Fun Sized

James Savini was not happy. He held the miniature Tootsie Roll in his left hand, his thumb and index finger delicately fixed around the wrapper. His right hand propped up his .38 Special. He twisted and turned the tip of the barrel, pressing it into Sam Overton’s forehead. It would leave a mark. How much of a mark was up to Overton.

“What the fuck,” Jim said, “Is this?” He held the Tootsie Roll cautiously, as if it were a piece of packaged shit. Overton closed his eyes. Warm liquid ran down his leg and onto his flip-flops. The smell of piss followed.

“Tha-Tha,” Mr. Overton stuttered, “That’s a Too-T-oo–Tootsie Roll.”

“I know what the fuck it is, Sam,” Jim growled, “What was it doing in my kid’s pillow case? Where’s the good shit? The king-sized stuff that you always pass out? Little Jimmy’s been cryin’ for an hour.”

“I r-r-r, r-r-rannn out,” Overton sobbed.

Jim cocked the hammer back and pushed the barrel even harder, putting Overton fully into his foyer. Jim dropped the candy, reached behind himself and pulled Overton’s front door shut.

“My bullshit reservoir floweth over, Sam.”

“I-I-I-.”

“Little Jimmy saw kids coming out of your place with the good stuff. What gives? You think my kid is a fattie? A big old porker? Think he needs to stick to wimpy shit?” Jim pulled back the gun and gave Overton’s gut a nice hard kiss. With his knee. Overton, a short, fat, shape-less man, made an oomph sound, curled up, and put his hands up to hide his face. Jim opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by a knock on the door. He gave Overton another kiss. Right in the kidney. With this shoe.

“Not a word, ya hear?”

Jim opened the door. There were two girls, both dressed like Disney princesses. Probably about 9 or 10, he figured. They held out two pillowcases and pleaded.

“Trick or Treat!”

Jim scanned the porch and found an orange bowl, filled to the top with the rabbit turds that his boy had brought home. He snatched it, dumped half the bowl in each sack, and told the girls to fuck off. As one of them started to cry, Jim slammed the door and fumbled for the porch light, flicking it downward. There would be no more treats tonight. Overton looked up and squealed.

“D-D-Don’t H-H-Hurt me, Mr. Savini.”

“Oh, I’m not gonna hurt ya. You’re gonna hurt ya.” Jim reached into his pocket and pulled out a plastic tube.

“This here,” Jim said, “is for giving especially large pills to big and nasty dogs.” He paused and picked up the Tootsie Roll from the floor. “You, Mr. Overton, are going to stick this right up your ass.”

Overton’s hands trembled. Still curled up, he reached for the plastic tube and the Tootsie Roll. Snot dribbled down his lips and hung off of his chin. He wiped it with his forearm, fumbled to hold onto the items, and dropped them. Jim frowned.

“My well of patience runneth empty, Sam.” Jim raised up a foot and brought it down on Sam’s toes. Sam howled, and his eyes bulged.

“S-S-S- Sorry, J-J-J–”

“Mr. Savini,” Jim corrected.

“Sorry. Mr. Savini.”

“Apology accepted. Right after you stick that up your ass.”

Overton reached for the items and, trembling worse than before, shifted the Tootsie Roll into the launch position. He pulled down his athletic shorts, revealing an ass that was half acne and half Albino. Overton closed his eyes and sunk the tube in the sweet spot.

“Deeper, Sam.”

Overton scrunched his face and gave the tube a final shove. His face turned red. He bit his lip and let his head hang.

“That a boy, Sam,” Jim said, patting Overton on the head.

Jim walked into Overton’s living room. In front of him stood the largest freshwater fish tank Jim had ever seen. It seemed to cover the whole wall. Fish swam in slow, lazy circles, in and out of fake plants and a plastic pirate ship. They weren’t going anywhere either. Jim pointed at one, which seemed to glisten more than the others, and smiled.

“Sam Overton. You never told me you had a Platinum Arowana. That’s a hell of a fish. And I know my fish. That’s a rare color, Sam. A fish like that will run a man at least $400,000. Where’d you get the cash for a specimen like that? You’re comfy, Sam, but you ain’t that comfy.”

Sam eyed Jim and said nothing. Talking would only make it worse.

“I suppose you could say that I’m a man who’s been… inconvenienced. But I know how to fix this.”

Jim snatched a lamp from a nearby side table, turned it upside down, and brought the base squarely into the fish tank. The sound of the glass breaking was almost muffled by the whooshing of the water. Dozens of fish flopped this way and that, and then stopped. Their bellies moved up and down.

“That’s better,” Jim said, side stepping an expanding puddle of water. He opened a nearby closet and pulled out a broom and a dustpan. “When you get that thing out of your ass, go scoop up that fish. Have it stuffed.”

Overton sniffled.

“And Sam?” Jim whispered, stooping down to Overton’s head. “You still owe us for that stash of blow that you lost. The boss says you’ve got a week. I think that’s fair. Oh! And one more thing.”

“Y-Y-Y—ess? Mr. Savini?”

“I want a box of Snicker’s bars with your payment. The good stuff. None of that fun-sized shit.”

Double Cross

Peking Tommy was boss of the Hip Sing tong in the sixth ward. He ran mahjong and fan-tan cellars up and down Mott Street, and he had opium joints all over Chinatown. A survivor of many tong wars, he was one of the last of the old time Triad bosses.

+++++But he had a problem.

+++++The rival On Leong tong had established a partnership with Finn O’Neil, a minor ward boss in a city of minor ward bosses, and a former gang member himself. It was a real game changer. Tommy’s second, the upstart Harry Lee, advised a territory share that would please everyone.

+++++It wasn’t what Tommy wanted, but this was the way things were going.

########

+++++Smoke hung heavy in Tommy’s joint on Bayard Street where the acrid opium scent mixed with the sweet smell of joss sticks. In red jars everywhere, candles backlit the smoke. Tommy had his pig tail re-braided and donned his silk red Mandarin hat for the important occasion. But like Finn and his people, the younger Lee wore a bowler and a wool suit with a button vest. The men reclined on small sofas and Tommy made a real ceremony of preparing the pipe. “For special guest,” he said. Finn and Lee passed it around.

+++++When it came back to Tommy, the old tong chief drew shallowly on the pipe and bowed slightly in the direction of Finn. Passing the pipe he said, “Mr. Finn, my Lee tells me you want to open two dens and two gambling cellars in the sixth ward.”

+++++“That’s right,” said Finn. “The On Leong have asked me to negotiate. It’s a way we can end this war.”

+++++“What if I don’t agree?”

+++++“It would be stupid on your part, Tommy. My people would harass your clients and shake down your joints everywhere. Not only that, but your laundries and your restaurants would come under fire. We have the police now, Tommy, not you. Times have changed. The days of protection pay-offs are over. It’s more involved than that, more of a big business nowadays with lots of people involved.”

+++++The pipe came back to Tommy, but he cast it aside in frustration. “But how do I know you and the On Leong won’t try to move me out?”

+++++Finn answered, “Tommy, that’s why I’m here, to talk about a deal, you know? A business contract. You don’t want this war to escalate.”

+++++Tommy thought this over. He looked Finn in the eye, “I have survived many wars, you know that?”

+++++Finn laughed through his nose. “Tommy, you won’t survive another one, not now. But hopefully there won’t be another one, right Harry?”

+++++Harry Lee nodded and looked at Tommy. “Uncle, we should agree to this,” he said.

+++++Tommy shook his head solemnly. “Maybe you are right. Times are changing.” He refilled the pipe and passed it around again, asking questions about details of the power share as the men smoked. Eventually, he asked Finn, “Why did you not partner with us instead of the On Leong tong?”

+++++“Soon Wong is dead,” Finn said. “A lot of people think you had him killed. The new leader of the On Leong is Fung Yow. He’s younger, like Lee here, and he understands the way things are moving nowadays. The future is with people like him and Lee. It’s in business partnerships with politicians. Why do you think I became a ward boss?”

+++++Tommy laughed. “Maybe I make mistake in killing old Soon Wong. But I don’t know if these young ones are ready to run things when I’m gone.” He pointed to Lee. “Young bosses have not seen enough of tong ways. Many tong members are not what they seem to be. There are . . . how do you say . . . “double-crossers,” yes?”

+++++Loose from the smoke, Lee stole a glance at Finn.

########

+++++Before the meeting, Tommy gave Harry Lee a straight edge and told him to place it in the side pocket of his suit. “They trust you. You are one of their ‘young guns.’ But they will check me over, pat me down. When I give you signal. You cut Fung Yow. Then we bargain with Finn. We make a deal between him and us. This way, the On Leong are out.”

########

+++++The joint was cleared out for the meeting. Fung Yow patted down Peking Tommy. “He’s ok,” he said.

+++++Tommy looked alarmed as Finn made to pat down Lee and protested, “That is not needed. Lee is honest man!”

+++++“Just a precaution, Tommy,” answered Finn. The gangster-turned-ward-boss patted down Lee. “He’s clean.”

+++++Tommy knew for sure now.

+++++With great ceremony, he walked over and stood next to young Lee. “Gentlemen,” times are changing,” Tommy said. “This young man is part of the future. I’m honored to have taught him the ways of the tong.” He bowed slightly to Lee.

+++++Lee wondered if it could be any easier. He moved to grab his blade and slit Tommy’s throat, but it wasn’t there when he reached for it. Tommy rose up and slashed it across the young man’s neck. Like a cat, he was on Fung Yow next. Blood covered the floor.

+++++As he wiped the blade on Yow’s cheongsang, he said, “I told you, Mr. Finn, these young bosses are not ready for the ways of the old tong. They do not always see the double cross. It’s good that you decided to become a ward boss, as you say. Perhaps you and I can make a deal now.” He took a step toward Finn. “Or do you still consider yourself a gangster?”

Blood Sport

I had known from the early days that my wife Fiona was not of the “huntin’, shootin’ ‘n’ fishin’ set”; and, although I did not hunt, I was pragmatic enough to know that country sports were part and parcel of life in rural England. However, we had decided long ago to “agree to disagree” about so-called blood sports, and it was not until 2001 when I agreed to be the Editor of the local Hunt Association’s monthly journal, “Hounds &  Hunters”, that I had anything remotely to do with the sport. Fiona had accepted this part-time appointment of mine for sake of community spirit and our status in the town, and had agreed, reluctantly, to accompany me to the annual Hunt Ball, to which she and I were always invited.  However, beyond that acquiescence, the subject was taboo and kept as much as possible out of our conversation.

+++++Therefore, on a balmy evening in July of 2003, when I casually informed Fiona that we had been asked to attend a Hunt Association extraordinary fund-raiser the coming week, I was not really surprised at her reaction.

+++++“The Hunt?” She asked. “Again! Do we really have to go, darling?”

+++++“I say Fi!” I replied; turning from the drinks cabinet to face her. “You know how lavish they make those things; champers, glorious buffet, string quartet, everyone dressed up to the eyeballs… you’ll love it!”

+++++“I don’t know, Harry. They all seem such frightful snobs!”

+++++“That’s just not true, Fiona.” I replied; thinking to myself that not a few folk would probably refer to us likewise. “Many ordinary folk are involved in the hunt these days; not just the snobs and nobs! Come on, when we attended the Hunt Ball last year, you met people from all walks of life!”

+++++“Yes, I agree, darling. But even so, I didn’t really enjoy the company of any of them.”

+++++“Oh Fiona!” I said with a chuckle, “Now who’s being a snob!” I walked over to her, glass of sherry in hand.

+++++“What are they raising funds for?” She asked. “For goodness sake… they don’t exactly have huge overheads!” She reached up and took the glass I offered. Fiona was a slim, elegant woman of forty-nine to whom I had been married for seven years.

+++++“That’s not true.” I returned. “What about all the foxhounds; their kenneling and feeding… not to mention breeding? That must cost a bob or two. Then there are the horses.” I took a sip of my third single malt of the evening, satisfied with my answer.

+++++“The horses are privately owned and stabled, as you well know.” Fiona retorted. “But as far as the care of poor dogs is concerned, the Master of Hounds has always managed in the past. What has changed now? What is this fundraising all about?”

+++++I cleared my throat and sat down in the armchair opposite my wife. The leather cushions squeaked in protest as my slightly overweight frame settled in. “Well, from what I was told by one of the Committee who called by yesterday to drop in some photos for the magazine,” I explained, “they need to set up some sort of protection unit, to defend themselves and the hounds from the HSA… the bloody Hunt Saboteurs Association and the thugs that belong to it.”

+++++“A protection unit? This is all just too silly!” She shook her head in exasperation. “What about all the hunt followers and hangers-on? Can’t they simply find volunteers from among those people?”

+++++“Not of sufficient calibre, apparently. According to Police reports there seems to be some pretty professional help behind the saboteurs these days. These bloody hooligans are getting more efficient, organised and more dangerous every season! And none of them seem to be locals. Some that have been arrested for criminal damage or whatever were found to have come from as far away as London.”

+++++I took another sip of Scotch before continuing. “It seems they are no longer content to simply disrupt the hunt by their presence in numbers; blowing hunting horns to confuse the hounds and trying to rescue the fox or whatever. No, they are actually attacking riders and hunt followers. You know yourself that on one hunt last season three riders were dragged off their steeds and beaten. And so the Hunt Association has voted and elected to recruit and train a proper team to get out there on the ground before and during the actual chase to prevent this harassment. They will call it the ‘Hunt Protection Unit’ or HPU for short.”

+++++Fiona scoffed at this in a short burst of laughter. “And so the funds they wish to raise are to pay the salaries of a small, private army.” She raised her voice. “Is that it? Ye gods!”

+++++“Oh come on Fi!” I exclaimed, surprised that my wife was reacting so vehemently. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say that!”

+++++“Well, I would say that!” Fiona exclaimed in answer, as she rose from her armchair and strode towards me. “Don’t forget, darling, I know just what an army looks like!” She reached down and plucked the glass from my hand. “Now, take yourself through to the dining room.” She ordered, with only the faintest of smiles. “Supper is ready!”

+++++It is true… Fiona did know what an army looked like. We had met each other ten years earlier when both serving in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces; she as a surveillance operative in Military Intelligence and I as a full Colonel in the Household Cavalry… although at the time we were both working in anonymous offices in Whitehall. We were immediately attracted to each other and fell, if you will excuse the cliché, madly in love. Shortly after that, we both decided to resign from the services in order to get married and pursue civilian careers. Fiona now ran from an office in the nearby market town of Ashbeck a small but successful company that specialised in surveillance and counter-surveillance electronics and hardware, and I, having in my last few years in the Army studied for and earned a degree in journalism at Open University, was ensconced as the full time Editor-in-Chief and military consultant of “Soldiering Monthly” magazine, based in London, to where I commuted daily by train. Editing the “Hounds & Hunters” was merely a part time ‘hobby’.

+++++I strolled through to the dining room, where supper had been laid. I smiled at my wife, who was pouring wine from a carafe into two glasses. She did not smile back. Fiona was tall, with long blonde hair framing high cheekbones, and with a nose just large enough to prevent her from being beautiful. Considering Fiona was trained in the martial art of Krav Maga, in which she had become expert while seconded to an Israeli Commando Unit for one year, it would take a man braver or more stupid than I to bring this flaw to her attention.

***

+++++“I hope you will give this bash a good write up, Harry!” Boomed Sir Arthur Moreton, the Chairman of the Hunt Association Committee, as he leaned around me to pluck another glass of champagne from the silver tray of a passing waiter. “We need some good publicity if we are to rally the troops in our favour. Got to stamp out these bloody HSA hooligans!” He shouted, before taking a good slurp of bubbly from the glass and popping a thin sliver of smoked salmon into his mouth.

+++++“Of course, Arthur, you know I will.” I took a sip of my champagne. He long ago had asked me to drop the “Sir” when we were speaking together. “Good turnout here, though.” I continued. “You think you will raise a substantial amount from the members present?”

+++++The Master of the Hunt; another of his salubrious titles, pushed into his mouth a quail egg balanced upon a tiny, mayonnaise-covered wedge of toast. “Mmm; pretty sure we will.” Arthur mumbled, as he chewed the dainty morsel, before wiping an errant crumb from the corner of his full lips and smoothing his handlebar moustache. “But we will drum up some more cash from other sources too!” He roared; drowning out the classical tones of the string quartet playing softly in the corner of the village hall. “Your article will reach a broader membership, and I am meeting the Chief Constable on Friday, so will have a quiet word in his shell-like!”

+++++I felt at that moment instant pity for the Chief copper if Sir Arthur was to have any sort of word in the fellow’s ear with anything like the volume with which he now addressed me.

+++++A former Ambassador at some minor posting in Asia, Sir Arthur Moreton had the distinction of being the local stipendiary Magistrate, as well as a staunch Rotarian and the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. One might say he was a pillar of the community, in every sense of the word. If anyone could drum up support, it would be Sir Arthur.

***

+++++“Cheers, Harry,” Sir Arthur boomed, handing me a glass of single malt. It was three weeks after the fundraiser and I was ensconced in a leather armchair in the sitting room of Dunstan Manor. “I asked to see you for two reasons.” He dropped into an armchair opposite. “One; to let you know that the Treasurer, Simon Appleby informed me this very morning that between the fund raiser and your article in the magazine this month we have raised more than ten thousand pounds!” He raised his glass.

+++++I covered my surprise at hearing of such a large amount, leaned forward and clinked my glass against his. “Congratulations, Arthur!” I settled back into my chair, not really knowing why he chose to inform me of this event. After all, I was not a bona-fide member; merely the part-time editor of their journal.

+++++“So, Arthur.” I decided to show some interest. “How do you propose to spend it; I mean, how will you put it to good use?”

+++++“That’s where I need your help once more” He closed one eye and sighted over his glass at me, as if taking aim.

+++++I frowned at him. “How do you mean?”

+++++“That brings me to the second reason for this little chat,” he said. “With all your previous military experience and contacts, do you think you could find a trusty fellow who would be willing, for a small fee of, say, five thousand pounds, to spend a month or so recruiting and training up a team of fifteen or twenty souls to take care of these saboteurs if they cause trouble again?”

+++++“I don’t know, Arthur,” I replied hesitantly. “I am not a mercenary recruiter, for goodness sake!” I added, in a stronger tone.

+++++“No, no! Harry!” He protested. “I don’t want you to get your hands dirty.  No weapons, obviously. Just find someone who could train them in woodland tactics, physical intervention and crowd control, or whatever you Army-types call those sort of things. What say you?”

+++++I took a long swallow of Scotch. “I am not sure. I will need time to think about this, Arthur.” I paused in thought, pondering over his request. “Give me a day or two to mull it over, will you?”

+++++“Fine!” He boomed, standing up. “Let me know your decision day after tomorrow.”

+++++I also stood, drained my glass and placed it on the table. Sir Arthur showed me to the door. I turned to face him. “Sir Arthur,” I said, formally for a change. “If I assist you in this, we must have a clear understanding on two points. And they are not negotiable.”

+++++He nodded. “Go ahead…”

+++++“Point one.” I held up in front of his ruddy face a straight finger, “At no time, before, during or after anything that occurs with this matter must my name be mentioned to anyone – especially my wife, Fiona – as being even remotely involved. Fiona must never know we have even discussed this! Agreed?”

+++++“It’ll be our secret. You have my word!” He replied, clapping a hand on my shoulder.

+++++“And, point two.” I raised a second finger in a Victory salute. “My involvement, if I agree to become involved at all, is to simply source a trainer with suitable experience. After introductions, I hand him or her over to you and the Association and will have nothing further to do with the person, the payment, the methods of training or operation, or anything to do with the so-called ‘HPU’. I want to be one hundred percent clear on this. Agreed?”

+++++“Again, you have my word!” Sir Arthur Moreton thrust out his hand and we shook on it, as gentlemen do.

***

+++++At one time in my Army career, I had the good fortune to work alongside some chaps from the UK Special Forces. When I held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, I was the Commanding Officer of the Blues and Royals; who at that time were posted on ceremonial duty at Horse Guards Parade and Buckingham Palace in London. During this period I naturally met the security team from the Royal Protection Squad. Among these specially trained men and women – a mix of armed Metropolitan Police officers and Special Forces personnel – I got to know Jock, a senior NCO with the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS). Although from different backgrounds, education and rank, we got on like a house on fire. Sometime later, when I was promoted to full Colonel, I left the Regiment in care of the new CO – it was now stationed as an armoured reconnaissance unit in West Germany – and was posted to Whitehall as a Staff Officer. Jock and a few of his team from Hereford, now working on black ops for MI6, often passed through London when assigned certain tasks, and Jock would sometimes pop into my office for a cup of tea –  or a glass of Scotch.

+++++Even after leaving the Army I kept in touch with Jock, somewhat infrequently, and once or twice when he was visiting town invited him to join me for lunch at my club in Kensington. I was therefore aware that Jock, now 55 years old, had several years ago left 22 SAS, and for some time had been engaged in security contracting or advisory work in Africa and the Middle East. I also knew that he had recently returned to the UK from Oman and had quit freelance soldiering for good. It was his sage intention, so he told me, to make way for the younger, fitter types who were coming out of the Army and looking for work in the private sector. Jock was an obvious choice for trainer of the so-called HPU.

+++++When I managed to get Jock on the phone, after our enthusiastic greetings and small talk, I outlined the task at hand and the reasons for it. I mentioned he would be offered five thousand pounds for one month’s work, told him that he would be supplied with an old Land Rover for transport, and that all his expenses would be covered.

+++++Jock agreed, saying that it would be something interesting for him to do. He was bored, he lamented, with gardening, taking his Labrador for long walks, and having the occasional pint in one of the SAS watering holes in Hereford. Of course, I didn’t believe that was all that occupied his time! We made arrangements that Jock would come down in about one weeks’ time.

+++++I telephoned Sir Arthur and gave him my response and the news. He was delighted, and let me know by the volume of his voice in the receiver how much so. About a week later, somewhat ambiguous advertisements appeared in the local newspapers, on the noticeboards of the local pubs, in the village hall and in the window of the Post Office, inviting candidates to apply for a position as a Security Support Officer with duties in and around the county. Full training would be offered. There was a short list of required criteria; age parameters, minimum height, level of fitness, etc. but no address or company name… just an anonymous phone number; Jock’s mobile.

***

+++++On the day of his arrival, I met Jock at Dunstan Halt; the tiny and quaint railway station set on the outskirts of town. We shook hands firmly and I gave him a quick once over. He hadn’t changed much since last seeing him: still sporting a horseshoe moustache and long sideburns, a Rolex Submariner watch on his left wrist, and dressed in a green bomber jacket, blue jeans and brown leather hiking boots. He hoisted a military Bergen into the rear of my Range Rover and jumped into the front passenger seat. I climbed in the driver’s side and reversed the car out of the station car park. From there, as I ferried him to the Woldview Cottage B&B and after swapping trivial news, I briefed him on some details of how the hunt is organised.

+++++At one point, he asked, “You don’t hunt, though, do you, Sir?” He couldn’t break old ingrained military habits, despite the fact we had known each other for so many years.

+++++“No, and neither does Fiona; she vehemently detests blood sports.  But, because of my involvement as editor of the hunt magazine, I have learned all about it.”

+++++Jock had never met my wife, but of course knew from our long association that I was married.

+++++“Where does it all start from?” Jock asked. “The actual hunt, I mean.”

+++++“Typically, the meet, as the gathering is properly called, usually takes place in the local pub car park,” I said, “or in the communal area behind the village hall; although it can happen on private land, such as at Dunstan Manor, which is known as a lawn meet. This first meet of the season will be at the village pub, appropriately named the ‘Fox and Hounds’… a very common pub name in rural Britain, as I am sure you know, Jock.”

+++++“Been in a few!” Jock laughed, and then added, more seriously, “Any weapons around… guns, I mean?”

+++++“Well, farmers around here are allowed to have shotguns, if licensed… as do a few poachers, no doubt.” I answered. “But I’ve never heard of any turning up at the hunt.”

+++++“I won’t need this then.” Jock lifted one side of his bomber jacket and patted a 9mm Browning automatic pistol stuffed into a shoulder holster. He smiled at the look of shock on my face. “It’s okay, Sir. I am allowed to carry. I’m still on the books at Six… and what with continuing death threats from our ‘friends’ from over the water… you know what I mean.”

+++++I did know what he meant. The Provisional IRA hated the SAS… a hate that stretched far beyond the treacherous handshakes of the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998. Still, I was shocked to see Jock so armed. I certainly hoped he would not need to use it.

+++++We arrived at Woldview Cottage B&B where Sir Arthur and the Hunt Treasurer, Simon Appleby had booked a room for Jock and were waiting to meet him. I had warned Jock in advance about Sir Arthur’s brusque and pompous manner, but he had dealt with worse in his military career and was not worried. Introductions quickly over, and leaving the conspirators nursing their drinks in the small living room ‘Resident’s Bar’ of Woldview Cottage I went home; feeling quite guilty about the subterfuge and hiding these events from Fiona.

***

+++++Although I rarely arrived home from London before six-thirty in the weekday evenings, Fiona was invariably there to meet me in the living room with a drink before supper. Of course, there were occasions when she had to work late at her office or to meet with clients and would let me know in advance, but these incidents were few and far between. So I was surprised but not unduly concerned to find her absent when I arrived home one evening, with no message or call to explain her lateness. When she eventually came breezing through the front door at eight-thirty, however, I asked, “Darling! You are very late. Is everything okay?”

+++++“Yes, Harry,” she leaned forward and, slightly breathlessly, pecked me on the cheek. “I had a last minute visit from a new client who wants me to fix him up with CCTV. He kept me talking for ages!”

+++++She threw her jacket over the back of a chair, “Let me fix supper quickly!”

+++++“No Fi. I have made pasta and salad. It is ready to eat as soon you have freshened up!”

+++++“Thanks, darling. I won’t be a mo!” She disappeared upstairs and I could hear the shower running.

+++++Over supper, Fiona explained that the new client had several business properties, one of which housed sensitive information. “He wants a complete audit carried out, with recommendations for cameras, monitors, and biometric access control… the works.” She poured us both a glass of white wine. “That’s great, Fi!” I exclaimed. “A very good contract by the sounds of it.”

+++++“Yes, darling.” Fiona toyed with her pasta, not looking at me. “But, the site is miles away, on the other side of Norwich. And he wants me to personally carry out the audit and be on the ground every day to oversee the installation and whatever.” She glanced up briefly from her food. “I will be working late most evenings for quite some time, I am afraid.”

+++++“That’s fine, Fi.” I encouraged, “I will manage to get supper ready most evenings… if not, we will dine out at the pub!” I poured more wine. We clinked glasses in a toast, and drank to the new contract and to each other’s health.

***

+++++True to her word, Fiona was late home every workday evening for the next six or seven weeks. Most times she arrived looking quiet tired and pale.

+++++“I say, Fi!” I had to remark one Friday evening, seeing her almost crawl into the living room. “You look really worn out. Come on, off with that jacket,” I said, helping her shrug off her green wax cotton Barbour. “These late evenings and long drives home are really taking their toll. Let me get you a brandy.”

+++++I returned quickly from the drinks cabinet and passed her the balloon.

+++++“Thanks, darling!” She said, sinking down into the armchair and putting her feet up on a footstool. “It is rather tiring, I must admit. But will be worth all the effort in the end.” She smiled, somewhat solemnly.

***

+++++Sir Arthur had given me the date for the first hunt of the season, well in time for it to be publicised in the forthcoming journal. The journal went out on time, and all the members – and, of course, the Hunt Saboteurs Association, which had spies everywhere – were, therefore, informed well in advance.

+++++I had purposely kept away from and out of contact with Jock, leaving him and the Hunt Committee to organise and train the whole HPU thing. As far as I was aware, Fiona had no idea what was going on, and, as she arrived home worn out almost every evening, probably did not care. She never even mentioned the subject.

***

+++++The day before the hunt, Sir Arthur informed me that Jock had reported to him that the HPU boys were as ready as they would ever be. He had heard from some informers that the HSA were going to be out in force too, and he wanted me there to cover the event for the journal. I protested, at first, but Arthur insisted, and told me to bring my camera along, as well. “I want full coverage of this, Harry. Photos and a good write-up. There may be some bloody tabloid journos there too, usually are at the first hunt, looking for a bloody sensational scoop; so I want our side of the story to be told straight and true!”

+++++The day of the hunt dawned cold, grey and misty. Steaming breath from both humans and horses plumed and billowed in the chill air of the pub car park, as the landlord and a few helpers passed between the mounted riders handing out the traditional pre-hunt “Stirrup Cup”.

+++++After the bracing drinks, the hunt set off along Lower Dyke Lane, heading for Ten Acres Meadow, and the large area of natural deciduous woodland that bordered it. This would be the covert from where the foxes would be flushed out. Mounted hunt followers, identified by their black tunics, rode along behind the riders dressed in scarlet. The chaotic clip-clop of twenty or so trotting horses echoed in the still morning air. Cars formed a slow-moving tail behind the horses… appearing not unlike a funeral procession.

+++++Mist hung in dank rafts in the hollows of the meadow and lay thick and swirling upon the ground in the woods. I walked briskly across the grass to the edge of the woodland. There, among the trees, I could see shadowy figures moving in the dim light; the HPU. They were all dressed in matching olive drab coveralls and carrying Tonfa PR24 riot batons. I spotted Jock, dressed in a camo smock, moving around giving orders and directions.

+++++Suddenly, I heard yells of derision and the discordant blowing of horns. The saboteurs had arrived; making their noisy way across the meadow from the 52-seater coach parked in the lane on the other side of the fields. Most of them were wearing ski masks for anonymity and were dressed in army-surplus jackets or green parkas with the hoods pulled over their heads. To my dismay I saw that several were carrying sticks or pick-axe handles.

+++++A loud baying and yelping announced the arrival of the foxhounds, as several kennel masters released the dogs from trailers and horse boxes. The horses moved restlessly beneath the riders, snorting and whinnying in the cold air, sensing they would soon be at the gallop.

+++++A loud cry from the approaching saboteurs echoed across the misty field: “Murdering scumbag snobs!” This was taken up by laughter and hoots and yells from the rest of the mob. The saboteurs drew near, weaving their way along the edge of the woodland. Some split off, disappearing among the trees. The HPU took up defensive positions between them and the riders. The hounds had already entered the woods and were trying to scent and put up a fox. The line of saboteurs bristled and shifted with pent up tension, as other were rampaging through the woodland, trying to confuse the hounds and scare the foxes to earth.

+++++“Moreton! You fucking snob asshole!” Someone shouted aggressively; loud above the general din.

+++++Sir Arthur Moreton, hearing his name called, turned in his saddle to face towards the voice.

+++++“Who the bloody hell said that?” He roared.

+++++I watched with horror, as a short, stocky figure carrying a 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun ran forward from the rear of the mob, pointing the gun skyward, intending, I presume, to fire a warning shot or give some sort of signal to the rest of them. He tripped on a hidden tree root and fell forward; as he hit the ground, one barrel discharged its shot in a loud and resounding bang, and with a scream of pain Sir Arthur fell from his horse.  At the loud report of the gunshot, Jock’s muscle memory must have kicked in. From the corner of my eye I saw him draw the 9mm pistol from under his jacket and spin around to face the shooter.

+++++At that very same moment, another member of the HSA, anonymous in a black ski mask, leapt forward and with an angry, high-pitched scream wrestled the shotgun away from the fallen shooter’s grasp.

+++++Jock crouched, firing two shots in quick succession. The person now holding the weapon dropped like a stone, and, as he hit the ground, the second shotgun cartridge discharged. I felt as if someone had smashed my shoulder with a sledge hammer! I was spun around in a spray of my own blood, crashing into Arthur’s steed before slumping to the earth next to him and passing out.

***

+++++When I regained consciousness, with considerable pain in my shoulder and a splitting headache, I slowly opened my eyes and was surprised to find myself in a hospital bed; my shoulder heavily bandaged and my arm in a sling. I closed my eyes again, trying to recall what had happened.

+++++“You’re alive then, Sir?” came a familiar voice. I looked up, and there stood my old friend, Jock; standing there awkwardly with a bag of grapes in his hands.

+++++“Hello, Jock. Barely alive, by the aches and pains I am feeling. Jesus! What the fuck happened? How is Sir Arthur?”

+++++“He’ll live too… unfortunately; pompous old bastard.” Jock smiled.

+++++I chuckled, then winced in pain once more. I heard a moan from one side and gingerly turned my head, expecting to see Arthur lying there all bandaged up like me.  Instead, in bed just six feet away from me, lay my wife, Fiona!

+++++“What the hell’s going on here?” I gasped the questions, propping myself up on one good elbow.

+++++“Sir,” Jock drew near. “I am sorry to say that I shot your wife in the legs… twice.”

+++++“What the fuck are you talking about, Jock?” I yelled.

+++++In the bed next to me, Fiona stirred again.

+++++“This’ll be a shock to you, I am afraid.” Jock nodded towards my wife. “It was Fiona who grabbed the shotgun from that idiot.  She told me earlier, before the drugs sent her to sleep, that she wasn’t intending to use it, but was snatching it away from the bloke in anger, because she had ordered that there was to be no guns. You see, Fiona is a leading member and the tactical trainer of the HSA” Jock confirmed. “Has been for quite some time, apparently.”

Hard Luck and Trouble Every Day

When Chaplin’s mom got to the hospital she gave him a slap upside the head saying, “You damn idiot. How many times you gonna be shot?”

+++++Chaplin said, “This is my first time, ma, the last time was just a graze.”

+++++“You know better than this anyway, somethin’ smells bad you get out, or at least keep your eyes open; sum bitch. Stealin’ from drug dealers, Jesus Christ, you’re better than that and you didn’t even get your cut. Hasn’t even been a month since the Stark job, we still got that money and you go off and do this.”

+++++“Okay, okay,” said Chaplin, “Let’s just go.”

+++++They were driving out of the hospital parking lot; Chaplin’s mom at the wheel saying, “After your uncle was nice enough to take you in on that Starks Antiques festival-whatever-the-hell. That was a hell of a pay day; those antiquing people got money. You’re nearly thirty god dammit you can’t be doin’ such stupid shit.”

+++++Chaplin angled his hat on his head and the rings on his fingers saying, “The bastards shot at me four maybe five times before they hit me. Ha, dumb bastards.”

+++++His mom said, “well I hope your gonna’ do something about this.”

+++++“Of course I’m gonna’; those bastards wouldn’t of even done it without me. Hey, you know Jay Street?”

+++++“’course I do.”

+++++“Then go over there four-hundred block. Is the revolver still in the glove, yup, good old snub nose.”

Chaplin had the top buttons of his flannel shirt unbuttoned and only a few buttons of his vest done; leaving room for the revolver under his arm in his vest. His hat sat low on his sunglasses and when his mom started down Jay Street he told her to go slow.

+++++Chaplin said, “Alright stop here. I’ll be back in a minute.” He got out of the car and walked to an off-white house with more weeds than grass in the yard. After knocking on the door a skinny man not wearing a shirt opened the door swearing. He was shut up by Chaplin shooting him once through the heart.

+++++Chaplin stepped over the skinny guy’s body and found another one near identical on the couch. “Hey Lane,” Chaplin said holding the gun on him, “Get the money.”

+++++“What money, Chap?” Lane said.

+++++Chaplin stood there with a deadpan expression and said, “You got five minutes to get the money you owe me. Then you’re dead like him.”

+++++Lane got up from the couch and moved around to the nightstand. He opened a drawer and wheeled around with a beretta nine. Chaplin shot him in the shoulder before he could do anything.

+++++Lane said, “Sum bitch you shot me.”

+++++Chaplin said, “You gonna’ get the money Lane?”

+++++“Son of a Bitch, ah, it hurts like a motherfucker.”

+++++“Stop being a pussy and find the money.”

+++++“Why the fuck you get a cut anyway? It was me and PJ’s idea.”

+++++“Would you have done it without me?” Lane didn’t answer so Chaplin said, “that’s what I thought; now, get the goddamn money.”

+++++Lane started walking into the other room. Chaplin pushed him forward to get him moving saying, “hurry the hell up; my ma’s waitin’ out in the car.”

+++++Lane said, “Dude you brought your mom?”

+++++“I’m losing my goddamn patience. Find the damn money.”

+++++“Just saying I wouldn’t’ve brought my ma.”

+++++“Well,” said Chaplin, “there is a difference. Your Ma is probably in a house around here anyway blowin’ some coke head. My ma carries a .44 Magnum in her purse; now if I don’t see green in two seconds you’re dead.”

+++++“It’s in the bag on the table.”

+++++“Show it to me.”

+++++Lane opened the bag; it was full of loose bills. Chaplin said, “good; I’m gonna’ take it all.”

+++++“What?”

+++++“’Cause you pissed me off and no goddamn idiot should have this much money.”

+++++Lane surprised Chaplin saying, “why do they call you Chaplin, asshole.”

+++++“Because I’m a mother fucking preacher,” Chaplin said before shooting him twice in the chest.

The End

Sundown at the Toxic Shock Syndrome

So, this was how it would all go down? Eric the Red thought with disdain. An army of crazed, soulless flesh starved things that used to be people, battering down his fortified office door, tearing him to shreds, leaving just enough of his chewed carcass to become one of them—whatever they were. He had always expected to die young and violently, but not like this, and certainly not by his own hand. Eric appreciated the bitter Irony. He had been the father of this atrocity. That he should fall victim to it would have been hysterical, if it weren’t him. Now, here he sat at his desk in his windowless basement office. All he had was a syringe of the awful mixture he had set loose on the world, and a choice.

+++++Eric had only lasted this long because of the door. He had it installed in anticipation of needing to protect himself from one of the many drug dealers with whom he had entered into an uneasy partnership over the years. Eric sold their drugs for them in his club. As skillful and efficient as he was at moving narcotics to the addled metal heads who frequented the place, Eric was even better at skimming profit far above his agreed upon percentage. His erstwhile partners were getting wise to the scam. The grumblings had begun. With that in mind, Eric had the four-ply titanium fire-door put in. It was more vault than anything else. He was assured by the contractor the door would withstand all manner of explosives, rocket-propelled grenades, and any hand-held missiles currently available on the black market. But Eric knew it would be just a matter of time before the horde of berserkers presently outside would finally accomplish what explosives and weaponry could not.

+++++Eric Funschman had been called Eric the Red since he was ten-years-old. His father, Irwin, a criminal with his dirty fingers in all manner of quasi-legitimate small businesses, gave Eric the name. It started to take hold before anyone knew the reason for the appellation.

+++++“Why Eric the Red? It’s not like you guys have Viking blood or anything,” Tovar Beral, Irwin’s retired Mossad agent/bodyguard observed. “You’re Bronx Jews, not a Nordic raiding party. Scary enough if you ask me, I certainly wouldn’t cross you. But, why not something snappy in Hebrew or Yiddish?”

+++++“I call him Eric the Red because he’s always in a foul mood. He is the most unpleasant boy I ever encountered. More is the pity, he’s mine,” Irwin said.

+++++“I still don’t get the red part.”

+++++“Because he’s always on the rag.”

+++++“Oh…that makes sense.”

+++++In fact, Eric was not always on the rag. He had an inability to express himself to others. As such, Eric was awkward around people almost to the point of paralysis. He wanted desperately to interact pleasantly with others. But, his facial expressions and deadpan demeanor would not allow him to communicate his better intentions. Eric had done a lot of work over the years to combat his forbidding appearance, but all his attempts to counter it only exacerbated the problem, and put him further out on the island where he had no desire to be.

+++++A year after his mother passed away, when Eric was ten-years-old, his father brought him to a psychiatrist. He was hoping for a diagnosis that would allow him to have his son declared incompetent, and commit him to an institution—to be rid of him. The psychiatrist, referred by an associate, didn’t understand this was supposed to be a formality. The doctor undertook a pain-staking and rigorous examination. His diagnosis was Asperger’s Syndrome. When Irwin explained the setup as he understood it, Doctor Amalfitano scoffed at him.

+++++“My diagnosis was based on the medical evidence and symptoms your son evinces. I’m not fudging my findings just so you can dump him in a mental hospital for the rest of his life.”

+++++“But Tony Scaggs told me you would do the right thing,” Irwin argued.

+++++“And I just did it. Tony Scaggs is my uncle. I see people he refers to me as a favor. But he understands I will not tailor my diagnoses. Nor will I prescribe drugs which aren’t medically needed. Many of Tony’s associates come in here with the wrong idea. They get sent away just like you. I can help you with your son. But I’m not taking him off your hands for you.”

+++++“What the fuck is wrong with him then?” Irwin demanded.

+++++“He has a high functioning form of autism. His social awkwardness and inability to modulate his voice to coincide with his facial expressions prevent him from communicating with others very well,” the doctor explained.

+++++“So, he’s a retard?”

+++++“No, quite the opposite. He’s actually brilliant, but until he learns to function socially, he’ll never be able to utilize it.”

+++++“What do we do about it?”

+++++The doctor went on to describe a rigorous plan of counseling, occupational and physical therapy and drugs to combat the anxiety brought on by the awkwardness. Irwin thought it would have been easier to just burn the doctor’s office to the ground, destroying his precious medical records, and finding another shrink willing to play ball, but he was prevented from doing so. Irwin Funschman was the second scariest and deadly gangster in Youngstown Ohio. Tony Scaggs Amalfitano had him beat by a mile. There was no way Irwin was going to start a war with Tony by messing with his nephew. He could sense the little prick doctor knew it too.

+++++The treatment prescribed helped Eric to be able to communicate with others and to begin to use his outsized intellect. His father didn’t like him any better, but as he grew, Irwin started to find uses for the boy. While he was able to communicate with others, he made no progress with respect to putting people at ease. If anything, his therapy and training further alienated them.

+++++To combat Eric’s clumsiness when the training began, he started learning mixed martial arts, and lifting weights. Because autism sufferers tend to fixate on rituals and routines, the training took on an almost religious zeal. The fact he was big already made it all look frightening. He countered his impulse not to make eye contact with others by simply forcing himself to do it. This force of will, coupled with his expressionless mask of a face, and his deadpan demeanor made eye contact look and feel like a glare. He never figured out what to do with his hands when he spoke. So, he would push his chest out and throw his shoulders back. He would leave his hands at his sides, but to keep them there he clenched them into giant balled fists. It appeared to everyone he was one cross word away from killing them. With his massive chest, and shoulders like bowling balls, his aspect was terrifying.

+++++Eric’s low raspy voice, delivered from deep within him didn’t help matters at all. It made everything sound like a demand, rather than the polite request he intended. The monotone words, without inflection or emphasis, on their best day sounded like sarcasm. On every other day, they sounded like the portent of doom.

+++++Given these unintended consequences, it wasn’t long before Irwin dropped to number three on Youngstown’s scary gangster list. Tony Scaggs was still nominally recognized as number one, but that was more out of respect and tradition than reality. No one was betting on Tony if Eric ever decided to challenge him.

+++++His father chose Eric to run his most lucrative but volatile business venture, an erstwhile dance hall and saloon. In short order, Eric informed his father he was taking the club. Irwin was no longer in a position to argue. The Toxic Shock Syndrome was a rave hall and exotic dancing emporium fronting an enormous narcotics distribution operation, which is a polite way of saying it was the amoral epicenter of Ohio. Tucked all the way out on the McGuffey Road, out near the county line, the place was the perfect cover for all manner of criminal behavior. And if you had a sin you’d like to commit, or a form of self-abasement you hadn’t yet tried, The Toxic Shock Syndrome would afford you ample opportunity. The strippers were drug addicted prostitutes. They also sold the drugs for Eric. The transactions all looked legal. Buyers would appear to be paying for lap-dances. They would get a lap-dance, along with their purchase of narcotics being slipped into their pockets.

+++++It seemed like a flawless operation, and it was for a while, but Eric was his father’s son. He had been taught to skim everything since he was young. So, he skimmed. Every parcel of narcotics coming into the club to be sold, would be automatically cut with a third of its weight in lactose powder. Eric did all the cutting and re-bagging. The autistic are creatures of habit.

+++++Once Eric started cutting the drugs, it wasn’t long before it was what he had to do. To keep him functional and in his comfort zone, no matter what else happened, Eric cut the drugs. It was this attention to detail and habit that would ultimately slide the world out of its comfort zone and into a world-wide pandemic.

+++++When the Professor showed up, Eric’s operation was already in full swing. He was making more money than he could ever spend, but he was never averse to making more. Counting money was a comfort to him. So, when the tall, thin, stooped and creepy man made his business proposition, Eric was all ears. The vibe of impending tragedy which was coursing through Eric’s body at that moment was not communicated in his face or body language. No one else knew he was suddenly afraid. Eric suppressed his initial revulsion to the Professor, and listened to his deal.

+++++The Professor really was a professor. He had taught bio-chemistry at Ohio State University for thirty years. He became bored after he retired and started messing with the kind of chemistry the University never would have permitted. He would become known in the organized crime world as a synthetic drug manufacturer. His motivations were much darker than narcotics, though. What he was creating wasn’t a drug at all. It was a nerve agent. He called his creation Cornucopia, and insisted it be marketed as such. What the chemical compound did when injected was to simulate the initial high of a heroin shot, coupled with the adrenaline rush of a methamphetamine hit, encased in the general warm encompassing feeling of euphoria and well-being one gets from that first line of cocaine. Eric immediately recognized the limitless earning potential of this product. A drug with those properties sold itself. His only question was, would its allure guarantee repeat sales?

+++++“Is it addictive?” Eric asked.

+++++“Most certainly….and instantly. One shot of Cornucopia ensures the user will need another shot every single day,” the Professor assured him.

+++++“How do we sell it?”

+++++“Like heroin, it’s a powder. We sell it in gem paper in exact doses. The user cooks it with one milliliter of distilled water. There are no impurities, so we have removed the tedious need to strain it through cotton, like they do with their dirty brown tar heroin. They just load the syringe from their spoons and they are as they say, good to go.”

+++++With the built-in demand to such a product, Eric knew it wouldn’t be long before every junkie west of the Appalachians and east of the Rockies would be banging at his door just to get some. And they would be back for more every day thereafter.

+++++“I’m in,” Eric said.

+++++“Yes, of course you are. But before I agree to sell to you, understand this compound cannot be cut or adulterated in any way. The dosage is precise. Any attempt to dilute it will have catastrophic results. Do you understand?”

+++++“Yeah, sure,” Eric intoned, already factoring his inflated profit by one third.

+++++The Professor sensed as much, and was secretly delighted. He had engineered this chemical as a weapon. He was going to sell it to the military, but declined to do so because he knew they wouldn’t have the courage to use it. This was his baby. He wanted it introduced to the world. So, he went back into his lab and engineered the compound with a blocking enzyme to thwart the full, and secretly intended effect. He had heard rumors about Eric’s practice of stepping on his drugs. That’s why the professor sought him out as his distributor. He was counting on it.

+++++The professor had engineered the enzyme to be blunted when simple sugar molecules adhered to it. Eric’s preferred cutting agent for powders was lactose—pure milk sugar. Once the sugar removed the blocking enzyme, Cornucopia did what it was originally intended to. It attacked the brain, which instantly signaled the pituitary gland to put every other gland in the body into overdrive. In an instant, the user felt the effects of enormous quantities of testosterone, adrenaline, growth hormone and insulin coursing through their bloodstreams, with all of the inherent aggression and nervous energy. At the same time, the outer half of the adrenal cortex started pumping enormous quantities of cortisol. This triggered the bodies fight or flight impulse. Except, with this particular nerve agent, there was no longer a flight option. The user became a crazed hormone bingeing dynamo of violence. The aggression stayed in check momentarily until the compound could further attack the brain by depleting the serotonin levels to zero. Once that happened, the ability to reason was gone. The switch had been flipped. What was left was a superhuman turbo-charged killing machine with no other impulse but to destroy or murder.

+++++Then there was the bad news. Once a user of cornucopia either bit, spit, or bled on another person, that person was instantly infected. That’s how a miserable hole in the wall in Ohio became ground zero for the apocalypse that would eradicate the human race.

+++++As Eric the Red Funschman sat at his desk, watching his impregnable door start to give way behind the crush of the berserker horde behind it, he gave some thought to how he would meet his end. He had a syringe of the adulterated cornucopia. He reasoned he could just wait for the door to go down and be consumed by the horde, thus becoming one of them. Or, he thought, he could just inject the drug and join the Armageddon he created. As he jammed the syringe into the side of his neck, and drove home the plunger, he thought, for once I won’t feel awkward around my peers.

427-461 PEARL STREET

My wife is from a town in Canada called Regina. She rhymes it with vagina and doesn’t even bat an eyelash. I joke about it, and she sighs, shakes her head, and calls me immature. Which is rich, considering every time I’m on the phone and I mention One PP she giggles like an eight-year-old.

+++++“You cops, always so worried about your one pee pee,” she’ll say.

+++++One PP is One Police Plaza. It’s the main headquarters of the NYPD down near all the big Manhattan courthouses. The point is—first of all—that my wife is a big hypocrite, but also when something becomes such a routine part of your life, it’s not hilarious or cool or frightening or interesting. It’s just there, and you don’t notice.

+++++There was this man called Jake. A Korean guy who ran the deli near my precinct. It was actually a few blocks farther than two other shops, but it had a real salad bar, and I like vegetables. What can I say—my wife is a dietician from Saskatchewan. Anyway, Jake was always in that store. I worked every kind of shift, every kind of overtime. I’d been in that place at 3 in the morning, at noon, at 8 PM. He was always there. I’d talk to him for a few minutes everytime I came in. He had a picture of his kids. They went to one of the good schools out in Queens. He’d have the Yankees on the radio all summer. Maybe it was a little fake—getting on the cops good side—but I always thought of him as one of the decent people I’m sworn to protect.

+++++Then one day, I went into Jake’s with a guy named Frank who’d transferred from way up in the Bronx a few days back. While I was loading up on baby corn, Frank just sort of stood there like he was thinking real hard. Then he walked out of the deli without buying anything. I paid and went outside. Frank was searching through his phone.

+++++“What’s going on?” I asked.

+++++“The guy behind the counter. Is he new?”

+++++“Jake? He’s been there seven years—at least.”

+++++“You’re kidding me?”

+++++“Why?”

+++++“You don’t get his picture? Every couple of months they send it around. Killed six people with an axe back in Seoul. They said he was probably in the US, possibly in New York.”

+++++“What? Come on.”

+++++But even before he found the picture, I knew he was right. The photo—younger, shorter hair, no glasses—was one I’d seen more times than I’d care to admit. It was a joke around our station—Tae-kyong is on the loose again. And I’d been handing him money just about every day for years. My eyes weren’t open.

+++++Jake (Tae-kyong) made a break for it. I guess Frank was a little too obvious when he first made the guy because there was Jake walking fast across the street down the block—must have gone out the back way. I knew he’d never leave the place unattended, so we went after him. He broke into a run, but the athletic, young axe murderer had become a chunky, middle-aged businessman. We ran him down, and I tackled him in the crosswalk in front of a Papaya King. He got me in the nose with his forehead and was reaching for something in his pocket when Frank came in and helped me pin the bastard down.

+++++The case got tricky, of course. He’d bought the deli with cash no one could account for. We also suspected he might have killed the seller, and we couldn’t identify the kids in his family photos. Then there were extradition laws, some contaminated evidence over in South Korea, and a really strange girlfriend with a ukulele.

+++++So, yes, I had to go down to One PP a few times, and, yes, my wife laughed at me every time I said it. But I never found any of it the least bit funny.

THE SAGUARO TWO STEP

With the sheriff’s flashlight shining in his face, Kevin Maduro tried to appear calm. The headlights from the sheriff’s car lit the ground, his brother Kyle, and their two horses in white light.

+++++“What no good you two up to out here on horseback this time of night?” the sheriff said.

+++++Kevin quickly glanced over at Kyle who was standing on the other side of his horse, Rain. “Just headin’ home sheriff,” he said. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with doin’ that is there?”

+++++“What are you carrying in the saddlebags?” the sheriff said.

+++++Kevin wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. “Nothin’ but some beers and a few other things we picked up at the store outside Rio Rico,” he said.

+++++“I think I’ll just take a look for myself,” the sheriff said. As he unlatched the saddlebag on Kevin’s horse, Rain whinnied and bucked.

+++++“What’s wrong with that horse?” the sheriff said standing on the tips of his boots and looking over the horses’ saddles at Kyle.

+++++“Nothin’ sheriff. He’s just a bit skittish at night,” Kyle said.

+++++The sheriff rummaged through the saddlebags and looked at the contents. After taking a can of beer from the saddlebag on Rain, he said, “I’m surprised to say it, but you boys are clean. Now get home.” He opened the can and walked to his car and got in and drove away.

+++++Kevin ran around the horses and excitedly grabbed the front of  his brother’s shirt. “What did you do with the pouch with the diamonds?”

+++++“I shoved it down Rain’s throat,” Kyle said with a big toothy grin.

* * *

+++++The javelina squealed as soon as the metal tip of Jack Straw’s arrow pierced its gray, dusty hide, sending it into a brief convulsive dance before it fell over dead. The arrow had reached its heart. Stirring up a small ground level cloud dirt, the eight other javelinas in the herd fled into the dry creek bed and disappeared around a bend.  Jack jabbed the javelina’s belly with the tip of his brown snakeskin cowboy boot, then pulled out the arrow. He wiped the blood from the tip on his jeans and put it back in the quiver. The animal’s stench wafted from its body.  Taking the red bandana from around his neck he looked up at the clear blue sky that seemed almost too small to fit the glaring white sun. Visible waves of heat rose up from the ground. He lifted his tattered gray Stetson and ran the bandana over his sweat soaked black hair and wiped the sweat from his face, then tied the bandana around his nose and mouth. Lifting the animal by the skin on the back of its neck, he hoisted it onto his right shoulder and held it there with his right hand.

+++++Trekking westward in the open desert, the blood from the javelina dripped down his chest and back. It mixed with his sweat and glued his shirt to his skin. The air was so still it was smothering. Flying insects buzzed around the javelina and around Jack’s head. Patches of scrub brush, prickly pear and barrel cactus and large saguaro dotted the barren landscape. On the horizon he could see his deceased father’s old hunting shack baking in the sun. The tin roof reflected the blinding sunlight. He licked his parched lips and tried to ignore his bladder wanting to be emptied.

+++++Within twenty yards of the shack he walked by the rotting carcass of a horse. He stopped at the well and dropped the javelina on the ground and lowered the bandana. After pumping the well a small stream of water flowed out of the tap. He put his mouth to it and sucked in water as his warm piss ran down his leg. When the trickle turned to drips he inserted a finger in each of the nostrils of the javelina and dragged it by its snout past the fire pit and into the shack and laid it on the dirt floor next to a rickety table.

+++++He removed the quiver and hung it and the bow on a large hook by the door and hung his hat on top of them. After sitting on the edge of his cot and removing his boots, he stripped off his clothes and took off the bandana and hung them over a line that extended across the room, from one wall to the other. Naked, he lifted the javelina onto the table. Taking a black handled skinning knife from a leather pouch hanging on a wall, he began to skin and butcher the javelina. As he removed the animal’s  head a slight, hot breeze blew in through the open window and door.

+++++“Jack Straw, I come to tell ya somethin’,” Sam MacBride yelled from atop his horse ten yards from the shack. “The Maduro brothers are looking for ya. They want their horse back and they say they’ll kill you if they don’t get it back. Knowin’ those two they might kill you anyways.”

+++++Jack stabbed the knife into the javelina’s head and went to the doorway. He leaned against the door frame and crossed his sunburnt arms across his chest. “Tell ’em I said they can go straight to hell.”

+++++Sam shifted his gaze from Jack. He didn’t like looking at another naked man. “I can’t tell ’em nothin’ you say, otherwise they’d know I’d been talkin’ to ya. I just thought ya should know. Ya can’t hide out here in the middle of nowhere forever.”

+++++“I just plan to be out here long enough to figure out how to get  back what those Maduros stole from me,” Jack said.

+++++Glancing over at the dead horse, Sam said, “That ain’t Kevin’s horse, by any chance is it?”

+++++“Sure is,” Jack said. “It was acting poorly from the moment I stole it. I came out of the shack a few mornings ago and it was lying just like you see it now, dead as Abraham Lincoln.”

+++++“The Maduros are goin’ ta be pretty pissed when they find out Kevin’s horse died after you stole it,” Sam said.

+++++“They give back what they have of mine and I’ll buy ’em a new horse,” Jack said.

+++++Sam pulled on the reins turning his horse toward the direction he had come from. “Anything ya needin’?” he said over his shoulder.

+++++“Laundry detergent,” Jack said. “Also some toilet paper. And tell Grace I miss her.”

+++++Sam hit the sides of his horse with his boots and took off across the desert.

* * *

+++++At dawn, as pale yellow sunlight spread across the Sonora, Grace Baldwin’s pale pink silk slip clung to her body as she stood at the open front door of her house. She waved a red paper fan in front of her face blowing her blonde curls from her face. In the other hand she held a burning cigarette that she brought to her lips and sucked in the smoke.  A small brown and yellow lizard ran onto the tip of her fuzzy pink slipper. Casually, she kicked it off and watched it scurry away. She exhaled the smoke as she let out an audible exasperated sigh. In the distance a hawk soared over the desert.

+++++Kevin Maduro came up behind her and put his hands on her hips and kissed her on the back of the neck.

+++++With annoyance, she said, “Didn’t you get your money’s worth with Janelle?”

+++++He stepped to her side and buckled his belt. “Sure did, your sister is fine but she ain’t you. I’d make it worth your while if you ever want to give me a go.”

+++++“Nothing you could offer would ever be worth my while,” she said. “If you don’t want the other three girls here you can go somewhere else.”

+++++He stepped out into the dirt and while staring out at the landscape he pushed his white straw cowboy hat back on his head, and said, “For a whore who runs an illegal brothel, you ain’t very friendly. Just imagine what the sheriff would do if he found out what you got goin’ on here?”

+++++“I’ll ask him the next time he’s here,” she said.

+++++His back stiffened and he readjusted his hat. “Ain’t that somethin’?” he said. He went to his pickup truck and opened the door. Before getting in he turned and said, “Jack Straw is a horse thieving dead man.” He got into the truck and drove off, his back wheels spitting out clouds of dirt and rock.

+++++After flicking the cigarette out into the dirt, Grace turned and went into the house, closed the door and walked down the hallway. The walls were painted a bright pink and framed photographs of naked women hung on the walls. There were five doors, two on each side and one at the end, that led to four bedrooms and a bathroom. Only Janelle’s door was open. Grace stopped in the doorway. “Kevin say if he found out where Jack was hiding out?”

+++++Sitting at a vanity dresser in a black lace neglige and brushing her long black hair, she said, “He wasn’t in a talkin’ mood.”

+++++Grace bit into her lower lip. “Jack is certain it was one of the Maduro brothers who stole the diamonds.” She smacked the fan in the palm of her hand. “Stealing their horse as ransom was pretty stupid.”

+++++“It never was the size of Jack’s brain that impressed you anyway,” Janelle said as she watched in the mirror how her lips looked when she puckered them.

+++++Grace let out another long sigh. “Who steals a horse nowadays?” she said. “A horse ain’t worth a shitload of diamonds. It just don’t make good sense.”

+++++Janelle turned on the stool she was sitting on and stretched her long legs and said, “Nothing has made sense since we left Nevada to start off new. We’re back where we started, flat on our backs, only minus the diamonds Jack stole in Reno, and stuck in this hell hole.”

+++++“All we need of hell is a little good luck,” Grace said. “We’ve been dancing with devil long enough. It’s time we get somethin’ in return.”

* * *

+++++The black limousine pulled into the parking lot of Henry’s Groceries and came to a stop at a hitching post. The back door opened and three-foot-five tall Zell Lyman stepped out, the gravel under his white Italian leather shoes making a crunching sound.  He slid his pistol into the waistband in the back of pants, tucked his red silk shirt over the pistol and into his pants, and looked around. The small store was dilapidated and the only building in sight for a quarter of a mile. Its tin sign hung slightly askew above the screen door.

+++++Sam walked out of the store carrying a full brown paper bag. A package of toilet paper stuck out at the top. “Damn, a real live midget,” Sam said with a whistle upon seeing Zell.

+++++Zell walked up to him. “Listen, cow pie, I ain’t no midget. You never heard of political correctness? I’m a little person. You got that?”

+++++“Oh, sure, sorry,” Sam stammered. “But you do look like one of those, whatcha call ’em, in that movie with the flying monkeys.”

+++++“You sayin’ I look like a munchkin?” Zell said threateningly. “’Cause if that’s what you’re sayin’ be prepared to have your kneecaps broken.”

+++++“No, I didn’t mean to say that,” Sam said. “If you don’t mind me askin’, where you from?”

+++++“Reno, Nevada,” Zell said. “What of it? If you wanna make something of it, I’m ready.” He raised his fists and made a few punching gestures into the air.

+++++“It’s fine with me,” Sam said. “Everyone’s gotta come from somewhere.”

+++++“Good,” Zell said. He lowered his fists and pulled a photograph from his shirt pocket and showed it to Sam. “You know this man? I heard he was born and raised around here.”

+++++Sam leaned down and stared at the photograph. “Sure, I know him. That’s Jack Straw. He’s an old friend of mine.”

+++++“Where can I find him?” Zell said. “He’s my friend too. I have something to give him.”

+++++“That car can’t get to where we need to go. We’d need to get my horse and I can take you to him. I was goin’ out that way anyways,” Sam said. “I only got one horse. Do you mind ridin’ two to a saddle?”

+++++“I’ll ride on the horse’s bare ass if it gets me to him,” Zell said.

* * *

+++++The antelope jack rabbit sat up on its hind legs and raised its head and sniffed the air, then crouched down. Jack raised the bow, pulled back the string and aimed the arrow at it. Just as he was about to let the arrow fly, a horse’s whinny startled the rabbit and it quickly leapt off between two large saguaros. With the string on the bow still pulled back and taut, Jack pivoted to the left. Without hesitation he released the arrow. It made a whisper-like whooshing sound until it found its target, Kevin Maduro’s throat. With the arrow sticking out both sides of his neck, Kevin eyes bulged out as he grasped his throat, and fell on the ground at the base of a saguaro. Blood spurted from his neck forming a puddle around his head.

+++++Riding up quickly on his horse, Kyle looked at his brother’s body, then at Jack. “You son of a bitch,” he said as he raised his rifle.

+++++Before Kyle got the rifle butt to his shoulder, Jack pulled another arrow from the quiver and put it in the bow, pulled back the string and released the arrow. It hit Kyle in the middle of the forehead. The force of it knocked Kyle off of his horse and against a saguaro where he stuck onto the spines in a standing position.

* * *

+++++A week later, Grace and Janelle arrived on horseback at Jack’s shack. Sam’s body was lying face up in the dirt. There was a bullet hole in his left eye. The brown paper bag was lying by his side.

+++++Jack’s body was lying shirtless against the horse. A bullet had entered the middle of his chest.

+++++Grace got off her horse and walked over to Jack. Animals had made a snack of parts of his exposed upper body. Insects buzzed around him.

+++++Maggots were crawling in and out of the horse’s sun cooked body. Through the open decayed skin in its neck, the pouch of diamonds could be seen. Grace reached in and pulled out the pouch and held it up for Janelle to see.

Laundered

Mildred sat down on the plastic chair outside the laundromat and lit a cigarette. The warmth of the lighter felt good. It was 20 degrees, and close to midnight. She shivered. Her sweater was thin. Her coat was in a dryer, but the dryer wasn’t spinning. She was short a quarter. She thought she might take a walk and find one, but she’d taken that walk before. She wouldn’t find much. Cigarette boxes. Bottles of Mountain Dew. Maybe a nickel.

+++++She took a drag and snubbed the cigarette into her gas bill. She wished she could taste her cancer stick, but her sinuses were clogged. She sighed and took another drag, but no luck. No taste, and no smell. She wanted menthol. Menthol made her smile.

+++++Mildred crumpled up the invoice. It was their third notice. She got the memo yesterday, when Boyd left the house with gin and chicken wings on his breath, on what she was sure would be another bender. He would probably come home in a few days with an index card detailing how much he owed his bookie, or the phone number of another whore, or if she were lucky, a joint. Boyd probably wouldn’t share it anyway.

+++++“Ma’am, you ok?”

+++++Mildred looked up. Standing in front of her, in a frost free vest, was an old man. He had a thin grey beard and sparkling blue eyes. He sported a trucker cap that said “POW-MIA.” Mildred feigned a smile and shrugged.

+++++“Nowhere to go but down. That’s the only way I ever go.”

+++++“I hear you Ma’am.”

+++++“Yeah?”

+++++“Yeah. My pipes burst this morning. And plumbers? Not a single one answering their phones. This weather. They’re all on duty.”

+++++“I’m sorry,” she said. “I wish I could help. I don’t even have enough to dry my clothes.”

+++++“Can I help?”

+++++“A quarter would do.”

+++++“Yes ma’am, but on one condition.”

+++++“Shoot.”

+++++“Just hold the door for me. I’ve got quite a few baskets of stinking, sopping garbage bags. Just about all I own. The flooding soaked everything. So, how about that door?”

+++++Mildred looked around for a doorstop or anything that would pass as a wedge. Nothing. She smiled.

+++++“Ok.”

+++++The old man peered inside the Laundromat. A light above a vending machine flickered. A handwritten sign on the machine said, “Out of Order,” followed by a crooked frowny face.

+++++“Quiet around here, huh ma’am?”

+++++“I usually have it to myself. The place is all yours.”

+++++Mildred tucked her hair, long and unwashed, underneath her knit cap and leaned against the door. The old man thanked her and went to his truck. His knees buckled as he strained under the weight of a basket. He continued on, heaving, basket after basket. Mildred smoked another cigarette and thought of what it would be like to put it out in Boyd’s eye, to watch it melt like a piece of chocolate in the sun.

+++++“Ma’am, you still there?”

+++++Mildred broke free from her trance. She was sad her cigarette was not in her husband’s eye.

+++++“Here’s your quarter, ma’am. I’ll be back in a little while. You take care if I don’t see ya.”

+++++Mildred clutched the quarter and went inside. She scanned the room, and froze. The washing machines were silent. The dryers were running. All of them. The old man hadn’t washed his clothes. He just put them straight in the dryers.

+++++That’s when she heard the thumps, like there were tennis balls in each load. Boom-boom boom. Boom-boom. She walked up to one dryer. The window on it had a red smear. Mildred opened the door, and there, mixed in with some old towels and sweat pants, was a detached hand. The bone and gristle sparkled in the fluorescent lighting. The wedding ring on the hand was, unmistakably, Boyd’s. Her stomach churned, and she could feel acid and juices and gobs of food rush up her esophagus and into her throat. Her head felt light. She titled this way, and that, and blackness filled her vision like dripping paint.

+++++Mildred awoke moments later, covered in vomit. The back of her head was swollen, and a smear of blood was on the table behind her. She did not remember fainting. Chunks of ginger ale soaked chicken nuggets soaked through her clothes. The dryers were still spinning, still thumping with Boyd. She pulled out her phone, dialed 911, and before she pressed the “send” button, she stopped. She started to laugh, and soon her laughs turned into a howl. The dryers continued to thump, and somewhere, in one of them, were Boyd’s eyes. She thought, once more, about what it would be like to put out a smoke in them. To listen to it sizzle into those glassy, stupid eyes. Mildred lit another cigarette and took a drag. She could taste the Menthol this time. She blew out a cloud, flicked an ash aside, and starting opening the dryer doors.

+++++One by one.

Eddie Spaghetti

“Scary, cover the hippy cashier,” Screw said in the van, pulling the ski mask down over his face, obscuring the faded blue swastika tattoo on his cheek.  “He so much as farts, you put a bullet in his head.”

+++++“I’ve never fired a gun before,” Scary said, holding the .45 at Screw’s chest.

+++++“Point it at the Phish fan behind the counter when we get inside, not at me,” Screw said, pushing the barrel away.  “Smoky Dave.”

+++++“Yep,” Smoky Dave said, throwing the butt of his cigarette out the van’s window.

+++++“Herd the stoners into a corner.  If somebody starts acting like John Wayne, blast ‘em.  I’ll go first, and cut down that big security guard motherfucker.”

+++++“We wont actually shoot nobody will we?”  Scary asked, pulling the bill of her black ball cap low over her eyes.

+++++“I fuckin’ hope so,” Smoky Dave said behind a hockey mask, sliding two shells into the shotgun.

+++++Screw gave Smoky Dave a confidential look that put Scary ill at ease like they knew something important she didn’t before they exited the van, and approached the pot dispensary.

+++++“Eddie.  Eddie Spaghetti.  His meatballs are ready,” Scary said under her breath, and rubbed the aluminum tab torn from a soda can in her pocket.

+++++Screw bounded through the front door, and smashed the massive security guard in the head with the butt of his Glock, wilting the big man like a thirsty plant.

+++++“Everybody face the wall,” Smoky Dave said, kicking open the second door, ripping one into the ceiling, and counting four scarred shitless costumers.

+++++“Hands up,” Scary said, pointing the .45 at the white hippy with dreadlocks behind the counter.

+++++“Be cool lady,” the hippy cashier said, squinting at her.  “Be cool.”

+++++“I said get your hands up,” Scary said.

+++++“I know you,” the hippy said.  “We went to school together.  You were what’s his name’s girl.”

+++++“Shut up,” Scary said.

+++++“You just signed your death warrant,” Screw said, and squeezed the trigger.

+++++The hippy flopped around on the floor as blood gushed from the side of his head.  Panicked sobs and mournful cries erupted from the patrons.  Two middle-eastern men hugged each other, and a young white woman with tattooed sleeves and plugs in her earlobes, crossed herself, and tried to look for heaven in the ceiling.  An older woman in a red power suit and matching pumps stood frozen in a defiant stance.

+++++Scary winced at the dead hippy on the ground.  His name was Ricky Fred.  She remembered ditching P.E. to smoke weed with him in his V.W. bug freshman year.  He felt her up, so she punched him in the balls.  Scary hated him for that, but didn’t wish him dead.  There was only one person she wished death on.

+++++“Quiet down, or I start shooting,” Smoky Dave said to the customers.

+++++“I’m not scared of you,” the woman in red said, coming to life.  “I haven’t survived breast cancer to be killed by some punk at a stickup.”

+++++“Lady, I swear to god if you don’t turn around, and put your face against the wall, I will blow your fuckin’ head off,” Smoky Dave said.

+++++“You will not,” the woman said, clutching her purse.  “I’m leaving, and don’t try to stop me.”

 

*

 

+++++Scary woke in a large city planter box in front of the public library with a raging headache.

+++++“Eddie.  Eddie Spaghetti.  His meatballs are ready,” she said, and felt the aluminum tab in her pocket before plodding downtown, and scrounging through public ashtrays to assuage her nicotine addiction.

+++++“Scary,” Smoky Dave said, handing her a cigarette and a matchbook.  “Where you been?”

+++++She lit the smoke, and looked at her reflection in a storefront window.  Her blue hair was pulled back exposing brown roots.  Her face was swollen, sunburnt, and covered in runny scabs.  Smoky Dave wore a crusty black leather jacket, and no shirt underneath.  His long dark hair dangled in front of his face, obscuring his features.

+++++“Nowhere.”

+++++“Got a job for you.”

+++++“I don’t suck dick.”

+++++“It ain’t like that,” Smoky Dave said, and inhaled from a vape pen.  “You know my buddy Screw?”

+++++“No.”

+++++“Skinhead with a swastika tattoo on his face.”

+++++“Maybe”.

+++++“I met him in prison a few years back.  He did a stretch for attempted murder.  He’s been staying with me since he got out.  We’re knocking over a pot dispensary by the highway called Papa Greens.  It’s easy money, but we need a third.”

+++++“Why me?”

+++++“Because I trust you, and because you owe me.”

+++++“I don’t owe you shit.”

+++++Scary used to buy heroin from Smoky Dave.  He wasn’t the nicest of guys.  He’d short her, and beat her when she came up short with his money.  Smoky Dave’s sister died of an overdosed.  It was rumored he was angry because she was stealing from him, so he spiked her hit.  Scary avoided Smoky Dave when she got a better dealer, but he always claimed she still owed him when their paths crossed.

*

+++++Smoky Dave placed the barrel of the shotgun against the older woman’s forehead as Screw smashed open the register, and emptied the cash into a black trash bag.

+++++“Get them sweet nugs too,” Smoky Dave said.

+++++“Fucking stoner,” Screw said, knocking dozens of small black plastic containers filled with various strains of marijuana into the bag.

+++++“Bob Marley blunts tonight,” Smoky Dave said just before the blast.

+++++Smoky Dave dropped his weapon, and crumpled to the floor.  Propped on his elbows in the doorway, the security guard fired again, grazing Scary’s shoulder.  Screw ducked behind the counter, and squeezed multiple rounds into the big man’s face.

+++++“Smoky Dave?  You okay?”  Screw asked, removing his ski mask.  “Shit.  Come on Scary.  Let’s dust these fucks and bounce.”

+++++Scary pointed the .45 at Screw.

+++++“Fuck is wrong with you? Grab the money and let’s dip.  I’ll take care of the witnesses.”

+++++“You used to beat up punkers with a baseball bat,” Scary said.  “A day doesn’t go by that I don’t dream of killing you.”

+++++“You were that kid’s girl,” Screw said in a moment of recognition.  “The last twenty years haven’t been kind to you.”

+++++“Rot in hell,” Scary said, but Screw pulled the trigger first, shooting Scary in the gut, knocking her back against a shelf, and toppling dozens of hash filled containers onto the floor.

*

+++++“I have something for you,” Eddie said, handing Cary the aluminum tab he’d torn from a Coke can.  “A talisman loaded with juju that will protect you from assholes.”

+++++“Why Mister Edward Jordan Green.  I’ll keep it always,” Carry said in a phony southern accent, and squeezed his hand as they entered the Vet’s hall.

+++++Carry and Eddie bounced around the dance floor, bumping people in the mosh pit as their friends’ band sped through three chord riffs.  Near the end of the set, the musicians brought Eddie onto the stage, and started chanting, ‘Eddie.  Eddie Spaghetti.  His meatballs are ready,’ until everybody in the packed hall repeated the words.  Eddie dove off the stage as the band tore into the Eddie Spaghetti song.  After the show, Eddie kissed Carry on the sidewalk.  Car brakes squealed, and punkers scattered as a gang of skinheads hopped out of the back of a pickup truck.

+++++Eddie never saw his assailant swinging the baseball bat at the back of his cranium, but Carry did.  She saw the hate in the man’s eyes, and the swastika tattoo on his cheek.  Eddie went down, and his skull bounced on the concrete like a basketball.  His eyes rolled into the back of his head, and he bit his tongue.  No matter how much heroin or meth Scary put into her veins in the coming years, she couldn’t lose the image of Eddie convulsing on the ground.

*

+++++Screw placed the Glock to Scary’s head, and pulled the trigger, but the chamber was empty.  Scary’s shot shattered Screw’s jaw, and he collapsed into a corner, hissing blood.  The hostages squirmed against the wall like sizzling sausage, frying in the fear of death.  Scary felt warmth leaking from her side as she approached the wounded skinhead.

+++++“Eddie.  Eddie Spaghetti.  His meatballs are ready,” she said, and replaced the swastika on Screw’s cheek with a bullet hole.

+++++The high-pitched whine of sirens approached as the hostages fled the dispensary’s carnage.  Scary sat on the blood soaked floor, clutching the aluminum tab.  Soon there would be hell to pay, but Scary didn’t care.  She was protected.

Aftermath

“Where’s that woman? Damn her!”

+++++“What woman, daddy?”

+++++“Your mother, you fool.”

+++++“Sorry.”

+++++As they walked, cool wind pushed them towards the big yellow house. The farmer’s daughter tried to hold his hand – but he waved her away. He pointed down at the storm cellar door.

+++++“Get in! Shut it, like your mom showed ya. This’ll be on us fast!”

+++++She ran ahead. The Winnie-the-Poohs on her blue dress danced in the wind. Hugging a stuffed bunny, it’s grey head bounced around over her shoulder, ears flopping. One of its button eyes was missing.

+++++In front of the house, a massive magnolia showered white flowers across the gravel driveway, over his wife’s sky blue Bel Air. She was home.

+++++Rounding towards the front porch, he peered into windows for signs of her. Dimly, they only reflected the sky beyond. Black billowing clouds. A dark tide, rolling in.

+++++Lightning flashed. Thunder rumbled the ground. He stomped his feet in response and patted the dust off his overalls before stepping onto the porch. It started to rain – sideways. Tiny bits of hail stung his face and skidded past his boots.

+++++He swung the screen door open. “Sheryl!”

+++++The house reeked sour. She hadn’t taken out the damn garbage. He clenched his jaw and headed upstairs, imagining her drugged out, still asleep.

+++++Heavy-handed wind slapped the house, swaying it some; crackling its wood shell.

+++++Cresting the stairs, he turned into their bedroom. She wasn’t there. The bed wasn’t made. It wasn’t like her. He knew that she’d be scared of him today, but she’d never hide. He vaguely remembered their fight from last night. He turned back to the stairs, scanning his thick, tan hands. No marks on the knuckles.

+++++On the landing, he detected a familiar sound from outside – still distant. Like a diesel freight train.

+++++“Dammit!”

+++++Wind slapped the house, harder this time. He hammer-fisted a family picture on the wall, shattering glass – then took the stairs two at a time.

+++++At the bottom, he pivoted into the dining room and ran past the table holding last night’s empty Cokes and bottles of Jack, which rattled under his steps.

+++++He burst into the kitchen. She wasn’t there. On a hunch, he rushed to the window above the sink. He saw her. Outside, on the patio. She was sitting on a white plastic chair, ducking wind.

+++++“What the Sam hell?”

+++++In the bright floodlight, he saw her bent over, hands clasped on the bottom of the chair, craning her neck to look up at the window. Her face was badly beaten. The other white chairs and table of the patio set were gone. Her hair was blown sideways, like a wind-struck black flag. The house had shielded her from the brunt of the wind. So far.

+++++He slapped the window with his stony hand, striking a lightning bolt across the glass. “Dammit woman!”

+++++She tilted her head, as if she could see him. Her left eye was nearly swollen shut. Her eyelid was blue and inflamed. Beat raw. There was a slit of glassy red where her eye should be. Her jaw looked wrong.

+++++I went too far.

+++++He stiffened, remembering something he had said. Late last night, he had shouted at her to stay there. After the beating. He had pushed her into that very chair, yelling nonsense. Screaming, spit flying, beating his own chest, he remembered pointing towards their daughter’s bedroom window. He remembered somehow threatening her, too. He didn’t know why.

+++++“Sheryl, you know me. You know!” He slapped the window again. “Never!” he screamed past a lump in his throat.

+++++He saw leaves and pieces of potato plants, purple and white flowers, swirl in the air far behind her. He saw what could be shingles and siding from the barn.

+++++He knew what the look on her ravaged face meant. It meant something well beyond hurt and sad. It meant she had lost faith – in him. It meant goodbye.

+++++The wind changed. The freight train was all around now, deafening. Her wet hair flipped up. She sat up: In defiance. Her top lip quivered. Eerily, her chair leaned back. It stayed on its hind legs for only a second before the wind took them both. She flew up and off, spinning into darkness. He was shocked by the speed. Plucked gone, hurled into swirling debris. It was like God Himself had reached down with an invisible hand and flicked her away.

+++++He felt himself crumble away on the inside while everything around him fell apart. The left side of his body was pelted by a thousand bullet-pieces-of-house. Weightlessly, he began to float with the icy rush. Roll with the dark wave. Numbly, he did, relaxing. He slammed into something big: Metal. He felt himself funneled up the cone. Then pushed towards the brighter side. He blinked bleary eyes and saw the magnolia tree below, bent over the Bel Air, stripped of its white flowers. Both of them were being picked up, twisted amidst a cloud of dust and gravel. With a sudden jerk, he was spit out of dark cold into bright sunlight.

+++++He fell from an incredible height. His arms hopelessly swam for stability, pinwheeling against warm air. Below, his potato fields had been ravaged by the wind – scraped raw.

+++++God throws me into my own dirt.

+++++Seconds before impact, he imagined his daughter in the storm cellar, talking to her bunny, thumbing at its missing eye – telling it that “Mommy can save us from the storm.” The storm that I am.

Stepford Meets Milltown

The vases graced the fireplace of their suburban ranch, a home with a knotty-but-nice-style kitchen—the latest and greatest according to McCalls, which was never wrong about anything. The year was 1959. To mark their 16th anniversary, Val had exhumed from storage two vases used in their wedding reception.

+++++“Are those the vases from your wedding? They look beautiful, darling. See you at 5:30!”  Michael Sr. called to his wife Val as he left for the office.

+++++Val preferred to remain uninformed about the precise nature of Michael Sr.’s work. In fact, she’d years ago become immune to his long hours as well as the periodic bloodstains on his shirts; there wasn’t a stain that could outwit her handiwork.

+++++My husband may be a dingleberry with me and the kids, but he will be a clean one.

+++++Val headed to the bathroom and stood before the mirror. A woman in a pencil skirt and saltwater pearls looked back.

+++++The things I’ve done to earn these pearls.

+++++She stared at her blue eyes. She wondered how life’s wellspring of shit hadn’t turned them brown.

+++++Touching up her pageboy hairstyle, she cringed as she remembered her husband’s words. Your wedding?

+++++Val downed two pills.

+++++Peckerhead.

+++++The doctor had prescribed something named after a place called Milltown. Barbara, her royal wench of a neighbor, said such pills were the answer to everything.

+++++The upcoming day promised to deliver its dose of drivel. Val had housework and an errand. The errand was a definite priority, for she had seen a commercial the night before on the Singer Magic Mite, the largest-selling hand cleaner in the world. The ad chirped that if purchased, the Mite’s unmatched convenience would ensure a daily savings of 20 minutes, making it much easier to vacuum the sofa, chairs, and stair carpet. Plus, the cigarette ashes from her husband’s Lucky Strike obsession had spilled all over the living room floor. The jingle from the Lucky Strike ad ran through her head, “What makes a Lucky taste better? It’s TOASTED to taste better.”

+++++I ought to toast that bastard myself. 

+++++There also was a fecal smell emanating from under Michael Junior’s bed.

I am sure the dog took a shit in in there and back-kicked it under the bed. Maybe along with a few dog turds I can even vacuum up my shit stain of a husband.

+++++Loose hair from her teenaged daughter’s obsession with always brushing it was freely floating everywhere.

+++++Christ, I cannot show up anywhere without lint-rolling my clothes to ensure I don’t look like a female Sasquatch.

+++++With those extra minutes saved through the Mite’s might per week, she may even have time to clean under the appliances.

+++++Or I might enjoy one or two Militinis…Who knew a Miltown could replace a martini’s olive so deliciously?

+++++Exiting the bathroom, Val heard a shriek, “Mom! These new hair rollers are totally square. I need to look like Marilyn Monroe, not Shirley Temple. MOM!”

+++++Where’s the vodka?

+++++Spinning around to come to her daughter’s rescue, Val saw a baseball of Junior’s careen into one of the wedding vases. An explosion of colored glass fractured the air.

+++++Holy hell. That’s the second thing he’s broken this week.

+++++Junior eyed his mother, an apology forming on his lips. “Good morning, Junior!” Val said as she picked up another baseball lying nearby. “Don’t worry; that was just a vase from my wedding.”

+++++Taking careful aim, imagining her husband’s face in place of the remaining vase on the mantle, Val threw with the accuracy of MLB pitcher Curt Simmons, a satisfying explosion of glass bringing a brilliant smile to her face.

+++++Self-absorbed whoreson of a husband.

+++++ “Maybe take practice—and the dog—outside for a bit, honey?” Val said, turning and winking at her son.

+++++Confused, but not one to pass up a break, a relieved Junior kissed his mother’s cheek and ran outside. A broken pair of vases was nothing compared to her daughter—or was that a French poodle—now storming toward her.

+++++Two shots of vodka? Forget the shot glass. I’ll just drink straight from the bottle—one less thing to clean.

+++++Twenty minutes later, Val, waving goodbye to her children, saw her neighbor Barbara standing outside.

+++++That woman would shake, rattle, and roll with anyone. Thank God brunettes never made Michael Sr.’s blood run hot.

+++++“The perfect family is not so perfect today?!” Barbara called out to Val.

+++++Iniquitous twat. That woman always knows how to needle me.  

+++++With a smile as false as the teeth in her father’s head, Val answered, “Oh, we are fine. Just a few minor incidents to color the morning. How are you? You poor dear.”

+++++Barbara’s husband Robert had simply disappeared three weeks ago. There were no leads. It was like he was vacuumed up into oblivion by the Magic Mite.

+++++The poor bastard might have preferred oblivion in the Magic Mite over his wife’s acerbic tongue. 

+++++Fingering the faux-pearled necklace resting on her own chest, Barbara answered, “No updates. Detective Anderson stopped by yesterday.” A tear slid down her cheek.

+++++Poor Barbie. She’s stuck with a life without a husband she hated. She must be heartbroken. She loved him like she loved dysentery. 

+++++“I am so sorry, Barbara. Can I do anything to help? I have a few of those magic pills you recommended.”

+++++“Thanks, dear, but I’ve taken out stock in Miltown. If you wouldn’t mind stopping by later this afternoon, though, I could use a friend.”

+++++You lying incorrigible strumpet; I am no friend of yours. You hate me as much as you want my saltwater pearls.

+++++With a reassuring squeeze of Barbara’s shoulders, Val agreed to stop by later, turned, and walked home. She had a lot to do.

+++++One domestic goddess to the rescue—simply add vodka, one Miltown, stir, and drink at your leisure! Guaranteed to remove all twats and peckerheads!

.  .  .

+++++After a flurry of cleaning and a short shopping spree, Val pulled back into her driveway several hours later. Grabbing the Magic Mite to show off, her heels clicking on the concrete, she ran over to Barbara’s.

+++++God, my life is exhausting. I have been the answer to almost every single person’s prayers today. Perhaps I should just put poor Barbie out of her misery. Death by vacuum. If this little hushpuppy could really vacuum up anything, maybe poor Barb would be better off.  

+++++Opening the door with a grand sweep before she even had time to knock, Barbara greeted Val, “I was afraid you wouldn’t make it! I knew you were pinched for time today, dear, so I cooked Chicken à la King for your family. Come in and have one of those Militinis you’ve been crowing about while the chicken finishes up!”

+++++Covetous tart! She made dinner for MY family?!

+++++ “Oh, aren’t you just delicious! Where there is a woman, there is a way!” Seated, Val sipped from her martini glass and changed the subject, bragging, “You won’t believe my luck! I just purchased the last Magic Mite from Wilson’s. I practically stole it right out of Patsy Butler’s hands. She always was slow to the show. Look at its compact form!”

+++++Downing her Militini, Val looked at the glass. The liquid left a grainy taste in her mouth.

+++++Trust Barbie to buy second-rate vodka. Uncultured cow.

+++++Fingering Val’s purchase, Barbara exclaimed, “The Magic Mite! You have everything! Just think of how much time this will save. You’ll have time to curl Betsy’s hair the right way. No more being late to Junior’s baseball games. For once you’ll be able to cook for that handsome husband of yours.”

+++++Blinking twice, Val looked at Barbara. Her heart was racing. Something was wrong with her. She tried to respond, but the words would not form. She scanned the room for an explanation, her eyes darting from the empty calendar on the wall to the kitchen sink and then on to the toaster.

+++++Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ! Was that bottle of Miltown next to the toaster as empty as it appeared? How much Miltown had she put into this drink?! 

+++++Val tried to stand up to get a closer look at the bottle. Her legs refused to cooperate and her trim ass in its pencil skirt remained glued to the kitchen chair. Awash in panic, she tried to move her arm to the table to push herself up. She sought out Barbara’s aid, hoping the woman had noticed her incapacitated state.

+++++A vicious giggle escaped Barbara’s lips as their eyes met, and Barbara taunted, “Oh, Val, aren’t you just delicious!? Where there’s a woman, there’s a way! You just consumed half the population of Milltown! You always were slow to the show, you poor dear!”

+++++With a rush of adrenaline, Val stumbled to the counter to verify the prescription bottle’s emptiness. Her grasp knocked it to the floor, the sound of the spinning bottle rattling on the linoleum. Val leaned into the counter, her mind calculating various flights but her body incapable of actuating them.

+++++Treacherous tramp.

+++++Unwinding the Magic Mite’s long cord, Barbara slipped behind Val in her impaired state. Caressing Val’s breasts with the cord’s plug, she wrapped the cord twice around Val’s neck. She pulled it tight, jerking Val’s neck back in ecstasy. Finished, she tied the cord off in a neat knot.

+++++Val attempted to claw at the cord, but the Miltown invading her veins left her powerless. She now knew that if the Militini didn’t finish her, the Mite would.

+++++Images of her husband and children flashed before her.

+++++Who would fix Betsy’s hair? Would Junior finally hit a homerun? Who would wash the blood from Michael Sr.’s shirts? At least I know who he’ll be fucking.

+++++Barbara struggled to open the lid on her new freezer. The freezer ad promised it would provide for better living—and it was delivering. The bitch was about to be iced.

+++++The last thing Val saw was Barbara’s husband’s face, now inches from her own, frozen in a perpetual snarl, his lips curling and his eyes bulging in vacant rage.

+++++The poor cuckold’s even uglier in death. No wonder she offed him. 

+++++Barbara slammed the freezer shut and paused, checking her watch. Dinner was ready, and she needed to pack it up. Michael Sr. never had been able to pass up all that she brought to the table.

.  .  .

+++++“Is it done?” Michael Sr. asked as he breezed in the door that evening, brushing a kiss across Barbara’s cheek.

+++++Noting her nod, he continued questioning, “Are those my wife’s pearls? They look beautiful on you, darling! Is that Chicken à la King I smell?”

NAÏVE

Tracy looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. She was disgusted. She was a big girl. It had always been that way, ever since she could remember.

+++++The doorbell rang.

+++++Tony Possino was 17, only a year older than Tracy, but seemed much older. They had met at the Pekin mall outside the record store. Tony had just purchased an album and Tracy was sitting by herself on an island with palm trees, listening to the fountain and waiting for her mother to come back from the bathroom. Tony smiled at her. She liked his smile, mainly because it was directed at her. He was a big, Italian looking kid, with a slight mustache. He had big hands and a big nose. He wasn’t good looking but he had a charming appeal. He walked over to her and began talking, which seemed unbelievable to Tracy. He asked her out and before she could think, she said yes.

+++++Two months later he stood ringing her doorbell in the middle of the afternoon.

+++++“Hi,” Tracy said, opening the door and squinting into the autumn sun. Tracy lived in a rural area outside of Glasford, Illinois. From her yard, you couldn’t see another house.

+++++“Hi,” Tony said, stepping in. “Anybody else here?”

+++++“No, my mom’s at work and Mark is at school,” she said.  Mark was her brother, two years older than her, a senior at Glasford High, home of the Tigers.

+++++“Did Mark like that album I lent him?” he asked.

+++++“Yeah,” she said, “he loved it. He really loved it. He said he’d like to see what else you have.”

+++++“I could tell him about some bands.”

+++++“Just tell me,” she said, “and I’ll tell him. It’s nice having something to talk to him about. We never had much in common.”

+++++“Is he still dating that girl from Peoria?”

+++++“Holly. Oh yeah, they’re together all the time. He’s been skipping school and getting mom really upset.”

+++++“We’re skipping school right now,” he said, smiling and pulling her down onto the couch, where he had settled himself.

+++++“I know,” Tracy said. “And if mom finds out she’ll kill me.”

+++++“Nobody’s going to find out,” Tony said, “and if they do I’ll just have my uncle snuff ‘em out.”

+++++“Oh, right,” Tracy said, sarcastically. “I forgot, you have an uncle who’s in the Mafia.”

+++++“You still don’t believe me?” Tony said.

+++++“Well, come on,” Tracy said, “whoever heard of a Mafia in Pekin?”

+++++“They’re very low key,” he said, looking out the sliding glass doors of the living room. There was a big yard with a clothesline at the back. It sagged with laundry. There wasn’t much of a breeze. Every once in a while a shirt sleeve would move a little, like a slow wave by a ghost. Beyond the clothesline were the woods. All the trees were shedding their leaves. It was late September, getting chilly. The trees looked very hungry and naked and huddled together. And at the same time they seemed proud, and stark, and brave, bracing themselves for the winter.

+++++“Hey,” Tracy said, stroking his leg, “If you say your uncle’s in the Mafia, then I believe you.”

+++++“You do?” he said.

+++++She nodded.

+++++“I knew you were different from the minute I met you,” he said.

+++++“What do you mean, different?” she said, defensively.

+++++“I mean different in a good way,” he said, coming closer. “Different in a sexy way.”

+++++“Sexy?”

+++++He leaned forward and began kissing her. She let him, and kissed back, tentatively. Tony began putting his hands all over Tracy’s body. He began grabbed handfuls of fat through her sweater, kneaded it and squeezed it. Then he got under the sweater. He leaned into her and began kissing with more ferocity.

+++++Tracy made a noise of protest. Her hands were down at her sides and she was very stiff and unyielding.

+++++“Stop,” she said, trying to push him away.

+++++“Why,” he muffled, kissing her fat neck.

+++++“Because,” she said, “I can’t, I’ve never…”

+++++“Come on Tracy,” he urged. “We’ve been dating for two months now, I think I’ve waited long enough.”

+++++“Tony, I can’t, I can’t,” she said.

+++++“It’s ok,” he said. He reached into her sweater and ripped her bra. You could hear it snap.

+++++“No,” she said again, starting to cry.

+++++He grinned at her and put his hands to her throat.

+++++“Don’t fight me,” he said. “Be a good girl.” He tightened his grip and she closed her eyes and gasped. He turned her over and pulled her pants down. He pushed her face into the cushions of the couch. Tracy heard the sound of his zipper. His full weight was on her, and he was a big kid, very much bigger than her.

+++++“It’s ok,” he whispered in her ear, pushing her head violently into the couch and pinning her hands behind her back with one hand. She screamed as loud as she could but there was no one around for miles.

*

+++++A rock song was coming from the tape in the boom box, which was thrown on the back seat of Mark’s Dodge Airies K-car. Mark was driving and singing the words to the song. The sun was shining, a beautiful autumn day. His girlfriend Holly sat in the passenger seat smoking a cigarette and laughing at him. When the song was over she reached back and turned the volume down.

+++++“Where’d you get that tape?” Holly asked. “It’s great.”

+++++“My sister’s boyfriend,” Mark said.

+++++“Tracy has a boyfriend?” she said.

+++++“Can you believe it?” he said.

+++++“What’s he like?” she asked. “Some kind of psycho or something?”

+++++“Oh, no,” he said, “he’s a nice guy. The only weird thing is he claims his uncle is in the Mafia.”

+++++“What Mafia?”

+++++“The Pekin Mafia,” he said, laughing.

+++++“Don’t laugh,” she said. “My grandpa used to talk about a Pekin Mafia.”

+++++“Well,” Mark said, “he’s got this Italian name so maybe it’s true. Who the hell cares? I figure the Mafia won’t bother me if I don’t bother it.”

+++++Holly leaned over closer and with a devilish grin put her mouth to his ear. “Speaking of being bothered…” she whispered.

+++++The little K-car groaned with fury down the country road.

+++++Holly had, only seventeen months earlier, indoctrinated Mark into the world ofsex. Now they were in love, or at least they thought they were in love. They said the words. Holly loved to say them. I love you, I love you… It took a while for Mark to say it the first time but after that it was easy.

Holly was always very loud and vocal during sex, especially when they skipped school and went to Mark’s house, because he lived so far out in the country and there was no one around to hear anything, but this afternoon she was particularly demonstrative and encouraging. At one point she was literally screaming. Finally, an hour and half later, they lay back onto Mark’s bed, exhausted.

+++++“My god,” Holly said, wiping her eyes. “I’m crying.” She giggled a little.

+++++Three feet away, on the other side of the wall, Tracy lay curled on her bed, her eyes shut tight and her hands pressed hard to her ears.

*

+++++Clara came home from work at 6 o’clock. She walked in with a grocery sack and put it on the counter. She noticed the refrigerator door was cracked open and she frowned. She closed it and looked around. The place seemed very quiet.“Tracy?” She called. “Mark?” She walked across to the stairs and looked down and then began to walk down. She walked over to Tracy’s door and listened. She thought she heard something move. She knocked.“Tracy?” she said.“You in there?”

+++++“Go away,” Tracy said.

+++++“What? Why?” Clara said, getting alarmed. “What’s wrong?” She tried the door and opened it. Tracy was sitting on her bed. Her eyes were red. She was looking off into space. She was in her bathrobe. “Are you sick, honey?” Clara said, rushing over and sitting down next to her. She reached up to feel Tracy’s forehead for fever. Tracy slapped it away. “What happened?” Clara said, “Come on, you can tell me.”

+++++“It’s nothing,” Tracy said, “It’s just…”

+++++“What, honey?” Clara put her arm slowly around Tracy and pulled her to her. “Something happen at school?”

+++++“I didn’t go to school.”

+++++“Are you sick?”

+++++“Yes,” Tracy said, “I didn’t feel good so I stayed home. I’m sorry, I should have called you.”

+++++“That’s ok,” Clara said, “Is there anything else? Something happen with Tony?”

+++++Tracy shot her a look. “No,” she blurted, “No, that’s not it, it’s just, well, Mark skipped school again today.”

+++++“That little shit,” Clara said, “I warned him, I’m going to send him to his god damned father’s if he doesn’t shape up.” She stopped and looked at Tracy. “How did you know he skipped? Did he come here?”

+++++Tracy nodded and looked down at the bed.
“Did he come here with her?”

+++++Tracy nodded again.

+++++“What did they do?” Clara asked. “As if I have to ask.”

+++++“Oh, mom,” she said, “Don’t be too hard on him, it was all her fault, she was just so loud, it was like he was hurting her, and she wanted him to hurt her.”

+++++“Oh, honey,” Clara said, “And while you were sick and trying to sleep. That little slut, I’m going to call her mother this time. I’m really going to. This can’t go on like this.”

+++++“Just drop it, mom, it’s ok, really.” She tried to smile and Clara smiled back.

+++++“Oh, poor thing,” Clara said, pulling Tracy’s head to her shoulder. They sat there for a minute.

+++++“Is that the way it is, mom?” Tracy asked her.

+++++“What do you mean?”

+++++“Is that what love is?”

+++++“Some people think so,” she said.

+++++“Do you?”

+++++“God no,” Clara said.

+++++“I thought it was supposed to be nice,” Tracy said.

+++++Tracy was trembling and it was suddenly clear to Clara how frayed her nerves really were. The two looked at each other in shock. Clara pulled her closer and hugged her again. “Oh, honey,” Clara said. “Me too.”

*

+++++Clara pounded on Mark’s bedroom door, which was locked. Mark opened the door. Deep, heavy, dark music played in the background.  One dim light shone from the desk in the corner. There was cigarette smoke in the air.

+++++“Turn that fucking music off,” Clara said, walking in and flipping on a light switch. “I thought I told you not to smoke in here.” She stood for a second looking at him while he blinked his eyes to adjust them to the sudden overhead light. “How dare you bring that little whore of yours to my house, how dare you ” Clara said.

+++++“What? How did you…”

+++++“Tracy was home today,” Clara said, pointing to the wall that separates the bedrooms. “She was right in there the whole time you were doing your little dirty deeds.” She talked like there was some horrible taste in her mouth.

+++++Mark sat down on the bed. “Oh,” he said.  “Sorry.”

+++++“Sorry?” his mother said, “I lived with a man just like you for twenty years and I’m not going to do it again. I’m through, I tell you, I’m through with it ”

+++++“Everything is always dad’s fault, isn’t it mom?”

+++++“You just keep that little slut out of my house ”

+++++“She’s not a slut,” he said, standing up again. “And there’s nothing wrong with sex, it’s perfectly natural.”

+++++“If you keep skipping school you’re not going to graduate and then you’re not going to go to college and then what?”

+++++“I’ll graduate,” he said.

+++++“And don’t get her pregnant, by god don’t get her pregnant, whatever you do.”

+++++“We love each other,” he said.

+++++“You don’t love her,” she said. “You only think you do.”

+++++“What’s the fucking difference?” he said, lighting a cigarette.

+++++“What’s the difference?” Clara said. “There’s a difference.”

+++++“We love each other. Not everybody is as hateful as you are, mom,” he said, with a finality that sapped the strength, temporarily, out of Clara.

+++++She waved angrily at the smoke in the air. “You don’t know anything about life, yet, mister,” she said, slightly out of breath. “It doesn’t get any easier, from here on out it gets a lot harder.”

+++++They looked at each other.

+++++“I’m going to have to call your father,” she said. “I can see I’m not getting through to you.”

+++++“What’s to get through?” he said. “You’ve made your point, just leave me alone.”

+++++“Fine, if that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get. You turn eighteen next month, and on that day I want you out of here, out of my house. I’m calling your father right now.”

+++++“Fine,” he said. “I’ll fucking leave right now.” He darted to the phone and picked it up and dialed a number.

+++++“What are you doing?” Clara said, softening and becoming alarmed.

+++++Someone answered on the other end of the phone. “Troy?” Mark said. “You still need a roommate? Good. I’ll be there in an hour.” He hung up.

+++++Clara’s mouth hung open. “Well,” she said, “You don’t have to go off in the middle of the night…”

+++++“No, that’s it,” he said, going to the closet for a bag. “I’m leaving.”

+++++“I’ll call your father, he’ll have the cops on you so fast it’ll make your…”

+++++“I’m turning eighteen in a month, you just said it yourself.”

+++++Clara looked at him and she wanted to cry. “Can you leave me alone please? I have to call Holly and tell her,” he said.

+++++Clara backed out of the room and saw the door shut in her face.  Then she walked slowly up the stairs.

+++++A few minutes later Tracy walked from her bedroom to Mark’s bedroom door and stood ready to knock. Her raised hand was shaking. In her other hand she held a music tape that Tony had made for Mark. She had promised to give it to him. She stood at the door listening to Mark’s voice talking into the telephone.

+++++“She’s so incredibly naïve,” Mark said. “She’s terrified of the world and she’s probably going to be that way forever. That fat little bitch, I wish I could just get it through her fat head that it’s ok to live a little bit and break a fucking rule once in awhile.”

+++++Tracy lowered her hand and turned away.

+++++“I know, I know,” Mark said into the phone, throwing some clothes into a bag. “Nobody understands us.”

THE COLLECTOR

Mr Henry James Franklin and Miss Martha Emma Sparrow were married in the summer of 1946, in the small town of Ashton-over-Hill in the county of Suffolk. During the next forty years of marriage they were almost inseparable.

+++++When they first met, Martha was the only daughter of a local Stipendiary Magistrate, and Henry had been a junior administrator with the FCO; later, as he grew in seniority, Henry became an Attaché and was sent on temporary diplomatic missions to developing countries; assisting the Ambassador with areas of finance or intervention. This work naturally required frequent overseas travel. Even when Henry was asked by his government to go to work in a hot, dusty region in some far-flung Asian country, Martha would accompany him. If the mission was short term and unaccompanied, and the government was only paying for Henry to go, then Martha would pay all her own expenses to accompany him. The only time he went alone was if it was a very short visit of three days or less, where Martha would not have time to enjoy and explore the place, indulging in her passion for collecting old or valuable artefacts. India, Africa, Eastern Europe, Pacific Islands, The Far East, and The Middle East… their travels were diverse and seemingly endless.

+++++Martha came from “old money” and her passion did not impact on Henry’s relatively low salary. It was a passion in which Henry shared, but of which had little knowledge. Martha was the one who before the trip would research a country’s history and heritage and decide on the type of items for which that the country was renowned. Martha was the one who would then search the bazaars, markets and curio shops for such items… things that were beyond the pocket and shrewdness of the usual tourists and bargain hunters. In some Pacific Island she would seek out fine examples of scrimshaw carvings; she would cast an amateur but expert eye over the bases of delicate statuettes in Hong Kong or Taiwan; in Kinshasa or Nairobi her fingers would run gently over the grain and texture of ebony masks; her eyes could pick out fake from real; and she had the grit to beat down traders who were treating her as an ignorant tourist looking for souvenirs.

+++++Over the years, her collections grew; fine paintings and tapestries filled the walls of their big old country house; inherited from Martha’s father, when the ageing Magistrate passed away from a heart attack; while, somewhat fittingly, seated on the Bench and just moments after sentencing a criminal to ten years in prison.

+++++The house was large and rambling, set in its own grounds. Wonderful carpets from Tabriz and Istanbul covered the floors; oak bookcases held, among leather-bound first editions, various gold and bronze artefacts; knick-knack shelves and mantelpieces displayed delicate porcelain figurines and pieces of ancient jewellery, silver and gold; carved tribal masks hung on the curving walls of the staircase; Zanzibar trunks made for exotic coffee and bedside tables upon which stood old brass lamps and silver candlesticks; intricately worked samovars stood on occasional tables in the library and lounge. The place was a virtual museum of travels around the world. The total monetary value of these collections was either unknown or forgotten; the value was aesthetic and sentimental and no price could be put upon that.

+++++Henry loved his work and travel, and Martha loved to be with him and build on her collections. The only thing missing from their lives was a child. Martha was forever unable to bear children.

+++++In 1986, while working in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Henry died from a bad and late-diagnosed case of malaria. 60-year-old Martha returned to England, to Ashton-over-Hill and to the Manor, and after a respectable period of grieving became very active in The Woman’s Institute and various other community or local charitable ventures. However, her lessening agility and failing eyesight gradually restricted her activities and she became more and more confined to home; relying on a daily help to do the housekeeping and cooking.

***

+++++“Bobby, it is four thirty.” His mother called from the kitchen, where she was peeling potatoes. “Get yourself over to the Manor to read for Missus Martha, there’s a good lad!”

+++++Twelve-year-old Bobby Garfield begrudgingly put aside his toy Corgi cars and stood up from where he had been playing on the living room carpet; his shoulders hunched in reluctance. “Okay, mum.” he sighed, walking slowly to the front door.

+++++“Be back by six thirty, love” his mum continued. “I am making sausage and mash for supper.”

+++++The boy left the two-bedroom rented council house where he and his single mum lived, walked across the empty field at the back of the scruffy council estate, passed through the ancient village of Ashton-over-Hill and walked down Upper Dyke Lane to Ashton Manor; one of two big old country houses that stood within the town’s boundaries.

+++++Bobby had to go to the Manor three times a week to read newspapers to the blind and wheelchair-bound Mrs Martha Franklin. It was a chore he did not enjoy; the old woman was nice enough to him, but he didn’t like being hugged and kissed by her every visit. She smelled of soap, lavender and old age, and her horny, arthritic old hands dug into his back like claws when she squeezed him in a hug.

+++++Bobby would let himself in the back door with spare key that the daily help, Edna Johnson always placed under a planter after she left work each day. He would make his way to the library, where Mrs Martha would be sitting in her usual place in a large, high-backed wheelchair; her white cane resting against the arm.

+++++“Hello Missus Martha.” He would call out from the doorway, announcing his arrival.

+++++“Hello, Bobby!” The old woman would say, turning her unseeing eyes towards the doorway. From very early on she had learned to recognise his voice, and her acute hearing compensated for her blindness. “How are you today?”

+++++“Fine, Missus Martha,” He would answer, sounding as cheerful as possible.

+++++From a side table where Edna had left them, he would take the two folded and pressed newspapers – the previous day’s and that day’s – and, sitting in an ancient leather armchair opposite the old woman, would read them in date order from front page to back, If there was something that did not interest her, Martha would tut, tut, wave a wrinkled, blue-veined hand and say simply, “Skip that!” This was not a frequent event, as she liked to know what was going on in the wide world and loved news from the places to which she and Henry had travelled. In any case, she had little else to occupy her time in the long, lonely evenings. She even let Bobby read the sports pages in an effort to extend his visits.

+++++The reading usually took about forty minutes to an hour, after which Bobby would stand, reluctantly go to the old lady for a hug and a kiss, and to say goodbye.

+++++“You are a good boy, Bobby!” She would say the same thing each visit. “Thank you for reading so well.  Help yourself to a chocolate from the box over there.” She waved vaguely in the direction of a side table. “See you on Wednesday.”

+++++“Bye, Missus Martha.” Bobby would reply. After taking his treat and leaving the library, he would wander secretly around the house. His eyes cast about in wonder. The place was packed with ornaments and antiques; statues and carvings; gold candlesticks and bronze lamp-stands; brass telescopes and ships’ compasses; jewelled boxes and polished trunks, and hung with paintings and tapestries. It was a virtual museum. Sometimes he would even sneak upstairs; creeping up the carpeted stairway alongside the electronic chair lift that ran up one wall. He opened the door of the first upstairs room. It was used as a storeroom for many of Martha’s collections that were not displayed around the mansion Bobby gazed into the storeroom and was amazed at the amount of stuff in it. He found Martha’s bedroom along the corridor. It was fairly small and delicate, very lacy and feminine.

+++++Downstairs, Martha, her acute hearing tracking Bobby’s secretive movements, smiled contentedly. She was happy that the young boy showed such interest in her collections. She never mentioned to Bobby that she knew of his explorations, but sometimes after reading she would ask him to fetch an item from somewhere in the library or lounge, and tell him of the history and about the country from where it came.

+++++He never once thought of taking anything from the house.

+++++Bobby had no idea why his mum had made this arrangement with Martha Franklin. He also did not know that Mrs Martha paid his mum five pounds for each visit. It was a welcome addition to her income; she worked every day in the local garden centre, including Saturdays, but even so, the money was hardly enough for a single parent to survive.

+++++Martha had met Mrs Garfield several times when shopping in the garden centre; gardening was another of Martha’s passions, and ‘Roots ‘n’ Shoots’ was a favourite venue to shop for bulbs, potted shrubs and gardening paraphernalia. On a few occasions, on Saturdays, Bobby had been there with his mum and Martha had always made a fuss of the young boy. This, of course, was before her failing eyesight had diminished into legal blindness and her general frailness prevented her going out as often as she would have liked.  One day, several weeks after Martha’s blindness and disability had taken their final toll and she had become virtually housebound, she asked Edna to go find Mrs Garfield at the garden centre and invite her to come to the Manor to discuss a little proposal.

+++++Her curiosity aroused, Joan accepted the invitation, and over cups of Earl Grey tea and wafer biscuits, she and Martha made the arrangement for Bobby to come and read to her several times a week.

***

+++++The readings continued for three years. Martha Franklin became even more frail and dependent on home help. She refused, however, to go to a care home. Bobby was now a teenager of 15 years, with teenage needs that could hardly be satisfied in the poor council estate of Ashton Vale where he lived and where there was nothing for a young boy to do once he had outgrown his childhood toys. Immigrants fleeing war zones and humanitarian abuses had slowly moved into some of the houses over the past couple of years… families from Eastern Europe with teenage children the same age as Bobby; low income families, many unemployed and relying on government payouts from the Department of Work and Pensions. With little to occupy their free time and with little money in their pockets, the teenagers began to hang around the street at night, forming little cliques or gangs and dominating certain “corners” as their own turf. Harmless enough at first, with only the occasional complaints from residents about excessive noise, littering or small cases of criminal damage. But, later, drugs slowly entered the council estate; weed and acid tabs to begin with; then  came cocaine… much of it smuggled in from Europe. Petty crime increased in the village and surrounding areas; shoplifting; stolen cars; criminal damage; muggings and other assaults. A scourge of criminality and abusive behaviour that plagued many similar areas of Britain. Bobby became friends with several of the new youths, and although being in the same boat as them, he respected his mother’s wishes and continued to visit Mrs Martha three evenings a week. However, there was one other thing that persuaded him more than his mother to continue the arrangement; Mrs Martha had, commencing on Bobby’s fifteenth birthday, begun to pay the boy some pocket money. Five pounds per week was a lot of cash to a teenage schoolboy from a single parent family with little spare money. But, the money was no longer spent on Corgi toys or Star Wars figures… the emerging teenager Bobby had been led by his new friends into the world of illegal substances and was attracted by the profits that could be made from reselling drugs. Unfortunately, he also became a ‘user’.

***

+++++“Are you sure about this, Bobby?” Janeck asked. “How do you know about it all?”

+++++“When I was a kid,” Bobby replied, “my mum made me go to the house to read the newspaper to the old girl. She is blind, you see? The old woman, I mean… not my mum. I had to do that crap three times a week after school until last year when I reached eighteen. I told my mum and Martha that I was no longer a little kid and had better things to do with my time. Martha was unhappy but understanding, and my mum was really pissed off for some reason. But I stuck to my guns.”

+++++“Well, at eighteen we can do what the fuck we like, right?” Janeck asked.

+++++“That’s what I told my mum… but I didn’t swear!” Bobby said, laughing “Anyway,” he continued, “I had loads of chances to look around the place. Of course, I didn’t know what any of the stuff was worth, but I remember the place was packed. There was loads of ornaments everywhere, china figurines on the mantelpiece, little statues and carvings in every corner; some a gold colour, others a sort of white, like bone. I guess those were probably ivory. There was all sorts of expensive looking stuff.”

+++++“But, are you sure they are valuable?” his pal asked

+++++“Yeah, Janeck. Everyone in town knows the old girl is rich, so I don’t reckon she would fill her house with cheap shit! She and her late husband travelled a lot when they were younger. He was some sort of diplomat; always working in exotic places around the world, before he popped his clogs in Africa. It’s how they collected all the antiques and stuff. I saw things that looked made of gold and silver, some things encrusted in jewels or gems, old swords and sabres on the walls, oil paintings, you know, that sort of thing.”

+++++Janeck frowned, “Any cash there, you reckon?” He asked. Cash and drugs were the only currencies Janeck and Bobby normally dealt with.

+++++“I dunno. Maybe, but I never saw any laying around,” Bobby replied. “I guess she didn’t need cash. She had food delivered from the grocery shop in town almost daily. I was there once in the daytime and saw her housekeeper just sign for it at the back door. I imagine she had an account or something.”

+++++“Look, Bobby,” Janeck said. “It’s a bit fucking risky, especially if there is no cash.” Janeck was already known to the police for shoplifting and petty theft. He didn’t want to get involved in stolen property that could be traceable.

+++++“But the place is packed with valuables, I tell ya!” Bobby protested. “Small stuff, easy to shift and sell somewhere far away from here where no-one will know us. Fuck me! It’s a treasure trove. We will make a real killing! Loads of cash to buy more coke!”

+++++“Okay, okay! I get it, alright?” Janeck threw up his hands in defeat. “So when are we gonna do it?”

***

+++++Martha Franklin’s health had deteriorated even more since the days when Bobby read to her. She now had a full-time registered carer named Rosemary Perkins living in the house, but the daily help continued to come to clean the vast place and help prepare meals. Edna’s long habit of leaving the spare key under the planter at the back door had not altered one bit.

+++++Martha, now spending more and more time in bed, had asked Rosemary to move her into the larger storeroom where there was more room for the nursing equipment, oxygen bottles and medical trolley containing medications, etc. The many trunks, boxes and valuable items from the storeroom, with the combined help of Edna and Rosemary, now changed places with Martha.

+++++At the end of each day, after dinner and after Rosemary had bathed Martha, medicated her and and put her to bed, she would retire exhausted to her own room and watch TV for an hour or so before going to sleep herself.

***

+++++Bobby and Janeck, their bravery fuelled by the lines of cocaine they had just snorted, entered the grounds of the Manor, walked carefully and quietly up the garden path that ran along the left side the house and around to the back door. Bobby tilted the planter and slid out a key that was so familiar to him. The two youths entered the house and immediately pulled ski masks over their heads. Both switched on small penlight torches and then crept through to the lounge; unfolding large zip-up nylon bags that had been concealed under their jackets. Bobby swept his torchlight around the familiar surroundings.

+++++As they wandered around, the youths indiscriminately picked up various small, valuable-looking objects and placed them carefully in their swag bags, but there was not enough portable stuff to satisfy the two thieves.

+++++“Let’s go upstairs,” whispered Bobby. “There is a large storeroom up there.”

+++++The two followed Bobby’s torch beam into the hallway and up the carpeted staircase. Janeck tried to lift a couple of tribal masks from the walls, but they seemed to be screwed into place rather than hung. He swore angrily under his breath. Reaching the landing, Bobby walked up to the door almost opposite that he knew to be the storeroom. He turned the handle and slowly pushed open the door, shining the torch around; under the ski mask a frown appeared upon his face. Suddenly, the torch beam lit upon an occupied bed.

+++++Martha Franklin sat up, holding the duvet under her chin with both hands. “Rosemary?” she asked, “Whatever’s the matter?”

+++++“Oh shit, Janeck!” Bobby exclaimed. “She must’ve changed rooms!”

+++++“Bobby? Bobby Franklin?” Martha asked, panic entering into her voice. “What on earth are you doing here in the middle of the night?” Her voice raised into a weak squeal. “What’s going on?”

+++++“For fuck’s sake, Bobby!” Janeck hissed. “The blind old bitch has recognised your voice!”

+++++“He-lp!” Martha screamed, her voice cracking. Before she could scream again, Bobby ran to the bed and clamped a hand over Martha’s mouth and pushed her head back onto the pillow. Martha was too frail to struggle, but Bobby could feel her mouth moving as she tried to mumble something. He turned to face his fellow thief; “What the fuck are we gonna do, Janeck?” He asked in a loud voice, beginning to panic. “She knows who I am!”

+++++Bobby glanced down at the struggling old woman. He could see her spittle oozing through his gloved fingers. Martha tried to speak, but he clamped his hand down firmer. “Stay quiet, Missus Martha, please!” Bobby hissed.

+++++“Martha?” A new voice came from the open door, followed by a short scream. Janeck spun around in time to see Rosemary Perkins heading for the stairs.

+++++Janeck dropped his torch, leapt out of the doorway and tried to grab Rosemary’s flapping nightgown from behind. He fumbled the grab and his lunge pushed her forward; she stumbled, hit the chair lift, spun around and fell backwards, cartwheeling down the stairs.

+++++Back in the bedroom, Martha had gone limp under Bobby’s firm restraint. He let go of Martha’s head and she lay lifeless on the pillow.

+++++“Oh shit!” Bobby whispered, staring down at the dead woman’s face, as he backed away. “Janeck! We’ve gotta get the fuck out of here!”

+++++Janeck came back into the room and picked up his dropped torch; shining it onto the scene at the bed. “Oh Christ, Bobby! Is she dead?”

+++++“Yeah, let’s get out of here now!”

+++++The two thieves hurried from the room and down the stairs, stepping over the unmoving form of Rosemary Perkins laying sprawled on the hallway floor.

***

+++++“Look, Bobby” Janeck said, grabbing Bobby’s lapels in both fists to get his attention. They were sitting on a bench in a small park on the outskirts of the village. “I don’t know if that other bitch is dead or not, but if she’s not, she don’t know who we are. We was wearing ski masks. She can’t identify us… and there’s no fingerprints ‘cos we was wearing gloves.”

+++++“But fuck me, Janeck. I killed Missus Martha!” Bobby was almost in tears.

+++++“The old bitch is dead. We can’t change that.” Janeck released his friend’s jacket and sat back. “No-one to tell tales. We’re clear.”

+++++Rosemary Perkins was not dead, however; she had been knocked unconscious in the fall. A broken arm and several huge bruises, plus a mild concussion, were the only injuries she sustained. When she came around, she crawled first to the hallway phone and dialled 999 to call the police. Then, dragging herself to her feet, she limped painfully upstairs to discover the dead body of Martha Franklin.

***

+++++Rosemary, being a professional carer, had from day one at the Manor installed a baby alarm system between her bedroom and Martha’s. It was one of those devices whereby, if a baby in its crib cried or called out, the sound would be transmitted from the nursery to speakers positioned in the parent’s bedroom or other rooms in the house. Rosemary had installed the same system for a similar purpose; if Martha awoke in the night and felt ill or needed something, she could call out to Rosemary, who had a receiver speaker on the bedside table of her adjoining room, turned up to full volume. Rosemary had been sleeping lightly the night of the murder and the voices from Martha’s bedroom had immediately roused her. She had clearly heard the name “Bobby Garfield” being spoken by Martha through the medium of the baby alarm.

+++++Bobby Garfield and Janeck Kalenov were both arrested the next day. After a month held in remand while the case against them was formulated, they were tried in Ipswich Crown Court. Being over eighteen years old, they were tried as adults. The baby alarm evidence given by Rosemary Perkins, Edna’s testimony as to the hidden spare key being used to enter the house, and Martha’s DNA from the saliva found on Bobby’s glove… it was all concrete and conclusive. Both of the boys were found guilty of murder, aggravated assault and attempted robbery. Each was sentenced to a total of 40 years in prison, with no possibility of parole.

***

+++++Mrs Martha Franklin’s lawyer, Mr Crispin Longfellow, who was also the appointed Trustee of her Estate, was tasked with managing and disposing of the property according to Martha’s Last Will and Testament, drawn up by him only the previous year.

+++++Two months after Martha Franklin’s death, the lawyer sent out letters to all the named beneficiaries, inviting them to attend Ashton Manor for the reading of Martha’s Will,

+++++On the day of the reading, almost all those invited assembled, with a mixture of curiosity and excitement, in the library of the Manor. Mr Crispin Longfellow was seated behind the late Henry Franklin’s antique desk. Martha’s Will; a formidable document, many pages long, was on the desk in front of him. It contained many beneficiaries; but there were no living relatives named.

+++++After an explanation of the proceedings and a formal introduction to the Will, Mr Longfellow began reading from the document; relating Martha’s wishes in the first person, as written.

+++++“To the Ashton-over-Hill Women’s Institute, I bequeath one thousand pounds; to the RSPCA, I bequeath one thousand pounds, to the local Hee-Haw Donkey Sanctuary, I bequeath one thousand pounds, to the RNLI, I bequeath three thousand pounds”…The lawyer continued in this vein for several minutes, listing beneficiary after beneficiary and the amount to be bequeathed… before he looked up from the desk and cleared his throat.  There was a pregnant pause in the room.

+++++“To Mrs Joan Garfield of Ashton Vale, I bequeath two hundred and fifty thousand pounds.” There was a collective gasp from those present in the Library. Joan’s jaw dropped in shock. The lawyer peered around the audience over the top of his half-moon glasses, commanding silence. His gaze settled upon Joan. “This money shall be used, under my trustee’s management,” He continued,” to build a Youth Club and Community Centre on the field to the rear of the Ashton Vale council estate. The field has long formed part of my Estate and the Land Title Deed is in possession of my lawyer, Mr Crispin Longfellow. I further request that Mrs Joan Garfield, if she is willing, be appointed Manager of the Club, once built, with a salary of two thousand pounds per month, paid from my Estate, for the first two years of operation.” Joan was, fortunately, speechless. All eyes in the room were upon her, as she wiped away her tears.

+++++The lawyer continued. “As to my property and possessions, I bequeath to the Help the Aged charity shop in Ashton town all my personal clothing, linen, kitchenware, and other such usable and saleable items as listed in Addendum One to this Will.” The manager of the charity shop, present in the Library, was overjoyed. She smiled until her grin reached her ears.

+++++“I bequeath the house and gardens known as Ashton Manor and its entire contents and collections, as listed in Addendum Two, to the care and management of the National Trust.” The NT representative, already forewarned and standing at the rear of the room, nodded his approval.

+++++“And finally,” said Mr Longfellow, looking up once more and, with a very solemn look upon his face, gazing around the room at all those there present, “I bequeath one hundred pieces of fine, portable property – as listed in Addendum Three, and valued in total for insurance purposes by the auctioneering house of Thurman and Levi of Ipswich at five hundred and seventy five thousand pounds – to my good young friend and sometime reading companion, Bobby Garfield.”

THE END

Closed Doors on the Cul de Sac

Sunday evening. No kids on the street. Few lawn mowers buzzing in neighboring yards; got to start the week manicured. Grills cool. Moms sneak out onto the deck for a glass of wine and a cigarette. Dads go downstairs into their caves and put on the game, open a beer, doze. Idyllic lives.
+++++And then the scream.
+++++Jessica drops her cigarette. Watches it slip through the gaps in the boards. She sits very still.
+++++“This is over!”
+++++Jessica knows the man’s voice. It’s Bobby Rhadigan. Big guy. Former jock who plays like he still is. Keeps his edge by teaching world history to ninth graders. Coaches football. He and Allison just had their first baby. A little girl. Sheryl Ann.
+++++“We are no longer involved with any of you!”
+++++Allison screams. Begs Bobby to stop. Begs him to be quiet. Begs him to go inside. She promises him it’ll stop. She promises him she’s through. She promises him.
+++++“Shut your whorin’ mouth!”
+++++Bobby is pissed. Jessica twitches. So much raw power in him. His hand on her back as he walked around her at deck party almost launched her over the rail. Days later, alone with him, that power filled her.
+++++Jessica slips out of her reverie.
+++++Odd sounds. Smack. Uhnn. Hands striking flesh. Dazed response.
+++++Jessica wants to look. Wants to look. Wants.
+++++“Jesus, Bobby, stop it!”
+++++New voice. Jessica stays in her plastic Adirondack. Strains her ears.  It’s Mikey Prough. Lives in the house between Jessica’s and the Rhadigans. He’s telling Bobby to stop something.
+++++“Go to hell, Mikey.”
+++++Bobby tells Allison to go inside. Allison screams. Tells Bobby to stop hitting Mikey. Mikey yells for help. No one shows. Mikey curses his neighbors.
+++++“I’m warning all of you. This. Is. Over!”
+++++“Bobby—please!”

+++++Quieter voices. Bobby tells Allison to get in the house.
+++++Jessica’s glass of wine trembles in her shaking hand. Two houses down Allison steps out on her deck. She hasn’t bothered to do more than smear the blood from her nose. It makes her mouth look like a child tried to apply lipstick. She lights a joint. Looks over at Jessica. Flips her off.
+++++Bobby steps out onto the deck. “Get your ass in here, Alli.” He looks around at Jessica just as Mikey and Kylie step out onto their deck. Kylie is trying to put a bag of ice on her husband’s eye.
+++++“Kylie, stop it.”
+++++“But your eye.”
+++++“It’s fine.”
+++++Kylie turns her wrath on Bobby. Throws the bag of ice at him. “It didn’t have to be like this.”
+++++“How else was it going to be, Kylie? The people on this court have a fucked up understanding of bedroom community.”
+++++“It was ending,” Kylie said.
+++++Bobby looks directly at Jessica. “Was it?”
+++++Jessica sits paralyzed by Bobby’s glare. Those dark, menacing eyes. Eyes she knows hides who he is when the neighbors aren’t around. Eyes that Brad doesn’t have.
+++++The screen door behind her slides open. Brad steps out with his own drink in hand. He stares at his neighbors then looks at his wife and asks. “So tonight’s off I take it?”
+++++The doors on the cul de sac close.
+++++At least for now.

Eye Contact

I turned the handle, but the door was locked; searching the surface for a latch, or a bolt, I found nothing.  Apart from the stainless steel knob, the facade was as smooth as marble.  Peering in the semi-light, afforded by the small window on the opposite wall, I could see no means of unlocking this door.  There was no keyhole, no visible mechanism, nothing.

+++++My attention was drawn back to the bulge in the middle of the bed; did she hold the key to my escape?  Had I been too hasty in my actions?  She wouldn’t be much use to me now.

+++++“Stupid bastard,” I muttered.  “You should have thought this through properly.

+++++Fuck! What you gonna do now?”

+++++Feeling the sticky, wet slime beginning to seep through my clothes, I realised I needed to get a bath, wash all this blood and snot off me.

+++++I kicked the bed in passing, the heap wobbled; “Fat bitch!”

+++++Sitting down on the lavatory seat to take off my shoes and socks, as I turned the bath taps on, I racked my brain; how did the silly cow get in and out of the flat? There must be some way of opening the door?

+++++I was about to remove my pants when I suddenly realised that the bath was still empty. Turning both taps fully, I waited for the sound of running water.  When nothing happened I reverted to the old remedy of bashing the hardware with my shoe to force it to work; no joy.

+++++No fucking water, this was great. Then I had a thought, maybe it’s just in here? Could be just the bathroom not working.

+++++Striding into the kitchen, I gave the sink taps a good twist.  Same thing; dry as a redundant crotch. Temper rising, I drummed my fingers on my lips, things not boding well so far.

+++++My stomach growled and I suddenly felt ravenous; it had been hours since I’d downed that greasy burger while waiting for her to emerge from the bank.

+++++I flicked the cooker switch on and pulled open the fridge door, a white vacuum greeted me. Not even so much as an old dried up carrot or mouldy piece of cheese.  I darted a look back at the cooker. “Fuck.” There was no electricity either.

+++++What the crap was going on?  Why was nothing working?

+++++I searched her desk for a telephone book, she must have numbers for emergencies; I could pretend to be a relative and tell them there was a fault.

+++++Going through the telephone numbers, I almost yelled in glee when I came across what I was looking for.  I snatched up the phone, then immediately lashed it across the room; it was as dead as a fucking dodo.

+++++Stomping about the room, throwing things as I went, there must be something here to explain why all this was happening.  I searched her desk again, picking up letters that I had previously flung about.

+++++Ah! Southern Electricity; I quickly scanned the page.

+++++‘Thank you for your instruction to disconnect your supply.

+++++We can now confirm that this request has been actioned

+++++with immediate effect.  Please contact us on your return

+++++so we can re-connect you.’

+++++“Bastards!” I scrambled on the floor, rummaging through the discarded papers.

+++++Again, disconnection notices; the water, the telephone.

+++++Shit! Everything had been turned off.

+++++From the conversation I’d had with her earlier, I should have guessed.

+++++I banged my fists on my temples, “Think, come on you stupid prick, think!”

+++++I was in the penthouse, top floor, out of sight.  I tried hammering on the windows.  The triple glazing was doing its job in preventing the sound to break through; even if I could be heard no one could see me anyway.

+++++I should have been more thorough when I read up on her.

*

+++++Belinda Black, rich, famous author and one time socialite, now a virtual recluse.

+++++I had been searching through the list of ‘Who’s Who’ and came across this rich bitch that lived on her own.  She was a bit of an eccentric and had moved into the penthouse at the top of the tallest building in the city where I lived.  The builders had been given instructions to make the place entirely soundproof; the renovation had also included reconstructing the windows to replace the panoramic view with small triple glazed ones.  Apparently, she didn’t like any distractions when working.

+++++I had been watching her movements for some time now; for the last month the recluse had been very active.  Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, she had arrived at her bank with a briefcase; it always seemed heavier when she left than when she arrived.  I had put two and two together and come up with thousands.

+++++As she left that Tuesday, I snuck into the building wearing one of the electricians overalls.  There was a continuous stream of workmen in and out doing alterations all the time, so I was able to slip in undetected.  Once inside, I quickly made my way up to the top level where her lift was situated.  After a slight tampering, I managed to immobilize it.

+++++When she emerged from the bank, I’d slipped back ahead of her, and just happened to be on hand when she found herself unable to get the lift to work.  As it was the only means of accessing her apartment, she had allowed me to help.

+++++As soon as the lift doors opened, I had pushed her inside and held a knife to her side.  Once we were in the lobby to her apartment, while she let herself in through the door, I scanned the area.  The door had clicked shut behind us.

+++++She took quite a beating before showing me where the safe was.  Oh how I laughed and danced as I threw bundles of notes into the air. I couldn’t believe it, there was far more than I ever could have imagined.  Stuffing it all into a large holdall I’d left it by the front door.

+++++“What the fuck were you gonna do with all that dough?” I asked her.

+++++She had become so scared of me by now that she blabbed everything.

+++++“I’m going back to France, I have a secluded place in the south; I just wanted to disappear. My ideas dried up and I can’t meet the commitments that I’ve already been paid for; the tax man wants his share too. I’ve told my publishers that I’m going away to a retreat for a few months to get some writing done. I thought it would give me time to vanish for good and still keep the cash. I’ll share it with.” She had that pleading ‘don’t hurt me’ look in her eyes.

+++++“You crafty old bitch,” I said.  “I’m not good at sharing, but I’ll help you to vanish alright.”

+++++She screamed as I plunged the knife into her chest.  It was a pity about her insistence on soundproofing the penthouse, as no one could hear her screams and pleas for help, and because she was a very large lady, it took a quite while for me to finish her off.

+++++Now here I was, trapped inside this hell hole with her.

+++++There must be something that operates the lock? I thought.

+++++I hadn’t noticed any keys when we came in, and I’d been too busy checking that all was clear to notice how she opened the door.

+++++I went back over to it and, inch by inch, examined the surrounding surface.

+++++It was so small, it took me a while to find it, but there it was!  It looked like a peephole, a tiny circle fixed into the wall; it had been camouflaged by the busy wallpaper, but it was there alright.  I guessed it was an eye recognition device.  I’d heard about this type of lock; was it something to do with the retina?  Oh, fuck, I didn’t know, but I knew it was like a fingerprint and only worked for one person.

+++++Could it still work? I’d have to get her over to the door.  I dashed to the bed and threw back the cover.  Holy shit! What was that stink?

+++++As I tried to pull her off the bed I realised that she must have emptied her bowels and bladder during the attack.

+++++Grabbing her scarf, I wrapped it around my face; I then attempted to move her mighty bulk.  She was probably twice as heavy now; a dead weight as they say.  I was never going to shift her on my own.

+++++“Think, think, what now?” I screamed, banging my temples again.

+++++Right, I don’t need all of her to make the lock work, just her eye.

+++++Racing into the kitchen, I grabbed a soup spoon out of the drawer.  Hurrying back, I thought, this better work or I’m going to be stuck with this fat fucker forever.  So anything that had to be done, I was up for it.

+++++The eye wobbled in the spoon as I ferried it over to the door, and it wasn’t easy to handle as it slipped between my fingers, but after a couple of tries I managed to position it in front of the scanner and waited to hear the click of the door unlocking.  Fuck all happened!

+++++After a couple more attempts, without success, I lashed the eye across the room and watched it bounce off the headboard and roll down the bed coming to rest by her hand.  It seemed to follow me as I walked around the room. Oh God, I had to get out of there!

+++++I tried to lift the typewriter but it was too awkward, so I picked up a big, round, glass paperweight from her desk and heaved it at the window. Unfortunately, I was standing too close and felt the full impact as it bounced off the toughened glass and smashed into my chest breaking a couple of ribs; it then dropped onto my foot, smashing my foot in the process.

*

+++++As days rolled into weeks, I became more emaciated.  I had drunk the water from the lavatory, rationing myself to a few sips a day; I was now sorry that I had pissed in there first.

+++++My stomach had stopped growling, but apart from a packet of mints I’d found in her handbag, the flat was devoid of food.  This was it; I’d just have to wait for the end.

+++++Night followed day without any sound.  Even that tapping noise in my head had stopped.

*

+++++Then today, I hear the click of the door and voices as someone enters the room.

+++++“Whoa! What a stench” he shouts. “Oh Jesus there’s no windows to open either. Hey Joe, two body bags up here, and quick,” he calls into his radio.

+++++Something screams in my brain; two body bags?  No, not me, I’m not dead.

+++++I feel someone lifting me up and placing me on a plastic sheet.  As the zip rolls up over my face, I try to scream. Nooo!

+++++I can hear muffled voices through the plastic.

+++++“Hey, look at this, Joe; it looks like this guy has typed up a confession.  The last paragraph says he only had lavatory water and mints to live on, I wonder how long the poor sucker lasted after that?”

+++++“Wonder why he didn’t leave?” Joe asks.

+++++“He couldn’t mate,” the other guy answers, “she held the key? One of those new eye recognition jobs; we had to get them to override it for us to get in here today.”

+++++I hear the swish of a curtain and a sudden rush of cold air surrounds me.

+++++“What’s that mate?”  One of the guys shouts.

+++++“It’s the fire escape, don’t know why he didn’t use it; it’s a bit obscure, but you just pull this lever here, see.”

Dry Salvage

Spaulding was in his eighties, and looked far too vulnerable to put a proper beating on, but I had agreed to give Marie Andretti at least five of his teeth in order to get my full fee. They came loose effortlessly, and the old bastard bled like a stuck pig regardless.

+++++Last year Spaulding and his associates performed 24 black-market kidney transplants in a makeshift operating room up at Paignton Yards. The way the scam was set up, middlemen took most of the money, and the surgical procedure was so shoddy that the recipient often contracted hepatitis or even HIV from the dirty medical equipment.

+++++One of Spaulding’s most recent clients was Marie’s nephew, Johnny Angelillo.

+++++No sooner had Johnny received the transplant, Spaulding’s stooges grabbed him and dragged him back into the operating theatre – ripped the organ right out of him, and let him bleed out on the gravel. Apparently, they had received a higher offer… In this town, everyone has a price.

*

+++++When I eventually arrive back at my rooming house, the desk-jockey eyes my bloody shirt suspiciously. He probably wants to know how soon before he rents the room out again. As I trudge up the stairs the drops of blood are barely noticeable on the maroon carpet. I inspect the gaping knife wound in my shoulder in the mirror of the communal bathroom. It looks fucking ugly. I pack it with cheap toilet paper and stumble down the hallway to my room. The door is ajar. I rub my eyeballs with bruised knuckles.

+++++“Wet-Look?”

+++++My least favourite ex-cop. He is sat on my bed in a greasy suit, rat-tail sap in his right hand, cock pulsing against his tight trousers.

+++++He doesn’t look well. His skin the colour of cement dust, and big clumps of his lank hair seem to be missing.

+++++He points at my shirt with a ragged, over-long fingernail.

+++++“Still whoring yourself out to the highest bidder?”

+++++“Don’t blame me, blame market forces.”

+++++“Quite.”

+++++I take a hard look at him. He was always fat, but he has bloated up like a waterlogged corpse.

+++++“I thought you had left town?”

+++++He shrugs.

+++++Earlier this year he was chased out of Paignton by his ex-cop buddies after sodomising two rent-boys with a retractable baton. Afterwards, he apparently made them sodomise one another, while he wanked into a jam jar. He’s a sick fucker.

+++++I heard that he was living in Plymouth, with his ex-brother-in-law, above an ‘extreme’ tattoo parlour.

+++++I slowly reach into my boot for my pig-knife.

+++++“Don’t flatter yourself, sweetheart. I’ve won better looking boys than you in poker games.”

+++++I grunt, but keep hold of the blade.

+++++“Why are you here?”

+++++“Everyone comes back to Paignton sooner or later – even if it is just to die.”

+++++He offers me a brief, demented cackle and coughs into his handkerchief melodramatically.

+++++“Do you know Harlan Deloitte?”

+++++Paignton’s richest man.

+++++“Not personally.”

+++++Philanthropist.

+++++“But you know of him?”

+++++Collector of the occult and the arcane.

+++++“Sure. His fucking reputation precedes him.”

+++++Hoarder of unknown horrors.

+++++“I have a job for you.”

+++++Motherfucker.

+++++“What is this, one last pay-day, then you disappear into the sunset?”

+++++His yellow eyes twinkle, and he scratches his balls with the leather edge of the sap.

+++++“Something like that.”

+++++I glance down at my bloody clothing and feel the loose teeth in my pocket. My life feels like a series of lurid little moments – stitched together, badly.

+++++I nod, and Wet-Look offers me a rancid smile.

+++++His eyes bore into me, and I feel my balls creep up into my gut.

*

+++++24 hours later.

+++++The watery-looking winter sun hangs low above the ugly, scattered guesthouses on Newton Road, and casts long, awkward shadows across the railway line. One of those misshapen buildings is a halfway house for recently paroled sex offenders. At least two are crack-dens.

+++++I climb the loose breezeblock steps and enter the dented aluminium trailer that doubles as an office at Lock ‘n’ Roll Self Storage.

+++++“Mr Rey. Long time, no see.”

+++++I nod, wordlessly.

+++++Karl Krazinsky is slumped across a swivel chair behind a second-hand desk. His white cropped hair stands out against his garish purple and black jogging suit.

+++++The tracksuit is a size too small, and bulges in all of the wrong places.

+++++His eyes are blank and bloodshot. It’s after midday, so his black coffee will be laced with liqueur, or something else strong enough to dilute the bad memories. I understand all too well, but I don’t sympathise. Not after the things he and his family have done.

+++++“There has been a lot of water under the bridge, Mr Rey.”

+++++“A lot of other stuff, too.”

+++++He grunts. I put one of his brothers in hospital, another one in prison. Both of them deserved it.

+++++Frankly, I’m surprised I’m here.

+++++I knew Krazinsky when he was still called Giancarlo Rossi. Before witness protection. Before he managed a low-rent suburban self-storage unit. He was always dumber than a box of shit – a leg-breaker not a grifter. Even so, he moved up the ranks at an impressive clip.

+++++So many Andretti Family affiliates turned snitch over the last decade, local criminals nicknamed the witness protection programme the ‘Mafia Meat Locker’.

+++++Everything turned to shit when Tommy Andretti ended up in an actual meat locker, down in Plymouth, with his hair slicked back and his lips sewn shut. The wise-guy wisecrack didn’t seem so funny after that.

+++++Three of Rossi’s cousins were discovered in a self-storage unit later that month. Same ghoulish shtick. It may even have been one of the units on this site. No wonder Krazinsky looks so haunted. He can probably hear them whispering his old name as he waddles around the site at night with his fucking flashlight.

+++++He splashes another two fingers of Galliano into his coffee mug.

+++++“Drink, Rey?”

+++++“Sure.”

+++++Why break the habit of a lifetime…

*

+++++Wet-Look told me that Krazinsky was holding a stash of mummified body parts for Harlan Deloitte. Most people would dismiss Wet-Look as a fantasist, but I’ve learned not to underestimate him. According to his source, the limbs belonged to Latin American Nazis, and were found buried in Lanares Province, Chile, wrapped in a Swastika flag.

+++++Deloitte is bad fucking news. Whenever his name crops up in the kind of conversations that I have, a little piece of me dies inside. I had assumed that his interests were strictly local, but it appears that I am wrong. However Wet-Look found out, I’m impressed. This isn’t the kind of information you can shake out of a Winner Street stool-pigeon, or slap out of a bus station rent-boy.

+++++Krazinsky gazes at me thoughtfully.

+++++“Do you think you’re the only ghoul out here making me an offer?”

+++++“Honestly, I have no idea.”

+++++He looks uneasy, as well he might.

+++++When the bottle of liqueur is finished he leads me down the steps and into the labyrinthine, rusted steel maze.

+++++“Say, what’s the worst thing you have ever found in one of these units?

+++++He bristles.

+++++“I don’t look in the units, Rey. I value the customers’ privacy.”

+++++“But if the money runs out?”

+++++He shrugs.

+++++“Human ashes… shrink-wrapped parcels of marijuana… the dried-out husks of dead reptiles… jam-jars full of bodily fluids. I once found four Lithuanians sleeping on cot-beds. Hell, most of these damned units are empty now. Customers prefer newer facilities. Cleaner places with better security. Better management.”

+++++He trails off – bored, disinterested, so I stop talking.

+++++His eel-skin boots splash through the stagnant puddles, splattering the legs of his cheap tracksuit. Bloody rubber gloves dangle from his waist-band.

+++++We walk in silence, covering a lot of ground, until we are in the far corner of the lot – under the pines, where the sun never shines. I remember these woods. The care home I grew up in was nearby. Older boys with camouflage trousers, cigarette lighters and flick-knives would lead us into the bowels of the woods to show us their secret porn stashes.

+++++Krazinsky gestures to a rust-ravaged unit with his battered-looking flashlight. It looks older and more decrepit than him.

+++++“This is it.”

+++++He withdraws a bunch of keys from the pocket of his jogging suit, and unfastens the padlock.

+++++He steps back to allow me to pass, and hands me the flashlight. I switch on the torch. Its weak glow barely registers in the cavernous gloom. This unit must extend right back into the tree-line. I shuffle forwards, and stumble against something on the floor. I point the flashlight towards the ground.

+++++It’s a skeleton – face collapsed with rot, bones a deep, sick shade of yellow.

+++++Further back, I see a flicker of movement in the murkiness. I raise the flash-light.

+++++Too big to be a rat. Much too big. An unholy groan emanates from the back corner.

+++++I hear the creaking sound of old bones. A face with a complexion like a skinned rabbit lurches towards me from out of nowhere. I smash the butt of the flashlight into its face and it keels over with an inhuman shriek.

+++++I turn sharply towards Krazinsky in the doorway.

+++++He offers me a thin, bloodless smile.

+++++“I’m sorry, Mr Rey. Sometimes, the only way to succeed is to corrupt yourself.”

+++++He tries to slam the door, but I manage to thrust my fist into the gap. I feel the bones in my hand shatter. I slam my shoulder into the door, and send Krazinsky sprawling into the gravel.

+++++He tries to kick out at me, but I stomp his left knee. It gives way with a queasy crack and he screams in pain.

+++++I was always led to believe that anyone who crossed the Andretti Family ended up as landfill. They were well known for employing men with dark appetites to bury, dismember or dissolve their secrets. Maybe I was wrong.

+++++“I’m sorry, Rey…”

+++++“You will be.”

+++++I drag him back toward the doorway by the collar of his jogging suit, but the cheap fabric rips. He tries to scramble across the gravel, away from me, but a stamp sharply on his back. I crack open the door and haul his lumpy body through the gap – towards whatever fresh hell lurks inside.

+++++I retrieve the over-sized key-ring from the gravel and snap the padlock shut.

+++++As I walk away – broken hand throbbing with pain, Krazinsky’s wretched screams ring in my mangled ears.

*

+++++Inside Krazinsky’s office I retrieve a fresh bottle of Galliano from his filing cabinet. Helpfully, the dumb bastard filed it under ‘G’. I recline in his patched-up swivel chair, and half fill a stained coffee mug with the sickly liqueur.

+++++I start to work my way through the files, in search of Deloitte’s nasty Nazi shit, but quickly give up.

+++++Eventually, the pain from my shattered hand subsides. Eventually, a passing train drowns out Krazinsky’s howls.

*

+++++Overhead, the smoke from the hospital incinerator blurs the winter sky like a memory.

+++++When I get to the front gate, a drab, olive-green estate car is parked sideways across the dirt-track, blocking the exit. There is a bullet-hole in the windscreen.

+++++The driver unfolds himself from his seat and stretches. He has a Russian 8mm Baikal self-defence pistol, originally used for firing CS gas, in his left hand.

+++++His name is Butterknuckle. He has a shaven head and a badly pockmarked face. He’s big, but he’s not hard. He’s a standard-issue small town hood – the kind I’m not overly surprised to find myself going toe-to-toe with.

+++++He doesn’t point the gun at me, but I stop regardless. I take a closer look at the car.

+++++Harlan Deloitte is sat in the passenger seat, smoking a cheroot.

+++++He is 60, but looks 40. Fuck, I’m 40 but look closer to 60 on particularly bad days.

+++++He’s wearing a t-shirt and jeans and an expensive-looking overcoat, unbuttoned. He has a diamond stud in his left earlobe.

+++++He smiles easily.

+++++“Mr Rey, I presume?”

+++++I nod.

+++++“Where is Mr Krazinsky?”

+++++“Don’t worry. He’s among friends.”

+++++He looks disappointed, but his lips quickly curl into a nasty sneer.

+++++“Are you surprised to see me, Mr Rey?”

+++++“You know what, Harlan. Nothing much surprises me anymore.”

+++++“Hmm. Butterknuckle – pop the trunk.”

+++++“The trunk?”

+++++“Open the car boot, son.”

+++++He backs away, still training the gun on me.

+++++He opens the car boot and drags Wet-Look out by his hair. It comes out in clumps, so he hauls the fat man by his collar instead. His face is covered in minor lacerations, and his eyes are puffed shut. His trousers are soaked in blood, where it looks like he has been kneecapped.

+++++“What are we gonna do with these motherfuckers, Harlan?”

+++++“Throw them into a pit with a couple of broken bottles.”

+++++“Aw, man. Do I have to dig the pit?”

+++++Deloitte chuckles.

+++++“I was joking, son. Shoot them in the back and kick them into the weeds. They can die like rats.”

+++++Wet-Look is on his knees on the gravel. He looks disorientated. Butterknuckle raises the gun.

+++++“No last meal for you, fat man…”

+++++Wet-Look smiles his sick smile, and then leans across and clamps his yellow teeth on Butterknuckle’s right thigh. He screams. The gun discharges into the pine trees. Wet-Look adjusts his position and takes a bite out of the hood’s genitals.

+++++I can taste blood in my dry mouth. I lunge towards Deloitte and hit him – just about as hard as I have ever hit anyone. Only after I have punched him, do I realise that I’m using my broken hand. Like a corpse, his smile remains in place, even as his head crunches against the car’s metalwork. He keeps grinning, so I stop punching and start stomping.

+++++Wet-Look crawls across the gravel on his belly and places the Russian handgun against Deloitte’s scrawny neck. He pulls the trigger without a word, and we are both plastered in blood.

+++++Butterknuckle starts to hobble away from the bloodshed. Wet-Look aims the gun at his spinal column and squeezes, smearing him across the gravel.

*

+++++Two days later.

+++++I like my explosives the same way I like my pornography – homemade and volatile. I lob the improvised Molotov Cocktail towards Deloitte’s mansion with my left hand, and it smashes the window with a sharp crack. It wasn’t the window I was aiming for.

+++++“His study. That will work.”

+++++I turn to Wet-Look. He looks far too big for his NHS wheelchair. His head has been shaved, but there are small pink craters on his scalp where his hair was ripped out. The flames dance in his bleary eyes.

+++++“You’re a violent, predictable man, Joe Rey.”

+++++I shrug.

+++++“That’s why you keep hiring me, right?”

+++++He doesn’t answer me, just stares into the fire – until I wheel him back across the landscaped garden, back to the rest of our rotten lives.

The Reference

It is important to garner exemplary references in my profession. Good, very good are not good enough. They must be exemplary. It is for that reason I went to those professors who were most familiar with my teaching and scholarship.  I was a dutiful graduate assistant, a hard-working adjunct and saw no reason why I would not get references in accordance with my academic standing.

+++++But professors can be sneaky, they can be devious. There are many things that can be said of professors, but being upfront and honest are not among them. They can send a reference that to the layperson’s eyes appears to be positive, and glowing in praise, however scrutiny will show it to be equivocal in its support of the referent. And equivocal is a death warrant for anyone who is applying for a teaching position. The best one could hope for would be as a teacher of Freshman English 101 which is little more than being a glorified high school teacher. I wanted to verify my references were truthful; that is effusive and laudatory. I applied for a non-existent teaching position to a small college in Tennessee. I had a friend who worked there, and he would receive all my transcripts and references and send them to me sight unseen.

+++++They were exemplary examples of objectivity. They were universal in their praise of me, my studies, my research, my teaching abilities, and so on and so forth including my chairman’s Dr. Wilmut. I risked asking for his support, as I suspected he harbored personal animus toward me. He was, however, highly respected in his field, and it would help to have his recommendation.  It appeared his personal feelings, whatever they were, did not get in the way of his professionalism. So, I thought.

+++++Wilmut was a short, tyrannical, balding, middle-aged man with a nasally, wheezing voice. He was prone to flatulence usually displayed during department meetings, and telegraphed by slightly lifting his rear and shifting his body to one side. The result was usually a muffled, rather apologetic emission but often, either for a joke or an expression of disdain for whoever was speaking; a full blast would erupt.  Only full, tenured, professors were bold enough to acknowledge his behavior.  Even tenured associate professors, one step away from the Olympian stature of full professorship, were resigned to do something for which they were well versed; play dumb.

+++++The only reason I could find for him not liking me was jealousy. He was unseemly and old, while I was young and good looking, and as he could only leer and dream of luscious 19 and 20-year-old coeds, I was able, and willing, to do more. I was sure he was unaware of my trysts with his wife; a handsome, stern looking woman, with a wonderful body who underneath her public façade of academic aloofness was a tigress in bed. There certainly would have been talk about it throughout the campus had it been known.

+++++In an attempt for him to even the score so to speak, I often left him alone to keep my wife, who of course is a knock out, company during parties and social gatherings. It would be a great opportunity for him to ‘make his move.’  He could endlessly chat and hope she would find his recent paper on Chaucer’s The Wife from Bath, an irresistible aphrodisiac. Little did he know that what really turned on my wife was a reading of Beowulf in the original Olde English.  I joke.

+++++Wilmut assured me I would have a one year appointment as assistant professor upon completion of my dissertation, but it was scrapped for, so I was told, budget cuts. I was suspicious of course. It would not be beneath him to sabotage me. I did land a teaching position as a one year replacement at a small, rather non-descript college in upstate New York.

+++++It wasn’t what I wanted, but I taught two literature classes and only one composition class.

+++++“It’s a good sign,” my wife told me. “I heard from Jan and she said she’s got a job at small state college in Wyoming, and she’s teaching three composition classes.”

+++++“Jan would be that happy with that. She’s lucky to have it.”

+++++“David, that’s not right. She worked hard.”

+++++“Good for her. Tell her I said hello.”  But, in all honesty I was optimistic about our future.  Things were wonderful for us. We bought a new car and Camille was pregnant. Buoyed by the relative ease I had in getting my position, temporary as it was, and since I had two articles published in literary journals, I believed a full-time, tenure tracked position would be my next position.

+++++My one year position was extended for another. I was lax in sending out applications so the extra year was much appreciated. We were still very happy, Camille and I, but the baby was very demanding, and that, along with an astoundingly drastic reduction in our sex life brought moments of strife into our household. I sent out 136 applications and for my troubles I did not get one damn interview.  My heart-felt plea to return for a third year was declined. I was lucky to land a job at Hansen-Toulour Community College teaching freshman composition.

+++++In the world of the academe, respected professors would rather go through un-anesthetisized surgery than teach English 101.  It is a form of punishment relegated to graduate-assistants, students working on higher degrees, and in my case, a Ph.d who couldn’t find a job. I was to teach two literature classes and three compositions classes! A five course load! I prayed no one at my previous school was aware of my fall.

+++++I spent one year at HTCC and it was enough for me to become bitter, frustrated and disillusioned.  I tried to internalize my feelings but often expressed them in constructive, perhaps injurious criticism, in the margins of students’ papers. There were also sporadic, passionate outbursts directed at fellow members of the faculty. There were moments, few and far between however, when I lashed out at my wife.

+++++There was never any violence. The arguments we had, most couples would consider mild, but for Camille they were volcanic. My wife is quiet and gentile in nature. She had never seen me like this, and as innocuous as my loud, yet highly controlled manifestations of displeasure were, it troubled her and she reacted badly to them.

+++++“You could have taken,” she said one time, “that position offered to you at Meade University. It was full time.”

+++++“Full time teaching a four course load and three of those courses wet nursing the semi-literate to understand the differences between, to, two and too.”

+++++“It was full time, and a pay increase, for God’s sake.”

+++++“I’ll find something better. I’ve submitted another article for publication.”

+++++“What’s that, three in three years?”

+++++I gave her a look. “Everything will work out.” And I did her a big favor by walking to my study and locking the door.

+++++Ashley at that time was waking up three or four times a night and I could not dedicate myself as fervently as I wanted to on job hunting, and on my academic research. We argued more and when I complained how the demanding Ashley was cutting into my time she said, “Your time? So what? Your time is all a waste of our time!”

+++++Our life was not as we expected it to be. But, was I to blame? I didn’t think so. It was a hectic year, a bad year with the only positive to come out of it was I found the reason for my joblessness.

+++++My friend in Tennessee called to say that he had received an updated reference a while back and was going to send it, but it had been misplaced and he only just found it. It was Dr.Wilmut’s. He had replaced his original reference with a new one backdated to correspond with the original. In his new version words like ‘volatile,’ ‘under-achiever,’ ‘temperamental’ stood out as if written in bold-face. There were phases like, ‘could improve if given the right circumstances,’ ‘doesn’t seem to get along with his contemporaries as he should,’ and, ‘at times is confrontational with his students.’

+++++I had found the reason for my unfavorable situation, not only in my professional career but also for the slow dissolution of our marriage. Our feelings toward each other had been altered seemingly irrevocably. Neither of us felt the joy, nor the sense of optimism, we once had. It was difficult to suppress my bitterness and hatred for my situation and too often my wife felt the brunt of my dissatisfaction. She became judgmental and criticized every little thing I did, and was not hesitant to compare me to other men, comparisons in which I did not fare favorably. Ashley kept us together but there’s only so much a two year old can do. I swore that my child’s life would not become damaged as ours had become. I swore I would ensure my family had a fair shot in the future.

+++++During our mid-term break I drove to New Jersey where I booked a room at a Motel 6 in Pompton Lakes.  I told my wife I’d be reading a paper on The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. I thought she would be happy to have some time alone, but instead she became angry and a violent argument followed. I could say we kissed and made up and all was honky dory, but it would not be true. She threatened to leave, and I would return to an empty apartment. She said I was leaving to meet one of my students, Victorian Literature Groupie Whores, is what she called them.  What an imagination! Ashley was as frightened as I’d ever seen her. I promised them this trip would bring things back to normal, and we’d never argue again. My wife laughed. We argued and Ashley cried. I arrived in Wayne that evening with the image of my little girl in tears fresh in my mind.

+++++Evening classes were in session and Dr.Wilmut was in his office. The door to his office was ajar and I heard him tapping, tapping so gently on his computer keyboard.

+++++“Dr. Wilmut,” I said. The man was so deeply immersed in his work he nearly jumped out of his seat.

+++++“David?” he asked, “what are you doing here, aren’t you still teaching?”

+++++“The reference you wrote for me needs to be revised,” and I flung the copy at him. “You made too many typos. For example you spelled genius as m-e-d-i-o-c-r-e. And look, you meant to say ‘dedicated’ but erroneously wrote ‘lackadaisical.’  There are more; had we the time.”

+++++“How’d you get his?” he asked.

+++++“What’s it matter? I have it.”

+++++“I heard you were teaching at Houghton University in Pennsylvania.”

+++++“New York State.”

+++++“Of course, yes, New York State.”  Are you no longer teaching there?”

+++++“No. Do you know what I’m doing now?”

+++++He shook his head no.

+++++“I’m a part time instructor at a junior college in upstate New York teaching three, as in thirty students per class of writing composition.”

+++++“It’s a start, David, you’re still new in the profession but must understand that the market is tight. What matters is you’re still in the game.”

+++++I picked up the copy he had let fall and held it in front of him. “And this glowing recommendation is going to help me?”

+++++“David, I want you to listen to me.”

+++++“Ohhhhh, you must have had a good time fabricating this spurious revisionist reference. You did it right here, at this desk, and on that computer. I can see you laughing your fat, balding head off at my expense. And when your work was done you must have had a great time thinking about all those prospective chairmen and chairwomen and chair people, reading your reference, didn’t you? Well, good doctor there were over 136 of them, that guffawed and chuckled and slapped their knees and thought, ‘What the hell is this guy thinkin,’ ‘this guy’ being me, ‘of applying for our position?  Oh, my,’ they further thought, ‘the poor sap must be delusional.’  Right; a wonderful time was had by all.”

+++++I put my briefcase on an empty chair and took out a gun.

+++++“David, let’s talk. I can explain everything. Could you please put that gun away?” He looked up at the wall clock and I cursed my stupidity. In a short while night classes would end. I had to hurry. My mind flashed back to our most horrific arguments and I saw my daughter, my little Ashley tugging at her Daddy’s leg crying for us to stop our fighting.

+++++“David, in retrospect I should have left the original in and for that I admit I was wrong, but when I found out you plagiarized one of your term papers I felt I had to do something. But it’s no big deal, really. A minor case of copying that’s all. Many students do it. I’ll be more than happy to write you another reference much more representative of your talents.”

+++++“Plagiarized?”

+++++“Yes.  Last year I read a paper that struck me as highly suspicious. It seemed to me I had seen it before, and I remembered it was a term paper you had written for me in your senior year.”

+++++Plagiarized. I remembered. I had paid four hundred dollars for a sure A+ paper. That miserable son of a bitch finance major told me papers were used only once.  The bastard then sold it to some moron who couldn’t revise it a little to differentiate it from mine.

+++++“I keep some copies of student papers, and his was almost word by word similar to yours. I dug deeper and discovered the original was from an obscure dissertation written in 1962.”

+++++“Who is this student?”

+++++“The student?”

+++++“Yes, the one who plagiarized my paper.”

+++++“She’s still in school. Here, let me get her address.” Wilmut scurried to his desk, and quickly ran through the papers. “Here, here, she’s still in school. I had to fail her of course, but it was only an elective, she’s actually a public-“

+++++“Shut up!”

+++++“Yes, of course, I’m sorry. You see, David, if I had withdrawn my original referral it would have caused a lot of red flags.”

+++++“And you couldn’t keep it the way it was?”

+++++“It would not have been honest.”

+++++“It was honesty that drove you to do what you do?”

+++++“Yes, academia has a very stringent ethical code.”

+++++“And your being mad at me had nothing to do with it?”

+++++“I was disappointed someone with your ability would do such a thing.”

+++++“You’re not mad because I had been screwing your wife?”

+++++He looked as downcast as a beaten dog. “We have an arrangement. I’m an old man now, but even as a young man it was difficult for me to keep-“

+++++“Her satisfied,” I said and smiled broadly.

+++++“Yes, damn you! My wife is intelligent and we had that in common, she’s also very physical with a remarkable earthiness, a robust sensuality to her that, as you succinctly said, was problematic for me to satisfy. So, we made an arrangement.”

+++++“You knew about us?”

+++++“Yes, we even made tapes.”

+++++“Tapes; of me fucking your wife?”

+++++“Yes.”

+++++The bell rang. I moved quickly. The gun was only to get his attention. I pulled a knife from my brief case and repeatedly stabbed him.  I told my wife I was to speak on, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, so I looked down at his lifeless body and said: “’It is lawful and hath been held so through for all ages, for any who have the power to call to account a tyrant, and to depose and put him to death.’

+++++I felt a sense of relief and relaxation. With this matter closed I could get back to normalizing relations with my wife. We could, once again, be a happy family. But, I had to see Prudence Wilmut one last time. I parked in their driveway as close to the house as possible. I rang the doorbell and waited, then rang again.

+++++I could hear her from the hallway as she approached the door. “Did you forget your keys?” she asked?

+++++“I gave the house key back to you, remember?” I replied.

+++++There was a moment of silence.  “Who is this?”

+++++I stepped back so she could get a good look at me through the spyhole. She quickly opened the door. “David! What are you doing here? He’ll be home soon.” I walked in, and by force of habit took her in my arms and kissed her deeply.

+++++“I ‘ve just seen him. He won’t be here for a while.”

+++++“Oh?”

+++++“He said there are tapes of our love making. He said he made tapes of us. Is that right?”

+++++“That’s ridiculous!”

+++++I slapped her hard across the face. My voice remained calm. “He said they were here and I believe him. I’ve got no time to play now get them!”

+++++I grabbed her by the arm.

+++++“You’re hurting me, I’ll get them. My husband and I had an arrangement.”

+++++“So he said.”

+++++“We showed them to no one. No one knew but us. We told no one.”

+++++“So you say. Where do you keep them?”

+++++“In the bedroom.”

+++++I led her up the familiar stairs into the familiar room and saw the very familiar bed.

+++++“It’s in here.” She opened the door to the walk in closet door, and pointed to a row of innocuously titled films on a shelf. There were twenty of them. She pulled several out.

+++++“These are all we have of you, honest.”

+++++“Honest! You? Don’t make laugh. Put them all in here.”

+++++“Please not all of them.”

+++++I laughed. “Yes all of them. So, this is how you and your husband got off, huh, by watching these tapes?”

+++++“Just take them and leave. He’ll be home soon.”

+++++“I doubt it.”

+++++“What do you mean?”

+++++I nodded toward the bed and asked, “How about one more time?”

+++++“He’ll be home soon, please go. Maybe we can see each other tomorrow. Let me know where you’ll be, and we’ll meet.”

+++++When she turned her back to shut the closet door I pistol whipped her.

+++++She lay prostrate on the bedroom floor her breathing was heavy and labored. I took the pillow from her side of the bed and held it tightly over her mouth until she breathed no more. I looked into the closet, and imagined him with his little camera filming us, filming all of Prudence’s lovers. He was such a sick bastard. I’d never film anyone screwing my wife, never!

+++++I arrived home the next day. Ashley was so happy to see her Daddy. I sensed my wife’s apprehensiveness.

+++++“Things are going to get better, darling,” I told her, “I’ve had time to reflect. I prayed like I never prayed before. I realize how lucky I am to have you and Ashley. Please forgive me.”

+++++She unfolded her arms. “It’s good to have you back again.”

+++++Camille took Ashley to see her mother the next day and it gave me time to view the tapes. It wasn’t what I expected.  It started with Prudence in front of the full length mirror playing with her nipples. The camera followed as she moved her hand between her legs then a full zoom on her mouth as she faked orgasm (I knew Prudence, it would take more than what she was doing to make her orgasm). Then the title appeared. Wilmut must have had pretensions of being a big time film director. There was the name of a production company, then the title, “Prudence and the Dunce, Part 1,” and below it, ‘starring Prudence Wilmut and David Bolton.” That sick bastard! He called me a dunce. I looked at the other tapes.

+++++They all had the appearance of a low budget shoe string film. There were, “Prudence and The Clown Prince,” with the male lead being a newly hired assistant professor, “Prudence and the Perpetual Graduate Assistant,” who was Ronald LeForge, and there were others. I had to laugh. All that was lacking was for Prudence to lie on the bed, legs spread and say, “Mr.DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.’ It was hilarious. And when I thought of them dead I laughed harder.

+++++Without exception all the leading men were faculty members. It’s no good to play those tapes in select theatres, so I would have copies made. Those tapes were going to be my ticket to a full tenured job. I’d let them know if they didn’t use their vast network of contacts and academic pull, I’ll let their wives, their deans, the university president have their own tapes. I lay on the bed, and daydreamed of me in my big office with windows overlooking the campus and taking various coeds in a variety of positions and teaching one, maybe two classes a semester.  Life looked good.

+++++The next morning I was still flush with expectation and hope. “You know, darling,” I remember telling my wife and putting my arms around her. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but things are going to change.”

+++++“I hope so, David, but you’re acting the way many people do when they come back from a vacation. What will happen when the real world sinks in again? A real world of me, a family, and what you consider a dead end job.”

+++++“A dead end job. Are you saying this is as good as it will get for me?”

+++++She paused for a moment and took my hands from her waist.

+++++“I’m not saying that at all. Time will tell.”

+++++What happened next was like one gigantic wave sweeping over me at the beach.  It is difficult, even now, to differentiate events just as it would be impossible to differentiate one part of a long wave from another.  But before I could answer her our doorbell rang. Camille led in three detectives with two patrolmen behind them.

+++++“They said they wanted to see you.”

+++++“Why?”

+++++“Mr. Bolton, I’m Lt. Shaw from the Ithaca police department, these two gentlemen are Detectives Gizello and Franklin from the Wayne police department. They drove all the way up here just to see you.”

+++++A Jersey detective, Gizello said, “We’d like to question you about your whereabouts a couple of nights ago.”

+++++“I took a little trip to clear my head. I stayed a couple of nights at a Hotel 6 on Rt. 23”

+++++“In Pompton Lakes?” the other asked.

+++++“Do you know of any other?”

+++++“David! Please can you tell me what this is about?  Yes, Detective, he was away yes, we were having some troubles at home, nothing serious. He left to clear his head. It gave us time to think.”

+++++“Mrs. Bolton two people have been murdered. An August Wilmut and his wife Prudence. You know them of course?”

+++++“David!”

+++++“Of course we knew them. How could we not? You don’t think for a minute, for a nanosecond that I had anything to do with it?”

+++++“We’re taking him in for questioning, Mrs. Bolton. If he can clear this up, we’ll have him back soon.”

+++++It was a blur. They sat me and said they had proof. One detective, not sure if he was supposed to be the good one or bad one, said it was murder one, but if I confessed they would tell the D.A. how co-operative I was and he might knock it down to murder two.

+++++They had no proof. It was all a bluff. I smiled smugly and said nothing. I’d let them earn their money before they let me go. Then the other detective came and put a tape in the VCR player. “We brought this tape with us all the way from the Garden State.”

+++++“What the hell are you talking about?”

+++++“Doc Wilmut liked to take movies, but you already know that, don’t you?”  I smirked at him. I had been in that bedroom enough times to know there are no security cameras, and before I left I went over that room with a fine tooth comb. Bluff, bluff and more bluff.

+++++The tape lacked the same, albeit simple, production values of the ones he made of Prudence made. There were no titles, no credits.

+++++“Pull up a chair,” said Monahan, “sorry we can’t offer you any popcorn. We found a camera behind a poster of Edgar Allan Poe. Shhhh, quiet the movie’s started.” A male student walked in, they exchanged pleasantries then began to kiss.

+++++“Ooops,” said a detective, not sure if it was the good one or the bad one, “Let’s fast forward it to the good part.”  He did so, and my mouth dropped. There I was entering his office.

+++++“This is it, Bolton. The big time. Mr.David Bolton enter stage left. Here’s you’re big scene. Action!”

+++++I watched myself murder Dr.Wilmut.

The Loss

Fuck.  How much had he had to drink last night?  Shit, had he passed out on the toilet?  His head rolled from side to side, the room swum; at least he had his boxers on, green and white stripes, no piss stains on the crotch, hooray for small miracles.  He shook his head, drool dripped out his mouth and landed on his knee.  What the hell had happened last night?
+++++He tried to stand up.  Ugh, what was that?  He tried again.  No.  His arms were dead, his legs felt like he had just run a marathon, his head dazed; none of that mattered.  He was tied up.
+++++Rope was tied around his wrists and elbows.  Yellow and bristly it cut his skin but only when he flexed or tried to sit up, there was a little slack there.  His legs were tied tighter, he couldn’t see with what but it was some type of cord, wrapped right under his knee and around his ankles.  He was tied to a chair.
+++++He looked around.  It was dark, not pitch black.  He could already see better than when he first opened his eyes.  In front of him, a bit to the left, the outline of a door, slightly cracked, light pouring thru the corners.  Sunlight.
+++++To the right of the door was metallic and dirty, the garage door.  To the right black plastered to the wall.  Trash bag.  Someone had taped a trash bag over the window.  He turned his head all around, at least as much as he could, dusty red, a car behind him.  He looked back to the window.
+++++Why did the trash bag over the window scare him more than the ropes around his wrists?  Premeditation.  It definitely would take several odd series of events to tie someone up but the fact that this person had a ready-made place to keep him scuttled the spur of the moment kidnapping.
+++++Or did it?  Bags over the windows could be that his captor didn’t want people looking in, or it could mean that the glass had cracks in it and they didn’t want the elements coming in.  He shouldn’t start ascribing malicious intent to everything around him.  Except of course being tied up to a chair, that was malicious.
+++++He grinned, good to keep a sense of humor, situation wasn’t ideal but panicking wasn’t going to help.  He paused, why exactly wasn’t he panicking more?  He was calmly looking around, cracking private jokes, occasionally swearing and that was it.  He was glad he wasn’t screaming or anything but an elevated heart rate would help.
+++++He had been drugged, he felt like he did after he had got his wisdom teeth taken out.  The ropes seemed impossible to break but he was in no position to do anything right now.  At the bar?  Yes, that made the most sense.  Shit, was it still night?  He had no reference for time, had he been out for… stupid.  The sunlight, it was morning, at least.  What did that tell him?
+++++That whoever had done this was serious.  As unlikely as a prank as this was, as it definitely had broken several laws, keeping someone for the night seemed to discount the prank idea.  His chest was cool with sweat but it had no crude slurs written on him in marker.  No mirror so he couldn’t check but he doubted that there was a phallic image drawn on his face.  He sighed, no prank.
+++++He blinked, stuck his tongue out, and licked his lips.  There it was, that moment when the Vicodin or laughing gas wears off, he was back.  Hooray.  He was also in his underwear tied to a chair in a garage.  He lifted his arms up again, at least as much as he could.  Midway between the wrists and elbow he was getting less than an inch, shit, he was getting nothing, though he could feel that the left was slightly weaker.
+++++He tried moving forward.  More movement there, his chest wasn’t tied so he could lean forward.  He did that several times.  He stopped.  That was getting nowhere; all he was getting was a better view of the floor, cracked cement with stains.
+++++Not blood he told himself, not blood.  No, clearly not blood, it was just light discoloration, not the copper tinged splotch blood would have surely left.  He checked his legs again.  There!  His ankles were tight, tighter than the wrists, but his right knee had hope.  He couldn’t move forward for shit but he could lift it up towards his face a bit.  If not for the ankle he might be able to bring it out of the rope.
+++++Rope and cord.  Two different types.  This was the persons first time, they had the foresight to block the windows but not have enough rope on hand.  Or to shut the door completely.  Or to use a basement instead of a garage.  He might be able to talk his way out.
+++++Talk his way out?  That can’t be the plan he thought.  That was stupid, lazy, and cowardly.  Yes, if someone came, the fact he wasn’t dead yet and had been passed out for at least eight hours, he stood somewhat of a chance of talking his way out of it but that couldn’t be plan A.  He needed to get out.
+++++He took a breath, with each passing moment he was feeling stronger.  His limbs still felt a little weird, lack of circulation or drug side effects who cared?  He felt good now, his mouth wasn’t open, his eyes were focused, his limbs, while tied up, were not limp.  This was it.  He flexed his right leg and lifted, he sucked in, moved his arms up… all of one inch.  He exhaled.  The ropes and cords were too tight, wrapped around the chair.
+++++The chair!  That’s what he had to do, break the chair.  It was wooden.  He looked over to the right.  The table with tools was his best bet for getting a weapon to defend himself but there was no saw laying fortuitously off the edge nor a vice grip attached to the edge, nothing to ram his chair against.  Could he even stand though?  He smiled.  He kept on answering his own questions.  He wondered if it was his hobby that made him so analytical, so careful.  Probably.
+++++He looked to the left, looked to the right.  Nothing in his way.  Forwards meant face first and behind was a car.  Go left, to where the table was.  He tilted his head to the right, no point in knocking himself out.  He lifted his left arm up, as much as he could.  Took a deep breath and rocked to the left, a tilt, more, one more, he felt himself falling…
+++++…”Fuck.”  He had hit the ground hard, moving his head to the right hadn’t really helped, his head had just whiplashed to the ground.  He blinked, it hurt but that was it.  His head was the last thing he needed to be worried about.
+++++He had heard a crack, though it could have just been the thud of impact.  He had landed perfectly on his left side, too perfect, he was exactly on his left side.  If there had been any change on the left side of the chairs structure he couldn’t tell, he was stuck, sideways like a turtle on its shell.
+++++He twisted again; he closed his eyes, bam.  Another hit to the head.  Now he was face forward on the ground, ass in the air, chair stuck to his back.  For a brief moment he felt like laughing.  He moved his arm.  He gave into the urge and let out a little laugh.
+++++There!  His right arm.  Movement.  It was the wrist, the elbow was still tight.  He should have gone to the right; his left arm was still as immobile as ever.  He tried moving his legs, it was hard, from this angle he couldn’t try to stand, he could only try to push.  His right leg definitely had more slack now; if he could get right side up he might be able to…. No, his ankle was still stuck, though the left seemed like it had some give to it.
+++++Smile.  A little give here, a little loosening there, he could roll over to the left, roll to the right and continue doing that over and over again until he was free.  His head was on the ground, it didn’t hurt but blood was rushing up there and given the drugs he had taken he needed to be careful, rolling around and knocking himself out wasn’t going to help.  This one he didn’t need to worry about, a shift to the left or right would have his head away from the ground, looking at a sideways prison.  So, left and loosen the ankle more or right and loosen the upper leg and wrist?  Either way would be fine but he needed to…
+++++Slam.  A door.  His first instinct was to shout out, help, come here, anything.  He held his tongue.  The door was really close.  He heard the crunch crunch crunch of leaves being stepped on.  His stomach tightened.  The door opened.  He closed his eyes.

***

A soft kick to his shoulder.  “I know you are awake.”  His eyes remained closed.  Don’t let them know anything.  A sigh, the footsteps walked away, outside?  No, to the bench, they came back.  Cold metal pressed up against his cheek.  He grimaced but kept his eyes shut.
+++++“I heard you, I heard you,” reverberated through his ear and the garage.  “You said fuck and were trying to escape.”
+++++He opened his eyes, not metal but plastic, a walkie talkie pressed up against his ear, his captor spoke into the other one.  The walkie talkie was set down; now something metal was placed against his face.  A knife.
+++++“I’m going to prop you up, if you try anything I’ll cut you, understand?”
+++++“Yes.”
+++++A pause.  “Are the ropes loose?”
+++++“No.”
+++++Tug.  Tug.  His captor checked all, let out a little hmmph.  He struggled not to smile, by checking it loosened his right a little more.  He wasn’t mobile yet nor did he have an arm free but he was closer.  Time, he needed time.
+++++He was grabbed, struggled with, his captor was not strong, a grunt and there, he was upright, no, he almost fell to the left, he jerked out and his captor steadied him.
+++++The husky voice and situation he was in had  clouded his mind.  Husky, but not deep.  He hoped his face didn’t betray his excitement.  His captor was a female.
+++++She grabbed the chair next to the table and sat it in front of him.  She went back to the table and grabbed a small duffel bag and set it by the chair.  She sat down.  Tall and big for a girl, he figured five nine somewhere near two hundred.  Large shoulders for a girl, maybe she played volleyball or basketball in high school but she still had a pear shape and dollars to donuts she hated her ass.
+++++Dark brown hair cropped short and pushed to the side, he hated that look.  Most every girl who had it either regretted it or was a lesbian.  Maybe both.  Her clothes weren’t helping her case, who wore sweaters like that anymore?  Certainly none of the straight girls that frequented the bars he went to.  But weren’t gays supposed to care about their appearance or was that just guys?  Careful here, she might be a chunky girl with a bad haircut but she still had the upper hand.
+++++“So Alex,” she said, leaning forward, “how’s it going?”  Say nothing until you know what kind of game you are playing he reminded himself.  “Heh, stupid question right.  God, I’ve wanted this for so long and I don’t even know what to say to you.  I set up the walkie talkie because I couldn’t stand to be in the same room as you, you horrible little…” She caught her breath, gripped her knees and looked down.  If he had his arm free he could reach out and finish her.  He flexed, a little better, he needed to prolong this conversation.  She had let him know she wasn’t violent but also that she was angry with him.
+++++“Okay, let’s try again.  Alex, I’m using your name, do you know how?”
+++++“Uhh, wallet?”
+++++“Nope, wallet is still in pants.”
+++++“I said it last night?”
+++++“Nope.”
+++++“Don’t know how then.”
+++++“I’ve been following you; have now for the past two weeks.  Been to your apartment, inside in fact.  Yes that’s right; I’m not the only one breaking the law here.”
+++++His breath caught, he offered up what he hoped was a puzzled glance.
+++++“You do know why I’m following you, right?”
+++++“No. I mean, I’m flattered but…”
+++++“Stop, just stop,” she snapped.  “I am not attracted to you, you are scum.  Lying rotten scum, though you put up a good act, I can see how you were able to fool the cops.”
+++++“Oh geeze that, no, you can talk with them, I wasn’t anywhere near the park that night, I mean a block away but so was…”
+++++“But nothing, you raped and killed her.  Along with four other beautiful young women.”
+++++“I was at the bar with her, I don’t know when she left, I went outside for a smoke and I came back in like five minutes.  My waitress remembers that, it’s not like I was gone for thirty minutes or something.”
+++++“No, but you were gone long enough and you did kill her.”
+++++“Look.” He paused, she didn’t give a name, he continued, “I told the cops this, they checked it out and it checked out, there were a lot of other guys at the bar.”
+++++“But only you match the description.”
+++++“You weren’t there, I don’t know what you’ve heard but take it from me, there were several other white guys in their mid-twenties with brown hair and a slight build, whatever that’s supposed to mean” he said with a chuckle.
+++++“You are good.  I wonder if you’ve rehearsed this or are you just playing it by ear?  Not that I’d believe you if you told me.  I know you’re lying, I guess I just wanted to see if you would lie.”  She reached down into the duffel bag and pulled out a necklace.  “She was wearing this the night you killed her.  Heather Robinskie, the fourth girl, I gave this to her.”
+++++“You broke into my apartment and found a necklace that is similar to one you gave your uh, friend and…”
+++++“It’s the same, it’s the goddamn same, there’s a scratch on this that’s just the same as hers, she got it, never mind, I’m not telling you the reason, you took her life, you don’t get to have her history.  Did your ex-girlfriend leave three other pieces of jewelry in a box you keep in your dresser?”
+++++There it was.  She had stalked him, she had gotten evidence, and she had captured him.  All because she knew that slut?  The Calendar Killer done in by some dyke.
+++++“Then call the police, I’m sure they could do a DNA test, fingerprint analysis, something that…”
+++++“And then it gets tossed because I broke in, no, I don’t think so Alex.”
+++++“So…” he asked, regretting it immediately.  The perfect opening for her to cackle about torture or murder.
+++++“I see it on your face; you think I’m going to kill you.  Well, I’m not you, I don’t kill.  I do want you to hurt.  I want to stop you.  Any physical pain you receive is a merely a  byproduct.”
+++++“So, what then” he asked, hoping his question landed him on safer ground.
+++++“We talk.  You about Heather.  And Catherine.  About Kelsey and June.  About why.  And I’ll talk about what it did to me and all her loved ones.”
+++++“You want me to confess.”
+++++“That’s the idea.”

***

He sat in silence.  Let her think it was his reluctance to confess.  He had been dying to tell someone.  The problem was not the tape recorder she had either in her bag or on the table, that was an easily solved problem.  The problem was her.  Was she really not going to hurt him?  He bit his lip, she raised her eyes, he struggled not to laugh.  I’m not grappling with my conscience you dumb bitch, I don’t know if you’re going to hurt me or not he thought.
+++++The way she had said she wasn’t going to kill him was with the same smug superiority vegans announced their lunch plans, the way nonsmokers passed on a cig; the way bitches had refused him.  As if the idea was beneath him.  He breathed in, and twisted a bit.  Arm was still tight, her eyes on him, maybe he wouldn’t even need another fall if the dumb cow wasn’t going take her eyes off of him.  Story time.
+++++“Yes.”
+++++“Yes what?”
+++++“Yes, I killed them, I’m the uh, Calendar Killer.”  He tried to back up; the look on her face was not one of approval, why had he said that?
+++++“Go on, I swear, I am not going to kill you.”  She looked him square in the eye, “to take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, not justice.”
+++++Alex smiled, her look of disgust returned.  It was better than laughing.  That last line had been recited.  He wondered how many arguments had she thought she had won by delivering that line?  He shook his head, he had been captured by an overweight liberal slogan spouting dyke.  He only needed his legs free, he doubted she could even throw a punch, he could just ram her against the wall.  And then later?  No, she was definitely lesbian by choice.  What guy would want her?  You don’t need to rape every girl you kill he told himself, valiantly suppressing a smile.
+++++“Uh yeah, so what do you want to hear?”
+++++“Heather.”
+++++He could see the shake in her shoulders, the hitch in her voice.  Ideals were just that, don’t give her a reason to give them up.  “Uh, last girl, the one by the dumpsters, right?”  She nodded.  Stupid broad, he was already laying the seeds to get out.  “Well uh, I uh saw her walking down the street, I followed her and uh grabbed her and uh killed her I guess.”
+++++“Why do you rape, why do you kill?”  Her voice was small and whining, he was in control.
+++++“Hmm” he paused, wait a couple seconds here.  Important to do that.  He couldn’t sound too eager but how exhilarating was this?  Being able to tell someone finally.  “It started with uh a neighbor at an apartment.  She wanted me to help her move and I uh, after I was done with her sofa, I uh, raped her.”
+++++“What a gentleman.”  She shook her head, “I asked” she muttered to herself, “Go on.”
+++++That you did.  It felt so good to talk about; he couldn’t tell the whole truth of course.  He hadn’t raped the bitch in two twelve.  He had gotten the slut in one eighteen, friends apartment, drunkenly fumbling for her keys.  He was, ha, the gentleman.  “Yeah, well, after that I uhm, let’s see, got worried so next time I killed so there would be no witnesses.”
+++++“Catherine, her name was Catherine.”
+++++“Her, no, she was my second.  My first was this skinny little bitch from across the street, bad dye job and uh…”
+++++“Fuck you.”
+++++Alex didn’t bother hiding the smile now, he was in complete control now, he was talking of killing her friend, of raping other women, insulting her and she was doing nothing.  Christ, she’d probably let him go.  Then the real fun could start.  “Anyway, she was my first kill but I buried the body, didn’t want to get caught but that was no good, took too long.”
+++++“What was her name?”  He shrugged.  “Well do you at least remember where you buried her?”
+++++“Oh sure, ten steps away from the signpost in Nolan Woods, going toward the street, can’t miss it.”  Of course you couldn’t, he played there all the time as a kid.  And there was no dead woman there.  See detective, I was just humoring her.
+++++“Okay.  Why the deal with the dates?”
+++++He had gotten away with it!  The non-existent dead girl.  Could he tell the truth here?  He supposed he could, or at least close to it.  “Uh first two uh, just kinda happened by accident and after that uh, I just rolled with it.”
+++++She glared at him.  “You’re telling me that the dates, how everything just fits, it’s just coincidence?”
+++++Yes!  I had no idea that the first two had birthdays two months apart.  I knew I was killing four months apart but I didn’t think that’d be that strange, seventeen is just a lucky number.  After that I decided to have fun with it.  And the last girl, June?  Only because I couldn’t find a May.  They think I’m some nutjob; I’m just going with what they gave me.  They have numerologists trying to find out my next move.  I can do what I want whenever I want because they think I’m going on some set schedule and whenever I do kill next they’ll make it fit their theory.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m having a blast.  If I could find some twins I’d kill them on the goddamn winter solstice and watch their heads explode.
+++++Alex sighed.  “I don’t know what to tell you, that’s the truth.”
+++++“Okay my turn.  You killed my roommate and best friend, oh fuck you.  She wasn’t a lesbian, she liked me for who I was and I her.  She didn’t have a boyfriend.  There was a guy at work, I didn’t really like him, but it would’ve happened.  You killed her and you took away a four month relationship that she would’ve learned from.  You killed everything that would have ever happened to her, good or bad.”
+++++“We were going to go tubing that weekend.  Going to barbeque with the rest of her friends afterward.  I can’t see watersports without thinking about her.  I can’t see hot dogs and hamburgers without thinking about her.  Or eggplant because Lyssa and Amy were bringing that.  Anything pink, because her mom survived breast cancer and had to bury a daughter.  A raped brutalized daughter.”
+++++“It’s not just birthdays or holidays, it’s every day.  Everything.  A TV show we didn’t like, I remember how we laughed at it.  Frozen dinners, dogs, the color yellow.  It’s not just the stuff she liked, or disliked, it’s what we shared.  And you took that from me.”
+++++And you say you guys weren’t lesbians.  Maybe not her, but you wish you had what I have; a dick.  And you wish that you had used it on your friend.
+++++“Anything, do you have anything to say?”
+++++“Uh, sorry for your loss.”
+++++“The loss that you made.”
+++++“Uh yeah, sorry.”
+++++“I don’t believe you.  Are you turning yourself in?  Seeking help?  Suicide because you can’t live with yourself?”
+++++“No, guess not.”
+++++“You’re just sorry that I caught you.”
+++++“Yeah, so how did you, I mean the newspapers didn’t print my name or anything.”
+++++“Didn’t see me coming did you?  I succeeded where they failed.”  A triumphant grin.  Whatever, keep smiling bitch, he now had space between his arm and the chair.  Ten more minutes, tops.  “No, not a name, but I talked with the victims friends, with witnesses, not just the witnesses that talked with the police but everyone and your face kept popping up.”
+++++“The description is vague.”
+++++“Not your car, and once it came up twice, well pretty easy from there.   I even had help from a, well I guess I shouldn’t say her name, she was sure you were innocent but she didn’t mind me ‘playing Nancy Drew’ as she put it.”
+++++There it was!  A cop or at least someone working in the police department.  Harassment.  He could sue.  Or, threaten to sue because he didn’t want them looking to close into him anymore than they wanted a lawsuit.
+++++“Huh.”
+++++“Pretty much, I think we are done with the interview, I know what I want to know, and that is that you are unrepentant in all aspects, you think only of yourself.”  He nodded.  “Never turn yourself in, never kill yourself, right?”  He nodded.  “You will rape and kill again, you are twenty four, let’s say you go to jail for sixty years, you’ll be eighty four, who knows if you will get it up, but I know you’ll try.”
+++++“Wait a sec, you said you weren’t going to kill me” he cried, backing his chair into the car.  “No please, if you hurt me the tape will be worthless” he cried as she reached into her duffel bag.
+++++She looked up puzzled, “Tape?  If I was recording you it’d be worthless because you’re under duress” she said as she plunged a needle into his leg.  He screamed and shook, she pushed the top and the liquid emptied into him.
+++++“You promised” he said stupidly, head already spinning.

***

Whrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.  He opened his eyes.  Grass.  White door.  Garage door.  He was in the garage again?  He looked around, grass and trees everywhere.  No, he was outside the garage.  Trees to the left, it looked like a forest.  A house was far away to his right.  Go to the forest when you get your legs under you.
+++++Whrrrrrrrrrrr.  He looked up.  There she was, by a woodchipper.  She turned it off.  He  grinned, he wouldn’t need to run.  He looked to the house once more, no one was outside, the windows were dark.  Groggy or not there was no chair, no ropes.  He pushed himself up and fell down.
+++++“Even without thumbs I could get a good grip when I practiced” she said flexing her fingers with her thumbs tucked into her palms.  “When I went like this,  I couldn’t grasp the neck at all, I could still hold a key and a fork, so you’ll be fine on that, not too much power though so I don’t think stabbing is a concern.”  She held her hands up with her thumbs against her palms and the ring finger halfway down; he looked down at his fingers, white gauze covered his stumps.
+++++She grabbed a bag by her feet.  White plastic with a small red lump sagging down.  It looks like the bag dog owners put their crap in he thought.  Except it’s my thumb and finger.  Part of finger.  Partial finger?  This didn’t matter, was it the drugs or shock from blood loss?  He tried to stand again and fell on his ass, sitting like a rapt kid listening to a story she continued.
+++++“Your murdering tools, your digits, I have taken them from you” she said dramatically.  Going from a prepared statement, she’d be prone to a rush.  She might have a weapon but, and he checked once more, no one else was here.  No one was hiding, if she had recruited anyone else they would’ve shown themselves.  He blinked.  Just like before he was coming to.  He’d have a chance, a moment and he’d rush her.  A syringe wouldn’t help her now.  She paused and looked in the bag.  That smug look, did she think that a little disability would save her?  He bit his lip, good he could feel it.  Soon so would she and…
+++++“Testicles, now they provide the sex drive.  I left you those.  I want you to know that you are being punished with what you can’t have anymore.  You’ll be able to look, and touch, just not as well” she laughed twirling her fingers around, “But nothing else.  You took my friend from me, I have returned the favor.”
+++++She continued talking, he didn’t hear.  He stared down.  Still in his boxers, still striped green and white, now with a red crotch.  He reached his mangled hand down.  He tried to scream.  The whrrrrrr of the woodchipper came back on and he watched as white and red confetti sprayed everywhere.

THE END

Murder Me

THANATOS:  Please, somebody, I just want to be killed.
ABADDON:  Well go on and die, spineless bastard. Haven’t got the guts to do it yourself?  ’ll do it for you.
+++++I pressed the Send button and closed the page. I can’t be doing with the crap people talk on the Net. What kind of a stupid site was that anyway? Autoassass? Not as if I was looking for a site full of sickos like that. I was only browsing true crime and somehow it popped up.
+++++Makes you wonder what goes on behind those blank faces you see on the street. Mostly nothing – half of them barely alive, never done nothing, never thought anything past the next football match, pizza night or mortgage payment and the other half are raving bonkers behind their empty faces. God knows what’s going on there.  You can understand why people run amok with guns, putting a load of them out of their misery. People deserve to die if you ask me.
+++++That night I dreamed about hiding out in the wood overlooking our town with a telescopic rifle, picking off everyone who ever gave me a hard time: school teachers, bullies, Mum, Dad and most of all my horrible brother Brian.
+++++I kept thinking about the dream all next day at college. I’ve had that dream so many times and while the lecturer was droning on about T.S.Eliot and J. Alfred Prufrock, I was thinking that if I had a gun in my desk I could take out half the class before anyone stopped me. I made a list in my head of the ones I hated most and their proximity to the line of sight but it was all just a daydream like the way I imagine sniping at the zombies on the bus and in the street.
+++++I’d forgotten about Autoassass till I got home and went upstairs to log on. There was the URL in my recent history and I couldn’t resist clicking on it.
THANATOS:  Abaddon? Really? I want to die. I mean it. Are you in UK?
+++++This was a laugh. I hit Reply.
ABADDON:  Happy to oblige. I’m in North West. What do you fancy?
+++++The reply was almost instant.
THANATOS:  I don’t need to know. You choose.
ABADDON:  Joker. You almost had me there.
THANATOS:  I’m deadly serious. Ever since I can remember, I’ve always daydreamed about it, hoping someone would kill me. You don’t know how many times I’ve hung around dark alleys, hoping to meet a serial killer. When I read stories of people being murdered or hear about them on the news, I think how lucky they are. No one ever takes me seriously. I thought you might be different.
+++++I didn’t know how to answer that. Surely he didn’t mean it? I was assuming it was ‘he.’ I was getting a creepy feeling; it wasn’t such fun any more. I felt like he could see me, see that I was getting scared. I logged off. Good job because the next thing I heard footsteps thumping up the stairs and I closed the site down quick before Brian burst in.
+++++‘Clear off Ashley, I need to use it now.’ He almost pushed me out of the chair and sat down in it himself.
+++++‘I hadn’t finished,’ I said, even though I had.
+++++‘Use your phone,’ he muttered, already scrolling through his Facebook timeline.
+++++I aimed an imaginary gun at the back of his fat neck and went back to my own room. I played some music, messed about on Facebook and tweeted a few mates. I didn’t really believe Thanatos but I was thinking about it after all. It was stupid to be scared, it was only a game, only a laugh. He didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know him. I brought the Autoassass site up on my phone and logged into the chatroom. It was like something I couldn’t stay away from even though it was crazy.
+++++There was another message for me.
THANATOS:  Well?
+++++I thought about it. Hadn’t I always wanted to kill – ever since I could remember? Every time I couldn’t get what I wanted that rage would rush up and now all the time it boiled in my head. All I could think was how stupid people were and how they all got in my way, none of them deserved to live and spoil life for people like me. Maybe it would make me feel better, going along with it, just playing the game to see where it went.
ABADDON:  OK

***

Things went on as always the next day; usual crap at breakfast, Dad reading drivel out of the paper, Mum rushing round dishing out toast and slathering herself in lipstick at the same time, Brian slurping cereal like a pig.
+++++College was boring, boring, boring. I kept my phone under the desk on silent and I kept checking Autoassass. It was like I was the hero of some game designed especially for me; it beat playing Candy Crush any day but hours passed with no message from Thanatos. So, he was just a knob acting stupid after all, then just as the day had stretched its boredom to snapping point in the last hour before home time I felt the phone vibrate and there it was, Thanatos, and there was a photo.
+++++He was old, old as my dad if not older. Dark hair and glasses, he looked a bit like the bloke who had our corner shop but it wasn’t him. He looked like any zombie you could see on the street any day and I thought, why am I bothering? He could be a paedo trying to get me to meet him and then I thought people like that deserve to die anyway. I thought of all sorts of things I’d like to do to him and while I was still thinking about it the class broke up for the day.
+++++On the bus home I got another message.
THANATOS:  We need to talk
+++++I typed, Later and put the phone away.

***

When I got home no one else was back yet. I went up to the study and turned on the computer. I scrolled through family photos till I found a head and shoulders shot of Brian taken on the beach at Pwlheli on last year’s holiday. I brought up Autoassass and posted the photo to Thanatos.
THANATOS:  Handsome lad.
ABADDON:  Thanks.
+++++I really was starting to think he was a perve, a blind one at that if he thought our Brian was handsome. Suddenly the door opened and I jumped.
+++++‘There you are,’ Mum said. ‘Come on, we’re going out for pizza, just us three. Brian’s got his evening class.’
+++++Big deal. She obviously thought so. Boring Pizza Hut full of dickheads and their squawking kids shoving sticky fingers everywhere. I silently machine-gunned the lot and checked my phone.
THANATOS:  Are you up for it then?
ABADDON:  Maybe
THANATOS:  Why would you want to?
ABADDON:  I’ve always wanted to.
THANATOS:  I was hoping you’d say that.
ABADDON:   How do you want it done?
+++++‘Have some more coleslaw,’ Mum shoved the container under my nose.
THANATOS:  I told you it’s up to you.
ABADDON:  I like guns but I don’t have one.
THANATOS:  There are lots of other ways.
+++++‘Stop fiddling with that bloody phone.’ Dad said with his mouth full of stuffed crust. ‘What are you doing anyway?’
+++++‘Just playing a game.’
+++++‘Can’t you wait till you get home?’ He puffed crumbs across the table.
+++++‘It’s boring here,’ I said.
THANATOS:  There are conditions. I don’t want to see you, or know the moment. You must surprise me.
+++++‘Put it away, Ash.’ Mum cut me another slice of pizza. ‘Honestly, you kids.’
+++++I clicked the phone shut. I was thinking he’d get a surprise all right if I turned up instead of Brian. It was really fun, almost as if it was real and the more I thought about it, the more real it got. Soon as we got home I ran up to the study and the computer.
THANATOS:  Are you there? Don’t mess me about.
ABADDON:  I’m not.
THANATOS:  You’ll really do it? I’m desperate.
ABADDON:  What’s your name?
THANATOS:  No names, no info. I told you. How do I know I can trust you?
ABADDON:  I told you, I’ve always wanted to kill someone and it’s getting worse. If it’s not you it could be anybody in the street.
+++++As I typed this I realised it was true and suddenly it stopped being a game. I took my fingers off the keys and for a moment I couldn’t breathe.
THANATOS:  Wouldn’t want that on my conscience, lol.
+++++I couldn’t go on. It was like standing on a cliff. He was serious and it was up to me which way we jumped. ‘You haven’t got the nerve’ a voice said in my head and that tipped me over the edge.
ABADDON:  Leave it with me, I need to think. 

***

I thought about it all night. I didn’t have the strength to strangle or drown someone and even though he might want to die surely reflexes would take over to make him struggle at the end. Hit men always did a clean job in the films and I wanted to be the same. I didn’t have access to poison darts or anything like that and it was no use planning to slip something in a drink if I wasn’t supposed to let him see me.
+++++I went into the garage and looked in Dad’s toolbox. Peter Sutcliffe used a hammer but was I strong enough to do the same properly? I looked at the screwdrivers but they didn’t look sharp enough to make a deep thrust, unless I went for his eyes and that meant coming face to face with him too. No, it had to be one of Mum’s Sabatier knives. She kept them really sharp.
+++++I was still thinking about it at breakfast the next morning after dreaming about gouts of blood in gushing fountains. What would it be like to stab someone? Would the blade slip in as if into butter or would the skin resist, a tough layer to be pierced before the knife slid into the organs?
+++++I spent the morning in class looking up the structure of the body on my phone. It wouldn’t do to hit a bone or miss a vital spot.

***

THANATOS:  St John’s Gardens, Liverpool, 9th July, 1 pm. Don’t let me see you. I love you so much for doing this.
ABADDON:  Is this for real?
THANATOS:  Don’t doubt it. Don’t let me down.
+++++Saturday was only two days away. Of course I wouldn’t go – or if I went it would only be to look – but I went down to the kitchen and took Mum’s knives out of the block, testing their sharpness on my finger.
+++++‘What are you doing?’
+++++I jumped when Mum came in. ‘Er – nothing.’ I turned away to the fridge, stuffing the knife under my tee shirt. ‘Just getting a Coke.’
+++++‘You drink too much Coke,’ Mum said. ‘What have you done to your finger?’
+++++I looked down and saw blood leaking out. ‘Cut it on the printer paper,’ I invented. ‘Trying to print my coursework.’
+++++‘Well, don’t stand there dripping,’ Mum said. ‘The plasters are in the bathroom. Honestly!’
+++++I went upstairs, sucking the blood and thought about putting the knife into Thanatos. I might get only one stab, from the back, should I go for lung or kidney? Maybe I should go for the neck, it wouldn’t do for him to survive. The thought excited me. I couldn’t sleep for thinking about it and I knew if I didn’t do it, I would regret it all my life. I would never know peace.
+++++But even on the bus with my mother’s knife in my inside pocket, the blade pressing in my chest, I still didn’t believe it was real. I thought I would go to the gardens and nothing would happen, Thanatos wouldn’t be there, and I wouldn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed.
+++++There weren’t many people in the gardens, it was a dull day. I looked around for a while, thinking he’d been having me on all the time. I even thought maybe he was an undercover cop looking for potential criminals but then I hadn’t actually done anything wrong, had I? Then I saw him, or I thought it was him, sitting with his back to me on a bench down at the bottom end of the gardens, away from the path people used to cut through to the Walker Art Gallery and the museum.
+++++I walked up and down a bit, even walked right past in front of him to make sure it was him. He was expecting Brian, not me, so he wouldn’t recognise me and I needed to make sure, I didn’t want to hit on the wrong bloke. He smiled as I went by and he just looked ordinary like some guy who was sitting there waiting for his wife to finish her shopping or until his train was due at Lime Street station just across the road.
+++++My heart thumped as I circled round to the back of the bench and I wandered up and down still not knowing what I was going to do next. ‘See, you can’t do it,’ the voice said in my head and I took a deep breath and looked round. There were people walking along the path at the top of the gardens but no one down this end. I took the knife out of my pocket and I just went up quickly and slid it into him, making sure I aimed at the right lung. It went in between his ribs like it was just a joke. I pulled it out and it was like nothing had happened, except that the blade was streaked with red. He sort of went, ‘Oof’ and fell forward and I stuck it in again on the other side to make sure both lungs got it.
+++++He didn’t move after that, just slumped down and made a funny, rattling noise. I didn’t dare wait to make sure he was dead. There was hardly any blood which was good, wouldn’t attract attention. I looked back as I headed out of the gardens. He just looked like some old drunk sleeping it off on the bench. I went out of the lower gateway and melted into the crowds round St. John’s Precinct.

***

I was on a high that I’d actually done it. I was different to everyone around me but I’d always known that.  At tea-time I couldn’t eat for excitement but there was nothing on the news so I felt a bit deflated and had to keep telling myself it was real, not something I’d imagined or dreamed.
+++++‘Have you had my vegetable knife?’ Mum said to Dad.
+++++‘Me?’ He looked at her across the kitchen table.
+++++‘You’re always taking my knives to tinker with things in the shed.’
+++++I’d forgotten about the knife, still in my coat pocket. I went upstairs and washed it clean in the bathroom sink. Watching the bloody water swirl down the plughole I felt so important.
+++++It was on the late night news but only on the local bulletin. I guess murder isn’t so unusual any more. It didn’t say much, just that a man had been found dead with stab wounds in St John’s Gardens. A few hours had gone by before someone found him and no one had come forward to say they’d seen anything suspicious.
+++++I switched off my TV and lay back on my bed. How clever I was; how easy it had been. I burst out laughing.
+++++‘What’s so funny?’ Brian came clumping in my room. The knife was on my bed and I covered it quickly with my pillow.
+++++‘Get out! Don’t you come in here without knocking.’
+++++He hung in the doorway so I pretended to scroll through my phone messages, ignoring him and after a minute he went away. Later I took the knife downstairs and put it in the dishwasher with the rest of the cutlery. I slept like a baby. All that tension in my head had gone, just as I’d hoped. From now on I would be happy.
+++++The next day everything was normal except that I carried the secret inside me like a hidden jewel. At lunchtime I went into town and treated myself to a cheeseburger. I went window shopping to Curry’s, looking at laptops and tablets and wondering if Mum and dad might get me one of my own for Christmas instead of having to share with Brian.
+++++All the TVs in Curry’s were on the news and I stopped dead when Thanatos’s photo flashed up on the screen. His name was Andrew Wilmslow, a nerdy name that suited him but the photo of a hard-faced blonde took his place and the newsreader announced that his wife Shirley was being questioned in connection with the murder. I couldn’t think what he meant, it didn’t make sense.
+++++‘Everything all right?’ I opened my eyes. A sales lad touched my arm. I saw everyone in the shop was looking at me. I realised I was clinging to the shelf at the edge of the counter and I was shaking all over.
+++++‘I’m fine.’ I pushed him away, went outside and walked till my head cleared and then I started laughing. It was perfect for me if they hung it on her. No wonder he wanted to die, hitched to an ugly cow like that. In all the crime programmes I’ve watched the partner is always the main suspect but of course this time they were barking up the wrong tree. They’d probably soon realise that.
+++++Why was everyone on the street staring at me? I realised I was laughing out loud, so hard that tears were running down my cheeks. I felt light as a feather. I gave them all the finger, all the stupid sods, and made my way back to college.
+++++I was right about the police. When I got home there was a cop car outside and at first my legs shook but of course they’d come for Brian, not me. One of the plods had Brian in handcuffs. That was awesome. My heart swelled. Not so big now, I wanted to laugh in his face but instead I put on a concerned expression.
+++++‘What’s going on?’
+++++‘This is my daughter, Ashley,’ Mum said. Her blue eyes looked black against the white of her face.
+++++‘What’s up?’ I said but she just shook her head and Brian looked like a cow that’s been hit with a stun gun.
+++++‘I’ll have to go with him.’ Mum dragged on a jacket. ‘Your dad’s on his way home. You’ll be all right love.’ She pulled me into a hug. Over her shoulder I saw another cop coming down the stairs with the computer wrapped in clear plastic.
+++++I went upstairs and looked at myself in the mirror. I was grinning from ear to ear. I brushed out my long blonde hair and practised a demure smile, a bit tremulous and fearful. Who would ever suspect me?

‘It’s crazy.’ Mum looked bewildered. ‘Our Brian’s never heard of this chap. But they say his photo was on the man’s computer. They say he’s been sending messages to him on the internet, on a site for people who want to be murdered.’
+++++‘What?’ Dad roared. ‘Is it someone’s idea of a joke?’
+++++‘The police say he told this chap he wants to kill someone. He must have thought it was some kind of game.’
+++++‘I never heard such nonsense,’ Dad shouted, ready to explode. ‘I don’t believe it. Our Brian wouldn’t do anything like that. Ashley, do you know anything about this?’ They both looked at me. I decided it was time to let fall a few tears.
+++++‘Oh, love,’ Mum said. She sat down and put her arms round me. I leaned into her, felt her body shaking and the next thing I was sobbing against her chest.
+++++‘He has been a bit strange lately,’ I murmured when I got control of myself. I looked up at Dad through my tears. ‘And he never lets me near the computer.’
+++++It was pretty awful listening to them crying and moaning so I went up to my room and thought how much better life was going to be, just the three of us, without Brian. We’d have to go and visit him of course but I could put up with that, in fact I would rather enjoy it.
+++++The phone had been ringing all night, all the stupid aunties and uncles, nosy neighbours who’d seen the police at the door. I was watching the ten o’clock news to see if there was anything about Brian being charged with the murder when Mum walked in my room without knocking. I put on my sad smile.
+++++‘Ashley – Janet next door’s just been on the phone. She said you must have had a lucky escape.’
+++++‘You what?’ I took my earphones out, wiped my eyes as if I’d been crying for poor Brian.
+++++‘She said she was in town yesterday, saw you coming out of St John’s Gardens. She said it was just about the time that poor man was killed.’
+++++‘She’s a dirty fucking liar,’ I snarled and it was only when I saw the shock on Mum’s face that I realised what I’d let slip.

***

That was it really. I couldn’t believe my parents would grass me up like that. Well, I could because they’d always really preferred Brian to me, I knew that. Dad took my phone and even though I’d deleted everything the police soon found all the messages.
+++++Dad kept shaking his head at the police station and saying, ‘I can’t believe it,’ while Mum just seemed too stunned to say anything but the one who got the biggest surprise was me when they accused me of plotting to kill Wilmslow with his wife Colleen.
+++++I’d refused to speak until then but my mouth just opened of its own accord. I barely recognised my voice. ‘What?’ I shrieked, ‘I never heard of the woman.’
+++++‘Come on Ashley,’ the detective leered at me.’ She’s already confessed. She was having an affair, common knowledge apparently. She might have got away with it otherwise.’
+++++‘I don’t get it,’ said Dad. Neither did I.
+++++‘She pretended to be her husband on the internet, put up a photo of him saying he had a death wish and she waited to see if someone would come along and oblige. She says that Brian agreed to do it, said he had a compulsion to kill, but of course it wasn’t Brian, was it, Ashley, it was you?
+++++‘She arranged the meeting with you, told her husband she had a hair appointment in Liverpool city centre and arranged to meet him afterwards in St John’s Gardens so they could have lunch together. He fell for it and there you go. What we need to know, Ashley, is, did she set you up too, or did you know it was her masquerading as her husband and went along with it?’
+++++I shut my mouth up then and didn’t say anything after that.  I couldn’t believe I’d been so easily taken in and I certainly wasn’t going to admit it to anyone else. Of course they let our Brian out and he, Mum and Dad went home to play happy families.
+++++All the time I was on remand I only kept going by thinking of a hundred and one slow and painful deaths for them and our Brian. Mum came to see me once but she looked at me like I was dog shit – as if I cared.
+++++‘How could you, Ashley?’ she kept saying and I got bored and told the warder to take me away. She didn’t come again and Dad never came at all
+++++But the one I had it in for the most was that witch Colleen Wilmslow. I thought if I could just get at her when we stood trial…
+++++Thing was, I never got to court, instead they sent me to this place, hospital for the criminally insane, it’s called.  Me! It’s all of them should be in here, I’m the only sane one. But it’s not too bad in here and I’m only young. When I get out I’ll go for that witch first and then I’ll take care of my loving family.

The Good Fortune of Augusta

Estelle simply hadn’t considered it. Why would she? How could she? While Ike was still alive, her sins still had an enactor, her silenced thoughts a catalyst. But now that Ike is gone?
+++++“When?” she asks.
+++++“Yesterday,” Reginald tells her. The collar of his blue shirt swallows his thin neck, the gold P.D. pins chomping like teeth.
+++++“How?”
+++++“Yea,” he touches the back of his head and the stubble there, “that’s the ironic thing. Well I guess it ain’t ironic but, he was hit by a car. Walking his dog at night. Didn’t wear one of them protective vests. With the reflectors on it? You know the kind.”
+++++To Estelle, it’s the finish line of a marathon she was never qualified to run. Not because Ike is dead, but because neither of them are alive anymore. The injustice somehow felt worse when one was breathing and the other wasn’t. But now, with both men gone, her mind surmounts some opaque obstacle in the path of equilibrium, scales balance; even more so than when Ike was released from prison all those years ago. Prison hadn’t solved anything. She doubts if it ever does for anyone.
+++++“I thank you for coming here to tell me.” She grips the handle on her screen door.
+++++He takes his hat off, rubs it between two fingers.
+++++“Mrs. Kline, I wanted to ask you something else as well.”
+++++She nods, looking somewhere far beyond him.
+++++“I know what this means to you,” he shakes his head. “I don’t mean it to sound like that, like something good or bad. I just mean, my pop was so close to this case. I know so much, about you and Stan and Ike.” He clears his throat. “And my mom of course.”
+++++“You’ve always been a very sweet boy, Reginald.”
+++++He laughs. “I think my mom is the only one who calls me that.”
+++++“I never had children, but I do know your mother.”
+++++He turns to his squad car and his partner sitting there, impatient and whapping his thumb to some invisible beat.
+++++“What is it?”
+++++He doesn’t turn back. “Do you want to see the body? I know it’s morbid, but it’s not like Ike had any family. There ain’t going to be a wake or nothing, not that you’d want to pay respects. I guess,” he faces her and she notices the flat, wrinkle free pallet of his brow, pressed with sincerity but unblemished by time. “If it’d bring you some measure of closer, I can get you in.”
+++++A hand at her mouth, Stan would chide her for the small bite marks on her forefinger when she was nervous.
+++++“Is that normal?” Her voice waivers.
+++++He stiffens, the cop coming through. Despite his age, too many generations of blue pump his heart, too many badges and citations hang in his memories. He’ll make detective like his father, sooner too if he avoids the old man’s Johnny Walker habit. He has better friends, of that they are all certain. “I wouldn’t say it was normal, no. But then, nothing about this situation is normal.”
+++++She agrees and leaves with him, taking only her small handbag and a picture of Stan. Reginald takes her arm as she negotiates the concrete steps. It’s her vertigo, she tells the young man, small in her youth but ballooning in severity along with her age. The world never quite sits still anymore, something’s always moving, always falling away.
+++++The officers drive her to the precinct while the leaden Alabama heat presses on the car’s struggling air conditioner. Reginald tries to talk to her a few times, but she is silent, and after awhile the three of them just watch the southern live oaks scroll past and the children play in sprinklers.
+++++Outside the stone precinct walls, a brown dog lays atop a chain leash, licking his paws. A near empty water bowl rests beside his flopped right ear.
+++++It isn’t Estelle’s first time in a police station. She’s seen the calm flurry of activity before, the measured balance between urgency and boredom. It reminds her of what Stan said about combat, but only reversed; the long uneventful days, the horror filled black nights.
+++++“I’ll take you over to the ME’s office in a bit. It’s just across the lot,” Reginald says.
+++++He is kind and quick. Once at the office he walks her down the steps to the morgue, opening the door and helping her through before waiting in the shadows.
+++++Like stone, Ike’s skin, scaled as though braised, a left arm torn and broken open but with petrified blood. The slab below extends past his head, but his feet hang over. It could be an alter, she thinks, an offering to silence. Or maybe to her husband, to Stan, Ike’s body finally there, finally lifeless. It’s definitely Ike though. She couldn’t forget the cleft eyebrow, the weak chin. She remembers the anger. She remembers the violence.
+++++“It made my dad’s career,” Reginald says from the darkness lurking behind her. “Bringing him in.”
+++++She does not approach Ike, the body. Was he even a he anymore?
+++++“It wasn’t just him,” she tries to find her smile there in the dark.
+++++“Sorry. I know. Stan was there too.”
+++++“Of course he was. They were friends.” She listens to her echoing steps. “Isn’t that right Ike? You and Stan were friends.”
+++++She thinks that may scare the boy, a crazy old lady talking to a corpse. But it doesn’t. She’d forgotten he is a cop. And it doesn’t matter how young, a cop knows death better than all but a soldier.
+++++“Friends don’t do that to each other. Friends don’t kill.” Reginald’s voice joins the hollow sound of her footsteps.
+++++And then her balance fades, a halo forming around the pale light above Ike’s body. Reginald rushes and grabs her elbow, propping her up. It’s this damn vertigo, she tells him again. There’s nothing that can be done for it.
+++++It’s okay, he says, they can leave whenever she wants. He was never sure this was a good idea. He just thought it right to give her the choice.
+++++They walk out together, arms linked like to-be newlyweds without a religion to consecrate them.
+++++“Officer,” an older man calls after them once they’ve passed back through the precinct. His suit is ill-fit around the waist.
+++++Reginald’s partner is still in the car, still tapping his thumb, entertaining a beat she cannot hear. She lowers herself into the backseat while Reginald excuses himself to talk to the man.
+++++The spider-webbed protective screen splinters the officer’s entrapped eyes from the rearview. There are creases there, long fractured wrinkles no man his age should have to endure.
+++++“He’s not allowed to do this ya’ know.”
+++++She adjusts the bag on her lap and twists away from his eyes. Outside her window another squad car pulls up, officers emerge with young black boys in chains.
+++++The partner pauses and they listen to the boys and the officers and the ageless inequity of The South.
+++++“I told him it was a bad idea. Told him he’s asking for disciplinary going to get you.”
+++++“His father and I had history.”
+++++“I know your history.” He adjusted the gun belt on his waist. “Robbing banks ain’t no history. Don’t get you any special treatment far as anyone is concerned.”
+++++“A man can have redemption.”
+++++A struggle, the cops wrangle the boys into the precinct. One boy in particular, he’s thin but strong, arches his back until the low slung pants on his waist fall away and he loses his balance on the tangle of his own fashion.
+++++“Not in my world he can’t.”
+++++“They’ve all paid.” Then, “we’ve all paid something.”
+++++He half-turns his head towards her, still not making eye contact. “Reggie’s dad never paid for shit. Just because your dad’s a judge and you’re a cop shouldn’t mean you get off that easy and it especially shouldn’t mean you get rewarded.” He shakes his head and laughs, bitterly. “You should feel that more than anyone, lady. Your bill was the highest out of all of them. Other than your old man, I mean.”
+++++She doesn’t say anything, watches the police drag the boys across the same steps she had just been helped down. The dog barks and wrestles against his tie, leaping until the chain digs into his throat and stifles his voice to a yelp.
+++++One of the officers notices their car. The partner rolls down the window.
+++++“Whose dog is that?” the officer asks.
+++++“Dead perp,” Reginald’s partner says.
+++++“Looks healthy,” he yells over the barks.
+++++“Whatever. They’re gonna put her down.”
+++++“Shame, that’s a nice looking dog.”
+++++The partner waves and rolls up the window. The dog keeps at it.
+++++“I’ll take her,” she says.
+++++“You’ll take who?”
+++++“The dog. I’ll take the dog.”
+++++Reginald appears from the precinct. He takes his time walking down the steps. He too spends a moment looking at the dog.
+++++“Lady, you ain’t owed shit.”
+++++Reginald joins them.
+++++“Told you you were going to eat shit for this,” the partner says.
+++++“Fuck off.” Reginald turns to Estelle through the gate, “Sorry for the language Mrs. Kline.”
+++++She pulls her bag into her chest. “May I ask you a question?”
+++++“Yea,” he shifts back. “Yea, anything.”
+++++“May I have his dog?”
+++++Reginald startles, as though he only just now hears the dog’s cries.
+++++“It was Ike’s dog.”
+++++“I already told her no,” his partner says.
+++++She slaps the grate and both young men jump. “No sir.” Her voice catapults from her mouth. “You told me I was not owed anything. Which is false. The world is owed to me. It’s owed to everyone. You just have to be willing to take it. And I always take what’s mine.” She addresses Reginald directly. “A dog bears no fault of its owner. I will take her, if you will let me. If money is the issue, I can take care of that too.”
+++++He nods, tells her he’ll see what he can do but it shouldn’t be a problem. They pull away and on the short ride back to her house, he’s already made the call. Reginald drops her off and says he’ll be back to drop the dog off within the day.
+++++A week later, she invites Reginald’s mother, Helen, over for tea. They speak about the weather, and about the president, whom they both think is doing a poor job of running the country. Within the guts of their first long pause, Estelle gets up and lets the dog out into the backyard.
+++++“Reginald told me about that dog,” Helen says.
+++++Estelle closes the screen but leaves the heavy backdoor open. The dog runs to its hole, the one it’s been digging for hours. Of course Ike’s dog would find it. She should’ve assumed that before she even brought her home.
+++++“You’ve raised quite a handsome son, Helen.”
+++++“At times,” Helen tilts her head, wandering in her thoughts, “he reminds me too much of his father. It makes me hate and miss Tom all at the same time.”
+++++The dog circles the hole, sniffs its depths, and then climbs in. She read somewhere that dogs don’t do their business where they sleep. She knew the same wasn’t true for humans. “All sons bear the scars of their father’s inadequacies.”
+++++“Estelle, I wanted to talk to you about Ike.” Helen sips tea Estelle knows has gone cold. “I don’t know how I feel about it so I can’t begin to imagine what you’re thinking.”
+++++“It’s not about thinking.” The dog settles in the hole, rubs the side of her face into the dirt or against what she’s found beneath. Estelle will have to name her at some point, have to make her real. “What we did, Helen, that was all the thinking I could tolerate for a lifetime. Everything since then has just been acting, pretending.”
+++++Helen pulls her pocketbook from the floor, something heavy weighing it down. She uses two hands to place it on the table. She digs through, producing a yellowed photograph and pressing its creases until it’s flat on the floral print tablecloth.
+++++“I want to give you this before I leave. I’ve had it forever, but hadn’t looked at it again until I heard Ike was finally dead. Now that he’s gone, that all three of them are, I wanted to destroy it. But I thought you ought to see it first.”
+++++Estelle leans over to look, catches a glimpse of something metal in the handbag. “The state fair.”
+++++“Of course.” Helen laughs. “We were so young.”
+++++“No we weren’t.” Estelle walks around the table, picks up the picture and stares at the cold yellow eyes of her dead husband and his two best friends. Stan, Ike, and Tom, all three of them smile with high-waist pants and short ties. In the background, a tilting Ferris wheel slumps to one side.
+++++“I know it’s been forever,” Helen says, gathering her things, sensing her time to leave is imminent. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t say I’m sorry.”
+++++“It was the only solution that worked, that kept Stan out of trouble and Tom from sacrificing his career,” Estelle waves the picture in her hand, almost fanning herself. “I may have always done the same thing.”
+++++“No you wouldn’t have.” Helen drapes her bag over her wrist. “We couldn’t have known Ike would’ve done that.”
+++++“Everyone knows a trapped dog will fight for his life.” She walks over to the waste bin and tosses the picture in. “That it’ll kill anyone in its way to escape. We knew.”
+++++“It was the money. If Ike had only told us where the money was, we could have all made it work.” Helen says with her own cold yellow eyes staring through Estelle.
+++++“It wasn’t about the money. It was about finding trust.” Estelle straightens the creases in her dress, brings herself rigid. “And four people can balance trust better than five.”
+++++“Or so we thought.”
+++++Helen leaves it at that. She doesn’t say what they both know, that they did end up with four people, just the wrong four. But balance eluded them still. Even after Tom’s liver finally gave way and there was just the three of them, Helen, Estelle and Ike, left alive. No closure ever sought them out. No peace is ever found in odd numbers.
+++++They hug and Estelle sees her to the door, kissing both of her cheeks, the way the French do. She watches her from the doorway as she saddles into her 1960 Ford coupe, a gift from Tom. She doesn’t wait for her to drive away.
+++++Ike’s dog meets Estelle in the yard. She pats the dog’s stomach. She’ll need a name. Maybe something Greek, Hera, or what about Roman? Yes, that’d be perfect. She’ll call her Augusta, and absent a man, she will inherit the empire.
+++++She tosses a blackened stick towards the fence and Augusta hustles after. Estelle walks to the hole.
+++++She knows what she will find. Estelle has dug it out before, moved it even though no one but her and Stan ever knew where it was. When she arrives, and the plastic edge, tattered from the dog’s imprecise digging, flaps from its tomb, there is no hesitation in her belly, no immediacy to bury her shame.
+++++Augusta returns, scratching again at the dirt. Estelle lets her extra paws unveil the last of it. Without much more trouble, Estelle pulls free the first of many items entombed there.
+++++The bills are all still intact, though a few have ripped from the dog’s claws. But overall, the bag has preserved them well. Beneath the first she sees the second, shrink-wrapped and still tightly bound together even after all this time. Four more huddle below those.
+++++In forty years, she’s only needed to exhume two; such is each bag’s value.
+++++She meant what she said, about knowing, about the entropy caused by the havoc of greed, of people and their desire to kill. Helen can’t hide behind naiveté. It had been her idea, to frame Ike. She had the most to lose of course, her husband had just made detective and there he was covering up a bank robbery for his two childhood friends. But Helen never understood greed the way Estelle did. That’s why the money had to always remain hidden, from all of them. It would be her and Stan’s reward, for protecting Tom and Helen, from Ike, from themselves. At least, that’s what they had planned.
+++++Augusta scratches her ear in rhythm with Estelle’s rubbing before darting back to the house. She barks at the backdoor until Estelle sees Helen, silhouetted in the frame, the waning afternoon light burning the tip of her nose orange and glinting off top of her husband’s 9mm service handgun at her waist.
+++++“With Ike gone, you were the only one left.” She says through the screen door.
+++++Augusta’s head aligns with the ground, a snarl replacing the lapping tongue that has until now been her only form communication. How strange, that Ike’s dog should be the one here in the final hour, the last defender of her wretched life.
+++++“I thought you knew.” Estelle stands, wipes the dirt from her wrinkled hands. “After all of these years I just assumed you knew Stan and I had the money all along.”
+++++Helen pushes open the screen door, rusty hinges whine against the warped and weathered wood frame.
+++++“Stan always loved you so damn much. I should’ve figured he’d make sure you were taken care of.” She looks down at the gun and the growling animal at her feet. “And no. I assumed Ike had it. Thought that was why he left us alone all these years since he’s been out.”
+++++“No.” Estelle closes her eyes, lets the wave of nausea and vertigo lap against the back of skull. She opens them again. “Ike had no more use for us, never knew it was us that called the police. Your Tom was already dead when he was released after serving his twenty-five, and the money he thought confiscated a lifetime ago.”
+++++“I guess in a way it was.” Augusta’s low growl boils to barking. “I wish I didn’t have to do this. But that was my Tom’s money too, at least a third of it. It just isn’t fair that you got to keep it for all these years.”
+++++Estelle shakes her head, the vertigo is gone, anger bringing the blessed equilibrium so long denied to her. “It was never Tom’s. Keeping your mouth shut isn’t the same as putting your neck on the line. I paid the highest cost. My Stan. The money was the least of it.”
+++++Helen pulls the hammer back. “That may be true. But with Tom gone I have to look after Reginald. This is his inheritance now.”
+++++“And you know I can’t let you do that.” Estelle steps atop the hole, straddling it, guarding her land.
+++++“Don’t make me do this, Estelle.”
+++++Spiked hair, matted and dirty but enraged, sprouts from Augusta’s back. Estelle lowers her glasses, lets them sway from her neck and stares down Helen from the twin barrels of her stalwart eyes. “And I’d say the same to you, you incompetent old dullard.”
+++++In the fading Alabama heat, a gun fires and a dog charges and two old women fight over one last plot of dirt.

 

END.

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