Deliveryman's eyebrows shot up.
Paranoia and suspicion clouded his craggy features. "I can't make no delivery like that," he said.
A grin crawled across Icehead's face, one cold enough to kill bugs with its slimy intent. "This is Jay's Health Food. There is no delivery we can't make."
"But this order says King Flame's Underground Party when King Flame is dead? Maybe some people think he's still with it, but take it from me, he's history."
"Can't be, I got a call from the King an hour ago. We're supplying his party with bean curd of the ganja variety, with maybe a little crack surprise in the middle. A good customer like King Flame, we can't let him down - besides, he's already paid by cash delivery."
"You were knockin' it in Tahiti last week, Guess you didn't hear about Flame. If you did you'd know he couldn't make no phone call."
"You're right, I didn't hear. What's the score on last week?"
"It was Saturday night and I had a concession for a house party he was cookin'. The call for delivery buzzed in at 10 p.m. and yours truly hit the road. It was the usual. Flame's people had a newly built and empty house in Scarborough rented for the blast. There were two hundred bodies already there when I arrived so I had to duck a block on foot. I hit the crowd and the first thing happens is a couple wannabes come onto me. I could barely hear what they were sayin’. King Flame was doing his DJ screaming over ten foot towers in the back yard. Some of that offbeat hip-hop stuff was hammering my ears like fists and bubbler girls were crazy dancin’ all over the place. Came a sudden break in the music and a wannabe gave me the what-yuh-doin'-here-whitey shit. It was obvious that he intended to burn me for the package. He flashed a piece and I saw one his pals getting ready to duck in and boost the package. Now, you know that everybody hip knows about the delivery man. No one hassles the delivery man, no matter what he looks like, no matter what's goin' down. But this wannabe wasn't hip. Maybe he knew who I was, maybe he didn't. Maybe he was just jonesing, but I pulled a Ruger and told him: I'm on special delivery, health-food package for King Flame. Now stay the fuck back or I'll blow your head off! Then he laughed and slapped his hip and said," They goin' find yuh on the junk heap."
"Yeah, so after you pulled the trigger, then what?"
"Then this bubbler wearing only a bikini bottom and pink ankle socks starts screeching at me for getting the wannabe's brains all over her. But the upshot is that the body was quickly dragged away by Flame's bouncers and I was escorted inside. Now at this point I should mention that I’d been hearing words about King Flame. Words that tend to make ordinary working-class clowns like you and I shudder. Rumor was that Flame was using some zombie drug made from Haitian fish bones. All the people in his inner circle had piped up with it and were like strange air heads. Another guy named Jazzcan told me that Flame had these metal rings fixed in his dick and was a crazy pervert. But I've never let rumors get in the way of a delivery. I was taken through to the back patio where an area was Plexiglassed off and Flame was inside playin’ DJ. He looked normal -- eyes of ganja fire … couldn't see his face for the coils of hair, a crass shirt with a trim of flowers-and-tiger pattern, and the usual fire-red pants. He had some dancers around him and I couldn't really see where they looked any more like zombie air heads than anybody else. Although, I must say, I was nonplused by the male dancers wearing black spandex shorts. So I gave him the package, checked-out his wall of enamel grin and left. Only I wasn't even at the door when a wall of flames took out the patio. The partiers exploded too, and I ducked under the porch while the panic spread. In a minute the whole house was on fire and I popped up and found myself running across the lawn with a bunch of screaming human torches. A lot of roasted meat got left behind on that lawn, and most people think I was cooked. Everybody knows that Flame was cooked because he opened the package. So now do you get it, Icehead?"
"You delivered a fire bomb."
"Right, and it was carefully set up. Flame was turnin’ too many people into airheads. And believe me; we're talking about someone clever who did it because they used us too."
"We're not bein’ used now and I know what's in the package. Somehow King Flame was cleverer, because he escaped. Maybe he faked his own death. Either way he's a paying and reputable customer, so you can make the delivery."
Jay's Health Food had been under surveillance for six months, and during that time Deliveryman had never been spotted entering or leaving. Down in the connecting sewer he took the package from a disaster-proof safe and followed the damp tunnel, booting a rat aside as he reached the exit. He popped open the runoff grate, slammed it and went down the alley. There were no windows so his eyes darted to the rooftops, where he saw nothing unusual. His car was parked among a fleet of stripped wrecks and wedged against a battered wall. Popping the trunk, he took out two radial tires, and then he jacked-up a heap of twisted metal and installed them.
It was a gray day, dull and ordinary, maybe a little too hard and cold, just like Deliveryman. With his baseball cap, sleeveless jean jacket and faded Levis he could almost be invisible inside of a day like today. He was used to a world where everything was the same and stretched on forever like the brick buildings in the housing projects where he grew up. The only time it was different was when he was running or fighting for his life. Not that Deliveryman believed in violence; in fact he believed in peace and love. Saw peace and love in a dream once, Deliveryman liked to say. I believe in it, like God it's out there somewhere.
Snapping a rag from the backseat he wiped the ash off the windshield. The old taxi always made him feel good; it was a metal chameleon he’d reworked from one sort of wreck to another. It always came out of the crunch to live again; like a human body it had replaced every one of its cells over the years.
The V-8 roared to life, an ancient CD of The Sisters of Mercy began to blare, and with his package safe in the backseat, Deliveryman eased up the alley to its throat. Turning onto the narrow street he got the feeling that he was driving into wasteland sadness … the gray day a smoky memory that was saying everything had happened yesterday. Life is over but you live on rocking to the grind of rusty steel. It gave Deliveryman the creeps; it was how a zombie airhead might feel. The wall of guitars sound lifted him some, and then he decided to get into the spirit of the delivery and switched to deafening volume and a hip-hop radio station. Big distorted words challenged the sky but the negative feelings stuck. Putting his mind to the task at hand he cut through the heart of Toronto, heading for the small Carib neighborhood where he assumed King Flame's party had to be. There was no address on the package; there never was - to be the delivery man you had to know your way around. Gut feeling told him this was no party set out in the suburbs or in a warehouse club. This was something voodoo tinted, at the heart of the people of the West Indies. And there were strong roots in Toronto, running all the way back home, as King Flame would say. Deliveryman had to admit that was true, half of the people of the Caribbean were in Toronto every summer for the Caribana festival. There was something there, a connection bigger than what meets the eye.
Just as images of the festival were parading in his mind he spotted Jazzcan strolling out of a music shop. Jazzcan had been a top festival organizer, Black Stalin's North American manager and a close associate of King Flame. Only now, there was something odd about him. He wasn't around much any more; his photo was out of the in papers. It was like he'd somehow gotten disconnected from the world, yet was still partially in it. Jazzcan wasn't an airhead, it was hard to say what Jazzcan was; he went in bare feet and sandals when it was cold, had a jacket like a spray-painted alley wall, wore dark shades and carried a gnarled walking stick. His build was strong. Jazzcan never in his life cut his hair.
Deliveryman pulled over and got out, suddenly recalling that Jazzcan was also a person who knew; he turned around and walked back to Deliveryman even though there was no way he could've spotted him without eyes in the back of his head. Jazzcan looked burned out, like he'd finally smoked ganja so powerful it'd faded him body and soul. He was only half there - like a ghost.
"All right, Deliverymon," Jazzcan said. "Thought you were on yuh knees, beggin' Marley to open the gate?"
"Nope, I escaped the flames. Got a delivery today. King Flame's Underground Party. Know where it is?"
Jazzcan shivered like he'd been run through, and it wasn't cold out. He took off his shades and scratched his head. Instead of pupils he had tiny silver skeletons. His wide mouth quivered. "Fonny thing, a spliff ago I thought King Flame was burned and burning. Now uh know he's waitin’ for you, and maybe a little bit o' soul. Party's by the Crossroads Disc Shop - but don't go mon. Bury that package. Flame is using a cross of voodoo, run while yuh legs work!"
"I can't run. My reputation's at stake. Look, maybe he's evil, but he's your old pal. Hop in and I'll take you along."
Jazzcan dropped his walking stick and backed away thunderstruck as it clattered on the sidewalk. "Go to that blackest rap, and smoke that evil smoke. Nevuh, nevuh, mon!"
Three passes of the Crossroads Disc Shop gave no hint of the party's location. The shop wasn't open and other than posters, there was nothing but a shining aluminum skeleton in the window. On the fourth pass, Deliveryman got frustrated and gunned the engine. In that brief moment an alley mouth ringed with flame appeared and quickly vanished. A wall of blackened brick remained. Deliveryman jumped at the wheel, an irrational idea invaded his mind as he zipped around the block. He floored it for the fifth pass and drove straight at the wall. There were flames and tormented faces in the smoke; he shot right through and saw a cloud of brick dust and windshield diamonds fly. The taxi was totaled, yet he was only shaken up. A sign said Tube Bottom Road. Checking behind him he saw the package safe in the back. The rear of the car was wedged into a wall of gloom hard as stone, and there was no hole in it.
The door creaked and fell off as he stepped out and a rat bit his ankle. He stamped on it and it squealed hideously as it scurried off. A haze like concrete dust obscured his view of the road, but he could see well enough to spot garbage heaps dripping with spitting rats.
In no time, the rabid things would be on him. He ran to the trunk and forced it open. Snatching a flame-thrower, he moved forward and sent a stream of fire into the first garbage heap. It tore into flame and several fiery rats trailed smoke as they leapt at him. He batted them away with the canister and stamped at them, but they continued ducking in and out and snapping their huge teeth. If anything the fire had made them ornery.
Bleeding bites were on his shin; making his way back to the trunk he got out the fire extinguisher and opened up. The effect was immediate; the rats iced and hissed through split faces as they burst to heaps of blood crystal. Whooping and dancing, Deliveryman killed all the rats near the car, then he pulled out a spliff of sugar-sweet Trinidadian and chewed on smoke clouds as he watched the rest of the rats retreat out of sight into their heaps of filth. Moments later it was quiet and he could see a few million fearful and red rat eyes watching.
After flipping the roach he clipped the extinguisher to his belt and took out a shotgun. It was a twelve-gauge Remington with assault grips, and extra rounds studding the side shotshell carrier. He checked the package; fortunately, none of the rats had chewed on it. Wondering what King Flame was doing living on a hidden street full of rats he pressed ahead.
Hill-sized trash heaps were all around. He could see no sun and the impression was of already being underground. Pungent odors of scorched garbage were enough to kill any party here, so he figured there had to be a clear area somewhere up ahead. But instead of a house he came to a wide mound of rubbish that blocked the whole road. A living and heaving mound of scrunge. Areas of green that resembled damaged lung tissue pulsed. Water the color of piss poured from a snout of soaked, compacted newspapers. Maggots the size of penises writhed in rolling lumps of char. A mass of pop cans made a crude skull.
This was no party animal and no hallucination either. Sometimes after supertoking, garbage would flutter and move, but now he was seeing a huge throat of tarpaper open in the head of the thing. Retreating wasn't a sound game plan and he did not intend to wait to see what the thing would do. Dropping the package, extinguisher and shotgun he yanked out a hunting knife and scrambled across an apron of wattled cardboard slicked with sewage. He spotted what he believed to be a vital point in the beast's anatomy, but before he could lunge a tail of melted tires and shards of colored glass lashed over the body. After diving across a bed of rotted plaster, he sprang to a ledge of sheet metal. Then he flipped forward as a great fist of tar and Coke cans struck at him.
Now he could see the violet pulse of the jugular and a pulp of throbbing heart. Success was only slashes away. A sticky tongue whipped over his head as he charged. Ducking and diving hard he managed to connect and sever the vein. It was like slicing a plastic sewer pipe, vile brown fluid erupted as he tumbled back into a trash earthquake. Leaping from hold to hold mountain-climber-style, he managed to escape the death throes of the beast.
Beyond the trash heaps he found an open stretch of fissured road. There were gaslights, but their orange glow barely seeped into the cottony grayness shrouding everything. Human figures were taking shape out of a haze, so he halted and studied them. They had a dead shamble like early-morning derelicts, but better light revealed them to be cold, dead zombies. Peeling, leprous skin that was white as snow, blackened bone and greenish gangrenous meat poking out of moldered clothing. Slime, rot and shoe leather fell as they walked.
Retreating was his best option, but he absolutely refused to duck back into rat-infested trash heaps. Taking the shotgun, he got a firm hold on the assault grips. Sweeping the gun from side to side and sighting, he waited as the column of the dead approached. They were coming up on him like he wasn't even there, and at the last moment he fired. The first shot carried two ashen zombies into a wall, the bodies throwing off a chunky mat of rotten flesh that crawled and slid like slugs on the scarred brick. The mostly intact heads fell to the asphalt and split as easily as soft melons. Unfortunately, the blast had failed to halt the others, so continuing with a succession of fast shots he emptied the carrier and slicked the road with a gore stew like tyrannosaurus puke.
Finally, he realized there were too many zombies to kill and began to scale the wall with the gun and package fixed to his belt. He got up a few meters before they got to him, and he watched as the column passed. They hadn't been attacking at all and they disappeared in the gloom without taking note of him, going to a place Deliveryman was sure he didn't want to know about.
Deliveryman had a strange feeling, although gravity was normal it felt like he was walking straight down on the wall of a pit. Ugly headless things shifted and dog-big insects scurried at the edge of the gloom. They were like hallucinations that had him looking around so much he couldn't make any progress, and then he found that if he kept his gaze straight ahead they melted to mist. Marching like a soldier he went a mile to the end of Tube Bottom Road and there he found a sign that said THE UNDERGROUND and steps going down to a subway tunnel.
An abandoned piece of subway would be good for a party, he figured, provided it was fixed to be cleaner than the rest of Tube Bottom Road. A stash he'd kept in a subway as a teenager came to mind, and as he was remembering he slipped in a pool of blood and went flying down a wheelchair ramp that was as slick as Godzilla's tongue. He did a wild pirouetting dance as he stumbled out on an immense floor. It was a surface that resembled rusted stone or acid-eaten steel. The ceiling was cavern-high and discolored with mold that hung in shapes like Gothic arches. It was the emptiest dungeon in the world, a place where you could kill a person with the loneliness of a word. In the distance, a black arch radiated rainbow colors around a huge vault door.
Deliveryman stepped up to the door and eyed the gold demon's-head knocker. It was as big as his own head with features of shimmering wickedness. As he reached for it the thing spoke. "Who seeks entrance?"
"Deliveryman, package for King Flame."
The demon's head suddenly spouted fire and Deliveryman was engulfed. He staggered back but wasn't burned. "You haven't lied. You may enter."
Thunder ripped into him as the huge vault opened a crack. He passed through, hearing his bones rattle. King Flame was waiting, and except for smoking dreadlocks he was normal in appearance. "How goes it, Deliverymon?" King Flame said, his hands out for the package.
"Hey, I don't see any party. Don't see much of screw all 'cept you Flame?"
"Things good and dead here, Deliverymon. Dead to the bones."
"Thought you were dead. Why are you still taking deliveries?"
"This is the only one, Deliverymon. The head who cooked me is in the package."
King Flame looked somewhat dead, somewhat solemn and somewhat satisfied as he opened the package. As he removed the contents, he grinned his better days grin. Deliveryman stared with disbelief at the shrunken head King Flame held before him. It was Jazzcan's head, desiccated, nose-ringed and with red feathers in the coils of hair. Sticky blood and meat hung at the neck.
"But I just talked to Jazzcan," Deliveryman said. "He gave me directions."
King Flame laughed a throaty laugh, and the sound pealed loud in the underground. "Uh ghost mon, uh ghost! Was his soul you had," Flame said, holding up a foil packet.
"I don't get it. How could Jazzcan's soul be a packet of rock?"
"Little arrangement I made with the underground. I toke Jazz's soul then mine goes up in smoke at the party. Mine's in the spliff here."
"You mean I delivered you your own soul?"
"No mon. Is a package for King Flame, the big King Flame. He's comin’ up now. Check it out!"
Deliveryman's vision suddenly cut through the gloom. A pit with the flesh tones of an obscene orifice appeared behind King Flame. Fire and smoke licked up in tongues, horned creatures half-human and half snake slid at the lip. Faint strains of pandemonium echoed in the cavern, and there was the boom of an approaching giant. With every step there were wails of death, the sound of millions being crushed underfoot. Deliveryman's mouth fell open and he looked back to King Flame's mad grin. He'd delivered all right, and this time he hoped there'd be no tip.
--- The End ---