The Apex Runner
After the Wolfpack slaughtered the Demon Deacons on the
gridiron, few of the twenty and thirty-somethings packed into Jann’s Ale House
paid attention to the local news bunny with blonde highlights and practiced
inflections. She droned on about the do-nothing governor for a segment, then
turned for a new camera angle. For some reason he couldn’t fathom, Henry Creech
stared, transfixed by the pretty talking head on the flat panel over the bar.
Perhaps a barely realized sixth sense held him, some subtle premonition that
directed his attention but offered no overt explanation. In the end it escaped
his pawing consciousness, and he remained blissfully unaware that all too soon
he would serve as the object of one of her Teleprompter blurbs.
And not in a feel-good story.
“In other news ... police are searching for the owner of a silver jeep in connection with the vandalism of two small cemeteries in the Apex area. Justine Chandler heard the engine roar through the night on her normally peaceful property. Headstones, some three hundred years old and more, shattered on impact with the vehicle. Our Rachel Noble has more ...”
Henry gulped the last of his beer, leaned out of the corner booth and signaled for another. After a nod from the waitress he turned back to his date, sullenly searching her cool blues for the answers to his problems.
“They’re keepin’ me down at the shop, I know it.”
“Hey, get me another.”
Ann tossed off the rest of her drink and rolled her shoulders to better display her attributes beneath the tight top. None too subtle, the movement came with the ease of the oft-practiced, as did the slight head tilts of her pretty face to feign attention. Henry held her oversized martini glass up for the waitress to see. Ann crossed and uncrossed her lean legs, faded jeans swishing in the quiet lull. As Henry complained about his job, she resumed her habit of stroking and studying the ends of her shiny black hair. When the booze arrived she took a sip, her gaze wandering then centering. Suddenly she straightened, lit up with a big smile and wave to the group of girls clustered at the end of the bar.
“If I don’t land more sales, Gordon’s going to roast my ass,” Henry lamented. “Can’t do the unemployment line again. Not after being downsized twice in three years.”
Silence from his companion.
Would have been nice to think Ann didn’t care all that much about his earnings, but he wasn’t that big a fool. They’d been dating hot and heavy three months when the last corporate axe fell, with his position as a technical writer outsourced to the industry standard: India.
“They perform the same work for a third of your salary,” his manager, Dale, had observed on black Friday, after lopping Henry’s figurative head from his shoulders.
“Can’t be the same quality.”
“Close enough for management.”
“Nothing like America first,” Henry had snapped, outrage and fear overwhelming his tentative nature. “Thanks for the storm warning.”
“You won’t get hired back someday with that att --”
“Know what I wish, Dale? I wish a long life for you.”
Dale paused, taken aback. “Well, thanks ....”
Henry rose, legs quivering, and opened the door to a group of glum faces awaiting similar fates. He paused and turned to his ex-manager. “I’d like to know you’re fat and happy at sixty, Dale, when the strokes begin. You recover from the first but they hit again and again, until you end up a drooling sack in an old folk’s home, the youngest one there, without sense enough to beg for death to set you free.”
Henry’s parting shot had been rushed, splattered with spit, and a bit formal, but just words ... at that time.
The quest for similar and even dissimilar jobs graduated from discouraging to impossible. Glutted with electronic resumes and bids on scant positions, many companies in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle of North Carolina either posted false positions to see what they could catch with the least amount of bait, or simply deleted the hundreds of desperate resumes that threatened to clog their servers.
Two repercussions hurt the most. One, the self-esteem of a paunchy white guy with average looks and ambition dove into the shitter and remained there. Two, less money to spend on Ann.
He tried to help the first with an activity he could control: a daily workout. Wasn’t easy. Obsessively drilling the internet for jobs left him drained. Moping around the apartment with a bottle of beer came easy, but he had to do something to counter the frustrations of the unemployed besides drink. It helped to jog or lift weights, but didn’t land him a job.
As for Ann ...
Dinner and dancing became appetizers and drinks. She became equal parts more distant and less available. In the past few weeks, intimacy had vanished. After Wednesday’s date, he didn’t get any further than a goodnight kiss in the car. Tonight he had hoped to work it out with her, but he couldn’t shake the cloud of anxiety spewing from the only job he could find.
“Those other guys keep stealing the marks from me. Bunch of damn sharks is all --”
“Hey, y’all!” The pull of friends without career woes proved too much for Ann to resist. She strode off, taking her cranberry vodka and Redbull martini with her. Over her shoulder she glanced at the guy she’d been dating for a few months.
And said nothing.
It took a moment for Henry to realize Ann had not only flown to more interesting company, but decided to nest there as well. He nodded demurely, soaked his woes in liquid barley, and pretended to watch the next game.
Twenty minutes later, he stood uncertainly outside the booth and swept the bar with his gaze. A pretty brunette or two, but not the one he’d arrived with.
“Bitch,” Henry muttered, running his credit bill higher with her bullshit eight-dollar drinks.
He waited another few to make sure she wasn’t in the bathroom, scanned the entire pub, didn’t see Ann’s friends either. With an angry lurch he flung the door wide and passed into the night that would change his life.
The October air had him shivering before he reached his car. North Carolina in the fall was a welcome change after the heat waves of summer, but all Henry could think of was going to bed and trying to forget his life as a loser. Shouldn’t be driving, but he jammed the key into the ignition of his ‘02 Corsica and cranked it anyway. After ten seconds of whining the engine finally turned over, but not without a fit of coughs and sputters. Finally he pulled out of the parking lot and with a parting blast of blue exhaust, sped up on Rt. 54.
He only had three miles to go to reach his apartment complex -- one of those new cluster dwellings for professionals that encroach upon the old Apex countryside and dubbed Meerkat Manor by the dwindling supply of natives -- but the Corsica’s erratic behavior increased after he passed the first set of corn fields and hit the edge of the woods. Dashboard lights faded. Headlights retreated from the rise before him. The car eased into death, and Henry barely had enough momentum to pull onto the shoulder.
Repeated tries at the ignition yielded no satisfaction. Neither did pounding the dash and steering wheel. Gasping, he leaped out.
Yeah, he needed this. On top of everything else he sure as shit needed this.
He found a white plastic shopping bag to wedge in the window and nearly slammed the door on his hand. He started toward home, then pivoted and launched a bruising kick into fender.
“Pain in the ass!”
After a moment of gazing impotently at the dead vehicle beneath the blue-white glow of an area light, Henry started up the long rise, now and then glancing apprehensively at the dark woods that loomed to his left and right.
Trees brightened from the bottom up. He turned. Some kind of pickup or SUV had rounded a curve a mile back and was eating the road in his direction.
Henry didn’t have far to walk, but he stuck his thumb out anyway.
Headlights illuminated his breath in the cold, then intensified. The beams slid off the road and onto the shoulder. There was his shadow. Even through the buzz he realized he’d better take some precautions. Glancing back, he squinted against the light but since the asshole was burning high-beams it was impossible to see much more than searing headlights and darkened outline of a hull high up on lifts, like some monster-truck wannabe. Engine noise ripped the night as the vehicle bore down upon him. Henry leaped into the woods as the tires of the oncoming machine ate the dirt he’d just vacated.
By way of reply a bottle crashed into the trunk of his protective tree, just past his head. The smell of beer burst forth. A swerve kicked a volley of dirt and pebbles toward Henry, pelting the woods around him like enemy machine gun fire. A rock hit his hand where he gripped the side of the tree. The snarling engine easily overwhelmed his cry.
Beneath the glow of the area light, Henry noted the make and model. Silver Jeep Wrangler on lifts. Same as the news reported earlier. Wanted by the Apex police for cemetery desecration.
A rebel yell sounded as the jeep caught air at the top of the hill. For a moment all seemed suspended, with the driver thrusting a hairy left arm high out the window, middle finger in universal salute, then the front of the jeep dove from view and the glaring tail lights disappeared.
“Asshole!” Henry yelled, hoping the guy wouldn’t hear him and come back.
From the road behind. The sounds tacked sharply into the jeep’s distant screeches and growls.
For a moment Henry thought someone was ill-advisedly riding a horse on a country road at night. Only two legs in the cadence, however. Steady, rather than rapid. The area light back there should illuminate ....
It flickered twice like flashes of lightning and went dark, just as the form of a runner entered its glow. The half moon barely revealed his outline. The air grew thick, then seemed to constrict with a twisting undercurrent of dread.
Late for a jogger. Particularly with hard-soled shoes.
Might be following the jeep.
Engine noise still violated the woods. Evidently the driver had found entertainment on the other side of the rise.
Footfalls came faster now, as if the runner sensed the object of its quest was near.
Feeling vulnerable at the fringe of the shoulder, Henry slipped behind the trunk of a sweetgum and let the darkness serve as a cloak. A fist-sized rock helped steady his nerves a bit.
The clacking grew louder, and louder still.
Henry swallowed. Raised the rock to shoulder-level. He’d bash a skull if he had to.
The tree hid the on-comer from view. Henry strained to hear a change in direction of the disconcerting footfalls. Finally the sounds passed and kept heading up the rise. Henry peered around the tree.
“Your buddy left you, huh?” Henry whispered. He didn’t say it loud enough for the guy to actually hear, but might have if he’d been bigger and more confident. Even the booze couldn’t make him think he was either of those.
Henry peered through his glasses at the runner. Very thin. Straw hat with a wide, concealing brim. Dark, baggy shirt jerked and bounced with his movements. White gloves. Baggy black pants as well. Loose ... no, more than that ... tattered. A victim of some kind?
Henry almost called out, then froze at the sight of the man’s feet.
He wasn’t barefoot. He was bare --
Metatarsals struck asphalt with jarring impact. The man’s entire frame rattled. Yet the pace continued with no sign of blood or pain.
Those weren’t white gloves, either.
Unreality chased away the last vestiges of Henry’s buzz. Left him like a soul departing a body.
As the runner crested the hill, the fearful part of Henry wanted to run in the opposite direction. But this was something new. Something besides a daily dose of self-loathing and pity. Something well outside the norm that begged for explanation. He surprised by finding himself running for the top of the hill. The smell of earth and decay followed the man. Henry crested the hill. At the bottom the redneck was doing donuts as if he were in a high school parking lot.
The runner tore through the cloud of tire smoke and exhaust.
Launched through the driver’s side window, boney fingers splayed to rake at the bearded face. Angry shout. Through the smoke and ever-turning jeep, Henry caught only glimpses of a tangle of limbs and white flashes of hand bones that quickly turned red. A finger skewered one of the driver’s eyes and tore it free. A scream then. The engine roared. Circles became wider and wider until the vehicle shot down the embankment and struck a tree with more mass than itself. Driver shot head-first through the windshield, careened into a tree and crumpled in a bloody heap. He moaned as the skeleton man emerged from the wreckage. The runner strode with purpose, bent and gave a brutal twist.
“What you get,” Henry muttered. Even through the surreal haze surrounding the scene, part of him recoiled at his own callousness. Had he been beaten so low?
The runner turned a skull face to the stars, jaw working but no sounds issued forth. He ripped the shirt off the victim, snapped it in the air.
A cloud of black dust floated into the glow of the area light. It shimmered and floated to the ground. The skeletal runner stared with hollowed eyes directly at Henry, exposed on the road.
Henry sucked in a breath and raised the rock.
The runner appeared unconcerned. He turned and started walking into the woods.
Henry had no intention of waiting for the cops to arrive. Instead he followed the skeleton man. Dude could have attacked and didn’t, so it might be safe.
And what did he have to lose?
Life as lower-tiered car salesman, last in the pecking order, soon to be waiting tables like he’d done in college.
The half-moon sent enough pale light filtering through the barren trees to see by. Henry followed through the woods, keeping the skeleton man -- Bones he named him -- just within sight. They crossed what once was a field but now was overgrown except for tire treads crossing and mashing. Bones approached a broken fence and strode through one of the gaps.
A fairly large cemetery, despite being hidden in a half-clearing encapsulated by forest. One dirt road lead in and out.
Pieces of granite and marble were strewn about. Debris from the redneck’s assault. Those headstones still upright protruded from the unkept grounds at all angles. Many were shrouded with vines. Quick glances caught names and date here and there -- 1660, 1794, 1801, 1843 -- but so much of the engravings were too worn to discern.
Bones bent at the far side of the graveyard, beneath the shade of a looming cedar tree that had probably kept his headstone safe from the marauding vehicle. As Henry slowly approached, the runner stretched himself upon the grave. A horrid moan rose as the earth trembled. Bones sank beneath the surface.
Henry slowed as a tremor worked its way through him. He swallowed and approached the grave of the runner:
Thaddeus Chandler, RIP, 1712.
“Free Onto The Lord.”
Henry waited with equal parts fear and intrigue, excitement and revulsion ... waited for the better part of an hour as the half-moon rose journeyed further in the gap above the surrounding trees.
Thaddeus Chandler, a.k.a. Bones, did not emerge.
Nestled in honeysuckle vine, something caught the light from the moon and reflected in Henry’s eye. The mason jar, even an old one, appeared out of place beside such an centuries-old grave.
He held it before him, turning it so the material inside tumbled in fine grains. Thinking it was perhaps black sand or gun powder, he worked the metal catch over the lid and opened it, only to recoil at the smell of dried rot.
A tremor ran through the ground.
At first he thought it merely his own body, but when the headstone shifted a fraction of the inch he knew otherwise.
Quickly Henry secured the lid once more.
Bones had snapped the shirt of his victim. Particles had shimmered beneath the area light.
Henry turned the jar back and forth. The moonlight played off the fine black grains.
Henry honed in on the mark with an aggressive stride, stuck out his hand from twenty feet away. “Welcome to Apex Motors, sir. What kind of vehicle can we find for you today?”
The mark shook his head. “Just looking, really. On my lunch break.”
“Well, you’ve come to the right place. We’re running specials -- ”
“No, no. Just looking.”
Cliff Jones glided in, noting the mark’s expensive suit with a quick glance. “Henry, here you are. Didn’t you hear Gordon calling for you?”
Henry squinted in distrust at Number One Sales Guy. “No, I didn’t hear him, ‘cause he didn’t call.”
“Sure, he did.”
On cue, the loudspeakers high up on the walls of the showroom spat static, then hummed. They pointed out to the huge lot. “Henry Creech to the manager’s office. Henry Creech.”
“Survival of the fittest, bo.”
Number One clapped him on the shoulder and with a smile that was more predatory grin, stepped to the mark, already selling the sleek contours, quiet ride, and thrusting power of the Corvette.
Henry stalked off to see what bullshit Gordon had worked out with Jones. When he got there, the manager didn’t bother to keep the disdain from his face. All during the ass-chewing Henry’s mind kept returning to the night he’d seen Bones.
“You’d do good to learn from Cliff,” Gordon said. “Understand, Creech? I don’t need sales guys who can’t make the numbers.”
“I hear you, boss.”
“Then goddamn boy ... come up with a solution that works.”
Oh, he had a solution.
Henry’s jaw set. His gaze hardened. He strode into his tiny office and closed the door. Reached in the suit for the small plastic bag of black powder; half the contents of the mason jar he found at the grave of a man who perished over three hundred years ago.
A little black powder on a four-hundred dollar charcoal Armani suit would blend right in.
Henry slept soundly that night.
Next day, the shop buzzed with the tragic news.
Henry had to fight to keep the smirk from his face.
Let the good times roll.
Henry landed deal after deal. High priced deals, with record-breaking commissions. Gordon loved him like a son now. Cliff and the other pain in the ass were dead and gone. He had Cliff’s office now, with walls that reached all the way up to the ceiling. Had blinds and a door that locked from the inside. Right now, personal assistant Chloe was sashaying toward the door after a little private dictation, fixing the errant strands of her long blonde hair. He told her to open the blinds.
Ann had called several times, apologizing and pleading, but Henry Creech had a long memory, and right now he had life by the balls.
Besides, drive up to the restaurant and bars in a Mercedes SLK convertible that shines like silver dollars in the afternoon sun and it’s dealer choice on even the classy babes.
The blinds turned horizontal and allowed visibility once more. There, in a high leather-backed guest chair outside the door, staring through the window with a vulture’s intensity, sat an old thin woman in a faded black dress, with beads around her neck.
Chloe looked over her shoulder at him.
Henry shook his head. The old bag didn’t dress like she had enough for a used Cavalier, much less a high-end Avalanche or Tahoe. He did see an old lady driving a Vette once. That was just wrong, of course.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Chloe began. “Mister Creech --”
“... has been playin’ where he don’t belong,” the old lady finished, without taking her gaze from Henry.
He’d had enough of this already. He was up from behind the desk and filling the doorway with as much of his leaner self as he could. “What kind of vehicle are looking for today, ma’am?”
“Didn’t come lookin’ for no wheels. Come lookin’ for you, Henry Creech.”
Henry cocked his head in a condescending manner. It was a mannerism Cliff had used quite often, before he was uh, downsized to the hereafter. “Where do I know you from?”
“You been orderin’ my runner around.”
“I’m sorry ... ‘runner’?”
“Wouldn’t you rather talk in that fine office of yours? So many ears out here.”
“I ...” Henry’s face passed from accommodating, to irritated, and back again. Maybe he was learning the trade after all. “Won’t you come in, Misses ....” He raised his brows.
“Chandler. Justine Chandler.”
He motioned her in, waiting impatiently as she shuffled through with the weight of hard days gone by. Henry closed the door as she eased into one of his leather guest chairs. Henry sat behind his big oak desk and steepled his fingers.
“We’re running a special on Aveo’s this month ...”
“I put the clothes by great-great-and-more-great grandaddy’s grave. An entire running skeleton would sure turn some heads out on the roads, wouldn’t it? The shoes wouldn’t stay on him, though. I’d have liked to talk to him, to ask about his life and death, but even us Sisters of the Night have to watch ourselves around the Returned. You’d think he’d fall apart without muscle, but he stays all together. And his bones don’t wear down ....”
“Not sure what this has to do with me, Misses Chandler.”
She grinned, fine white dentures gleaming against her dark skin. “You getting to be a good liar, but I see you, Creechy. No wonder you wanted my runner’s help. Narrowed the competition, didn’t you, bad boy?”
She could have a recorder or something -- but who’d believe it? Wasn’t like he’d done the killing himself.
“Is there someone I can call to take you home, ma’am? I’m thinking you need professional help.”
“Followed my runner one night in the car. He don’t get distracted. Only has one purpose when that powder gets laid on someone. Followed him to some puffy guy in a suit with one of them vanity plates on his car. Know what that plate said?”
“Said ‘DALEBMW’. I know what a beemer is, but who was Dale to you, Creechy? Had to be some big-shot with that kind of money.” She raised a wizened hand and waved it while shaking her head, dangling strands of black pearls clicking at her ears. “Oh my, he was quite a mess when my runner got done with him. Quite a mess.”
More personal than a bunch of strokes in an old folk’s home. Dale shouldn’t have left that crack in his window for the cigar smoke, Henry thought, with grim satisfaction.
In sudden inspiration, he rose to open the door, saying loudly, “Sorry we couldn’t reach a deal, ma’am. Come back when you’ve thought our generous offer over.”
She laughed and slowly rose from her chair. “Runner is my ancestor, of course. Was a courier in old slave days, Creechy. Could run for miles on end, day after day. Wasn’t the fastest but he just loved to run. Took him away from his troubles.”
“And here you wouldn’t let him rest,” Henry said in a low and deadly tone.
“The graves of my ancestors deserve better than to get mowed down by a couple of drunk rednecks, Creechy. Now you had your fun. God will judge you in the end. That powder you stole is what’s left of Granpa Chandler’s floating ribs, all ground down and roasted with a few extra ingredients. Give me the powder and you can keep your empire a little longer.”
“...don’t know what you mean.”
But it sounded lame, even to his own ears. Motor skills still functioned, however. He sifted in the pocket of the coat behind the door. The bag was partially open from his move against that damn Hinton kiss-ass. A quick step and he put his hand lightly on the back of the old lady’s shoulder and showed her out.
“Powder don’t work on relations, boy.”
But he didn’t need the runner this time. From the newscast Henry knew she lived in a lonely house at the edge of the runner’s cemetery. Wasn’t hard to target her place through the woods. Used a knife and made it look like a robbery, though this murderer had the rage of losing his livelihood yet again to power the blade. For all her talk, the old lady died with hardly a sound.
A real man protects his wealth.
“Man, what’s that on your shirt?” one of the flunkies said at the bar, later that same night.
Panic seized Creech. Did the old bitch bleed on him? He turned but couldn’t see. “What is it? What the fuck IS IT?”
“It’s all black an’ stuff. Like some ash or top soil dust or somethin’. Don’t worry boss. Here I’ll brush it off.”
Henry Creech’s martini glass shattered on the bar floor, finishing his sentence for him.
He had to get out, get moving, get away.
Twenty miles outside of Apex he slowed and pulled to the shoulder near a field of broken corn stalks turned silver from the winter moon. Just a few months earlier he’d been on the side of Rt. 54 when the runner --
Through the purr of the Mercedes he heard the approaching clops and rattle.
With a cry of revulsion he floored it.
Miles later he switched on the interior lights. Ran his hands over his clothes. Nothing.
There, in the fibers of his car seat, the fine granules rolled back and forth between his fingertips.
The black powder.
No matter how far he drove, no matter how fast or how many turns, the skeletal grin rose anew in his rearview mirror.
And now the fuel gage needle sank into the red.