Tag Archives: Crime Fiction

Sundown at the Toxic Shock Syndrome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Oh…that makes sense.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“So, he’s a retard?”

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

+++++“What do we do about it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Is it addictive?” Eric asked.

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

+++++“How do we sell it?”

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

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

+++++“I’m in,” Eric said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

427-461 PEARL STREET

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“What’s going on?” I asked.

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

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

+++++“You’re kidding me?”

+++++“Why?”

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

+++++“What? Come on.”

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

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

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

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

THE SAGUARO TWO STEP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Laundered

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

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

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

+++++“Ma’am, you ok?”

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

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

+++++“I hear you Ma’am.”

+++++“Yeah?”

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

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

+++++“Can I help?”

+++++“A quarter would do.”

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

+++++“Shoot.”

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

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

+++++“Ok.”

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

+++++“Quiet around here, huh ma’am?”

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

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

+++++“Ma’am, you still there?”

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

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

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

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

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

+++++One by one.

Eddie Spaghetti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Shut up,” Scary said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

+++++“Nowhere.”

+++++“Got a job for you.”

+++++“I don’t suck dick.”

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

+++++“No.”

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

+++++“Maybe”.

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

+++++“Why me?”

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

+++++“I don’t owe you shit.”

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Aftermath

“Where’s that woman? Damn her!”

+++++“What woman, daddy?”

+++++“Your mother, you fool.”

+++++“Sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“Dammit!”

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

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

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

+++++“What the Sam hell?”

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

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

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

+++++I went too far.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stepford Meets Milltown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Val downed two pills.

+++++Peckerhead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Where’s the vodka?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.  .  .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Treacherous tramp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.  .  .

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

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

NAÏVE

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

+++++The doorbell rang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“You do?” he said.

+++++She nodded.

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

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

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

+++++“Sexy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

+++++“Can you believe it?” he said.

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

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

+++++“What Mafia?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

+++++“Go away,” Tracy said.

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

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

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

+++++“I didn’t go to school.”

+++++“Are you sick?”

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

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

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

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

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

+++++Tracy nodded again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“What do you mean?”

+++++“Is that what love is?”

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

+++++“Do you?”

+++++“God no,” Clara said.

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

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

*

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

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

+++++“What? How did you…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++“I’ll graduate,” he said.

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

+++++“We love each other,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

+++++They looked at each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE COLLECTOR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE END