The moon was red, what they call a blood moon. At the time, I thought its ruddy flush resulted from the smoke and ash thrown into the atmosphere by wildfires raging out west. The reflected light cast its strange coloration on everything, even staining the white paint of my truck crimson.
My vehicle’s headlights cut tunnels into the darkness. The Ford pickup’s cruise control kept us at the seventy MPH allowed on interstates. Occasional islands of light flashed by marking rest stops and exits into strangely named towns. I turned off at one swathed in garish fast food and gas station signs. On my way back after gassing up at the Flying J Travel Plaza, I felt an irresistible compulsion to pick up the hitchhiker waiting at the entrance ramp.
The dome light activated by the open door gave me a good look at my passenger, a youngish small-breasted woman with male-style close-cropped hair. She slid a trim but nice bottom onto the seat.
”You look fancy, black blazer and slacks, white shirt, black tie, and shoulder bag. The Jodhpur riding boots are a bit different. Not what I’d expect from a hitcher.”
”Speed it up. I’m late.”
I ignored the command. ”The patch on your jacket—an Egyptian Ankh with wings. Your family crest? A sorority logo? What does it mean?”
She smiled, creating a simultaneously pleasant and chilling visage—a combination of Marilyn Monroe and Bride of Dracula. ”The motto across the bottom will give you a hint: Et ecce equus pallidus.”
My brain tossed the words around. The high school Latin of fifty years ago failed to provide a translation. I recognized only the term for horse. Sensing a break in the conversation might lengthen into too long a silence, I asked.
”Doesn’t appear you planned to hitchhike.”
She laughed—a sound both pleasing and terrible—violin and buzzsaw. ”My steed threw a shoe. A repair is underway.”
”A shoe? Oh, you mean you had a flat.”
”Murphy’s law, you know—the bane of gods and men. Everything that can go wrong will and at the worst possible time.”
”You a fan of Murphy and his conspirators? Me too. My favorite: No plan survives first contact with the enemy. A memory of nasty times bloomed.
My eyes hurt—the light flared intense. A hurdling body knocked me down. The methane smell of rotting jungle floor assaulted my nose.
”El Tee, your combat reflexes need an upgrade.”
Behind the thick trunk of a fallen tree, platoon sergeant Jones and I stayed flat as AKs and machine guns shredded the wood and foliage around us into tan sawdust and green confetti.
Jones yelled, ”Wittworth get that thumper working. Smoke first, then HE. Lieutenant, we’re split into two sections by enemy fire. Second squad is over there, undercover. Once the smoke hits, you get the men here to give covering fire, and I’ll run over and organize the others. They have the PRC-25 radio. I’ll call in artillery.”
”No, I’ll make the run. That’s an order.”
”Well, now I understand why second Louie’s only have a life span of two minutes in combat. We were lucky; some doofus VC peasant boy got scared and fired before we fully entered the kill sack. There’s one or two in every unit, ours and theirs. He sure screwed their ambush.”
I blinked and sighed. As usual, the memories came and went in seconds. ”Sorry, I was back in Nam for a bit.”
”So,” she paused, ”you and I both have military experience.”
A semi-truck passed. Its headlights made the hitcher’s skin whiter and her eye sockets black. My passenger looking like a talking skull, sent a chill through my body to further intensify the cold emanating from her side of the cab. I turned up the heat.
The hitcher continued, ”Have you heard this one? The fancier the uniforms is inversely proportional to the combat effectiveness of an army.”
Trying to turn the tête-à-tête away from the military, I said, ”Another good one is you always find something lost in the last place you look.”
A grating laugh and she hissed, ”Yesss, so it will be with today’s mission. But I always find them. Hofstetter’s law applies in this case: everything always takes longer than anticipated.”
”Now that we have broken the ice, might I ask? What’s your name and line of work?”
My companion stroked her chin. After a period of contemplation, she nodded. ”You may call me Azrael, and I am The Collector of Souls.”
I couldn’t help it. I gasped and laughed. ”Are you here for me?”
”Not yet. Like most veterans, you have a dispensation of sorts. The odds are ninety percent that you will choose the moment of your death. The war guilt you feel will overcome your ability to confront it. I’ll come to you then. Take the next exit west.”
I did as she ordered, wishing I had not allowed the ride and wanting to get rid of this addled person as soon as possible. A few miles down a two-lane asphalt county road, we turned onto a graveled drive. As we neared, the blood moon silhouetted farmhouse at the end turned into a two-story Craftsman. A pole-mounted fixture flooded the area between house and white-painted barn with light. I stopped at her upheld palm and put the Ford in park. She leaned over, shut off the engine, and took the keys.
Eyes red sparks, she said. ”Hang around. I may still need your ride.”
She exited. I followed, wanting my keys back. Azrael broke stride twenty feet from the front porch and stood legs apart, hands on hips. Animals in the barn sensed her presence and began to bray, whiny, and bleat. A man wearing a quilted Carhartt jacket with leather shoulder patches walked out of the shadows cradling a 12-gauge.
He positioned the barrel of the gun in her direction and spoke. ”I thought I saw you in Owatonna, so I came this way.”
Azrael cocked her head. ”That’s funny. I was only passing through that town. I was really coming here.”
She leaped. The man raised his weapon, and I hit the dirt. I heard a boom, the whistle of shot passing over, and the rattle as it struck the metal hood of my truck. The noises echoed off the barn. I lifted my head, expecting to see female flesh separated from its bones.
The guy lay crumpled on the black soil of the front yard, the shotgun smoking at his side, one hand raised for mercy. Azrael reached for his chest. The crazy woman was about to kill the man. I lunged forward and tried a tackle. I pitched through her substance, feeling only slight resistance. My blood stopped flowing during that moment of passage. Facedown in the dirt, I felt a stabbing pain in the chest. After short seconds that felt like long minutes, my heart began to pump again. The exposed skin on my hands and face burned as if frostbitten.
I rolled to one side and watched Azrael compressing something in her hands, like a schoolgirl making a snowball. Whatever it was sparked and glowed until she unzipped a flap on her shoulder bag and deposited it inside. She turned—anger changed her features into a demonic mask. Standing over me, her banshee scream wounded my ears.
”You interfered! I will take you now!”
The realization struck like an electric shock—I had just meddled in something supernatural. My mind finally came up with the translation of the Latin motto on her jacket—’Behold a pale horse.’ It came from Revelations, And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death.
Azrael’s fingers formed claws as she bent over my quivering body.
I shouted.”The Law of Unintended Consequences. Screwing with a complex system can create unanticipated and undesirable outcomes.”
She hesitated and straightened. I gasped out. ”Lord Acton’s Law: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Her lips relaxed down over teeth that had momentarily taken on the aspect of fangs. She grabbed my arms, jerked me upright, frog-marched me over to the truck, and threw me into the driver’s seat.
”Alright, soldier, I will honor the dispensation, but don’t take too long to make up your mind.”
I sputtered out a thank you.
”Don’t thank me. I will make sure your dreams and reality become nastier. If I can’t directly take you now, perhaps someone or something else can.”
Fear choked me. I had made an enemy of Death and would need to be very careful in the coming years. My fated time of passing may just have advanced.
She raised her head and hands, palms up. ”Lord, in your great wisdom, why did you make your servants susceptible to Murphy’s Law?”
An ashen-colored skeletal horse materialized out of the darkness. Azrael’s ride had caught up. She patted its neck and, grasping a handful of scraggly mane, swung aboard. She threw me the pickup keys. I heard her last words as the reunited pair trotted off.
”I need a vacation or a milk-run assignment. Remember that time I assumed the form of a rhinoceros to take the souls of Hottentots? It was rhino mating season. Now that was a good day.”
Dennis Maulsby lives in Ames, Iowa. His poems and short stories have appeared in The North American Review, Mainstreet Rag, The Hawai’i Pacific Review, The Briarcliff Review (Pushcart nomination), and on National Public Radio’s Themes & Variations. His traditionally published books include: ‘Near Death/Near Life’ (MWSA gold medal winner), ‘Free Fire Zone’ (MWSA Silver medal winner), ‘Winterset’ (Eric Hoffer Award winner and Global Ebook gold medal winner), ‘The Fantasy Works,’ and ‘House de Gracie’ (Reader Views and Global Ebook Silver medal awards). Maulsby is an associate member of the SFWA and past president of the Iowa Poetry Association.