Speed Demons – Andrew J. Wilson

It was a bad night and it had been a cold day in Hell.

Rain slicked down the windows and blurred the lights outside. The muggy clinical heat of the hospital made the slush dribble off Drury’s boots and his wet leather jacket began to steam slightly. The way people looked at him, you would have thought the crash helmet in his hands was a severed head.

Joey lay on the bed beside Drury and everything about him–the calm expression, the relaxed muscles, the comfortable slouch–made it look as if he could wake up at any moment. But it was three months since the crash now, three months without waking up. The longer Joey slept in his coma, the less chance there was of him ever coming back.

A nurse brushed Drury aside and began to sort out the tangle of bed clothes and intravenous drips.

‘You’ll have to go now, Mr Drury–time’s up and we’ve got to prepare your brother for the night.’

Drury got out. The nurse had shown what they all felt: Joey wasn’t a person anymore, he was just a piece of meat to be dealt with and then forgotten. It was just a body and Joey wasn’t in it anymore.

Outside the Western General, he kicked his black Ducati into action and rolled back towards the city centre. It was a wide, straight, empty road, but he’d lost his nerve since Joey’s accident and he stayed well below the speed limit. There was also the noise, an ultrasonic whine that seemed to haunt the streets as he drove. It was at the limits of his range of hearing, but the thin sound pierced through even the growl of the 1000-cc engine and the gusting of the wind. He was bothered by it and momentarily wondered if more speed would drown it out or lose it, but a nervous short circuit wouldn’t let him pull much more than forty miles an hour from the throttle.

The rain-washed road slipped by like a strip of celluloid. It seemed to Drury that he was watching a film replaying his brother’s crash in the reflections of his headlights. Joey’s bike jack-knifed at a hundred again. The Yamaha went over the central reservation in a shower of sparks. Something more like a bloody puppet than a human being bounced off the crash barrier and back into the road. Close up, it wore Joey’s screaming face.

Drury left the Ducati in the lock-up garage that he and Joey had shared. He walked the sleet-stained streets to the Jekyll & Hyde and made his way to the back room. It was open late that night and he still had time enough to get drunk.

Moses was waiting for him in a corner behind the pool tables. He had a couple of high-backed chairs to hang their jackets from and a pint set up. Drury gratefully accepted the invitation and sat down. For a while, they didn’t talk.

Moses was a heavy, solid beef tub of a man. He owned a breakers’ yard that they had used a great deal when they started riding. His fuzzy brown hair was tied back in a knot and he had a couple of incomprehensible tattoos on his forearms. He had ridden with the local Angels in the sixties but he was old enough to have rebuilt a Vincent to go to Newcastle and see Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. Although Drury didn’t need to use the yard much anymore, both Joey and he had become Moses’ friends over the last couple of years, and they regularly drank together or went down to the breakers’ to see him. He seemed a sullen man to those who hadn’t won his respect and confidence but, behind his stiff, glum features he had a lot of sense, guts and warmth.

‘How’s the boy then, Drury?’

‘There’s no change, Moses. No change at all.’

The conversation dried up and they stared into their drinks. A new crowd came through into the back room and started a game of doubles at the pool table. They were unsteady on their feet, and too fast and sloppy with their shots.

‘Oh, Jesus, Moses! How can someone end up wasted like this?’

A bell rang but not for last orders.

‘Hey, Drury, it’s your sister!’ shouted a barman with his hand cupped over the phone’s receiver.

He took the call at the bar and put his fist over his other ear to cut out the background noise.

‘Hi, Sheena,’ he said. Drury didn’t feel like talking to her then.

‘Is there any improvement?’

‘None. I’m sorry but you know I’d have called you if there was any change…’

‘Why wouldn’t you take me in tonight?’

‘I just don’t want passengers riding with me. It’s this damn weather…’

She was beginning to sound angry. ‘He’s my brother too!’

‘I know, Sheena, I know. I’ll come over to the house next week and get you up on the bus, okay?’

‘All rright… I’ll see you then.’ She was mollified but still upset.

He gave the phone back and ordered another round.

Moses had been sketching in the beer dregs on the table. He’d made half-formed pictures that trickled out of focus before they were finished. The big man was thinking despite the increasing racket made by the pool players.

‘You know, Drury, I’ve heard some odd stories in my time. Driving bikes, pushing machines to their capacity, going out on a limb: it’s a different world when you’re at the limits. You find out things.’

Drury didn’t know if Moses was trying to distract him with a story or tell him something important.

‘Like what, Moses?’

‘I knew a guy about twenty years ago–he drove an old Norton with a sidecar–who’d flown in the War, tail-gunner in a Lancaster bomber. He said he’d seen gremlins when they were trying to get out of an artillery barrage. The pilot was pulling as much speed and power as he could out of the plane, and this guy said he saw these things crawl out of the clouds and explosions and set to work on the wings. They lost two engines–sheared clean off their mountings–and the Lancaster crashed in the North Sea. He was lucky to survive.

‘Do you believe in gremlins, then?’

‘No, I don’t. But I’ve heard things, seen things from the corners of my eyes when I’ve been doing the ton. Nothing much, just enough to give me an idea that there’s a territory you enter at the limits and it’s not ours. Whatever’s there rules that place and if you fumble, if you fuck up, you’re not going to get back here.’

‘Shit, man,’ Drury whispered, ‘You think Joey’s lost in some kind of over-the-ton twilight zone?’

‘Look, I’ve just seen things that’ve made me think, that’s all. If any of this is for real , we’re still talking about a concept, not a place. It’s a territory that is everywhere and nowhere, a country of the mind or the soul.’

An argument had broken out over the pool table. Drury might have stepped in once but he wasn’t interested in the inevitable result for at least one of the participants: the hospital.

‘Moses, you’re drunk.’

‘You don’t believe any of this, do you? Look, Drury, I’m not trying to cut you up. I wouldn’t have told you these things if I didn’t think you should hear them.’

Someone picked up a pool cue and cut an arc across the table that ended on the side of his opponent’s head. There was a sound like the white ball potting the black.

‘Drury–’ Moses leapt back in his seat as a drunken bystander was accidentally punched over their table. He jumped to his feet and grabbed Drury’s arm.

‘I’m sorry, man.’

‘Don’t be,’ Drury said suddenly, ‘I know what you’re trying to say. I’ve heard them too.’

The following night, with whisky on his breath and a second bottle in his hand, Drury went back to the lock-up to think and met James Dean instead. The dead actor was looking the worse for wear. Indeed, the Rebel Without a Cause now lacked one side of his face, and his leather jacket was scorched and ripped through to his flesh. Dean, or whatever it was that might pretend to be Dean, had been waiting in the garage for Drury’s return. He pulled a hideous grin that curled his lips away from his teeth and the surrounding bone. He held out his hand and offered Drury the keys to his Ducati.

‘Live fast, Brian,’ he lisped, ‘Die young. Have a good-looking corpse.’

It was so strange, Drury thought, to hear his first name.

Dean threw the keys at Drury’s face and swept his quiff back into place with oil-stained claws. He pulled a soft pack of American cigarettes from his jeans and put one to his lips. Drury’s eyes bulged as the actor produced a Zippo lighter and flicked it open. There was an explosive smell of oil and petrol and whisky all around them in the garage.

‘We’ve got Joey, you know,’ the creature giggled, ‘Took him on the motorway and stole his soul.’

‘Oh, suffering Jesus …’

‘You can get it back though, Brian, if you want to play with us, up beyond the ton. We’ll be waiting for you buddy.’ The unlit cigarette wriggled between the actor’s shredded lips.

‘What would you know about Joey, then?’ Drury roared, ‘You’re a fucking hallucination!’

‘Revenant’s the word, man. Look it up.’

‘Get out of my head!’

You chicken or something? It’s a little bet–you take us on and win and you can get your brother’s soul back. You lose and we’ll see you in Hell…’

Dean finally lit his tab and sucked. The tip of the cigarette flared red and the fumes around his head seemed to catch.

He sank through the floor, his face burning away and laughing.

Drury went home to see his sister. He told her everything.

‘Do you really expect me to believe this, Brian?’ she gasped, ‘You must have the DTs.’

‘I doubt it, Sheena,’ he said grimly, ‘Not after the amount of whisky I’d had.’

‘So you admit you were drunk!’

‘Yes, I admit it, but I’ve never seen anything like that before–’

She stormed into the kitchenette to boil more water for his next coffee. Sheena drank only tea herself. She was beginning to weep. ‘Brian, we’ve got to hold ourselves together for Joey’s sake. It’s been bad enough over the last three months. I won’t be able to stand it if you crack up on me too!’

Drury went to the hatch and picked up the two fresh steaming mugs to carry them through for her. ‘Look, girl, you know what’s happened to me–I can hardly ride my bike now. These things–whether they’re really out there or in my mind–are taunting me. I’ve got to get myself together and go up there, over a hundred, and find them. If there’s nothing there, I’ll have shaken off this fear, and, if it’s all true, I can get Joey back. What’ve we got to lose, Sheena?’

‘Oh, for God’s sake, we’ve lost Joey already, I’m not going to let you kill yourself as well!’

The mug was burning Drury’s hand. He flung it against the plaster wall and watched the brown tears of coffee spill into the carpet. ‘We haven’t lost Joey yet!’

He fled the house and stumbled down the street. The black-coffee-coloured sky of the city seemed to blur above him. A cat screamed among the roofs but, behind the sound of the cry, the ultrasonic whine shrieked down the roads. Drury tried to swallow his spit. Something like a bowling ball was rolling towards him. The object bounced off his boot and slid into the slushy gutter. It was Joey’s helmet.

Drury went down to Moses’ breakers yard the following day. They set to work on the Ducati, stripping it down, cleaning, polishing and reboring, and tuning the engine to perfect pitch. Drury had decided to tell Moses the whole story too, including the scene with Sheena at the house.

Moses backed him up. ‘I don’t blame your sister, Drury, not at all, but I think you’re right. Whatever’s going on has to be faced, man. You’re doing the right thing for everybody.

‘What was this idea you said you had, Moses?’

‘Right,’ he stamped into his shed and grabbed a set-up he’d obviously prepared since they’d talked on the phone. ‘I thought if we were going to do a really thorough job, bearing in mind what you want to try, we ought to fix up one of these.’

Drury regarded the nitro cylinder with admiration.

‘Aye, Moses, that could be a very good idea indeed.’

They set about hooking the charger into the engine before the impending storm clouds let loose a blizzard on them. The work was good, it occupied them.

‘Drury, don’t say anything more about this to Sheena.’

‘Why?’ They were wiping their hands with swarfega.

‘Well, it’s done now–you’re going for it. I’m not going to say that what she doesn’t know can’t hurt her, but the less the pair of you worry at each other, the more luck you’ll have. Just take her to the hospital to see Joey and avoid the subject.’

The first damp flakes of snow began to spatter their jackets as they left the yard. Drury wheeled the Ducati out and got on.

‘I’ll see you in the pub later, Moses.’

‘Okay, Drury, see you then.’

Drury fired the engine and revved up.

‘Hey, Moses,’ he shouted through his open visor, ‘Do you want a lift?’ Moses studied the black motorcycle carefully.

‘No, I don’t think so, Drury.’

The bike tore away, trying to lose the whine.

The corporation bus rattled and hiccuped. The slush flooded in a dirty wake behind the wheels. Even with nightfall, it was clear that the temperature was rising, that winter was finished.

Sheena and Drury didn’t talk about their fight at the house. She reached into her bag and found a twist of paper.

‘I bought a present for you, Brian.’

Drury unravelled a small, silver St. Christopher medallion.

‘The patron saint of travellers,’ he observed, slightly embarrassed, ‘Thanks, Sheena.’

He turned away to follow the sodium street lamps drifting past.

‘They say he didn’t really exist, you know,’ Drury mumbled, then wished he’d kept his mouth shut because it sounded so ungrateful.

He quickly slung it round his neck and dropped it under his collar with one last look as appreciative as he could make it. They sat in silence until the stop beside the hospital.

They ran to the main entrance through the sleet. Drury put his arm around her shoulders to make sure she didn’t fall.

He stopped her in the deserted reception.

‘Sheena, don’t get me wrong about what I said earlier, on the bus,’ he fingered the St Christopher beneath his shirt, ‘If you think something’s real, that’s real enough. If enough people believe, then that faith’s enough to make things exist.’

She smiled at him. ‘So, Joey will be better again…’

‘Aye,’ he replied.

They went up the long ramp of the main corridor to the echoing stairwell. Although the ward was quiet that night, it seemed to them that Joey’s calm, sleeping face might open its eyes at any moment.

Moses wasn’t in the pub when Drury arrived. He bought himself a double whisky and sat down at their usual table. The destruction caused by the pool-table fight had been cleared away, replaced or repaired. Nevertheless, there was still the stale smell of the aftermath in the carpet: dried blood, burns from scattered cigarette ends, a gallon of spilled beer.

The jukebox started to play as a punter slipped ten pence in. Drury vaguely realised that the song was ‘Bat Out of Hell’. He looked at his watch; Moses would have to hurry if they were going to get a drink in before last orders.

The Shangri-Las began to sing the story of ‘The Leader of the Pack’. He’d always liked this one despite the sugar-coated vocals betraying the rather grimmer content. He rattled his fingernails against the side of his glass to keep the beat with the music.

Drury phoned Moses but the number was engaged. As he returned to the back room he groaned, the jukebox was unleashing ‘Dead or Alive’ by Bon Jovi. He drank faster. The sour flavour was good.

The last orders bell went and he gave up. He sipped the last drops of the double and began to leave. The jukebox began to play ‘Born to Be Wild’, an unheard of fourth selection. Drury clicked his fingers; he liked Steppenwolf.

At the door, a barman struggled with a rogue dosser. The dishevelled tramp was so dirty and wild that he looked as if he was made up to play a hobo on stage. The crazed man was flailing a Carlsberg can with one hand as the barman tried to remove him.

Drury stared at the figure blocking his way and smiled grimly. The dosser looked the way he imagined Moses might if he reached a hundred and fifty.

‘Or me,’ he added to himself.

The music in the back pounded on.

‘Whit’s he sayn tae it, eh?’ the tramp bellowed at Drury.

The biker lay a comforting hand on the old man’s shoulders.

‘Head out on the highway…’

Drury wheeled the Ducati out of the lock-up. He slung his leg over the saddle and thumbed the starter. As he gunned the engine, thick, white clouds of condensing exhaust fumes blew around him like a shroud. He rode out like the fourth horseman.

The long, straight road to the western side of the city was practically deserted. Drury could hear the whine but it was distant, removed. He was already speeding, but only just. The bike turned over beautifully. The tuning was perfect.

As he passed the airport on the outskirts, a police car came off a side road and drove after him. He continued to accelerate and the siren began to wail in time with the lights. Drury was about to take the slip road onto the motorway when another bike burst out of hiding behind him. It was a police BMW.

That was the point where Drury made his final decision. He would not let them bust him on a speeding charge; if Joey’s life was at stake, he’d risk a lot worse than an endorsement.

He opened up the throttle and was already breaking the motorway speed limit when he joined it. The police came after him. Drury knew that the car couldn’t keep up with him but the other bike might give him trouble. The cycle cop was a couple of hundred yards behind him so he put him out of his mind.

Drury crouched down over the tank and let the Ducati go for it. The needle on his speedometer climbed past one hundred. He was in their territories now.

The sound, the ultra-high-frequency noise, shrieked around him. He’d been wrong to think that he could outrace it before, all he’d heard was an echo on the streets. It was their sound, the cry of the soul-stealers and the speed demons.

He opened the throttle wide and hit 130. Something fluttered at the edge of his vision like a tiny waving hand. The image seemed to fade into the background blur of the receding roadsides as Drury turned his head slightly.

The police car was dropping back. The motorcycle kept pace with him, but the cop didn’t seem to have the power or the nerve to catch him.

Drury coaxed yet more speed out of the Ducati’s roaring engine. The motorway was mercifully empty up ahead. Control was getting very difficult now. Where were they? They’d promised him Joey’s soul if he came this far into their world.

He felt a tremor in the bike’s structure somewhere behind him. Something plucked at his boots.

Drury tried to look back without getting battered by the express-train wind. The passenger pillion and the sides of the bike were swarming. Something began to climb up his back.

His encounter with James Dean had done nothing to prepare him for these dwarvish creatures. Their eyes were like shattered but still-sparking headlights; their muscles were like cracked cylinders meshed in copper wire under chitinous, carbonised flesh. The gremlin on his back crawled onto his shoulders and gasped boiling smoke from its exhaust-pipe mouths.

Drury fumbled with the combination lock on the chain slung round his chest. With effort it loosed itself and he flung it behind himself like a flail. The gremlin on his shoulder tried to wrestle with it before a lash to its chrome skull made it crumble and fall away into space. It dissolved in interference like a TV picture.

One of the creatures beneath him was meddling with the engine. He ground his boot into its transmission-like spine and pushed it into the road. The mangled gremlin lost its grip and went into the back wheel. It seethed and boiled between the blurred spokes. Shreds of ectoplasm sprayed behind them.

Drury knew that to slow down now would be useless but the demons seemed to have cheated him. There was no sign of Joey’s soul, whatever it might look like. He squeezed a little more acceleration out of the bike. Then he saw the motorcycle cop in his mirror. the policeman was covered in the vicious monsters. Somehow, his helmet had been loosened. The BMW swayed as the creatures tore it off. Drury saw the cop’s face for a moment. His eyes had gone and only raw, blood-splattered sockets stared ahead. Then he let go of his handlebars and clutched at his face.

The BMW pitched over and the frame snapped. Drury looked ahead. He didn’t need the mirrors to see the crash.

It only made him more determined to force the demons to honour their deal. But all he’d found in these territories of acceleration was the nest of monsters crawling behind him. He flailed the chain behind himself again. Where had they hidden Joey?

Then he saw that he was approaching a tunnel of sparks strung across the motorway. A glowing fireball spun within it. the gremlins around him hissed out a cloud of exhaust fumes.

The Ducati entered the sparkling cylinder. Drury reached out for the burning globe with his left hand.

Before his fingers could close around it, the James Dean creature sprang over the wind-shield and wrapped its twisted limbs around the motorcycle’s forks. Its jagged claws locked round Drury’s throat. The demons shrieked and giggled.

Drury used his one nominally free hand to punch the monster’s blasted face. The features warped and distended under the punishment. For a moment, it looked more like Donald Campbell than the actor, then it resembled T. E. Lawrence. Its lips rippled back from the snaggle-toothed maw which kept on opening as the jaw dislocated itself for a wider bite.

The demon screamed the ultrasonic scream.

Drury smashed his chain down and wrenched himself over the handlebars to reach the sparking fireball in front of his face. He opened his mouth and swallowed his brother’s soul.

The speedometer needle was touching 150.

Drury began to throttle the careening bike down. The machine bucked under a renewed attack from the gremlins. But as the speed dropped, the Dean-thing’s claws fell away from his choking throat and the monster began to bubble and burst like melting plastic.

At 125 miles an hour, the remains of the shape changer gave up the ghost and slid beneath the wheels. The Ducati swerved as if it had taken a bad corner. Drury managed to wrap his chain around the neck of one of the increasingly desperate gremlins. He throttled the imitation of life out of it.

The whining chorus of the surviving demons abruptly stopped as he dropped below the ton. They vanished, beaten by some metaphysical crash barrier, and the tortured bike righted itself.

He kept braking. Only the echoes of the piercing screams remained in his head. His throat tingled and Joey’s soul seemed to glow within him. The bike reached 75. The rear tire blew.

Drury kept the Ducati upright for another 50 yards then let it go. From a distance, the crashing bike looked like a giant match being struck along the motorway. Drury got a glimpse of the burning Ducati disintegrating in an explosion as the fuel tank went up. His scorched leather jacket peeled beneath him. He started to roll and lost the feeling in his legs. When the long skid finished, his back was smoking and his blistered hands were speared with broken glass and steel.

He lay on the rubber-burned road and watched the sky. After a time, the police car he’d picked up near the airport arrived. He heard the cops get out and run closer, silhouetted against lights like flash guns.

A face entered his field of vision and said, ‘Suffering Jesus…’

The walls of the Western General swarmed around him. Drury had difficulty keeping his focus, and the perspective from the hurtling stretcher didn’t help as he was swept through the Accident and Emergency Department.

The doctors and interns and nurses didn’t seem to be making much sense but, then again, he still hadn’t got that damn whine out of his ears. He opened his lips to speak and they crackled electrically as something other than words passed out between them. An orderly whirled and stared at him, then turned away, shaking his head.

For a while, he thought he was conscious, but the hands of the wall clock had swapped places and Sheena was beside him, weeping hysterically. The ward sister tried to pry her away but failed, then another nurse whispered something in the sister’s ear. Drury began to slip away, despite himself, but at least he could hear them now.

‘You can do nothing for your brother, Miss. He is about to go into surgery, so you must leave him–’

Sheena began to protest, ‘I won’t–’

‘Sheena! That’s your Christian name, isn’t it? Sheena, I’ve just been told that your other brother Joey has regained consciousness. Would it not be better if we went to see him?’

Sheena reached forward, sorted the medallion on Drury’s chest and went with the ward sister. He smiled to himself.

Then a black tunnel closed around him and he fled away.


Afterword

Although what you have just read was a long way from being the first short story I ever wrote, it was the first piece of my fiction to see professional publication. Other tales I had written earlier would eventually be published too, some of them soon after Speed Demons, but this turned out to be my debut.

A group of my friends drove superbikes back in the 1980s and I was given some hair-raising rides in those days. Some of them still favour two wheels over four, but others have had to give up motorcycling because of the dangers. One friend nearly died in a terrible accident that wasn’t his fault and, although he recovered, his injuries mean that he can’t afford to risk another, potentially fatal crash. He rode a black Ducati too.

I should also mention that the Jekyll & Hyde Tavern only existed in my imagination when I wrote this story. Since then, a pub with a very similar name has opened in Edinburgh’s New Town. Oddly enough, the Jekyll & Hyde Pub on Hanover Street looks not unlike the one I built in my head and its manager did let Writers’ Bloc do a reading in their basement on Halloween 2000.

Speed Demons was originally published in Fear number 15 in March 1990. It was then reprinted in the USA in Year’s Best Horror Stories XIX (DAW Books, 1991), edited by the late Karl Edward Wagner. The blurb for the American anthology plugged the story by asking readers to ‘take bets on a motorcycle race to hell and back’, but they never gave any odds on the outcome.

- AJW.