Exit Music (New Flash Fiction)
“Where Evil Grows” by The Poppy Family is a good song to play before killing someone, at least if you want to be obvious about it. And sometimes you do. Sometimes your orders are to kill somebody while they’re afraid. Or to let them try and fight a bit, let them think they have a chance of getting out of the car alive. “Where Evil Grows” came out in 1971, the single greatest year for popular music there’s ever been. 1971, Led Zeppelin release their untitled fourth record, Black Sabbath release Paranoid, Marvin Gaye drops What’s Going On, Carol King unveils Tapestry. Stones, Sticky Fingers, Isaac Hayes, Theme from Shaft, The Who, with Who’s Next, Sly and The Family Stone declare There’s A Riot Goin’ On and Janis Joplin’s Pearl comes out four months after her death. Oh, and David Bowie sneaks in too, releasing Hunky Dory in December. 1971 was also the year when I was first contacted by Stooky Bill. Stooky Bill was the name given to the head of a ventriloquist dummy used in a series of British television experiments back in 1924. He usually asked me to kill people.
Usually I listened.
Back in 1924 they used Stooky Bill because the primitive mechanical television system they were messing with wasn’t able to televise human faces. Because human faces are usually just blobs of sameness. No distinction. But Stooky Bill’s face was brightly painted and made of plaster, so he had better contrast. Plus, the incandescent lights they were using back then were so hot that they couldn’t actually use a person to test them. Which means the first face ever televised wasn’t human. It was Bill. After a while the burning light singed away a lot of Bill’s hair and cracked his painted face.
The mechanical television that my grandmother left me looked like if gramophones had been left alone on some remote island where they continued to evolve on their own in isolation. Eventually getting to the point where they could now stand upright. Maybe if they were left alone some more they’d figure out how to fashion crude tools. My grandmother’s old unit didn’t even work, at least it shouldn’t have. But one day I was putting something away in the garage and the big disc on the thing started humming and spinning all on its own. There was a dim orange green glow, like if Halloween had got Christmas drunk, and it flickered on and off out of the viewing lens.
So I knelt down and put my eye to it like I wanted to see who was at the door. The image of Stooky Bill’s face was created by something called scan lines. They looked like a shredded manuscript taped back together and then brought to clumsy life. Bill had been left under the bright light for a long time when he came to me. Already obscured by the skinny bars of the scan lines his now mostly burnt away features made his appetence so distorted I couldn’t tell it was even a face until his eyes moved. He looked like a screaming skull behind a waterfall.
We became fast friends.
I wasn’t even surprised when I heard his voice, a Scottish accent, warm like Honey Brandy; I wasn’t surprised because it didn’t matter to me that the machine wasn’t supposed to make sound. Because the machine wasn’t supposed to work at all anyways. Besides, I didn’t even know who Stooky Bill was then. Not yet. After our first talk he told me to go to any library and read up on it. And of course, his story checked out.
Twenty some years later and I feed the dashboard the Poppy Family cassette, already cued to “Where Evil Grows” and I ask my passenger where they think they’re headed. I don’t know this woman. I don’t know if she’s a bad person or a living saint. I don’t know even her name until she tells me out of politeness. She has brown hair, wears it in a bun like my grandmother used to, and she’s wearing a pretty dress. Not too expensive but nicer than the dresses that I usually wear. It’s easy for me to pick up the people Bill wants to take for a ride. The men think they’re going to get lucky and the women know that they’re lucky. That it’s not a man offering them this ride. This ride that they need.
Bill always knows when the targets are going to be vulnerable, when they’re going to need someone to pick them up. He tells me this isn’t his doing. He just knows the windows in time where everyone can use a ride. Once I picked up a fat white man in a cheap suit. He smelled lovely, I remember because it surprised me. He smelled like cinnamon and flowers. Even when I forgot to clean all of his blood off the dashboard and the car had sat in the sun for a day; even then it didn’t smell as bad as it should have. Sure, there was the usual smell of blood, like a hundred double A batteries left out in the sun. But on top of that there was that cinnamon and summer scent. He died listening to “We Got a Groovy Thing Goin’’” by Simon and Garfunkle. That’s a good death. No fear. You’re just played out in style with an upbeat number about a breakup. That’s also just a good way, in general, to look at your own death.
One time I had to pick up a ten year old. Bill said they’d be waiting at a bus stop and that they were important, at least they were going to grow up to be important. So I did what I was told. They were supposed to die listening to “The Swimming Song” by Loudon Wainwright the Third. But the kid heard the banjo at the start and asked me if I had any AC/DC instead? Like a fool I obliged them and put on “Whole Lotta Rosie.” This made Stooky Bill furious and things got messy. That time the car stunk not because I forgot to clean but because there was too much of the kid spread around and soaked into the interior to ever get clean. I had to get a new car. I never deviated from Stooky Bill’s plans again.
Except for tonight. The woman with the brown hair and the nice dress says her name is Dorothy. I giver her my name because why not, there’s no reason not to be civil. “Where Evil Grows” comes on with a slithery sort of purr and Dorothy starts bobbing her head up and down a bit. I do the same. 1971, that perfect balance when late sixties psychedelic just started getting tinged with seventies dread. Transitional phases are always the most interesting. Life and death, dusk and dawn, the changing from the old guard to the new. But it can get messy.
Bill tried to explain to me once what we doing. How he was actually a new form of an old intelligence. That there were already others, and would be even more later that would build on the work he did.
The work that we did.
And that the people I took for a ride, they were being driven right out of history. I asked him, why the music? He told me music was the oldest form of the sort of thing he was. That it was still the most powerful, so he wanted to pay his respects. Besides, he knew I liked it.
Dorothy is still rocking out to the song and I realize this is going to be one of the ones that I feel bad about. She tells me to make a right at the next light and then drop her off in the parking lot across from the drive-in theater. I’ll feel bad about this, but this one is going to be easy. When I put the car in park I can already hear Bill in the backseat, his spinning metal disc winding up. The song is almost over so I know what’s going to happen next. Dorothy is removing her seatbelt, mine was never on; I have my hand on my door handle, I crack open my door and hit the power lock on the rest. Then I feel something brush past my chest and land by my right hip. It’s my seatbelt. Dorothy leans over me and hits the powerlocks. Before I can grab her she hits me right in the teeth and scrambles out of my reach. I hear her door slam and I understand. I hear the disc in the backseat whipping fast and then I see that familiar, broken and painted on face projected in the rearview mirror. The tape stops and the music leaves. I know what Dorothy is seeing from the outside of the car, because I’ve seen it myself so many times. And it doesn’t make any damn sense at all. Ever. And I bet she’s wondering what I’m seeing right now. Like I used to wonder when I was outside looking in.
Later when she’s picking up the clumps of what’s left she’ll wonder how it made such a mess, but never left a drop on the tapedeck. I know I always did.