The Devil’s Curve

Michael Kelly

Illustration by Martin Hanford

In geometry, a Devil’s curve is a curve defined in the Cartesian plane. The name comes from the shape its central lemniscate takes when graphed. The shape is named after the juggling game diabolo, which was named after the Devil. — Wikipedia

I’m racing west along the highway, leaving Blackrock – that dirty dump of a town that once held so much appeal to me – and headed to another fleabag town. Any fleabag town where I can hole up for a spell. Blackrock was good for a while. Until Mingus hit town.

Ahead, a sinking sun the colour of weak tea is giving way to dusk. This stretch of the highway is straight and barren, so I keep the needle of the Buick pushing 130. The car is nothing more than a giant tin can, old and dented like me. It’s shaking, and so am I. The car’s hood is a crumpled mess from when I ran down Mingus. If I can ever get off this damn road, I’ll find a place to ditch it.

It’s late October and already a thin crust of ice covers the flattened fields either side of the dark ribbon of road. The waning sun glints weakly off the dead grass, glitters briefly, then dies. It’s pretty, in a Canadian gothic sort of way. The way things die quick up here. Like Mingus. Except maybe it wasn’t quick. And maybe Mingus wasn’t quite dead. Maybe I wasn’t imagining things and I really did see him in my rear-view get up off the black road all bloody and ragged.

Mingus was named after some famous jazz musician. Mingus hated jazz. Hated a lot of things. Except math. Mingus loved math.

But Mingus might be dead now, and maybe I’d killed him, so I was high-tailing it out of there right quick, because I was beginning to suspect that even if Mingus was dead, he might not stay dead.

Ahead, in the waning light, the road curves. The Devil’s Curve? Can’t be. I already passed that. I slow the car, punch the radio button to break the silence. Jazz. Turn the channel knob. More jazz. Turn the radio off, resign myself to the hypnotic thrum of tires on pavement.

I cough. Something loosening in my chest, wet and ragged. Around the curve now, the road arrow straight, familiar, everything flat and barren and dead until it looms into view on the far horizon – the Black Church.

When I got the call, I thought it’d be an easy job. I was wrong. Ain’t no thing as an easy job in my line of work.

The voice over the line rasped, as if through a throat of crushed glass. ‘Out on Route 6. Just past the Devil’s Curve, at the Black Church. I don’t care how you do it,’ Mingus said. ‘Just do it. I’m sick and tired. I’ve tried and tried. The numbers don’t add up.’

‘Numbers?’ I’d said.

‘Math,’ Mingus said, all scratchy Tom Waits-like. ‘It’s all mathematics. Functions. Quadrants. Angles. Curves.’

I was growing impatient. ‘What’s that got to do with the job?’

A sigh from Mingus. ‘Have you heard of the Lemniscate?’

‘The what?’ He’d lost me. ‘No.’

‘A mathematical symbol,’ Mingus said. ‘Polynomial equations.’

‘Explain it to my like I’m dumb.’

A raspy sigh. ‘You know, it really doesn’t matter.’

This Mingus fellow was starting to grate on me. ‘I want to know. For the job. And why do you sound like you are chewing pebbles?’

‘I told you – I’m sick. That’s why it’s important you get this done.’ A phlegmy cough, then he continued. ‘Sorry…anyway, the Lemniscate looks like a figure eight tipped on its side.’

‘Yeah, that’s the infinity sign.’ All pleased with myself.

‘Exactly,’ Mingus said. ‘An infinity loop.’ Another wheezing cough. ‘In my daily churn of the equations I found a loophole in the loop, if you will. A wormhole. Affecting time and space. Given certain parameters, there is no known terminus in the Lemniscate—’

‘Whoa, keep it simple,’ I said.

‘Right. Simply then.’ A pause. ‘Polynomial equations have positive and negative values. I ran three computations – a zero set, and sets at negative infinity, and positive infinity. I felt … something. A ripple. But I couldn’t see it. Not at first. When I examined it, I saw another Lemniscate. I didn’t see it at first because it lay right on top the other. A double loop, acting as one. But polar opposites. One positive. One negative. One good. One bad.’

‘Good and bad?’

Mingus chortled wetly. ‘An oversimplification, but yes. Math tries to make sense of the unreal.’

‘You’re getting to the point?’ I asked.

‘The double loop creates a small terminus at the center of loops, a window between both loops. Like a wormhole. Or, like a tunnel. You can briefly move from one loop to the other. Existing in both. But different somehow. Opposite.’ Another pause. ‘Look, I don’t expect you to understand—’

‘Yeah, I’m dumb. I get it.’

Mingus laughed a sad laugh. ‘It’s not that so much as, well, you’re just not equipped to understand.’

‘Fuck you!’

‘No offense,’ Mingus said. ‘We’re more alike than you know.’

‘Right,’ I said. I coughed, as if I was catching Mingus’s sickness over the phone. ‘Never mind this math, after all. The target will be at this black church?’

‘Yes, if I can tweak the numbers correctly this time.’

‘How do I identify the target?’

Mingus made a strangled noise, like a fish gasping for breath. ‘You’ll recognise him.’

‘How?’

‘He’ll be the only one. There’s no one else.’

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Sure. And how should I…?’

‘You’re the expert,’ Mingus said. ‘Run him over for all I care.’

So I did. I ran him over.

I’m out on Route 6, and I got the Buick around Devil’s Curve, and the icy Canadian fields are sparking like diamonds in the dying sun, and this structure looms up in the horizon, steeple rising into a dirty dishwater sky, the Black Church, and I look down and he is just standing there in the middle of the dark road, still as stone, as if he were waiting for me, and there’s no one else, it has to be him, has to, he’s asking for it, and I press the pedal, urging the old beast on, when I notice the hood is crumpled, and I glance back up, and it’s real quick, I see him, and he’s familiar, it’s all familiar, and then he’s under the wheels and I’m shooting past him and the Black Church, peering into the rear-view, and maybe he gets up off the road, or maybe he doesn’t. I don’t know. It’s dark. Canadian dark.

I cough. Nerves, I think.

I’m racing east, leaving Blackrock.

Ahead, in the fading light, the road twists. The Devil’s Curve? I already passed that. Didn’t I? I slow the car, punch the radio button to break the silence. Jazz. Turn the channel knob. More jazz. Turn the radio off, resign myself to the hypnotic thrum of tires on pavement.

Another cough, and I’m suddenly so very tired.

None of it adds up. ∎


Michael Kelly is the former Series Editor for the Year’s Best Weird Fiction. He’s a Shirley Jackson Award and British Fantasy Award–winning editor, and a five-time World Fantasy Award nominee. His fiction has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including Black Static, Nightmare Magazine, The Dark, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 21 & 24, PseudoPod, Weird Fiction Review, and has been previously collected in Scratching the Surface, Undertow & Other Laments, and All the Things We Never See. He is the owner and Editor-in-Chief of Undertow Publications, and editor of Weird Horror magazine.

Martin Hanford lives in Ledbury and has been an illustrator for over 25 years, mainly sci-fi and fantasy, although he was once asked to draw a cow! As well as illustrations, Martin has produced numerous album covers and novel covers, and doesn’t get mistaken for the Where’s Wally guy too often.


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