it off but, in a vacant portion of his mind, a sense of unease prevails. A feeling that maybe things around here are just a little too Aryan for comfort.
There is a crackle of radio static. The driver brings a walkie-talkie to his mouth and, a moment later, the barrier is raised. They pass through, into a kind of no-man's-land of loose rock and spindly tufts of sun-bleached weeds, easing their way up a shallow incline to a second perimeter fence. At the crest of the rise, they lurch to a standstill once more.
A ripple of low murmurs drifts through the bus.
Before them now - framed in the insect-splattered windshield - lies a vast oval depression, looking for all the world like the remnants of some huge impact crater. He figures it has to be at least twenty miles across. And there - a couple of miles down range - lying under a pale corona of floodlights and diminishing heat-haze, Coal Island maximum-security penitentiary rises from the salt plain like the ruins of some long lost fortress.
At that moment, the forward door of the bus cranks open and a prison guard climbs aboard; dark brown slacks at least one size too tight; ditto the starched, beige shirt buttoned to the collar. From where he sits, the insignia on the wide-brimmed troopers' hat is just too small to make out. And for reasons he has no desire to dwell upon, he decides this is probably a good thing.
The guard stands golem-like beside the driver, stiff and expressionless, nodding his way through a silent head-count. Task complete, he turns on his heels and steps from the bus. Not a word has been spoken. The door judders to a close. Then, almost immediately, it swings back open.
The golem's head reappears.
"There a Sheriff Raymond J. Trickell onboard?" it asks in a mid-state drawl that makes the question twice as long as it need be.
"I guess that'd be me," Trickell says.
Truth be told, he doesn't much care to be singled out at the best of times. And this does not in any way constitute the best of times.
Behind him, the murmurings begin afresh.
Hidden behind Raybans, the golem's eyes linger on him awhile before turning to disembark once more. Again, the door hisses to a close . . . this time, however, with an eerie seal of finality.
Welcome . . . Trickell ruminates bitterly to himself, and without the least inclination towards brotherhood . . . Welcome to southern Texas.
REVIEW: The author takes the reader prisoner, hauling them into this coarse thriller and rarely letting them up for air. While this is a very interesting and well-composed story, the reader may appreciate a break from the tension every so often - perhaps with some dark comic relief.