Leo

So, are you sure you want me to tell you? It’s not a pretty tale, but if you’re buying the drinks then I’m your huckleberry.  

I guess the first thing that I did was check-in at a motel with no name. It just had an old sign that said, “Motel,” and one of those neon No Vacancy signs. Looked like the thing had seen at least fifty years of bad weather and bad times. The blind nightman didn’t ask for traditional payment.   

“Just lemme have one of them Lucky Strikes, mister,” he said, holding up a room key strung to an alligator wishbone with a rusted bead of chain. 

I hesitated and said, “It’s my last one. You sure?”  

His toothless grin said it all.  “Go on, now. You don’t believe that old wives’ tale, do ya?” 

It felt like a test and a trap rolled into one. So, I just held out the pack of smokes.  

He plucked the last one from the cellophane and tucked it behind his cauliflower ear.  “Thanks. What else you got?” 

I wound up trading an entire second pack of Lucky Strikes, an iron horseshoe, and a small, tarnished silver mirror for the key. 

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Lucky Strikes, a horseshoe, and a mirror? What kind of currency is that? But let me tell you, in this world, there’s power in the unremarkable. And sometimes, in the cursed. 

The Lucky Strikes, well, that’s a no-brainer. A little bit of luck never hurt anyone, especially when you’re dealing with the kind of forces I’m up against. The horseshoe, that’s for protection. Iron’s got a way of warding off evil, or so they say. And the mirror? That’s a bit trickier. 

You see, mirrors have a way of reflecting the truth, whether you want to see it or not. They can reveal things that are hidden, things that lurk just beyond the veil of reality. And in the hands of someone like me, a mirror can be a powerful tool… or a dangerous weapon. 

So, I handed over my talismans and took the key, feeling the weight of its secrets in my palm. The motel room may have been just another waypoint on the long and winding road of my misadventures, but I knew that within its walls, I would find both refuge and revelation. The key was a catalyst, a small piece of the larger puzzle that was my life, and I was ready to unlock its mysteries… for better or worse. 

I walked away and he starts singing. Just picking up in the middle of an old delta blues tune like it was nothing. The song? Typical stuff, really. Standard shaking hands with Old Scratch, making an “eee-ternal bargain” down at the crossroads. You know the one.  

His voice was this raspy, gravelly thing, sounded like he gargled with turpentine and gravel for breakfast. As he crooned those mournful lyrics, the air got heavier, thicker. The shadows contorted and crawled along the walls. 

I’d been on the road a long time and just wanted to rest. 

So, there I was in one of those places that exist on the fringes of the map, barely clinging to the edges of reality. The name escaped me – Yeehaw Junction, Palatka, Waldo, or some other half-forgotten dot on the Florida backroads. These were the kinds of towns that flickered in and out of existence, like ghosts in the corner of your eye. Places where the shadows grew longer, and the secrets ran deeper than the tangled roots of the mangroves. 

No tourist would ever stumble upon these forgotten corners, no retiree would seek out their faded charms, and no family would dare put down roots in their haunted soil. But for those running from their past, desperate to bury their sins in the unforgiving swamp, these towns were a sanctuary. A place to disappear, to become one with the moss-draped trees and the murky waters that never quite revealed their depths. 

The past days, weeks, months I spent navigating the cracked asphalt and faded roadhouses, landed me in a liminal space where the rules of reality bent and twisted like the serpentine trails of the Everglades. The heat of the day hung heavy with secrets and the weight of forgotten dreams.  

In my room, number thirteen, of course, I got bored and consulted my horoscope. Bad news. Always bad news. I don’t even know why I bother.  

Then I fished out Gideon from the nightstand drawer. The pristine, hardly touched tome felt heavier than it should as I dropped it on the table and placed the phone on top. The scent of brimstone wafted up from the bible’s pages, a sure sign that the Passenger was getting restless. I struck a match on a plastic No Smoking sign glued to the nightstand. I lit a smoke as much to calm my nerves as to mask the stench of burning damnation leaking into this world. Tendrils curled toward the water-stained ceiling, mingling with the acrid odor. The nicotine did little to steady my hands as my fingers traced the cracked plastic of old timey phone’s receiver, tapping out my resignation in Morse code with a cursed wooden nickel.  

Rnngngngng! Rnngngngng!  Rnngngngng!  The bell sounded strangled, clutched by invisible gnarled fingers.  I bought the phone up close to my ear, careful not to let it touch my skin. Radiant heat and the stench of death wafted from it.   

“Leo? Are you there, you miscreant?” The voice oozed from the earpiece, a grating mixture of false joviality and self-righteous indignation that could only belong to one man. “I say again. This is President Reagan. We’re watching. We’re angry.” 

I fought back a snort of laughter as his words dripped like molasses from a mason jar. Reagan’s voice had always reminded me of a stuffy old professor, the kind who wore tweed jackets with elbow patches and lectured about “the good old days” when men were men and the world made “sense.” 

But beneath that veneer of grandfatherly charm lurked a cold, calculating ruthlessness that had sent countless souls to their doom. I knew all too well the depths of Reagan’s cruelty, the way he could smile while secretly plotting your demise. 

So, this undead, disembodied prick says, “Listen here, you young whippersnapper!” Yeah. The shit-heel used the word whippersnapper. “In my day, we knew the value of loyalty and respect. We didn’t go around cavorting with demons and dabbling in the dark arts like some kind of hippie Satanist.” 

I flipped the phone the bird, channeling a bit of the Passenger’s power into the gesture. A sharp intake of breath and a muffled cough from the other end of the line told me that Reagan had felt the sting of my defiance. 

“You’ve got a lot of nerve, son,” he wheezed, his voice strained but still dripping with condescension, “turning your back on your country and your president. After all we’ve done for you, all the opportunities we’ve given you…” 

The words hung in the air like a noose, tightening around my neck with each passing second. But even as the weight of his threat bore down upon me, burning defiance ignited within my chest. I had danced to Reagan’s tune for long enough, and now it was time to face the music on my own terms. 

“With all due respect, sir,” I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm, “I think we have very different definitions of loyalty and respect. And as for the opportunities you’ve given me… well, let’s just say I’m not exactly grateful for the chance to sell my soul to the highest bidder.” 

I could practically hear Reagan’s teeth grinding on the other end of the line, his carefully crafted facade of genteel civility cracking under the weight of his anger. 

“You listen to me, you little punk,” he snarled, all pretense of grandfatherly affection gone. “You’re in way over your head, and if you don’t watch your step, you’ll find yourself in a world of trouble. The Shadow Hand doesn’t take kindly to deserters, and trust me, you don’t want to know what we do to traitors like you.” 

But even as his words sent a chill down my spine, I knew that I had made my choice. There was no going back now, no way to un-ring the bell that had been tolling in my soul for so long. 

So, Reagan’s ghost is laying into me, right? And I’ve had enough of his shit. I reach for my briefcase – this sleek, black leather number that looks like it belongs on Wall Street, not in the hands of a guy like me. I know what you’re thinking, it’s an odd choice for a roughneck like me. Denim, leather, scars… and a briefcase? But let me tell you, this is my life. It’s got everything I need, all neatly organized and at my fingertips. People give me weird looks sometimes, but I don’t give a damn. This briefcase, it’s like my security blanket in a world gone mad. 

Anyway, I pop the latches and rummage around inside until I find what I’m looking for: this old Dead Kennedys cassette tape, “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now.” I slide it into this beat-up stereo that looks like it hasn’t worked since the Berlin Wall fell. But here’s the thing, I’ve got a trick up my sleeve. A little bit of magic, and bam! The stereo sputters to life. I crank the volume, and Jello Biafra’s voice fills the room: 

“Cowboy Ron on a stump, bedtime for democracy, Cowboy Ron on a stump, bedtime for democracy…” 

Reagan’s ghost is seething, but I just lean back and let the music wash over me. It’s my own little “fuck you” to the old bastard. I mean, what’s he gonna do? He’s dead, and I’m done being his puppet. 

But then, just as I’m starting to feel like maybe I’ve got the upper hand, Reagan hits me with this telekinetic dynamite. It’s like a mind bomb going off inside my skull. I’m reeling, the room’s spinning, and I’m falling, falling… 

Next thing I know, I’m in my own personal hell, drowning in a sea of shame and regret. Reagan’s there, towering over me, his face a twisted mask of rage. 

“You think a little punk rock can save you, Leo?” he sneers. “You’re mine, now and forever.” 

I struggle to my feet, spitting blood and bile. “Not anymore, you son of a bitch. I’m done being your errand boy. I’m done with the Shadow Hand and all your fucked-up schemes. I’m out.” 

But even as I say it, I can feel the weight of my past bearing down on me. The things I’ve done, the lives I’ve destroyed… it’s like a black hole, threatening to swallow me whole. And the Passenger, that damn wraith that’s been riding shotgun in my soul for so long, it’s just feeding on all that darkness, getting stronger by the minute. But see, the Passenger and I have an understanding. It gets what it wants when I get what I want.  

I reach down deep and call up a particular nasty memory. Sorrow, regret, misery rage through my body and coalesce into a ball of hatred energy. I focus on it and pull the energy up from within. This prick should know better. Combat magic is like taking a shit for me.  

And this one was messy. I won’t go into the details now. Maybe I never will. But let’s just say I wouldn’t be here talking about it if I hadn’t won the fight.  

Anyway, I stagger out of the motel room, into the night. It’s well past midnight now. I don’t know how long we locked horns–not that it matters. Eistein said time was relative, right? 

The first thing that told me I was alive was the stench of swamp water, blood, and stale cigarettes. Then, my eyes cleared, and I found myself in the parking lot, holding my briefcase. 

The “No” on the No Vacancy sign flipped to read, “On.”  

I sneered at the sign and said, “You’re damn right it’s on,” while the Dead Kennedys played in my head. 

“Cowboy Ron on a stump, bedtime for democracy, Fuck off, you old lump, bedtime for democracy…” 

I looked up at the cloudless sky, a hazy carpet of dull twinkling fuzz. The radiant heat casting mirages everywhere.  

A bright shooting star cut through the gloom as it streaked across the sky. I grabbed it with my mind, sucked it dry of luck and it evaporated like Pixie Stick dust pouring from a wound. You remember that candy? Pixie Sticks. Man, I love that shit. I know it’s just colored sugar in a straw, but man I love it. 

I searched my pockets, but I didn’t have anything sweet, so instead I lit a cigarette from a pack of Lucky Strikes I didn’t have a moment ago. Maybe the nightman put them back in my pocket as some sort of partial refund. I don’t know. I never saw him again.  

With the first drag on the cancer stick, I felt great about quitting my job. 

Little did I know saving my own soul would be my next gig. And if I played my cards right, I might just save the world in the process.