Tag Archives: crime

427-461 PEARL STREET

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“What’s going on?” I asked.

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

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

+++++“You’re kidding me?”

+++++“Why?”

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

+++++“What? Come on.”

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

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

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

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

Laundered

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

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

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

+++++“Ma’am, you ok?”

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

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

+++++“I hear you Ma’am.”

+++++“Yeah?”

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

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

+++++“Can I help?”

+++++“A quarter would do.”

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

+++++“Shoot.”

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

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

+++++“Ok.”

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

+++++“Quiet around here, huh ma’am?”

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

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

+++++“Ma’am, you still there?”

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

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

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

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

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

+++++One by one.

NAÏVE

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

+++++The doorbell rang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“You do?” he said.

+++++She nodded.

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

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

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

+++++“Sexy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

+++++“Can you believe it?” he said.

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

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

+++++“What Mafia?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

+++++“Go away,” Tracy said.

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

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

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

+++++“I didn’t go to school.”

+++++“Are you sick?”

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Tracy nodded again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“What do you mean?”

+++++“Is that what love is?”

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

+++++“Do you?”

+++++“God no,” Clara said.

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

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

*

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

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

+++++“What? How did you…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“I’ll graduate,” he said.

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

+++++“We love each other,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

+++++They looked at each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE COLLECTOR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE END

Eye Contact

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

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

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

+++++Fuck! What you gonna do now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++so we can re-connect you.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dry Salvage

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

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

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

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

*

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

+++++“Wet-Look?”

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Quite.”

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

+++++“I thought you had left town?”

+++++He shrugs.

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Why are you here?”

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

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

+++++“Do you know Harlan Deloitte?”

+++++Paignton’s richest man.

+++++“Not personally.”

+++++Philanthropist.

+++++“But you know of him?”

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

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

+++++Hoarder of unknown horrors.

+++++“I have a job for you.”

+++++Motherfucker.

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

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

+++++“Something like that.”

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

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

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

*

+++++24 hours later.

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

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

+++++“Mr Rey. Long time, no see.”

+++++I nod, wordlessly.

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

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

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

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

+++++“A lot of other stuff, too.”

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

+++++Frankly, I’m surprised I’m here.

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Drink, Rey?”

+++++“Sure.”

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

*

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

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

+++++Krazinsky gazes at me thoughtfully.

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

+++++“Honestly, I have no idea.”

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

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

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

+++++He bristles.

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

+++++“But if the money runs out?”

+++++He shrugs.

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“This is it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“I’m sorry, Rey…”

+++++“You will be.”

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++He smiles easily.

+++++“Mr Rey, I presume?”

+++++I nod.

+++++“Where is Mr Krazinsky?”

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“The trunk?”

+++++“Open the car boot, son.”

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Deloitte chuckles.

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

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

+++++“No last meal for you, fat man…”

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

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

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

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

*

+++++Two days later.

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

+++++“His study. That will work.”

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

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

+++++I shrug.

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

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

The Loss

Fuck.  How much had he had to drink last night?  Shit, had he passed out on the toilet?  His head rolled from side to side, the room swum; at least he had his boxers on, green and white stripes, no piss stains on the crotch, hooray for small miracles.  He shook his head, drool dripped out his mouth and landed on his knee.  What the hell had happened last night?
+++++He tried to stand up.  Ugh, what was that?  He tried again.  No.  His arms were dead, his legs felt like he had just run a marathon, his head dazed; none of that mattered.  He was tied up.
+++++Rope was tied around his wrists and elbows.  Yellow and bristly it cut his skin but only when he flexed or tried to sit up, there was a little slack there.  His legs were tied tighter, he couldn’t see with what but it was some type of cord, wrapped right under his knee and around his ankles.  He was tied to a chair.
+++++He looked around.  It was dark, not pitch black.  He could already see better than when he first opened his eyes.  In front of him, a bit to the left, the outline of a door, slightly cracked, light pouring thru the corners.  Sunlight.
+++++To the right of the door was metallic and dirty, the garage door.  To the right black plastered to the wall.  Trash bag.  Someone had taped a trash bag over the window.  He turned his head all around, at least as much as he could, dusty red, a car behind him.  He looked back to the window.
+++++Why did the trash bag over the window scare him more than the ropes around his wrists?  Premeditation.  It definitely would take several odd series of events to tie someone up but the fact that this person had a ready-made place to keep him scuttled the spur of the moment kidnapping.
+++++Or did it?  Bags over the windows could be that his captor didn’t want people looking in, or it could mean that the glass had cracks in it and they didn’t want the elements coming in.  He shouldn’t start ascribing malicious intent to everything around him.  Except of course being tied up to a chair, that was malicious.
+++++He grinned, good to keep a sense of humor, situation wasn’t ideal but panicking wasn’t going to help.  He paused, why exactly wasn’t he panicking more?  He was calmly looking around, cracking private jokes, occasionally swearing and that was it.  He was glad he wasn’t screaming or anything but an elevated heart rate would help.
+++++He had been drugged, he felt like he did after he had got his wisdom teeth taken out.  The ropes seemed impossible to break but he was in no position to do anything right now.  At the bar?  Yes, that made the most sense.  Shit, was it still night?  He had no reference for time, had he been out for… stupid.  The sunlight, it was morning, at least.  What did that tell him?
+++++That whoever had done this was serious.  As unlikely as a prank as this was, as it definitely had broken several laws, keeping someone for the night seemed to discount the prank idea.  His chest was cool with sweat but it had no crude slurs written on him in marker.  No mirror so he couldn’t check but he doubted that there was a phallic image drawn on his face.  He sighed, no prank.
+++++He blinked, stuck his tongue out, and licked his lips.  There it was, that moment when the Vicodin or laughing gas wears off, he was back.  Hooray.  He was also in his underwear tied to a chair in a garage.  He lifted his arms up again, at least as much as he could.  Midway between the wrists and elbow he was getting less than an inch, shit, he was getting nothing, though he could feel that the left was slightly weaker.
+++++He tried moving forward.  More movement there, his chest wasn’t tied so he could lean forward.  He did that several times.  He stopped.  That was getting nowhere; all he was getting was a better view of the floor, cracked cement with stains.
+++++Not blood he told himself, not blood.  No, clearly not blood, it was just light discoloration, not the copper tinged splotch blood would have surely left.  He checked his legs again.  There!  His ankles were tight, tighter than the wrists, but his right knee had hope.  He couldn’t move forward for shit but he could lift it up towards his face a bit.  If not for the ankle he might be able to bring it out of the rope.
+++++Rope and cord.  Two different types.  This was the persons first time, they had the foresight to block the windows but not have enough rope on hand.  Or to shut the door completely.  Or to use a basement instead of a garage.  He might be able to talk his way out.
+++++Talk his way out?  That can’t be the plan he thought.  That was stupid, lazy, and cowardly.  Yes, if someone came, the fact he wasn’t dead yet and had been passed out for at least eight hours, he stood somewhat of a chance of talking his way out of it but that couldn’t be plan A.  He needed to get out.
+++++He took a breath, with each passing moment he was feeling stronger.  His limbs still felt a little weird, lack of circulation or drug side effects who cared?  He felt good now, his mouth wasn’t open, his eyes were focused, his limbs, while tied up, were not limp.  This was it.  He flexed his right leg and lifted, he sucked in, moved his arms up… all of one inch.  He exhaled.  The ropes and cords were too tight, wrapped around the chair.
+++++The chair!  That’s what he had to do, break the chair.  It was wooden.  He looked over to the right.  The table with tools was his best bet for getting a weapon to defend himself but there was no saw laying fortuitously off the edge nor a vice grip attached to the edge, nothing to ram his chair against.  Could he even stand though?  He smiled.  He kept on answering his own questions.  He wondered if it was his hobby that made him so analytical, so careful.  Probably.
+++++He looked to the left, looked to the right.  Nothing in his way.  Forwards meant face first and behind was a car.  Go left, to where the table was.  He tilted his head to the right, no point in knocking himself out.  He lifted his left arm up, as much as he could.  Took a deep breath and rocked to the left, a tilt, more, one more, he felt himself falling…
+++++…”Fuck.”  He had hit the ground hard, moving his head to the right hadn’t really helped, his head had just whiplashed to the ground.  He blinked, it hurt but that was it.  His head was the last thing he needed to be worried about.
+++++He had heard a crack, though it could have just been the thud of impact.  He had landed perfectly on his left side, too perfect, he was exactly on his left side.  If there had been any change on the left side of the chairs structure he couldn’t tell, he was stuck, sideways like a turtle on its shell.
+++++He twisted again; he closed his eyes, bam.  Another hit to the head.  Now he was face forward on the ground, ass in the air, chair stuck to his back.  For a brief moment he felt like laughing.  He moved his arm.  He gave into the urge and let out a little laugh.
+++++There!  His right arm.  Movement.  It was the wrist, the elbow was still tight.  He should have gone to the right; his left arm was still as immobile as ever.  He tried moving his legs, it was hard, from this angle he couldn’t try to stand, he could only try to push.  His right leg definitely had more slack now; if he could get right side up he might be able to…. No, his ankle was still stuck, though the left seemed like it had some give to it.
+++++Smile.  A little give here, a little loosening there, he could roll over to the left, roll to the right and continue doing that over and over again until he was free.  His head was on the ground, it didn’t hurt but blood was rushing up there and given the drugs he had taken he needed to be careful, rolling around and knocking himself out wasn’t going to help.  This one he didn’t need to worry about, a shift to the left or right would have his head away from the ground, looking at a sideways prison.  So, left and loosen the ankle more or right and loosen the upper leg and wrist?  Either way would be fine but he needed to…
+++++Slam.  A door.  His first instinct was to shout out, help, come here, anything.  He held his tongue.  The door was really close.  He heard the crunch crunch crunch of leaves being stepped on.  His stomach tightened.  The door opened.  He closed his eyes.

***

A soft kick to his shoulder.  “I know you are awake.”  His eyes remained closed.  Don’t let them know anything.  A sigh, the footsteps walked away, outside?  No, to the bench, they came back.  Cold metal pressed up against his cheek.  He grimaced but kept his eyes shut.
+++++“I heard you, I heard you,” reverberated through his ear and the garage.  “You said fuck and were trying to escape.”
+++++He opened his eyes, not metal but plastic, a walkie talkie pressed up against his ear, his captor spoke into the other one.  The walkie talkie was set down; now something metal was placed against his face.  A knife.
+++++“I’m going to prop you up, if you try anything I’ll cut you, understand?”
+++++“Yes.”
+++++A pause.  “Are the ropes loose?”
+++++“No.”
+++++Tug.  Tug.  His captor checked all, let out a little hmmph.  He struggled not to smile, by checking it loosened his right a little more.  He wasn’t mobile yet nor did he have an arm free but he was closer.  Time, he needed time.
+++++He was grabbed, struggled with, his captor was not strong, a grunt and there, he was upright, no, he almost fell to the left, he jerked out and his captor steadied him.
+++++The husky voice and situation he was in had  clouded his mind.  Husky, but not deep.  He hoped his face didn’t betray his excitement.  His captor was a female.
+++++She grabbed the chair next to the table and sat it in front of him.  She went back to the table and grabbed a small duffel bag and set it by the chair.  She sat down.  Tall and big for a girl, he figured five nine somewhere near two hundred.  Large shoulders for a girl, maybe she played volleyball or basketball in high school but she still had a pear shape and dollars to donuts she hated her ass.
+++++Dark brown hair cropped short and pushed to the side, he hated that look.  Most every girl who had it either regretted it or was a lesbian.  Maybe both.  Her clothes weren’t helping her case, who wore sweaters like that anymore?  Certainly none of the straight girls that frequented the bars he went to.  But weren’t gays supposed to care about their appearance or was that just guys?  Careful here, she might be a chunky girl with a bad haircut but she still had the upper hand.
+++++“So Alex,” she said, leaning forward, “how’s it going?”  Say nothing until you know what kind of game you are playing he reminded himself.  “Heh, stupid question right.  God, I’ve wanted this for so long and I don’t even know what to say to you.  I set up the walkie talkie because I couldn’t stand to be in the same room as you, you horrible little…” She caught her breath, gripped her knees and looked down.  If he had his arm free he could reach out and finish her.  He flexed, a little better, he needed to prolong this conversation.  She had let him know she wasn’t violent but also that she was angry with him.
+++++“Okay, let’s try again.  Alex, I’m using your name, do you know how?”
+++++“Uhh, wallet?”
+++++“Nope, wallet is still in pants.”
+++++“I said it last night?”
+++++“Nope.”
+++++“Don’t know how then.”
+++++“I’ve been following you; have now for the past two weeks.  Been to your apartment, inside in fact.  Yes that’s right; I’m not the only one breaking the law here.”
+++++His breath caught, he offered up what he hoped was a puzzled glance.
+++++“You do know why I’m following you, right?”
+++++“No. I mean, I’m flattered but…”
+++++“Stop, just stop,” she snapped.  “I am not attracted to you, you are scum.  Lying rotten scum, though you put up a good act, I can see how you were able to fool the cops.”
+++++“Oh geeze that, no, you can talk with them, I wasn’t anywhere near the park that night, I mean a block away but so was…”
+++++“But nothing, you raped and killed her.  Along with four other beautiful young women.”
+++++“I was at the bar with her, I don’t know when she left, I went outside for a smoke and I came back in like five minutes.  My waitress remembers that, it’s not like I was gone for thirty minutes or something.”
+++++“No, but you were gone long enough and you did kill her.”
+++++“Look.” He paused, she didn’t give a name, he continued, “I told the cops this, they checked it out and it checked out, there were a lot of other guys at the bar.”
+++++“But only you match the description.”
+++++“You weren’t there, I don’t know what you’ve heard but take it from me, there were several other white guys in their mid-twenties with brown hair and a slight build, whatever that’s supposed to mean” he said with a chuckle.
+++++“You are good.  I wonder if you’ve rehearsed this or are you just playing it by ear?  Not that I’d believe you if you told me.  I know you’re lying, I guess I just wanted to see if you would lie.”  She reached down into the duffel bag and pulled out a necklace.  “She was wearing this the night you killed her.  Heather Robinskie, the fourth girl, I gave this to her.”
+++++“You broke into my apartment and found a necklace that is similar to one you gave your uh, friend and…”
+++++“It’s the same, it’s the goddamn same, there’s a scratch on this that’s just the same as hers, she got it, never mind, I’m not telling you the reason, you took her life, you don’t get to have her history.  Did your ex-girlfriend leave three other pieces of jewelry in a box you keep in your dresser?”
+++++There it was.  She had stalked him, she had gotten evidence, and she had captured him.  All because she knew that slut?  The Calendar Killer done in by some dyke.
+++++“Then call the police, I’m sure they could do a DNA test, fingerprint analysis, something that…”
+++++“And then it gets tossed because I broke in, no, I don’t think so Alex.”
+++++“So…” he asked, regretting it immediately.  The perfect opening for her to cackle about torture or murder.
+++++“I see it on your face; you think I’m going to kill you.  Well, I’m not you, I don’t kill.  I do want you to hurt.  I want to stop you.  Any physical pain you receive is a merely a  byproduct.”
+++++“So, what then” he asked, hoping his question landed him on safer ground.
+++++“We talk.  You about Heather.  And Catherine.  About Kelsey and June.  About why.  And I’ll talk about what it did to me and all her loved ones.”
+++++“You want me to confess.”
+++++“That’s the idea.”

***

He sat in silence.  Let her think it was his reluctance to confess.  He had been dying to tell someone.  The problem was not the tape recorder she had either in her bag or on the table, that was an easily solved problem.  The problem was her.  Was she really not going to hurt him?  He bit his lip, she raised her eyes, he struggled not to laugh.  I’m not grappling with my conscience you dumb bitch, I don’t know if you’re going to hurt me or not he thought.
+++++The way she had said she wasn’t going to kill him was with the same smug superiority vegans announced their lunch plans, the way nonsmokers passed on a cig; the way bitches had refused him.  As if the idea was beneath him.  He breathed in, and twisted a bit.  Arm was still tight, her eyes on him, maybe he wouldn’t even need another fall if the dumb cow wasn’t going take her eyes off of him.  Story time.
+++++“Yes.”
+++++“Yes what?”
+++++“Yes, I killed them, I’m the uh, Calendar Killer.”  He tried to back up; the look on her face was not one of approval, why had he said that?
+++++“Go on, I swear, I am not going to kill you.”  She looked him square in the eye, “to take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, not justice.”
+++++Alex smiled, her look of disgust returned.  It was better than laughing.  That last line had been recited.  He wondered how many arguments had she thought she had won by delivering that line?  He shook his head, he had been captured by an overweight liberal slogan spouting dyke.  He only needed his legs free, he doubted she could even throw a punch, he could just ram her against the wall.  And then later?  No, she was definitely lesbian by choice.  What guy would want her?  You don’t need to rape every girl you kill he told himself, valiantly suppressing a smile.
+++++“Uh yeah, so what do you want to hear?”
+++++“Heather.”
+++++He could see the shake in her shoulders, the hitch in her voice.  Ideals were just that, don’t give her a reason to give them up.  “Uh, last girl, the one by the dumpsters, right?”  She nodded.  Stupid broad, he was already laying the seeds to get out.  “Well uh, I uh saw her walking down the street, I followed her and uh grabbed her and uh killed her I guess.”
+++++“Why do you rape, why do you kill?”  Her voice was small and whining, he was in control.
+++++“Hmm” he paused, wait a couple seconds here.  Important to do that.  He couldn’t sound too eager but how exhilarating was this?  Being able to tell someone finally.  “It started with uh a neighbor at an apartment.  She wanted me to help her move and I uh, after I was done with her sofa, I uh, raped her.”
+++++“What a gentleman.”  She shook her head, “I asked” she muttered to herself, “Go on.”
+++++That you did.  It felt so good to talk about; he couldn’t tell the whole truth of course.  He hadn’t raped the bitch in two twelve.  He had gotten the slut in one eighteen, friends apartment, drunkenly fumbling for her keys.  He was, ha, the gentleman.  “Yeah, well, after that I uhm, let’s see, got worried so next time I killed so there would be no witnesses.”
+++++“Catherine, her name was Catherine.”
+++++“Her, no, she was my second.  My first was this skinny little bitch from across the street, bad dye job and uh…”
+++++“Fuck you.”
+++++Alex didn’t bother hiding the smile now, he was in complete control now, he was talking of killing her friend, of raping other women, insulting her and she was doing nothing.  Christ, she’d probably let him go.  Then the real fun could start.  “Anyway, she was my first kill but I buried the body, didn’t want to get caught but that was no good, took too long.”
+++++“What was her name?”  He shrugged.  “Well do you at least remember where you buried her?”
+++++“Oh sure, ten steps away from the signpost in Nolan Woods, going toward the street, can’t miss it.”  Of course you couldn’t, he played there all the time as a kid.  And there was no dead woman there.  See detective, I was just humoring her.
+++++“Okay.  Why the deal with the dates?”
+++++He had gotten away with it!  The non-existent dead girl.  Could he tell the truth here?  He supposed he could, or at least close to it.  “Uh first two uh, just kinda happened by accident and after that uh, I just rolled with it.”
+++++She glared at him.  “You’re telling me that the dates, how everything just fits, it’s just coincidence?”
+++++Yes!  I had no idea that the first two had birthdays two months apart.  I knew I was killing four months apart but I didn’t think that’d be that strange, seventeen is just a lucky number.  After that I decided to have fun with it.  And the last girl, June?  Only because I couldn’t find a May.  They think I’m some nutjob; I’m just going with what they gave me.  They have numerologists trying to find out my next move.  I can do what I want whenever I want because they think I’m going on some set schedule and whenever I do kill next they’ll make it fit their theory.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m having a blast.  If I could find some twins I’d kill them on the goddamn winter solstice and watch their heads explode.
+++++Alex sighed.  “I don’t know what to tell you, that’s the truth.”
+++++“Okay my turn.  You killed my roommate and best friend, oh fuck you.  She wasn’t a lesbian, she liked me for who I was and I her.  She didn’t have a boyfriend.  There was a guy at work, I didn’t really like him, but it would’ve happened.  You killed her and you took away a four month relationship that she would’ve learned from.  You killed everything that would have ever happened to her, good or bad.”
+++++“We were going to go tubing that weekend.  Going to barbeque with the rest of her friends afterward.  I can’t see watersports without thinking about her.  I can’t see hot dogs and hamburgers without thinking about her.  Or eggplant because Lyssa and Amy were bringing that.  Anything pink, because her mom survived breast cancer and had to bury a daughter.  A raped brutalized daughter.”
+++++“It’s not just birthdays or holidays, it’s every day.  Everything.  A TV show we didn’t like, I remember how we laughed at it.  Frozen dinners, dogs, the color yellow.  It’s not just the stuff she liked, or disliked, it’s what we shared.  And you took that from me.”
+++++And you say you guys weren’t lesbians.  Maybe not her, but you wish you had what I have; a dick.  And you wish that you had used it on your friend.
+++++“Anything, do you have anything to say?”
+++++“Uh, sorry for your loss.”
+++++“The loss that you made.”
+++++“Uh yeah, sorry.”
+++++“I don’t believe you.  Are you turning yourself in?  Seeking help?  Suicide because you can’t live with yourself?”
+++++“No, guess not.”
+++++“You’re just sorry that I caught you.”
+++++“Yeah, so how did you, I mean the newspapers didn’t print my name or anything.”
+++++“Didn’t see me coming did you?  I succeeded where they failed.”  A triumphant grin.  Whatever, keep smiling bitch, he now had space between his arm and the chair.  Ten more minutes, tops.  “No, not a name, but I talked with the victims friends, with witnesses, not just the witnesses that talked with the police but everyone and your face kept popping up.”
+++++“The description is vague.”
+++++“Not your car, and once it came up twice, well pretty easy from there.   I even had help from a, well I guess I shouldn’t say her name, she was sure you were innocent but she didn’t mind me ‘playing Nancy Drew’ as she put it.”
+++++There it was!  A cop or at least someone working in the police department.  Harassment.  He could sue.  Or, threaten to sue because he didn’t want them looking to close into him anymore than they wanted a lawsuit.
+++++“Huh.”
+++++“Pretty much, I think we are done with the interview, I know what I want to know, and that is that you are unrepentant in all aspects, you think only of yourself.”  He nodded.  “Never turn yourself in, never kill yourself, right?”  He nodded.  “You will rape and kill again, you are twenty four, let’s say you go to jail for sixty years, you’ll be eighty four, who knows if you will get it up, but I know you’ll try.”
+++++“Wait a sec, you said you weren’t going to kill me” he cried, backing his chair into the car.  “No please, if you hurt me the tape will be worthless” he cried as she reached into her duffel bag.
+++++She looked up puzzled, “Tape?  If I was recording you it’d be worthless because you’re under duress” she said as she plunged a needle into his leg.  He screamed and shook, she pushed the top and the liquid emptied into him.
+++++“You promised” he said stupidly, head already spinning.

***

Whrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.  He opened his eyes.  Grass.  White door.  Garage door.  He was in the garage again?  He looked around, grass and trees everywhere.  No, he was outside the garage.  Trees to the left, it looked like a forest.  A house was far away to his right.  Go to the forest when you get your legs under you.
+++++Whrrrrrrrrrrr.  He looked up.  There she was, by a woodchipper.  She turned it off.  He  grinned, he wouldn’t need to run.  He looked to the house once more, no one was outside, the windows were dark.  Groggy or not there was no chair, no ropes.  He pushed himself up and fell down.
+++++“Even without thumbs I could get a good grip when I practiced” she said flexing her fingers with her thumbs tucked into her palms.  “When I went like this,  I couldn’t grasp the neck at all, I could still hold a key and a fork, so you’ll be fine on that, not too much power though so I don’t think stabbing is a concern.”  She held her hands up with her thumbs against her palms and the ring finger halfway down; he looked down at his fingers, white gauze covered his stumps.
+++++She grabbed a bag by her feet.  White plastic with a small red lump sagging down.  It looks like the bag dog owners put their crap in he thought.  Except it’s my thumb and finger.  Part of finger.  Partial finger?  This didn’t matter, was it the drugs or shock from blood loss?  He tried to stand again and fell on his ass, sitting like a rapt kid listening to a story she continued.
+++++“Your murdering tools, your digits, I have taken them from you” she said dramatically.  Going from a prepared statement, she’d be prone to a rush.  She might have a weapon but, and he checked once more, no one else was here.  No one was hiding, if she had recruited anyone else they would’ve shown themselves.  He blinked.  Just like before he was coming to.  He’d have a chance, a moment and he’d rush her.  A syringe wouldn’t help her now.  She paused and looked in the bag.  That smug look, did she think that a little disability would save her?  He bit his lip, good he could feel it.  Soon so would she and…
+++++“Testicles, now they provide the sex drive.  I left you those.  I want you to know that you are being punished with what you can’t have anymore.  You’ll be able to look, and touch, just not as well” she laughed twirling her fingers around, “But nothing else.  You took my friend from me, I have returned the favor.”
+++++She continued talking, he didn’t hear.  He stared down.  Still in his boxers, still striped green and white, now with a red crotch.  He reached his mangled hand down.  He tried to scream.  The whrrrrrr of the woodchipper came back on and he watched as white and red confetti sprayed everywhere.

THE END

The Good Fortune of Augusta

Estelle simply hadn’t considered it. Why would she? How could she? While Ike was still alive, her sins still had an enactor, her silenced thoughts a catalyst. But now that Ike is gone?
+++++“When?” she asks.
+++++“Yesterday,” Reginald tells her. The collar of his blue shirt swallows his thin neck, the gold P.D. pins chomping like teeth.
+++++“How?”
+++++“Yea,” he touches the back of his head and the stubble there, “that’s the ironic thing. Well I guess it ain’t ironic but, he was hit by a car. Walking his dog at night. Didn’t wear one of them protective vests. With the reflectors on it? You know the kind.”
+++++To Estelle, it’s the finish line of a marathon she was never qualified to run. Not because Ike is dead, but because neither of them are alive anymore. The injustice somehow felt worse when one was breathing and the other wasn’t. But now, with both men gone, her mind surmounts some opaque obstacle in the path of equilibrium, scales balance; even more so than when Ike was released from prison all those years ago. Prison hadn’t solved anything. She doubts if it ever does for anyone.
+++++“I thank you for coming here to tell me.” She grips the handle on her screen door.
+++++He takes his hat off, rubs it between two fingers.
+++++“Mrs. Kline, I wanted to ask you something else as well.”
+++++She nods, looking somewhere far beyond him.
+++++“I know what this means to you,” he shakes his head. “I don’t mean it to sound like that, like something good or bad. I just mean, my pop was so close to this case. I know so much, about you and Stan and Ike.” He clears his throat. “And my mom of course.”
+++++“You’ve always been a very sweet boy, Reginald.”
+++++He laughs. “I think my mom is the only one who calls me that.”
+++++“I never had children, but I do know your mother.”
+++++He turns to his squad car and his partner sitting there, impatient and whapping his thumb to some invisible beat.
+++++“What is it?”
+++++He doesn’t turn back. “Do you want to see the body? I know it’s morbid, but it’s not like Ike had any family. There ain’t going to be a wake or nothing, not that you’d want to pay respects. I guess,” he faces her and she notices the flat, wrinkle free pallet of his brow, pressed with sincerity but unblemished by time. “If it’d bring you some measure of closer, I can get you in.”
+++++A hand at her mouth, Stan would chide her for the small bite marks on her forefinger when she was nervous.
+++++“Is that normal?” Her voice waivers.
+++++He stiffens, the cop coming through. Despite his age, too many generations of blue pump his heart, too many badges and citations hang in his memories. He’ll make detective like his father, sooner too if he avoids the old man’s Johnny Walker habit. He has better friends, of that they are all certain. “I wouldn’t say it was normal, no. But then, nothing about this situation is normal.”
+++++She agrees and leaves with him, taking only her small handbag and a picture of Stan. Reginald takes her arm as she negotiates the concrete steps. It’s her vertigo, she tells the young man, small in her youth but ballooning in severity along with her age. The world never quite sits still anymore, something’s always moving, always falling away.
+++++The officers drive her to the precinct while the leaden Alabama heat presses on the car’s struggling air conditioner. Reginald tries to talk to her a few times, but she is silent, and after awhile the three of them just watch the southern live oaks scroll past and the children play in sprinklers.
+++++Outside the stone precinct walls, a brown dog lays atop a chain leash, licking his paws. A near empty water bowl rests beside his flopped right ear.
+++++It isn’t Estelle’s first time in a police station. She’s seen the calm flurry of activity before, the measured balance between urgency and boredom. It reminds her of what Stan said about combat, but only reversed; the long uneventful days, the horror filled black nights.
+++++“I’ll take you over to the ME’s office in a bit. It’s just across the lot,” Reginald says.
+++++He is kind and quick. Once at the office he walks her down the steps to the morgue, opening the door and helping her through before waiting in the shadows.
+++++Like stone, Ike’s skin, scaled as though braised, a left arm torn and broken open but with petrified blood. The slab below extends past his head, but his feet hang over. It could be an alter, she thinks, an offering to silence. Or maybe to her husband, to Stan, Ike’s body finally there, finally lifeless. It’s definitely Ike though. She couldn’t forget the cleft eyebrow, the weak chin. She remembers the anger. She remembers the violence.
+++++“It made my dad’s career,” Reginald says from the darkness lurking behind her. “Bringing him in.”
+++++She does not approach Ike, the body. Was he even a he anymore?
+++++“It wasn’t just him,” she tries to find her smile there in the dark.
+++++“Sorry. I know. Stan was there too.”
+++++“Of course he was. They were friends.” She listens to her echoing steps. “Isn’t that right Ike? You and Stan were friends.”
+++++She thinks that may scare the boy, a crazy old lady talking to a corpse. But it doesn’t. She’d forgotten he is a cop. And it doesn’t matter how young, a cop knows death better than all but a soldier.
+++++“Friends don’t do that to each other. Friends don’t kill.” Reginald’s voice joins the hollow sound of her footsteps.
+++++And then her balance fades, a halo forming around the pale light above Ike’s body. Reginald rushes and grabs her elbow, propping her up. It’s this damn vertigo, she tells him again. There’s nothing that can be done for it.
+++++It’s okay, he says, they can leave whenever she wants. He was never sure this was a good idea. He just thought it right to give her the choice.
+++++They walk out together, arms linked like to-be newlyweds without a religion to consecrate them.
+++++“Officer,” an older man calls after them once they’ve passed back through the precinct. His suit is ill-fit around the waist.
+++++Reginald’s partner is still in the car, still tapping his thumb, entertaining a beat she cannot hear. She lowers herself into the backseat while Reginald excuses himself to talk to the man.
+++++The spider-webbed protective screen splinters the officer’s entrapped eyes from the rearview. There are creases there, long fractured wrinkles no man his age should have to endure.
+++++“He’s not allowed to do this ya’ know.”
+++++She adjusts the bag on her lap and twists away from his eyes. Outside her window another squad car pulls up, officers emerge with young black boys in chains.
+++++The partner pauses and they listen to the boys and the officers and the ageless inequity of The South.
+++++“I told him it was a bad idea. Told him he’s asking for disciplinary going to get you.”
+++++“His father and I had history.”
+++++“I know your history.” He adjusted the gun belt on his waist. “Robbing banks ain’t no history. Don’t get you any special treatment far as anyone is concerned.”
+++++“A man can have redemption.”
+++++A struggle, the cops wrangle the boys into the precinct. One boy in particular, he’s thin but strong, arches his back until the low slung pants on his waist fall away and he loses his balance on the tangle of his own fashion.
+++++“Not in my world he can’t.”
+++++“They’ve all paid.” Then, “we’ve all paid something.”
+++++He half-turns his head towards her, still not making eye contact. “Reggie’s dad never paid for shit. Just because your dad’s a judge and you’re a cop shouldn’t mean you get off that easy and it especially shouldn’t mean you get rewarded.” He shakes his head and laughs, bitterly. “You should feel that more than anyone, lady. Your bill was the highest out of all of them. Other than your old man, I mean.”
+++++She doesn’t say anything, watches the police drag the boys across the same steps she had just been helped down. The dog barks and wrestles against his tie, leaping until the chain digs into his throat and stifles his voice to a yelp.
+++++One of the officers notices their car. The partner rolls down the window.
+++++“Whose dog is that?” the officer asks.
+++++“Dead perp,” Reginald’s partner says.
+++++“Looks healthy,” he yells over the barks.
+++++“Whatever. They’re gonna put her down.”
+++++“Shame, that’s a nice looking dog.”
+++++The partner waves and rolls up the window. The dog keeps at it.
+++++“I’ll take her,” she says.
+++++“You’ll take who?”
+++++“The dog. I’ll take the dog.”
+++++Reginald appears from the precinct. He takes his time walking down the steps. He too spends a moment looking at the dog.
+++++“Lady, you ain’t owed shit.”
+++++Reginald joins them.
+++++“Told you you were going to eat shit for this,” the partner says.
+++++“Fuck off.” Reginald turns to Estelle through the gate, “Sorry for the language Mrs. Kline.”
+++++She pulls her bag into her chest. “May I ask you a question?”
+++++“Yea,” he shifts back. “Yea, anything.”
+++++“May I have his dog?”
+++++Reginald startles, as though he only just now hears the dog’s cries.
+++++“It was Ike’s dog.”
+++++“I already told her no,” his partner says.
+++++She slaps the grate and both young men jump. “No sir.” Her voice catapults from her mouth. “You told me I was not owed anything. Which is false. The world is owed to me. It’s owed to everyone. You just have to be willing to take it. And I always take what’s mine.” She addresses Reginald directly. “A dog bears no fault of its owner. I will take her, if you will let me. If money is the issue, I can take care of that too.”
+++++He nods, tells her he’ll see what he can do but it shouldn’t be a problem. They pull away and on the short ride back to her house, he’s already made the call. Reginald drops her off and says he’ll be back to drop the dog off within the day.
+++++A week later, she invites Reginald’s mother, Helen, over for tea. They speak about the weather, and about the president, whom they both think is doing a poor job of running the country. Within the guts of their first long pause, Estelle gets up and lets the dog out into the backyard.
+++++“Reginald told me about that dog,” Helen says.
+++++Estelle closes the screen but leaves the heavy backdoor open. The dog runs to its hole, the one it’s been digging for hours. Of course Ike’s dog would find it. She should’ve assumed that before she even brought her home.
+++++“You’ve raised quite a handsome son, Helen.”
+++++“At times,” Helen tilts her head, wandering in her thoughts, “he reminds me too much of his father. It makes me hate and miss Tom all at the same time.”
+++++The dog circles the hole, sniffs its depths, and then climbs in. She read somewhere that dogs don’t do their business where they sleep. She knew the same wasn’t true for humans. “All sons bear the scars of their father’s inadequacies.”
+++++“Estelle, I wanted to talk to you about Ike.” Helen sips tea Estelle knows has gone cold. “I don’t know how I feel about it so I can’t begin to imagine what you’re thinking.”
+++++“It’s not about thinking.” The dog settles in the hole, rubs the side of her face into the dirt or against what she’s found beneath. Estelle will have to name her at some point, have to make her real. “What we did, Helen, that was all the thinking I could tolerate for a lifetime. Everything since then has just been acting, pretending.”
+++++Helen pulls her pocketbook from the floor, something heavy weighing it down. She uses two hands to place it on the table. She digs through, producing a yellowed photograph and pressing its creases until it’s flat on the floral print tablecloth.
+++++“I want to give you this before I leave. I’ve had it forever, but hadn’t looked at it again until I heard Ike was finally dead. Now that he’s gone, that all three of them are, I wanted to destroy it. But I thought you ought to see it first.”
+++++Estelle leans over to look, catches a glimpse of something metal in the handbag. “The state fair.”
+++++“Of course.” Helen laughs. “We were so young.”
+++++“No we weren’t.” Estelle walks around the table, picks up the picture and stares at the cold yellow eyes of her dead husband and his two best friends. Stan, Ike, and Tom, all three of them smile with high-waist pants and short ties. In the background, a tilting Ferris wheel slumps to one side.
+++++“I know it’s been forever,” Helen says, gathering her things, sensing her time to leave is imminent. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t say I’m sorry.”
+++++“It was the only solution that worked, that kept Stan out of trouble and Tom from sacrificing his career,” Estelle waves the picture in her hand, almost fanning herself. “I may have always done the same thing.”
+++++“No you wouldn’t have.” Helen drapes her bag over her wrist. “We couldn’t have known Ike would’ve done that.”
+++++“Everyone knows a trapped dog will fight for his life.” She walks over to the waste bin and tosses the picture in. “That it’ll kill anyone in its way to escape. We knew.”
+++++“It was the money. If Ike had only told us where the money was, we could have all made it work.” Helen says with her own cold yellow eyes staring through Estelle.
+++++“It wasn’t about the money. It was about finding trust.” Estelle straightens the creases in her dress, brings herself rigid. “And four people can balance trust better than five.”
+++++“Or so we thought.”
+++++Helen leaves it at that. She doesn’t say what they both know, that they did end up with four people, just the wrong four. But balance eluded them still. Even after Tom’s liver finally gave way and there was just the three of them, Helen, Estelle and Ike, left alive. No closure ever sought them out. No peace is ever found in odd numbers.
+++++They hug and Estelle sees her to the door, kissing both of her cheeks, the way the French do. She watches her from the doorway as she saddles into her 1960 Ford coupe, a gift from Tom. She doesn’t wait for her to drive away.
+++++Ike’s dog meets Estelle in the yard. She pats the dog’s stomach. She’ll need a name. Maybe something Greek, Hera, or what about Roman? Yes, that’d be perfect. She’ll call her Augusta, and absent a man, she will inherit the empire.
+++++She tosses a blackened stick towards the fence and Augusta hustles after. Estelle walks to the hole.
+++++She knows what she will find. Estelle has dug it out before, moved it even though no one but her and Stan ever knew where it was. When she arrives, and the plastic edge, tattered from the dog’s imprecise digging, flaps from its tomb, there is no hesitation in her belly, no immediacy to bury her shame.
+++++Augusta returns, scratching again at the dirt. Estelle lets her extra paws unveil the last of it. Without much more trouble, Estelle pulls free the first of many items entombed there.
+++++The bills are all still intact, though a few have ripped from the dog’s claws. But overall, the bag has preserved them well. Beneath the first she sees the second, shrink-wrapped and still tightly bound together even after all this time. Four more huddle below those.
+++++In forty years, she’s only needed to exhume two; such is each bag’s value.
+++++She meant what she said, about knowing, about the entropy caused by the havoc of greed, of people and their desire to kill. Helen can’t hide behind naiveté. It had been her idea, to frame Ike. She had the most to lose of course, her husband had just made detective and there he was covering up a bank robbery for his two childhood friends. But Helen never understood greed the way Estelle did. That’s why the money had to always remain hidden, from all of them. It would be her and Stan’s reward, for protecting Tom and Helen, from Ike, from themselves. At least, that’s what they had planned.
+++++Augusta scratches her ear in rhythm with Estelle’s rubbing before darting back to the house. She barks at the backdoor until Estelle sees Helen, silhouetted in the frame, the waning afternoon light burning the tip of her nose orange and glinting off top of her husband’s 9mm service handgun at her waist.
+++++“With Ike gone, you were the only one left.” She says through the screen door.
+++++Augusta’s head aligns with the ground, a snarl replacing the lapping tongue that has until now been her only form communication. How strange, that Ike’s dog should be the one here in the final hour, the last defender of her wretched life.
+++++“I thought you knew.” Estelle stands, wipes the dirt from her wrinkled hands. “After all of these years I just assumed you knew Stan and I had the money all along.”
+++++Helen pushes open the screen door, rusty hinges whine against the warped and weathered wood frame.
+++++“Stan always loved you so damn much. I should’ve figured he’d make sure you were taken care of.” She looks down at the gun and the growling animal at her feet. “And no. I assumed Ike had it. Thought that was why he left us alone all these years since he’s been out.”
+++++“No.” Estelle closes her eyes, lets the wave of nausea and vertigo lap against the back of skull. She opens them again. “Ike had no more use for us, never knew it was us that called the police. Your Tom was already dead when he was released after serving his twenty-five, and the money he thought confiscated a lifetime ago.”
+++++“I guess in a way it was.” Augusta’s low growl boils to barking. “I wish I didn’t have to do this. But that was my Tom’s money too, at least a third of it. It just isn’t fair that you got to keep it for all these years.”
+++++Estelle shakes her head, the vertigo is gone, anger bringing the blessed equilibrium so long denied to her. “It was never Tom’s. Keeping your mouth shut isn’t the same as putting your neck on the line. I paid the highest cost. My Stan. The money was the least of it.”
+++++Helen pulls the hammer back. “That may be true. But with Tom gone I have to look after Reginald. This is his inheritance now.”
+++++“And you know I can’t let you do that.” Estelle steps atop the hole, straddling it, guarding her land.
+++++“Don’t make me do this, Estelle.”
+++++Spiked hair, matted and dirty but enraged, sprouts from Augusta’s back. Estelle lowers her glasses, lets them sway from her neck and stares down Helen from the twin barrels of her stalwart eyes. “And I’d say the same to you, you incompetent old dullard.”
+++++In the fading Alabama heat, a gun fires and a dog charges and two old women fight over one last plot of dirt.

 

END.