They are the Brotherhood of the Wheel: a secret society of truckers, bikers, nomads, and others who defend America’s roads and rails from unnatural threats lying in wait for unwary travelers.
Now a missing-person case leads to a string of roadside murders and mutilations that stretches back decadesand to a cult of murderous clowns who are far more than mere urban legends. Greasepaint and lunatic grins are the last things their victims ever see.
And as if that’s not trouble enough, trucker Jimmy Aussapile and his allies must also cope with a violent civil war within an outlaw biker gang long associated with the Brotherhood, as well as run-ins with a rival gang led by a fierce werewolf biker chick who fights tooth and claw to protect her pack.
From Depression-era hobo camps to a modern-day trailer park hiding unearthly secrets, fear lurks just beyond the headlights for the Kings of the Road.
About the Author
R.S. Belcher won the Grand Prize in the Strange New Worlds SF-writing contest. He runs Cosmic Castle, a comic book shop in Roanoke, Virginia, and is the author of The Six-Gun Tarot.
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The coyote knew the devil was behind the headlights. The beams sprang out of the desert night, halogen blades stabbing his eyes in the rearview. It was an 18-wheeler, like his own, coming up fast, seemingly out of nowhere. This section of I-10 was like driving on the lunar surface, desolate desert, a sky burning with the ghost-light of a million stars. Traffic had been sparse on the highway since they'd left Lobo bound for Houston, and there were no signs of the Texas Highway Patrol along the road past Fort Stockton thanks to 'Dillo's friends. It should be a milk run, drop off the cargo and collect the cash. Now, he could see, feel, the other big rig closing behind him like a storm of diesel and chrome.
The driver didn't think of himself as a "coyote" any more than he considered himself a "human trafficker." He was just a swinging dick trying to make a living, doing a shit job that fulfilled an ever-growing demand. He felt he was overworked and underpaid. He had bills, a few little bastards he had to pay child support for, but he hadn't paid in years. He had a parole officer up his ass every few weeks, shylocks too. If he didn't piss in a cup or pay the fucking vig they both made his life miserable.
He was just trying to get by like everybody else. It wasn't like he fucked the cargo or something. He left that sick shit for the customers. He was strictly transportation, pick up and drop off. His name was Blue, and he'd never considered himself a slaver, never thought of the cargo chained up in the trailer of his rig — roasting in the desert sun, freezing in the unforgiving desert night — as children, as human. They were product, like lettuce or roosters, and he was taking them to market. Hopefully, not too much of the crop spoiled getting there.
"Shit," Blue muttered, seeing the 18-wheeler's cool, halogen headlights grow closer, brighter. Motherfucker wasn't slowing down.
"Wha?" Swifty, his partner on this run, grunted as he pushed his cowboy hat back on his head. A cold, half-smoked Black & Mild cigarillo dangled from Swifty's mouth. He cradled an AA-12 automatic shotgun against his chest. As far as Blue could tell from their association, Swifty didn't think about much, he just fucked people up and got paid for it. He didn't give a whore's damn what anyone thought. "Wha th' fuck you say, 'shit' fer?"
"Got a rig coming up on us," Blue said; the toothpick in his mouth was moving around in a furious circle. "Didn't see them, then, boom, they there are. I don't like it."
"Well, hell," Swifty said, straightening up in his seat, "probably just some joker that snuck in your back door, you paranoid fucker."
"It ain't," Blue said, getting a little pissed. "I don't like it."
"Let 'em roll on by," Swifty said. "Jist another gear-jammer. This load is protected; ain't no cop or no competition goin' to fuck with 'Dillo, you know that."
Blue relaxed a little. Swifty was right. They were carrying product branded with 'Dillo's mark — a crude jailhouse cartoon of a coiled armadillo — burned onto the back of the neck of every child in the trailer. Anyone tried to jack them, 'Dillo would make sure his crew of assassins, many with badges, explained how bad that was for their business. 'Dillo owned the Houston pipeline and no one was stupid enough to fuck with him or his people. The truck approached. It stayed in their lane; its brights were irritating now.
Blue grabbed his CB's mic. He was running with it on channel 19, the trucker's channel. "Break 1-9, Break 1-9, this is the Blue Boy to that bumper sticker up on my back pocket, you got your ears on?" Blue said into the hand mic. "You need to either put the pedal down, crackerhead, or kill those blinders you're hitting me with, come on?"
It was quiet, and Blue glanced over to Swifty, who was squinting into the side mirror and frowning. After a moment, there was a hiss on the radio, and then a voice thick with a southern twang cut through the silence. "Pull your rig over, Blue Boy, right now," the voice said. "Your run's over, son. You ain't taking those poor kids nowhere, and your ass is headed to the pokey. You can go in walking or they can carry you in a bag, don't make me no-never-mind."
"Who the fuck is this?" Blue said, panic swelling inside him like a balloon. Swifty flicked the safety off the shotgun and pulled out a burner cell phone. He hit a button for a saved number.
"The handle's Paladin," the voice said, "and you pull over right now. Don't try running, you won't make it."
"Paladin," Blue said, in a full panic now, "Paladin! Holy shit, it's him, it's fucking them!"
"Calm your ass down," Swifty said. "I'm calling our boys; they'll deal with this."
"Shit, they can't deal with them," Blue said, almost shouting. "You can't outrun them! They're fucking everywhere!"
"Shut your mouth and drive," Swifty said, waiting for someone to pick up on the other end of the burner. "They are a load of bullshit, a truck stop fairy tale. They ain't real." Someone answered the phone. "Yo, chief, it's me, we got some cowboy in a big ole pete on our tail. He knows about the cargo and he's ordering us off the road! I thought you mutherfuckers got paid to keep that shit from happening! Git your asses up here and earn your goddamn pay! We jist passed mile marker 263. You deal with him or you can explain to 'Dillo why the run didn't git through!" Swifty hung up and looked over to Blue, who was wiping perspiration off his upper lip and forehead with damp hands. "It's handled, ya pussy," he said. "Keep driving."
* * *
The truck pursuing Blue's beat-up old Mack was a Peterbilt 379 with no trailer. The cab of the truck was white with a red Jerusalem cross pattern on the hood and doors. The truck's chrome grille also bore the mark of the Crusader's cross. On the driver-side door was the CB handle of the truck's driver and owner, PALADIN, a scarlet signature.
The interior of the Peterbilt's cab looked more like the cockpit of a spaceship than a truck. There were illuminated instrument panels, a laptop computer mounted on a swivel base, GPS systems, police scanners, radar detectors, and an excellent stereo system. The Highwaymen's "American Remains" was playing on the system at present, accompanied by the deep, throaty hum of the rig's powerful engine.
The gear shift was shaped like a sawed-off shotgun, the barrel sunk into the transmission well, with the red Crusader's cross inlaid on the pearl handle pistol grip. Swaying beneath the rearview mirror were numerous charms and totems dedicated to gods and saints, patrons and protectors of travelers and roads: Hermes, the Egyptian god Min, St. Christopher, the Dosojin, Meili, Legba — the loa of the crossroads — and others.
The driver, Jimmie Aussapile, was lanky except for his solid beer gut. Jimmie was in his early fifties with a scrub of beard from too many days on the road without a razor. His teeth were yellow and a little uneven, a chaw of tobacco nested in his swollen cheek. Jimmie's surviving blond hair resided in a fringe along the sides of his head and in a long, braided ponytail, Willie Nelson–style. He wore a gray mesh baseball cap adorned with a grotesque character from the Squidbillies cartoon show; it was a cherished gift from his little girl. He was dressed in a black T-shirt, a well-worn, red and black, unbuttoned flannel, and a black Air Force–style crew jacket with an American flag patch on the shoulder. He wore grease-stained, faded jeans, a wallet on a chain in his back pocket, and steel-toed work boots, a straight razor tucked away in one of them.
Jimmie switched the CB channel from 19 to 23; his bright green eyes never left Blue's truck as he did, nor as he keyed the Bluetooth wireless mic headset he wore.
"Bandit One to Bandit Two, do you copy, over?"
* * *
Ten miles further down I-10, Lovina Marcou watched the lonely highway and waited. The Louisiana State Police investigator held a walkie-talkie-like CB unit and answered Jimmie. "This is Bandit Two," she replied, "I'm reading you 5 by 5, Bandit One, over."
Lovina was a dark-complected black woman. Her hazel eyes were flecked with green and gold and she had prominent, angular cheekbones and a haughty, aristocratic nose. Her long, straight, black hair normally fell to her shoulders with straight bangs, but she had her hair pulled up into a simple ponytail trailing out from a dark blue LSU baseball cap. She wore jeans and a black sweater. Her dark blue windbreaker bore the Louisiana State Police seal on the breast and STATE POLICE in large yellow letters on the back. She leaned against her car and kept scanning the road.
Her car was a beauty, a 1968 matte black Dodge Charger with a 440 V-8 engine. Lovina and her Pops had built the car together when she was a girl. The Charger was pulled over to the side of I-10, which was dark and silent in the cold desert night, except for the crimson glow of the hissing road flares Lovina had dropped in a line across the highway. She keyed her radio's mic again.
"Where's our backup, Jimmie? Where's Cecil?" she asked.
"On his way," Jimmie said. "Something about warrants, jurisdictions, and some fool judge. We are headed at you, Lovina, ready or not. Bandit Three, you in position, come on?"
"Yeah, I am," a young man's voice replied from the CB. The voice had an odd accent, a mix of Scottish brogue and southern drawl. "And who the fuck came up with this Bandit Three shit?"
* * *
Roughly 150 miles to the west, on a low hill overlooking the town of Lobo, Texas, Hector "Heck" Sinclair sat on his T5 Blackie motorcycle and watched the compound below him through a pair of military night vision binoculars. Heck spoke over a wireless CB headset with the transmitter clipped to his belt.
"Burt Reynolds was Bandit One," Heck said into his headset mic, "Jerry Reed was Bandit Two, and there never was any fucking Bandit Three in the movies!"
The young biker's hair was an angry explosion of red — often likened to an anime cartoon superhero — with long red sideburns. Heck wore riding leather pants and military boots, an old, faded Dropkick Murphys T-shirt, a leather riding jacket with an MC cut for his club, the Blue Jocks, over the jacket as well as a military harness covered in weapons and grenades.
"Wasn't Bandit Three the orangutan?" Lovina offered over the radio. Heck shook his head and rolled his eyes.
"No — fuck — no — that was Every Which Way but Loose," Heck said into his mic, "and that wasn't even a fucking Burt Reynolds movie for fuck's sake! That was Clint Eastwood, Lovina." He sighed. "What should I expect from a dog-face?"
"You secure that shit right now, Jarhead," Lovina replied, smiling. "Maybe the one with the elephant, then?"
"Okay," Heck said, "Let's get this straight, right here, right now. There was only one Smokey and the Bandit movie — one. Just like there was only one Highlander movie ... and the TV show."
"Great, I'm so glad we got that all cleared up," Jimmie said, noticing a pair of cars coming up on him from behind quickly. "I love our tactical chatter. Heck, be ready as soon as your backup gets there. Y'all are going to hit the whole town."
Lobo wasn't even a speck on most maps of Texas. It had been a small town once, but over long years the desert had devoured most of it. Lobo was a gas station, a Dollar General, some rotting clapboard houses left over from the last century, a few trailers, and even more ghosts.
Two years ago, a group of trucks and cars had driven into Lobo just as the sun bled out and died on the floor of the desert. A small army descended upon the less-than-a-hundred remaining citizens of the town. By dawn the human trafficker Emile Orlando Dia, better known to the Houston underworld as "Armadillo," or "'Dillo" outside of earshot, owned Lobo lock, stock, and barrel.
"Ready, willing, and able," Heck said, scanning the storage container the traffickers had converted into barracks. Many of the newly arrived children were locked inside them, forced to endure conditions that would be considered cruel for animals. Heck shifted his gaze to the "orphanage" the slavers had built. People came to Lobo and "adopted" children from the vaguely churchlike building. It had been in business for almost eighteen months. Heck's guts were vibrating in anticipation of the raid, of getting to strike out at these men. "They damn well better hurry up."
"Be cool," Jimmie said. "We've been setting this up and coordinating it with Cecil for months now. We want everything to go ..." The blue LED rollers of a Texas state trooper and the red and blue lights of a county deputy's patrol car suddenly flared to life in Jimmie's rearview mirror. " ... straight to hell," Aussapile finished. "Damn it, I got two Texas bubblegum machines on my back door. Let me switch over and see if I can smooth this out."
"Burt Reynolds, the real Bandit One, would know how to handle that," Heck said. Jimmie could hear the grin in the biker's voice. His only response was to switch back over to channel 19.
"Break 1-9 to the county mounties on my back door, how can I help you gentlemen?"
"You can pull your ass on over," one of the cops replied. "You're speeding, boy."
"The wheel turns," Jimmie said.
"Well they goddamned better stop turning pronto, gear-jammer," one of the cops replied into the radio.
"Officer, the truck I'm chasing is carrying abducted children bound for Houston!" Jimmie said. "I'm working with Major Hammer with the —" A gunshot shattered Jimmie's driver-side mirror. It was fired from one of the patrol cars chasing him. "Damn it!" Jimmie muttered to himself, "why is it always the mirror? Those things cost!"
"Shots fired, I repeat, shots fired!" one of the cop's voices shouted over the radio. "All units, we are under fire from the truck driver, I repeat, shots fired! All units respond!"
"What?" Jimmie said. "I didn't fire no —" A quick pattern of booms from the trafficker's truck ahead of him shattered his windshield and blew a hole in the neck rest of his seat, inches from his head. One of the talismans to a road god sacrificed itself to stop the shot pellets headed straight for Jimmie's face, but it couldn't stop the stinging rain of glass that sprayed him. A man was out on the running board on the passenger side of the slaver's cab. He held on to the bar by the door and cradled a still smoking automatic scatter gun. Jimmie was caught in a kill box between the cops behind him and the trafficker in front of him.
"Awww, hell." Jimmie began to swerve to avoid more shots coming from the police and to try to not give the man with the shotgun another clear shot. Jimmie flipped a switch, and a powerful spotlight flashed to life, blinding the shot gunner.
"Shit!" Swifty said, blinking and trying to focus. He got a mouthful of road dust for his trouble.
Jimmie flipped his CB back over to channel 23, "Lovina, Heck, we got dirty cops in this. I have two on my tail, one state and the other a county deputy. Watch yourselves!"
"So we may have no backup coming," Lovina said as she walked to the back of the Charger and opened the trunk. "I'm betting this Armadillo has paid off cops all the way along the pipeline to run interference for his shipments."
"We know we can trust Cecil," Jimmie said. "They can't buy him."
"I'm glad Cecil and Major Hammer kept this all as quiet as they could, or the traffickers would have been tipped off already." Over the radio, Lovina heard the whine of a bullet and a horrible crashing sound. "Jimmie, you okay?"
"Jimmie?" Heck said, straightening in the seat of his bike, as he too heard the ruckus over his headset.
"I'm good," Aussipile said, hunched over his wheel trying to present as little of a target as he could. His cap was on the floor alongside thousands of tiny cubes of broken windshield glass. "I feel like a squirrel run up a tree." The stereo was still blaring. Now it was "Under my Wheels" by Alice Cooper. "We're less than two miles from you, Lovina. Whatever you're going to do, get ready to do it."
* * *
Lovina rummaged through the trunk's well-ordered contents. Among the survival, forensic science, and automotive repair gear stored was an aluminum gun case. Lovina opened the case to reveal a massive revolver with a 13-inch-long barrel. The gun had custom grips and sights and extensive port venting along the barrel. Lovina lifted the Pfeifer Zeliska revolver from its foam cradle and quickly loaded the massive .600 Nitro Express bullets through a gate opening in the side of the cylinder, rotating the cylinder until all five of the monstrous rounds were in the gun.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "King of the Road"
Copyright © 2018 Rod Belcher.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Books by R. S. Belcher,
About the Author,