From the author: Luther is going to be a real Enthusiast someday, no matter how many people he has to kill and add to his guitar.
On October 30th, 1968, Luther killed a pair of wannabes a little way behind a roadhouse in southern Virginia. He’d smelled the power on them while they played with a pickup band for tips from truckers taking a late lunch. A scent like sage and engine grease cut through the rockabilly trash and the tortured picking that chased cords from chart-toppers that never should have been attempted on that battered, out of tune guitar. They hadn’t looked like much, the pair of thickset men with matching dirty-blonde mustaches and weathered jeans, but the scent was unmistakable for an Enthusiast like Luther. He’d thought of stepping up to play himself, hooking them that way, but his guitar was out in the lot, in the last car he’d stolen, and he had sudden flashes of the last time he’d played without it, the booing laughs and the bottles when he stayed and tried to save the set.
Instead he’d invited them to go someplace more private and really jam. They’d hesitated. That should have been his first clue they didn’t have enough spark to be worthwhile, damn it, but he’d been impatient. He’d used the last of his come-hither charm to make them follow. He’d felt the twist of hair go dry and brittle in his hand inside his pocket as it sighed out the last snatches of a scream caught in the crowd the first night the Beatles played Ed Sullivan.
With a lure like that, they’d been happy to come and talk. They were Carl and Ben Murphy, brothers who drove a tow-truck sometimes and played when they could, and who was he, and what did he do in music? Why, he almost looked like a record producer in his nice black shirt and hat and shiny shoes. Was he a record producer?
He’d told them not quite; he was Luther Angel, and he was always looking for talent. By then they’d been far enough back into the woods for him to pull his knife and open up Ben’s throat. Carl had been quick enough on the uptake to rush him, but Luther had played this tune so many times that he knew the beat pat. Carl ran straight onto the knife, and Luther held the big man close while he shook through the last dozen heartbeats.
Now he was rummaging around in Ben’s throat, and he could barely feel a tingle of the talent he’d been looking for. What the hell? They’d just been playing, and he’d felt the spark. It should have been close to the surface, but they had less juice than some audience members he’d caught after a real Enthusiast played. He licked his finger: nothing but a ghost of musty sage under the blood. It wasn’t even worth taking teeth for the bridge of his guitar.
Luther gulped a hard lump of frustration back down along with the taste of blood and tried to look on the bright side. He might not get what he was looking for, but the afternoon wouldn't be a dead loss. He needed a new car anyway. The rusty Buick he’d picked up in Tennessee was on its last legs. He hummed a tune as he started looking for their wallets and keys. There was the spark again! He felt power, but this time it vibrated his finger and smelled of his own sweat. There was something here, something on them.
He tore Carl’s jacket digging for it, following the buzzing feeling in his fingertips until he grabbed it. A torn-out page from a AAA atlas. Scrawled across one side it read
John Crowhurst, October 31,
The other side was a roadmap for Sullivan county, Pennsylvania, with a star scratched hard enough to tear the paper over Worlds End state park. The page pricked with power. It felt wide in his hand, expanding to fill the distance between his feet and the place it called him to.
John Crowhurst must be real power, to put that kind of call into a secondhand invitation to his concert. Pennsylvania wasn’t too far. Luther had time to make it, and that would be worth hearing, and taking something away from afterward. Maybe Crowhurst would have enough juice for Luther to finish his guitar.
First he had to put the Murphys to bed. He found the keys to the orange pickup they’d parked at the roadhouse and collected thirty-seven dollars from their wallets, then he opened his own case, to take care of the bodies.
Luther’s guitar had come from the hands of Mississippi John Hurt as the old bluesman died at home, helped over the edge by the best Luther could play back then. He’d washed the strings in the old man’s blood, but the bastard had lived too long to leave much of his power behind. Screwed to the bridge were teeth from the four real Enthusiasts Luther had managed to harvest, and he picked with the fingernails of wannabes like Ben and Carl. John Hurt’s strings cut his fingers if he tried them without a pick. The guitar already made him good enough to play among Enthusiasts and not get called out for souring the tune, no matter how little talent he’d been born with. A little more work, and Luther’s guitar would get a whole stadium on their feet, and they’d scream and stamp their feet loud enough to drown out every memory of jeers from when he was just some tin-eared hack. Luther might have been worse than these idiot Murphy boys once, but he’d done something about it, damn it. Just two or three more real players, or one master, and Luther’s ticket would be punched. He’d have it all, money and fame, and enough power to make the ones who hadn’t had to fight for it think he was one of them.
He already had more than enough juice to play the Murphy boys down underground, dark as a dungeon. A miner’s song put them past where police dogs would sniff, and a quick riff had Luther’s clothes clean and crisp again. It was easy to begin with, cleaning blood off black. He whistled on his way back the roadhouse.
He put his guitar on the seat beside him in the orange pickup and started driving north.
He spent the rest of the day fighting Beltway traffic, squeezing the wheel ‘til his knuckles were white as he crawled around D.C. in rush hour. He finally gave up and slept in the car in a pull-off north of Baltimore. He’d have all of tomorrow, until whenever the concert started, to make it to Worlds End. The guitar muttered inside its case, nibbling the edges of his dreams. Sometimes he thought he could hear Hurt complaining, but that was nonsense. He’d shoved more than enough power into the guitar by now to quiet the old man down. It was probably that fiddler from Cloud County getting comfortable. He’d only screwed that tooth on a couple months back.
Luther woke up cold and kept driving. He was past Philadelphia and heading north along the turnpike before the sun burned off the cloud and things started warming up. The roads seemed sleepier today for some reason, or maybe that was just him. It had been too long since he heard a real Enthusiast play. He needed to make the concert and wake up.
The mountains grew ahead of him, and then all around like huge frozen waves of green reaching for a flat blue sky. When he turned into the mountains proper, he was feeling lonely. The trees pressed close as they climbed up sharp slopes on either side of the road. When he slid through a small town, the doors and the faces were closed up; the jack-o-lanterns and colored paper did not suggest a welcome for Luther Angel, and the looks he got seemed almost baffled that a stranger would be driving these roads in the middle of the day, when decent people should be working.
He got lost quick on the switch-backing mountain roads, and the Murphy brothers hadn’t thought to keep any maps of Pennsylvania in their car beyond the torn page advertising the concert. The trees pressed in, and it was easy to imagine the world ending on the other side of each steep saddle in the hills. He had to take the road ahead on faith as he nursed the pickup over each crest. The hills smelled clean, but not the inside smell of purified, dead air. The mountain breeze was full of the scent of leaves and the crisp solidness of autumn taking hold. It was getting late before he caught the power, sweet smoke and hot spice and the bitter crust of well-charred meat.
He followed that coil of scent down into Worlds End, in a valley between the up-reared mountains, from the green pines into the fire of fallen leaves lower down. There was a cool breeze off the creek as he pulled into a graveled lot, and he could smell an entirely ordinary char. Some of the crowd had barbecues set up. Luther’s mouth watered a bit. There’d been so little juice in the Murphy boys that he was almost hungry again already. He’d sort that out tonight. The sun was going down fast, but there was a splash of gold coming through the bare trees, and it caught a slapped-together stage at one end of the lot, and the noose hanging from a tree branch over it.
Hell, he’d thought he was too far north for that kind of décor. He didn’t see any white hoods, at least. Those people were unsettling.
The crowd looked local. Their clothes and the cars they’d parked were worn down the way city people never let theirs get. The faces were the same way, weathered to the point of admitting that time passed and didn’t leave them behind, just one more embarrassment Luther was going to sidestep, once his guitar was done. Luther joined the edges of the crowd, enough to show he was part of this, but he didn’t mingle, and no one invited him to. No one offered him an extra hot dog. That was fine. He wasn’t calling anyone to him, so no one bothered to cross the shell of silence an Enthusiast looking for privacy sweat out without thinking. Luther’s air of unsettlement wasn’t quite like players who had it in their blood, but it was good enough. He was a little worried by the size of the crowd. There weren’t too many of them, not for a real power. Maybe Crowhurst wasn’t all Luther had thought.
He peered at the band, sitting on the edge of the stage tuning up. There were hints of it there, sparks of real Enthusiasm. It wasn’t long before John Crowhurst stepped up on the stage. He had a black feather in his hatband, and a banjo strap round his neck. His eyes were smiling and his salt and pepper beard didn’t hide the deep lines at the edges of his mouth. His band was a young pale man with a mandolin and a weathered woman with her red hair tied up in a black cloth. John Crowhurst started talking, and Luther tasted the music in his voice. There was the smoke and the spice he’d been chasing.
“Well now, I know this place isn’t the easiest for everyone to find, even when you get one of our invitations, so thanks for comin’ out, all of you, especially first timers. Those of you who come every year, you know why and what it costs. It’s good to see you back to roll the dice again.” He looked round at the mountains catching fire in last bit of sunset. “Isn’t the name of this place grim? People say it looks like the end of the earth, the way the mountains all come together here. Me, I think it looks like the beginning of something, but I say this looks like the beginning of the show. Keep those toes tapping.”
Then they were off, Crowhurst’s banjo keeping rhythm under the wail of that high fiddle, and the music was more than good enough to keep Luther from trying to work out what that strange introduction had meant. Crowhurst had a big voice, and he let it out wide as his outspread arms until it echoed back off the hills. Luther was pretty sure Crowhurst was the only magic in the band, but he was pulling the others up with him, and they were damn good, even if they weren’t Enthusiasts. They played a little Johnny Cash, but mostly it was old-time music, what they were calling bluegrass now. They played Shady Grove and got the whole audience tapping, just a caller away from a line dance. They played Omie Wise and half a dozen more good murder ballads, and Luther felt black fingers curling down inside his gut and teasing a smile up into his teeth. Those were always his favorite songs.
Damn and hellfire, Crowhurst was good. Luther could feel himself floating on the magic, filling up with it just listening, and he’d heard a few masters in his time. The rest of the crowd wouldn’t have noticed if a five-alarm fire and every siren in the county were going off ten feet away, not while that band was playing.
Even Luther was having trouble keeping track of time. He couldn’t stop his feet from tapping with all the rest. If Crowhurst was wise to Luther’s game, he could put a charm on him to keep the knife out of his hands, keep the light out of his eyes if he looked murder at the banjo-player, but Crowhurst didn’t know shit. Luther could creep up later and cut him open just like all the rest. He’d have it then for sure. There was enough power there that Luther’s guitar would be good for a fight with any Enthusiast who took issue with his methods, enough to bring a crowd a hundred times this size whenever he stepped on stage and keep them cheering. Luther was here, just had to last through the set and take what he needed and he’d be ready for the bigtime.
All of a sudden it was a break, and the night had closed in cold.
There were a couple of fires burning now. When had those gotten set up? Luther stepped in a little closer, almost close enough to touch his neighbors. He’d been at edge, but the space behind him felt full now. He looked behind, and there was a some kind of Halloween crazy there, in a big mask that looked like a stag. There was a whole line of them hemming in the crowd, birds and dogs and deer and catamounts. They looked like they belonged in a Courir de Mardi Gras, not a Halloween show this far north. No one else was looking at them, and then Crowhurst strummed again, and neither was Luther. He was staring at the stage, and the noose was hanging low, almost level with the fiddler’s head, and the circle inside it was shining gold, just like it had at sunset.
The band played more of the same for a little while, and then they stopped.
“It’s time to remember the dead,” said Crowhurst.
The band stopped playing and they sang together. They sang dirges: Lonesome Valley, and I am Death, and something strange and old that must have been from before English was English. The whole crowd was singing with them, and everyone but Luther seemed to know the words.
“And now it’s time to play them back again.”
Crowhurst started on that banjo, and the band joined him. The tune might have been When the Saints to begin with, but in a moment it jammed alive, too fast and urgent to have a name. Luther felt the heat of it blister on his lips, and something started pulling itself through the golden circle of the rope. Luther was losing it. It had been so long since he’d heard real magic up close it was getting him high. That had to be it. Even as good as the playing was, the rest of the audience would have said something if they could see the Murphy boys pulling themselves out through the noose.
No one shifted while the Murphy boys walked through them to stand in front of Luther, Ben with his big second mouth, Carl with a black hole where his heart belonged. The rest of the crowd were in their own worlds, staring at nothing in front of their own faces, laughing and crying and whispering nonsense Luther didn’t have time for. The Murphy boys looked mad, but they just stood there, staring at him.
The rest came after: the boy from Tennessee with his broken fiddle and his perfect teeth; the woman from Kentucky who had smelled what he was after and run a mile into the field before he played her down and broke her legs with sharp chord. Mississippi John Hurt came last, with a broken strap where his guitar should hang, and he pointed the finger at Luther. Like he was supposed to say he was sorry. Now they were all pointing, and the rest of the crowd turned around to look at him.
Luther ran. No time to figure what kind of charm Crowhurst had played, or how much of this was real. He’d drifted farther toward the stage than he thought. Now he was fighting through the crowd, and they pushed him back toward the front. He dropped his shoulder and drove, kicked shins when he had space.
He made it three steps out the back of the audience and plowed right into the big man in the stag’s head. It was so tall Luther’s face was only halfway up its chest, and it smelled more like a deer than a man. Luther tried to whistle it out of his way, and it slapped him across the mouth. Why in the hell had he left his guitar in the truck? The deer man grabbed him, and turned him round to face the dead, and the whole crowd, pointing and staring at him. He tried to fight, but the thing was solid as a brick wall holding him, and the sudden silence drank the strength out of him. He was crashing from the concert high, and the world was going distant and dim. Someone ran out of the circle and he heard glass smash. They came back with his case and tore it open and dead ones ran over to it and tore their teeth off of the bridge, and licked their blood off the strings. John Hurt took it back and looked down at it with his big sad eyes, and then he broke it over his knee. All Luther’s work. He’d been close to something real, close to hunting down enough to give himself some real magic. He tasted that edge of char he’d smelled when he drove in, filling his mouth with bitterness.
The whole crowd cheered, and the deer man called a dog-headed one over, and they lifted Luther up on their shoulders and carried him through the crowd, up to the stage. He was in front of the audience, and they were all cheering and smiling. He was the star. It was just what he’d been killing for all these years.
What a goddamn nightmare.
He kicked and scratched, trying to go for the eyeholes in the mask, but he might as well have been fighting taxidermy. He remembered his knife and drove it down into the dog’s head, but nothing came out except a spray of dust. Luther screamed and couldn’t stop himself. All the fight he had left was pulling out his throat like a magician’s endless scarf.
“And now it’s time to thank them for coming back to help us out,” said John Crowhurst. “And a big thank you to Luther Angel, for coming all the way from Virgina to make our little party easier this year. I know y’all appreciate it when someone new comes to pay the toll on their first visit. Congratulations on carrying the heaviest weight of anyone here, Luther.”
Crowhurst slipped the noose around Luther’s neck, and then he picked up his banjo, while John Hurt and the Murphy boys and all the rest dragged on the rope and hanged Luther up high over the stage. He finally stopped screaming, and his legs were kicking without his say-so. John Hurt and the Murphy boys and all the rest were up against the stage, clapping with everyone.
He heard three notes of a sweet encore before everything went black and quiet.
This story originally appeared in Pseudopod.