The Ghost of Red Line Road

The Ghost of Red Line Road

Devon Traeger stared down watching clouds emerge from the darkness beneath her.  She waited for the cream to bubble up in her coffee, and then began to stir until the clouds faded and the brownish black liquid merged into a smooth caramel brown vortex in her generic white coffee mug.  She turned her attention back to her phone which was sitting next to a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast she had not yet touched.

“Everything alright?” chirped a bouncy blonde woman with a well-sprayed mane of hair.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just trying to read some stuff on my phone.  Research,” said Devon. “I’m just moving slow this morning.”

“It’s fine honey.  That’s why God invented coffee.”

“Amen to that.” Devon raised her cup and took a sip.

“My name’s Sadie. You let me know if you need anything,” Sadie the blonde bopped off to help another customer.  Watching her leave, Devon thought she looked like a cross between Dolly Parton and Pamela Anderson Lee. Her jeans were tight, but not too tight, and her blouse fit her shapely figure while still managing to be just shy of inappropriate for her age.

Devon turned away from the counter and looked back across the restaurant.  The diner, Hot Wheels, had a nice crowd for a Saturday morning in the fall.  An even mix of gray-haired semi-retirees, and families of tourists dressed in cheap generic clothing, probably stopping through on the way to somewhere else.

She caught more than half of them staring at her as she waltzed in across the black-and-white checkered floor and sat down on one of the counter seats.  Normally, she would have tucked herself away in a booth. However, she had a long day ahead of her and needed access to a quick and steady supply of caffeine. She figured if she parked herself near the register, there would be no way for the wait staff to ignore her.  

An old man came up beside her and was rung up by a slim brunette who spoke in a mousey voice.  When he was done, she looked over at her and leaned in close. “If you don’t mind me saying, I just love your outfit.”

“Thanks,” Devon replied. “I just kinda threw it together this morning, if I’m being honest.”

Devon touched her red kerchief, which was tied up over her jet-black bangs, both of which popped against her porcelain skin.  She wore a black plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows and tucked neatly into dark blue jeans. Matching the kerchief at her head was a pair of bright red Chuck Taylor All-Stars that were so immaculate, they could have been fresh out of the box.

The front door opened and a bell rang to announce the presence of its newest customer.  He was a handsome man in worn blue jeans and a tight black t-shirt, tucked in to reveal a flat stomach and a well-muscled chest.  From the streaks of gray in his light brown hair and neatly trimmed goatee, Devon guessed this guy to be in his mid to late thirties.  His full head of hair was neatly combed into a modest 50’s style pompadour.

The girl behind the counter perked up and smoothed out her blue and white uniform that looked like something out of the movie Grease.  Devon watched as the new customer walked up to them with a warm smile on his face.

“Mornin’, Marydella!” he said in a baritone voice tinged with a noteworthy Georgia accent.

“Mornin’, Eddie.  Y’all busy down at the museum?” the brunette behind the counter answered.  

“The shop’s got a few customers, but the museum’s pretty quiet at the moment. I’m expecting things will pick up as the day goes on.”

“You want to have a seat?  Your order is almost ready.”

“Thanks,” said Eddie who then turned to look squarely at Devon and then back to Marydella. “Who’s your friend?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Marydella answered with a friendly smile.

“Devon Traeger.  And who might you be?” Devon said an air of mock suspicion, reaching out to shake Eddie’s hand.

“Eddie Wheeler.  Nice to meet you,” he said politely, finishing the shake.

“Well, now that you two are acquainted, I’ll grab your breakfast,” Marydella said excusing herself.

“Where are visiting us from?” Eddie continued.

“Atlanta. Did I hear Marydella say you worked at a museum?” Devon asked.

“Yes, you did,” Eddie said as a grin spread across his face.

“Is that the car museum I read about online?”

“One and the same.”

Devon turned to look outside at the parking lot, lifting off her seat just a bit to see a blue muscle car and turned back. “Is that your 69 Charger out there?”

“As a matter of fact, it is. Just got it up and running.  Was taking her out to stretch her legs this morning.” Eddie said with a hint of pleasant surprise in his voice.  “Would that be your bright red 2016 Charger parked a few spaces away?”

“It would,” said Devon with a Cheshire cat grin.  “I was actually going to come visit your museum after finishing my breakfast.”

“Isn’t this just my lucky day?” Eddie replied cheerfully.

Marydella came back to the counter with a bag and two large cups of coffee in a styrofoam carrier. “Here you go. I made sure to double bag it for you.”

“Thanks, Marydella,” then turned back to Devon.  “Wouldn’t want to go messing up the interior after finally getting this thing up and running.”

“Of course not,” Devon answered.

“When you get to the museum, ask for Eddie.  I’ll personally give you the tour.”

“Will do.”

Eddie paid for his breakfast and made his way to the door, flashing Devon with one more smile before making his exit.  As Marydella stood silently behind the counter on the other side of Devon, Sadie came up beside her.

“Oh honey, you are in so much trouble,” Sadie said through a wry smile.

Devon just laughed and returned to her food.  “That is not what I came here for.”

“That may not have been where you were headed, but there’s nothing wrong with making a little detour,” Sadie said looking at Marydella.

“Have either of you ever…?” Devon said, throwing a suspicious look back at her two inquisitors.

“Oh no!” Marydella said, quickly shrinking as if she didn’t want to be seen.

“Please,” Sadie snorted “I don’t date locally.”

Devon pressed on. “Let me guess.  He’s the redneck prince of this little area.  Probably bedded half the single women in northwest Georgia.  Maybe even a few married ones?”

“I don’t know about all that, baby girl,” Sadie replied, “but as long as I’ve known that man…”

“And it’s been a while,” Marydella mock-whispered to Devon.

“Oh hush!” Sadie said playfully swatting at Marydella. “He has never wanted for female attention.  And the cherry on top of that sundae is: he’s actually a nice guy. Don’t tell him I said that.”

“It’ll be our little secret,” Devon said shoveling a fork full of scrambled eggs into her mouth.

* * *

Spread out across a bed in a modest hotel room, were a camcorder,  four GoPro cameras, a microphone, some batteries, some wires, and equipment to rig the cameras onto the windows of the Charger.  Devon took a mental inventory, then packed everything neatly back into the only bag she brought with her, if you didn’t count her purse.  

After stashing the bag in the closet, she walked over the window and drew back the curtains. By sheer dumb luck, she had managed to book a room with a view of the river.  On the other side of it, was the fairgrounds, where tents, booths and rides were laid out to form a merry labyrinth for visitors to stroll through. Just beyond it all, she could see a large metal structure attached to a smaller brick building.  According to the map she grabbed at the front desk before checking in, this was her next stop: Wheeler’s Auto Shop and Museum.

* * *

Devon approached what she thought of as the structural equivalent of a mullet.  The Wheeler establishment was business up front, with the full-service garage featuring multiple bays, an office, and a healthy waiting room.  In the back, where the party was, stood the museum. There was a seating area out front where people sipped drinks from red solo cups. Letting her eyes drift over a nearby table,  she guessed the beverage menu consisted of lemonade and Coca-Cola based on the colors of the liquid and the assumption that this small town family establishment would not be spending an abundance of money on refreshments.

Just inside the front door, she was greeted by a quaint gift shop, selling T-shirts in different colors featuring the silkscreened Wheeler logo, which consisted of a muscle car with the words “Wheeler Auto Museum” forming a circle around it. There was also a case for small model cars of various makes and models, mostly famous classics like the VW Beetles, Corvettes, 60’s Mustangs, and black 80’s Trans Ams, complete with the golden firebird painted on the hood. They even had old 50’s Chevy’s with tailfins.   

Just past the gift shop, a line of more than a dozen people were formed in front of the next room.  Selling tickets to the museum was a thin girl with sandy blonde hair who Devon guessed was in her teens judging by her impossibly skinny build and how she appeared to be unbearably bored as only a teenager could be.  The tickets were only three dollars. Devon politely slid past the line, and walked up to the attendant, who wore a Wheeler t-shirt.

“I’m here to see Eddie Wheeler,” Devon said.

“You lookin’ for Eddie Jr. or Big Ed?” she replied.

“I didn’t know there was more than one,” Devon answered starting to wonder if her invitation was legit.

“It’s okay, Fiona.  She’s with me.” Eddie Wheeler emerged from what appeared to be an  office and walked quickly up beside the attendant. “This is my friend from out of town. You can let her in.”

A curious smirk twisted onto the girl’s face as she motioned to Devon to come onto the showroom floor.  With a single cocked eyebrow and a smile that looked like an accusation, the young Fiona looked to Eddie, who sneered back at her, as Devon walked over to him.

“What’s that about?” Devon asked.

“Just my niece being snotty,” Eddie answered. “So! Welcome to Wheeler’s Auto Shop and Museum!”

Devon looked around at the cavernous space and quickly understood why they charged admission. Inside a garage that looked to be at least half the size of football field, rested some of the most beautiful cars she’d ever seen.  In the front it all, was the exact ‘57 Chevy, on which the model in the toy case was based. It was a pristine seafoam green with gleaming whitewall tires.

Eddie watched as a smile erupted on Devon’s face.  “Ain’t she gorgeous?”

She walked around to the side of the car and gazed lovingly into it.  The inside was just as immaculate as the outside, with leather seats so clean you could eat off of them, and instruments polished to a high shine.  

“Oh, but there’s more…” Eddie said, leaning down beside her.  “Follow me.”

Devon stood up and looked as her handsome guide motioned to the next car. “1970 Corvette Stingray, right?”

“Yes, it is,” Eddie said as a smile slowly spread across his face.

“And is that a ‘57 Studebaker?” Devon said, not really asking so much as verifying.

“Be still, my beating heart,” Eddie beamed back at her. “You sound like a lady who knows her cars.”

“I know some of the cool ones.” Devon smiled proudly as she continued on down the aisle. “Where do you even find these?”

“We track ‘em down on the internet.  Go to car shows. Buy ‘em, fix ‘em up, and sell them to very wealthy people who like them as much as we do.”

“Sounds like a fun job.”

“Beats diggin’ ditches.”

As they walked on past a few more cars, they came upon two burly men, one tall and one short, both wearing short sleeve button-up shirts, staring at a beautiful old truck. The tall one, who appeared to be in his late sixties, was clean-shaven with a full mane of silver hair combed straight back. His shirt was teal and had the Wheeler logo on it. Next to him, the shorter man had a long salt-and-pepper beard that stood out against the black shirt he wore over black pants and black shoes.  Devon couldn’t determine how old he was but guessed he was middle-aged.

“My goodness! Aren’t you a vision? Like you just stepped out of an old movie” the older man in the teal shirt said to Devon as she approached.  

“Why, thank you,” Devon said with an sudden air of bashfulness that overtook her previous cocksure swagger.

“Gentlemen,” Eddie spoke, “this is Devon Traeger.  She’s visiting from Atlanta.”

Before Eddie could continue, the tall man jumped in “How do you do?  I’m Eddie’s father, Ed Senior. Most folks around here call me Big Ed.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Devon smiled as she looked up at her guide’s father.  At five feet, nine inches tall, she wasn’t in the habit of craning her head to look eye to eye with anyone, but this gentleman had to be at least 6’3” or 6’4”.

“Ha! This fella over here doing his best Johnny Cash impersonation is Sam Blaylock.” Big Ed motioned to Sam, who gave a respectful nod in Devon’s direction.  “He’s our local blacksmith. When he’s not making medieval weapons and custom parts for the bikers around here, he helps us make parts we can’t find for the restorations you see before you.”

“That’s pretty cool!” Devon exclaimed.  “You gotta place where I can see more of your stuff?”

“I’m actually going from here to the fairgrounds.  I’m setting up a booth,” Sam said in a cheerful growl.

“Before we send you off to the fairgrounds, how ‘bout I cut in and continue the tour of the place.  It is my place after all,” Big Ed remarked, bending his arm outwards toward the lady.

“So you mean to tell me that you’re the boss around here, and not him?” she said playfully.

“That’s right, I’m the king.  He’s just the prince, for now.”

“Well then…” Devon took Big Ed’s arm and walked with him further down the aisles, throwing a wink and a devilish smile in Eddie Jr’s direction as she departed.

Eddie just shook his head and smiled, then looked back to Sam and laughed.

“He does that a lot, doesn’t he,” the blacksmith said.

Eddie gazed at Devon as she smiled back over her shoulder at him.  “Only about once a week. Why do you think he’s on his third marriage?”

Ed Sr. escorted the rockabilly beauty through the shop, spooning out stories for each car like dollops of cool whip cream on a warm piece of pie. He did so with an almost musical Southern twang that had been perfectly aged by a lifetime of sipping whiskey.  A gentleman of the Old School through and through.

There were even a few old buggies that looked like they had come out of a John Wayne movie.  The senior Wheeler led her to a black one that read: “Ambulance/Hearse.”

“Don’t know why, but I always thought this was funny as hell,” Big Ed remarked, trying not to chuckle in case his guest didn’t see the morbid humor in it.

“You gotta admire the honesty of it.” Devon grinned back at her burly guide.

“It’s like they’re saying ‘we might get here in time, we might not. Either way, you’re coming with us.’”

They both laughed.

After a beat, Big Ed continued “So what brings you to our quaint little town?  It couldn’t just be for the cars.”

“Well, you do have quite a collection, Big Ed.”

“I’m certainly glad you think so.”

“I actually found out about the town online. You guys have quite the checkered history from what I’ve read.”

“You most definitely can say that.”

“I’m guessing you’ve been here for a while. Why do you think that is?”

“Well darlin’, let’s say we’re just close enough to the big cities in the area to be accessible, but also far enough away not to garner the prying eyes of the authorities and the media.  This is a lovely town. It’s why I live here...as you might suspect. But if you stray too far out onto the fringes by yourself at the wrong time, bad things can happen. So you be careful out there.”

As they came back to the front of the building, Big Ed stopped by a framed photo on a nearby wall and pointed it out to his guest.   In the old color photograph were three people, one of which looked like a youthful swaggering version of Ed Sr.

“Is that you as a young man?” Devon asked with amusement.

“Yes, it is,” he answered, the cheerful tone leaving his voice.

“Who are those people with you?”

“One is my younger brother, and the other was my baby sister.”

“Oh,” Devon replied, looking closely at a young woman with short hair who was very pretty, even though she seemed to be wearing very little makeup, if any.

“Let me guess...you weren’t quite sure she was a girl,” said Big Ed with a tone that sounded like a soft accusation.

“Oh, no...she’s very pretty.” Fearing she had given some offense, Devon searched for something to say to ease the tension.

“It’s okay.  And thank you.”

A wave of relief poured over Devon and she found her focus. “You said ‘was,’ if I heard you correctly.”

“Yes, you did,” Big Ed continued in a somber tone. “You know that tomboy phase a lot of girls go through when they’re little?  Well, she never really grew out of it. My mama, and...hell, the whole town really, was always tryin’ to get her to act more ‘ladylike’ as they used to say, but she just wasn’t for it.”

“Marched to the beat of her own drum, eh?” Devon replied sympathetically.

“Proudly.  Defiantly, even,” Big Ed continued as he stared at the photo. “And she loved cars.  God, did she love cars! She could’ve taken any one of these things in here apart and put it back together from scratch.”  

Devon watched as Big Ed’s mind drifted to another place. She realized she was forgetting the rest of the visitors coming and going around them as he continued.

“Cassandra. That was her name.  We called her Cassie. She was an intrepid little thing.  Downright fearless. She used to like to go out to this place on the edge of town where the road gets long and straight and flat.”

“Wheeler Road.  Named after your family right?”

“So you’ve heard of it.”

“Yeah.”

“Then you may have heard, nobody here calls it that.  Us locals call that road, particularly that section of it, Red Line Road. Cassie used to like to go out there back in the day.  Probably when she wasn’t even as old as you. And she liked to race some of the local boys and out-of-towners. She was pretty good at it too.   But one night, she went out there without me or her brother, and she didn’t come back.”

“What happened?”

“We don’t know if she lost control of her car, or if she got run off the road, but I guess in the end it doesn’t matter.  They found her car wrapped around a tree and her in it. Or what was left of her.”

“I’m so sorry,” Devon said softly.

Big Ed caught himself and seemed to snap back to the present.  “Oh man, I don’t know what came over me.”

“It’s okay. Really,” Devon replied as she put a hand on his shoulder.  

“I’m sorry, this was supposed to be a friendly tour.  I guess something about you reminded me of her,” the older man said blinking back the water in his eyes. “Just promise me if you go out to the edge of town tonight, you go with someone you trust.”

“If I do, I will. Promise.”  

About that time, Eddie Jr. came sauntering over to them.  “So is he done bothering you?”

“Bothering?  Please, boy. I’m entertaining,” the elder Wheeler exclaimed.

“Yes!” Devon chimed in.  “I found his tour to be highly informative.”

“Well, I’ll let you run on your merry way now,” Big Ed spoke in a formal tone. “Have a good time out there and come back and see us.”

“Will do, Big Ed,” Devon said with a smile.

Sam Blaylock stood a few steps behind Eddie, standing almost in military rest.

Devon reached out to shake the blacksmiths’ hand. “Let me guess, former U.S. Navy?”

“Eight years,” Blaylock said. “How’d you know?”

“My dad was a sailor,” Devon answered “You two carry yourselves in a similar way. Well, that and the anchor tattooed to the inside of your forearm.”  

“Very perceptive,” Blaylock said. He then turned to Eddie, “I didn’t think you liked the smart ones, Junior.”

“Anybody ever tell you, you look like a hipster Popeye?” Eddie quipped.

“Don’t make me cut the brakes to your car,” Blaylock growled.

“Please, not yet,” Devon interrupted.  “I was gonna ask him to take me to lunch. I was gonna ask you Mr. Blaylock, but if that ring on your finger is any indication, your wife might not approve.”

“Probably not,” said the blacksmith.  

“Now gentlemen...if you’ll excuse us,” Eddie said extending his arm.  

Devon took his arm and looked back to Sam and Big Ed. “Bye, fellas.  It was nice meeting you. Big Ed, you gotta great place here.”

“Thanks, darlin’,” the elder Wheeler replied.

Eddie Jr. and Devon made their way back to the front, leaving Sam alone with Big Ed. When the young man and woman were out of earshot, the blacksmith turned to the older man.

“He’s in trouble, isn’t he.”

Big Ed looked after his son and smiled. “Big trouble. The best kind.”

* * *

Devon held a knife in her hand by the blade.  After measuring carefully, she let it fly. The dull blade tumbled end over end and landed with a loud thunk against a wooden target about fifteen feet away.  

After taking a brief tour of the local fairgrounds, Devon and Eddie found their way to the knife throwing booth, next to a booth showcasing some locally made knives.  The “throwers,” as the guy running the booth called them, were dull but had just enough edge to stick into the soft wooden target with a bright red circle painted on for the bullseye.  Eddie had gone first and sank all three of his knives into the circle, making out an uneven triangle with them.

“Your form isn’t half bad,” Eddie said, “but you shouldn’t be trying to spin it like that.”

“Thanks, I think,” Devon said grabbing her second knife.  “So, what do you guys do for fun around here when you’re not hustling your arts and crafts to the tourists?” Devon queried with her blade raised.  She let the blade fly and it landed at an odd angle on the board, stuck in the target for a few seconds, then sagged and fell out.

“What do you mean?” Eddie answered.

“I mean like...at night?  Away from all this?” Devon took the third knife in her right hand and tried to find a grip that felt suitable for throwing.

“That could be a loaded question. You mind if I give you some pointers?” Eddie said, flashing a grin as he approached her.  

He came up behind her and took her right hand with his and put his left hand on her waist.  

“Alright. So take the knife and pinch it at the handle between your thumb and the last three fingers on your hand.”  He slid her fingers into position with his and used his thumb to guide hers where he wanted it to be.

“Is this how you get the girls?  Show ‘em your knife throwing technique?” Devon said looking over her shoulder back at Eddie.

“Only the cool ones,” he answered.  “Now, place your index finger along the spine.”

“I’ve heard if you’ve got a fast car, there’s a place in town where you can ‘open her up a bit.’” Devon placed her finger along the spine of the handle, just below the blade.

“Did you now?  And where did you hear that?”  Eddie said looking around. They were the only ones at the booth, except for the guy running it.

“Thought I heard a few guys at the diner this morning talking about going out to the edge of town to see what their cars could do.”

“All I saw when I came in this morning were a bunch old retirees and families. And this rather stunning rockabilly girl sitting all by her lonesome without anybody near her except the cash register.”

“Aw, shucks.  Those guys left before you showed up.  They talked about meeting up at the Crimson River Cafe, I believe that’s what they called it.”

“Hmmm.” Eddie said.  He gave Devon’s arm a gentle nudge upward. “May I?”

“Sure,” she answered.

“So just like you were doing before, but with control, let your arm come down, and let the knife go just before you get to where you’re pointing right at your target.” Eddie pulled Devon’s arm into throwing position.  “Now I’m gonna step back. You keep the tension in your waist and let it fly.”

Eddie walked back to give Devon some room as she held the knife confidently.

“I heard one of those guys say they needed to order a beer in a bottle and pull the label off to let you know they’re down to race.”

Devon hurled her knife forward sticking firmly at the edge of the red circle.  She then turned back around to Eddie who started clapping.

“I don’t know what bulletin board on the internet you got that from but points for doing your homework,” he said with a grin. “We stopped doing that a few years back.”

“You can’t blame a girl for trying.”

“Nowadays, if someone was so inclined, they’d just drive down Main Street at sunset and they’d see a man on the side of the road next to a pathway through the woods.  If you’ve made a few friends in the right places, you will proceed to slow down and ask him “How fast were you going?”

“Nice,” Devon said with her eyes focusing on Eddie with an eerie predatory calm.

“The same gentleman will then tell you to follow that pathway to where you will see me, and anyone else down for the fun, waiting for you by Red Line Road.  It’s the long straight part of Wheeler Road.”

“And what’s this I hear about a ghost?” Devon said stepping toward Eddie.

Eddie stood his ground. “I’ve never seen it myself, but some folks have said if you’re out there on that road late at night by yourself, you might see a pair of headlights coming up on ya super fast in your rearview.  Most folks freak out and run off the road. Afterward, they’ll look back toward the road and see nothing there.”

“Anybody got an idea as to who this ghost might be?”  Devon said as she came up beside Eddie.

“No telling.  That road has claimed more than its share of souls going all the way back to the bootleggin’ days.”

“How is it that you guys can have these races out there regularly enough for me to know about it and not be getting busted?”

“Let's just say we have an understanding with the local police force.  They may not interfere, but if anything happens to go wrong, their response time would be shockingly fast.”

“Fascinating.”

“Well I guess this concludes our afternoon together,” Eddie said.  “I’ve got to go take care of some business.”

“Aww,” Devon made a mock pouty face which morphed into a smile after a few seconds.

“If you feel the need for speed, you can meet me out at the Crimson River Cafe just before sunset,” Eddie said smiling back at her as he started to walk away.

“But I thought you said that you guys didn’t do that anymore?”

“We still meet up there, we just don’t do the beer bottle thing. I wanted to see how you’d react.”

“How’d I do?”

“You still got the invitation, didn't you?”  Eddie winked at Devon, turned, and walked away, striding across the field with a carefree swagger.

When Eddie was out of site, Devon reached down and grabbed her small purse, which was laying on the opposite side of the booth from the attendant.

“Three more knives please,” she said firmly. She came out with a five dollar bill and handed it to the gentlemen, as she took the knives from his hand.  

After he stepped back, Devon grabbed the first blade with confidence and hurled it at the target. And then the second.  And then the third. All three knives rested in the red circle in a near perfect straight line.

* * *

Just behind the mountains, the sun simmered and warmed the sky from its cool blue to a fiery pink.  The fairgrounds were awash in a golden glow specked by dark shadows from the tents and rides. Fairground lights began to turn on, creating a dizzying array of life on the other side of the river.  

Sitting a plastic chair on her tiny balcony, Devon watched the scene unfold in front of her, trying not to think of the task before her. Her cell phone buzzed on the small table next to her.  She reached down and clicked on the green button, then held it to her ear.

“Hello, Ms. Traeger.  Are you enjoying your time in Garfield’s Crossing?”  The voice was flat, formal, and business-like.

“I am.  Everything is going as planned,” Devon responded in an equally measured tone.

“Excellent.  Are you ready for tonight?” the voice continued.

“As ready as I can be.  You did say no one has ever died doing this right?”  Devon pressed gently.

“We’ve had an accident or two, and more than a few non-events, but there have been zero deaths, Ms. Traeger.”

“Well, that’s good to know.”

“You wouldn’t be the first person to back out of this assignment.  If you fail, you probably won’t be the last.”

“Provided the other party is cooperative, I’ll do my best to hold up my end of the bargain,” Devon said trying to disguise the uncertainty in her voice.

“Outstanding. Should you pull this off, you could become a valuable member of our group. Well, I’m sure Mr. Wheeler is convening this evening’s participants at the cafe.  You’d best run along and catch them before they head out,” the voice said. “Goodbye, Ms. Traeger. And good luck.”

“Thanks,” before Devon finished the word, the line went dead.

Tucking her phone in her pocket, the young woman took one last look over the horizon, then went back inside, checked her clothes and her makeup, grabbed the bag full of equipment and headed out the door.

* * *

A modest crowd had gathered on the porch of the Crimson River Cafe.  It was a rogue’s gallery of gray-haired men in colorful bowling shirts, younger men wearing lots of black with tattoos and piercings, and a few normal looking fellows with rings and watches that suggested they may have far more money than their modest clothing suggested. A few women were scattered in the group, some that looked like they were here of their own accord, and the others were accompanied by some of the other men. Devon felt as if she was walking through a car show in the parking lot as she approached.  

A short  lady with leathery skin and bleach-blond hair trimmed into a curtain-cut stopped Devon as she got close.  The woman wore a tank top to reveal muscular arms decorated by faded tattoos. She raised her arms and spoke in a husky soprano coarsened by a thick Georgia accent. “This is a private party, honey.”

“I’m here to meet Eddie,” Devon replied.

Eddie looked back to see her and quickly made his way over. “It’s okay, Paula. You can let her through.”

Paula stepped back and made a gesture like an usher showing a customer to their seat.  Devon walked by her and up to Eddie.

“You came just in time, we’re about to leave.  You want to ride with me, or are you bringing your Charger?” he asked.

“Bringing my Charger, of course,” Devon said with a raised eyebrow.

“Alright.  Why don’t you come meet some of the folks?” Eddie smiled, leading her over to the rest of the crowd.

After a few minutes shaking hands and exchanging names, Devon had gotten acquainted with who came from where and who drove what.  Soon thereafter, they paid their tabs and went back out into the parking lot. A parade of cars rumbled out of the parking lot and then roared westward out into the night.

* * *

Eddie Wheeler Jr. stood in front of the small crowd in the center of the road.  Headlights from a few of the nearby cars cast a ruthless glow on him as he began to speak.  “Since we have a few newcomers, or just in case you forgot, these are rules of Red Line Road.”

Devon leaned against her car and looked around at the rest of the group who had all trained their unflinching eyes on Eddie, who continued, “All bets will be honored here.  If you lose, you pay. Whether it’s your car or your money.  Once you shake hands or put your money in the pot, it’s a done deal.  You don’t have to race, but if you do, know this: If you crash, or run off the road, we will not go out of our way to save you.  We will call you a tow truck and or an ambulance, but we will not be rushing to help you. And if you talk to the cops and they come to talk to me, I’ve never seen you before in my goddamned life.” The crowd laughed.

Eddie went on “So if you don’t want to lose your money, keep it in your pocket.  If you don’t want to lose your vehicle, keep your pink slip to yourself. And if you are not certain you can handle your vehicle at a high rate of speed, you best keep it in park.”

This line was greeted with silence.  Eddie let the quiet hang in the air for a moment.  As a devilish grin spread across his face, he said, “so...we got any brave souls out here tonight?”

* * *

A middle-aged man with short graying hair sat in his silver Camaro parked on one lane of a small two-lane highway. On the other side of the yellow line, a young man with a mohawk anxiously gripped the wheel of a metallic blue Subaru WRX with a large spoiler.  Their cars were pulled up evenly to a white line spray-painted across the road. In front of them was a long straight stretch of highway.

Not too far behind them, a pair of large trucks blocked the road to intercept any cars that might be coming in from out of town. Down the road, in front of the two racers, cars and tall trucks were parked in the open area that lined either side of the highway.  The vehicles were aimed in the same direction as the racers but angled diagonally at the road, shining their headlights back toward the highway to make up for the lack street lights in the area. There was only a quarter moon out that night and the faint glow coming from the fairgrounds which were too far away to be any threat or any use.  

About a mile down the road, where Eddie had given his speech, he and Devon had crawled up on a nearby billboard facing back down the road.  Devon wondered why a seemingly quiet stretch of road would have so many billboards and such an abundance of space on either side of the highway.  Eddie explained that somebody was always trying to develop something out here and they cleared the sides of the road accordingly, but for one reason or another it never seemed to happen.  There were a few cottages going back towards town that got rented out and the town graveyard rested on the west side of the river, between this road and train tracks that the locals lovingly call the “Nowhere Line,” but never any businesses or stores.  A loose cluster of houses were down at the other end of the road headed out of town, but even most of those folks didn’t like coming down this way too late at night if they didn’t have to. The numerous billboards were a way for the town to make money and provided a convenient vantage point to watch the races toward the end.  In various stages down the road, other people sat on the cars and trucks that were lighting the highway.

Back at the starting line, Paula held a walkie-talkie to her ear and a voice crackled through it, “Whenever you’re ready.”  She then lumbered up near the edge of the road from a nearby car parked a few feet in front of the starting line. She stood in its headlights holding a flag.  Turning back to face the racers, she raised it up and the two men began revving their engines.

“Here we go,” Eddie said to Devon, motioning back down the road with his walkie-talkie. Standing beside him, she clutched a large envelope, filled with cash.  She had carefully counted it and arranged it for easy access.

Paula let the engines build to a respectable roar, then brought the flag down.  Both cars screeched off the starting line and rocketed down the two-lane highway.  Just underneath the menacing growl of the approaching vehicles, Devon could hear people cheering, and the pitch of the engines getting higher as they drew closer.  

As the cars came into view the silver Camaro lagged slightly behind the blue Subaru.  Suddenly the Subura swerved ever so slightly.

“There it is!” Eddie exclaimed.

The silver Camaro found another gear and pulled ahead of the blue Subaru passing him in time to cross the finish line first.

“The kid had the car.  He just didn’t have the nerve,” Eddie said looking back to Devon.  “Come on, let’s go.”

Everyone on the nearby billboards crawled down and greeted the two competitors.  The old man in the Camaro climbed out of his vehicle and walked over to the kid in the Subaru.  The silver-haired man shook the kid’s hand and turned back to Eddie as he approached, motioning to Devon who handed him a stack of dollars bills from the envelope.

“You’re gonna lose that car someday, Manny!” Eddie said, slapping the money into the older man’s palm.

“Maybe. But not today!” Manny said with a hearty laugh.  

As Manny pocketed the money, Devon couldn’t help but ask, “You sure you don’t want to count the money?”

“It’s alright madam. I’ve known Eddie for a while now and he’s never shortchanged me.  For a scoundrel, he’s a pretty honest fella.”

“That’s a glowing recommendation if ever I heard one,” Devon said smiling back at Eddie.

Blowing off the compliment, Eddie walked over to the young man in the blue Subaru. “Don’t worry kid. You’ll get ‘em next time.”

The kid grunted and looked away. “Whatever, man.  I keep going back down this road, I go back into town right?”

“Yeah.  Just don’t go too fast after you get past our little roadblock.  Especially not by the cemetery.”

“Gotcha,” the young man said, giving Eddie a nod, then pulling away and driving off into the night.

“Think he’ll be back?” Devon asked.

“Can’t say,” Eddie replied.  “He’s just lucky Manny only took his money and not his car.”

“I’ve never been into Japanese cars anyway.  Nothin’ against ‘em, just not my style,” Manny said with a shrug.  

“Manny, if you’re staying, you can hang out with us,” Eddie said to his friend.  As people cleared away from the winner, running back to their cars and billboards, he walked back to his perch and unclipped his radio, held it up and spoke, “Next!”

In the distance, a pair of engines began to rev.

* * *

When the last of the four races was over, the crowd gathered and hung out for a brief time, talking cars and racing, then eventually scattered back out into the night, leaving only Eddie and Devon standing out on the side of the road.

Watching the last of the cars drive off, Eddie inquired, “So where are you gonna be off to, Ms. Devon?”

“I think I might hang around here just a bit longer,” she said.

“Why?  You hoping to see the ghost or something?”

“Maybe.”

“Are you serious?” Eddie gave Devon a look that shifted from disbelief to curiosity.

“What if I am?” Devon returning a look of defiance back to her companion.

“Is that what you really came here for?” Eddie said stepping closer, trying to look her in the eyes.

Devon smiled and looked away briefly.  Turning back to the handsome gentleman in front of her she said, “I looked you up you know?”

“Let me guess, you tried to cyberstalk me properly.  Like an internet date.”

“Yep.  Checked out your website for the auto museum.  Your personal Facebook and Instagram accounts are private and you don’t do Twitter, except for the account for the museum, not that I blame you on that one.”

“So not only did you look into the rumors about the races, you also looked into me,” Eddie went on.  “I don’t know whether to be hurt or flattered.”

“I gotta tip you might be the ringleader,” Devon said.

“Is that right?” Eddie said, coming closer. “And who might that tip have come from?”

“I really shouldn’t say.”

“Well, I know it’s not law enforcement.  If it was, you’d have called them in already.”

“Definitely not law enforcement, and it sounds like you have them handled anyway. Let’s just say they have an interest in the supernatural.”

“Like ghost-hunters?”

“Something like that, but bigger. And more serious.”

“More serious, huh?” Eddie laughed.  “You are just full of surprises. Here I was thinking we were just having a lovely day, and this whole time, I’m just getting played.  And not just getting played, getting played by a girl who’s trying get in some secret ghost-hunter society.”

“I admit, I may have had ulterior motives, but I did have a great time.  So much so I wouldn’t mind coming back. If that’s alright?” She moved in close to Eddie.

“Honey, if you’re not careful, you’re not gonna get to leave in order to come back.  How important is this group really? Are they worth risking your life for?”

“Maybe?”  Devon said with a twinge of sadness.

“I don’t get it.  Why?” Eddie said with a pained expression.

“Because this is a chance for a new life. You never asked what I did for a job.”

“So? I didn’t think it mattered.”

“I work in accounting, and auditing.  I spend my days counting other people’s money and even though it pays well, it’s not the most fulfilling thing a person can do.  And if I get with this group, it opens up a whole new world for me. Something, maybe with meaning.”

“Meaning?”

“Yes! Meaning!  Not all of us get to do what we love, working for ourselves and collect awesome cars in a town where everyone knows us and worships us.  Some of us, live in big cities, where no one knows us or cares about us. Some of us work in gray offices, buried in a cubicle, dying a little bit every day.”  

Eddie’s face once again shifted to a look of disbelief.  “You mean to tell me a pretty girl like you can’t find a good time in the big city?”

Devon snorted and shook her head.  “I mean sure...I could go out to clubs and meet random people and hook up and all that, but it’s really not my style.  And all my friends have moved away or have gotten married and are having kids, and…”

“And why can’t you do that?”  Eddie interrupted.

“My mother always said never settle. At least not in love. You can settle in a job if you find a place that pays well and treats you okay but never settle in a relationship.  That’s a recipe for a miserable life, she always said.”

“Sounds like she was speaking from experience,” Eddie replied.

“Yeah.  My Dad left her for a younger woman not long after I went to college, and she was just never the same.”

Eddie almost laughed to himself. “Funny, my Dad seems to trade in his wives and girlfriends every few years, until he just got too damn old.  Now, he’s with some lady who’s fairly good-looking for her age, but is probably only with him, thinking she’s gonna get some kinda fortune, not realizing he’s already lost most of it.  He still owns his house and part of the shop. If you saw what he had saved for retirement, you’d cry. Hell! If I wasn’t around to run the business for him, I’m not sure what he would do.”

“So that’s it, isn’t it?” Devon said, smiling.

Eddie furrowed his brow and leaned in. “What’s it?”

“Ya know, the lady at the diner this morning said ‘that boy has never wanted for female attention’” she said doing her best imitation of Sadie.

“I’m not even sure what to say to that,” Eddie said with a shrug.

“You’re not supposed to know this, but she actually thinks you’re a nice guy.”

Eddie drew close, standing close enough to put his arms around her.  “That’s nice. But what do you think?”

“I actually like nice guys,” Devon said leaning forward.

The world stopped as Eddie Wheeler and Devon Traeger exchanged a long kiss on the side of Red Line Road.  After a few moments, Eddie pulled away and spoke, “Come on, let’s go.”

“Go? Go where?” Devon asked.

“Your place. My place.  Any place that’s not here,” Eddie said giving her a playful pull.

Stepping back, Devon looked suspiciously at him. “You really don’t like it out here do you?”

“No, I don’t.  Do you know how many people have died on this road?”

“More than a few from what I’ve heard and read.”

“Well, whatever you read was probably a conservative estimate.”

“Look, if you want to go, you can go.  I’ll be okay. I promise,” Devon said putting a hand on Eddie’s cheek.

“You’re not gonna be talked out of this are you.”  He reached into his back pocket and came out with a case full of business cards.  He removed one of them and handed it to her. “That’s got my cell phone on it. Promise me, you’ll call me when you're done.”

“I will,” Devon said.  

Eddie gave her one more passionate kiss and pulled away again.  “Just in case,” he said.

Devon said nothing, and just held up his card and put it in her shirt pocket, and gave it a pat.

Getting into his car, Eddie looked back at her one more time and drove off into the night.

* * *

After setting up the camera and microphones pointed in all directions in her car, Devon drove back out to the place where the cars started their races.  Thick forest lay beyond the large patch of empty area on the sides of the road where fog gathered and reflected the sparse moonlight.

Devon checked her cell phone, noting the time.  It was well past midnight, and the highway had become very dark without the cars to illuminate it.  She was thankful that she remembered to bring a battery-powered lantern to help her see what she was doing when she set up the equipment.

She sat in the darkness, and revved the engine as if it were some signal. Staring into a long black path lit only by a few widely scattered street lamps and a quarter moon, she put her foot on the gas and pressed it down.

The car roared off the line and hurtled down the long stretch of highway.  Devon checked her side mirrors and her rearview, but she saw nothing. She reached the end of the path where the cars had raced, and she was once again all alone.  

She went back to the starting line again, repeated the run, a little faster this time, but still nothing.  This time at the finish line she waited. The isolation and the dark began to sink in and a jolt of fear made her shiver.  She could see why nobody liked coming out here at this time of night. If death was nothing but inky blackness, this would be the road it lived on.  Just to be thorough, she thought she’d tried one more time.

Again, she revved her engine, waited for a moment, and launched herself down the road, picking up speed until the headlights on the trees nearby looked like a strobe.  About halfway to the finish, Devon began to feel her task was fruitless, and began longing just to go home. She turned her attention away from her rearview and side mirrors to focus on the road.  And that’s when she saw headlights coming up behind her.

Devon stepped on the gas and swerved to the left as a vehicle came bearing down on her at terrifying speed, anticipating it was about to crash into her.  Determined to not to run off the road, she held the wheel steady and rode in the left-hand lane. Looking to her right, she saw what she guessed to be a late 60’s Mustang keeping pace right beside her.  

She stepped on the accelerator, trying to pass the older car, but it remained at her side.  Devon stared into the vehicle to see someone with a jean jacket and short mop of hair smiling back. Fear sent a wave of adrenaline through her and she put the gas pedal to the floor.  The car next to her would not go away.

Faster and faster, they plowed headlong into the blackness getting closer and closer to town.  There was no more roadblock, no one to help her, and Devon Traeger was roaring down the dark highway at well over one hundred miles an hour.  What little she could see off to the side of the roads, had turned into a blur. There was only the path ahead, and she prayed nothing was coming in her direction.  The only way out was through. Bearing down on the gas, she screamed and held the wheel steady. Beside her, the white car suddenly began to emit a ghostly blue glow.  Flames erupted from the back of the Mustang and suddenly it disappeared from sight.

Devon swerved back into the right-hand lane and let her foot off the gas.  Her heart was beating out of her chest, as she finally began to put on the brakes, bringing the car to an almost neck-breaking stop.  

She looked around frantically and saw no one.  Not far up ahead the road began to bend again and she could see the faint outline of what looked to be cottages in the distance. She pulled off the road and stepped out of the car, trying to catch her breath as the adrenaline worked its way through her system.

Once again, she heard an engine, and the white Mustang pulled up behind her.  A figure got out revealing itself to be a woman with short hair and a blue jean jacket.  As the moonlight caught her face, Devon recognized it from the photo hanging in the auto museum.

“Helluva race, darling,” the figure said.

“Thanks. I think,” Devon replied.

“You come through town often?” the young woman asked.  Her face was attractive, with an almost boyish quality and the same bright smile that had accompanied her through town and walked Devon around the path of antique cars.

“Nah. I’m just visiting,” Devon answered, with her body reeling from some odd mix of fear and utter disbelief.

“That’s a nice car you got there.  I don’t really recognize the make or model,” the young woman said.

“It’s a newer model,”  Devon said beginning to regain her composure. “Uh...you from around here?”

“Yeah.  The name’s Cassie.”

Devon could no longer speak.

“Well, you take care.  I gotta get back into town.  My brothers are waiting on me back at the shop.  I’m supposed to bring this thing in to get looked at.  Sounds a little funny when I let her out. Not sure what’s wrong with it.”

“Is that right?” Devon somehow managed to utter the words.

“Both of them are mechanics. If they can’t fix it, no one can.  See you around,” Cassie said.

Devon searched for more words, but all that came out was “Yeah.  Take care.”

Cassie smiled at Devon, patted the top of her car and got in.  Her car roared to life and carried her out of sight, leaving nothing but the sound of the engine to fill the darkness.

When the silence returned, Devon quickly grabbed the camera facing in the direction of her conversation and checked the footage.  She watched for a moment, and then pulled out her phone and dialed.

The same voice from earlier that evening answered. “Yes, Ms. Traeger?”

Devon steadied her breathing and spoke with confidence. “I’ve got something you’re gonna want to see.”

* * *

Eddie Wheeler Jr. and his father arrived at the Auto Museum to take advantage of the early morning quiet to take care of some business before they opened the doors around noon to let the customers in.  The son wore a lightweight grey weatherproof jacket, while the father had gone straight for black leather.

Eddie Jr. gave Big Ed a look up and down. “Don’t you think it’s a little early for that jacket?”

“It’s never too early for black leather, if you’re tough enough,” Big Ed replied, giving his garment a tug to straighten it out.

Junior was going for his keys when a red 2016 Dodge Charger pulled into the parking lot and rolled up to the entrance of the museum.  Devon Traeger, shut off the engine and walked up to the two gentlemen, both of whom had the beginnings of a smile on their face.

“I got your text last night.  How’d it go?” Eddie said, trying not to give away Devon’s mission for his father’s sake.

Devon had changed her clothes and touched up her makeup to disguise bags forming under her eyes from her sleepless night.  “It went,” she said in a voice that only betrayed the impact of the long night before.

“Forgive me for askin’ darlin’, but are you okay?” Big Ed inquired.

“Eh...long night,” Devon said sheepishly.

“Yeah, I’ve had more than a few of those.  Would you like to come in and have some coffee?” Big Ed offered, motioning to the front door.

“No, I got to get back to Atlanta.  I got some work to take care of.”

Big Ed gave her a caring look. “Sounds like you need a new job.”

“Yes, I do,” Devon said with a wry grin.

Big Ed hung his head for a moment and took a gentle step closer to her. “Also, I wanted to apologize for going on about my sister the other day.  Didn’t realize it ‘til you left, but yesterday was the anniversary of the day she died. She’s just been on my mind a bit lately.”

Devon reached out to give Big Ed’s arm a loving squeeze. “Oh no.  It’s okay, she seemed like quite a lady. And I have no doubt she probably loved you to pieces.”

Big Ed looked into the distance for a moment, as if his mind drifted far away and then quickly returned.  Turning back to Devon he said “I like to think so, but we weren’t always kind to her. You know, with her being a little different and all.  But you know what they say, you never miss the water ‘til the well runs dry.”

“Just hearing how you talk about her, I can tell that there’s still plenty of water down there.”

“Thanks, darlin’.  Would you mind terribly if I gave you a hug?”

“Not at all.”  Devon put her arms around the large man and held him for a moment.

Big Ed stepped back keeping both of his arms on hers. “Well, I should get on inside and let you and Eddie talk.”

“How do you know I didn’t come here to see you, Big Ed?” Devon’s words dripped with classic Southern sass.

“Don’t you be a stranger now, Ms. Devon.  Atlanta ain’t that far away, and I’m pretty sure that car there can get you here quick enough,” Big Ed said as he opened the front door.

Devon waived and looked back at him kindly. “See around, Big Ed.”

The burly older man in the leather jacket simply nodded and went inside.

“He’s usually not so sentimental,” the younger Wheeler finally spoke. “But he always gets a little sad around this time of year.”

“It’s not a problem. Really,”  Devon said firmly.

“I never really knew her, but I wish I did,” Eddie said mournfully. “She sounded like a real special lady. So did you see it?”

“Eddie, if you’re ever feeling brave, go back to that starting line. Wait until it gets real quiet, and real dark, then start heading down the highway.  If you see a pair of headlight coming up on your back bumper, don’t slow down. Step on the gas and keep going.”

“Floor it?”

“No matter what you see, don’t stop until the tachometer hits the red line. If you make it to the finish, you might just see something special.”

“Maybe I just will.  Sometime,” Eddie said solemnly.

“See you around Eddie.”  Devon leaned in an gave him a soft kiss on the lips.  She then backed away, gave him a curious smile, and got back in her car.

Eddie’s eyes never left her as she aimed the red Charger back toward Main Street and drove out of sight.   As the engine broke the early morning silence, Big Ed came back outside.

“Think she’ll ever be back?” the younger man asked.

Big Ed gave his boy a pat on the back, then lovingly grabbed his shoulder. “Son, I’ve been selling cars for most of life. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s when a customer is ready to buy.”

* * *

Later that night, under the quarter moon, Eddie Wheeler Jr. sat in his blue ‘69 Charger at the white line painted on the west end of Red Line Road.  He waited, making sure there were no cars coming, with only the persistent growl of the engine to cancel out the quiet that haunted the lonely stretch of highway.  Fear crept up on him and he squashed it back down. Staring into the blackness in front of him, Eddie put his hands on the wheel, and then put the accelerator to the floor.

THE END



A Companion Of Fools

A Companion Of Fools

The Gods Are Always At The Gates / The Famine King

The Gods Are Always At The Gates / The Famine King

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