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Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Horror/Scary · #2297116
A charming English salesman visits a small town and has a pleasant, if short, visit...
The sun sinks low in the sky, painting the horizon in vibrant hues as I pull into the small town of Hickory Ridge, Kentucky. A thin layer of early June pollen seems to coat everything in town, settling on the old brick buildings, hand-painted signs, and quiet streets. It looks like dust, lending a timeless quality to the place.

My car, a polished, black, four-door sedan, chirping out map directions from the dash, feels strangely modern amidst the rustic charm of the town. The low thrum of the engine seems to echo against the aged facades, stirring an orchestra of cicadas into a crescendoed counterpoint. I can feel the curious eyes of the handful of townsfolk on me, the stranger disrupting their evening lull.

I pull into the first⁠—and only⁠—motel I see, a two-story L-shaped building that seems to have been plucked straight out of a ‘70s movie. It has a faded golden brick exterior, a slightly crooked red neon sign that flickers 'Vacancy,' and a nearly deserted parking lot. The only sign of life is an old Ford truck with peeling paint and a lopsided blue-lettered bumper sticker declaring 'I heart UK.' The truck looks significantly less clean, though I smile at the sentiment. It’s not common to see love for my homeland broadcast on bumper stickers in middle America.

The motel's front desk is manned by a middle-aged man with an uncanny resemblance to a scarecrow—straw-colored hair that pokes out from under a dirty Dr. Pepper cap, a long, pointy nose, and an unsettlingly hollow gaze. His drawl is thick and unhurried as he hands me the key to room number 14.

“Why 14?” I ask. “The place is empty isn’t it? Why not 1?”

“‘Cause Australians go on t’upper floor, that’s why.”

I arch an eyebrow. “Firstly, I’m English, not Australian. Secondly, is there any particular reason that only Americans can be at ground level?”

The clerk levels me with an uncomfortably direct gaze. “‘Cause that’s the way it’s always been done, sir.”

I smile. “Of course.” Giving him a polite nod, I decide not to push the matter any further. While the policy makes no sense, it’s clear that the man isn’t going to budge. It’s not as if I have any other options for places to stay in this town, so I don’t want to upset him any more than I already have. I grab the suitcase from the boot of my car and lightly ascend the steps to drop it off in my room, noting that there is no room 13. I never understood the American obsession with the number 13. Just because my room is labeled 14, doesn’t mean that it isn’t the thirteenth room.

When I open the door, the scent of musty wood and chlorine fill my nostrils. The swirl of smells comes as a relief. Chlorine means that at least someone has cleaned it recently. My gaze surveys the peeling wallpaper, the rattling, dented air conditioner, the frayed edges of the blankets, and the ancient box-style telly. It’s not exactly the Hilton, but it’ll do. As a traveling salesman, I’ve stayed in far worse places. I drop my bag on the bed and splash some water on my face, attempting to wash away the fatigue of a long drive.

Deciding to explore the town to find a place to have dinner, I make my way down the main street. It's like stepping back in time—the quaint brick houses, old storefronts, the soft strains of country music floating out of a dimly lit bar. The scent of fried chicken and apple pie fills the air, enticing me toward the bar’s entrance. Like the motel, it appears to be the only watering hole in town.

I pause outside the entrance, taking in the raucous laughter and clinking glasses. It's a scene that feels both alien and familiar—like a British pub, but with a unique American flavor. A wild sense of adventure bubbles within me. Smiling to myself, I slip past the heavy, propped-open wooden door.

The bar looks like a relic of another century. It’s as though it's been carved from the heart of Kentucky itself. Its worn brick walls, dark wood paneling, and low ambient light emit a warmth that's as intoxicating as the Kentucky bourbon I'm about to try.

As I slide my stool up to the bar, the scent of pine and whiskey, intermingled with the smoky scent of the crackling fire in the hearth, teases my nostrils. I plant myself onto the barstool, the creak that erupts from its wobbly top making me briefly concerned that it might collapse into a pile of sticks beneath me, but thankfully, it holds. As I sit down, a couple of blue jean-clad patrons turn their heads curiously, their conversations halting momentarily before the bar's buzz swallows up the silence.

At the far end of the bar, I see a woman pop up, a blazing phoenix against the backdrop of liquor bottles. Her red hair catches the evening light as it streams through the front window, the frizzy strands at the edges glowing like embers as she navigates the bar with effortless grace. She's tall and fit, though she doesn’t lack for feminine curves. She moves with well-practiced purpose. Her eyes are a vibrant green that remind me of the lush English meadows back home, yet they hold a spark that's distinctly American.

"Whatcha havin', stranger?" she drawls, a mischievous glint in her eyes. Her accent curls around her words, giving them a soft, roundly melodic quality.

"Well, I’m from out of town,” I reply before attempting to match her accent. “So, darlin’, I’ll have whatever you wanna give me..." I return with a playful grin, matching her easy tone.

Her laughter rings out, sweet and clear, cutting through the surrounding chatter. She really is quite fetching, particularly when she smiles. "Well, ain't you a charmer! Our bourbon here is pretty good. Ya know, when in Kentucky..." Her eyes sparkle as she awaits my response.

Before I can respond, a shadow falls over us. I turn to see some sort of giant⁠—or possibly a troll of the non-social media variety—hulking and burly, muscles rippling under his stained plaid shirt as he scowls at me from beneath shaggy eyebrows. He casts a quick glance at the lovely lass behind the bar.

"Jolene," he grunts, jealousy radiating off him, "you're wasting your charm on this British peacock."

His infatuation with Jolene is as evident as the drink in my hand. The entire bar seems to hold its breath, anticipating the storm that's brewing.

"Peacock, huh?" I chuckle, looking down at my tailored pink Christopher Kane shirt. "That's a new one."

Ignoring the giant’s irritation, I turn toward Jolene once again, continuing our more pleasant exchange. “So Jolene, I’d be delighted if you wouldn’t mind wasting more of your charm on me.” I flash her a winning smile, and she seems amused. I continue to ignore the nearly literal elephant in the room.

"Alright, peacock," she finally says, acknowledging the giant with a quick wink, setting a fresh drink in front of me, "let's see if you can handle Kentucky's finest."

I down the shot before carefully placing the small glass on the bar, a trail of fire sliding toward my stomach. “Refreshing,” I gasp, punctuating the statement with a small cough.

My reaction to the bourbon amuses Jolene, but the giant guffaws like it’s the funniest thing he’s ever seen.

“Little peacock can’t handle his liquor!” he bellows before doubling over in another bout of raucous laughter.

The quiet tension in the bar becomes a gregarious buzz again, the danger of a confrontation apparently past.

As the giant lumbers back to his table, still chuckling, Jolene leans over the bar and speaks in a conspiratorial whisper. “That’s Carl. He’s kind of a human mountain, but don’t worry. I can handle him.” She winks at me, and again I find myself drawn to this vivacious woman.

“I noticed. The mountain part, anyway.”

Jolene laughs again, turning to pour me a sample of another Kentucky whiskey.

As we continue to chat, I tell her about the truck at the motel with the “I heart UK” bumper sticker, and an emotion I can’t readily identify flickers across her face. It’s gone in an instant, then she laughs almost as hard as Carl did. “They ain’t sayin’ they love the United Kingdom UK. They’re sayin’ they love the University of Kentucky UK.”

I shrug sheepishly. “What can I say? I suppose I still need to learn the territory.”

“Learn the territory?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I say, shuddering after downing the next shot. “I’ve been assigned western Kentucky by my sales manager.”

“Ah,” she says, as if I’ve answered some unspoken question. “You’re the snake oil type. Shoulda known.” She gives me yet another flirtatious wink.

Three winks in fifteen minutes. I realize that this young woman is into me. Perhaps she likes peacocks, after all.

After another shot and a few bites of catfish and hushpuppies, I excuse myself to the loo.

The sharp stench of cheap soap and dampness hits me as I open the door to the bathroom. The aged but clean tiles and burnished faucet are as old as the main hall of the pub. But this is no time for critiques⁠—nature calls.

An old man walks in after me, pausing by the sinks as I wash my hands. He rests his hand on the paper towel dispenser, his hands gnarled like the roots of an ancient tree. He looks at me through the mirror, a myriad of tough years etched into his lined face. "Watch yourself," he murmurs, his voice barely more than a whisper over the steady flow of the ancient faucet.

"Why's that?" I ask, trying to keep the conversation light. "The soap's not that bad."

He doesn't laugh. Instead, his gaze grows serious. "It's not the soap you should be worried about. Two men died in this town over the past year, stranger. Both had their sights set on pretty Jolene back there behind the bar. Chatted her up somethin’ fierce, just like you. The way I see it, you might be next."

There's an eerie silence as his words sink in. I rinse my hands, mulling over his warning, my mind suddenly filling with unasked questions. Who is the killer? Am I really in danger? What did these men do to end up dead?

My mind instantly jumps to Carl. Jolene had said that she could handle him, but I wasn’t so sure. Especially now.

As I step back into the lively bar, my heart's racing, but my face remains calm. I weave my way through the crowd, trying to shake off the tension. I spot Carl in the crowd, his eyes narrowed and his nostrils flaring like a bull about to charge. A shiver runs down my spine, but not from the cold.

But I continue to scan the room to see if any other suspects make themselves known. My sweeping gaze pauses at another man, this one in the corner. His eyes were glued to mine in an unspoken challenge, though his posture was relaxed. His bony hands caressed a half-drunk pint of beer on the table in front of him. His hair was slicked back, as shiny as it was stringy, its ebony shade matching that of his beady eyes.

Quickly shoving the new concern into the depths of my belly, I don a smile and return to the bar, ordering more of whatever Jolene chooses to give me. As I try more of Kentucky’s finest, the words flow, and when she touches my hand and tells me that she adores my sexy accent, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m charming the lovely young thing.

As I peer into her lovely eyes, my gaze falling occasionally to her full lips, I debate my next move. What are the chances that there really is a killer that will strike down any man that shows interest in Jolene? Is it worth the risk?

With a longing sigh, I decide that the answer is probably no.

Disappointed and a little surprised at my good judgment, I pay my tab and rise to leave.

“You’re leavin’?” Jolene asks, her crestfallen expression probably matching mine.

“I am,” I say. “Early day tomorrow.”

“Well… Nice knowin’ ya, peacock…” She winks.

I wink back this time, then head for the door. As I leave the bar, a chilly night breeze sweeps across my face, a sobering slap after the bourbon-drenched warmth of the crowded room. The sound of crickets fills the air, even in the center of town. No one else is on the street. The old brick street under the dim yellow lamplight feels both lonely and haunted.

That’s when I see him. The street isn’t deserted after all. The slick-haired man from the corner of the pub is out here, and I curse myself for forgetting about him. His black hair almost merges with the shadows, his sinister silhouette chilling me more than the breeze. I shiver, then begin to trudge toward the motel. I feel his eyes boring into my back, and I wish I hadn’t drunk so much whiskey. The horizon flows back and forth like the deck of a sailboat on stormy seas.

I pause to pretend to tie my shoe, glancing surreptitiously back to where I saw him to discover that he has begun to follow me. I rise and accelerate my pace. It’s only three blocks to the motel, but the looming threat of the night makes my heart pound, each thundering beat echoing in my attentive ears.

As the steps quicken behind me, I decide to change strategies and turn. I don’t want this man behind me.

"I suppose you're just out for a midnight stroll as well?" I call out as he approaches, my tone brimming with false cheerfulness, as I attempt to break the ominous silence between us.

"Something like that," he responds, his voice barely above a whisper. His words slither to me on the wind like a serpent, stirring up memories of the old man's warning.

Dread seeps into my veins, replacing the last vestiges of bourbon with finger-twitching adrenaline. I walk beside him, careful to keep my distance, ready for any sudden moves. I turn right, away from the motel. He continues with me. I loop a few blocks out of my way before finally arriving at the motel once again, the strange man still beside me. I can’t think of any good reason that the man would choose the same circuitous route as me to get here. Only bad reasons. Very bad.

Our paths finally diverge, mine taking me to the motel, his continuing on, and I feel relief flooding through me. “This is my stop,” I say, climbing the steps as he continues on.

“Figured,” he says with a meaningful look. “Watch yourself tonight. I saw you with Jolene, man.”

What was that supposed to mean? Was he going to come back later tonight?

Debating whether I should even attempt sleep, I nervously fumble with the key. A sharp chill snakes down my spine as I finally manage to unlock the door and step inside. I hurry to the window and draw aside the curtain to make sure that he isn’t still out there.

He’s not.

Swallowing down my fear, I flick on the lights. As I'm about to heave a sigh of relief, a low, sultry chuckle ripples through the silence. I whip around, my heart nearly leaping out of my chest, to find Jolene lounging on the bed, bathed in a moonlit glow.

"You sure know how to make an entrance, Mr. Peacock," she purrs, a sly grin playing on her lips. She's stretched across the rumpled sheets like a cat, languid and smoky-eyed, her gaze never straying far from mine. The play of moonlight over her bare shoulders and the red curls tumbling over them draws my eyes and stokes a burning desire inside me. The sight jolts me out of my momentary fright.

"Evidently, so do you, Miss Jolene," I retort, trying to regain my composure, my mind racing to make sense of the situation.

“Come here,” she says, patting the threadbare sheets.

I do exactly as bidden, sliding onto the mattress to be met by passionate lips.

The kiss is warm and wonderful, but my unwanted thoughts continue to peck at the back of my mind. “Are you sure? What about Mountain Man?”

“Carl?” Her smile is Cheshire. “I told you⁠—I can handle him.”

“And there was this other guy. Followed me home,” I breathe, my eyes unable to move away from her moistened lips.

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about him either,” she says huskily, her voice thick with desire. She buries her fingers in my shirt and pulls me toward her hot mouth once again.

We kiss, and God, what a kiss it is. Pleasant and wet and tingly and…

…a sharp, searing pain erupts in my side, and I gasp, involuntarily breaking the kiss.

I look down to see blood pumping from my abdomen like a bubbling well. It pools on the ragged sheets. I turn wide eyes toward Jolene just in time to see the flash of a long, thin knife as it buries itself in my neck.

I gasp, my eyes as wide as saucers, as I roll onto my back, hot, sticky crimson pouring down my chest. I try to scream, but I can’t. The knife flashes several more times, and darkness begins to creep into the edges of my vision.

“Why?” I manage to croak, completely baffled.

Jolene pauses, breathless from the sudden flurry of stabbing.

“‘Cause you didn’t know what my fuckin’ bumper sticker meant, Peacock.” Beneath wild eyes and tousled hair, her gorgeous lips part in a dark smile. “I’m a huge basketball fan, asshole.”

With that, she rises from the bed, slips her dagger into her handbag, and leaves the room, flicking the light switch off as she closes the door.

2,999 words
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