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This is Issue #37 of Step by Step. This is the first issue of Volume Seven.

Lay UnderEdit

Don’t turn on the lights.

Play that dead band song again.

Night has become the sky. The darkness hangs over the town like the shadow of death. It's cold here, colder than a dark lagoon. Well, son, come with me. Look at the trees, what do you see. The trees, look.

“Come and see," the hallowed trees say.

And we saw.

There's a small cloud in the sky. A white tear along a black face, hideous and long into the horizon. Below the millions of crows cawing, four cocoons are singing and riding along a street. Four insects crawling on an asphalt arm, slithering into the palm on the hand.

This town's got walls. This town has got the goods. Custom walls—military-made fences, sandbags, concrete blocks, and the occasional Humvee. It looks like an Iraqi compound. Nolan swears he sees a watchtower posted up at each corner.

We shoot on sight, the trees say. These are the trees that live in the backwoods with marshes. Somewhere in there, somewhere between the trees, there's eight graves. Those graves aren't in the local cemetery. No siree, the Beekman funeral home sits at the left edge of town, at the border of the woods. A graveyard waits there. Nolan and Lyle have both been there.

“Come and see,” the hallowed trees sing. We see the tombstones peeking out from between the trees. The tombstones wave and grin, like gamblers after two bottles of gin.

The place is rife with trouble. The trouble lives here, dwells here. It loiters here like a bad cold. You throw a damp towel on it, and it gets worse. It gets infected. Nolan’s pneumonia after leaving summer camp. That’s what the trouble in this town feels like. A bad cold.

The four cars rode down the road. One was the shitbox, the other the patrol car. Private Hughes had hot-wired these two new ones—one is a stationwagon. That one holds the bodies.

Malcolm’s police car doubled down the road and stopped at the edge of town. At the edge of these walls, these grand two-story fortifications. There’s a toll booth here, too. There’s a stocky man inside. The first person who welcomes them to town.

“Sixteen bags,” the sergeant said, “that’s how many you’ll need. We know only three names. One’s a soldier. Alexander. One’s a paramedic. Lilian. Three. Randy Juarez from the cartel, don’t ask. Oh, and four, a murdered civilian.”

He pointed to one of the four men behind him. The man has bruises all cross his cheeks, a large reddish-brown one under his left eye where Carter hit him.

“Lyle Jackson slammed a hatchet into his head,” Amanda said, sitting beside the sergeant. She trembled with saying that, but it was no sweat.

“That’s right,” Malcolm said. “These four are killers. No justified one. I bet they’ve done lots of evil.”

The man made a confused look. “Bags?”

“Body bags, son,” the sergeant said. “I’m ‘fraid to say the bodies are all jammed up in the stationwagon yonder.”

From behind, a shout: Sixteen! Sixteen body bags!

“Jesus,” the stocky man said. He has a silly mustache.

“You hear the news at all?”

“Mass murder,” the stocky man said. “Mass murder, that’s all. It’s the Resurrection of the Dead, I reckon. The dead risen from funeral homes, morgues, and hospitals.”

“Not the one I know of,” Malcolm said. “Tell me, you’ve been out there? Out of this town at all?”

“No,” the man said. “I’m afraid not.”

“It’s mass murder, all right.”

“Jesus,” the stocky man said.

With that, the police car rode into the town. The trouble was a breath of warm air. Carter sees it all go down from behind the wheel of the bus. There’s lines of people rallying on the inside of this hand—on the streets, sidewalks, peering out store windows and apartments. Some laugh, some cry tears of joy. Giggles at a funeral, Carter thinks.

“Shit, this is weird.”

“Huh, Cart?” That was Hector. He’s standing beside him, gripping a rail.

“Nothing,” the dead man told him. “It’s just a weird feeling. I’ve sneezed here before, you know. I thinks. Crazy seeing this many people.”

“I hear you,” Hector Pacino said. Carter needs a right-hand man like him, and he’s got it. “Just yesterday, that kid died. The lady, too. Hell, I bet we’ll be on the news. CNN? FOX News? Shit, this is cool. The dead're walking, and we survived.”

“I hate that,” Carter said, his fingers biting into the wheel rubber. He’s being watched again, probably. It made his stomach churn. That lady, Carter thought. It’s not Lilian his brain is winking at, but at the one who bit him. Bit him. The bussinesslady, too, smacking him with her stuff. And things. It all had gone down fast. Fast, and now Carter's furious. He was mad when at Summercreek. He was angry and red-faced during his time in the Church. He was the leader in the sewers. Way down in the hole, a dead ghost said in his head. Closer to Hell, closer to the dinner bell.

That French beret—Marvin Chevrolet. Was he lucky dead or was Carter lucky alive?

I’m dying, Carter thought, then the dead man took over. It was like a shaman had sprinkled his fingers over his head. Voodoo.

“You are going to be deep in legal shit for what you did last night,” Wayne said, in the second row. “Like those Gitmo guards. You two used illegal torture.”

“First of all,” the dead man said, “pull up that zipper.”

Wayne did and Hector stifled a laugh.

“Don’t worry about us,” the officer said. “You’ll get prime suites. Look, there’s one now!” He pointed at a dumpster across, near a drug store with hoodlums hanging about it.

“Don’t disturb that bitch in room thirteen.”

Eugene flicked him off. There’s an ugly bandage over his eye. Kerry Davis'd put it there and kissed it well. She sits behind Eugene and Wacky Wayne, with her father in row three. He’s bawling his eyes out.

“Sarah, oh God, Sarah...”

“It’s all good, pal,” Wayne said. “You two made it out. You’re survivors. That’s what we are, and that’s it. Easy sailing from now on, right pal?”

“Oh God,” Jacob Davis said. His fingers are crawling over his face. His daughter cries, too. Then Eugene does. The poor kid's lost a sister, or was Caroline a cousin? But Wayne can’t, he’s spent them all on Claudette’s funeral.

"When we get out of here, what am I going to do, Wayne?"

"You're going to go to bed. Don't answer to any questions. You've been through hell."

"We have."

"And I'm going to the police station with Eugene. I want to see if they can find his uncle."

"Why?"

"I saw this kid in the church, sad and crying. He lost his cousin in that fire, and his uncle disappeared when an army truck came to the school a couple weeks ago. He disappeared with the sick people."

Jacob gulped—"You're right. I still have my daughter."

The police car rode into the Main Street like a beaut. Main Street lead into the Town Hall, where a fat artery had clogged up with people and cars. The three other automobiles followed Malcolm. A kind of four horsemen, hungry and lonely.

The trouble clogs the street like tar in Jackson’s lungs. The rot in his gums. People are watching, curious, yet curiosity did kill the cat. Killed the cat, Lyle figured. He sees them waving and wetting their cheeks, the familiar tears of joy. Some stand at sidewalks. Most who were in the road go there. Others watch from porches, storefronts, and windows. Lyle Jackson noticed that a big bunch of Hoosier kids had collected at a nearby place, the drug store. They stared him deadly, but he paid no mind.

Watch, a voice tells him. Watch and see.

There’s a telltale blow in the breeze. Just then, he sees how dark it’s become. Of course there are lights in the filling station by the drug store, but still. The fear is still, in his chest, which he grips tight. It burned, not only his lungs now, but where the acid had laid on him. Rubbing it, Lyle Jackson saw a blue man.

A tall man left this police car alone at the Town Hall’s stairs. The name-tag on his heart reads GARY BEEKMAN. Coming out from shotgun, that’s Cleon Smith. He’s a snickering fool, son of the town’s Donovan Smith. Also the nephew of the town’s mayor. There’s a pistol fastened to his shoulder rig.

“Stop,” said Officer Beekman. Five o’clock shadow, hair sticks out from beneath his police cap. “Stop it. Stop the car.”

Malcolm put the brakes on. So did the other cars. The sergeant is the first out, then Amanda. Both left the doomed quartet in the back seats, waiting for Carter Jameson and Hector Pacino to unload the bus after one shouted, “Get out!”

“Who’s who?” Cleon Smith asked, the first of many things he’d wonder.

Malcolm presented Amanda, then himself, the gentleman. Sweat drizzled down his back, and just as he saw Carter came over, something like guilt unclenched itself in his stomach. And it hurt. And hurt.

"The four in the police car," the sergeant began, "are killers. I can't, we can't, be certain about what crimes they've done. But, we do know some stuff."

Gary Beekman, who wasn't born yesterday but in the Beekman funeral parlor, asked what.

"One dead man accounted for, so far," the sergeant said. "Malik. Lyle Jackson slammed a hatchet in his head. And we believe he killed another man, a father. Brock Menster, a sergeant in the Indiana National Guard."

"The Guard?" Cleon said. Looking to Gary, he said, "This is the Guard, man."

"Like Hughes," the officer said. "He radioed in a while 'fore you rode in. Said you came from the big city."

"That's right," Amanda said.

"CNN told me people are eating each other," Gary said, palish and hovering in front of the two like a ghost. "And it's chaos?"

"Never seen anything like it before," Malcolm told him.

"We actually rung the town whistle two weeks ago," Cleon said, "and we haven't had to use it since nine-eleven."

Lyle Jackson watched from the car with growing anticipation. He was watching, not to attack under feigned weakness, but because he was taking tabs. Cleon Smith, the All-American. Gary Beekman, officer of the law without balls. Lyle felt for his cheek, touching the red flesh on it. He looked over to the others, and they were watching. The four of them, escapees captured, were in the darkest side of the night.

He used his leather shoe to play with the water puddle. It hadn't dried up, yet, and gave off the devil's temptation for murder. Come to think of it, had Lyle been the devil? He has Malik's face enshrined in his brain, and though it was unmoving, the eyes did more than just watch. It was hot oil over his heart, tar which hardened in his guts. Twisted his guts, made him into a dying man. The last piece to a jigsaw puzzle, bingo.

"Did he say we had these murderers—?" Carter jogged down towards them, leaving Hector Pacino to coral the rest. "I want to speak to the man in charge, not you, officer."

"My dad and uncle are off talking with the govna," Cleon Smith said. Smith was just a teenager. He had acne over one cheekbone and a twang he'd likened from being corn-fed. He was big and tall, probably a bruiser. He looked at Malcolm.  "My uncle's the mayor."

"Well, shit," Carter said, anyways, and put a hand over his holstered gun and turned back towards the squad car. He pancaked the sidedoor, grabbing and dragging out Dennis Johnson. The man shackled to him, Derek, fell half-out and stayed that way.

"Lemme go," Dennis said, deathly tired. "Lemme go."

"No, bud."

"You can have me." Derek said. "You don't want Dennis. It's me you want, bitch."

Carter looked at Derek—a grimance of hatred.

In that moment, nobody stopped Carter. No one went don't do that, or you might hurt someone. Even though Amanda took a step towards them, Malcolm stopped her. Carter Jameson had become a dangerous man, and he was unpredictable. Had he swung left, you would've thought he'd swung right.

Just then, a man with a brown coat traveled down the road. He stood out to Carter—the coat was a thick brown, he walked with certain gait that went one-two-one-two, and a baton dangled from his frontbelt. This is Drake.

"I'm the sheriff, Drake Wilson," the man in brown said. "Sorry for the wait, but it turns out we have a major problem." He glanced at Officer Beekman, who suddenly faded from presence. "The governor told Smith about the criminals. He wants them jailed. That's straight from the mayor's mouth. Understood, whoever's in charge?"

Malcolm was about to speak, but then Wilson spoke again: "Is that understood, mister, who was in charge?"

Just then, Drake Wilson rolled past the men and lady towards the squad car. His heart was set on this. Four assholes, he thought. He found them, and one was squirming in Carter Jameson's grip. Carter had one hand not on his holster, but curled around its buckle. Beat them down, trash 'em, then jail 'em. These four punks crossed into the wrong town.

Mayor Red Smith had told him all he needed to hear. Lyle Jackson, who watched from the middle of the car, had killed not just Malik, but multiple men. Suspicion concerning three others murders—two young men plus a druglord who'd walked and talked in the state. George, Sam, and Earl. To Drake Wilson, this was all with love. A love concerning justice.

With the moon on their backs, the Trouble Quartet was thrown out of the car. It was like turning over a rock and seeing a mess of bugs. Carter Jameson put them into rows: Dennis and Derek, Lyle and Nolan. It made sense, they only had two handcuffs to spare. The two men in each group were held back to back.

"Good job," Officer Wilson said, offering Carter a strong handshake. "Tell me, how's it out there? In the world beyond?"

"It's Hell."

"You're telling me," Derek said. "You're a goddam bitch-boy."

"Let us go," Dennis pleaded.

"Bitch-boy!"

"Derek, please, please."

Carter walked from them, with anger, and stopped dead at Lyle and Nolan. He took out his nine-millimeter, poised it over Nolan's forehead, and blasted his brains into November.

"Yo, Carter. What's cracka lackin'?"

Carter, shaking his head violently for a moment, saw that he still had the hand over his holster's buckle. That he hadn't shot Nolan point-blank. Like he wanted to.

"Carter?"

"Not much."

"Carter, hey?"

"Yes?" Carter responded, and without question nor answer, squatted in front of Nolan. Looked him in the eye. In the eye, because, right then Carter only saw out of his left eye. The other was infected. Purely infected, where the raging red green swam across his right cheek. He coughed, clearing his throat with a gurgle of snot, and said, "Nolan."

"That's the name," the blonde-haired man told the devil. "Don't wear it out like leather. So, bro, how you been? You know, with the dead up a-walkin?"

"He's a bitch," Derek cackled. "Bitch-boy!"

"Make him stop," Carter muttered, rubbing the right side of his head.

"Derek, don't."

"No," Carter said and wagged a finger at him, using the hand that'd been rubbing his head. "You shut the hell up, buckle that lip, and listen. I'm telling you this, as a friend. We know what the heck you've done. We had wiretaps on every phone booth. Bugs on the inside, and outside. Guilty, so guilty you're up your knees in guilt. Paranoid, be that. Be paranoid, cuz, I ain't your friend anymore. No friend of mine kills ladies!"

Carter unleashed the pistol from the holster, excitement filling him. He put it up, took two steps backwards, and put it on the two fools. Fools, Carter thought then, fools of the corn.

Lyle only held his head down.

"Jackson, that all?"

"Shoot," Lyle said, enjoying the details in the concrete sidewalk. He saw weeds sprouting from the numerous cracks. After staring at them for long, the weeds grew. The weeds grew and chased upwards, at him. Then he blinked. The weeds were back to peeping from the cracks.

"What," the devil wearing the kerchief said, "is your deal?"

"I got not much to say," Lyle Jackson said with clear ambiguity, lucky enough to have made it this far. Not solely by his lungs, but what worried him more had been these men with guns. With bullets in them. He had threatened them good back at the church, up in the attic. Lyle hadn't truely meant it, for he thought right then the reaper had decided to take him, not by the virtue of a drive-by, but after whatever remained good in his lungs stopped working.

"Spit it, Jackson. How's the headache? Huh? From when I hit you?"

"It's good," Lyle Jackson said. "I could be better, had you given me some water. Parched, is all. Can thank God that I've gotten out of the danger out there. You know, with the dead walking and all. It messes with the mind, don't it?"

"Guess so."

"Hah, I got you good. Messing with your brain, Carter. Got you. I got you to forget about that gun in your hand and how it's pointed at us. Got you, 'stead, to think about the world out there. The one we've left behind. A new infection cures the old one, right. Now, either you shoot and become a bad boy, or you don't. You don't do it, then the four of us go straight to jail. We'll be on the news, right. I think we are?"

"Oh," a voice from the crowds rumbled. "You're on the news. We don't want scum in our town!"

"—Or if you pull that trigger, you'll be on the news, 'stead of us."

"A good old traditional lynch," Gordon shouted as, apparently, he was taken from the cars and wheeled off towards the clinic.

That hole in his thigh, Carter thought. What about the hole in my eye? His brain hurt.

"Yeah," Drake Wilson sang. "Do it. I give you permission. Instead of four trials, it'll be two."

"Too many witnesses," Carter mumbled. "I've been in this game before."

"Stop this horseshit," Officer Gary Beekman ordered, and he along with the others had gotten the drift right then. There were no reporters in sight—which was good for him, Beekman's funeral parlor had gone from four stars to three just in the past year. The officer blamed yellow journalism, which the mayor himself had probably pissed out himself onto the news rolls. Bodies on bodies, making lots of money.

"Carter, what the hell?"

Carter Jameson got up from his squat, turned to where the cars were, and saw Joseph. It was Joseph, on a gurney, looking with the worst eyes a dog could show. Before Carter could bother with it, Joe with a sloppy mess of a shoulder was wheeled into an ambulance.

Oh man, Carter thought, this is real. It was the kind of realization which came fast, like a lizard's eye on a moving hand. It sunk in, and brought this new sort of pain to the surface. For a moment, just one, he felt it burn his brain. Oh God, how it burned him. He was back in that sink. The lights, Carter Jameson thought.

"The lights. There's a lot. And it's all his fault," he said, pointing the gun now at Lyle Jackson.

"Watch the gun."

"He's a murderer!" Carter Jameson hollered, emphasizing each syllable with the gun. "He killed this one paramedic, Lilian. Yeah, and he probably killed that little girl at Summercreek. Choked the hell outta her." He realized the officers had no idea what he was on about. "We came from Summercreek High. It was cold there... but, when we left it, we left it without many of the refugees. Lyle Jackson killed—"

"He killed Eugene's sister?" Amanda asked.

"How can you say that?" Malcolm asked.

"Somebody did," Wayne said.

And then Eugene shouted, "You sonsabitches killed her! You sonsabitches killed her!"

Wayne, looking at Carter, said, "How would you know?"

"Know what?"

"That somebody choked her."

"You don't need the proof at hand," the devil said. "You just need to know he's a cold-blooded psycho. He in kahootz with the cartel-guy? Yes."

"You think that," Lyle Jackson said. "You keep thinking it, bitch."

Like a clock dialing backwards, or was it forward two clicks, Carter said: "You talk, nig-nig?"

"Well, of course I did," Lyle Jackson said, reasoning with the weeds. The weeds in Carter's mind, too. All potted up on the pot, heh. "We could've just been taken to the jail. But, no. You pulled that gun out. Now, now he's putting the blame onto his. Kicking us while we're still down."

Carter Jameson leaned in, whispered in one of Lyle's ears, close enough for Nolan to hear: "I'm hungry."

"You've just had a bad day," Nolan said.

Carter backed up and the gun actually dangled. The two of them saw Malcolm move forward, or was it a mirage?

"Yeah, your blood is just boiling," Lyle reasoned, then shook his head around and looked at the others. The bystanders who didn't dare disturb the lion with a gun. "We've all been there afore, haven't we? We're just human, Carter. I've had a couple hours to think about it. Let the blood clot, 'fore it gets too hot."

Drink up, s'nore it gets too rot.

"Don't make this anymore about you, Carter."

Carter, winking at the officers, walked in front of Lyle, wrestling with Nolan's shoulder for balance. "Had you a gun, you would've shot Malcolm. Said it yourself, yeah. What about Amanda and Hector? Gordon? Joseph, what if he got in your way? Any of the others, the ones we tried to save and saved? Or me? Or me?"

After that, Carter stuck the pistol into Lyle's face. He pulled the man's face up, deathly sulken, and jabbed him in the throat with the end of it.

Lyle grabbed his gloved hand as the pistol went off.

Carter screamed out, lurching forward and reeling his hand away. Gave him a piece of Hell, Lyle thought before something hard hit the side of his head. Officer Drake Wilson had hit him with the baton. Beekman and Cleon Smith were on him. Nolan, before they swatted at him with the baton, saw Malcolm and Amanda just watch.

Then, "Bitchy-boy!"

Hector Pacino left the cars, passed the bystanders until Wayne grabbed him. "Let go, shitlint." Hector, the get-er done cop, pulled himself free. He walked, one-two-one-two, all the way up to Derek and Dennis. He didn't stop to talk. The moment he rolled up, his right hand balled into a fist and smacked in the back of Derek's head. "Pow, right in the kisser," Hector said. Then he looked at Dennis, struggling to stay up as his friend fell unconscious. Hector held up a hand, popped out the index finger and thumb, and made a gunshot sound effect. "Pow, one to the head!"

"Nail him," Carter said, clenching the bad hand. The bad arm. He rolled up to Dennis, speeding up on the last couple feet, and smacked the pistol's butt against Dennis's head. "Nailed him."

"You bet."

By midnight, all four'd be jailed on murder.

"I warned 'em." Carter Jameson smiled and saw Drake Wilson walk to him, then felt even better when the man patted him on the back.

"Way to go, sport."

From way beyond in a close world,

"This is horrible," Amanda Olson said, and she would never imagine it to worsen. At this moment in time, it was hard to grasp anything hotter. "It's a madhouse!"

"And I can't stop it," the sergeant aside her said, falling back a foot. One of the bystanders, he watched as the bodybags slithered out across the street. He took a large breath, finding his heart beat slowing. He couldn't stop watching the long, black rugs file out from the road—he saw the face of a young soldier, a paramedic, and many nameless faces beneath them. The guilt was hottest in his chest, where a gas mask hung along it.

Under all this guilt, nobody saw Mayor Red Smith watch from the Town Hall. Just like he had peered at the two men as they'd buried Tom Gallenger, he watched with a smile that was almost of dark glee. If there was such a thing, such a thing as a love concerning that.


Lyle hadn't died.

He's in a room carpeted with wood linoleum. Drapes of purple hung over twin window pallets. Cool wind blew in through them; a flag painted black waved outside. This was a hellish dark. Inside the room it stunk. There was the smell of gangrene on three toes. A garlic stench, it came to Lyle. He looked around, could flex his fingers, and figured he was not dead. Not six feet under the reaper's tilled soil.

Jackson craned his head around and looked for movement. What could be heard was not seen. The scare gripped his heart. A hand of his tore up, grabbed his chest, and felt it over. The heart inside was thumping hard. It rode hard there and only settled once the man came around.

Moonlight drew over the man's face. The hell of fifty years, right now, could be seen in the gray tufts of hair atop his head. "I am Grinning Samuel," the man of thin bones wept. Cockroaches of brown crossed his face. The souls of tortured men swam in his eye sockets.

This man was not Death. He is the Samuel who grinned. Lyle wondered why he grinned so hard, why he loved it so, and why he grinned at him. "I must be dead. That's why you've come."

Grinning Samuel did not answer. The goblin wore antique black robes, buckled at the midriff with a line of white. A flap with brown spindles hung at each hip. Lyle Jackson counted six of them at each hip. He counted six souls at each hipbone. Then there was that single chalk-white spindle at the center of the six at the right hip. It stood out, yessir.

"Tell me," Lyle said. "Was it the smokes? The great tobacco I love?"

Grinning Samuel's breath was rough. It smelled like crematorium smoke. The smell Lyle loved most fell into his lungs, constricting them further. The smell of rot and a can of tobacco. A can of chewing T-backo. The bliss came to him then; the deaths. What had lived and collapsed during those two months.

It was before the storm, before Earl. Malik, as well. Somewhere in that past cancer-hot September, Lyle'd wandered across two men. None were friends of Tom Gallenger. These were the friends of Wacko Jacko. Past friends. The two men had tagged with Lyle—hanging like scarecrows on porches, soaking their gums in ten-buck priced Kodiak—until October came. Like a boy throws candy wrappers into gutters, he'd popped two solids into each of them. You couldn't trust rumors, say, except ones that sounded true like a grandfather's war tale.

"You haven't died," the goblin said. "At least, not yet."

Grinning Samuel came closer and the fear followed. The feverish billboy liked his job. He liked it like a cashier likes taking change. Like how a cashier gets to keep some of the profit. "The bill has to be paid, Lyle. You know that."

"What do I know about that?" Lyle Jackson held still. He could see tortured, soul-blue hands crackling among the souls. "I have debt, I know. Five people, that's how many souls I've taken. I've earned that spot in Hell, so why not end me now?"

"You've got much to do," the goblin said. "I am Grinning Samuel. I'm the messenger. What I say is true, so listen." Grinning Samuel walked into the window and blocked out what sun there was. "Much to do," he said again. "You have much to get to."

"A mule," Lyle Jackson said. "You gonna give me a mission. Ain’t that just funny? Huh? A fucking-great one, I bet."

"You'll come before enemies," Samuel said. The goblin frowned.

"Enemies," Lyle said.

"Hideous serpents," Grinning Samuel said. "Uglies. There will be a great many—too many to count."

"You must know," Lyle Jackson said.

"All right fine," Samuel said. "You know how weeds are. They start out few, hidden in the cracks. Then they grow, turn foul and unsightly—children and fools will come for you. They will want your head."

"Sweet Jesus," Lyle said. "You'st mean Carter, Malcolm, and their crony."

"No," Samuel said.

"No?" Lyle Jackson said. "They killed the guy outside the church. They've even got Joe shot down. You know what that means?"

"Yes," Samuel shitgrinned. "Yet, the worst is nigh. These men, children and fools, will be the end. They will be badder than those three. Worse than fire and brimstone. Cannibals. And, they'll get what they want from those three. The weeds of evil in them will raise Hell on earth."

"This isn't a job," Lyle said. "It's a damn threat, a damn-fine warning. That's cause you're grinning, cos, you like telling me this. You love telling folks how they'll die. That's how you different from Death."

Grinning Samuel took a step forward. He closed in. "You're a sick dog, Jacky. You killed Malik. An eye must be taken because of that, friend. "

Something squirmed in Lyle's head. "You wouldn't dare. You don't kill nobody I know. Not Nolan, not Derek, not Dennis. Save Derek for later, but Good God, not any of them."

"I work for Death and his horsemen," Grinning Samuel said. "They've ordered it. We've already fed off Malik. But, you know how it is, right. The blood starts to boil. Our stomachs can't live off pure men like him. That's why we'll be waiting for one of you four. Death'll hunger. The hunger'll starve him, and you'll upset Death. Sometime after the first man, he'll want more. Save yourself, Lyle. You'll be our final meal."

"Me," Lyle said. "End it here. Kill me."

"You'll wait your turn," old Samuel said. "You'll just have to wait." Samuel's voice trailed off the cliff of despair, and one of his hands reached for the buckle on his robe and took it in its grip. "It's the price you've got to pay. You know, for the men you've killed—George and Sam, Tom and Earl, and Malik. Like you said, it's a waaarning."

"The others?" Lyle said. "They ain't done nothing—"

"Nothing," the goblin hissed the way a coyote does. "You've each done a part in this madness. You each deserve this. First, one of your friends will perish. After one, then two. Then, just when you think it won't get any worse, the third life will be snatched. We will let you watch. We want Lyle to watch.You are a cursed man, Jackson. You've earned this pain. This'll be how your debt will be paid." Grinning Samuel liked criminals such as Lyle. He liked how fear slowly watered into them. "You will suffer," he said, giving each word their own punch.

"Jesus," Lyle began. "You want me to watch. You wanna see me watch a friend of mine die. Cause, I killed one too many people. What happened to see no evil?"

"There's no stopping it," Samuel said. "Like dominoes, you and your friends will all fall."

"And you tell me this because, "Lyle said. "I'm the biggest sinner among us."

Grinning Samuel frowned more. He let go of breath and it smacked Lyle in the face. The powerful smog was unbearable, crafted through the efforts of damned prostates.

"You get it now," the goblin said. "A murderer like you never lives to tell tales," Samuel said, fiddling the dozen and one souls. "Say, when the time comes, there'll be three chambers you'll get to choose from. This I can tell. The first will lead to a firing squad, the second'll have gases blessed by Death himself, and the last will hold three lions that haven't eaten in years."

The scare entered Lyle's chest in full. Grinning Samuel's hand came back from the buckle, and with it a crude dagger, one made special for highwaymen like him. Then, the creature moved towards Lyle and stuck it where the chest holds the heart between the lungs.

A wretched scream came from them both.

The pair struggled, and Grinning Samuel turned the dagger like a corkscrew, until Lyle could groan no more.

And, lo, white-hot light seeped into Lyle's head.


IssuesEdit

Step by Step: Act Five
Way BackEcho, EchoBansheeBalls-UpNot DayMidnight's King
Step by Step: Act Six
Only DreamAwakeSleeperAll CloudUnder SkinBates
Step by Step: Act Seven
Lay UnderRawLostBad MoonMonstersPrayers
Step by Step: Act Eight
GetHit ItFast LaneMondayPassoverBe-All and End-All
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