The Battle-Hearse -by Ray O'Bannon

Personally, I think somethin's goin' on. I think there's somethin' happening around here that nobody knows about. But who cares what I think, right? I mean, I'm just a grinder. More specifically, I'm an automotive engineer involved in the creation of custom hearses and flower cars for the Hallsteader Coachworks Company. We generally roll out some of the sweetest hearses you could ever wanna see, but that thing we finished last week…gawd! Whatta nightmare.

I think they came to us because we're not a big company like Eureka or Superior, and we only do a few dozen funeral cars each year. Less people watching, that's my guess. Anyhow, we usually start with a Cadillac commercial chassis and do all the custom bodywork and everything from there. But this time the customer already had a car. They just wanted it modified.

I remember the night Doomface first showed up. We never knew his real name, but when he first came in, Chalky gave me a nudge and said "Check out Doomface over there." We were both working late and feeling a little grouchy, but somehow the name seemed to fit the guy perfectly. He was standing there in the doorway, just the dark silhouette of a man back-lit by the streetlights. He stepped forward into the light of the garage, but somehow the light seemed to shy away from him, as though it was unwilling to fall upon him. I know how that sounds, but dammit that's how it seemed. The only detail we could really make out was his pale dead-looking face. He wore dark sunglasses even though the sun had set a couple of hours earlier, and his long black coat seemed to flap slowly in a gentle breeze, even though the dusty air in the garage was perfectly still.

I was suddenly aware of the radio, and instantly wished somebody would turn the dumb thing off, because when Doomface came into a room, music just suddenly didn't seem appropriate anymore. But the rockabilly rhythm continued as Elvis crooned "girl, girl, girl, you gonna set me on fire…my brain is burnin', I don't know which way to go." I knew exactly which way I wanted to go. I wanted to dive under the nearest car and hide till the sun came up and fried that weird bastard into a smudgy lump of coal. You just couldn't help feeling like that's what would happen if the daylight ever caught this freak. But nobody turned off the radio, and Chalky and I just stood there gaping as the guy drifted across the garage towards the manager's office. 'Burnin' Love' faded into something by Fleetwood Mac, and Chalky mumbled something about "Don't vampires hafta be invited before they can come in?" but I didn't feel like laughing.

Pete Hallsteader came stumbling out of his office a little while later and headed straight for the back door. He left it open and I could see him out there puking. Then he lit a cigarette, which was odd since he'd quit several years ago, and stood smoking nervously in the dark. When he eventually returned, his face was nearly as pale as our visitor's, but not quite. Doomface eventually came drifting out of the office, and we couldn't help staring at him as he crossed towards the doorway. Before stepping out into the night, he turned back and looked at us for a moment. The radio had been playing something by Van Halen, but David Lee Roth's plaintive vocals were suddenly replaced by Elvis wailing "lord ah-mighty…I'm burnin' a hole where I lay", and Doomface was smiling as he drifted out into the darkness.

A few days later they hauled it in. It had once been a 1951 Cadillac hearse, but the huge rusty hulk now looked more like a boiler from some long abandoned factory. The thing sat there in the center of the garage like a beached whale rotting in the sun, and looking in through the gaping empty windows felt like gazing into a tomb. The car was completely covered with odd markings and symbols, which seemed to have been somehow scratched or gouged deeply into the rusty metal. I couldn't identify any of the symbols, but a few of them resembled squid or maybe spiders if you were to squash them just right. Just looking at all those weird markings made my stomach turn, and I was glad for the distraction when Pete tapped my shoulder and handed me a set of plans.

"Looks easy, right? Don't even gotta paint it!" he chuckled, but I've never heard a less convincing chuckle in my life. Which was completely understandable once I looked at the plans. The only thing stranger than that horrible rune-covered clump of iron from 1951 was the bizarre list of things we'd been asked to do to it. Chalky whistled softly as he examined the specs and illustrations. Then he glanced up at Pete and asked, with a look of mild surprise, "Why not tank treads while we're at it?" But nobody felt like laughing.

We started with the suspension, strengthening it enough to support the new engine. If anyone ever tells you a small Cessna aircraft engine won't fit in a hearse, they're wrong. Not that this mess was intended to fly. The engine was mostly just there to power all the saws and drills.

They supplied us with a lot of the custom parts. The more unusual items included the high carbon drill bits, which were each three and a half feet long, and the circular saw blades that were five feet across. There was also a crate with what looked like some sort of rocket launcher, but we only installed the brackets for mounting whatever that thing actually was. One crate held a variety of large metal spikes and hooks, while another held various smaller parts with nothing in common aside from the fact that they all looked sharp and nasty. I had to wonder who had designed all this insanity, because incredibly we couldn't see anything wrong with the plans. It looked as though this thing would actually operate properly if constructed as shown, and we were stunned by the cleverness of the design. But considering the insane nature of the overall project, and since Doomface was their representative, we decided it was better not to ask anything aside from when they needed the thing finished.

The work went fairly well considering we were building something nobody had ever built before. The worst of it was having to work inside the car. Being inside that thing felt like being buried in the bottom of the ocean. You didn't feel like you could breath, and you almost felt as though you were decaying. I can't explain it, but it was much easier working outside of the car. Eventually the initial shock of what we were building wore off a little, and we kinda fell back into a groove. I suppose you can get used to most anything. But Chalky wasn't making jokes the way he usually would have. And, of course, nobody was playing the radio anymore.

When Doomface came to collect the finished vehicle, we should have felt kinda proud of ourselves. Or at least felt like we had created something unique. But we were mostly just glad to be done with the damn thing, and anxious to be rid of it. The hearse looked even more bizarre now than when it had arrived. The front windshield held bulletproof glass, while the other windows were now blocked by thick metal sheets. The car's body bristled with rows of spikes, and jagged hooks thrust menacingly from the bumpers. Doomface circled the hearse slowly, inspecting the modifications, and then stepped back, awaiting a demonstration of the various features. Pete reluctantly made his way up the three metal steps welded to the side of the hearse, and dropped down through the open hole in the roof. A moment later he was firing the thing up and everyone was taking a few more steps back from the rusty spiked monstrosity.

"Secondary one and two?" Doomface asked in a voice that seemed to have been chiseled from a glacier. Pete pulled the appropriate levers and several dozen additional spikes, each several feel long, came shooting out through various holes in the vehicle's body. A moment later they were retracted, only to be replaced with sword-like blades that thrust out from adjacent slits in the rusty metal. The bright steel blades gleamed wickedly for a moment before they too were retracted.

"Primary two?" asked Doomface. The drill bits came shooting out through the front grill of the car, spinning madly and whining like banshees. "Primary one?" The massive circular saw blades came slithering out from either side of the car, grinding hungrily.

"Most excellent." Doomface smiled pleasantly. The hearse whined and snarled for a few moments more, and then Pete was shutting everything off and hopping out through the roof. We all waited nervously around the coffee machine while Pete did the final paperwork, and then he and Doomface were leaving the office and Pete was shaking the guy's hand even though you could tell he'd rather be shaking hands with a corpse. He walked shakily over to the main doors and slid them open as Doomface climbed briskly up the side of the hearse and dropped down through the roof.

The Cessna engine again roared to life and the car sat idling for a moment. Considering the outlandish weaponry we had been constructing, we'd paid little attention to the radio and powerful speakers that we'd also been asked to install. Now, over the impatient scream of the engine, we could hear that radio being tuned. Chuck Berry rocked out for a moment, then static, then The Doobie Brothers, more static, and finally the tune I somehow knew he was looking for, and would find. Elvis was chanting "hunk a hunk of burnin' love" as the massive hulking battle-hearse rolled slowly out into the night. And that was the end of it. Or so I thought. I should be so lucky.

Two days later Pete asked Chalky and I to stay late after work. We were wondering if we were in trouble or somethin', but as everyone else left for the night Pete stepped out of his office and gave us a hesitant smile. He was wearing a mechanics jumpsuit like ours instead of his usual white shirt and loud ugly tie.

"Guys, we've got a special job to handle, nothing the rest of the guys need to know about, we can handle it." He crossed over to the coffee machine and we stood around aimlessly till everyone else was gone. Then Pete handed Chalky and me a mop and bucket each. We were about to ask if this was some sort of prank when we heard that weird modified Cessna engine growing louder in the distance. A few moments later Pete was opening the door and the Battle-Hearse was rolling slowly into the light of the garage. I nearly wet myself when I saw the thing.

The hearse was splattered with some sort of gunk that resembled blood but smelled like paint thinner. The drill bits were stuck in their extended position, and clumps of what looked like rotted meat dangled from the steel shafts. Pete waited a moment to see if either Chalky or I were going to be sick before he stepped over to the vehicle and surveyed the damage, which appeared tremendous. The body had been scraped and dented every few feet, and several of the steel spikes had been bent sharply or torn off altogether. The bulletproof glass was chipped and cracked.

"We're gonna hafta get everything unclogged first," Pete mumbled as he began swabbing at some of the clumps of gunk. "Once the meat's off we can worry about getting everything repaired." Doomface came sliding out through the hole in the roof and hopped down onto the garage floor with an odd look of satisfaction. He drifted over to the coffee area and glanced casually around before tossing a few coins in the pop machine. Somehow the sight of that weird pale freak standing there with a Pepsi in his hand horrified me in a way I can't even begin to describe.

I decided the only way around this situation was through it, and stepped reluctantly over to the hearse. The circular saw blade on my side had only retracted partly, and seemed to be jammed by a long thin chunk of something. What I pulled out was rotted and dried and shriveled, but there wasn't any question about what I was holding. It was an arm. The hand at the end of it had talons for fingers. I threw it disgustedly into the bucket and started work on the saw blade.

The three of us managed to repair the weaponry shortly before sunrise. Doomface, who had quietly observed our repairs, now seemed anxious to be on his way. Pete handed him the keys and he hopped back into that rusty spiked mechanical nightmare. I walked over to the coffee machine and poured myself a cup of cold coffee as the Battle-Hearse started up. I was vaguely surprised not to hear the car's radio as Doomface rolled the hearse out into the early morning light, and then Pete was closing the garage doors and that horrible hulking metal beast was gone. Suddenly the little plastic shop radio on the coffee table screamed to life, and I doubt I have to tell you what song it was playing. Pete and Chalky didn't seem to particularly mind when I stomped that little radio into oblivion.

And until today I really thought that was the end of the whole thing. But it seems the folks who sent Doomface were quite impressed with the hearse we built for them. So impressed, in fact, that now they want us to build nine more. Now I dunno, I'm just a grinder. But I really think there's somethin' going on here.