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Bareknuckles Pulp No. 23: Bloody Feathers

Something different for No. 23: David Bowles brings us a baby-killing savior. Yeah, you read that right and no, it's not a metaphor.

Bloody Feathers by David Bowles



I’m a baby killer. That’s the easiest way to describe what I do. I find babies, and I kill them.

Of course, they’re not just any babies. I’m not a fucking serial killer or some crazy shit like that. These babies have to die. Yeah, I know that sounds nuts. If I told them, most people would think I actually am a serial killer or a goddamn loon. I’m not, though.

But I do hear voices.

This time they had led me to Star County, down in the most desert-like corner of south Texas. Just a few miles from the Rio Grande River. Westernmost part of the Rio Grande Valley, which is stupid, because it ain’t a fucking Valley, it’s a basin or something. But yeah. There’s a river running through it.

I had tracked down the mother, a Mexican girl name of Celeste Colibri, but she was all in a tizzy with a bunch of her relatives, most of them drug-runners of some sort or another. Posing as a Texas Ranger, I managed to get out of them that the baby’d been stolen by Celeste’s sister Linda. You could tell some of the older ones were all sorts of upset, and not just the regular upset-because-a-baby-got-kidnapped, either. No, they knew full well what that baby was. And they were furious he’d been stolen. They wanted to be the ones raising the evil little bastard.

After an hour or so hanging out in barbershops and scouring maps online and shit, I began to recognize the signs. Assload of snake bites. Video of a huge screech owl. Stories of swarms of bats and charms of hummingbirds swooping through the sky. Sudden brush fires. I triangulated the fuck out of all this and with some help from the voices I hit on her likely hidey-hole: an abandoned shack in a remote corner of a supposedly haunted ranch, smack dab against a silty resaca. I drove my battered Dakota along caliche roads to get there, parking it beside a copse of mesquite about a half mile distant and walking the rest of the way in the dusty late-afternoon sunlight slanting from the West, shotgun in the crook of my arm.

The shack was weathered and bleached, its tin roof rusty and pitted. All kinds of cactus crowded close to the walls like a bunch of spiny sentinels. Weeds dotted the caliche that ran all the way to the crooked porch. Someone had hung a cross on the rotted trim. I paused for a moment, then rushed up the worn steps and kicked the door open before she had a chance to bolt. But she didn’t. In fact, she had the baby in one arm and a big-ass .45 revolver in the other, a rosary twisted around that wrist, the crucifix dangling. I lifted my shotgun.

“I’ll kill you both, bitch. Put that Peacemaker down.”

Her hand trembled with fear and the weight of the gun. “¿Qué quieres, pendejo?

I sized her up. Not more than five-two. Pretty brown eyes, black hair in a ponytail. Spaghetti-strap blouse revealing a teenager’s body and a butterfly tattoo on her left shoulder. She was the youngest daughter of a drug-dealer. I needed to show more respect. She’d respond to that better.

“What I want, Linda, is for you to please lower that huge freaking gun so that we can talk. I’m not here to hurt you.”

Pulling her dark red lips into a thin line, she dropped her arm to her side. She couldn’t hide the relief she felt. Like I say, it’s a heavy gun for a 16-year-old girl.

“You here for little Jesse? Dad hired you, or what?”

I shook my head. “Nope. Other…people…sent me.”

“Why? What the hell do you want from me?”

I set the shotgun down on a rickety table, the only thing in the shack besides a moldy chair, a backpack, and pallet of blankets on the floor.

“You know what he is, yeah?”

Her eyes flitted away, down. “He’s just a baby.”

“He’s not just a baby, Linda. Let me guess...Celeste was chosen by a bunch of older folks, including your parents. They told her she was special. Had her eat special foods and dress up in old-fashioned clothes. You were probably a little jealous, huh.”

Linda stepped back a bit, dropped into the old armchair. The baby gurgled. She set the gun in her lap and adjusted his blankets.

“They…they gave her this nasty ball of white feathers. All bloody. Made her swallow it. I didn’t hear till later. She always tells me everything. A few weeks later, she was pregnant. They treated her like a damn princess. Then I overheard my dad and some of his compadres…they said it was the second coming of Weets...Weetsil…”

“Huitzilopochtli,” I finished for her. “Hummingbird of the South. The Bloody Stormer of Cities. Son of Chaos. Aztec god of war.”

She swallowed heavy. “Yeah. Then a few days ago all these birds started showing up. The house was covered with them. The sun seemed closer, you know? All big and blood red in the sky. And when the partera helped little Jesse be born...he didn’t cry. Just looked around at everybody with his big green eyes...”

Looking down at her nephew, Linda stroked his cheek. A little wrinkled fist reached up, tinged slightly blue, and grabbed her finger.

“So you understand what they want, right?” She nodded distractedly. It wasn’t enough. “Say it.”

Her eyes were red-rimmed. “They want him to end the world. Bring the darkness. Open the doors to all the bad things.”

“So you stole him.” I took a few steps in her direction and crouched to look her right in the eyes. “And you figure if you raise him different, if you teach him to be good, to love his fellow man, to worship God, all that shit, you can turn the incarnation of war into a benevolent man.”

She winced to hear it stated so plainly. Then her pretty face tightened with anger. “Fuck you. I just want him to have a choice, okay?”

I shook my head. “No. He can’t be allowed to have a choice, Linda. We can’t risk it. What if he chooses to fulfill his destiny? Can you imagine the weight of that responsibility on you? Being the one who could’ve stopped him?”

“Stopped him?” she said, only now understanding. I didn’t wait another second. My hand darted forward, grabbing the gun off her lap. I snapped it open, let the bullets clatter to the planking of the floor. Standing, I tossed the pistol out the door onto the caliche path.

Eyes wild, she hunched over the baby, holding out the crucifix.

“You stay the hell away from him, you son of a bitch!”

I unslung the leather satchel I was wearing across my chest. Setting it on the rickety table, I withdrew an oilcloth. Inside were the tools of my trade.

Before I could unwrap them, however, there came a sound like the wind blowing through clothes hung out to dry. A large form dropped from the sky, landing on the warped steps. It was a little taller than me, maybe 6’2”, with a wingspan of some five yards. It folded those wings to its body and cocked its owl head at me. Its golden brown feathers were lit almost red by the setting sun. Legs that ended in vicious talons took one step. Another.

“What the fuck is that?” screamed Linda.

Tlacatecolotl, the voices muttered. Shotgun. Now.

I swept the weapon off the table and fired, blasting the owl demon with a mixture of salt, silver, garlic, wood shavings and iron pellets. A little bit of everything, just in case. It gave a harrowing shriek as the impact drove it back.

Obsidian.

I reached into my satchel with my left and pulled out a jade sheath. Yanking the black blade free, gripping its silver handle tight, I rushed after the beast. Out on the caliche path it had regained its balance and was spreading its wings. As I lifted the shotgun again, it launched itself at me, beating at the air and screeching insanely. I emptied the other barrel into the bastard, but even bloodied and spinning it kept coming. Its beak tore into my shoulder savagely. With a grunt, I brought up the obsidian knife and slammed it into the thing’s chest. It dropped to the ground, writhing and hissing. Pressing a boot against its abdomen, I reloaded the shotgun and reduced its head to a bloody mass of feathers and bone.

Inside the shack, Linda had gotten up and was laying Jesse on the armchair, wedging him in with her backpack. She saw me, and though her eyes were all hollowed out by fear, her skin white, her hands shaking, she came toward me slowly. Pointing at my shoulder, she muttered, “You’re hurt.”

“I’ll live.”

The teen swallowed heavily and closed the rest of the distance between us. “You...you saved us.”

“For a little while, yeah. But they know where you are now. They’ll be coming for you, and it ain’t going to be just one owl demon.”

She reached up one of her hands, small, with slender fingers. Laying it against my chest, she drew even closer. Her scent filled my nostrils: youth, innocence, promise. Her head didn’t quite reach my chin. She was half my age. Something dead inside me may’ve stirred slightly.

“But,” she whispered, looking up at me, trying desperately to be seductive, “you could protect us, couldn’t you? You know how to fight them.”

“I’ve fought lots worse, yeah.”

Her hand slipped down my chest, along my stomach. “We couldn’t just leave here? You, me, Jesse? I could raise him, make sure he takes the right path. You could protect us. And you and me...” Her voice went raspy as she ran her hand down the front of my jeans. “I could be yours.”

I allowed myself a moment. The voices were growling at me, but I deserved that much. Just a moment. I put my arms around her, pressed all that vitality against me, let it counter the death that hung on me like holy vestments.

“What’s your name?” she murmured, her eyes closed.

I don’t remember, I didn’t say. “They call me Peck.”

“Thank you, Peck. Thank you.”

It was too much. I pressed my lips against her forehead and gave her one last gentle squeeze.

“I’m sorry, Linda,” I whispered in her ear. “There is only one way to keep you safe.”

She struggled, vainly. It was all too easy, clamping my big hand around her neck till she’d passed out. I laid her down gently beside the armchair. Then I picked Jesse up, unwrapping his blankets and draping them over his aunt. He stared at me with preternatural understanding, blinking his big green eyes.

“Okay, Jesse, time to wrap this shit up.”

I put him on his back on the rickety table and unrolled the oil cloth. Inside were two copper blades, etched with ancient symbols that time and polishing had near rubbed away. I picked them up by their yellowed bone handles.

“One for the heart, one for the head,” I explained to the baby. “Only way to send you abominations back to the darkness.”

I lifted my right hand. The knife was a tool. So was I. An instrument of death that kept the monsters at bay. An unknown savior, unsung, obscure. Hated by the few who crossed my path. Like Linda, who would awaken alone.

“Ah, lucky ignorant bastards,” I spat at the universe. “Time to save your asses one more time.”

Outside a gale of fluttering wings grew louder and louder. As the knife dropped, Jesse finally began to cry.


David Bowles is author of The Blue-Spangled Blue (2009), The Seed (2011) and Mexican Bestiary (2012). His editor credits include the Along the River and Stories That Must Not Die series as well as the magazines Flashquake and La Noria. He resides in deep south Texas with wife and kids.