Thicker than Water
"The little fucker is dead!"
Joe could tell Shelly was fuming. Despite the car's dim lighting, he could practically see the veins throbbing on his forehead.
"I mean, he was dead, anyway," Shelly continued. "But now I'm actually going to enjoy doing it."
At that moment, they were driving on a backwoods road at over eighty miles an hour, which Joe didn't like. He also didn't like that they were on their way to kill their other partner. The money they had stolen was enough for all three of them to stay comfortable for a very long time but Shelly was insistent on getting out of the game and staying out of it permanently. If that meant killing somebody, Shelly reasoned his freedom was worth it. Joe didn't completely agree with that sentiment.
Even if Val was a fucking freak.
Thirty minutes later they were still driving and Shelly's mood was getting worse.
"He's fucking with us," he grumbled.
"These are the directions he texted me," Joe replied. "He's got the money. If he was going to fuck us over, why contact us at all?"
"Because he's a fucking weirdo," Shelly said. "This is funny to him."
That was probably true but Joe also knew Val would be waiting for them with the money. And in return, the poor bastard would be getting a bullet.
"We're doing him a favor," Shelly blurted out. "Right?"
"I'm not sure killing somebody to avoid paying them a share of the money they helped steal is doing them a favor," Joe replied as he discreetly touched the Glock he kept in his jacket pocket.
"Cut the shit," Shelly fired back. "You've seen him. He's got issues. Sleeping all day, always looking strung out. That is not a happy or healthy person."
That statement was also true but when it came to cracking a safe, Val was a magician. His long, clumsy-looking fingers moved nimbly over the hard steel surfaces that were mere moments away from being emptied out. Val looked weird with his pale skin, sounded weird with his raspy voice, and smelled like he hadn't showered in weeks but if you put him in front of a safe, he was an unstoppable machine. But that no longer mattered to Shelly. Even if Joe couldn't see his face, he knew there was a look of steely determination on it, which only happened when Shelly had every intention of seeing something through.
And that was bad news for Val.
"Take a right up here," Joe said after another ten minutes on the road.
"Where?" Shelly asked impatiently.
"Right up here," Joe said, pointing at a turn-off.
"How do you know it's the right one?"
"Because it's the only one we've seen in fifty miles," Joe replied. "Just like Val said it'd be."
Shelly scoffed and made the turn. The road was crooked and bumpy. At one point they hit a pothole so deep it caused both of them to leap up and hit their heads on the ceiling of Shelly's car.
"Oh yeah," Shelly said under his breath. "The little fucker is so dead."
Joe checked the Glock in his pocket one more time. Still there. And while Shelly was the one who was going to be the shooting, Joe still had a bad feeling he'd need his own gun before the night was over.
They dipped and bumped on the road for another three miles before they finally saw the three-story Victorian looming in the distance.
"Look at this fucking place!" Shelly huffed as they got closer. "I'm getting tetanus just looking at it!"
The house was indeed in bad shape. Joe honestly couldn't tell if its decayed and hollowed-out state was due to a recent fire or just the ravages of time. And while he was sure that there was no shortage of rusty nails waiting to snag an unsuspecting pant leg or limb, that wasn't what worried Joe. What bothered him was that it looked like every creepy house in every horror film he had ever seen. Joe wasn't exactly superstitious but he believed in vibes and the ones emanating from this place felt toxic and foreboding.
They slowed down to a stop and Shelley let the engine idle as they contemplated their next move. A nervous Joe watched as exhaust floated past the headlights like fog. If the house needed another atmospheric touch to make it look like it had just stepped off of the set of a Hammer film, that did it.
"What next?" Shelly asked, finally breaking the uncomfortable silence.
Joe checked the phone and saw there were no new texts from Val. He was tempted to tell Shelly just to forget the whole fucking thing. While five million dollars was a fantastic sum, it wouldn't do either of them any good dead. But before Joe could suggest it, Val stepped out of the house with the casual air of a man set to enjoy a leisurely stroll around the block.
"Howdy, boys!" he said, his normally raspy stammer clear and jovial sounding.
"Where the fuck is the money?" Shelly asked, ignoring Val's greeting as he and Joe got out of the car.
"Hello to you, too," Val replied with a smirk.
"The money," Shelly repeated.
Joe tensed up as he anticipated another smart-ass remark from Val but instead, he motioned for them to come inside
"Bring it out here," Shelly commanded.
"No," came Val's curt response.
Joe could see Shelly was shaking with anger. He put a hand on his shoulder to calm him down.
"Let's just get this over with," Joe said, doing his best to reason with Val. "The sooner you bring us the money, the sooner we can all go home."
Joe felt his face flush when he said this. He hated lying and the one he just laid on poor Val was a whopper.
"But we still have to divvy it up," Val insisted. "And I don't want to do that out here. It's fucking freezing. If you really want this to be over quickly, then come in the house because that's as good as it's going to get."
And with that, he went inside.
The argument that followed was brief and to the point: Shelly wanted to go inside and Joe didn't. Shelly pointed out that not only did they have to recover their money, they had to tie up "loose ends." Joe said the only reason Val was a loose end was because Shelly had deemed him one. Shelly then won the argument by reminding Joe that he was retiring after this and that Joe would have to find a whole new crew if he wanted to keep risking prison or death to make a living. And if he ever wanted a score this big, said crew better be damned good.
Resigned by that seemingly impossible task, Joe relented and they entered the house. And if the outside was bad, it was downright scenic compared to the inside. Complicating matters further was the smell, which was thick with rot and decay.
"Jesus, did he slaughter a pig last month and forget about it?" Shelly asked, covering his face with the sleeve of his jacket.
Joe shined his flashlight around the house and saw the walls and floor were covered with patches of mold and overgrown weeds. He somewhat lamented the state of the place, as at one time it might have actually been beautiful.
"Come into the kitchen!" Val called out.
"If he doesn't have the money, I'm shooting right then and there," Shelly hissed.
"Do you really want to go poking around in this place by ourselves?"
Although Joe could tell Shelly's mood was souring even further, he grunted a barely coherent "No" and the two entered the kitchen. Standing on the far side of the room was Val, illuminated by a dim yellow light coming from an open doorway behind him. Joe noticed a stairway and realized it was the entrance to the basement.
"Just down here," Val said, starting down the rickety stairs.
"Hold it," Shelly barked, stealthily reaching into his jacket.
Joe held his breath and prayed Shelly wasn't going to do anything rash. Entering the basement of a creepy house seemed like a bad idea under any circumstance but they still didn't know exactly where the money was. Keeping Val alive and following his lead was their only option at the moment.
"What?" Val asked. "You want your money, so I put it down there for safekeeping. After our original meeting place was compromised, how did I know you weren't going to show up with fifty cops tailing you?"
Joe hated to admit it but this was a fair point. As awful as this place was, it was as off the beaten path as you could get. If you were going to hide a large sum of money, this would be the place to do it.
"Let's talk about the cops," Shelly said. "Interesting how they showed up just as we were going out the door, isn't it?"
"More like unfortunate," Val replied.
"Well, we certainly didn't trip any alarms," Shelly continued. "And if Joe didn't tip them off and I didn't tip them off…"
Val cleared his throat, producing a sickly, phlegmatic sound.
"Why would I betray you to the cops and then tell you where the money is?" he asked.
"But you haven't told us where the money is," Shelly pointed out.
"Right down there," Val said, pointing down the stairs. "In the same heavy black bag we put it in."
"Seriously?" Shelly asked.
"Cross my heart."
"No thanks," Shelly said as he drew his gun and fired.
Horrified, Joe watched as the bullet caught Val in the forehead, knocking him down the basement stairs. Joe listened to the awful thuds of his partner's body striking ancient wood before finally coming to a stop. Smoke and spent gunpowder burnt the inside of his nose. Given the house's putrid odor, it might have been a welcomed change but Joe also knew that poor, trusting Val was now lying dead one floor below them.
It was the only thing Joe could think to say at that moment.
"You're a millionaire now," Shelly said with a grin. "I imagine you'll find a lot of people willing to do that. Now let's go get our money."
"If it's even down there, Shelly," Joe said as anger began to boil in his stomach.
"Where the hell else would it be?" Shelly asked. "Only Val would be weird enough to leave five million dollars in the basement of a creepy old house."
He started down the stairs and Joe followed.
But not before confirming he still had his Glock.
The basement was fairly cramped with rickety shelves lining the walls. They were stacked with jars and cans but the labels were too old and faded to decipher what the contents were. Lit candles lined the floor, producing the eerie glow that had illuminated Val just a few moments before.
Now that Val was just a broken heap lying at the foot of an old staircase. Joe noticed that the flickering candlelight caused his still open eyes to glow, giving the illusion of life. Unable to look at him any longer, Joe turned away. Shelly, on the other hand, was stomping around on a floor that consisted of soft brown soil.
"That little fuck," Shelly said, kicking away some of the surface dirt. "He buried it!"
Joe looked around and saw a black nylon strap poking out from underneath the stairs.
"No, he didn't," he announced as he walked over and dragged the bag out of its hiding spot.
Shelly whooped with relief as Joe unzipped the bag. Inside were thick bundles of crisp bills and, despite everything that had happened, Joe let out his own joyful whoop.
"This is it," Shelly said, clapping him on the back. "Feeling better now?"
Joe did but only slightly. He doubted there was no amount of money that would make him feel good about what they had done to Val. But he could worry about that when he was relaxing on a beach in Rio.
"And he even solved the problem of what we're going to do with his body," Shelly announced as he gave the soil another kick. "Bury him here and it'll be years before anybody finds him if they manage to do it all!"
"Do you have a shovel?" Joe asked incredulously. "Because I'm not digging this shit up with my hands."
Shelly started to reply but was interrupted by a pained and prolonged moan. Joe told himself it was just the house but then it came again, only this time it was punctuated by a more familiar sound.
"Fuck, that hurt," Val said after he finished clearing his throat.
He stood up, his body a cacophony of cracks and pops. He walked over to Joe and Shelly, the bullet wound in his forehead oozing a thick, tar-like fluid.
"I bet you two are pretty confused right now," he continued as he sat down on top of the money bag. "For what it's worth, this is all yours. I don't a shit about the money."
"Thanks," Joe replied. It came almost as a reflex.
In response, Val produced a sickly and congested sound that might have been a laugh.
"What the fuck are you?" Shelly croaked.
"The million-dollar question," Val answered as some of the fluid from the bullet wound ran into his mouth. He casually spat it out, the contents hissing when they hit the ground. "Or should I say five million?"
Joe and Shelly could only look at their partner in shocked silence. What words could you muster when you were talking to a dead man?
"I didn't want it to come to this," Val said. "But it didn't take a genius to realize you were going to double-cross me, Shelly. And that pisses me off, especially considering the only reason you guys are rich now is because of me."
Neither Shelly or Joe responded to this. They still didn't have the words and even if they did, Val wasn't wrong.
"It was never about the money for me," Val contemplated morosely. "I just wanted to do something with myself and people like me don't have a lot of options. So I learned to crack a safe. And I got pretty fucking good at it."
"You're the best I've ever seen," Joe finally managed, earning a smile from Val.
"Thanks, Joe," he said. "I always liked you. And I know this wasn't your idea. It actually makes me feel bad about what's coming next."
Out of the corner of his eye, Joe saw the flash of a pistol and the next thing he knew, Shelly was on his feet with his gun pointed at Val's face.
"What happens next is that we walk out of here with the money. And I don't give a fuck if you're dead or alive, you're not stopping that from happening!!"
Val looked past the barrel of the gun with a weary expression on his face.
"You're right," he agreed. "But my family's a different story."
"Your family? What the fuck…"
There was another moan and the dirt on the basement floor began to pulse and shift. There was a scream (Shelly) and three pairs of bone-white hands burst through the ground, their fingers tipped with long yellow nails.
"Normally we survive on animal blood," Val explained. "But once in a while, we like to treat ourselves. So I figured why not kill two turds with one stone?"
The bone-white hands gave way to bone-white arms and after that came the heads. Bald and ancient-looking, they had sunken red eyes and slash-like mouths filled with sharp, jagged teeth.
Shelly was the first one to react, shooting Val in the head again. Joe doubted the wound would be fatal this time around but it at least freed up the money, as the bullet knocked Val from his spot on the duffel bag.
"Get the fucking money!" Shelly bellowed.
Joe did but not before drawing out his Glock and pointing it at the terrifying creatures that were pulling themselves out of the ground mere feet away from them.
Once the bag was secure on his shoulder, Joe made his way toward the stairs, squeezing off several shots as he went. The bullets sponged uselessly into the lifeless flesh of the creatures that were freed from the soil and now slowly rising on spindly and elongated legs. Joe looked at Shelly, who had seemingly fallen into some kind of trance. He stared blankly at the creatures, his feet firmly planted on the ground.
"Shelly!" Joe screamed, which was enough for Shelly to snap out of it. He blinked several times and then raised his pistol, firing a handful of shots into the advancing creatures. He started to run for the stairs when Val's hand shot out and wrapped its claw-like fingers around Shelly's ankle. Shelly shrieked and began to pepper Val with bullets. One of the creatures lunged at Shelly and Joe fired, catching it in the back of the head and dropping it to the floor. The two remaining creatures came at Joe and, using all his strength, he swung the heavy duffel bag at them and knocked them off-balance. It was just enough of a distraction to help Shelly, who was out of bullets and still under Val's vice-like grip. Joe raised his foot and brought it down as hard as he could on Val's arm. There was a satisfying crack and a howl of pain from Val as he relinquished his hold on Shelly. Joe fired his remaining bullets at the creatures and the two ran up the basement stairs, knocking down several of the candles as they went. The old wooden shelves immediately caught fire and Joe could already feel the heat as they made their way out of the basement.
By the time they were outside, the fire had already spread into the kitchen and dark smoke was billowing out of the broken windows. Joe was almost to the car when he noticed Shelly had fallen behind. He stopped and saw Shelly standing in front of the house, reloading his gun with shaking hands.
"What the fuck are you doing?" Joe screamed at him.
"Those things are going to keep coming!" Shelly shouted back and sure enough, Val and the three creatures emerged from the house and seemed to float toward Shelly, their red eyes glowing like pristine rubies. Shelly finished loading his gun and fired off three shots before catching up to Joe. The two of them reached the car and Shelly capped off three more shots before tossing his keys to Joe.
"Put the money in the trunk and get the gas can!" he ordered.
"Just fucking do it!" Shelly snapped as he continued to shoot at the advancing creatures.
Joe ran around to the trunk and opened it up. Just past a shovel and a bundle of black plastic garbage bags was a red gasoline can. Joe tossed the money inside and grabbed the gas can. He ran over to Shelly, who was still firing on Val and his family.
"What now?" Joe shouted.
"Throw it!" Shelly responded and Joe suddenly understood what he intended to do. He cocked his arm back and threw the gasoline can directly at the creatures. Shelly fired and managed to shoot the gas can in mid-air. It was a brilliant shot and one that could probably never be repeated. The can exploded, sending waves of heat and fire into the creatures, setting two of them ablaze. They screeched with pain and fell to the ground. Val roared in anger as Joe and Shelly quickly jumped into the car and peeled out.
Shelly drove at top speed, even after they reached the highway. They both screamed at the top of their lungs in celebration of their escape and newfound fortune. Shelly pounded the steering wheel several times, causing the car to swerve toward the side of the road.
Wouldn't that be a bitch? Joe thought. To escape whatever the hell that was just to wrap ourselves around a tree?
But that didn't happen. Instead, they were safe with the horrors of that night already at a distance.
They were back to driving in silence after that. Joe reasoned that both of them needed to process what had just happened, a task that would likely prove impossible. And given their crimes, it was something that would forever remain a secret. Not that anybody would believe them, anyway. The drive continued unabated and just as they were about to get back to town, something dawned on Joe. It was a minor detail now, all things considered, but one he was still curious about.
"So what was up with the shovel and gasoline?" he asked. "Were you planning on burning him or — "
A gunshot rang out, the bullet hitting Joe like a battering ram. The world was suddenly spinning and for a split second, he thought they really were going to wrap themselves around a tree but Shelly was still in complete control as he slowly pulled the car over.
"Sorry about this," Joe heard Shelly say. "But it's five million bucks."
Joe heard his door open and felt himself get shoved out of the car and onto the side of the road, the dusty gravel scraping his face and arms. Joe's partner, a man he had known for over ten years, had just discarded him like an old fast food wrapper.
And to think that just an hour ago, Joe had saved the bastard's life.
Joe wasn't sure how long he was lying on side of the road but he did understand that death was very near. Although he could feel almost no pain, he was ready for it to be over. He imagined if he did survive, some of the injuries sustained by the gunshot would be permanent and he'd also be facing prison time. That's not to mention the unending hatred he'd feel for Shelly betraying both him and Val. So instead of hate, Joe prayed for forgiveness, both for his actions and Shelly's. Once that was over, it was just a matter of dying. And just as it seemed to loom over him, he felt a strange pricking sensation in his neck. Almost immediately, an energy surged through his body that didn't exactly feel like life but was still far removed from death. All of his senses were heightened and there was a strange and insatiable hunger stirring inside of him. Lifted to his feet by strong, confident hands, Joe found himself standing in front of Val and the creatures he and Shelly had escaped from. Two of them still had slightly blackened skin and looked none too happy about it while blood, Joe's blood, dripped from Val's crimson lips. There was no sign of the bullet wounds he had sustained earlier. To Joe, Val no longer looked weird but regal. Under ordinary circumstances, it would have been a magnificent transformation but Joe understood that it wasn't Val who had done the transforming.
"Feel better?" Val asked with a wink.
It was all Joe could manage. He was still adjusting to the strange and invigorating energy that was coursing through his body.
"Welcome to the family," Val announced magnanimously. "Now are you ready to have some fun?"
"Have some fun?" Joe asked. "You call what happened tonight fun?"
"No," Val replied. "But that's all about to change. It's going to take time but you'll learn the rules as you go along. And we'll be there to help you. Right, boys?"
The creatures hissed and grunted in response.
"But first thing's first," Val continued. "There's the matter of retrieving our five million dollars."
"I thought you didn't care about the money."
"I'm warming up to it," Val said with another wink.
"Well, it doesn't really matter anymore," Joe said with a defeated shrug. "Shelly's gone. I'm guessing by now he's boarding a plane or at least a bus."
Val laughed at this.
"So it might take us some time to find him. That's okay. From now on, you've got nothing but time."
Joe reached into his jacket and touched his bullet wound. It was already almost completely healed. Val was right. Time was on their side. The same could not be said for their former partner.
Joe smiled at his new family and the five of them set off joyfully into the night. The hunt was on.
And that was bad news for Shelly.