The October Featured Writer is Gary Power
Please feel free to email Gary at: email@example.com
Vultures, the harbingers of death, soared gracefully on rising thermals. They flew high above India’s notorious Leh-Manali highway as though privy to impending catastrophe.
Bordered by plummeting drops and crumbling rock faces, the mountain road had rightfully gained its hazardous reputation. Even in August, patches of ice and sludge were forming on the roughshod surface. In a few months time snow and freezing weather would render the highway impassable.
Sunil Parkash was no stranger to Leh-Manali, and through sheer boredom, got his kicks intimidating other drivers by tailgating or overtaking on tight corners. In his scruffy white transit van he was on a two-day journey to Manali with a delivery of fruit wine and saffron.
Music pounded from the radio and Sunil wailed along as he rattled along the unforgiving highway. Faces stared back incredulously when he pointed a condemning finger at the oncoming traffic and bellowed, “You’re on the Highway ta Hell…and you’re going down, all the way down…”
Rajeev had no idea that Sunil existed. He was driving his rented Mercedes precariously close to the edge of the mountain road as he headed away from the mountain resort of Manali.
“You think the road’s bad here,” he told his fiancé, “wait until we cross the Rhotang Pass. Literally translated, it means Pile of Corpses. Believe me; you don’t want to find out why.”
Shanaya wasn’t listening. She was staring down into a plunging precipice that was far too close for comfort. “Not so near to the edge, Rajeev. Please?”
Rajeev grinned and took his eyes from the road as he patted Shanaya’s knee. She looked sexy. But then Shanaya always said driving like a jackass made him horny.
Suddenly Shanaya cried out as a white van careered towards them. Rajeev reacted instinctively, wrenching the steering wheel and making a hard left. The action brought him broadside to the skidding white van. He went off the road, plowing through the bushes and tumbling down a rugged escarpment.
Rajeev pumped the brake and had almost regained control of the Mercedes when it struck a jagged ledge and flipped onto its roof. The car rolled like a toy cast across the ground. Glass shattered and metal crumpled like paper. The sound of the crash, like an endless barrage of explosions stifled Shanaya’s desperate cries.
Rajeev called out to his fiancé, but his words were drowned out by the deafening cacophony. The crushing pain of the seat belt pressing against his chest was excruciating but at least it kept him secure, unlike Shanaya who was being thrown around like a ragdoll. If only the air bags had kicked in…damned rental cars.
Buckled metal smashed into his body and head. He was tough, though, his muscles toned and taut. Shanaya was frail by comparison and without being strapped in, so vulnerable. Seeing such raw terror in her eyes cut through him like a knife. Bizarrely he still gripped the steering wheel and turned it as though trying to fly them both to safety. Would they live? Would they die? Maybe the Mercedes would come to rest upright and they’d both be okay.
That option expired when the passenger door burst open and suddenly Shanaya was gone. Rajeev screamed out again. Still the Mercedes rolled and he wondered how much more brutal pounding his body could take before it stopped.
The roof caved in, trapping his body inside and at the same time he felt a stabbing pain in his right leg. Now he was no longer being flung about because he was wedged between the seat and the roof—no longer was it if he was going to die, but how? Would the car burst into flames or would he be crushed? Things began to slow when a barrier of dense bracken and small trees cushioned the rolling car, bringing it to rest on its roof.
For a moment there was a still and deathly calm. Rajeev was alive but hanging upside down in the mangled wreck. To his horror he saw that a ragged strip of metal had impaled his left thigh. When he moved, piercing barbs of steel stabbed deeper into his bruised and bloodied flesh.
All he could see outside was a billowing cloud of dust but that was slowly settling to reveal a scene of metal debris and strewn luggage. The transit van was on its side, not far away and ripped open like a huge tin can.
“Shanaya!” he called and through his tears sobbed, “Where are you? Please answer!”
She was nowhere to be seen from his upside down viewpoint. If only he could release the safety belt, then at least he might be able to work himself free. But what if he severed an artery in his leg? How long would it take to bleed to death?
He figured he should try it anyway, but in moving he only succeeded in driving the metal spike deeper into his leg. The pain was agonizing but thankfully masked by adrenaline pumping through his battered body. He smelled a stifling stench of gas and hot oil.
For a moment, there was a deathly silence. Then, sounds slowly came to Rajeev’s ears; a pounding emanating from the wreckage of the transit van. But he wasn’t concerned with the other driver.
“Shanaya!” he shouted. Where was she? Was she all right?
He looked around and saw her lying motionless on the ground a few feet from the car. She must have been thrown out her door. Christ, didn’t he always nag her about seat belts?
“Shanaya!” he yelled at her. “Wake up!”
And then he saw an unwieldy man pull himself unscathed from the wreckage of the white van. Rajeev screamed, “Hey! I’m trapped! I can smell gas! Please help me out!”
Something loud crackled in his ear and from the corner of his eye he glimpsed a burst of sparks from the engine. “Oh fuck, no!” he screamed. “Help me!”
He saw the man from the white van approach. “If you can pull my arms I think I can work my legs free,” Rajeev called.
But there was a look on the man’s face that he didn’t like; a look of shame, a look of guilt…and a glare of something almost evil. Even worse, he was holding a lighter and muttering something about how he needed to burn up the evidence of his drunk driving.
“What’s your name?” Rajeev asked, hoping to calm the strange man.
“I’m Sunil! I can’t lose my job. You understand, right?”
“Please! I won’t tell anyone! Just please help me out. I smell gas. Please, put out your lighter. I won’t tell! You won’t get in any trouble, I promise!”
Shanaya lay on the cold ground and watched as though peering into a world that existed only in her imagination. She wondered if she was concussed. Blood oozed from a yawning gash in her temple, and she felt vacant and confused. Her clothes were torn and the skin of her exposed flesh was raw and bruised.
Throbbing pain pounded inside her head, clouding her thoughts and making a mockery of reason. Despite her vision being blurred, she could just make out the vague form of a large man standing next to the upturned Mercedes. She thought he might be helping Rajeev, but as he crouched down and reached out, there was a sudden surge of flames.
She tried to call out Rajeev’s name, but all that came from her mouth was a pitiful screech. She tried to get up but her left knee buckled. A splinter of stark white bone was protruded through a torn flap of livid flesh just below her shattered knee cap. The excruciating pain forced a howl of agony from her.
Her desperate cries drew the attention of the strange man who turned like a predatory beast. She couldn’t help thinking that now she was in even more trouble.
For some reason, he’d been groveling around on the ground and now he was holding a posy of white flowers from which dangled earthy roots. The image was quite surreal. Was this to be a bizarre token of apology? The petals had the appearance of small trumpets.
“These will ease the pain. Make you feel good again,” the man told her as he got closer. But Shanaya knew exactly what the flowers were. They were Datura, also known as Hell’s Bells…a potent hallucinogenic, and in large quantities possibly fatal.
She turned away from the evil man to watch the Mercedes burn. Rajeev was in there, trapped in the wreckage. In the inferno!
Her mind struggled to make sense of what she saw and reality slowly began to dawn on her. Her head felt light and for a moment she thought she might pass out. Without Rajeev, her life would be meaningless. Now she was at the other driver’s mercy, unable to run away or fight him off. If she did pass out he’d probably drag her body into the fire anyway. But if that happened at least she’d be with Rajeev. Forever. And that was a comforting thought.
She chose to be with Rajeev. She would eat the flowers. “Give them to me,” she told the man. But Sunil continued to explain himself. Muttering. Blubbering.
“Terrible, terrible accident. Not my fault though. You understand? I tried to help him. Really tried.” His words were slurred and he staggered like a drunk. Blood was streaming from a grisly gash in his head.
“Come closer to me. Let me have the flowers. I know about them. Let me eat the flowers and then all our problems will be sorted. Mine and yours.”
Sunil, barely able to support his own weight, dropped to his knees next to her. With a nervous grin, he shredded the petals and roots and formed them into small balls, smiling at her as though grateful for her understanding of his dire situation.
Impatiently he told her, “Take them now. Chew and swallow is best. Soon you will feel much better, and then I will leave.”
His hands were shaking as he dropped the petal balls into her right hand. Watching her like a hawk as she lifted his ‘medicine’ to her mouth. Just to make sure.
Lingering one last look at the burning wreck of the Mercedes, she said softly, “Love you forever, Rajeev.”
And then her left hand found a jagged rock. She wasn’t going to let the killer of her lover leave. With a devastating precision, she brought the rock cupped in her left hand down onto Sunil’s head.
With a howling cry, the large man slumped to the ground. Clutching a hand to his scalp and begging for mercy he tried to scrabble away but Shanaya held the rock high, poised to make one final, fatal blow
“Now it’s you that will suffer the consequences,” she told him as she pushed the Datura flowers into his mouth, “…but these will ease the pain.”
Gary Power resides in Burgess Hill, United Kingdom with his wife Sarah where they have to attend to the constant needs of their tortoise, Phinneas. Up until recently he worked in Medical Neuroscience Imaging but has now moved into the private sector.
He has been shortlisted for the Ian St. James short story award and has had several short stories published in the Black Book of Horror (Mortbury Press), Spinetinglers and When Graveyards Yawn (Crowsing Books) as well as online for Sein und Werden and Penny Shorts, among others. His bleak story Deeper than Dark Water appeared in the British Fantasy Society’s nominated Tenth Black Book of Horror.
He has made a regular appearance on the Vault of Evil’s seasonal Christmas advent calendar and is currently working on a novel, Settlement.
He is a member of the Clockhouse London Writers and also the British Fantasy Society and can be spotted at the yearly Fantasy convention, propping up the bar, attending panels and chatting to various literary luminaries. He enjoys rock concerts and festivals, reading horror, being mischievous and can be found online HERE