It couldn’t be said that The Hangnail, in Miller’s Bend, Montana, was a dive.
Sure, the parking lot was only barely paved, the double doors sagged noticeably in their jambs, every third or fourth window was covered over with plywood, the whitewashed exterior walls were peeling and moldy and most of the neon signage outside boasted at least one burnt out letter. Notable among these accidental typos was ‘IN ER’ and ‘LIK A OCK’.
Despite these flaws, though, The Hangnail could only technically have been called a dive if there were more upscale establishments to choose from in the vicinity. And in Miller’s Bend, The Hangnail was one of the nicer watering holes. After all, not every joint in Miller’s Bend could say they had a level pool table, and The Hangnail had two. And they had free wi-fi, although this was mainly because the owner, a Vietnam era veteran known to the clientele only as Stitch, had a fondness for Swedish internet prawn and E-Bay. There was rarely any bandwidth left over for the patrons, but what there was was fair game.
On this Tuesday evening in the first week of August, there were only three people in The Hangnail besides Stitch, and none of them were using the wi-fi. At the L-shaped bar, a woman in her early 30’s with mousy brown hair and a linen blouse two sizes too small was chatting quietly with Stitch, shaking the ice in her Jack & Coke with evident animosity. This was Rochelle, one of The Hangnail’s regular customers and the only secretary employed by White Rock Construction, Miller’s Bend’s third largest corporation. She’d locked up her desk in the double-wide trailer that served as White Rock’s business office forty-five minutes ago and, as usual, dropped into The Hangnail on her way home for what she called ‘my going-home dose’.
The other two patrons, who were shooting a quiet game of pool while nursing a pitcher of Coors, looked decidedly less friendly. They were both men, heavily muscled, with hard eyes and unkempt hair. The older of the two wore a well-traveled leather vest with an embroidered patch on the back depicting a desiccated skeleton in tattered military fatigues. The grim figure was bent into a sinister crouch atop a crumbling tombstone on which the phrase “Peace” was etched where the deceased name would go. The skeleton held a machine pistol in one hand and a ridiculously fat joint in the other, and rockers above and below the central patch read respectively “Crypt Creepers” and “Minot, ND”. On the breast were two more rectangular patches reading “Treasurer” and “Red Handed”.
The younger of the two men wore a leather vest of the same style and cut, though it’s only adornment was the word “Prospect” across the lower back. Despite the obvious disparities between them, the younger man was running the table with neither difficulty nor modestly, his grin wide and unflinching as he dropped three balls in a row. The older man scoffed at each successful drop with good natured humility, lofting a middle finger roughly the size of a bratwurst and gruffing, “Sure are good at bouncin’ balls around huh?” The younger man only laughed through his nostrils as he lined up the next shot.
“…Gonna have to ain’t they?!” Rochelle’s strident voice cut through the relative quiet, her outburst punctuated by the solid thunk of her tumbler as she slammed the glass onto the bar. The sudden distraction wasn’t enough to completely throw off the prospects shot, though it did cause him to put a bit too much stink on the cue. Instead of gliding to a stop just shy of the pocket, the cue followed the 3-ball right into the hole.
“My Impala’s doin’ pretty good to pull twenty miles a gallon and they’ve got me runnin’ down to Terrance three times a week ‘cause that’s the nearest Starbucks?” The indignity in Rochelle’s tone was sharp and more than half sauced as she warmed to her rant, gesturing wildly in the direction of the parking lot and, presumably, her Impala. “What kinda construction dude knows what a half fat half skim double mocha chai even is anyway? Well, if they can afford eight dollar coffees they can damn well reimburse my gas! And I’ll need new tires before the safety’s due in November, maybe I’ll just staple those receipts to their damn expense reports instead of the coffees!”
The two bikers were listening with half an ear from their pool table, the older man chuckling through his wiry beard and overgrown moustache as he pondered from what angle to take his foul shot. Rochelle seemed not to notice though, and presently she puffed up one time real big, which nearly cost her a button or two from the strained blouse, then deflated back into her stool with a sigh. Stitch reached out and laid a consoling hand over hers, while with the other he expertly filled her glass with scotch. “They’re lucky to have you over there Roachie yaknow, an’ if you ever get feddup with their sh-t, you come on over an’ work for me huh?”
A wry laugh escaped the girl, and she smiled gamely at the old bartender. “Uh huh, that’s gonna happen Dad.”
There was a momentary hush as Rochelle lifted her tumbler again to her lips, then the sharp stick-stick of a cue ball clearing a lot of green before connecting with its intended target. Any further sound was lost, though, as a vehicle out on RT-36 cleared the stand of dense pines separating the highway from Miller’s Bend Road. All at once the Hangnail was filled with a deep, thrumming rumble that could only belong to a motorcycle, a sound closer to a ripping roar than exhaust. The two bikers glanced up, confusion writ large, and the younger man muttered, “That can’t be Ducky, not yet right? Besides, his bike don’t sound a thing like that…” The older man shook his head, casually leaning the cue against the pool table and shrugging his shoulders as though to loosen them.
The oppressive roar outside swelled into a violent crescendo and cut out, replaced by the crunch of gravel. There was the mechanically elastic sound of a spring reaching full extension, then a rubbery squeak as suspension components were unloaded of a tremendous weight. And, footsteps.
The man who came through the door of the Hangnail was so immensely proportioned that all four witnesses gasped in unison, though the sound Rochelle made possessed more than a little nuance. He was at least three inches over seven feet, a height that required him to duck to clear the jamb, with shoulders broad enough to conjure images of a bull in an arena and legs like the concrete pilings of a stout bridge. He wore dark denim jeans with a slightly rusty tint, heavy black boots with steel eyelets and a black leather jacket that looked like it might have been new when Kennedy was elected. The jacket was unzipped to show a plain gray tee shirt that managed to look baggy despite the enormous musculature beneath, and also conspicuous in his attire was a rather large sheathed knife at his right hip.
His eyes were difficult to see, socketed deep in his face beneath a heavy brow and further obscured by a full moustache and beard cropped close enough to avoid being scraggly, but full enough to be bushy. His beard and hair were that indeterminate shade of tan between blonde and brown, but shot through with enough red to make the color memorable, and his hair like his beard was long, bushy and unkempt from the wind despite the anachronistic leather thong in which the hair was tethered. As the giant paused in the doorway, blinking against the gloom within, an errant breeze turned up one edge of his coat and revealed for just an instant a pistol holstered under his right armpit.
It was the young prospect who recovered first, taking half a step towards the newcomer and raising his voice in greeting. “Hey, nice day for a ride huh? Where you headed?” He managed to make it sound casual.
The big man turned slightly to consider the question, and then the crags and plains of his face broke to reveal a stunningly white toothy smile. “Here, actually. And yeah, great day for a ride.”
Then, Stitch surprised everyone by clearing his throat and stating matter-of-factly, “You must be Audeyn.” He pronounced it EYE-DOO-UN.
“I am. You’re Stitch then?” Audeyn shifted his weigh and crossed the space between them in three steps, leaning heavily against the bar. As he did, a scowl crossed the face of the old treasurer and he tapped the prospect on the shoulder to point.
“That’s me. I didn’t realize they’d send someone so fast. I’ve never had to, yaknow, call someone before.”
Rochelle interrupted then, finally finding her voice and stepping back to take in Audeyn’s girth. “Daddy, is everything okay?” The regression to ‘daddy’ was not lost on anyone.
Stitch chuckled, his expression softening fast enough to prove his words. “Oh yeah Honey, everything’s fine. This is just, well, it’s sorta about Nam, some people I met over there. That’s all. Everything’s fine, or, it is now that this guy is here.” Then, Stitch glanced up at Audeyn. “Right? I mean, that’s why you’re here?”
“Oh yeah, let’s not talk much about it though okay? Just tell me where, and I’ll get going. No need to get all cryptic, less said the better.” The broad man leaned as far down as his height could allow, his posture suggesting secrecy if not achieving it. Rochelle frowned at this, her brow furrowing in concern as she glanced between the two men.
“Daddy, what are-“, Stitch cut her off with a stern glance then, an expression he hadn’t used with his daughter since she’d moved down to Kalispell with her fiancé at seventeen. Her mouth closed with an audible stick, and Stitch watched her a moment longer before letting out a low breath.
“Northeast of here, about five miles. You wanna head back out to highway 93 and go north a couple miles. Just past Murphy Lake you’ll head east, into the foothills around Mount Marston. Forest gets pretty thick through there, between where the fire roads peter out and the mountain. In there. It’s, well, it’s pretty rough country, I didn’t realize you’d be coming on a bike. Do you, shi-t, I dunno, need to borrow my truck or something?” Stitch reached half-heartedly into his pocket, keys jingling within.
Audeyn shook his head, his eyes lighting with mirth. “No, I’ll be fine. How long ago did you see it?”
“Two weeks back I guess, I didn’t talk myself into making the call for awhile. That’s bad isn’t it?” Stitch glanced towards Roachie now, and the woman was taken aback at the sudden look of concern writ in the old soldiers face.
Audeyn mulled that over for a minute, then shook his head again. “Naw, I don’t think so. I think we’re okay, or at least, if we weren’t we’d for sure know it by now. Don’t you think?” This he said pointedly, arching an eyebrow and staring hard at Stitch. Stitch, to his chagrin, cut loose with a full body shiver.
“Yeah, f'n’ yeah we would. I’m glad you’re here.”
This earned another chuckle from the imposing Audeyn, though it seemed a little forced. “Well, I’m here anyway. No sweat. I’ll be going I think. Two miles north on 93, head east on the fire roads after Murphy Lake?”
“Right. Hey, thanks for coming, uhm, good luck?” Stitch reached out and clapped Audeyn’s shoulder, though it was an awkward stretch for him.
“Piece’a’cake.” Audeyn smiled again and then, incongruously, winked at the old vet. “Ma’am,” and he dropped a wink to Rochelle too, then turned and started towards the door. As he did he shook his left hand with the detached manner of long habit, a roughly braided bracelet of coarse orange hair skittering down his forearm to his wrist, and with practiced ease he pulled a loop of the braided ring out, twisted it, and tucked his thumb through the resulting smaller loop.
As he turned fully away, Rochelle suddenly understood why the two bikers at the pool table had been so interested in the newcomer. On the back of Audeyn’s coat was a large, intricate patch. Three medieval broadswords pointing outward away from each other to form a crude “Y”, each blade broken at the base and the separated crossguard, hilt and pommel laying at a right angle to the sword. Each blade was wrapped in a loose ribbon of a different color, the bottom gold while the two upper blades were wrapped in black and green, and in the triangular void in the middle of the emblem a plain, unadorned gray shield sat. It was this patch, apparently, that had given rise to animosity among the two Crypt Creepers.
“Hey, you big f'er, stop right there!” This sudden command was barked out with an authoritative tone by the Crypt Creeper’s Red Handed treasurer, and though he said it with the air of a man who was used to being obeyed, Audeyn didn’t even break stride. He pulled the door open and stepped out into the bright sunlight beyond. Stitch and Rochelle both glanced from the bikers to the shutting door, sudden concern straining the lines of their face. Without any further words, both of the rough men abandoned their pool game and rushed outside, hot on Audeyn’s heels.
Outside, the temperature hovered near eighty-five degrees and a warm, nearly constant wind was blowing from the south. At just a quarter past 5:00 the summer sunlight was still full and strong, only the barest hint of an evening magenta staining the horizon in the East.
In the parking lot of The Hangnail, the intense light cast everything in an oddly flat aspect, dimension and scale lost in the assault of illumination pouring forth from the westering sun. It was not a flattering light, the 1980’s Bronco and the turn-of-the-century Chevrolet Impala looking shabby and careworn parked alongside each other in the gravelly perimeter of the parking lot. Displayed in the dirty back window of the Bronco were two universally recognized stickers, the stout riveted block letters of USMC and silhouetted guard tower and face of the POW/MIA insignia. Beneath those, on a bumper sticker mounted to the tailgate was the epithet “I Didn’t Inhale Either, Officer”.
Besides the Bronco and the Impala, there were three motorcycles in the parking lot. Two were Harley Davidson big-bore cruisers, outfitted for the highway with crash bars and large rounded windshields. One was all blacked out in the usual ‘club bike’ motif, nondescript and lacking the sort of chrome and glitz that one might usually expect on such a machine. The other, however, was painted hot pink with royal purple accents and was outfitted with a plastic-weave white basket with big yellow and blue flowers, mounted just behind the passenger pillion over the rear fender. A fiberglass flagpole mounted to the basket flew a square flag, a yellow field with a big bright red kiss-print and the words “Daddy’s Little Candy A$$” in big purple balloon letters. This, undoubtedly, was the prospect’s bike.
The third motorcycle, though, was an entirely different animal. It was long, almost ten feet, though nearly half that length was simply the void between the front tire and the handlebars. The low saddle was mounted on a narrow spur of frame separating the massive motor from the equally large rear tire, while the long, loping tank arched up and away from the saddle to meet with the glittering chrome handlebars. Ahead of the bars were two enormous twin headlamps, which glowed a sullen furnace orange despite the bike being apparently shut off. The rest of the bike was orange as well, the deep brooding shade of rusting battleships in a forgotten naval yard, and all through the bright glossy paintwork raced unimaginably intricate designs somewhere between Celtic and tribal, ranging from deep red to fiery yellow and blackest black. The motor was almost entirely chromed, glittering fantastically in a cavity so large a grown man could have crawled through it. And despite Miller’s Bend being miles and miles from the nearest Starbucks, the monstrous motorcycle glittered and gleamed as though it had just been detailed for an expo.
Audeyn was halfway to the big chopper when the Treasurer and Daddy’s Little Candy A$$ spilled out into the parking lot behind him, all huffs and puffs. The prospect looked mostly confused, but the older man was worked up and in quite a state as he barreled towards the giant. Audeyn turned to confront him, an arched eyebrow suggesting good nature even as his left hand dipped beneath his coat. “Something wrong, Treasurer? Can I help you?”
The older man scowled, squinting up at the giant Audeyn. Despite their difference in size, though, the Treasurer appeared not the least intimidated as he pointed with his bratwurst-sized finger. “I’m gonna need that jacket.”
Audeyn’s smile didn’t falter, though his eyes narrowed. Behind the Treasurer, Candy A$$ started to circle slowly to the left, trying to flank Audeyn. “You’re not gonna get it. But tell me, why do you want it?”
“You’re showing green and gold in that patch, that’s Dakota Dragon’s colors. And the Dakota Dragons were disbanded by force in 1977. That may have been before you were born buddy, but that doesn’t change anything. As long as the Crypt Creepers are around, nobody’s flying green and gold where we can see it.” Without hesitating, the big Treasurer dipped into his vest and drew out a nickel-plated .45 autoloader, which he leveled at Audeyn’s chest. “Now, you can give me the coat, or I can peel it off your dead body.” Candy A$$ followed suit, drawing out a .38 revolver from beneath his own unadorned vest. From somewhere inside The Hangnail, Rochelle screamed – father and daughter were evidently watching from a window.
All at once, any joviality disappeared from Audeyn’s features. He bared his brilliantly white teeth in a wide threatening smile, eyes narrowing to slits, and the big man drew himself to his full height. “Friend, you’ve got two seconds to point that pistol somewhere else or I’ll feed you to my bike. You hear?”
There was a pause, during which the Treasurer angled his pistol from side to side, then he chuckled. “Feed me to your bike? What kinda macho sh't is-“
And then Candy A$$ screamed. He was closer to the glittering orange chopper, and so had a front row seat to witness the spectacle. The entire bike seemed to shiver and shimmer at the same time, the intricate detailed scrollwork in the paint seeming to flow and melt while the entire form collapsed inward. The various mingling shapes swirled, pooled, drew apart and solidified, and in an instant the motorcycle was gone. In its place was a huge, feral looking beast, roughly the size of a draft horse and seemingly made of equal parts panther, wolf and bear. The nightmarish monster was covered with shaggy, coarse fur the same blazing orange the motorcycle had been, and it’s cartoonishly large swirling eyes glowed like orange searchlights on Hell’s own lighthouse.
The beast opened its fiendish maw and roared menacingly, and though the sound was less mechanical than the motorcycles growling exhaust had been, it was nonetheless the same sound. The monsters tongue was black and forked, quivering at its full extension like a snake as the bellow issued forth, and Candy A$$ needed no further persuasion. Scrambling backwards with a hoarse scream, he slipped on some gravel and dropped his .38, coming down solidly on his back with a muffled grunt. His eyes spun wildly like a spooked horse, and he crab-crawled backwards until he fetched up against, of all things, the Treasurer’s bike. It fell over with a crash, missing its pink and purple companion by mere inches, and the prospect slumped to the ground.
The Treasurer, to his credit, didn’t lose his cool like Candy A$$, but he did blanch noticeably and his gun sagged in his suddenly shaking hand. Audeyn dipped into his own jacket and drew his piece, a huge .44 revolver with intricate etched scrollwork all down the blued steel barrel and wooden grip. He lined up the long, gaping barrel with the Treasurer’s pale face, then pulled back the action with an ominous kli-klak.
“On the ground. Gun first, then you.” The giant growled this out with some intensity, not casual at all, and the Treasurer complied immediately. Behind Audeyn, the monstrous orange furred beast growled low in its throat and flared it’s nostrils, then started to pad over to the supine prospect, who was bleeding from a shallow gash on his head where he’d connected with the engine case.
The Treasurer lifted his head slightly, hard to do with his arms splayed out to the sides, and watch with rapt fascination as the bike-turned-beast hunkered down to the prospect. “Oh god, don’t,” he started, but then relaxed as the beast only sniffed the downed man. Then it snorted, padded over to the Treas, and started to sniff him too.
Audeyn arched an eyebrow as the prone man started to sob in fear, his whole body shaking and his hands clenching up so tight he actually broke his own pinkie on his left hand. When the monster finally snorted and strode away, the Treasurer let out a long wavering sigh. Audeyn patted the creature on its formidable haunches, then smiled slowly at the frightened biker. “You go ahead and sit up now. You know what that was, right?”
Struggling upright, the Treasurer took a long, dry swallow and tried to spit unsuccessfully. His throat was full of sand, and it took three choking coughs before he could speak. “It, its, goddamned, it’s getting our scent…”
“You’re not as dumb as you look. So, I’ll take it on faith you know what that means.” Audeyn holstered his ancient looking .44, and with another liquid coalescence the monster shifted back into the chopper. The Treasurer watched the transformation in horror, staring into the huge swirling orange eyes of the beast as they grew chrome bands around them and drew tightly together. He shuttered, and his bladder let go just a little, and before he could find his voice the giant of a man swung a leg over the plush leather saddle of the cruiser and popped the kickstand up. The bike started with that same deafening roar, seemingly without benefit of key or start button, and the pair tore out of the parking lot.