The Devil’s Chariot by Joel Tagert

The Devil’s Chariot
By Joel Tagert
Published Issue 124, April 2024

“Turn off your fucking engine,” Mackey groaned. It was three in the morning, for Christ’s sake. What was the point of living in the boonies if there were still jack-offs next door running their car all night? 

He waited, bones rumbling, and finally cursed and got up. He went out to the living room and pulled aside the curtain to peer through the woods. Wet and foggy, like most nights this time of year in Washington. A red glow of tail lights seeped through the trees from the direction of the road. He swore again and went to put on his clothes. 

Before opening the door he grabbed the big flashlight from its drawer, comforted by the weight in his hand. He clicked it on, walked down the driveway and saw that the offending vehicle wasn’t at his neighbors’ at all, but was parked on the far side of the road ten yards down and to the left. The car was a hulking beast, a black Dodge Challenger from the early 1970s that must be someone’s project car, paint corroded, chrome pitted. 

“Hello?” he called out, but no one answered. He lifted the flashlight higher and saw no one inside. He turned the light from side to side, saw no one nearby, either. 

He came closer. The driver’s side window had been smashed out and the rear view mirror on that side was missing as well. Long scratches gleamed along the door and body. He scanned the woods with the light, disconcerted. 

The interior of the car was none too clean, the passenger side littered with food wrappers, paper bags, cans, bits of plastic. A can sat in the cup holder. Whoever owned it, they were no neatnik. Wary of the glass, he opened the door, leaned in and twisted the key to off.

Silence dropped like a lead blanket onto the woods.

He stepped out and stood frowning at the vehicle. At first glance he’d thought it was a Challenger, but he was a mechanic and he knew cars pretty well. Something about this one, an accumulation of details, made him stare. The weird dorsal ridge on the hood, the shape of the dash, the green glow of the dials, were all just a little off. 

“Custom job,” he muttered. Waffling, still expecting the car’s owner to show up, he circled around until he stood at the trunk and turned the light onto the emblem. In looping italics, the silver letters read: Chariot V/A. And centered between the tail lights was the make: DODJ. There was no license plate. 

He squatted, reached out and lightly touched the letters. What was crazy was that the E wasn’t missing, or at least, it hadn’t been broken off. The other characters were perfectly centered. They were meant to read that way. Meant to read DODJ. Cast that way at the factory, for a model that never existed. 

“Go back to bed,” he told himself. But goddamn if he wasn’t curious. His right hand fluttered on his jeans nervously. This could be a crime scene, for all he knew. And the owner could show up any second, seriously pissed to find someone messing with his ride. Probably would. On the other hand … he had to take a look, right? Had to. 

He searched for the hood release, found it to the right of the steering wheel. A minute of fumbling with the latch, and then he turned the flashlight on the engine and gaped. 

He could identify nearly nothing in it. In place of the engine block there was a kind of circular hub, six cylinders radiating outward like the spokes of a wheel. Its surface had an iridescent sheen, blue and green dominating. There were no belts, not one. A series of small baffles, what he thought might be air intakes, were arranged around the hub. There was more wiring than he was used to, a lot more. Even the screws he saw were atypical, a star-shaped head predominating. 

“Project car,” he muttered. “Science experiment.” Before he thought too much about it, he turned and opened the driver’s side door. He had to see this thing running.

“Stock,” a deep voice called. His head whipped around. The speaker fell to hands and knees. “Stock. Hell me.” No, no: Stop. Help me.

The guy was clearly hurt. He wore a black studded leather jacket, black shirt and black jeans. He was pressing one hand to his hairless head and bright blood was streaming freely between his fingers. As Mackey looked on he fell to his side, unconscious. 

For a second Mackey debated turning around, going back to the house and calling the cops. Or an ambulance. Then responsibility resumed its course and he lurched forward to help. He was about to kneel when he saw the horns. 

They were about two inches long and projected from high on the forehead. Some kind of costume. Glued to the skin. Or shit, I don’t know, one of those body-altering freakazoids. But he didn’t believe it. There was something about the guy’s bone structure that insisted to Mackey’s gut that this was the way he was made. Then there were the pointed ears. Shocked, he stood back up. 

His eyes drifted back along the road and into the wood, following the trail of disturbed leaves back the way the man — the driver, he assumed — had come. Slowly he followed it, down the ditch and back up again, just off the road. It wasn’t far before he found it.

His first thought was a giant bat, or several giant bats, but really giant. One torn wing must have been twelve, fifteen feet long. Making its total wingspan twenty-five or thirty feet. But there were too many wings, far too many, and they connected to a tentacled octopus-thing the size of a small bear. It was hard to make out what its face had looked like, because its head, such as it was, had been smashed to a gooey purple mess with a tire iron left at the scene. 

Mackey turned, striding on wooden legs, feeling himself in a nightmare, but nightmare or not deciding he didn’t need anything so much as to get the fuck out of here. When he got to the road the driver, the fucking devil-man, was trying to get to his feet again. He turned his head toward Mackey and looked at the mechanic with eyes orange as torches. “Help me,” he said, enunciating each word clearly, though his accent was thick as tar.

“I’m going to get help,” Mackey said.

“Stay and die,” said the driver. “They’re coming.”

He pointed south along the road and Mackey saw an orange light there, long before the dawn. A fire, most likely. But there was a low noise, as well, like a great flock of cawing birds. The driver came to one knee, then with great effort to both feet. 

“What’s coming?” Mackey said. “More of those things?”

The driver nodded, orange eyes fixed on the Chariot, taking slow and careful steps toward the car. One of his arms looked to be broken and his jacket was shredded at the right waist.

“Fuck me,” Mackey said. “But — fuck, man, what are you saying? Where are they coming from? What do they want? I mean, where are you from?”

“No time.” The driver’s side door was still open and the devil clutched the frame as he fell heavily into the seat, groaning in pain. 

“Where are you going?”

“World after world,” the devil said, and closed the door. He glared balefully at Mackey and tilted his head toward the passenger seat. “Last chance. Ride or die.”

“Fuck!” Mackey said, and got in the car. 

Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of A Bonfire in the Belly of the Beast and INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.

Check out Joel’s March Birdy install, Just Another Vortex, in case you missed it or head to our Explore section to see more of his past work.