Lights, Camera, Action

Fifty grand was riding on Burris Sandoval’s first movie. It had to be perfect. He’d met a wealthy Canadian at the Adult Entertainment Expo in Vegas. The guy wanted rough stuff. Burris offered five murders on video for 50 Gs. The Canadian agreed to pay upon completion. Burris planned to keep 45 grand. As far as Garrett knew, they were splitting 10 Gs down the middle.
+++++“Get in here, Garrett!” Burris activated the final camera on his surveillance software. He’d spent the morning hiding cameras throughout the building. His laptop monitor showed views of five apartments. Burris zoomed in on apartment 6’s bed, zoomed out. Perfect. He grinned. Number 6 goes first.
+++++Garrett Nguyen appeared in the doorway wearing only a black leather S&M mask and floral board shorts. “Check this shit out.” He pointed at the mask. “Badass, right?”
+++++“Stop fucking around and get ready.” Burris checked his plastic Timex. “The dyke in apartment 6 will be home soon”
+++++“This manager dude’s a fucking creep, bro. This dump is crawling with dildos.”
+++++“Get your head out of your ass, Garrett.”
+++++“Chill, bro.”
+++++“Put on your coveralls,” Burris said. He slapped a butt plug from the foot of the manager’s bed. It bounced off the manager’s broken, purple body, crammed between the bed and wall, and rolled under the dresser. Burris sat on the bed. Its springs screeched. He glared at Garrett. “Are we murdering bitches, or going to the fucking beach?” He snatched a trench knife from the bed and unsheathed it.
+++++Garrett cocked his head and hesitated. “Murdering bitches?”
+++++Burris examined the blade. “Get dressed and get your ass in 6.”
+++++“I am dressed,” Garrett said, rubbing his bare stomach.
+++++Burris gawked.
+++++“I’m rockin’ these shorts, bro.” Garrett raised his right arm and flexed his bicep. “I wanna show off the bod.” He sniffed his armpit and recoiled. “Whoa.”
+++++Burris sheathed the knife and checked his watch. “Put on your fucking shoes and get moving.” He handed Garret the knife.
+++++“Can I wear the mask?” Garrett said, slipping on a pair of orange Crocs.
+++++“Just go.”
+++++“Fuck yeah.” Garrett zipped the mask’s mouth shut.
+++++“You got fifteen minutes to dissect that cunt.” Burris pulled the manager’s keys from his Wranglers and tossed them to Garrett. “Then hit apartment 3. The others go later. Got it?”
+++++“Number 6 for fifteen. Brutality. Murder. Then number 3.” Garrett sighed. “I got it.”
+++++“Now, git!” Burris said. Garrett shambled out of the apartment.
+++++Burris clicked on apartment 6’s living room. He clicked record.
+++++When Burris had studied the residents’ movements for a day, he felt a simmering hatred for the bitch in apartment 6. Looking at her was like chewing tinfoil. At the time, it was hard for Burris to pinpoint a specific reason because Garrett distracted him for most of the stakeout with his usual nonsense. Burris came away knowing only that he wanted her dead. Even without the movie.
+++++Garrett trundled through apartment 6’s living room. Burris clicked on the bedroom. Garrett shuffled in, slashing the air with the knife. He stopped, waved at the hidden camera, and slipped into the closet.
+++++Burris checked his watch. Any minute now. He clicked on the living room and punched his left palm. What was it about this bitch? Was it her shit-brown sedan? Her battleship-gray pantsuit and flats? Her mullet? Chicks don’t dress like that. Dykes dress like that.
+++++Outside, a car door slammed. Apartment 6’s door opened. A woman wearing a navy blue pantsuit entered.
+++++“Lights. Camera,” Burris said and leaned forward, clenching his jaw. “Action!”
+++++She kicked off her flats by the couch and headed for the bedroom, unbuttoning her suit jacket.
+++++Burris wanted to reach through the screen and choke her until she pissed. He clicked on the bedroom.
+++++She walked in tossed her jacket on the bed.
+++++Only dykes, Burris thought. He zoomed in. He wanted to see her face when Garrett gutted her. Instead he saw a badge and a holstered Glock on her belt.
+++++Garrett burst from the closet across the room and paused for dramatic effect.
+++++She drew her pistol.
+++++Burris deflated. “Dykes and detectives,” he mumbled, his words drowned in gun shot.

Charlie Dancer Was A Dirty Cop

Everyone knew it. The crooks knew it. They’d get shaken down by the sumbitch on the regular. The cops knew it. They’d crack jokes about Dancer selling the best meth in Hohman. Hell, the average citizen knew it. You couldn’t walk into a bar in North Hohman without crossing paths with Charlie Dancer, sitting at the end of the bar, with his back to the wall, radiating bad intentions.
+++++I stopped at the Whiskey Double Tap, hugged Kristy the bartender while getting an eyeful of her cleavage, then slipped downstairs for a snootful of marching powder. I hated going to the WDT. It seemed like the cops raided it once a month so scoring coke here was always a gamble. The secret was get your shit and get out. Don’t get caught loitering with the coke whores hanging around like its superbowl Sunday in Bolivia.
+++++My breath caught in my throat the moment my foot hit the bottom stair. There’s Charlie Dancer in the back of the room. He’s snorting a line of coke bigger than his nostril. It’s like a traffic jam going on up there. He’s huffing and wheezing and he’s got two weekend strippers from the Industrial Strip on either side of him, giggling and having a good old time.
+++++“The fuck are you doing here, Ohms?” Mickey asked me.
+++++“Feeding my addiction. Why I usually come down here? What the fuck is he doing down here?”
+++++“Keep your voice down.” Mickey walked me back up the stairs.
+++++He owned the joint so he could do that. Also, he’s got arms big around as my torso.
+++++“What’s Dancer doing here?” I asked again in a whisper once we were back in the bar proper.
+++++“Whatever the fuck he wants to do here, that’s what,” Mickey said. “You gotta lotta balls showing your face around here.”
+++++“Oh shit. What now?”
+++++“You ain’t heard?”
+++++“Nobody tells me nothing.”
+++++“Dancer and Starla’s got together. They’re the new item. Like the Hohman power couple. The Region’s Bradgelina.”
+++++So there’s only one Starla I know in all of North Hohman. My on-again, off-again girlfriend.
+++++“Well, it looks like we’re off again.”
+++++“It would appear that way, Ohms. See why it’s a good idea you make yourself scarce from around here a little while.”
+++++I left Whiskey Double Tap thinking Mickey probably wasn’t just referring to me keeping away from the bar, so much as steering clear of the entire Region altogether.
+++++Laying low didn’t appeal to my self-destructive streak, so I stopped at Toecutter Joe’s to nurse my ego. It was the one bar in the area women generally avoided. It’s a good place to go to when you want to massage your misery without having to worry about combing your hair.
+++++“Yeah,” Yahtzee said, bringing me a bottle of Okocim. “Dancer always said he’d bring down Starla, eventually. And he did!”
+++++It occurred to me Starla and I had been off again a lot longer than I had anticipated. Once Mickey clued me in, everyone felt the need to fill in the informational gaps for me.
+++++Starla was famous in North Hohman. Her fame resulted directly from her big tits, her whorish immorality and her lucrative marijuana trade. She kept at least ten pounds of good weed around her apartment at all times. It was another one of those open secrets North Hohman thrived on.
+++++Of course, when I say she was my girlfriend, it ain’t like we at the Ruby Tuesdays every Saturday night. Mostly we smoked pot and fucked on the couch. I thought we were really good for each other.
+++++“Whatcha got there, Ohms?”
+++++My cell phone.
+++++I have a self-destructive streak a mile long. That’s the only explanation I have for taking my phone out in the middle of Toecutter Joe’s and cycling through a year’s worth of naked pictures. There’s Starla in all her buck naked, spread eagle glory. Every pose imaginable for everyone in the bar to see.
+++++I imagined the text went something like this:
+++++HEY DANCER, OHMS IS OVER HERE AT JOE’S SHOWING OFF NAKED PICTURES OF YOUR OLD LADY.
+++++The bar began buzzing with a nervous energy. I quickly became aware of the grins and whispers, never a good combination. That self-destructive streak shriveled from a mile to a millimeter.
+++++“Well, I guess I better get going.”
+++++“Stay and have another one. I’m buying.” Brian Taylor offered. The sleazy drunken Judas to my broken-hearted, coke head Jesus.
+++++“No, I gotta skedaddle.”
+++++Brian: “Yahtzee, get Ohms another one of those Polish beers. Put it on my tab.”
+++++“Gotta fucking go.”
+++++I walked to the side door, slipped out, in time to witness Charlie Dancer driving up on the curb in his dull gray Dodge Charger. Even his car windows were illegal, tinted darker than the state law allowed.
+++++My longevity in this town went hand in hand with my lack of pride. I’ve never been afraid to run away. I thought, maybe if I keep running fast enough and Dancer keeps chasing long enough, he’ll be too tired to do much damage once he caught me. It was a drunk’s logic and I loved my mind for it.
+++++Charlie Dancer stepped out of the Charger, drew his police issue 9mm and opened fire on me.
+++++I thought I’d gotten a fairly decent head start on Dancer, but those gunshots sounded like canon shots. The window of a Camaro to my right exploded in a party blast of glass. Bullets ricocheted off apartment brick to my left. I heard some hollering, more than likely Dancer screaming for me to freeze or something equally Ludacris. I ducked into the alley, cut through yards, I didn’t stop running for a long time.
+++++A week passed before I worked up the nerve to show my face at the Whiskey Double Tap again. I seemed to have upset the status quo. Kristy didn’t have a hug for me. Ever her cleavage seemed to shrink before my eyes. Mickey didn’t invite me downstairs.
+++++“It’s hard to believe you took down the most corrupt cop in the entire Region,” Mickey said.
+++++“Yep,” I treated the folks to my biggest, most self-destructive smile. “Who knew discharging your service weapon at a fleeing drunk was grounds for dismissal, eh? Not I!”
+++++“You know he’s gonna fuck you for this if it’s the last thing he does, right?” Mickey said.
+++++“He was a year away from getting his twenty,” Kristy added. “Even with sick days and vacation, he ain’t getting his pension because of you.”
+++++“Boo fucking hoo.”
+++++Kristy and Mickey exchanged this-guy-is-an-idiot glances.
+++++“I’m just saying,” Mickey said. “It ain’t gonna be this week. It ain’t gonna be next week. Probably six months would be my guess. And it probably won’t even be Dancer who pulls the trigger. He’ll be sitting out in Tennessee somewhere with Starla on his lap, and you’ll be getting assassinated by some Cholo who owes a favor.”
+++++“Mickey, please. If I took every death threat seriously I’d have never made it outta kindergarten.”
+++++“And you ain’t learned nothing since then.”
+++++“Nope,” I smiled, withdrawing my phone. “You wanna see some naked pictures?”

Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Vanessa fell to her knees in tears, gripping Enrique’s jeans. “I didn’t know what to do. I’m sorry,” she said.
+++++“He followed you?”
+++++“I managed to lose him at a light but he caught up to me.” Vanessa pressed her forehead into the floor and wept. The same way she wept when the affair first started, droning on late into the night about how dissatisfied she was; until she became tired—physically and emotionally—and gave in sexually.
+++++All Enrique wanted was sex with the hottest woman in the office, who had an ass shaped liked the apple Adam bit into. Someone supposedly inaccessible but who was quick to respond to his flirting in the break room, and once told him, “You can get anything from me if you’re persistent enough.”
+++++That got him so hard he needed five minutes before walking back to his desk. But nothing comes free and now her jealous husband was pounding down his door. A few more kicks and it’d break from the hinges.
+++++Vanessa ran into the bedroom where she once told Enrique she wanted to stay forever, forget about Marco, and turn the page to a new chapter in her life.
+++++“There’s a gun at the back of the sock drawer. It’s loaded,” Enrique shouted to her.
+++++“When I get in there, I’m burning the place down, you infidel fucks,” Marco shouted. Another kick and the door caved in, closing off any hope of escaping the house without having to go through him.
+++++Marco’s bulk filled the door frame as he turned an aluminum baseball bat in his white-knuckle grip, zeroing in through blood shot, puffy eyes. “This is what you cheated on me with?” he shouted and laughed. “Watch how easily his head cracks open, cunt.” Like an All-Star swinging for the fences, Marco cocked back—the bat level with Enrique’s head—when shots popped off from the room.
+++++The bat hit the floor with a clang. Marco hit the floor with two holes in his heart.
+++++“Holy shit,” Enrique said before collapsing to the floor a vomiting mess. He’d fucked plenty of chicks before. All with baggage as temporary as a cab fare, a friendly hug, and a promise to keep in touch. But the body and blood on his floor would linger forever.
+++++Vanessa walked over and gently ran her fingers through his hair, massaging the crown. “Don’t worry. Now it’s just the two of us for tomorrow and tomorrow. Forever. I’ll clean up the mess after I make you some tea so you can relax,” she said.
+++++Vanessa smiled back at him. There wasn’t enough oxygen coming into the room as his eyes ping-ponged between Marco’s body and the gun. “Two of us?” he said, pointing at her dead husband. “I mean, like you but this is just. . . I just thought we were–”
+++++“What did you think, Kiki? There’s no thinking. We talked about this: the two of us together, with no one in the way. No interferences, remember? Look,” she said pointing the gun at Marco, “I made it happen. It’s done.”
+++++“Are you serious? There’s no way we can do this now after–”
+++++Enrique hit the floor with two holes in his head.
+++++“Sorry, Kiki, I can’t settle for something half-assed. I don’t need that kind of shit in my life,” Vanessa Solis said.

Don’t Drink and Drive

Ted Urban was expecting someone different. Someone taller, for sure, and someone dressed differently. If the person standing before him were a baseball player, the visitor might be listed as five foot, six inches in the press guide. That, as is typically the case with press guide descriptions, would be an exaggeration. The individual was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, white shorts, and light tan sandals. Urban stood up from behind a massive mahogany desk and offered his hand. “Hunter, please take a seat. Make yourself at home. Can I offer you something? Um, cigar?”
+++++Hunter glanced around the office and immediately noticed the pictures. There was one prominently displayed on Urban’s desk. There were photos on every wall, on tables and in the bookcase. Hunter imagined there were photos in Urban’s wallet as well. “You can offer, but I’m not taking.” The voice was shockingly high pitched. “How’d you find me?”
+++++Urban grabbed a stick, meticulously cut the tip with a shiny wedge cutter and lit the cigar, slowly rolling it around in his fingers as the flame jumped in spurts from the stogie’s end. He spoke between puffs. “You know. A friend of a friend of a friend, one of those deals.” Urban put the cigar back in his mouth. His leather chair barked as his massive weight leaned back. “I’ll pay handsomely, Hunter. I want this sonofabitch dead. He took me for a fucking fortune. Now, I’m willing to pay double that fortune for his hide. I was told I could count on you, for, you know, discretion and a clean job.”
+++++Hunter’s ass lifted off the seat. “Not interested.”
+++++Urban removed the cigar and carefully placed it in a large oblong onyx ashtray. “You haven’t even heard my offer. I’m willing to pay you…”
+++++“Do I stutter? Not interested.” Hunter headed for the door.
+++++“Wait!” Urban was out from behind his desk with alacrity that defied his bulk. “Of course I hoped you wouldn’t take the job. I was, you know, just testing you. Well, kind of testing your morals as a killer. Make sense?” Hunter said nothing. “Please, don’t be insulted. Take a seat, again. Please.”
+++++The two returned to their respective positions at Ted Urban’s desk. “Forgive my little game. I just had to be sure, that’s all.” Hunter remained still, so Urban continued. “I’m generally not in the murder business. That’s why I’d like to hire you. What they say about you is true, huh?”
+++++Hunter checked the time on a thick gold watch. “Depends.” The voice sounded like Tiny Tim.
+++++“C’mon, you know. You kill people who’ve killed.”
+++++Hunter was playing a sandals game. The two sandals were propped against each other so that they were standing on their own, forming a perfect equilateral triangle with the plush carpet. Hunter snuck a glance at the newly created work of sandal art. Hunter’s toes dug into the carpet. “I do. There, we’re married. Get to the point.”
+++++Urban puffed furiously at his cigar in an effort to get it going again. “What about potential killers? Do you kill potential killers?” Urban detected a slight break in Hunter’s poker face. “Six thousand dollars, and you’ll be doing society a favor.”
+++++Hunter got up, walked barefoot to the window and peered out of the sixth floor office. A cop was placing a ticket under the windshield wiper of a metallic copper colored vehicle. Turning back, Hunter examined the books lining Urban’s bookcases and lifted a framed photo of a young boy in a little league uniform showing a big smile and a bat on his shoulder. “Does my being here have anything to do with him?” The boy was in all of the photos displayed around the office. Some shots were candid, some posed, sometimes the boy was alone, and in others he was alongside Urban. The boy appeared happy, full of life. Hunter gently replaced the framed photo and sat down.
+++++“That’s Sam. Recognize him?”
+++++“No. Should I?”
+++++Urban rubbed his hands through thick graying hair. “His picture was in all of the papers. He was front-page news for a few days. His fifteen minutes of fame.” Urban removed a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his eyes.
+++++“I don’t read the papers. Too much bad news.”
+++++Urban cleared his throat. “Sam is my son. Was my son, that is. No, is my son. He’ll always be my little guy. Fact of the matter is, he’s dead, killed by a drunk driver. He was on a school bus coming home a little over a year ago, 386 days to be precise. It was Sam’s sixth birthday. He was sitting in the last row of the bus probably thinking about opening up his presents when he got home. This was in the middle of the afternoon. Some drunken bastard in one of those huge SUV’s rammed the back of the bus. My little Sammy had no warning and no chance. He was my life. My wife died of cancer when Sam was three years old. He’s all I had and he was taken from me by a low-life drunk.” Urban pounded a fist on his desk.
+++++Hunter looked down. The standing sandals had fallen. “Sorry. You want me to kill the guy who killed Sam?”
+++++“You can’t. He’s already dead.” Now, it was Urban’s turn. He picked up and stared at the desk photo of Sam. He wiped away a thin layer of dust with his handkerchief. “Frank Fink. Hell of a name, huh? Hell of a name for a hell of a human being. He’s dead, too. He died in the accident as well. I’m hiring you to kill someone who hasn’t killed anyone. Yet. I want you for the first time to kill someone who has never killed another person. A potential killer.”
+++++“Someone in particular you have in mind?”
+++++“Nope. I simply want you to prevent a killing by eliminating someone. I don’t know whom. I don’t really care whom. I want to prevent another parent from experiencing the living hell in which I currently reside.”
+++++“Look, Urban, I don’t…”
+++++“I’m hiring you to sit in a bar or a restaurant or a strip joint or a hotel, wherever the hell people drink, and watch. I want you to watch closely at who drinks too much. Let’s say the magic number is six. Ha! Fuck the number six.” Urban started to get up but thought better of it. “Watch for anyone who has more than six drinks. Then, I want you to follow them to see if they get into a car or truck or whatever to drive. Then, do what you have to do and remove them from this earth. Make it nice and clean. I hate violence, and by the looks of you and what I’ve heard about you, it doesn’t appear that violence is your forte, anyway. Do away with whomever you select, as long as he or she meet the criteria. Look at it this way; you’ll be preventing a murder of who knows how many innocent people by killing one potential killer. I’ll give you half of the six thousand dollars now and the remaining half when you come back after the job is done. Do we have a deal?”
+++++Hunter ran a salmon-pink tongue across small front teeth. The two shook hands. With three thousand dollars stuffed into the front pocket of the Hawaiian shirt, Hunter, who had a son once long ago, took one last glance at a photo of little Sam Urban and headed out.

*

The Driftwood Tavern was crowded and dark. A typical neighborhood bar that catered to mostly guys looking to down a few after work or after a weekend softball game. Hunter selected the Driftwood based solely on its old style neon sign which cast a depressing bluish light into the night’s air and because it wasn’t too far from home. It was a Tuesday evening. Hunter sat at a corner table near the restroom. Every time someone opened the men’s room door to take a leak, Hunter got a whiff of a sickening sweet bathroom air freshener, the kind that clung to clothing. The stench could be smelled all night. There were two bartenders, both overweight, slick backed black hair and wearing aprons. Hunter thought they could be brothers. One had a thin moustache just above his upper lip. He reminded Hunter of a 1940’s actor who had been in hundreds of movies but his name was a mystery. Both had probably been at the Driftwood since it’s opening. There was a pool table seeing action, a dartboard on the wall that was being ignored at the moment, and a large screen television. Hunter couldn’t see which teams were playing, but the volume was set loud enough so that the crowd cheers were heard over the din of the tavern. The third base coach was waving two runners home. Hunter nursed a beer and ate salted peanuts. Everything tasted like cheap bathroom air freshener. From this vantage point, Hunter could see almost everyone seated at the bar and at the tables. There was a constant flow of patrons coming and going, but Hunter focused on a table at the far end of the place occupied by three guys in their mid thirties wearing suits with their ties undone. Hunter had already counted six pitchers of beer, and now a seventh one was being delivered by the mustachioed barkeep. Two of the three guys were drinking heavily. The third was eating popcorn and sipping water through a bent straw. A lemon wedge hung precariously from the edge of his glass. Every now and then, they’d look up at the television screen when the crowd noise increased. Hunter figured that they were discussing their jobs and how miserable their lives were, or perhaps talking about some hot young thing that they had been seeing on the side. More likely, wished they were seeing.
+++++Hunter looked at the clock behind the bar. It had been more than three hours since the guys had been drinking. The ballgame was over. Hunter looked up and saw highlight replays of the game interspersed with a couple of the game’s announcers moving their lips and shaking their heads upward and downward. No one was playing billiards. The two bartenders were doing more cleaning of the bar than serving drinks. Hunter watched closely as the three men stood up. The two drinkers were on unsteady legs. The hairs on the back of Hunter’s neck tingled with excitement. The feel of the handcuffs bulge was reassuring. The men were having a somewhat heated discussion. The non-drinker had his arm around the shoulder of one of the guys, and these two seemed unhappy with what the third person was saying. Hunter didn’t want to get too close. Finally, the three men headed for the exit door. One of the bartenders waived his rag, said “goodnight, drive safely,” and continued drying glasses. Outside, the three men hugged and fist bumped each other. “I’m fine. Really. Thanks.” The tallest of the three was walking away from the other two. Hunter watched. Two of the men, one of whom wasn’t drinking, headed together toward a white Nissan Maxima. The non-drinker helped the other into the passenger seat, then walked around the car and got behind the wheel. He was the designated driver. Hunter turned toward the tallest of the three who staggered near one of the light posts. Hunter heard a loud belch and then watched as the drunk dropped his pants and urinated in the parking lot. The man began singing an old Four Seasons song as he walked toward a Honda Accord, began fumbling with his keys, and then dropped them. Hunter approached. “Here, let me help you with that,” picking the keys up off the pavement.
+++++The man was briefly startled. “Who da hell are you? The tooth fairy?” The man began laughing. Hunter pulled out a wallet and flashed a badge. “A cop? You? A midget cop with a fairy voice, hell I must be dreaming. Right?” Again, the man laughed. “You can help me sing, ‘Sherry Baby!’ You got the voice for it. Let’s try it.” The man was loud. He started singing again.
+++++Hunter opened the car’s door. “Sir, you’re intoxicated. I can not permit you to drive yourself home in this condition.”
+++++“I’m not drivin anywhere. Shit, you smell like a bathroom…”
+++++Hunter cut him off. “That’s right. I’ll drive you home. It’s my duty and obligation.”
+++++“Hell no, you see I…”
+++++“Shut up. Shut your goddamned mouth right now!” Despite the size differential, Hunter manhandled the drunk into the passenger’s seat of the vehicle. “Just keep your mouth shut and I’ll drive you home.” Hunter gunned the car in gear and headed east on the main drag.
+++++“Where in hell you taking me? I don’t live this way. Shit. Jeez, I gotta pee. Pull over.”
+++++Hunter ignored him and blasted the radio to drown out the man’s bitching. After a five-minute drive, Hunter pulled into the driveway of a secluded split-level house. HUNTER was printed in block letters on the mailbox. Hunter got out of the car, opened the garage door, and drove in. The man was still screaming.
+++++“What the hell you doing? Where the hell are we? I gotta pee so goddamned bad. Listen, my wife is com…”
+++++Hunter pulled the cuffs and secured the drunkard to the steering wheel, then opened all the windows in the vehicle and left the car engine running. When the garage door was shut Hunter entered the house via the front door, disconnected the carbon monoxide detector and walked back out.
+++++In the morning, Hunter opened the garage door, let things air out for a few minutes, and then poured gasoline from a spare lawnmower tank into the Accord. Hunter undid the handcuffs and moved the stiff over toward the passenger’s seat, turned on the ignition and drove back to the Driftwood Tavern. No cars were in the parking lot. Hunter parked and placed the dead man behind the wheel of the Honda and disappeared.

*

Hunter took his now familiar seat at the desk across from Urban. “You know why I’m here. Three thousand dollars.” Hunter looked at freshly manicured fingernails.
+++++“Does the name William, or Bill Stickney mean anything to you, Hunter?”
+++++“Not a thing. Should it?”
+++++Urban pulled a folded newspaper from the top right-hand drawer. “Maybe, maybe not.” He opened the newspaper and flattened it against the desk. “He’s been in the news of late.”
+++++Hunter pulled at a toothpick. “I told you I don’t read newspapers, Urban. The news is always bad. I make it my business to avoid bad news.”
+++++Urban stared at Hunter. “He’s dead. He died sometime Tuesday night of carbon monoxide poisoning. The cops found him and his car parked at the Driftwood Tavern, not far from here. Know the place?”
+++++Hunter showed no emotion. “That’s all very nice, Urban. I’m here to collect my money.”
+++++“Thing about it is, the cops are saying he was murdered. See, this Stickney guy had been drinking all night at the Driftwood with a couple of buddies. He had had much too much to drink, so he sent a text message to his wife asking her to pick him up at the bar. He texted that he was in no condition to drive, but when the wife got there, Stickney and his car were gone. Vanished. Next thing anyone knows, the fucker is back at the bar the following morning, in his car, but he’s dead. Murdered.”
+++++Hunter’s pulse increased. “What are you saying?”
+++++“I’m saying, that if you had anything to do with killing this man, well, he was no killer and from the story, he was no potential killer, either. Hunter, you killed a drunken but very innocent man that didn’t need killing.”

*

The reality overcame Hunter and felt like an iodine injection flowing through swollen allergic veins. With a full tank of gas, Hunter parked in the garage, shut the garage door, and sat in the car with the engine running and with windows open. The carbon monoxide detector was again disconnected. She didn’t need handcuffs.

Nothing Hardcore to Me

It happened because of a photo.  A photo of a naked woman. A red-headed woman down on her knees, licking a bloody knife, over an off-white infinite background.  Nothing hardcore to me.  But very powerful all the same.
+++++She was neither über-model-thin nor pin-up-plump; rather slender, willowy, a bit curvaceous.  Skin very white and spotless, not a tiny freckle on it.  So perfect I could only attribute it to the eldritch arts of Photoshop.
+++++Most of her small breasts were covered by the hand that held the knife.  The nipples couldn’t be seen.  Pubic hairs – if any – weren’t visible as well.
+++++I loved the way the colors of her hair and the blood on the knife and the tongue clashed and contrasted: auburn, copper, red, pink, dark brown.  It suited me fine for something I was just thinking of doing then.
+++++But first I had to ask the photographer.  He was an old friend and I was visiting him in his studio.  We used to get drunk a lot in college days.  Now, not so much.
+++++“This is a nice one,” I told him, showing the photo with the naked woman.  It was among the first ones in a portfolio wide open on his desk.
+++++“It was a photo shoot for a death metal cover,” he said, showing me the rest of the pictures.  Most of them virtually the same scene, with minor variations, and two which deviated a lot from the established template, with arms and legs spread in a number of different angles (yes, she had pubic hairs).
+++++But the first photo still attracted me more.
+++++“Was?” I asked.
+++++He shrugged.  “It didn’t pan out.  They wanted more of the same.  Black and red.  Arcane symbols and the like.  And less nudity.”
+++++I chuckled. “And you told them to fuck off, right?”
+++++“No,” he said. “I delivered.”
+++++“So much for the old punk spirit, huh?”
+++++He stared at me as if I was joking – or, in retrospect, a jerk; that, I think, is the best option – and said: “Punk has nothing to do with it. I’m a professional. During the briefing, I listen carefully to all the client has to say. After she’s done, I make a few suggestions. The client is free to accept them or not. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they accept everything you say and, when you just finished what you think is the best goddamn photo shoot of your life they shrug and tell you it just wasn’t what they imagined how it would be in the end.”
+++++“Don’t it makes you want to kill someone?”
+++++“No,” he said. “I always charge upfront.”
+++++“So these are already paid for?”
+++++“Yep.”
+++++“What are you going to do with them?”
+++++“I don’t know yet.”
+++++“You know, this is just what I’ve been looking for,” I said.
+++++And told him about the porn noir novel.
+++++Nothing hardcore to me: hardboiled detective meets femme fatale who happens to be not only the mastermind behind the very murder-cum-theft he was just hired to solve, but also his long-lost sister, of whose existence he didn’t even know until few weeks before the whole shebang. And, of course, they fall in love before he discovers the truth. Did I mention they also fuck? A lot?
+++++And a red-headed woman down on her knees, licking a bloody knife, over an off-white infinite background, would be just the right thing to spice things up a bit. And, with luck, to help boost sales.
+++++“What do you think?” I asked him.
+++++He shrugged again. The man liked to keep his cool.
+++++“It can be done,” he said. “I can charge you a symbolic fee for it. Just to make things official.”
+++++“But…?” I sensed the but coming as a wall of tear gas in a crowded place.
+++++“But you’ll have to get permission from the model.”
+++++“I thought photographers had the rights over their work.”
+++++“They do. But she’s a friend. I just want to let her know she’s going to mutate from a metal goddess to a pulp vixen.”

*

We met a couple of days later in a bar near the studio.
+++++She wasn’t red-headed. At least not then. Her hair was black, very black, Bettie-Page black, Dita-Von-Teese black. Her skin, though, was really milk-white. And she had freckles.
+++++“Do I meet your expectations?” she asked me wryly as we shook hands. She did, but I had no words. I only smiled at her and mumbled something I can’t remember, but must have been complimentary, because she smiled too.
+++++The weather was so good we took a table outside and drank draft beer and talked a lot about photos and vintage covers of noir books. We even talked about my short-lived interest in parlor tricks and of how much I had laughed when I saw that scene with the pencil that Heath Ledger did as the Joker in The Dark Knight.
+++++It was a fine evening. Good beer, fine company.
+++++Until the homeless guy appeared.
+++++If his clothes weren’t so tattered and stinky, he could qualify for a model himself. He might have been a handsome man one day. He was a tall, slender man, maybe younger than me. His face had seen better days. His long and tangled hair, though, had no sign of gray; same with the beard.
+++++But he wasn’t any noble beggar. He came up the street wobbling with some difficulty, a bottle of Johnnie Walker’s Red Label almost empty under his armpit, and went right to our table. I was watching the bastard from across the street – I was pretty sure he was coming for us. I’m a magnet for beggars and such. But I wasn’t his target audience, naturally. He took his time, backpedaling, swaying a bit to the side, then straightening up and resuming his journey, which at this point in time was almost a quest. A quest for the model, who happened to be seated right by my side. He finally approached her, leaning over her in a very uncomfortable way, putting himself between us. The stink, the stink.
+++++“Do you want to see a magic trick, beautiful lady?” he asked her in what I could only guess he thought it was a mellifluous voice (it was a rough, bone-dry voice). Then he touched her on the shoulder.
+++++Maybe I shouldn’t have done anything. She didn’t move, didn’t even flinch. Maybe she was being polite, maybe she didn’t care about the guy. Perhaps she was thinking that, if she gave the poor bastard a few moments of her time, he would happily go away and that would be that. I really should be more patient.
+++++I stood up and grabbed the guy by the lapel of his almost disintegrating coat. And said: “Do you want to see ME doing make a magic trick with you? I can make you DISAPPEAR! On the count of five: FIVE, FOUR…”
+++++I felt the pain before the three.
+++++It was so unexpected I yelped and let the man go.
+++++There was a knife in the model’s hand. There was blood in my arm.
+++++“You don’t meet my expectations,” she hissed.
+++++I couldn’t stop looking at the blood flowing down my arm. It didn’t look like a deep wound, but it hurt like fuck.
+++++“He’s a friend,” she said.
+++++I looked up. The homeless guy was gone.
+++++“He had drama classes with her a couple of years ago,” the photographer said. “He modeled for me occasionally.”
+++++The girl only shook her head. And drank.
+++++I was feeling cold. I looked down: my arm was scarlet now, blood flowing freely down my fingers, pooling in the pavement.
+++++“Don’t be a sissy,” the model said as if she read my mind. “You’re not going to die. He is, poor Dan” and pointed with her chin down the street.
+++++“So I guess no photo to me, then,” I thought of saying. But I didn’t. So much for the punk spirit.

Brother’s Keeper

My brother Ronnie had been murdered, while I was in jail, shot in the head. The cops knew it, they’d bugged his apartment. They didn’t want Ronnie; he was a low level drug dealer and addict, just another nobody to them. Two piece of shit cops thought bugging his place would lead them to bigger fish. They had no idea.
They had a tape of Hector Flores killing my brother. Hector had worked his way up to big time drug dealer over the past few years. It’s too bad they placed the bugs illegally. They couldn’t use any of it in court. That’s where I came in.
+++++I just got out of jail, assault and battery. Two guys jumped me outside McCoy’s Bar. It was self-defense but my court appointed lawyer was shit, so I did 90 days. They wouldn’t even let me out to go to Ronnie’s funeral.
+++++I went to check in with my probation officer, and knew right away something was up. There were two cops waiting for me, Detectives Miller and Bronson. The cops knew Ronnie had been dealing small time outta his place, a little here and there never anything steady. He sold just enough to cover his fix, and only when he was low on cash.
+++++A few of his buyers were well to do college boys. They were running their own operation, catering to the academic…if you know what I mean. They’d slum it down town then sell it on campus at an inflated price, sort of a finder’s fee for their upper classmen.
+++++One of them got popped, and spilled everything. They were planning on stepping up their operation in a big way, and were gonna use Ronnie to bridge the gap to his supplier. I guess college tuition must have gone up.
+++++The two cops wanted the who, what, where, when and how on the college boys. They were gonna let them set up shop and get rolling. Once they had business going Miller and Bronson would steam roll in, facing major drug charges they’d roll on their supplier, Hector Flores.
+++++There was only one problem. A judge wouldn’t authorize the bugs for an operation like that and they knew it, so Miller and Bronson took it upon themselves. They set their equipment up, it was voice activated. Just turn it on and go, then check it every day and see what you got. They weren’t prepared for what they heard on one of the tapes.
+++++They played it for me. It was brutal to listen to. I wanted to kill Hector; I wanted to kill them too. They fucked up couldn’t touch Hector, anything on their tapes would be inadmissible, now they needed my help.
+++++‘So let me get this right, you want me to wear a wire and meet with Hector?’
+++++‘That’s about it,’ Miller said.
+++++‘What makes you think I’ll do it?’ I asked.
+++++‘He was your brother. Don’t you want to help put his killer away?’ Bronson said sarcastically.
+++++‘Fuck you,’ I said disbelieving what I’d heard. ‘How are you gonna convince the bosses down at H.Q. You can’t play the tape for them. They’d shit if they knew about it.’
+++++‘That’s the easy part. You came to us with info on Hector. You volunteered to wear a wire, to even the score for your brother.’ Bronson said. At that they both smiled.
+++++‘And if you don’t, you might find yourself… violating your parole in the very near future,’ Miller added.
+++++‘You can’t do that.’
+++++‘We can do whatever we what,’ Bronson replied. I knew they could too, if I didn’t do what they wanted I’d be back inside. These two fucks had me by the balls.
+++++‘What makes you think he’ll even meet with me?’ I asked incredulously.
+++++‘You heard the tape, the fifty grand he thinks your brother stole from him. He’ll meet you. In fact he’s probably looking for you. We already put the word on the street that you’ve been flashing a lot of cash for a guy just outta jail.’
+++++The bastards fucked me. I had to go through with it. I had no qualms about fucking Hector Flores. I would have preferred to do it in my own time, on my terms. I’d rather see him dead than in jail but you played the cards that were dealt to you.
+++++I remember when Hector was nobody, a punk hanging around Joey D and his boys. He started dealing when he was just a kid, selling bags of weed down on 23rd street. Soon he was running numbers and girls. Somewhere along the line he stepped it up, coke, heroine, you name it. Then Joey D disappeared. There’s no doubt Hector had something to do with it. Rumor has it Joey’s buried in at least half a dozen places in the city.
+++++Their plan was simple. All I had to do was let Hector know that I wanted to give the cash back he thought my brother took. The cops would supply the cash and I’d wear a wire. Hector’s a big mouth, he likes to brag. They were banking on him running his mouth and incriminating himself. I was banking on getting shot; at the very least I’d probably get fucked up pretty good.
+++++I met one of Ronnie’s junkie friends at McCoy’s Bar. He was only too happy to pass the message along. I guess he thought it would put him in Hector’s good graces.
+++++A meeting was set up. Hector picked the spot, I wanted someplace public, but he chose an old flea bag apartment he used to run girls out of back in his pimping days, 10 PM. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be walking out if it. The fucking cops would win either way. He’d incriminate himself or kill me and they’d have it on tape… all legal this time.
+++++I stopped by Ronnie’s old place. I guess it’s mine now, I been staying there since getting out and the landlord didn’t care as long as he got paid in cash. I knew Ronnie used to keep a 38 hidden under the floorboards of the closet. I had a feeling I might need it. It was still there, along with some other things. One of them was a picture of us when we were kids. It had been taken at the beach. Ronnie’s eyes were bright. They didn’t have the dazed, glassed over look I’d gotten used to seeing in them over the last few years. Seeing that picture broke my heart. Ronnie had been a junkie, but he was still my brother.
+++++Up until then I’d considered bailing, take off and run. I’d be violating my probation and might get caught some day. Or worse Hector might find me. He’d think I had his money. One thing about drug dealers, they want their money. For fifty grand he’d hunt me down till the day he died.
+++++With five hours till the meeting, I went to the apartment. I walked the block a few times looking for any sign of Hector’s boys. It was all clear. The doors weren’t locked, big surprise there.
+++++After going inside I saw why. It was mostly bare. An old cum stained mattress lay in the bedroom and a beat up couch and chair sat in the living room. I tore out the lining from under the chair and tucked the gun inside. If I was gonna die tonight I damn sure wasn’t going alone. With the gun hidden I went to meet the cops.
+++++They explained how everything worked, like they gave a shit about me. I was expendable to them. In fact it would make their job easier if Hector had me shot tonight. Just before the meeting they wired me up, I taped the small transmitter up under my balls, I knew Hector wouldn’t go there.
+++++I showed up exactly at 10PM, Hector made me wait almost an hour. Let me tell you something. If someone pulls a gun on you, you react. But knowing its coming and having to wait for it is a whole lot harder.
+++++When they walked into the apartment the first thing I noticed was his bodyguard, he was fucking huge, 6”7” at least, and of course he had a gun in his hand. Hector stood next to him. I got up off the couch with my hands raised, the bag next to me on the floor. His bodyguard frisked me then stepped out of the way.
+++++‘Where’s my money?’ Hector asked, straight to the point.
+++++‘It’s in the bag,’ I said and slid it over to him with my foot.
+++++‘You’re brother had some balls stealing from me,’ he said contemptuously.
+++++‘I don’t want any problems,’ I said. ‘I just wanna make things right, and get on with my life.’ I did my best to look pitiful.
+++++‘Get on with your life… You’re a funny motherfucker. What makes you think you’re gonna have a life after tonight?’
+++++Just then his bodyguard stepped up and hit me with is gun. Pain exploded in my head and jaw as I fell to the ground. I landed sprawled out in front of the chair, spitting blood and a tooth out onto the floor.
+++++‘We both know you’re not walking outta here. The only question is… you gonna die like a man, or you gonna die like your brother? He died like a bitch, begging, and crying,’ Hector said.
+++++‘Fuck you.’ I spat through a mouthful of blood, craning my neck to look up at him. I lay on my stomach and didn’t want to move. My hand was close to the chair, the gun within reach. All I had to do now was wait for my chance.
+++++‘Oh…you’re a tough guy,’ he said. ‘Gimme my gun.’ He held his hand out, never taking his eyes off me.
+++++The bodyguard reached into his jacket as I slid my hand under the chair. He handed Hector a stainless steel Beretta 9mm. Hector squatted down, eye level with me.
+++++‘This is the gun I offed your pussy brother with,’ he said with a smile, revealing a mouthful of gold teeth. ‘Let’s keep this in the family.’
+++++That was it. He confessed and had the murder weapon. They’d break in any second, that’s when I’d make my move. The rest seem to happen in slow motion. It lasted about five seconds but seemed like a lifetime.
+++++The front door burst inward, and there was shouting. The bodyguard turned to it, his gun raised. Hector only shifted his eyes in that direction, but it was enough. A shot rang out, then another. The bodyguard twitched then went flying backwards.
+++++As Hector’s eyes shifted back to me I pulled the gun out and fired. For a split second the shock of what was about to happed registered on his face. It was a look that said ‘I can’t believe a scumbag like you is gonna win’. The shot went upward, hitting Hector in the mouth. The top of his head exploded as the bullet tore through it. He didn’t even get a shot off.
+++++The shooting was in self-defense but I still got nailed for the illegal gun. Hector’s man took out Bronson. Too bad he only got one of the pricks. Thanks to my “effort helping” the police, the judge said he let me off easy, 90 days in county.
+++++Easy…any time inside isn’t easy. But I would have killed Hector anyway, or gotten myself killed trying. And the fifty grand hidden in Ronnie’s closet makes the 90 days a whole lot easier.

Alchemy

Darius the killer felt a thousand police eyes on his scarred face. He scanned the deserted concrete maze and saw nothing but taunting graffiti that disappeared with a severe blink. A side effect of the meds, that were supposed to drag him out of his depression when his wife left, was potential psychosis. It was a rare side effect but he had it, manifested in intense paranoia. His blood blistered his veins, his skin felt like it was trying to drag itself off his bones and he jittered and twisted on the spot. This was the Akathisia. Intense restlessness akin to the worst cocaine fuck over blended with relentless insomnia. Rare also, but Darius the killer needed no reminding he was born drug sensitive. The taunts would never leave his memory.
+++++The girlfriend the wife divorced him over demanded he get specialist psychiatric help with the psychosis. She told him she could accept he was a professional murderer but she wouldn’t accept being a pro bono victim because of his chemical living nightmares mistaking her for an alien or some other fucked up shit.
+++++The experts looked him up and down and ignored his bundle of research print-outs, diagnosing him as schizophrenic. They ordered him into the hospital and he politely declined. Six police officers walloped his door off its hinges, splintering the frame, and bundled him into the waiting van. Dumped him into the hospital seclusion room. He was de-bagged and injected with what they described as anti-psychotic drugs whilst still in cuffs, to cure his new diagnosis. They increased his initial meds too because they figured these things go hand in hand. They eventually let him go home on the condition he never missed his fortnightly jab, else they’d drag him back. He played the good soldier and gifted them his trademark cracked smile. He was a killer and had money to earn after all.
+++++The girlfriend said life was too short to wait for him to get specialist help for the impotence the new drugs he’d been forcibly subject to, had caused. A rare side effect, but Darius the killer, even when alone, heard the taunts right in his eardrums because he’d been drug sensitive in the womb.
+++++Unending taunts, every waking hour, peppered his mind. Alone now in his bed, staring at the cracks spidering in the ceiling, he contemplated his next move. He was a redundant hitman, fired for killing the wrong person in the last two hits. Word spread throughout the network he was loco. He knew he wanted his life to mean something. And he knew what he wanted to achieve. He jerked his limp dick and wept at its flaccidity. An impending killing was the only failsafe in the absence of wet pussy and he cried harder his failsafe failed to get a response.
+++++The taunts screamed more abuse and he knew he only way to silence them. He was going to put his skills to use and the taunts would have to fuck off because he now had a mission. He felt the righteousness hijack the Akathisia for fuel. He double checked the location of the meet he’d earwigged at the hospital and checked the date. Tonight was the beginning of the game.
+++++Darius the killer flushed at the frying spice drifting into his nostrils, reminding him he hadn’t eaten in days. He peered through the steamed window of the Peking Palace restaurant and stared at diners stuffing their grinning mouths with chop sticks. The taunts laughed in his ears. He spat hard on the pane and paced down the alley beside the building. He jogged up the steel fire escape and burst into the back entrance of the brothel above.
+++++The walls and floor were carpeted in neon blue and he shrugged off hookers in his storm down the narrow, smoke filled corridor. Room twenty one.
+++++He clicked open the door, entering the suite flushed with lush lilac. A beige chaise lounge was covered in skewed study results, blank signature lines illuminated by the dull pink lamp on a nearby teak table. The walls and ceiling were covered in mirrors. The occupants froze.
+++++‘Nice to see you again, Doc. Strange place to be finalizing scientific studies.’ Darius looked over to the chubby man on the left of the Doc. His name was too small to read but he clearly made out the company logo on its sales rep ID. ‘Sorry about arriving before the whores.’
+++++He laughed at the perplexed expressions. Pulled out the purple latex glove and wriggled his twitching digits into it, watching their faces change simultaneously. He observed their eyes widen as he slid out the machete from inside his jacket. ‘I’ll be quick fellas. Don’t worry, I’ll make the mess post mortem.’
+++++The sales rep nudged the frozen Doc, noticed he’d pissed himself and turned to the interloper. ‘I’ll double whatever you’re getting’, he pleaded.
+++++Darius chuckled, ‘Impossible. This one’s for free. You lads have the distinction of being the first. Everyone remembers the first victims. That’s why I’m going to do you with this’, he said, swinging the blade. ‘Serial slashers get more press than clean killings.’
+++++The Doc found his voice. ‘Killings? Are you mad? We aren’t responsible –’
+++++‘For your drugs sending me daft? Making me impotent? Not this either?’ Shouted Darius, brandishing the withered mass of congealed bone at the tip of his left wrist. ‘Thalidomide. Do you two bastards have any idea what it’s like growing up with something like this?’ He spat, his saliva whitening in the corners of his mouth. His right hand stopped shaking and he glared at the pair.
+++++The sales rep croaked, ‘Listen to the doctor and calm down.’
+++++‘Calm down? Fuck off. You’re here, bribing this clown to sign fake studies and prescribe medications that you either know full well can be harmful, or have no idea what harm they can cause. And you tell me to calm down? Look at me.’ He gestured with his malformed appendage. ‘You two are only the first in a long line of me exposing this sickness you corrupt fuckers’. Darius swung with rage and hacked the machete into the chaise lounge.
+++++The doctor and the sales rep shared a desperate look and rushed with flailing arms. Grappled with the wrist and prying fingers back from the handle of the knife embedded in the mahogany frame. Darius released his grip and reached inside his jacket for his pistol. The doctor struggled to apply a weak bear hug, the two crashing backwards to the floor. Arms struggled and elbows clashed and the men rolled around in a twisted wrestle.
+++++The gun arm jerked and locked. The roar of the gunshot echoed around the room.
+++++Shards rained from above.
+++++A glinting blur descended, ending in a sickening hack.
+++++Screaming.
+++++Six eyes looked around in panic and six eardrums rang and six nostrils smelled the blending of metallic rust and nitroglycerin and graphite.
+++++Darius the killer screaming.
+++++Six eyes locked on the severed hand, still gripping the pistol.
+++++The sales rep dropped the machete. Dragged the dazed doctor up from the floor. Snatched the unsigned papers and they scampered out of the door.
+++++Darius the killer flicked his stare to the gleaming white of the bone protruding from the tip of his right wrist and screeched and convulsed and wept.
+++++The taunts returned, cackling loudly in his ears. He wiped away tears with his bloodstained wrist and shook his head. The taunts laughed louder.
+++++He knelt in front of the displaced hand. Tilted the still warm extremity with his forearms. Leaned forward and took the barrel in his mouth.
+++++He took a final glare at the end of each wrist and held his breath. He closed his eyelids tightly. He smiled at the blank darkness.
+++++He exhaled and pressured the cooling hand, depressing the trigger.

Holes And Halves

September knew she should be sleeping soundly by now. She looked at the clock face; it said two-twenty-two a.m. A bat buzzed overhead, above her bed—it did that every night after she turned out the light: it flew into the house through the rickety attic trap-door, took a turn overhead, then fleetingly returned to its own home. The electric fan ran on low, creating a slight breeze that barely lifted the bat’s wings a little further than usual, and with the subtle illumination from the nightlight in the hall, she could see the creature’s underside. It made her think of death. Nighttime made her think of death. Death of the body, yes, but even more than that, death of purity and innocence, death of the spirit.

* * *

The black hole, feverishly flapping, suddenly approached her, then, equally as suddenly, swerved away. September tried to bury her entire body, tip to toes, under the covers; slowly, she allowed herself to open her eyes: she had believed she would feel safer in hiding, but her body was damp, and the covers clung to her as a winding sheet clings to a sweaty, recently embalmed and bound corpse on a simmering summer day—uncontrollable claustrophobia overcame September. She re-shut her eyes and returned the sheet to shoulder-height, once again attempting to ignore her trepidatious impulses.
+++++At first she didn’t register it . . . At age twenty-eight, she could split her personality into perfect halves and remain sane, could talk to herself as if she were two persons: parent and little child. “All gone, all gone . . . It’s all right . . . It was only a nightmare—nightmares aren’t real, dear . . .” It almost felt like Mama sat beside her on the bed, tracing smooth, cool fingers along her face, her chest, her ribs. She wished so hard for her mama’s presence that she reached out and found she clutched at nothing but air. She drew her hand inward, to study it, but when she opened her eyes, released her fist and stared at the palm of her right hand, she discovered that she held the hole. It fluttered weakly in angry helplessness.
+++++“You cannot escape now,” she told it, as she attempted to sound sure and strong. “You have no power over me anymore. You are trapped—trapped within my grasp.”
+++++“And you are trapped in fear of me,” countered the dark void.
+++++“No.”
+++++“Yes.”
+++++“Never!” She flung her arm extravagantly, and the void flew away.
+++++It grew gargantuan, no longer round and quivering but an indefinable and vicious mass, and hovered atop her bed, mockingly observing what kind of moral and emotional strength she possessed. It transformed shape, taking on the appearance of a knife, a gun, a man she knew as “Uncle” who crept into her bedroom after twilight whenever Mama left him to baby-sit her; Mama hadn’t meant to lie about the nightmares, but they were real—they truly were real. That was why September liked to live alone: the only nightmares that could pursue her still were irreverent, haunting imaginings. Imaginings, were they not? Was it not? It turned back into a recognizable black hole . . .
+++++Only imaginings . . . Nothing but imaginings . . .
+++++“Never again!” September cried. “I will never allow you to haunt me again!”
+++++The void started to shrink, and finally it returned to its original form—once more it became a bat—a helpless, frustrated bat, as afraid to feel her presence there as she had been to feel its, as it frantically searched for its home. Had she really caught it, touched it, or had her fears merely hypnotized her? She gazed at her still-raised arm, and felt chill-prickles run through it.
+++++The air from the fan felt unnaturally frigid—the same as Mama’s tracing fingers used to. Oh, Mama, you never understood, because you could never let yourself believe.
+++++September shook, but she could not cry: instinctively she knew she had survived her final dark night.

Henry Showed Wendy His Paintings

Henry and Wendy Throckmorton had been married a week when Henry took Wendy to his garret 100 miles south of their estate in posh Kenilworth, a suburb of Chicago. Wendy thought she was going on a delayed honeymoon. Henry had never told her that he was a painter by avocation. She knew only that he was a successful patent attorney and had a large, profitable practice.
+++++There was a heavy snowfall that evening and it made the trip for Wendy, looking out the window of the car, all the more beautiful. They arrived at the garret around midnight and walked up three flights of stairs in the dark. It was good that Henry had brought his flashlight. He used three keys on a long silver chain to open three locks on the steel door. Once inside the garret, Henry turned on the light with triumph.
+++++“Voila!” he said as he turned slowly in a circle with arms outstretched.
+++++Wendy was certainly surprised. There were paintings all over the walls. Other paintings, half completed, sat on their easels waiting for Henry. He explained to Wendy that she was the first person to see his work–his work of a lifetime. He had never shown his work to anyone before but now that they were married, he felt she had a right to see it.
+++++“Wendy, you are the one person I know who is qualified to see my work and I am very happy about that.”
+++++Wendy had been curator of several art collections at prestigious museums in a number of cities. As soon as she was settled in her new home, she planned to seek similar employment in Chicago, perhaps at a small private gallery so she would have less pressure and more time to make a nice home for Henry who had been a bachelor for a long time.
+++++Wendy was an expert in watercolors, Henry’s medium of choice. With his encouragement, she walked around the garret slowly, looking at every painting on the walls and even those on the easels before she said anything.
+++++Finally, choosing her words carefully, she told Henry his work was “interesting.” She did not praise or condemn any particular painting. She spoke quietly, trying her best to say something nice when her professional assessment told her just the opposite–the work was mediocre, mundane at best. Later on, Henry thought to himself that Wendy had looked bemused after reviewing his life’s work.
+++++Henry Throckmorton earned his living as an attorney but that was simply to buy the time necessary to paint. Before marrying Wendy he had spent weekends, holidays and vacations at his garret, painting night and day for many years. He had done well as an attorney but painting was his passion. He knew now, however, that the canvases he thought so highly of had failed to impress his young wife.
+++++Henry drove home alone that night and told everyone at work the next day that Wendy had left him without notice. He called her parents and cried on the telephone about her sudden departure. He begged them to ask Wendy to call him if they heard from her and he said he would call them if she called him. He asked her mother if Wendy had ever gone off on her own before and she assured him that Wendy had not.
+++++No one ever saw Wendy Throckmorton again. Over the years, her parents had died, still worried about Wendy. Since she had been an only child, there were no siblings to ask about her. It was obvious to the staff in Henry’s office that he was in no mood to discuss her. They felt the man was brokenhearted.
+++++Once again, Henry was spending weekends, holidays and vacations at his garret painting in watercolors. No one since Wendy had seen his work nor had anyone else visited his garret. Paintings were still everywhere, their number increasing as a result of Henry’s ever-increasing frenzy for painting.
+++++A wonderful cook, Henry still stored a few steaks in a small refrigerator in the kitchen but he no longer hung big cuts of beef from hooks in the walk-in freezer at the back of the garret. That freezer had been a selling point when Henry bought the place from a retired butcher many years ago. But now Henry never went into the freezer. In fact, he didn’t know where he had put the keys to the locks he himself had installed on the freezer door after Wendy had disappeared.
+++++In addition to being good at the law and enjoying painting, Henry Throckmorton had always been handy with tools. He had hoped some day to try his hand at ice sculpture but he would have to do that outside now and not in the freezer as he had once planned.

All That Green

It didn’t bother me at first. Matter of fact, I didn’t really even think about it. You see, Harry had done it before.
+++++I know it’s hard for some people to believe, but a guy like Harry, who’s into a little of everything, legal and illegal, occasionally has more money than he knows what to do with. So it wasn’t too unusual for Harry to call me every so often and ask me to help him out. Hold some money for him. Stash it. That’s how I ended up with the sixty grand, in ziplock bags, buried in a dirt corner of my cellar.
+++++Harry said he was flying out to California for a few weeks. I knew he had some action out there. What, I didn’t know. And it didn’t make any difference because I really didn’t care anyhow. So I forgot about it–or at least I thought I did.
+++++When I got into work the morning after burying Harry’s dough, Gail, the battle-ax that runs the Hampton Beach bar I work at, had a burr up her ass. Now Gail isn’t the easiest person to get along with, though I really hadn’t had much of a problem with her. And I wanted to keep it like that. So I kept my mouth shut, started setting up the bar, and kept my ears open.
+++++It didn’t take me long to pick up on what was causing the tension. You know waitresses–they love to talk. And stuff like this is right up there alley.
+++++It seemed Gail came in early and found Randy, the chef, dicing carrots for the day. Now usually there’d be nothing wrong with that, except today was Monday. Monday was green beans day. I know that might sound ridiculous, but Monday has been green beans day for as long as anyone can remember. Even the old-timers, who still drink whiskey with a beer chaser, couldn’t recall a Monday without green beans.
+++++And there also wasn’t a soul who could remember a time the place hadn’t made money. And Gail probably figured that green beans on Monday could have been the reason for that fact as well as anything else.
+++++Well, they had words, Gail and Randy, and one thing led to another as it often does with owners and chefs. And before it dawned on Gail what ranting and raving over green beans might cause to happen, Randy was out the door, and she was in front of the kitchen grills with a tall, white chef’s hat plunked on her head and a stained white apron wrapped around her ample middle.
+++++Now none of this type of stuff is usually any skin off my nose. I come in on time, tend my bar, and leave. No problems, right? Wrong. At least today wrong. I barely had stuck that first order slip under the little wooden sliding door that the food orders are shoved through from kitchen to bar, then the little door slams open.
+++++Gail’s fat head fills the opening as she glares out at me standing behind my bar. “Can’t ya write so somebody can read it?” she screams. “Whattaya, five years old?” And then she bangs the little door closed.
+++++At my age I need this like a hole in the head. Besides, it’s embarrassing. The regulars are all squirming on their stools, pretending not to notice, waiting to see what I’ll do. What can I do? I need the job. I’m not like Harry, with more money than I know what to do with. About this time I start thinking about Harry’s sixty grand buried in my cellar.
+++++I got through the day–barely. I was hot and I didn’t speak to Gail all day. When I left the bar, I thought that was the end of my troubles. But I should’ve remembered–trouble always comes in threes.
+++++I no sooner walked through the door of the house than Gin, that’s my wife, starts in. “You said you were gonna leave shopping money,” she says, steamed. “How can I do shopping without money?” Before I can answer, “Whattaya think, it’s fun shopping? I have to count every damn penny. Everything’s so expensive and you give me peanuts. Now you don’t even leave it and I could’ve done it. It’s food money, you know, not mink coat money.”
+++++When she starts like this, there’s no turning her off, so I don’t even try. I take out the few dollars I got (checking accounts been empty for a while) and drop them on the kitchen table. “All I got,” I say.
+++++She looks at the bills like they’re the makings of a rancid sandwich. “Oh, just great. We got kids and this is supposed to be enough? Whattaya crazy? Have you seen prices today? No, of course not. You don’t go shopping. I have to.”
+++++With her words still chasing after me, I walk through the cellar door and down the stairs. I got a little office over in one corner and as I head for it, I see the dirt area over in the corner of the cellar. That’s when I start thinking about Harry and the money again.
+++++Now when you start contemplating something like I was, it isn’t too hard to justify it. I used the old standards: job I hated, wife nagging about money, and Harry having more than he needed. It was easy.
+++++It was also easy to figure how I was going to do it. Especially as I saw it–I only had two choices: take the money and tell Harry somebody ripped it off, or take the money and kill Harry and tell him nothing. Now Harry’s a good guy, and besides, I never killed anybody anyhow.
+++++So I waited till Gin went out. Then I dug up my money. It was all in hundreds, which was good because I knew I’d be able to fit it in a safe-deposit box at the bank tomorrow morning.
+++++I knew Harry’d want to know how the rip-offs got in, so I took a hammer and smashed a bedroom window from outside in the backyard.
+++++I knew it was dumb, but I was so nervous I wiped the shovel and hammer clean of fingerprints. Who knew how a guy like Harry’d react with sixty grand of his history.
+++++Then I called Harry and told him the story. My voice was shaking but I figured if I’d really been ripped off, my voice’d be shaking anyhow. All Harry said was he’d catch a flight and be back by tomorrow afternoon. It didn’t surprise me; I knew Harry moved fast.
+++++The next day I stashed the sixty in the bank box and gave Gina a couple hundred for food shopping and a couple hundred for herself. I wanted her out of the house when Harry showed up. I also got on the horn with Gail and told her what she could do with her restaurant.
+++++When Harry did show up that afternoon, he looked grim. I tried to look grim too. I told him I’d come home and found the break and the money gone. I showed him the broken bedroom window and then the dirt hole in the cellar.
+++++Harry didn’t say anything. He just shook his head, hands on his hips, and stared into the empty hole. I was nervous and getting more so. Then, finally, I was amazed to see Harry start to smile.
+++++“Well, good luck to the chumps,” Harry said. “They were lousy quality anyway…those counterfeits. At least now I don’t have to worry about how I’m gonna move the damn things.”
+++++That word Harry said–counterfeits–was anything but to me. It hit me real hard. I tried to swallow, then spun my head as I heard a car pull in the driveway, doors slam, and someone shout, “Police. Open up.”
+++++I figured Gin had done her shopping.

The Hell of Agent Orange

“Throw me down the stairs a sandwich, Ollie, I’m hungry,” said Dr. Olga Sumvitch, hollering up to me from Hell again in her best fractured English.
++++Although she had spent the last 30 years of her life in the United States working for Monsanto, Dr. Sumvitch still speaks English with a thick accent. I’m one of the few Americans who can always understand her. She has trouble pronouncing my first name, Oliver. But she can always say Ollie, and I have no problem answering to that.
++++Years ago, Dr. Sumvitch emigrated from Moldova to the United States after being hired by Monsanto to fine-tune the formula for Agent Orange. There were some problems in its effectiveness and she had the expertise to work them out.
++++The day the government finally approved the formula for use in Viet Nam, Dr. Sumvitch had gotten hit by a bus coming back to work after a sumptuous lunch with her celebrating co-workers.
++++The injuries were bad. She suffered seizures in the hospital for several days and foamed at the mouth intermittently. The night nurse needed towels to sop it all up. She died at midnight on Good Friday with a groan that woke everyone in her ward. After her last groan, a deaf patient on her floor said that he could hear again on Easter morning.
++++Dr. Sumvitch and I were chemists by trade. We became friends at professional meetings. In the beginning I knew nothing about her work. In fact, I had declined a job at Monsanto right after getting my doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, and I had always wondered if I had made a mistake in turning that job down. The pay and the benefits were excellent. And Monsanto had a great reputation for quality in their products.
++++Dr. Sumvitch trusted me not to talk about her work, saying it was top-secret, hush-hush by order of the government. It was the government, after all, that had underwritten the years of research and development that made Agent Orange possible.
++++Without millions in taxpayer money funneled through the government back to Monsanto, Agent Orange might never have been produced. I promised her I would never say a word about her work. That would have been hard for me to do even if I had wanted to because I honestly didn’t quite understand the true nature of the product at the time.
++++Even now, more than 40 years later, I have to ask myself why would our government be interested in producing a product that would silently decimate land and crops as well as the people who depend on both for their livelihood.
++++It sounds a lot like chemical warfare to me, and I didn’t think my country would ever engage in such a thing.
++++Right now, America is all worked up about what’s going on in Syria–poisonous gases of one kind or other. I’m happy that I’m an expert in formulating new toothpastes. It’s my job to make people smile brighter and whiter–not kill them–over a period of time.
++++Dr. Sumvitch went to Hell immediately but stayed in touch with me after she died. I was afraid to tell anybody about that for fear they would think I was hallucinating after too many years experimenting with toothpaste. Once a month or so, however, she hollers up from Hell when she gets real hungry.
++++“Food is scarce down here,” she told me, “unless one has no objection to cannibalism.”
++++On Earth, and in Moldova especially, she had developed a taste for organ meats–gizzards and livers and hearts–provided they had been harvested from beasts, not human beings.
++++Chicken gizzards piled on a mountain of rice were her favorite, although turkey hearts, if they were big enough, were almost as good.
++++Whenever Dr. Sumvitch hollers, and lately she’s been doing it more frequently, I wake up and get out of bed and head for the kitchen. I always make her a fine sandwich. I stack beef or pork, whatever I have in the fridge, on marble rye with a slice of onion and a dollop of Tabasco sauce. I top it off with a slice of Kosher pickle, wrap it in Saran Wrap and toss it down the stairs to Hell. It takes around an hour for it to arrive so I hang around in the kitchen till I hear from her.
++++“Thank you,” she yells, when the sandwich finally gets there.
++++“Believe me, Ollie, I’d ask someone else for help but no one believes in Hell any more except me and my co-workers down here. It’s like a big Monsanto reunion from decades ago. There are thousands of us.
++++“Sandwiches like yours are impossible to come by. Eyeballs, armpits and feet are plentiful, if you like your meat well done.
++++“You can always see what you’re eating because of the bright light, and that can ruin one’s appetite. Agent Orange burns night and day. It’s always High Noon down here. No one gets any sleep.”

Problem Resolved

“So where is he now?”
++++ The dark eyed man with the thinning jet black hair and high cheekbones standing beside the smaller man silently tilted his head toward something in front of him.
++++ They stood on the corner of Cleveland and Summers Street. The busiest street in the city’s bustling city business district. High noon underneath a cloudless blue sky. People . . . thousands of them . . . scurrying back and forth across the hot sidewalk in a maniacal effort to get from one financial crisis to another.
++++ In front of them the traffic was at a standstill. It didn’t matter what the traffic light said. A sea of bumper to bumper frustrated monsters sat motionless in a stalled river of metal, glass, and plastic thanks to the construction site across the street. A gigantic crane on massive metal tracks was slowly working its way into position. Towering over the traffic was a short steel cable with a massive black iron ball the size of a pickup truck swinging dangerously back and forth as the crane slowly inched its way onto the construction site.
++++ But directly across the street from where they stood was the Heidelberg Mercantile Bank & Trust. Black glass and chrome steel rising twelve floors straight up over downtown traffic. Modern. Efficient. An international bank without the least whiff of corporate ethics attached to it.
++++ “He’s in there? With the briefcase? Do you know what this means? If he has the CIA software and leaves the country every agent in the Middle East will be dead in a week!”
++++ For a response the man with the thinning black hair turned his head and stared at the Godzilla-like behemoth inching its way onto the construction site across the clogged intersection from him. It was a huge crane. The towering boom rose at least sixty feet in the air above the street and meandering pedestrians. The iron ball dangling from the end of the cable weighed at least forty tons of hardened steel and cement. Forty tons of steel and cement which went through just about everything it wished to smash.
++++ Forty tons.
++++ The little man, dressed in a rumpled suit, with a large bald spot glistening in the sunlight, gripping a briefcase, frowned, glanced across the street at the bank again and then at the man standing beside him.
++++ “Smitty, dammit! We can’t let this bastard leave the country! That’s why we hired you. Technically the man hasn’t done anything against the law. Having that list of names in his possession isn’t illegal. If it was I could alert the FBI and let them handle it. But revealing the list to anyone would be, for my agency, a serious breach of security. A breach of security that could be quite embarrassing to my boss. We have got to stop him!”
++++ The taller man with the jet black eyes kept his eyes on the yellow and black painted Kraken of a crane and smiled thinly.
++++ “Peterson, has anyone ever told you you worry too much?”
++++ The voice was more of a loud whisper. A harsh grating of something across a cheese grater. Startling to hear. Unnerving to experience.
++++ “Every day,” Peterson answered, his mouth twisting into a more severe frown. “Mostly from my wife. And from my children. And from my boss. But most of all from my shrink. So what? And what the hell are we going to do about stopping this guy from leaving the country?”
++++ “Watch,” Smitty said quietly as he turned his attention back to the bank across the street.
++++ Around them a thousand people were moving, jostling each other, cutting each other off as they hurried like army ants. Bored people. Frustrated people. Thousands of people who lived boring lives in a boring world filled with boring mendacity. None realizing their boredom was about to be dramatically altered.
++++ Across the street a tall man with red hair came out of the black glass doors of the Heidelberg Mercantile Bank & Trust walking fast and looking straight ahead. Dressed in a light green sport coat, a light blue shirt, with dark blue slacks, he gripped a heavy looking attaché case in one hand, which interestingly enough, was handcuffed to his wrist. Hurrying past a dense pack of humanity, irritated that he had to alter his path to get past them, he stepped up to a white Jaguar sedan, unlocked the driver’s side door, and quickly slipped in.
++++ Both Smitty and Peterson saw the man lean forward to start the sedan’s engine and then twist around in the seat and stare at the traffic. Both saw the man slam a hand irritably on the wood rim of the steering wheel in frustration. In this traffic he wasn’t going anywhere soon. No one was.
++++ “Peterson, say goodbye to our friend,” the dark eyed man said softly in a pleased whisper.
++++ “What . . . . ?”
++++ When it hit it seemed as if the city’s streets and sidewalks rolled in some kind of concrete Tsunami! And indeed it had!
++++ CRAAAAAAAAAACK!!
++++ Forty tons of hardened steel and cement dropped out of the heavens like the Hammer of Thor and smashed into the white Jaguar’s roof with an ear splitting thud ripping steel, shattering glass, and pulverizing pavement!
++++ People staggered and tripped over others from the wrecking ball smashing into the Jag and flattening it like a tortilla chip. Gigantic cracks in the sidewalk and street radiated out from the black behemoth lying on the crushed white sedan. A cloud of cement dust flew into the air as hundreds of park cars suddenly erupted into the clattering cacophony of theft alarms going off. At a corner of the bank building a fire hydrant exploded and a towering geyser of water shot up into the air as street corner lamp posts vibrated violently before suddenly pitching over and crashing into the hoods cars stalled in the city traffic beside them.
++++ There was no white Jaguar sedan anymore. What once had been a finely built British sedan now was nothing more than a piece of crushed metal no more than a foot thick oddly discolored with a thin film of bright red blood.
++++ Smitty, gripping Peterson’s right arm in an effort to keeping him upright, let go of the man after the initial blow. Turning, he faced the balding little man and smiled.
++++ “You no longer need to worry. Everything came out for the best. But it’s time to go. The police will be here soon and neither of us want to be around when they do. You know the routine. I’ll expect payment by the end of the week. And Peterson, just a friendly suggestion. Smile once in a while. It’ll do wonders for your personality.”
++++ Peterson, still blinking eyes in disbelief at what he had just witnessed, looked at the white cement dust coating his suit coat and started swiping it off with his hand before turning to say something.
++++ But Smitty was gone. Vaporized into nothingness.
++++ “Sonofabitch!” he growled, returning to swiping the dust off his coat again, “I hate it when he does that. Hate it!”

The Sound of the Silent Man

Jim woke up to the sound of the silent man cracking walnuts open next to his head.
++++The gray haired man with sunken eyes did not pause in his activity or acknowledge in any way that he knew Jim was awake. He just stared at the bound teenage boy intently as he continued to squeeze the handles of the heavy brass nutcracker until the shell exploded and shards sprayed the side of Jim’s face.
++++Jim mumbled against the tape that covered his mouth, not knowing if the man could decipher or even hear his words.
++++“Help me. Untie me.”
++++Sounded like,
++++“Hum muh. Uh hum muh.”
++++Either way, the words went unacknowledged.
++++The silent man didn’t eat the nuts, but piled them on the table next to Jim’s blinking alarm clock.
++++Jim tried biting, then screaming through the tape. Then the man suddenly quit cracking the walnuts.
++++He looked disgusted as he dropped the heavy nutcracker on the table with a clunk. Nuts and bits of shell spilled on the floor.
++++The silent man dropped to one knee next to the bed. He stared intently into Jim’s eyes.
++++The boy didn’t feel like he was being looked at by another human being. He felt like he was being sized up by something that was about to devour him.
++++The next sound Jim heard was the tearing of duct tape. His right arm was free, but he couldn’t feel it. The appendage was numb from being bound for so long.
++++Jim thought it had been a little more than a day since he had been grabbed from the park during his morning jog. But he couldn’t be certain because he had no idea how long he had been unconscious.
++++Before that, it had been like any other weekday morning. He was up before the sun to get in his first five miles before school. It was his favorite time of day; when he could be alone with his own thoughts, planning out his bright future.
++++Jim was already looking past the almost guaranteed win of the upcoming track meet against Morrison West High. He was determined to break some records at the state championship this year. It would look great on his college applications.
++++Then the image of thin legs in shape hugging spandex running shorts came to mind. There were so many hot freshmen girls on the team this year. They were easy lays for the star senior runner who had his face in the local newspaper almost every week during competition.
++++Before his thoughts could segue into the planning of his next sexual conquest, everything went black.
++++The silent man took Jim’s arm and started kneading it with his steely fingers. A prickling sensation rose to the surface of his flesh as the blood began to recirculate.
++++Was this the same person who had grabbed him from behind before everything went black? Why would somebody do that? What was the crazy old bastard going to do to him?
++++The silent man grasped Jim’s wrist then and leaned into him so close that his nose lightly touched the boy’s cheek. He sniffed like a curious dog.
++++Then he ripped the piece of tape from Jim’s mouth. The boy yelped, but he stifled a scream out of fear of angering the man further.
++++The silent man opened his mouth wide then, and pressed his lips against the boy’s neck. It looked so much like a parody of an old vampire film that Jim would have laughed if he had been watching it happen to somebody else.
++++Then he felt the silent man’s teeth press into the flesh on each side of his windpipe.
++++The boy stopped breathing.
++++He believed the lunatic was going to tear his throat out with his teeth. It was a messy way to kill someone for sure, but probably a painfully effective way as well.
++++Jim screamed.
++++The silent man gasped and jerked away. His teeth gnashed together as he slapped the piece of tape back down over Jim’s mouth. He breathed heavily through flaring nostrils.
++++Jim trembled. He cried against the tape. There was a long knife on the table with the walnuts. He would grab it and use it as soon as he got the chance.
++++The man saw Jim looking at the knife. His eyes bulged. He shot a hand to the table and knocked the knife on the floor as he picked up the brass nutcracker that was lying next to it.
++++The silent man pulled the hand that he had freed and massaged back to life. His strong fingers pressed painfully into the hollows of the boy’s wrist joint. Jim tried to pull his arm away, but the man was too strong.
++++He singled out the boy’s index finger then, and wrapped the jaws of the nutcracker around the middle knuckle.
++++Jim screamed against the tape and furiously shook his head as the silent man tightened the serrated vice around bone and cartilage.
++++Hot tears streamed down the boy’s face. He frantically tried to think of what he might have possibly done to this deranged stranger to make him want to do these horrible things to him.
++++Had he cut him off in traffic? Budged in front of him in a line at the grocery store? Had he taken his granddaughter’s virginity?
++++“Why? Whahahahy?” Jim blubbered against the tape.
++++The silent man hitched his elbow up in the air and clenched himself, as if he were about to put every bit of strength he had into squeezing the nutcracker together.
++++He kept the grip as he leaned in close to the boy again and put his lips to the boy’s ear.
++++“Because I can,” the silent man whispered.

Cicada Song

It’s exhausting living two lives. You start getting sloppy with your work.
++++Driving along Interstate 70 in the summer of ’74, with Merle Haggard’s
“Mama Tried” blaring on the radio, I was crooning along with the
country outlaw. Every now and then a big, juicy cicada exploded on the
windshield like a pus-filled zit. They came up out of the ground by
the millions, these gigantic orange-eyed flies from hell, to torture
everyone in the mid-Atlantic region with their awful buzz saw mating
calls. A molted shell clung to the side mirror, and I kept expecting
the wind to rip it away, but it stayed stuck there, hollow and
trembling.
++++I’d been driving east from Wheeling into Pennsylvania for about an
hour, and I was low on gas. I knew a truck stop off the next exit
where I could pick up a lot lizard. So that’s what I did.
++++I pulled up in my satin black F-100, kicking up a cloud of dust.
There was a little restaurant I’d eaten at a few times, where the cook
seasoned the eggs with his cigarette ashes. Next to that was a seedy
motel, where the hookers turned their tricks, but there was a neon
light on in the window that said NO VACANCY.
++++The garage bell rang as my tires rolled over the air hose, and the
attendant came out and started shooting the shit with me, asking me
where was I headed and how did I like all these damn cicadas
splattering all over my grill. He was a skinny old-timer, working a
wad of tobacco in his cheek, with tan leathery skin that sagged on his
brittle bones. It looked like you could reach under his reeking,
sweaty flannel shirt, grab a fistful, and just rip the skin off his
body.
++++Gas was up to .35 cents, but I told him to fill it up anyhow. “I still
have a long way to go before I get where I’m going,” I explained,
hoping we could skip the small talk. He took the hint and started
pumping the gas.
++++But he was one of those people who couldn’t stop talking. “Ain’t never
seen nothing like that,” he said.
++++I had my left arm sticking out the window, resting on the side of the
door. There was a bad bite mark on my left hand that was still raw. I
turned my head around as far as I could towards him, thinking maybe he
was talking about the teeth marks on my hand. “Like what?”
++++He nodded towards the motel. “A woman dressed like that… It’s a damn
disgrace.”
++++I turned to follow his gaze across the lot. Just coming out of the
motel, lighting up a cigarette, was a leggy blonde in a black fringe
blouse, cut-off jean shorts, and brown cowboy boots. She looked like a
biker babe with her leather headband. Behind her, beyond the motel, I
could see the waves of heat coming up off the interstate and the
boiling twilight sun sinking behind the trees like it was going to
scorch the earth and send us all to hell.
++++“Ain’t a decent woman left in this town.” He shook his head and spat a
copious mouthful of tobacco juice that splattered when it hit the
pavement. “If you ask me, they’re just looking for trouble, dressed
like that.”
++++“You know who the biggest womanizer in history was?” I asked, turning
back towards him again.
++++He sort of scowled at me. “No…”
++++“King Solomon.”
++++“Is that right?”
++++“Seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. It’s all in the Bible.”
++++He whistled in astonishment, finished pumping and approached the cab.
++++“You some sort of preacher?”
++++“Nah.” I smiled. I turned back to admire the girl in cowboy boots.
++++“Just like the Bible stories a lot.”
++++Just as I was paying him, a news update about the Monongahela River
Killer came on the radio. Everyone in the tri-state area was talking
about the murders. The fear had reached a fever pitch, and it was
getting hard to find a hooker, because none of the girls wanted to get
in a car with anyone they didn’t already know.
++++“Hey, turn that up,” the attendant said.
++++The voice on the radio said, “The girl was attacked in Smithton and
taken to Mon City hospital. Authorities say she escaped when she bit
her attacker’s hand as he attempted to strangle her from behind…”
++++The attendant worked the wad of tobacco in his cheek, pinched his brow
and glanced at the wound on my hand. I brought the hand into the cab
as soon as I saw him looking at it and used my other hand to get the
money out of my wallet. I held out a ten dollar bill with my right
hand. “Hey, thanks, bud.” He didn’t seem to hear me at first, like he
was in a trance. So I said louder. “I still got a long way to go.”
++++He finally came back. “Oh…” He started to get my change, handed it
to me. “Where you headed to, partner?”
++++Now I knew he was suspicious. But he was scared too. “You know,
there’s a place in Judges,” I said disregarding his question, “where a
Levite cuts up his concubine into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and
sends her body parts to all the tribes of Israel… What do you make
of a story like that?”
++++The attendant eased back. “I’d say the Lord works in mysterious ways, partner.”
++++I turned the key in the ignition. “Amen.”
++++I’d done this so many times. I was starting to think I’d never get
caught. It was like I was being deliberately reckless, always taking
bigger and bolder risks with less and less discretion. You even start
to want to get caught, because you want people to know it was you. And
yet, you don’t really want to get caught, because then you’d have to
stop, and the urge can get so strong, so overpowering. It was like
there was a ringing in my ears—a sound like the buzzing of
cicadas—that was driving me insane and the only way I knew how to get
it to stop was to pick up another girl. So I swung around to the motel
and stopped with the passenger door in front of her.
++++In the rear view mirror, I glimpsed at the attendant going into the
station. I even thought I saw him make the sign of the cross. Who
knows? Maybe I reawakened his faith in God. Then I leaned across the
seat and smiled at the girl. She took a drag on her cigarette,
narrowing her blue eyes to sharp slits. “I’m looking for a date,” I
said. No beating around the bush.
++++“You a cop?” she asked routinely.
++++“A cop?” I guffawed. “Baby, I’m an outlaw,” I bragged.
++++She cracked a smile at my joke, and I knew I had her. But she was a
little uncertain about getting in the truck with me, what with the
murders that were all over the news. I wanted to speed things along,
just in case the attendant called the cops after all. So I told her I
had some grass we could smoke. Early on I learned that they could
never resist the drugs. She was mulling it over when one of those
cicadas flew into her hair, and she flipped out and jumped into the
truck. I got a real kick out of that.
++++As we pulled out of the parking lot, I pushed the cigarette lighter
into its socket. “I haven’t done this a lot,” she said.
++++But she was lying. Maybe if she was seventeen or eighteen I would have
believed her, but she was in her twenties and looked like she was
hooked on junk. Girls like that are like guys like me: we both lie for
a living.
++++“Me neither,” I said.
++++“You sound nervous.”
++++I was trying to keep my left hand out of sight. “Guess I’m a little nervous.”
++++She tugged at her jean shorts. I could tell she was scared. You know
they say a dog can smell fear? I’ve always thought I could too.
++++“You’re not him, are you?” she asked.
++++“Not who?”
++++“The Monongahela River Killer…”
++++I smiled as we drove under the highway overpass. “Isn’t that the sort
of thing you should be asking before you get in the truck?”
++++“I’m serious, man. Don’t fuck with me.”
++++“Come on…” I looked at myself in the cracked rear view mirror. My
face was so pitted with acne scars that I looked like a burn victim.
++++“Do I look like a killer?”
++++Just then the cigarette lighter popped out of the socket, and she just
about jumped out of her skin. “Fuck!” she said. Then she laughed, a
little embarrassed, shook her head and looked out the window. It was
just getting dark out.
++++“Open the glove box,” I said.
++++“Why?”
++++“There’s a joint in there.”
++++“I don’t know, man, I’ll get paranoid.”
++++“No, it’ll mellow you out,” I said.
++++She opened the glove compartment. “Holy shit,” she said. “There’s a
gun in here!”
++++“Can’t be too careful,” I said.
++++She took it out and looked at it, a little .38 snubnose. Her hand
bobbed a little, testing the weight, as if she couldn’t believe it was
real. I think I got off on letting them think they were in control
leading up to it. It made me laugh inside. “Careful,” I said. “That’s
loaded.”
++++Gently, she put the gun back, fished around a bit, then found the
joint. She lit it with the glowing-hot cigarette lighter. Then she
took a big hit, held it in, and coughed. A haze of smoke began to
gather in the cab. She offered the joint to me and I reached over to
take it.
++++“Jesus, man, what happened to your hand?”
++++With one hand on the wheel, I took a puff, the cherry lighting up, my
eyes narrowing. After I exhaled, passing the joint back, I said, “I
got bit by a dog… a real mean bitch.”
++++The headlights of an oncoming car lit up the cab of the truck and
shadows swept across our faces. Then it was dark again. “Turn up here
on Spring Road,” she said, pointing at a rickety old one-lane bridge
crossing the river.
++++We drove about a half mile up the narrow dirt road until we reached a
pull-off spot where there was a sign that said NO DUMPING. It was the
kind of place kids came to drink beer and make out.
++++When I turned off the engine, it got quiet, and then all you could
hear were the cicadas buzzing all around us in the trees.
++++“I can’t stand that sound,” she said.
++++“What sounds bad to us is the sound of love to them.”
++++“I don’t care man. Turn on the radio or something. I can’t stand to
listen to that.”
++++I humored her and turned on the radio. We sat in the urine-colored
glow of the dashboard lights. But there was no music on the country
western station I liked to listen to. Instead, it was another update
about the Monongahela River Killer.
++++“Oh, God, man, I don’t want to hear this. I’d rather listen to the locusts.”
++++“They’re cicadas.”
++++“Whatever. Let’s just get this over with so we can get the hell out of here.”
++++She reached over to unbuckle my belt, but I grabbed her wrist and held
it. “What’s going on? I thought you wanted to get off,” she said.
++++“Wait. Listen…”
++++Reception was poor out in the woods, but you could just make out what
the voice was saying as the signal faded in and out: “Police now
think… more than thirty unsolved homicides in the tri-state area…”
++++“Why do you think he does it?” I asked. I was genuinely curious what
she thought.
++++“Kill women?”
++++“Kill prostitutes…”
++++“I guess we’re easy targets.”
++++“There are all kinds of easy targets out there though.”
++++“Why do you think he does it?”
++++“I don’t know.” I shook my head slowly. “But my hands are like the
hands of God when they’re wrapped around the neck of a sister of
Sodom.”
++++She froze. I could smell the fear coming back again. I heard nothing
but cicadas in an endless frenzy of fucking and dying.
++++Suddenly, her hand sprang out towards the glove compartment, but I
didn’t even try to stop her. She fumbled for a second with the latch
before she got it open, and then her arm flung up, and she had the
barrel pointed right at my forehead.
++++“This is what God wants.”
++++“I’ll fucking do it,” she said. “I swear.”
++++“I know you will, Little Sister.”
++++She tightened her face, preparing for the blood splatter, and then she
pulled the trigger.
++++Click.
++++Again.
++++“I lied,” I said, grabbing her by the wrist, “about it being loaded.”
++++She looked at the fresh bite marks on my hand, the hand that was
locked on to her wrist, and she dropped the gun. Her mouth hung open
but nothing came out, no screaming, no pleading. All you could hear
were the cicadas in the trees.
++++As I caught her by the neck, felt the carotid artery thumping under
the skin, I thought about that old-timer back at the truck stop, how I
could see that he knew who I was, what I was going to do, and yet I
also knew that he wasn’t going to do a damn thing about it. He wasn’t
going to lift a finger to help a whore. Then I thought about the
Levite and his concubine in Judges. How he just steps over her after
she’s been gang raped within an inch of her life. That’s cold-blooded
by anyone’s standards. And here was this gas station attendant, and he
wasn’t any better than that Levite in the Bible.
++++Sometimes it felt like they didn’t even want to catch me, and that
deep down they understood that I was doing their Christian society a
service. I lowered my voice and muttered to myself, “Hell, I’m going
to have to turn myself in one of these days.”
++++All I heard were cicadas as I watched the light of life drain from her eyes.
++++And then suddenly the whole cab of the pickup truck flooded with
light. At first I thought I was having a spiritual awakening, like
Saul on the road to Damascus, or one of those people who almost die
and see the light at the end of the tunnel. For a moment, I truly
thought I was about to hear the voice of God.
++++But instead it was a shotgun blast that left my ears ringing. The
glass of the rear window rained down on us. I rose up, releasing my
grip on her neck. She inhaled. I heard the shotgun pump again.
Another pickup had pulled in behind us, blocking my truck in. There
was a figure standing in front of the headlights. I immediately
recognized him, even though all I saw was a slightly stooped shape in
silhouette against the blinding headlights. He must’ve followed us. Or
he knew where she took her johns.
++++“Get on out of there,” he commanded.
++++I came out of the truck with my hands up, feeling like a newly molted
cicada emerging from its shell, naked and vulnerable.
++++“Get down on your damn knees,” he told me.
++++I did as he told me, and it felt like the ground was burning. The
old-timer leaned and spat a mouthful of tobacco. The girl got out of
the truck, shaken and confused, raking the shards of glass out of her
blonde hair with her fingers.
++++For the second time, I was looking into the barrel of a gun. Only this
time I knew it was loaded. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t
just kill you right here,” he asked.
++++I didn’t have an original thought left in my head anymore. All I could
do was calmly quote Matthew 5:21: “You have heard that it was said to
those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be
liable to judgment.’”
++++“Oh, I’m gonna judge you all right,” he said.
++++And I heard the voice of God.

 

BIO

Robert Lee Bailey is the author of Monongahela Blood, a historical thriller. His short fiction has recently appeared in The Big Adios and The Flash Fiction Offensive. Read more of his work at www.anatomyoftheartist.com

A Guy Walks Into a Bar

Lemme buy you a drink. God knows I need another one. And then I’ll tell you a story. Stop me if you’ve heard it before.
++++A guy walks into a bar. Looks around, sees just one customer, a drunk sleeping in a back booth. So the guy pulls a gun, screams at the bartender, “Gimme the fuckin’ money.” Bartender plays cool, pauses a beat, opens the cash register.
++++But then two more customers mosey in. Both off-duty cops. This distracts the robber, and the bartender grabs a gun from under the bar.
++++Now the robber gets the shakes, launches into a hot sweat. A big glob trickles down his nose. He yells, “Eat shit sideways,” and everybody starts shooting, except the drunk in the back booth, who’s snoring like a goddamn buzz saw.
++++The robber’s lookout man, a little prick with a pig-eye squint, finally stumbles in, and he starts shooting too. Soon enough, everybody’s dead. Except the drunk in the back booth, who’s still laid out. He rouses, and eyeballs what happened. You got stiffs on the floor, blood on the walls, and gun smoke in the air.
++++So he rolls out of the back booth, staggers to the open cash register, and takes the money. He sneaks down the street, walks into a different bar. He buys a drink, slips into a booth, and falls asleep. Then he wakes up, buys a couple more drinks, and tells one helluva story.
++++Ever hear it before? Well, it happened. And I know. Because I was the drunk pretending to be asleep in the back booth.

Darkness or Light

There’s no way to say for sure that I would have killed Bobby Ray Lomax if I wasn’t drunk; maybe alcohol provided me with the courage I needed to shoot him. As far as a motive? I’ll get to that in a little while. But I did it and I have no regrets so there it is.
++++When I saw Lucinda in the hospital, she was still alive, barely clinging to the last thread of life, about to let go and fall into the final abyss. She looked nothing like the beautiful girl she had once been. Her face was destroyed almost beyond recognition. I leaned over the bed and softly kissed the side of her head.
++++“I’ll take care of this,” I told her. “Ain’t no way he‘ll get away with it. And Baby, I’m so sorry I didn’t fix it sooner. “
++++There were tears running down my cheeks as I put my hand on top of hers. Just a brief moment later she was gone. It wasn’t long before I was on a stool at McAdoo’s Tavern pounding double shots of Early Times.
++++It was just me now. I had been the oldest. All of them but me had run away from the nightmare we had grown up in. Meth got Carla. Jimmy was killed in Afghanistan and Lucinda got Bobby Ray. I’m not sure there is a difference between nightmares and broken dreams. I am sure my brother and sisters dreamt of some better life, at least of something that approached normal. But all they got was their own kind of hell.
++++Daddy was a mean man. I’m guessing that if I worked underground in semi-darkness breathing black dust I might be mean too. Bu t there was no excuse for the things he did. He’d come home from a day in the mine – after stopping at McAdoo’s- and start in on Mama. He’d beat on her and then start on us. By the time I turned fourteen, I started to stand up to him. Mama was all soft and good. The only thing I ever got from Daddy was a belt, the back of a hand or fists when I started fighting back.
++++One night he had Mama on the floor, left arm pressed against her throat, punching her face with his right hand. We all screamed for him to stop. He looked up, his face red with rage and said;
++++“Every one of y’all is gettin’ a whippin’ next.”
++++I took the poker from alongside the fire place. I think at first I only meant to hit him once. Just to get him to leave Mama alone. But then I couldn’t stop. I stood over him and swung like I was chopping wood and kept up until there was a hole in his head and I could no longer hear the coal dust rattle in his lungs.
++++The state sent me away until I was twenty one. Mama died while I was gone. When I got home, Carla was so far gone there was no saving her. Jimmy was overseas and Lucinda was living with Bobby Ray. She was just seventeen. It seems that by trying to protect us all, I let everyone down. I couldn’t help but think if I hadn’t got sent off I might have at least made it different for my sisters. As far as Jimmy, well you tell me what’s a worse hell- war or a coal mine?
++++I remember the night I heard Lucinda’s tires on the gravel in front of the house. I met her outside. There was blood around her nose and mouth and when we got inside, I could see that her eyes were black.
++++Bobby Ray was a miner and a mean man too. When I got to his single wide, I pounded on the door. He opened it wearing clothes black from the mine, a cigarette in his mouth and a beer in his hand.
++++“What the hell do you want here Donald?” He said.
++++“You ever hit her again and I will kill you, “was my reply.
++++He laughed a mean, cruel laugh then threw the beer can in my face. His punches knocked me to the ground. He added a kick to my ribs.
++++“You ever come ‘round here again and I’ll kill you. Just remember that.”
++++Then, he laughed at me again.

***

After leaving McAdoo’s, I stopped at home to get Daddy’s old Colt. I t was in a shoebox in the closet wrapped in oil cloth. I checked to see that it was loaded then headed for Bobby Ray’s trailer. It was snowing lightly as I headed out Combs Flat Road. I remember thinking that the whiteness of the snow was the first clean, pure thing I had seen in a very long time.
++++I pulled my truck right up to the front step of his trailer with the high beams on. He opened the door before I could even get out.
++++He was drunk too. I guess he couldn’t see with the light in his eyes.
++++“Who the hell’s there?” he slurred.
++++“She’s dead you bastard. Now I’m goin’ to kill you, just like I promised.”
++++Then, I shot him. This time I didn’t give him a chance to laugh.
++++So there it is preacher. My confession and no I ain’t asking any God for forgiveness. Like I said no regrets, they can slip that needle in me now.
++++There’s either going to be darkness or light. If it’s light, I’ll see Mama and them again and it might be like a dream come true. And if it’s dark, all I’ll see is Daddy and Bobby Ray.
++++And I’m prepared to kill them both all over again.

Dangerous Curves

It was one of those things you say in the heat of the moment that, if you’re lucky, you get chance to regret. She looked at me with what I’d normally call bedroom eyes, sultry and dark with black lining and thick lashes. Realistically she was the type of woman you took home for one night and spent the rest of your life dreaming about; not the type you took home to present to your mother. Not that this had anything to do with me, mind you. I wasn’t going to be taking her home for the night and I was most certainly never going to introduce her to my mother, god rest her soul.
++++ She gracefully rose from the chair when I entered the office, unfurling long limbs in all her dark glory. Her hair tumbled down to her shoulders, dark chocolate coloured tresses framing her face perfectly. She curled those full lips in an ironic smile and the expression fit her. She extended her hand to me and I shook it – her grip was surprisingly firm.
++++ As I sat down I could feel my shirt sticking to the back of my neck. The chair was comfortable and provided her with a slightly elevated position in relation to me, no doubt to ensure that she held a position of superiority during our discussion. She was definitely not to be underestimated under the circumstances.
++++ “Don’t forget to breath Mr Waltham,” her voice was smooth and a tad deeper than I expected, yet it was almost intoxicating. “I don’t want you passing out on me in my office.” She was right – I’d been holding my breath, partly out of anticipation but mostly due to nerves.
++++ “Thanks…I…” I struggled for the words. She smiled at me and gestured towards the clear jug of water on her desk.
++++ “Would you like a drink Mr Waltham?” she asked. I nodded; taking advantage of the opportunity it presented me. She poured me a glass of water and I took a deep drink from it. “Then just take a deep breath – I can appreciate that this is an uncomfortable situation for you and I don’t want you to feel any more nervous than necessary.” Her smile was disarmingly comforting in a strange manner. “However, before we begin I’m curious to know how you found out about me?”
++++ “Do you know a guy by the name of Kirk Rasmussen?” My question was met with a nod. “Well, his brother Joey and I go way back. Joey’s gambling habits had gotten him into trouble with some Russian’s lately and I helped him out. I got talking to Kirk over a couple of beers the night I paid them off and things just went from there.” Her facial expression told me all I needed to know. If I knew the Rasmussen’s to that degree then I knew the sort of circle of friends they kept – clearly that spoke volumes to her.
++++ “So Joey’s been getting himself into trouble again then?” She mused, running her index finger across the edge of her desk. “I’m not surprised – for all Kirk’s attempts to keep him on the straight and narrow it never lasts for long. So to business Mr Waltham; just what is it that you think I can help you with?”
++++ “I…” I was starting to feel like a fool. I closed my eyes and tried again. “I…I want you to do away with my business partner.” I opened my eyes. She was looking at me with a gleam in her eyes, like a cat when it toys with the mouse.
++++ “Do away with? Who on earth uses that phrase?” She mocked. “Say it again Mr Waltham,” her tone was firm. “Only this time with your eyes open.” I looked into them, those steely-grey orbs that were locked with mine. They seemed to draw the words out of me, coaxing them from my lips.
++++ “I want you to kill my business partner, Trent Edwards.” I said, trying to match her tone and demeanour with my own. She tilted her head slightly and the edge of her lips curled upward.
++++ “I’m impressed,” she answered. “Normally it takes someone four to five attempts to get to that stage.” She looked down at a notepad on her desk. “Okay, what’s he been doing? Embezzling funds? Selling corporate secrets? Planning to kick you off the board?”
++++ “No,” I growled. “He’s screwing my wife.” She looked up at me and nodded. I looked down at the floor for a moment, recalling the moment I saw my wife in our bed with him – the slightly younger, slightly fitter business partner. Didn’t she vow to forsake all others, to be with me in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer? She liked the richer part – the company had been set up using several bank loans and a modest amount of venture capital we’d been able to secure and she’d enjoyed the perks that had come with that, yet she’d also taken advantage of the time I’d spent building up the company from scratch. They both had – Trent always dealt with the PR side of things better than I did and in turn I managed the product development. While he was away attending business lunches with prospective investors I was building the system from the ground up.
++++ “Interesting.” She didn’t seem surprised. “Would you like me to take care of your wife too? A double costs extra, and as you already know, I’m not cheap.” I could feel the anger boiling up inside me.
++++ “No, I love my wife,” I shot back, not fearing the consequences of this reaction to her question. “However, she loves him now. You have no idea how much that realisation hurts – it feels like someone has reached into my chest and crushed my heart with their bare hands. I couldn’t live without her, so I figure it’s going to tear her apart knowing she can’t be with him.” It slipped out, my anger and my hatred at the situation; her betrayal and my own stupidity for allowing myself to feel like this, for allowing someone else to have this control over me. I looked at her – her face was alive as she carefully placed the pen down on the pad.
++++ “How deliciously evil,” the words dripped from her mouth – her voice was having a disturbing effect on me. I shuffled in my seat, hoping she hadn’t noticed. She held my gaze for a few precious seconds before she was all-business again. “So, how would you like it done?”
++++ “I…I don’t know,” I stuttered again. “I thought something that looked like natural causes.” She shook her head.
++++ “Natural is difficult,” she answered as she leaned back in her chair. “That usually involves some exotic poison and in this day and age with the advances in forensic science you can never be too sure.” She twirled the pen between her fingers. “Suicide?”
++++ “No, no one would buy that.” I answered – my mind swirling at the ease of my response. “He’s too…vibrant.”
++++ “Let me guess, young, rich and handsome? Pretty girls dotted around the place, all at his beck and call, even if they are with someone else?” the air of disdain was clear in her voice.
++++ “Something like that.” I answered. She gave me a wicked grin.
++++ “I might be doing the world a favour then,” she said. “No one likes someone who has it all and still isn’t satisfied.” I realised that I could get to like this woman – from a safe distance of course. She looked at the notepad. “Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?”
++++ “Well…if…if possible it needs to be done before the end of the month.” I said, involuntarily wringing my hands. “The company is going public on the 30th…”
++++ “…And his death will affect your share price?” She presumed. I shook my head.
++++ “No – his death will produce a minor fluctuation in the share price, nothing more than four to six percentage points for a couple of days at most,” I said. “There’s a clause in the company constitution that if one or the other of us dies before the company moves out of joint ownership then others sole holdings in the company pass to them rather than to the collective ownership of the board once the floatation has happened.” I took another drink of water. “The bastard might have taken my wife, but I want his part of the company.” She nodded once more.
++++ “I understand that your company is doing a series of press junkets across Europe in the run up to a software launch at the end of this quarter,” I struggled to contain my surprise. She had done her homework. “Might I suggest that Mr Edwards is the victim of a random act of violence, an unfortunately fatal robbery maybe, in his hotel room one night?”
++++ “That…that’s brilliant.” I answered. “And…and none of this can be traced back to me?”
++++ “Mr Waltham, I’m a professional,” She said as she stood up. “If this gets traced back to you then I’m at risk of exposing myself.” I stood up a moment later. She extended her hand to me again. “Once we go down this route, there’s no turning back, you understand that? No refunds, no cancelling the contract. Are you sure you want me to do this?”
++++ “Yes, yes,” I answered emphatically. “I want you to do this.”
++++ “That’s all I needed to hear.” She said.
++++ “I’ve paid the first half of the money as directed,” I said as she walked me to the plain and unassuming door of her office. “When do you…?”
++++ “I will be in touch once the work is completed.” She replied. “Then we will make further arrangements Mr Waltham.”
++++ “Thank you.” It felt strange to use those words in connection with the conversation we had just completed. “Thanks for your time…?”
++++ ”Miss Vincent,” She answered. “However, under the circumstances, you can call me Cassandra.” She patted me on the back as I left the office. “Don’t worry Mr Waltham; the deed is as good as done.”

****

Belgrade
Serbia

It was the waiting that she had always disliked. As she sat in the comfortable hotel suite and looked down at the time on her mobile phone, Cassandra found herself drumming her fingers against the arm of the chair she occupied. The set up was one she’d used before countless times – something that was tried and trusted in her opinion and had yet to let her down. Finally her patience began to wear thin, prompting her to get up from the chair. Taking a moment to brush off several flecks of fluff from the left leg of her trouser suit, she approached the overnight bag she had placed on the bed upon first arriving in the room just over an hour ago.
++++ Opening it, she carefully unpacked the evening dress and hung it up in the wardrobe. As far as anyone was aware she was attending a function at the hotel for representatives of the International Monetary Fund at the five-star hotel and the faux invitation made it clear that evening wear was mandatory. After admiring the deep red creation on the hanger for a moment Cassandra returned to the bag, removing a small black box. Prying the security catch free, her hand reached into the container and pulled out the sleek, deadly form of a TALO P345. Cassandra took a moment to admire the pistol, one of only 500 ever produced – a gift to her from her mentor over a decade ago. The moment of indulgence engulfed her as Cassandra allowed her fingers to glide across the barrel. The grip was adorned with a small 24 carat gold embellishment in the shape of a phoenix, producing a brief smile on Cassandra’s lips. The mythological bird had been something of a private joke between the pair of them.
++++ The buzzing tone of her Blackberry message service drew Cassandra’s attention away from the pistol. Looking at it, she could see that she’d received a text message. On our way up it read. Cassandra shook her mind free of her memories and focused on what was about to happen. She picked up the suppressor from the box and began to meticulously attach it to the compact barrel of the side-arm, carefully lining it up the screw threads before slowly twisting it into place.
++++ Cassandra glanced down at the phone again. It was nearly ten past. She smiled as she put the pistol down on the bed and pulled out a pair of black leather gloves from the bag. Pulling them on her mind registered that she had nearly finished her preparations for the evening’s activities – and that her target had less than twenty minutes to live.

****

Trent Edwards couldn’t believe his luck.
++++ Despite his healthy reputation when it came to securing the company of attractive women, rarely did he find himself confronted with one quite so forward. When the young woman introduced herself to him as Alessia, who was the living embodiment of the stereotypical blonde bombshell, in the bar just over thirty minutes ago, he was initially dismissive of her advances. Trent viewed himself as a hunter; he was always the one who liked to do the chasing. Upon meeting someone who – on the surface of it all – seemed to be equally as enticed by the prospect of the thrill of the hunt, he gradually found himself captivated by her.
++++ Encouraged by her advances, he eagerly lapped them up as they made their way up to Alessia’s suite. Once inside she pounced on him – it was clear that in this situation he was the lamb and she was the slaughter – and a myriad of fantasy scenarios filled Trent’s mind.
++++ Almost exactly twenty minutes later, Cassandra exited her own room and moved swiftly to the door of the suite next to hers, inserting the duplicate room key card into the door and carefully opening it. Dressed in a long coat that covered her slate grey business suit, Cassandra was the very vision of confidence and professional detachment as she followed the moans to the bedroom. She pushed the door open and saw Alessia on top of Trent. Cassandra smiled and looked at the two of them going at it. Of course, Alessia was a professional, someone that Cassandra had hired for just this one job. Cassandra could tell she was faking it. Normally she would have thought it amusing, but right now Cassandra was in the mood for killing.
++++ Cassandra walked to the foot of the bed grabbed Alessia by her long blonde hair and snatched her sharply backwards. She screamed crashed to the floor, barely registering what was happening as Cassandra dropped down to a knee and banged Alessia’s head into the mock wooden panelling hard twice. Trent – clearly panicked – tried to roll off the bed, landing awkwardly on the carpet. Cassandra moved quickly, stepping around the bed and driving a strong kick to the side of his head. His muscular arms and gym-sculpted body fell to the floor. Trent managed to push himself up to his knees and held out his hands, pleading with her.
++++ “Please, look, I didn’t know…” Cassandra wasn’t in the mood for a discussion – she knew that Trent’s pleading would only get more desperate from this point onward.
++++ “Don’t make this harder than it has to be.” She said swiftly drew the pistol from the inside of her coat and took aim. Trent looked down, and then back up at Cassandra’s beautiful face, being met by the steely cold glare in her eyes.
++++ “No! No! Don’t ki…!”
++++ Pfft! Pfft!
++++ Cassandra frowned and pulled the trigger twice, both bullets striking Trent in his designer chest. The body slumped forward. Her aim adjusted accordingly before a third shot to the back of his head echoed around the room. Turning to leave, Cassandra stepped over Alessia’s naked body. She looked down at her, noting the areas on her body that had gone under the surgeon’s knife. Cassandra stood over her for a second before making a decision.
++++ Pfft!
++++ The single shot to Alessia’s head was enough to finish the job. Cassandra took a few minutes to scoop up various items from the room – a laptop, iPhone, wallet – before knocking over the bedside table and smashing the ornate lamp to make sure that the scene would look like a simple case of a botched robbery. She had already identified a dumpster in a less salubrious area of the city where she could ditch the items later that evening. Taking a final look around the scene to ensure she had achieved the desired effect, Cassandra left the hotel suite without looking back. After all, she still had to get dressed for a party to attend.

****

England

It’s easy to turn a blind eye to things when you’re sleepwalking through your life. All I had to do was maintain the façade for another few weeks and it would be over. The news came through at about 5 am on the 25th. The phone rang and I answered it. Speaking through bleary eyes to the manager of the promotional tour the details became clear. While in the Serbian leg of the tour, Trent and his female companion for the evening had been the victims of a tragic accident – a simple case of a burglar breaking into the wrong suite at the wrong time.
++++ There were no witnesses to the crime and the local police had struggled to make any progress in the investigation – which I had expected. No one suspected me of any involvement in his death, after all why should they? I was the best part of fifteen hundred miles away ironing out bugs in our new office suite that we’d discovered during the final phase of our beta testing. Naturally everyone in the company was upset and rallied around me as the de-facto figurehead of the organisation. The public launch of the company happened in a blaze of publicity as a result of Trent’s death – the memorial service was particularly touching. The share offering was heavily over-subscribed; I could have sold three times the stock we had and still not met the demand.
++++ Liz took his death badly – her behaviour became increasingly erratic. Mood swings, increased alcohol consumption and prolonged periods of isolation within the house. I tried as best as I could to help her through this, however it was only prolonging the inevitable.

****

The benefit was a high profile affair. The donations the company made were always good for the community, and since the death of Trent our public profile had soared. After the public speaking had finished the group moved to the more informal aspect of the night – drink and dancing. I watched as people began to pair up as the alcohol flowed and inhibitions waned.
++++ “What a surprise to see you here Mr Waltham.” The voice stunned me for a moment then I turned my head to see her standing there in a full length, dark green evening dress. “Or would you prefer it if I called you James under the circumstances?”
++++ “Cassandra,” I said as I stood up and politely shook her hand. “What a surprise.”
++++ “A pleasant one I do hope,” her demeanour seemed warmer than before. “I see your company has flourished somewhat since our last meeting.”
++++ “You might say that,” I answered, eyeing her suspiciously. “How did you know about this thing?”
++++ “Oh, I have my sources,” Cassandra replied. “You look good in that suit.” Her complement caught me off-guard somewhat.
++++ “Thank you. Would…would you care to dance?”

****

I didn’t care who saw us, within a few weeks the divorce would be finalised and it wouldn’t matter. A myriad of questions flew around my mind as I held her close to me.
++++ “I understand that your divorce isn’t going well.” Cassandra whispered into my ear. I pulled back slightly – there was that same wicked grin on her face that I had seen once before.
++++ “Is there anything you don’t know?”
++++ “I find it pays to stay abreast of current events.” She answered as she rested her head on my shoulder. The song was slow and our movements matched it. “I also believe you owe me some money.”
++++ “I was wondering when you’d get around to mentioning that.” I answered. “How and when?”
++++ “After your divorce is finalised,” she said. “Although, it would be a shame if your soon-to-be-ex wife had an accident, all alone in that large house, drinking heavily…” I looked at Cassandra. Those stormy grey eyes looked into mine. “I’m sure we can come to some sort of arrangement, although I think we should continue this discussion in private…don’t you?”

****

I don’t know why I followed her up to her room – it could have been any one of a number of things; guilty conscience; innate desire to put myself in danger; simple animal magnetism. Whatever it was, I was finding myself being drawn to Cassandra like a moth to a flame. The room itself was one of the hotel’s more exclusive suites – opulent and reeking of old-world decadence. Once we were inside, I felt a strange sense of calm, possibly a sense of resignation to my fate – that I was literally putting my life into her hands.
++++ “Would you like a drink?” Her question drew me out of the dream-like state I had entered into. Suddenly everything felt real again.
++++ “Yes…” I murmured as I moved into the main room. Cassandra was pouring two drinks, her back towards me. “Yes please.”
++++ “You’re so well-mannered James,” Cassandra said as she turned around, the light in the room projecting forwards around her. “And you’re so trusting too. I mean, for all you know I could have done anything to the drinks while you weren’t watching.” I could tell that both glasses appeared to contain some sort of whiskey or similar looking derivative.
++++ “Well, as I still owe you a considerable amount of money,” I replied, suddenly feeling emboldened in her presence. “I figure you’ll want to keep me around for a while yet.” She gave me that faint smile, the slightest curl of her lips, as she approached me. As she handed me the drink her fingers brushed against mine. The sensation was electric. She lingered close to me for a moment before stepping back, leaning back against the small sofa as she continued to hold my gaze.
++++ “Ah yes, the remainder of my fee…” She mused as she knocked back her drink in one quick motion. The glass was discarded casually as she licked her lips again, savouring the taste once more. “I meant what I said you know.” My eyebrows must have twitched slightly, giving away my momentary confusion. “Regarding your wife and her current…predicament.” She took a slow step towards me, her hands reaching behind her back. “Lots of people find themselves behind the wheel of a car when they are inebriated – their senses are dulled and they just don’t react in time to something small, something innocuous.”
++++ I could hear the sound of a zipper being undone as she moved towards me, the shoulders of her dress suddenly became loose with each passing step. I took a swig from the glass – my taste buds registering the fact that it was bourbon. “She might take one too many tablets to help her sleep, resulting in a fatal overdose when combined with the level of alcohol in her blood stream – that’s always a personal favourite of mine,” Cassandra was less than ten feet from me now as the dress fell away from her body. I swallowed hard – the alcohol burned my throat.
++++ Her figure was encased in a smooth black body; her legs were sheathed in thigh-high hold up stockings; the heels of her shoes seemed to provide a punctuation point to everything she said to me as she moved up close to me, holding herself against my body. I desperately wanted to reach out and touch her, to take her in all her glory there and then against the back of that sofa, yet the fear of overstepping my mark held me in check.
++++ “She could take a nasty fall in that house of yours, tumble down those stairs and break her neck when drunk,” Cassandra was whispering now, her hands moving across the shirt that covered my chest. “Of course, the fall itself won’t actually break her neck – I’ll do that before hand. I’ll wrap my arms around her head and slowly twist it around. Did you know it only takes just over ten pounds of pressure to dislocate cervical vertebrae? I’ll even let you watch if you like, I don’t know if you’re partial to a little girl on girl action…”
++++ I couldn’t hold myself back any longer, grabbing her and kissing her passionately. I don’t know how long I kissed her for but I never felt so intoxicated by a woman before in my life.
++++ “Why James,” she whispered as she momentarily broke the kiss. “I think we just sealed the deal…”

****

Théâtre Mogador
Paris

The stage of the recently refurbished theatre was lit up by a complex series of stage lighting arrays that dangled from the ceiling of the grand old building. All the eyes of those in attendance were focused on the solitary female figure taking centre-stage, standing in front of the microphone and holding an ornate golden statue. Tears were running down her cheeks as she held the statue up and spoke.
++++ “All my life I have dreamed of this moment, standing here and accepting a Molière award…” She said in her soft, lilting voice in-between taking huge gulps of air to try and recover from the shock of wining. The young blonde woman was looking around at the full auditorium, basking in the applause. “I just want to take this opportunity…”
++++ In the dark recess of one of the small private boxes two men sat and watched the awards show. As they watched the young woman complete her speech, the older of the two leaned towards his younger companion somewhat. The sound of the applause in the auditorium easily drowned out his words to all but the most perceptive ears.
++++ “I’m glad you could make it.” His American accent was a stark contrast to the French-speaking voices around them. “We were concerned that you wouldn’t show.”
++++ “Well considering what it is that you want doing I could hardly pass up the opportunity to talk to you could I?” The younger man replied; his voice held a clearly British accent. The older man nodded before handing him an envelope. “Have you approached anyone else regarding this…endeavour?”
++++ “No – we evaluated all the suitable candidates and decided to contact you first.” The older man paused for a moment. “Those are the details that we’ve managed to glean from our source.” He said. “I trust you’ll be able to make the necessary arrangements to complete the contract?”
++++ “Relax Mr Henderson – I’m a professional.” His British counterpart tried to assure him, his tone coming across as condescending.
++++ “Well, Mr Alexander, I’m sure you can appreciate that my associates and I are somewhat nervous about this, after all it’s not every day that…” The American began to bite back at him, only to find his barbed comment sternly cut off in mid sentence.
++++ “I said relax!” The British man hissed, his face twisting into a scowl. A moment passed between the pair of them and then his demeanour suddenly changed – his facial expression now a placid mask of calm. “I’m just as invested in this little enterprise as your group is – after all it’s not often that someone in my line of work gets the opportunity to make history like this.” He sat back in his chair. As he did so, the American got up.
++++ “I have an early flight to catch so I will be in touch with you as soon as I get more information.” He said as he left. “Enjoy the rest of your evening.”
++++ “Oh, I will do Mr Henderson.” The British man said as he looked at the envelope in his hand. “I will do.”

Loathe Thy Neighbour

Something is off with mum. She hasn’t said anything but when something is bothering her she ain’t good at hiding it – not that she would. I try to visit with her two or three times a week but last week I had a bit of business up north and so I missed a couple of visits. I don’t like to leave it so long between visits, but in my line of work you don’t let people down – or the visits to mum might stop for good.
++++ She’s twitching in her chair and hasn’t touched the tea she made for us both – mum’s old school, still serves it in the pot and insists that the man pours. I enjoy the ritual as much as she does, but as I poured today she barely looked at me. She’s not said more than half a dozen words since I’ve been here.
++++ ‘I’d have rather been down here mum,’ I say, ‘don’t get me wrong, the boys in the north are good as gold but it’s grey, wet and cold up there.’
++++ ‘What… what are you talking about?’ Mum responds.
++++ She doesn’t really seem to be in the room – I’ve really pissed her off. I try to be a good son, drop in as much as I’m able but as soon as I miss a couple of visits she lays on the guilt. It’s always been the same. My useless fucking brother fucks off to Spain to live and whenever he’s home she’s fawning over him and declaring him a great son because, ‘he never forgets to visit his ol’ mum whenever he’s home.’ And yet I have to go away for a few days and I get treated like I took a shit in her cornflakes.
++++ ‘I had to go up north mum. I had work up there. I’m sorry I couldn’t visit.’
++++ ‘Ah, don’t worry about that.’
++++ She waves a dismissive hand at me and I realise that there is something real bothering her. And, it must be serious as apparently my trip hadn’t registered. Before I can ask what’s up she’s talking.
++++ ‘You remember little Kirsty Richards? Maureen and Dave’s girl – skinny little thing, not much to look at.’
++++ I don’t need the extra details but mum always likes to give it, I remember Kirsty just fine. She was a couple of years behind me at school and lived across the green on the estate.
++++ ‘Yeah, I remember.’
++++ ‘She got mugged a couple of nights back, right here on the estate. She’s in hospital, Maureen said it’s touch and go whether she’ll pull through. They’ve had a terrible year that family, Maureen’s mother died over Christmas and Dave himself only went eight months back, god rest his soul.’
++++ ‘What happened?’
++++ ‘Cancer.’
++++ ‘I know how Dave died mum,’ I’d been given an update on his illness every time I’d visited mum whilst he was ill, I even went to the funeral but mum’s mind isn’t in great shape these days and it wonders off all over the place, ‘I was asking what happened to Kirsty?’
++++ ‘Well she’s been doing that door-to-door catalogue selling. It’s a load of old crap, but I always try and have something off her – you know to help her out. She’s had no luck that girl, she bought a place with her fella a couple of doors down from Maureen and Dave’s, but he buggered off and left her with a kid to bring up. She couldn’t keep the mortgage up on the house so moved back in with Maureen and Dave, which has actually been a bit of a blessing to Maureen since Dave’s passing – it’s good to have a bit of company around.’
++++ I felt defeated by the insinuation in the last comment, even in someone else’s painful story mum could find a way to make it about her. I knew all about Kirsty’s situation, mum had told me about it a few times before. I decided to push mum to the point of her story.
++++ ‘So, she was mugged for the money she’d collected from the catalogue sells?’
++++ ‘Yes, thirty-seven poxy bloody quid,’ mum spat the words, ‘this estate isn’t what it used to be. It’s not safe to walk the streets anymore.’
++++ I couldn’t disagree with her there. I’ve been trying to get mum to move out for years, I’ve even offered to buy her a place near me, Sue and the kids, but she won’t leave – she says the estate is her home – our home. I can see her point, it was the first and only place she made a home for her family in and a lot of the families that we grew up with have remained so she’s got a lot of friends nearby. She says she’d feel like she was leaving dad behind if she went, feel like she was betraying his memory if she sold the house he’d worked so hard to buy from the council.
++++ But, for each positive about the estate there are at least two negatives these days. It’s not the same place that I grew up in. Every time one of the old stalwarts moves out or dies off their house seems to attract far less desirable families than the ones that went before. Don’t get me wrong, it was always a tough estate, some seriously nasty bastards grew up here – myself included. But, it was a tough estate with morals – one of which was you don’t shit on your own doorstep. The posh houses across the flyover were fair game, but if anything happened to anyone from the estate the people rallied together – we looked after our own. Crimes against the estate from within were rare to non-existent, on the odd occasion that someone did step out of line they didn’t last long before they were forced to find somewhere else to live. There was a sense of community, the kids played together, the dads drank together and the mums gossiped together. The houses were nothing special, but everyone took exceptional pride in them.
++++ Now when I visit mum I come past unkempt lawns, wrecked cars and strewn rubbish. The kids still seem to play together, but they do so at night in hoods with knives and guns.
++++ I’ve let the silence sit in the air for too long as I contemplate what once was and what has now become. Mum sums up many of my own thoughts with a few painfully real words of her own.
++++ ‘This never would have happened when your dad was alive. He wouldn’t have let it.’
++++ There’s a red moistness to her eyes that I’ve seen only once or twice before. A strong, proud woman, mum never really even cried at dad’s funeral – although I heard her sobbing alone in her room that night. I stood from my chair and moved towards her to provide comfort. It was an awkward moment – we had never been a family that hugs. Most of the time if I’d tried to hug her, she’d have pushed me away, there was no lack of love – we just didn’t feel the need to show it. Today she doesn’t push and as I hold her I feel her shoulders slowly rise and fall and her tears moisten my shirt.

***

‘Hey, Johnny Boy Winter. What’s up blud?’
++++ One of the kids that now inhabit the estate I once called home has recognised me as I stand at the door saying goodbye to Mum. He’s part of a group of three kids, all late teens and dressed in clothes so loose they look like they’re suffering from a wasting disease. My line of work comes with many hazards, one of them being that every scumbag looking to gain a reputation in front of his crew wants to be seen talking to me.
++++ I nod an acknowledgement in the direction of the group and hear some sort of celebratory sounds coming from them – I’ve made their day.
++++ ‘They’re the ones that mugged Kirsty Richards,’ Mum said eyeing the group with disgust as she spoke in hushed tones, ‘The one that called out to you, he’s the ring leader, evil little bastard.’
++++ ‘I figured – why are they still on the streets?’
++++ ‘I’m told the parents provided them all with alibis for the night of the mugging, bastards. If that had have been you and Daniel I’d have had the police take you away, give you a bloody good hiding, lock you up and then have your old man give you another one when you got out.’
++++ I have little doubt. We’d had whippings for far less – most of them deserved.
++++ I kiss Mum on the cheek, she flinches away and gives me a tap on my cheek and follows it with a look that asks what I think I’m doing. She’s in public now – the vulnerable woman that needed a hug in the living room is well hidden. I tell her to make sure she locks the door. As it shuts I wait for the sounds of the bolts sliding and keys turning before making my way back to my car.
++++ ‘Laters Johnny Boy,’ the same youth shouts.
++++ Yeah… Laters, I think as I walk away.

***

My car is warm but I take no comfort in it as I think about the Richards family, my mum and the old estate. I had driven out of the estate so that the muggers had seen me go, they waved and called out as I left – but now I am back. I’d turned the headlights of as I’d pulled into the estate and parked up on the road at the boundary edge. I am looking across the estate at the muggers, parked far enough away that they haven’t spotted my return. It’s taking all of my energy not to pop the trunk, take out the gun I’d used for the bit of business up north, walk over and put a hole in each one of these arseholes, but that would be stupid. The reason I have the deal with the lads up north is if any murders need doing it’s harder to connect the doer to the crime, I do theirs up there, they do mine down here – I can’t fuck that up by firing the gun I used up there just because I’m pissed off down here. That would fuck everything up – dots would start to be connected.
++++ After a long wait I see the group disband and head towards their houses. I keep my eyes on the one that mum identified as the ringleader. He heads towards one of the least presentable houses on the estate and lets himself in. My car engine purrs as I start it and role the car slowly and quietly towards the house. I’ve arrived outside as the lad has just gone inside and shut the door behind him. I jump from my car and run at the door. It falls inwards as my weight impacts with it and the young mugger is now lying unconscious under the door and my not inconsiderable weight. I give him a couple of punches to ensure he stays out and feel his cheekbone implode as the second blow strikes – that ought to do it.
++++ There’s a call from upstairs, ‘Tommy, what the fuck is all that fucking noise, we’re trying to fucking sleep up here,’ a man’s voice with less urgency or panic in it than you might expect after such a commotion in the middle of the night. I guess drugs have been indulged in, not just tonight but every night for quite some time.
++++ I drag Tommy up the stairs by an arm. He doesn’t come around – I’ve hit him hard.
++++ ‘What the fuck Tommy? Keep it fucking down,’ it’s the same voice that called out moments before.
++++ I drag Tommy towards the room that the voice has come from and stand in the doorway. I reach inside the room and hit the light switch – I used to live in one of these houses I know the layout.
++++ ‘Who…who the fuck are you?!’
++++ Finally some panic in the tone as the man I assume to be Tommy’s dad – but who knows these days – bolts upright and tries to back himself through the headboard and into the house next door. His wife is half a second behind him but she mimics his every move perfectly, adding a scream for good measure.
++++ ‘My name’s John Winter,’ I say, ‘and I’m a friend of Kirsty Richards.’
++++ They don’t flinch at my name, but I see them both shudder at the mention of Kirsty in a sign that I see as an admission of guilt.
++++ A look to the side of the bed confirms all I need to know about Tommy’s upbringing. The drug paraphernalia on both parent’s bedside tables paints a picture of a lad that never had a chance in life. I don’t want to, but I feel sorry for him.
++++ ‘Don’t fucking move,’ I said and walked towards the bed.
++++ Both parents look at me with terror in their heavily glazed eyes. They are younger than a first impression gives, but their grey broken skin and lifeless greasy hair is doing them no favours. I punch Tommy’s father hard and he goes straight out cold. Tommy’s mother yelps as she anticipates what’s coming next and I don’t disappoint her, putting her lights out next. I pick up a cigarette lighter from the bedside table and put flame to the duvet. The cheap synthetic material takes in seconds and the bed is ablaze.
++++ I look at Tommy still unconscious on the floor in the doorway to the bedroom. I feel sorry for the lad, but he is what he is – nothing is going to change that now. I step over him and leave him to burn with the monsters that created him.

Southern Comfort

Southern Comfort has been described as tasting like roadkill soaked in sugar.
++++ “I had a nemesis in high school. Brandon Jacobs. He moved into some popular circles. I could have had connections.”
++++ Tampar is laying on his back on the couch in his socks. He has folded his shirt and is using it as a pillow.
++++ Zane and I are sitting on opposite ends of the table, passing the bottle of Southern Comfort back and forth. It is 4:34 AM. Tampar has not spoken in hours. He is staring at the ceiling. The lights are off; the television is on.
++++ “We’re not in high-school, anymore. We’re not in Kansas, Toto,” I say.
++++ Passing the bottle back and forth, sharing drunken regrets, stories, the pathetic truths of men flowing freely, lubed up and without inhibition, the eternal parade of honesty spread across a remorseful canvas, that strange desolation in a room with other people, sitting there, the profundity of everything you ever did or didn’t do and knowing that it all amounts to nothing, but somehow clinging to hope, clinging to faith and God and sex and the idea that maybe it will mean something for you. Maybe you’re special. The arresting reality that I am a 37-year old man whose greatest adult accomplishment is being trusted with the responsibility of using a rectangular object to order mayonnaise, flour and cling-wrap, sets in. It is a hollow feeling behind my eyes, like my brain deflating.
++++ “Are you unhappy?” Zane asks.
++++ “I think so,” I say.
++++ “Why?”
++++ “I guess it’s because I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything. When you’re a kid you have dreams, aspirations. I thought I’d found my calling, being a grocery clerk; helping people find what they needed. I thought, ‘this is a niche I could fit into’. And what a sad thought.”
++++ I look at Zane. The horse-head looks at me. It is completely non-judgmental.
++++ “Every man has asked himself, ‘how did it come to this?’” Zane says.
++++ “If I had a kid who had downs syndrome I’m not sure I could love him,” I say. “I guess as a horse you wouldn’t understand.”
++++ Every man has asked himself, ‘how did it come to this?’ and realized that it doesn’t matter. Life is a sad procession, an inconsequential freak show, and we’re all the freaks, all the maniacs, all the killers and rapists and men with books and kids and cocks, sliding through tragedy after tragedy and trying to find a another high like the first kiss, like the first fuck – wonderfully blown-out junkies skirting around the rims of the society, angels on the edge of a halo, ringing around until we fall through the center and it all lifts away.
++++ I focus on the television. Wilmer Valderama’s penis is huge.

In the morning I wake up with a sickly sweet taste in my mouth. My head is pounding. It feels like there are shards of glass underneath my skin. Hangover 101. Zane is gone; Tampar is gone.
++++ I take 7 Advil which I liberate from Zane’s pantry. His fridge contains three unopened squeeze-bottles of Heinz ketchup, standing on the left side of the top shelf, and a 1.89L carton of unsweetened vanilla almond milk on the right side of the bottom shelf. Look at the company I keep.
++++ I find a pair of sunglasses sitting on the table near the door. The television is on.
++++ Three blocks away, across from the community center, is a plaza opposite a tennis court and a Chinese take-out across the street. There is a barber, a bicycle shop, a bakery, a coffee shop, a hair salon, a maternity wear store, and a burger joint called, “Wet Beef”.
++++ “I’ll have the ‘Beef monster’.”
++++ I am seated in a booth. While I wait for my food I focus on an obese man seated next to the soda fountain. He is bald; he is wearing a yellow t-shirt, grey shorts, and sandals. He is handling his hamburger with both hands. The way he is eating reminds me of the way a wood chipper operates. No real motion. The wood, or, in this case, beef, is fed directly into a remorseless funnel. In the background, “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. is playing.
++++ For all our grandiose, profound sadnesses, there is something especially upsetting about a man inhaling a hamburger, clinging to the hope that maybe this time his heart won’t be able to handle it. The beef that broke the camel’s back.
++++ Burger joints are the American dream. There’s something romantic about pulling into a local and ordering fries, a malt and a hamburger with cheese. Somewhere along the line that romance went sour and we all realized we were just killing ourselves for Americana. It’s impossible to feel good after eating a hamburger. You’re a greasy mess who’s spent six dollars to pack your arteries full of shit. Who knows, maybe the next one will kill you. That’s what we’re all hoping for. That’s the American dream, now.
++++ A group of preteens enters. It occurs to me that I do not know what time it is.
++++ Every bite is a comma in the long list of reasons to hate yourself. Keep chewing, boy.
++++ “How are we doing here?”
++++ The waitress has black hair and fair skin. She doesn’t overdo it on the eye shadow. She doesn’t have to. And here’s me. Burger in hand. A good American.
++++ “Good. I think I’m ready to pay, actually.”
++++ I pause and look at the burger.
++++ “Can I get this wrapped up?”
++++ “Sure,” she says.
++++ Her name-tag reads, “Rachelle”. I have trouble remembering if Rachelle is conventionally spelled with one or two “L’s”.
++++ “How is it working here?” I ask.
++++ “Good,” Rachelle says. She takes my plate. “Busy.”
++++ I watch her leave. I am a 37-year old grocery clerk who cannot finish a hamburger.
++++ You realize, at 37, that you have felt the same way about the world since you were 22; you realize that life is a big, long nothing punctuated by heartbreak, and that we are all eating, shitting, fucking pimples on the face of the earth, doing our parts to contribute to society, clutching the disparate scraps of our lives until the strain is too much. Malaria causes approximately two million deaths annually. Sixty-four percent of adult males shit themselves when they die. When we die our muscles relax. The pressure to maintain the status quo subsides. Shitting yourself when you die is one last, glorious middle finger to the world.
++++ Shit is liberation.

There is an unlocked bicycle outside. It is a purple 1986 model Norco Alpine mountain bike. I get on it and start riding across the street, towards the tennis court down the hill from the community centre. As I reach the other side of the street I feel an overwhelming force against the rear wheel of the bicycle and hear a car’s brakes whine. I am thrown sideways off the bicycle and down the hill. There is symbolism, here, but it escapes me. My mouth slams into something hard, and as I struggle to get up the nausea from my hangover and subsequent ingestion of over a half-dozen Advil causes me to vomit. I put my hand in front of my mouth and the puke feeds through my fingers like chunky salsa. Ground beef and Southern Comfort; last nights drowned regrets and that of the subsequent day. Alcohol, beef, cheese and shame. A smorgasbord of shame. I feel something small and hard in my hand and rub my tongue over my teeth. I am missing one. My right canine.
++++ “Oh, my God. Are you okay?”
++++ I look up and see a middle-aged man dressed in a black windbreaker bent over me. He is balding. He has a moustache. For the white male ageing gracefully constitutes the slow transformation into a walrus. Up the hill I can see his car, a black Range Rover, cars are driving around it.
++++ “I’m fine,” I say, standing.
++++ My left hand is covered in vomit. I stagger up the hill. The man looks at me without comprehension.
++++ Everyone hits rock bottom differently. Rock bottom is subjective. Heroin addicts shitting themselves because their livers have stopped functioning, preteens using dad’s razors to relieve the pain of white suburbia, all the insecure girls who fuck every night because daddy didn’t hug them enough. We are all equal. We all stand on common ground. Profound, self-loathing loneliness. The real fear is that making an attempt to get out of the hole you’ve dug for yourself, and failing, will drain you forever. Self-loathing is knowing what to do and still being too afraid to do it.
++++ I walk back to Zane’s house holding my dislodged tooth underhand in front of me. I put it in a glass of almond milk, place the glass on the living room table, and sit down on the couch. It does not occur to me to put it in water.
++++ The television is on. I stare at it resentfully, if not apathetically.
++++ The lock on the front door clicks open. I turn and see a man standing in the door frame leading from the kitchen to the living room. He is wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. His face is sharp, handsome, and angular. He has short brown hair. He is not looking at me. He is watching TV.
++++ “Who the hell are you?” I ask.
++++ “Zane,” Zane says. He does not look at me.
++++ “Give me a minute,” he says after a moment, then disappears.
++++ In under five minutes he enters the living room and sits down next to me on the couch. He is wearing the horse mask, a white button-up shirt, and black dress pants. His hands are clasped. He is bent.
++++ I look at him and say, “Who are you?”
++++ The horse head regards me impassively.
++++ “Hold on,” Zane says. He stands up, leaves the room, and returns holding a bottle of Adderall in the doorframe like some kind of deity, a half-horse patron saint stepping through the heavenly boundary, whose bounty is salvation in pill format, whose impartial judgements are swift, final and unfair and yet no man would question him, this God.
++++ “I fought in the Gulf War.”
++++ “You take Adderall?” I say.
++++ “I’m depressed,” Zane says. He sits down on the couch and systematically inserts two capsules into his mouth, throws his head back, and takes a long drink from the bottle of Southern Comfort.
++++ “Join me,” he says.
++++ I swallow two capsules. We sit in silence.
++++ “Does Adderall treat depression?” I ask.
++++ “I don’t know.”
++++ We regard each other dispassionately. Something profound is communicated. Nothing really matters, so why not get fucked up any way you like?
++++ “Did you kill anyone in the war?”
++++ “Forty seven people,” Zane says.
++++ “How does it feel?”
++++ “What?”
++++ “Killing someone.”
++++ The horse head turns slowly looks at me.
++++ “Remember when you would crush bugs as a kid? It’s like that. The ultimate feeling of control but it’s too easy. You think it’s going to fulfil some primal need, but it doesn’t. It is not satisfying; it fills you with emptiness. You truly appreciate futility.”
++++ Look at the company I keep.
++++ “I would fuck Elaine Bennis,” Zane says.
++++ “What do you think Julia Louis-Dreyfuss’ pussy is like?”
++++ “Dry.”
++++ “What’s the worst thing you did in the war?”
++++ “I slit a man’s throat and drank his blood,” Zane says. “I contracted Hepatitis C.”
++++ “I’m sorry.”
++++ “It was worth it.”
++++ “Why?”
++++ “Because it was cool as hell,” he says dispassionately. He loops the double-o in “cool” so it sounds like he is saying, “coo-ooo-ool.”
++++ “You’re high,” I say.
++++ The horse head regards me. For a moment I am sure he is going to cut me open and eat my spleen, specifically.
++++ “Plaid does not appeal to me.”
++++ “Why?”
++++ “It was the death-knell of America’s youth.”
++++ Who am I sitting with? Is this what Ares’ has become? My thoughts are each individual screaming diamonds expressed in perfect concurrence with their formation which are one and the same. Thoughts are fed through an infinite tube comprised of smaller tubes which ferry each one down a crystalline runway into the breast of infinity. I understand I can extend my limbs and simultaneously harness five individual thoughts. Microwaves and the neurological mechanisms of the human brain and sex are all the same wire being syphoned through mechanical, intellectual and physical modes of expression. The profundity of terse, childlike statements settles over me like a sad blanket. I realize that although I now have the ability to dominate all conversations it is my responsibility to make sure one revolves around my conversation partner. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss has a shaved cunt.
++++ “Are you going to kill me?” I ask.
++++ Zane and I are both watching the television.
++++ “Do you want me to?”
++++ “No. What does human blood taste like?”
++++ “What cunt should taste like.”
++++ “Who are you?”
++++ “I am the fire inside every man. I am Gods’ breath on a kitten’s fur. I am a crying Armenian baby and its desiccated remains.”
++++ At 3:57 AM I leave the apartment and walk to the mailbox two blocks down the street. I leave Zane in front of the television. He had not spoken in two hours before I left. The last thing he said was, “I am a bent rail of cocaine,” and I am inclined to agree.
++++ “Kate, I think we should be together. Because I am having fundamental thoughts, you slut. I am including in this envelope one of my teeth, which was knocked out yesterday when I was hit by a car. I don’t blame you. I love you. Signed, Owen Taylor.”
++++ Vincent Van Gogh deliberately cut off his own ear and presented it to a prostitute. Sickeningly lovely; a vomit-inducing gesture to warm all our hearts. For once the artist manifesting in life all the truest madnesses of infatuation. In love we are all artists of morbidity.

The Corpse Road

The girl sat alone by the open fire. Large dark patches on her sweater told of High Street waterproofs that hadn’t been up to the job. Jim made his way across the crowded hotel bar to where the girl sat.
++++ “Hello love,” he said. “It’s Sarah isn’t it? I’m Jim. I’m from the mountain rescue. Our lads are out helping to find your friend.”
++++ Seeing the alarm on Sarah’s face, Jim quickly added. “It’s all right. The police asked us to start looking on the fells, before it got too dark.”
++++ Jim scraped a stool across the stone floor and sat down opposite Sarah. Water puddled around him as rain dripped from his jacket.
++++ “I just wanted to double check where you’ve been today. You were at Wasdale Head, right?”
++++ Sarah nodded and Jim dug an Ordnance Survey map out of one of his pockets. He folded it to just show the area that Sarah and her friend would have been in and then laid the map on the table.
++++ “Oh, I’m sorry,” Sarah said. “I’m useless with these things. Julie’s the map reader.”
++++ Sarah took a sip of the Cappuccino that she’d been nursing and grimaced when she found it had gone cold.
++++ “Can I get you another one?” Jim offered.
++++ When Sarah declined with a shake of her head and a small smile, Jim turned his attention back to the map.
++++ “This is Wasdale Head,” he pointed to a cluster of shapes that represented a hotel, farms and a tiny church that made up the settlement. “When you set off to walk back to the hotel which route did you take?”
++++ Sarah ran a hand through her still wet hair and tried to understand what all the lines and symbols stood for. She spun the map round and tried to imagine the direction she had walked in.
++++ A log crackled and spat, sending up a shower of sparks and a plume of smoke. Most disappeared up the chimney but some smoke curled around the lintel above the fire. It rose up the front of the chimney breast, past the nail that had once held a long since removed photograph.
++++ Sarah worked out what route she had taken.
++++ “I went this way.” She drew her finger down the map and along what she had decided was the line of a road. “The lake was on the left, so it must have been this way.”
++++ Jim’s smile broadened. “Ok. And how far had you gone before you lost touch with Julie?”
++++ Sarah looked puzzled before working out Jim’s mistake.
++++ “I was on my own from the start,” she said. “Julie had gone a different way.”
++++ “Oh, right.” Jim hadn’t considered this. “Can you point out which way she went?”
++++ Sarah just shrugged and looked apologetic, then seemed to think of something.
++++ “Would this help?” She reached into the back pocket of her trousers and brought out a crumpled pamphlet. It was from the little church at Wasdale Head. Jim opened the page, though he already knew what was inside. He also knew what Sarah was going to tell him before she spoke. Sarah’s friend had taken the Corpse Road.
++++ “There’s an old photograph in the church,” Sarah was saying. “It shows a pastor and his parishioners. The story goes,” Sarah tapped the pamphlet that Jim was holding, “that the pastor tried to lead everyone to safety during a storm. He got most people out then went back for any stragglers – but was never seen again.”
++++ “And Julie wanted to follow the route that’s described in here?” Jim said, holding the pamphlet up.
++++ Sarah nodded. “She said it was a quicker way back.”
++++ “But you didn’t want to go that way?”
++++ “It looked like a massive storm was building up and the clouds just rolled off the mountains. I was scared.” Sarah looked into the fireplace, embarrassed. “I couldn’t persuade Julie though. She made a joke of it and said we’d be okay because the ghost of the pastor walks the path, helping lost souls find their way. But then I suppose you’ve heard that story before.”
++++ Jim paused before speaking. “There are loads of tales like that up here. I can’t say I’ve heard of that one though.”
++++ Sarah took another sip of the coffee that she’d forgotten had gone cold.
++++ Jim stood. “At least we know which way she went now. And she was wearing a dark blue baseball cap and a light blue parka with a fur lined hood. Is that right?”
++++ “Yes, that’s right,” Sarah replied. “You will find her won’t you?” Her lip began to quiver.
++++ “That’s what we do,” said Jim with a smile.

He quickly turned away without another word; but instead of heading for the exit, Jim made his way across the bar and into a corridor leading to the manager’s office. The manager was already there, waiting. He held out a padded envelope.
++++ “Thought you’d be wanting this,” the manager said.
++++ Jim nodded his thanks and took the envelope. He pulled out a framed photograph. The frame was soot stained from the years it had spent above the fireplace in the bar. The photograph was the original of the one in the church at Wasdale Head. That picture showed Pastor Samuel Roberts and his flock of twelve. The image in Jim’s hands showed the Pastor and his followers; but the last time Jim had looked at this picture there had been five extra people. Now, he counted a sixth. At the back of the crowd was a young woman wearing a dark baseball cap and a light coloured coat, its furry hood draped around her shoulders.
++++ Julie had been right about Pastor Sam helping lost souls on their way. Unfortunately for her, the good Pastor helped souls that were lost to this life find their way to what lay beyond.
++++ Jim slipped the photograph back into the envelope. He handed it back to the manager, then walked out into the growing darkness.

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