They’d been held over a day after selling out The Electric Factory, the prestigious Philadelphia venue crammed to the rafters last night with rockers, stoners, sludge-lovers, and neck-wreckers, those who’d screamed themselves hoarse in the wake of being absolutely bludgeoned by “The Wizard’s” mountain of amplification and bone crushing musical execution. Tonight, the band members were restless, feeling vicious and extreme, and they got a tip that the best underground, high stakes poker game was in South Philly, down by the airport in a cluster of abandoned warehouses in the basement under the basement of a speak-easy members secretly called Mama’s Inferno.
Jus had nine thousand dollars in his pocket, three stacks folded over and rubber banded together. Liz and Simon were loaded as well. Clayton only had only seventeen hundred, but no one blamed him. Before hailing a cab they’d been slumming down South Street, and he’d found a specialty shop with an authentic leather vest worn back in the summer of 1971 by Sabbath’s Tony Iommi on the Master of Reality 4 Tour. It was legit, there was paperwork. There was even a hint of the guitar-legend’s after shave in it if you smelled hard enough.
A heavy-set bouncer with a chin-curtain beard and a neck tattoo trailing off his ear like Native American war feathers, took their names and led them through the lobby to a side door with a red felt rope barrier in front of it. He unhooked it for them and indicated that they should go down the stairway two levels.
There was only one room down there at the bottom, no door, but rather, those long hanging plastic strips you would expect to find in a slaughterhouse meat room. Above them, the mindless pounding of synthesized dance music had slowly receded, and once they passed through the plastic the noise dulled to a haunt.
“So, this is it?” Jus said. It was all concrete with moisture marks webbed along the creases in the ceiling and a contractor’s utility light hanging off a hook. The floor had a rusted drain grate in the middle of it, and the wall at the rear of the space had a man-sized hole knocked through it, temporarily patched with a swath of gauzy material that looked spotted and weathered.
“Is this a joke?” Liz echoed. She was wearing her best long coat, high boots, and the black hat with the floppy brim that made her eyebrows look daring. Jus had picked out the scarf, she looked good. So, where were the high rollers? Where was the rare scotch, the killer sound system, the fancy plate of caviar weed, the Mississippi Sin Dip, or at least a tray of those fucking mini cocktail hot dogs wrapped up in dough?
A light flickered on from behind the gauze, and through the jagged hole in the wall, you could see the silhouette of a tall figure sitting in there behind what appeared to be a large poker table.
“Looking for a game?” he said. It was a harsh whisper with gravel in it, like steam whistling through a rusty valve. Jus took a step toward the see-through obstruction.
“Yeah,” he said. “We’re Electric Wizard.”
“I know who you are.”
“Right then,” Jus continued. “We got the tip that this was supposed to be the hottest game of underground Texas Hold “Em you’ve got in this town.”
“You’re in the right place.”
“Don’t look like the right place,” Simon muttered.
“Come in,” the figure said. “Under the fine mesh. Yes, that’s right, lift it up there. It’s not fastened down at the bottom. Forgive me, I’m redecorating.”
There were four chairs waiting for them at the table, the fancy Victorian kind, with cushioned upholstery riveted into the arm rests. Their host was wearing leather gloves and a black sweatshirt with an oversized hood pulled forward over his head so his face was lost in the shadow. Liz toyed with the upside down cross hanging down from her neck.
“So where’s everyone else?”
“There is no one else,” the figure said.
The figure smiled, you could see the teeth faintly glinting from within the shadows covering the rest of his face. From his lap, he drew up something thin and gray, knobbed on one end, splintered at the other. It was a bone, human looking, maybe a femur, and he brought it up to his mouth area. From within the shadow of the hood there were sucking sounds, and when he pulled it out, the nub was slick and licked clean.
“Human marrow is a special delicacy,” he said. “Would you like to give it a try?”
The band looked at each other, smiling. This wasn’t the hottest underground card game in Philly, but a good gag, a custom-made prank celebrating the fact that they were the ultimate gloom-filled, horror-soaked, bad ass doom-metal band on the planet. Simon moved his hair off his face.
“Who put you up to this?” he said. From within the darkness of the hood it seemed the eyes gleamed red for a moment.
“This is of my own invention,” he said. “You see…I am your biggest fan. The new album Wizard Bloody Wizard on Spinefarm Records is magnificent, and the single you put up on YouTube, “See You in Hell” is bone crushing. A stellar choice, though I very much like “Necromania.” I also have a special fondness for cut number four, “The Reaper,” for…obvious reasons.”
“Well, you have our deepest thanks,” Jus said dryly.
“Thanks has nothing to do with it,” the dark figure hissed. “You play hard and slow. Like me, you are startlingly current yet deliciously timeless. You have a “fuck you” philosophy, you want to legalize drugs and murder, and I read somewhere that you play death like a muse.”
Jus stared for a second.
The figure sat forward.
“And so,” he whispered, “I am Death. Play me like a muse. Let’s write fucking poetry.”
They all looked around the table, smiling again, yet rather ruefully. Joke was over. Time to bail. They made to scrape back their chairs.
“If you don’t remain there will be consequences,” the figure said softly. “Stay right where you are, yes, right there, still as stones. You came to play a game with high stakes, and I am going to make all your wishes come true. I am not taking a rake, but there will be a time charge. Twenty minutes, starting now, and instead of Texas Hold “Em, or Omaha, or 7-Card Stud, we play something new. It’s called ‘Pieces of a Dream.’ You all had nightmares last night. Time to share them with the group, clock’s ticking.”
The band looked across the casino table at each other, but they weren’t smiling now. Though they hadn’t spoken of it to each other, they had all, in fact, been plagued with bad dreams the past evening. Though he never discussed such things, it had made Jus skip breakfast. Liz hadn’t shaken it until after a long shower, and though Simon and Clayton hadn’t even registered anything except a gloom upon waking, they remembered the dreams clearly now.
“Uh, yeah,” Simon began quietly. “I dreamed of a girl, fifteen or so. It was a mantle photograph in a sliver frame, and she had her black hair pulled back in pigtails, tied off with red ribbons. She had brown eyes, a long chin, and a freckle on the end of her nose. There was an old teddy bear next to the picture, and flowers and a white candle burned half way down.”
“Right,” Clayton continued, “it looked like a memorial. And I had visions of her first day of high school three months ago, when she went in on the early bus, hopeful, nervous, praying she wouldn’t be the shortest girl in the grade, dreading the popular crowd, finally coming out of her shell later that afternoon and joining the theater-techies. I dreamed that her new Spider Bite lip piercing made it harder to work the mouthpiece playing the clarinet, so she gave it up and begged her dad to buy her an electric bass. She vaped with a Baby Beast, and her mother constantly told her that she wore too much eye make-up.”
“And her name,” Jus added on, “was Mindy Finster. She was a day dreamer and she was sometimes sad for no reason. She liked to wear leather skirts and rip holes in her stockings on purpose, and she volunteered time at the Dunwoody old age home every weekend, bringing her Turkish Angora cat to the residents so they could hold something warm. She was a Game of Thrones freak, she collected punk boots with studs, and –“
Check out the music video for the single “See You In Hell.”
“And she was an Electric Wizard fanatic,” Liz said. “She had all our albums, posters covering her walls corner to corner, and she listened to us twenty-four seven. She told her friends that The Wizard helped keep her grounded, kept her darkness centered, and that the groove made her heart glow.” Liz put her knuckle up to her lips for a moment, paused, and then folded her hands in her lap. “In my dream,” she went on, “I saw an accident, a Pepperidge Farm truck going too fast. It was horribly vivid. The driver screeched the brakes, fishtailing, tires smoking, and Mindy was hammered down to the street, run over hard, jerking under there like a puppet.”
“Yes,” said the dark hooded figure, drawing out the “ssss” sound. “Mindy Finster, age fifteen and a half, killed yesterday crossing the street, looking in her cell phone. She’d just bought the ‘Official Electric Wizard Legalize T-Shirt, Front W/Back Print’ off your site, and she was texting her friend Addy Stein about it. Poor little Mindy. She’ll never get her merch, and she never made it to your concert.”
“Fucking hell,” Jus said.
“Exactly,” said the dark figure. “Blink.”
They all tried their best not to, but who could avoid it? Simon’s lids flickered closed first, they all saw it, and abruptly, the concrete room vanished.
They were outside walking under a wrought iron gateway arch patterned with ivy. It was the access road leading into the Saint Mary’s Cemetery, and this was no dream. The late autumn night wind was keen in their faces, leaves skittering across the asphalt, and ahead there was a darkened chapel outlined by the dim light of a thin crescent moon.
Just past a stone crosswalk up ahead there was a mud spattered pickup truck half in the road and half up on the grass. It had trash barrels in the back bed filled with digging tools and was parked by a high mound of fill. The wind had half-blown off a length of tarp covering a few short stacks of folding chairs, and off to the side there were a couple of earthy green mats rolled up next to a wreath on a tripod.
They approached and saw the rectangular cavity cut into the earth. There was a temporary covering for it, but the sheet of warped plywood was poorly placed, angled off, revealing an open corner. The Reaper was standing at the head of the empty grave, dressed formally now in his long black robe with the wind ruffling the folds in what seemed like slow motion.
“Poor little Mindy,” he said in that graveled whisper, “here’s the game. We can save her before the burial tomorrow, reverse time temporarily and make that Pepperidge Farm truck miss her by an inch and run into a fire hydrant. But the theme here is sacrifice. Yours.”
He took a moment to turn his black shadowed glance on each of the band members one at a time.
“Each of you,” he continued, “has a human worth, a stake more precious than the thick wads of cash you brought this dark night. Like a house perk, I reveal that you all have relatively full lives ahead of you. I won’t voice your exact expiration dates, but let’s be clear, you have bounty to offer.” He grinned, and they all could see those white crooked teeth deep in the shadow of his hood. “So,” he said. “How many of your years will you give to our Mindy? Just how much of the back end of your lives will you shave off in order to rekindle and fortify hers?”
He let that stew in the air for a second, turning as if to make his way off.
“Oh,” he then said, turning back. “And you can’t say it out loud until everyone has had his or her turn. You confer with each other, make deals, and she dies. Period.”
“How do we make the offering then?” Jus said through clenched teeth.
“By each of you making your mark,” The Reaper said, pointing downward.” In there. In her dark empty grave, with your finger on the underside of the dirty plywood that you’ll pull over yourselves one by one. You have seven minutes altogether. Time’s short, but these decisions are best made by instinct, not intellect. Check your cells. Know your restriction.”
The bloody good cover art for Electric Wizard's latest release, Wizard Bloody Wizard.
They all stared at each other briefly, and then after confirming it was twenty-five minutes past midnight, Jus went first, nudging the plywood grave-covering with his toe. It made a startling scraping sound as he continued the process, walking it around the near corner to reveal the opening. Next, he was sitting on the ridge, and he pushed himself slowly into the void, careful to shove off so he wouldn’t scrape up his back. He landed, his boots making a gritty sound on the hard dirt in the semi-darkness, and here in the cavity it smelled of earth and the pine support timbers in the four corners.
As calmly as he could, Jus reached up for the plywood. The board stuck on something and he pulled harder to scrape it across, noting that it sounded “wetter” now, like closing a rusted prison gate. Darkness swept into the space, and he crouched instinctively, the smell of earth intensifying, the air thick and weighted.
So, how many years would he sacrifice? The Reaper had been cleverly vague about whether any of them were going to reach seventy, even late fifties, so the gamble here was insane.
There was a noise. Like rain or crackling bacon.
Spiders. He suddenly felt them crawling up his pant-legs, in his hair, on his face, across the backs of his wrists, and he reached up and traced hard with his index finger the number “9” on the dirty inner side of the plywood.
He shoved the covering aside, and the rest of the band helped him out of the grave. Standing in the open air, he stamped his feet, raking his hair with his fingers, but there were no insects crawling on him. They were phantoms, servants of The Reaper that had forced Jus to hurry. Still, they’d left traces like ghost-residue, and he pawed at the sticky web they’d managed to spin and affix to the side of his neck.
“Chop-chop,” he said with disgust, and Simon made his way to the grave.
By the time Clayton took his turn, there were merely two minutes left. When he emerged with a swath of spider-silk covering his left ear and tucked under his jaw, they were down to their last sixty seconds, 12:31 on everyone’s screens.
Liz put her palm on Jus Oborn’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. She handed her hat over to Simon and then jumped into the grave, coat tails flying around her like some Goddess or super hero. After she landed and settled, the band gathered at the lip one by one and looked downward. She’d taken a sitting position there with her knees up, fingers interlocked around them.
“Ready?” Jus said.
“As I’ll ever be.”
They dragged across the warped plywood slab for her and they waited.
They shifted around, glancing at each other.
“Liz?” Jus called.
Simon checked his phone.
“12:33” he said.
They ripped up the plywood.
There in the grave lying flat on her back was Liz Buckingham, features but a hint under the grey silk that covered her face like a burial veil.
Jus screamed out, “No!”
Simon hung his head.
Clayton looked over at the plywood they’d flipped upside down.
You could see their marks, the impressions they’d drawn up into the dirt on the wood’s underside. At the top was the “9” Jus had drawn, just above Simon’s “8” and Clayton’s “11.” But below the lot, was the mark of Liz Buckingham, not numbers, but letters, and they simply spelled,
Next time in MUSIC HELL:
Volume 3 - "The Ghost of the Hot Checkered Flag-Girl" featuring Asking Alexandria
Danny Worsnop and Ben Bruce skidded to a halt beneath the EXIT sign with the burned-out lamp head. Before them was a dim stairwell leading to the basement level of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
“Can this be right?” Ben asked, breathless from the run.
“Seems so,” Danny whispered.
“Save your pipes,” Ben said, “I mean, I get it. This is supposed to feel weird, like a wrong turn or something, but that’s the point, right?”
They pushed through and clapped down the stairs to the dark cement landing. Danny was in the lead and he came on so hard he had to put his hands up to brace himself before banging against the steel door. He took a moment to cup his hands and peer through the small window with the diamond wire in it, his breath making misted ovals at the bottom. Parking garage, empty except for a space halfway down to the right. It was a Camaro as promised. Vintage. But the part about it being in mint condition was a bold-faced, mother fucking lie.
Danny shoved the door open and they rushed through the archway. It smelled like an old viaduct. The concrete in here was darkened with street grime, and there were watermarks shadowed up the walls in the creases.
Previously in MUSIC HELL:
MUSIC HELL - Volume 1: "The Sculptor" featuring Trivium
Want our content delivered to your mailbox? Subscribe for updates.