Shimmering like a mirage, a man strode down the backwoods highway towards Tim. The stranger was dressed in black, not comfortable attire for August in North Carolina.
Tim slouched against his mud-splattered pickup as cars whizzed by. His brother had promised to bring gasoline, but he’d probably finish watching the NASCAR race first. The nearest gas station was five miles away. Better to wait.
Tim took another sip of Cheerwine and wiped sweat off his brow. He really needed to relieve himself, but there was no tree to stand behind.
The stranger wore an AC/DC Highway to Hell t-shirt with a long dark cloak. He had two or three day’s growth of beard and resembled one of the good-old boys Tim usually met down at the pool hall after a day of shingling roofs.
“This would’ve been a hell of a lot easier if you’d just picked me up, bossman,” the stranger drawled. He held some sort of farm implement, a long stick with a blade at one end.
Tim patted the truck hood. “Ran out of gas.”
A semi roared by, spraying dust and gravel and shaking Tim’s truck.
“Figured that.” The stranger rested the blade against the truck. “I hate carrying this damned scythe.”
“You hitch-hiking?” Tim asked.
“I’m Death. I’m here for you.”
The man must be drinking. “Wish you’d brought some gas.” Tim studied the stranger’s face. Maybe he’d shared a beer with him once. “I don’t understand. You’re here for me?”
“Yeah, I know. It’s stupid. You’re supposed to pick me up on the highway. Then you realize your time has come.” He rolled his eyes. “But you had to run out of gas.” He waved the scythe like a magic wand. A skull replaced his face for an instant. “Do you believe me now?”
Tim felt weak. “Holy crap.”
The stranger cleared his throat. “I’m not the Death. I just work for him. My name’s Rufus. Death doesn’t like coming to the sticks. Hell, he doesn’t even look at the names on my reports too closely, as long as the numbers add up.”
Tim steadied himself against the truck. “Why me? Why now?”
“That barbecue from Riley’s Diner last night was rotten.”
“Tasted okay to me.”
“Too much hot sauce. Covered up the bad meat,” Rufus said.
“You can’t have barbecue without sauce.”
Rufus smacked his lips. “You’re right about that. Riley’s barbecue’s is about the best there is, even if they do skimp on the meat once in a while.”
A BMW with Delaware plates slowed down. It looked like the driver might stop and help, but the passenger, a well-dressed matron, just pointed at Tim and Rufus. The window rolled down and something hit the concrete.
It was a large to-go cup from one of those fancy coffee places. Cold latte splattered on Tim’s boots.
The driver, a man in a suit, laughed and gunned the engine.
Tim wiped the coffee off his boots. “Jerks.”
“There are jerks everywhere,” Rufus said. “I met my share when I ran the bank. Jerks never seemed to have trouble getting loans.”
Rufus couldn’t be more than twenty-five. “You ran a bank?” Tim asked.
Rufus smiled. “First Federal of Sanford for thirty years. I was probably a bit of jerk too.”
“First Federal tried to repossess my truck last year.”
“Sorry about that,” Rufus said. “I guess banks aren’t exactly fair to some folks.”
Tim squinted at Rufus. “You’re not old enough to run a bank.”
Rufus shrugged. “I’m dead. I look like I did the last time I was happy. Back when I went to NC State.”
Tim downed the last of his cherry soda and tossed the empty bottle in the truck bed. “So, Death takes me, because I’m nice enough to help out hitchhikers and rich jackasses keep on living?”
“It’s not fair.” Rufus smiled. “Here’s the only part of the job I like.” He aimed the scythe like a pool cue at the rapidly disappearing BMW.
“Don’t kill them,” Tim said.
Rufus winked at Tim. “Not yet. I’m just going to give them a little trouble.” He shot the scythe forward like he was making a combination shot. “Jackasses in the corner pocket.”
There was a loud bang, like a shotgun went off. The car skidded to the side of the road.
Tim laughed. “Blowout. Sweet!”
“Spare’s flat too. And their mobile phone’s busted. They’ll be hiking,” Rufus said.
The BMW driver stepped outside. He bent down and examined the bad tire. The woman yelled something at him. The man opened the trunk and then immediately slammed it.
Tim fished a can of Fix-A-Flat from the front seat. “Maybe I can give them a hand.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of them.” Rufus put the scythe over one shoulder like a hobo carrying his belongings. “You know the boss doesn’t even come around these parts. He likes the big cities. New York. Atlanta. S.o.b. probably won’t even notice if I teach a few folks some lessons. And ease up on folks like you.”
Tim heard the distinctive opening chords of Highway to Hell.
Rufus pulled out a mobile phone. “Hello?” Pause. “No, he didn’t give me a ride. I’ll handle it.” He hung up and smiled. “I’m going to let you slide, but I still have a quota.” He pointed his scythe towards the BMW.
Rufus walked into the nearby field and vanished.
Tim heard a car horn. He turned around and saw his brother’s battered El Camino pull over.
“Who was that?” his brother asked as he handed Tim the gas can.
Before Tim could answer, a long black luxury sedan, almost like a hearse, pulled over. The passenger window rolled down. Rufus, now clean-shaven and wearing a charcoal suit, was driving. “You know, boss-man. Some people give rides. Some expect them. I’m gonna give those folks the ride of their lives.”
The sedan eased down the highway to the BMW.
Peter Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his surly cat and patient wife. He has had stories published in Daily Science Fiction, Bull Spec, Stupefying Stories and Every Day Fiction. His favorite type of story to write is southern fried science fiction and fantasy. Last year he and his wife ran out of gas on the road between Sanford and Raleigh. As he waited for his brother-in-law to drive down from Raleigh with some gasoline, Pete started to wonder…
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