One of the things that always ended up undoing Danny Culp was that he could smell manna where it had fallen from Heaven. His tolerance for alcohol didn’t do him any favors, either. And he had rotten luck with women. The third characteristic probably developed directly from the first two, but it had as much impact on his life as they did, so it’s fair to state it.
So it was that a hundred and ten degrees found Danny Culp in his cherry red but beat-to-hell Chevy pickup, broken-hearted, a duffel full of wrinkled clothes on the passenger seat and a toolbox in the bed of the truck. He had a shovel back there, too. For digging. Sometimes the stuff he smelled was buried. Danny’s course was vaguely eastward across the Texas scrub.
Danny worried the trek might take him into Louisiana. That meant a stop in Shreveport. Precious few of the Shreveport casinos even let him in anymore. Why did God always leave the stuff He needed found in the places that compounded sin upon sin?
Aside from the way he lived his life, Danny wasn’t a gambling man. But those vices of booze and women had a way of laying a man low. That was the problem with Shreveport, and Shreveport was the problem with Louisiana. That and New Orleans.
The problem with Danny right now was Maureen.
Danny had a thirst so great it practically changed the tuner on the radio.
Gilbey’s Road House poked up from the twilight horizon.
That really made the decision. How far could a thirsty man drive? Roughly the distance of the horizon, Danny estimated. It turned out to be true. He pulled into the lot and parked.
A tired, old mutt sat by one of the porch tables, lonely as Danny felt. Nobody wanted to be outside on a hundred-and-ten-degree night. “They at least leave some water for you, Patch?” Danny asked with heartfelt sympathy.
“Tain’t Patch,” the dog said.
“What?” Danny asked. Talking dog. Maybe two hundredth on the list of weirdest business he’d encountered. Still, it caught him off guard.
“Tain’t Patch. M’name’s Kit,” the dog offered. “An no, hain’t got no water.”
“Well, I’m going to water myself, Kit. You want me to bring you out a bowl?”
“Mighty kind, mister.”
“Danny Culp, since we’re introducing.”
“Much obliged, Danny Culp. I’ll be here. Say, you don’t have a tire iron in that Chevy beater, do you?”
“No. Got a shovel,” Danny replied, the squint of a cowboy at dusty noon in his eyes. “And, hey, it’s not a beater. It’s an Apache.”
“Runs twenty years past its prime, and I’d rather push a Ford than drive a Chevy,” Kit said.
“The thing’s barely a year old. An you’d have to push the Ford. Dogs don’t drive, anyway.”
“You some kind of expert?”
Danny didn’t know how to respond to that. He went inside, excusing himself from Kit’s company with, “I’ll bring that water right out to you.”
He was inside by the time Kit muttered, “You’re going to want that shovel.”
Gilbey’s Road House was a fancied-up rat trap that, for all of its faults, kept its beer cold. It was maybe eight degrees cooler inside than outside, thanks to the noble efforts of a clattering pair of window-unit air conditioners. One hundred and two degrees. Cold beer.
Danny ordered a beer and a bowl of water.
“The water better not be for that flea-bitten dog,” the bartender told him. She was fifty, or maybe fifty-five. At least ten years older than Danny. Had a face like one of her parents was a snake and the other was a hatchet.
“Your name’s not Maureen, is it?” Danny asked her.
“Because you remind me of my Maureen.”
“You know, I’ll bet she’s not your Maureen anymore. Just like any water in here ain’t for that dog.”
“Come on, lady, it’s hotter out there than it is in here. Water don’t cost anything.”
She gave him a Point, still in the bottle, sweating condensation.
“Look, bud. That dog could be President Eisenhower and I wouldn’t give her a drop.”
No wonder the dog was so prickly. A woman.
“Fine. How much for the beer?”
Danny paid and walked out the front door.
Kit still sat there, the veritable picture of the word hangdog. Danny sat down in a rickety chair next to her. A checkerboard sat on the table next to the chair, with too few pieces to play a game.
“That hag in there wouldn’t give me any water for you. You wanna lick the bottle?”
“That’s kind of you, Culp. Don’t mind if I do.” Kit licked the bottle. “That wreck behind the bar isn’t the problem. She’ll die soon enough. Poisoned by her own blood, most like. You didn’t get your shovel, like I warned you.”
“Didn’t need it. Just bought a beer.”
Kit shrugged. Heretofore, Danny didn’t know dogs could shrug. It looked just like a human shrug.
The screen door flew from its hinges and landed in the dusty parking lot. Danny jumped and dropped his Point, roaring “Holy smokes!”
It must have been the cook. The guy was heavy-set, dressed in an apron and a sweaty a-shirt. He had his hair slicked back and a few dangerous strands dangling from a severe widow’s peak. He wore an earring. Some kind of aging greaser. Maybe a gang hoodlum.
The cook had blood in his eye and a chef’s knife. Danny’s mouth hung open.
“Nuthin’ here for you!” the cook shouted and waved his knife at Danny.
Danny ran for his truck. “Get your shovel, Culp!” Kit called to him.
At times in Danny Culp’s life, he did things on strange impulses. He proposed to Maureen when he knew she was sleeping with Jim Hall. He drank some homemade “tequila” that Alfredo made once, which turned out to be mostly peyote and spit. He crashed a Dodge Meadowbrook through a police roadblock because he thought the cops were agents of the Devil, and the roadblock was set up to keep people from taking the highway into Heaven. This time, he grabbed the shovel from the back of his truck so he could fight the satanic cook at the road house because a talking dog told him to.
The alternative was to hold his ground and let this crazed demon cut him into a chopped Culp sandwich with Brunswick stew on the side. Not much of a contest there, really.
A crowd had gathered outside Gilbey’s, whether out of malice or sheer excitement, Danny didn’t know. If they were demons, too, they’d probably already be intervening on the cook’s side. But the hag behind the bar hadn’t been any too friendly, and she knew something was up with the dog.
“Quit horsing around, Culp,” Kit yipped while skipping in and out of the maniac’s vision. The chef plodded relentlessly toward the truck.
Danny tasted Point as he belched up some nervous gas. He grabbed his shovel and did his best to look intimidating. Dust stuck to his sweaty brow.
The problem was, you can’t reason with people possessed by demons. They didn’t have any care whether or not you annihilated their bodies. They weren’t really their bodies. They were just meat, some rube or unwilling vessel who just happened to be in the wrong place when the hoary host of Hell figured, “We need a guy there,” and sooner than you could say “Dante,” there was the Devil’s proxy, ready to spit fire or hail brimstone or what have you.
Shovel in hand, Danny put himself in a batter’s stance, hoping for slowball right down the center.
Possessed people weren’t very sophisticated. Danny got his wish. Whump, right into the cook’s chest. But possessed people didn’t feel anything, either.
Not that Danny knew this. He just followed his nose, and sometimes it led him into the path of bad people. He expected the cook to double over in pain. Maybe at least curse a little. No such luck. The cook slapped the shovel away with his burly arm and outstretched palm.
“Run, Culp!” Kit shouted. Danny ran, kicking up a rooster tail of parking lot rocks. Back into Gilbey’s.
The cook followed him plod plod plod, to much cheering of the hayseed crowd. Beer spilled. Gaps in teeth whistled.
“What the heck am I going to do?” Danny wondered to himself. Then he came to the realization that he didn’t have to do anything. It wasn’t his problem. He could just leave, and the greaser with the knife would either calm down and forget about whatever it was that had worked him up into a lather, or run himself ragged trying to follow.
Out through the back door, Danny ran, pausing only briefly to grab a fire extinguisher off the wall near the griddle. If nothing else worked, maybe he could buy himself some time by throwing it at the cook.
Kit met him out back. “Good thinking. Let’s go.”
Apparently, the talking dog was coming with him. Did no one else hear this dog talking?
“Where we goin’, Kit?”
“I don’t know. You tell me. You’re the one who can smell Heaven.”
It was pointless to argue. The dog was right. And maybe a talking dog would come in handy wherever he was headed, Danny figured.
They both bolted, circumnavigating the roadhouse, hoping to make it back to the truck before the demonic brute caught up to them. “You have to ride in the bed, Kit. Sorry,” Danny warned as they sprinted under the hot, purple Texas sky.
“In a pig’s eye. I probably drive better than you do.” Kit sprung up into the cab, surprising Danny Culp as he opened the door for himself. She went all the way over to the passenger’s side of the ratty bench seat, though, and he was relieved she didn’t want to put that theory to the test.
The engine groaned to reluctant life, miserable in the heat after its short reprieve, but it faithfully pulled the truck out of Gilbey’s stony parking lot. Tex Ritter crooned on the radio, that song about the playing cards, as Danny and Kit left a traildust smokescreen behind them.
Two miles down US 20, Danny shouted “Aw, for the love of—” and made a U-turn in the middle of the empty desert two-lane.
Kit sat bolt upright and practically squealed: “What? What happened? What’s going on?”
Back at the roadhouse, the cook still sat at the order table in the kitchen, wondering what the name of Scratch had gotten into him. Not a second later, his eyes lit up red and he exhaled with a grunt like a bull. And picked up his knife again.
Danny said, “I forgot my stinkin’ beer.”
Kit couldn’t believe it. “That cook crack your skull, Culp? Just stop at bar or liquor store and get a another beer whenever we stop for the night.”
“Nope. I already paid for this one.” The engine roared as the red truck reclaimed the pavement it had left behind. Gilbey’s appeared on the horizon again, this time lit up like a livid boil on Lucifer’s own hind end.
Having given up on actual conversation, Kit barked excitedly while Danny told her to shut up and wheeled the Chevy into a drift that only barely fishtailed across the parking lot, just like Danny wanted. He hit the throttle hard just as the possessed cook made it out onto the slat-wood porch again, knife in hand.
The truck slammed into the porch, sending up a cloud of dry splinters, loose nails, and snapped lumber. It didn’t stop, though, plowing forward through the carpentry as the cook took two steps toward it before meeting the grill with his face. The knife spun away, somewhere, over the truck.
Danny mashed the brake, replacing the scream of the porch’s destruction with various shouts of fear and surprise from inside. He threw the Chevy into reverse, backed up a dozen feet to the table where he had sat with Kit reclining next to him, and got out to pick up his beer.
There it was, standing on the upright table, flanked by a single overturned chair, still sweating in the hundred-and-ten degree night.
Danny Culp got out and picked up the bottle. “Forgot my beer,” he said again to the gape-mouthed crowd staring at him in awe from the ruined road house dining room. The body of the cook fell from its clumsy mooring in the truck’s grill with a wet thud muffled by the dust.