Stand and Deliver


Shattered Roses

(illus. by Shattered Roses)

And still on a winter's night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highway man comes riding-
Riding- riding-
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

The Highwayman, Alfred Noyes

St Leonards Forest, England - 6th November 1990

Bethany threw her head back and laughed as the hot-pink Cadillac jarred and jumped down the dirt track, which stretched out pale before them between the dark, leaning forms of the trees. The moon dipped and wheeled between the high dark banks of cloud, and occasionally the odd fleck of rain would dust her skin, blown off the windshield, or scattering through the open roof of the car. The air still smelt of gunpowder and burning wood, and in the last few hours before dawn, a low mist had settled in the dips and hollows of the old mud track, although they sky had not yet began to pale.

Scott glanced away from the road for a moment to look at her and smile, raising his voice over the sound of the car and the wind.

"Having fun yet?"

"Hell yeah!" she shouted and threw her head back once more to let the wind and the rain touch her. Scott reached across and rested her hand on her leg and she smiled, letting the jerking, shuddering movement of the car flow through her limbs.

She was beginning to feel a little more sober, the last few dizzying, distorting effects of alcohol trickling from her mind like treacle, and it was making her feel cold. Slowly, she opened her eyes to the icy sting of the wind and twisted in her seat, reaching into the back of the car and lifting Scott's jacket from the back, half-standing and slipping it on over her shoulders.

She shivered and wrapped the jacket a little tighter, looking across at the man beside her. The moonlight streaming through the crystal-dark sky gave Scott an almost eerie appearance. His skin was not only bone white under the cold gaze of the moon, but seemed somehow slick, like polished ivory, or church candles. By contrast, his eyes and hair seemed an almost bottomless black, and he seemed oddly still, the wind not even seeming to ruffle his short-cropped hair, as if he'd simply been frozen in a moment in time.

"Scott?" she asked tentatively, and when he didn't answer, she reached out her hand to touch his shoulder. "Scott?"

He turned his head sharply to look at her, bottomless-black eyes staring out of a bone-white face, all the shadows cast on him seemed longer, and he looks drawn, sickly. She shuddered and drew away, wrapping her arms tightly around herself against the bite of the wind.

"Yeah? What's up?"

Bethany shook her head and looked down into her lap. "Nothing."

Scott frowned and tightened his grip a little on her thigh, she started. Scott sighed and drew away: "What the hell's up with you, Beth? You feeling alright? You don't look so hot, sugar."

"Neither do you," she whispered slowly, squeezing her eyes shut for a moment before looking back up at him: "Let's go home, Scott, I'm cold."

"Sure," he sighed again, resigned: "I know a quick way out of here, it's just down this track on the left. Think you can deal with that?"

She nodded slowly and said nothing, not liking the tone in his voice one bit and not wanting to look up at him again lest she find herself staring into his strange, skull-like face again. She closed her eyes and let the lurching movement of the car absorb her, so that she didn't have to think about the cold, or the man beside her.

Somewhere behind the sound or the engine stuttering and growling along the track, and the dull boom of the wind catching in her ears, she slowly became aware of something else, something that sounded familiar, but was too disconcerting for her to immediately connect with the dark, rainy November night. She started, sitting bolt upright and opening her eyes, turning quickly to Scott and shaking his shoulder until he turned his head to look at her.

"What? What the hell is it now, Beth?"

"Don't you hear it?" she hissed, she grasping and shaking his shirt.

Scott scowled at her and wrenched her hand off his shoulder with a little more force than was necessary: "Hear what?"


Scott laughed and turned back to the road, resting his hands lightly on the wheel and guiding the old pink Cadillac over the uneven surface.

"I'm serious, Scott!"

"Don't be stupid, Beth. There haven't been any wolves in these woods for hundreds of years, we're practically in the middle of a dammed town for crying out loud!"

Beth crossed her arms and huffed the cold air out of her lungs. There was a moment of silence between them, both sitting side by side, staring pointedly at the thin strip of moonlit mud in front of them. After a few minutes, Beth leaned forward in her seat, straining against her seatbelt and squinting at the road in front and raking a straggling lock of off-blonde hair out of her face.

"What's that?" she whispered softly, then, with a glance at Scott beside her, staring straight ahead through his frown: "Scott, what the hell is that?"

He turned to face her, his eyes burning with anger: "What, Beth? What the hell are you going on about now?"


Beth grabbed hold of his hand and pointed viciously at the strip of mud unrolling before them, where between an overhang of dead or dying, leafless oak trees, there was a dark shape that seemed to cling to the shadows.

Scott's scowl deepened and he took his foot off the gas for a moment: "Just some stupid deer, Beth, would you grow the hell up?"

He slammed his foot back down on the peddle, the car snarled and protested as it picked up speed down the bumpy dirt trail. 25 ... 30 ... 35 ... Beth grabbed his wrist and pulled it off the wheel.

"What the hell are you doing?!? Slow down!"

"Make me," he snatched his hand back and pushed his foot down harder on the accelerator, the car diving and jumping from the ground over the bigger rucks and folds in the road.

"You'll kill it!"


Scott turned back to the road, and just had enough time to see the dark shape beneath the trees growing greater than any deer, four solid hooves stamping in the dirt and a human-like face staring at him in the car's dipping and jumping headlights before there was a loud crack like lightning, a sharp pain on the exposed skin of his face and neck, and everything clouded over as if the mist had opened its jaws and swallowed them whole.


As the car shuddered and slowed to a halt, Scott lay unconscious in the driver's seat, the windscreen was cracked, blood was trickling down his face, Beth was screaming, and the flintlock pistol that had wounded the huge creature, as pink as mouths and as loud as wolves, was still smoking. The man slid the pistol onto his belt and spurred his horse forward.

Beth struggled out of her seatbelt and scrambled onto the back of her chair, perching on the back of it and staring over the shattered windshield wide-eyed. The man before her was dressed in a long black coat and tricorn hat, with a black silk mask over his eyes. He carried a pair of antiquated-looking pistols and a very sharp looking sword at his belt, he was also riding the biggest, blackest horse Beth had ever seen.

She caught her breath and watched, somewhere between terror and awe as he approached her, the horse's hooves making dull, empty sounds on the winter-dried earth. He stopped just short of the bonnet of the Cadillac that steamed like an exhausted, overworked animal turned out into the cold winter night. The horse reared and shrieked, its front two hooves crashing down on the bonnet with the painfully loud scream of tearing metal. Beth started and looked around frantically for some chance of escape.

Above her, the moon was still racing between banks of coal-black clouds, and the stars were illuminating everything around her with a strange silver glow that seemed to make light things lighter, and dark things darker still. The first few flecks of rain were still drifting now and again to speckle her face and the gunshot-cracked windshield of the Cadillac, carried on the cold wind that gusted and hissed in the trees. Aware of something watching her, she turned her head, away from the dark man and his dark horse to look into the boundless shadows of the trees.

There, among the shadows, were hundred of tiny points of light, red and green and amber, set in pairs into the skulls of a carnival of unseen creatures. The world seemed to spin around her for a moment, filled with the million upon millions of tiny coloured eyes, with the calls of ravens, the chattering squeak of rats and the low, guttural snarl of wolves. She felt herself loosing control, falling, and landed on the back seats of the car with a dull thud and a wrench of her neck that make her vision sparkle. Somewhere, far off, there was a ripple of thunder.

She opened her eyes slowly, looking up at the sky and wondering what had happened, whether they had hit a tree and she'd, somehow, been thrown into the back. She turned her head a little and saw beside her the figure of the man, carved in shadows, upon his horse beside her. She could smell the sweat of his mount that steamed just like the car she was in, dull and dusky like all animal smells, but overlaying something else, something sharp and cutting that she couldn't quite place.

"Stand and deliver!" the man said in a voice that filled her whole world.

She sat herself up at last, and could hear Scott groaning and rolling over onto his side in front of her. At last, she looked back up at the man, nothing more than a dark shape against the stars.

"I don't know what you mean ..." she squeaked feebly.

The man narrowed his eyes: "Just give me yer fockin' money..." and after a pause "Get out of the car."

Beth nodded and climbed over the back door, landing barefoot on the cold, hard mud. That's right, she thought absently, I took my shoes off at the party. I wonder where they are...

She wrapped her arms tightly about her waist and looked up at the highwayman, shivering. Beneath his three-pointed hat, waves of dark hair escaped and curled around the collar of his coat. Again, that sharp, acrid smell caught at the back of her throat. She shook her head slowly.

"Is this some kind of joke?" she asked, in a voice that sounded a lot weaker than she'd intended.

"Give me yer fockin' money," the man said again in a low voice as soft as velvet, fringed with the barest of accents. Irish maybe, Beth thought.

"I don't-"

"Jost... give me yer money," he said again, his voice falling to the starkest of threatening whispers.

Beth looked up at him, caught in eyes as dark and furious and wild as hellfire, she realised her hands were shaking. All around, the thousands of tiny, coloured eyes stared out at her from the leafless forest. She could hear something shifting behind her, but she didn't look, she didn't want to know.

Instead, she reached into her handbag and held out her purse, small and leather and filled with the few coins and notes she hadn't managed to drink tonight. The highwayman took it without looking, and slid it into the saddlebag of the vast, black creature that stamped its knife-sharp hooves just inches from Beth's bare, numb toes.

"And him," said the highwayman, nodding to the car behind her. Beth frowned for a moment before she realised that he meant Scott. Jesus yes, Scott, she'd forgotten all about him. She turned her head a little and looked over her shoulder, looking into the car. Scott wasn't in the front seat where she'd left him, bleeding and possibly dying. Instead, he was lain across the back bench of the dead old Cadillac, the air rifle his father kept stowed under the seats resting against the sharp, pink flank of the car, the barrel pointed at the highwayman beside her.

"Like hell I will," Scott hissed under his breath, small streams of blood trickling down his forehead and cheeks, wrought almost black in the moonlight.

Beth called out for him to stop, but there was a sudden, sharp crack like the snapping of rabbit's necks, and all around, the little coloured lights went out in the thicket.

Beth turned fast to face the highwayman, expecting to see him thrown to the floor hurt and dying, instead, neither the horse nor the man had moved, apart from to rest his hand against his shoulder for an instant, after which he drew it away, and stared at the tiny, round drops of blood that stained his palm like dewfall.

There was another sharp crack from Scott's air rifle behind her, this time the highwayman didn't even flinch. In an almost entrancingly fluid movement, he drew the other flintlock pistol from his belt, throwing it into the air and catching it in the other hand, before levelling it, what seemed to Beth to be straight at her, his dark eyes glinting like polished basalt beneath his hat and waves of unruly hair.

The pistol went off like a firework with a noise that reverberated off the bare trees and rocks, there was a flash of bright orange-red, and a sudden, sharp pain in her shoulder. Beth dropped to her knees on the frozen-hard ground, and heard Scott cry out, gasp, and die behind her.

There was a hiss of fabric, and of raven's wings as the birds that had been staring from the roadside took to the sky. The highwayman dismounted, and took a few steps towards her, his boots clicking on the iron-clad earth as loudly as on marble. Beth could only stare at the floor and grasp at her shoulder, the blood and lead-shot running between her fingers as the highwayman passed her, and leaned over into the car, lifting Scott's wallet from his lifeless body before walking back towards his mount. For a moment, Beth thought that he would leave her here, that he'd ride back off into the mist and the shadows and she'd lie here and die, but after slipping the wallet into the saddlebag of the huge black creature that waited loyally and pawed its razor-hooves on the razor-earth, he returned to her and knelt before her.

He rested his fingers under her jaw-line, the leather of his gloves soft and warm in the cold of the night, and lifted her face until she was looking up at him. He smiled a little and exhaled so she could feel his breath on her skin, this close, his face looked kind, adoring, not like the face of a man that would shoot and kill her boyfriend.

"Yer'll be alright," he said softly with that same slight, lilting inflection to his words: "If I was going ta kill ya, I would have."

He paused for a moment, still smiling that same, intimate smile, and brushed her hair away from her face with a leather-bound hand.

"There's a house not far from here, if ya go there, they'll see ya alright."

The highwayman patted her lightly on her good shoulder and straightened up with a creak of protest from his leather boots. He turned, and swung himself effortlessly onto the back of the horse, which immediately began to teeter on its hooves and gnash at the bit as if it may bolt into the darkness at any moment. Beth slowly struggled to her feet, taking hold of the door of the Cadillac and pulling herself up.

She looked down into the hollowed-out body of the car, and stared into Scott's wide, dead eyes. There were a dozen or so small, circular wounds scattering his face and neck, and blood dripped from his tattered skin and onto the floor of the car with a sullen tat-tat-tat, running from skin to floor with the memory of what it was like to flow in his veins. The blood, still warm and red and living, fleeing the body like rats flee a sinking ship.

She shook her head and turned away, looking up at the highwayman to find him looking down at her. She smiled faintly, and pulled Scott's jacket a little tighter against the cold.

"I don't even know your name," she whispered in a voice that could barely be heard over the sound of the impatient creature's hooves striking the ground.

The highwayman laughed a little, and turned his mount to face up the trail where he had emerged from the fog and the dark.

"McMills. Danny McMills."

"Beth," She muttered as the highwayman dug his heels into the steaming flaks of his horse and disappeared back up the road, the air resounding with the shriek of his mount, the ringing of his laughter, and the clatter of hooves upon the winter earth.




this story is ©G.M Rouse