The Brotherhood of the Wheel

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About the Author

Copyright Page

 

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TO THE MEMORY OF MABEL T. BELCHER.

The greatest mother, father, friend, and supporter a man could ever ask for. This one is for you, Mom. They are all for, and because of, you.

 

The difference between a fairy tale and a truck driver's story is that the fairy tale starts with “Once upon a time,” whereas the truck driver's story starts, “You ain't gonna believe this…”

—AN OLD TRUCKER SAYING

 

ONE

“10-31”

Jimmie Aussapile's Peterbilt tractor trailer thundered down dark I-70, relentless as an ugly truth. The big rig's engine was the booming voice of an angry octane god, demanding you lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way. Jimmie navigated the shifting maze of weaving cars. He blew past the shadowed towers of other 18-wheeler cabs, the faces within illuminated by the ghostly green light of instrument panels, speaking their tales to their brethren across the ether of Channel 19. Long-haulers wired on caffeine or meth or song or sweet baby Jesus. Whatever it takes to keep the gears jamming, the cargo flowing, and the rig between the lines.

Jimmie was a tall man, still in decent shape for his age. He had been lanky a long time ago, but now he cultivated a solid beer gut. His hair, what was left of it, was blond and had completely abandoned his head except for the fringes and the long ponytail that fell between his shoulder blades. His bare head was covered by a gray mesh baseball cap that had a hideous character from a cartoon called
Squidbillies
on it. The cap had been a Father's Day present from his little girl last year and Jimmie wore it whenever he was on a run, for good luck, regardless of how much shit he got for it. His eyes were a fierce green that seemed to glow brighter than the lights from his instruments. He wore a pale scrub of a “road beard,” and he had a lump of chaw in his right cheek. His teeth were yellowed from the habit and a little crooked. He wore a black T-shirt that sported a faded Harley-Davidson logo on its pocket. Over that was an open denim work shirt, and over that was a black Air Force–style crew jacket with a patch of an American flag on the left arm. He wore a wallet on a chain, attached to his worn jeans, and a straight razor was tucked away in one of his steel-toed work boots.

Jimmie scanned the other big trucks on the road, looking for a specific one—a Mack, with a yellow cab and a yellow-and-white trailer, and a specific driver—a man he and the others had been hunting for a long time but had always been one step behind. I-70 was a primary artery through St. Louis, considered to be the nation's first interstate highway. Traffic was heavy tonight with 18-wheelers trying to keep to their schedule in spite of the bad weather.

Jimmie's rig was a Peterbilt 379. The cab was white, with a red Jerusalem cross pattern on the hood and the doors. The truck had chrome pipes and a custom grille carrying the mark of the Crusaders' cross as well. His handle, Paladin, was written on the driver's-side door, like a signature, in red paint.

The cab swayed rhythmically like a baby's cradle in time to the hum of the road. An amulet of Hermes, a small clay tablet depicting the Egyptian god Min, a Saint Christopher medallion, a gris-gris dedicated to Legba, Loa of the Crossroads, and dozens of other charms and talismans to gods and saints, patrons and protectors of travelers and roads, swung from the console above Jimmie's windshield. Aussapile downshifted to avoid a slow-moving car. His gearshift looked like a pistol-grip shotgun partially sheathed in the transmission well. The red Crusaders' cross was stamped on the pearl handle grip of the shotgun.

The CB radio squawked. A distorted voice called out through the shroud of static, a ghost from the electromagnetic spectrum speaking in the secret language of the road, a code only partly known to laymen and lawmen. Jimmie knew when you were on a long run those voices gave you comfort in the knowledge you were not alone in the wasteland of the Road, not alone driving throughout the heartland of America in the darkest of hours, the only soul awake in the lands of the dreaming dead.

“Breaker, breaker, Paladin, got your ears on? C'mon,” the voice on the CB said. “This is Dallas Star, rolling a bobtail, southbound, headed home. I got nothing for you, brother. I don't see your lost bulldog. Over.”

Jimmie tapped the mike button for the wireless headset he wore as he steered the 18-wheeler through the freezing rain he had fought since Nashville. Technically, it was spring, but winter wasn't leaving without a fight. The highway was a black mirror, reflecting the sudden, stabbing planes of crimson brake lights and the baleful lances of high beams—celestial phenomena from some diffused void on the other side of ice-covered asphalt.

“Much obliged, Dallas Star,” Jimmie said into the mike. “Have a good one today and a better one tomorrow; you're clear. Break 1-9, this is Paladin. Anyone got a 20 on that yellow-and-white bulldog? Headed out of Nashville, running west on I-70? We're on a clock here, brothers and sisters. Anybody got anything?”

The man in the yellow Mack truck had tortured, raped, and murdered six women in five states in the past year. He was a long-hauler, and a little over four hours ago he had abducted woman number seven, a “lot lizard,” a truck-stop prostitute, from the Nashville TA truck stop. Her pimp and a few of her friends had seen her get into the yellow truck, and then the truck drove away with the woman screaming for help, struggling to get out of the cab, only to be forced back inside by the driver.

Several drivers, lot lizards, lumpers, and lot attendants had seen the whole thing play out, and word quickly and quietly spread across the radio frequencies to Jimmie, who was running a load of steel up to Illinois. Jimmie sent out a coded message on Channel 23 to make sure he wasn't stepping on the toes of any of the others. It was a courtesy, but Jimmie was glad when all he got back was “Y
ou're point on this, Paladin; call the play
.” Jimmie had seen hardened gearjammers weep like children when they found the desecrated body of victim number three on the blacktop shoulder of I-55 near Sikeston about nine months ago. This son of a bitch had been like a ghost, but now … now Jimmie had him, could feel him close, feel his oily soul somewhere up ahead. He thought of the terror eating at that poor girl right now, and, as always, he thought, What if it was Layla or Peyton in that truck, waiting to die.

He accelerated. Somewhere up ahead was his man, and this was ending tonight.

The sociopath's thoughts were full of hooks piercing flesh, electricity blistering skin, and sour, stale smells that equated to associations not found in a human lexicon. He was behind the wheel of his own 18-wheeler. He owned it. He owned the whimpering, sobbing piece of trash cuffed and gagged behind him in the cab of his Mack, too. He could hear her trying to talk, trying to pray behind the cloth curtains that separated the driving area from the back of the cab, where he worked and played. Her voice was muffled by the tape over her mouth, but he could hear her sobbing, choking, snot-filled pleas. He thought she was praying to him. His rig was his universe and he was god here, master of life and death.

His birth name was Wayne Ray Rhodes, but that name had meant nothing to him since he read the book. His true name was the Marquis. That was what he called himself in the writhing snake pit of his mind; it was what he made the trash call him as he tortured them. It was the name they had to use as they begged for their lives. He didn't know what a marquis was. It sounded cool as shit, though, and real badass. Nobody fucked around with someone named “the Marquis.”

Marquis was the name of the fella who wrote the stained, coverless paperback he found on the piss-covered floor of a rest-area bathroom. The name of the book was
The 120 Days of Sodom,
and while Wayne Ray didn't understand a lot of the fruity egghead talk in between the fucking, the descriptions of having control over a piece of trash, of degrading her, giving her pain, and being the god who decides her fate … now, that he understood, the way a carrion eater instinctively hungers for death. He had known what he was at sixteen when he tortured his first prostitute, burning her with cigarettes before he blew her head off with his .38.

He had been so inspired by the book that he had converted the sleeping compartment behind his cab into a torture chamber, complete with suspended chain restraints, a surgical table, and a horrific array of torture implements both medieval and modern. It was wired for video and sound, of course, and the Marquis had an extensive collection of recordings of him interrogating the trash, torturing them, and then, of course, disposing of them. In his mind, the Marquis wasn't murdering or even killing anyone; he was a trash man, and he was disposing of walking garbage. It would have made Jimmie Aussapile physically ill to see just how many DVD recordings, each in a specially labeled jewel case, the Marquis possessed in his rolling dungeon. It was far more than six.

On the filthy bunk on which the Marquis slept, on the semen-, shit-, and blood-covered sheets, dusted with Fritos chip crumbs, a nineteen-year-old girl struggled against the cuffs that pinned her arms behind her back. Like the Marquis, she, too, had a handle, a secret name. They called her Supergirl in the truck-stop parking lots because of the tattoo of the stylized “S” shield she had on her lower back. She had a real name from before. Before she left the foster home, before the hitting and the nightly visits by the thing that forced her to call him Dad. Her name was Marcia, Marcia Hughes.

At first Marcia figured this was going to be another rough trick, another rip-off, when the nasty, squint-eyed old man smacked her and started to drive away. Cuff her, rape her, and push her out of the cab at about ten miles an hour. It happened, usually a few times a month, less if she was lucky. Her worse concern had been that she wouldn't lose any more teeth in the transaction.

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