Tag Archives: Noir

Lock Up

James Dwyer walked through the dank corridor of the county jailhouse. Holding cells lined both walls, filled beyond capacity. Prisoners were packed together awaiting either a hearing on bail, or transport to the state penitentiary.

+++++Although Dwyer had been practicing law for nearly two decades, he rarely came into contact with prisoners incarcerated in squalid conditions. He typically met clients in more antiseptic conditions, interview rooms, and phone-exchange rooms with plate glass windows separating the attorney from the prisoner.

+++++A mixture of floor cleaner and urine wafted out of the cells. He wrinkled his nose, anxious to get outside.

+++++“Hey, Jimmy!” Someone called out from a cell on the right.

+++++Dwyer didn’t recognize the gravelly voice. He scanned the holding cell, an indiscernible sea of convicts, merely dejected faces staring back at him. He paused only a moment to peruse them, and started on his way. Leather heels striking the concrete floor made the only sound.

+++++A grimy hand smacked at the bars. “Hey, Jimmy!”

+++++Stopping, he traced the filthy hand to an emaciated mug. Dwyer made eye contact with the jailbird.

+++++“Jimmy!” The convict smiled, exposing decayed and missing teeth.

+++++Another crystal-meth addict looking for a lawyer. Dwyer considered the inmate further. The man’s high forehead seemed familiar.

+++++The convict nodded, grinning. His filthy mouth was god-awful. “I recognized you. Cousin Jimmy…”

+++++“Raymond?” Dwyer finally recognized him.

+++++“Heard that you’ve become a bigshot lawyer. Guys in here talk, and on the outside.”

+++++Dwyer shrugged, not knowing what to say.

+++++“Jimmy, maybe you could represent me? Help me out of a jam.”

+++++Thanking back, Dwyer remembered Raymond growing up. He’d been older than Dwyer and the son of a local police officer. Ray’s dad had a collection of police badges. Later, Dwyer studied criminal justice in college and became a police officer before going to law school. He reconsidered helping Raymond out.

+++++“See… You are thinking about it.” Raymond smiled, betraying a hint of arrogance.

+++++The arrogance registered. Raymond had run around town with the best clothes and fancy haircuts. Believing he could get away with anything, Raymond had gotten in constant trouble and took a liking for drugs.

+++++Dwyer shook his head. “Afraid that I’m not taking on court-appointed cases anymore.”

+++++Raymond shuffled closer, pressing his face into the bars. “Come on Jimmy, we’re family. You owe it to me.”

+++++“Owe it to you?”

+++++“Sure, my dad’s the one who helped get you started.”

+++++“Your father gave me a badge when I was nine years old. He talked about the job.”

+++++Raymond opened his mouth wide, but couldn’t seem to come up with any words. A phlegmy smell floated from his gaping jaws.

+++++And Dwyer just wanted to move on. “I’ve got a family to feed. You’re going to get representation from court-appointed defense counsel.”

+++++Raymond turned bitter. “Aww, Jimmy… The big shot lawyer, can’t even help out his own cousin.”

+++++Dwyer took a deep breath. The foul air snaked into his lungs. County lockup was a miserable place. Raymond pressed his face even harder to the bars, so indentations appeared on his skull. Nobody deserved these conditions.

+++++A hopeful look crossed Raymond’s face. “Now, you’re thinking about it again.”

+++++Somehow, the arrogance registered again. Raymond liked to be in control, and he enjoyed manipulating others. Dwyer remembered a few occasions of Raymond causing mischief and blaming it on him. He’d walk by Dwyer later gloating. An arrogant jeer, like the display behind the bars.

+++++“I’m sorry Ray, you can’t afford me.” Dwyer grinned, and walked away.

+++++“Jimmy!” A pounding on the bars followed. “Jimmy, come back! I’m sorry, I gave you a hard time. But I need some help, here.”

+++++Dwyer kept walking and didn’t look back.

+++++“Jimmy! Come back.” More rattling of the bars. “Screw you Jimmy!”

+++++And then Dwyer reached the end of the corridor. He stood by the metal doors and glanced back at his cousin. Raymond’s emaciated face looking back at him, hopelessly.

+++++The guard buzzed the door, and Dwyer stepped through and quickly made his way toward the exit at the end of the hallway. Stepping outside, he breathed in the fresh air, putting his cousin behind him, leaving Raymond in the past.

Women’s Work

“Is this your wife?” I tried to sound polite. Take an interest. I wondered if she was still around. In truth, my money was already staked on a nasty divorce. I reckoned that Tinder could not be an easy man to live with.

+++++He didn’t answer. A sick feeling cut into me, racing over my arms, leaving trails of goose bumps in its wake.

+++++His expression was almost grotesque; his eyes glazed over, as if lost in another world. He seemed to completely forget that I was standing there. I coughed, cleared my throat. I was paid by the hour and didn’t have time to waste on his self-indulgence.

+++++Roused back to life, he gave me a searching look which turned acidic, the corners of his mouth twitching as if his lips had been scalded, then suddenly his mood switched, “That’s my wife Claire. She moved out west.”

+++++The bitter undertone caught my breath. I was right, and sensed it was a bad idea to indulge my curiosity any further. I dropped it, found the bathroom and put on my flowery coverall.

+++++I have always preferred the owners to leave the house while I’m working, so as they don’t get under my feet. And I was more than a little relieved when I saw him pick up his raincoat. It was old and shabby. I rubbed my arms as a wave of nausea surged, stealing the blood from my face.

+++++Maybe it was just the cheap wine that I drank last night? Or was it something else? An old memory surfaced. When I was little, my mother used to warn me about the strange men in raincoats who loitered in the park.

+++++“The mop and bucket are in the basement,” he said gesturing to a door at the back of the kitchen. He saw me staring at his raincoat and his face hardened into a sneer, giving me a pretty good idea as to his attitude towards me. He saw me as a menial, someone he would get a kick out of ordering around. With no woman at home to bully, he was probably looking for an affordable power trip. Paid help was a convenient option.

+++++“Women’s work,” I muttered to myself as I switched on the basement light. The single bulb casting little more than a few shadows, a yellow-white glare pasted on black.

+++++The mop stood in the furthest corner, next to a camp bed and a battered tin bucket. I didn’t think much of it at the time; we were living in hurricane alley. Most homes had basements stocked with a few essentials, a torch, some blankets and a couple tins of food, just in case a big storm hit.

+++++I grabbed the stinking mop and bucket. I was surprised at the fusty odour as the kitchen floor looked clean. Climbing back up the stairs, I paused halfway as searing pain from a rheumatic hip, grabbed my full attention. The sensation intensified and burned razor sharp through my joint. The fire continued into my throat, a scowl curling my lips. Dammit!

+++++I could kill for a decent retirement plan!

+++++But fantasizing wasn’t helping matters. I realized this as the basement door slammed shut, jolting me out of my daydream. I reached the top of the steps, swaying unsteadily. My palm slid over the brass knob without budging it. I wiped the sweat on my coverall and tried again. This time there was no mistake. The door was locked. I knew that beating on it would do no good. But I did it anyway, pounding until my fist bruised.

+++++It became hard to breathe. Turning, I leaned against the door, staring down into the blackness. Why didn’t I have the sense to wedge it open? How many of those stupid movies had I watched, where someone gets trapped in the basement with a monster or madman?

+++++Tinder – Mister Tinder as he insisted I call him – must have already left the house. So I had no choice but to wait until he returned. I suspected that he might secretly enjoy the opportunity to be mad that I wasted my time idling in the basement. And it would be no surprise if he didn’t pay me for my time. But surely, it was only natural that he would be at a little concerned about my wellbeing…

***

+++++I had sat on the camp bed for hours when he finally returned. The hinges creaked and natural light from the kitchen framed his silhouette in the doorframe. I mounted the steps as fast as I could, expecting him to offer me some small comfort, maybe a concerned expression or a couple of soothing words. My knees grew shaky, as I gathered from his manic eyes that it was me who had been mistaken.

+++++My prediction, that he would enjoy the chance to be mad and not pay me – was also wrong! It wasn’t the lack of anger that scared me, though. It was the dead calm surrounding his eyes, and the smile that spread like a slow tear across his face…

+++++“The door must have slammed with a draft,” I blurted out, making my way up the steps as fast as my swollen hip would allow. I had no intention of spending another second in Tinder’s basement. He just stood there, blocking my way, glaring at me with a creepy smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

+++++“There’s been a misunderstanding,” he said. His eyes widened somewhat, head tilted. “I need a live-in cleaner!” He gestured to the camp bed.

+++++I stood there, stupefied, mouth opening and shutting like a fish in a net. Deftly caught.

+++++To hell with my hip!

+++++Tinder didn’t have a large build, and I reckoned I could knock him down the stairs if I needed to. I made a dash for the door.

+++++But I hadn’t counted upon the hunting rifle, which he stabbed into my cheek.

***

+++++I had no choice but to wait it out. I searched around the basement for something I could use as a weapon. But I couldn’t find anything. Eventually, I lay down on the camp bed, feeling exhausted; pain still surging through my hip. It was pointless shouting for help. There were no windows in the basement. And I was sure no-one outside could hear me as his house was up a dirt track. I tried pleading with him to open the door, in case he was listening on the other side. But it stayed firmly shut.

+++++The camp bed was uncomfortable. The springs dug into my back. As I turned towards the wall to alleviate the ache in my spine, my finger slid into a groove. I pulled the bed away from the wall. The word “Claire” had been scraped into the brick work. I choked back a sob, that wasn’t just for me, hoping Claire had made it out west like Tinder had told me. After seeing her name scratched there –

+++++I seriously doubted it.

+++++The dim light, which had been left on, threw eerie shapes on the walls. I searched frantically until I found an uneven patch of dirt and then dug at it with my bare hands. Something shifted.

+++++Poor Claire!

+++++She hadn’t made it out west. Had never made it out of the basement. I felt the bile rise, burning my throat, forcing its way out of my mouth. I shuddered to the ground, retching.

+++++I saw something glint through the shadows. It took me a minute or two to process, but there was no doubt: it was a diamond ring.

+++++The same ring Claire was wearing in the photo that I had picked up in the lounge on that first morning; how long ago was that? With no natural light down here I was losing track of time. It was clear to me that Tinder was not intending to let me go. But who had ever heard of a hostage cleaner? It didn’t make sense. But then he didn’t make sense either.

+++++One thing was certain – If he wanted me to clean, then at some point he would have to let me go upstairs.

***

+++++I had to wait what seemed like an age to get hold of that photo, without him seeing. As it turned out, he was even crazier than I had imagined about the cleaning. There were all of these weird rules about how everything had to be done. He acted like this was some sort of military manoeuvre, kept barking orders and complaining about “breaches in cleaning discipline”.

+++++Punishable by pain.

+++++If I was to load the dishwasher “incorrectly” with the cups and plates in the wrong order, he would slam the door shut. With my hand still inside. If he found a mark on the floor after I had mopped it, he would pour boiling water on it – over my bare feet.

+++++It seemed to amuse him, seeing me trying to hide the pain. I quickly worked out that the more pain I showed, the more pleasure he got from it, so I would try harder to hide my reaction… only for him to step up the “discipline” even more. It was a nightmare, which never eased. Just kept on getting worse.

+++++I managed to get the photo of Claire down to the basement, smuggled under dirty water. When I removed it from the bucket, tears started pouring, the salt stinging my sore skin. The dark water had seeped through the frame, staining her smile. I felt a stab of shame at destroying Claire’s memory, but I could see no other way, and smashed the frame against the side of my bed.

+++++The glass shattered, wide, across the dirt floor. I tried to bend down to pick up the pieces so I wouldn’t stand on them in my bare feet, but my hip gave way and I plunged down, feeling my head smack against the stone wall. I felt a lightening surge of pain as the wall shaved a layer of skin off my face. My body spasmed then gave way. The last thing I remember was grit and blood filling mouth, suffocating me, before I passed out.

+++++When I came round, I had no idea how long I had been sprawled on the ground. I didn’t have the energy to cry. I stretched my limbs, cautiously, checking that nothing was broken, although, with the amount of pain I was in, it was difficult to tell.

+++++During the time I was unconscious, I knew that Tinder had not been down into the basement as nothing had been disturbed. He hated mess, and would have punished me for making it. And there were no new injuries that I could feel. I reached out and grabbed the largest shard of glass I could find and hid it under my bed. Then sat up, trying to scoop the rest as best I could. My feet were still throbbing from the boiling water. The thought of standing on broken glass …

+++++When a fragment pierced the skin under my fingernail, I forgot about my feet. And screamed. It seemed such a small thing to get hysterical over, when I had already suffered so much. But my whole body racked with sobs and I had no choice but to give in.

+++++I had never, up until this point, been violent by nature – had spent my whole life cleaning up other peoples’ mess. But this mess was mine, and I knew that no one was going to rescue me. If I couldn’t find the strength to escape, I was going to die in Tinder’s basement.

***

+++++He stood in the doorway, his wiry frame blackening the light. The rifle resting in his hand.

+++++“I’ve fallen, broken my leg, you need to help me!” I pleaded, in that pathetic tone that he enjoyed so much.

+++++He stared back, warily, as if I was mad and this situation couldn’t be happening. He didn’t believe me. So I turned my head towards him, letting him feast his eyes on my face. He should have reeled away in disgust – any normal person would – but he was fascinated.

+++++I added a wounded groan for effect, and watched his smile deepen and spread like a disease over his face. I flailed down in the dirt, pretending to pass out.

+++++Agonisingly slow, each step brought him closer, and brought me closer to what I knew I must do…

+++++My heart pounded so loud, I could feel it echoing off the walls.

+++++He stopped, leaned over me, rifle at his side. I forced myself up and lunged forward, the shard flashing past my face, stabbing into his neck. I felt blood pulsing over my fingers. Slimy and disgusting. The rifle jerked against my feet. I groaned, but didn’t let go. His hands were clawing at mine, scraping my skin raw. I held on. Pushed harder.

+++++The blood sprayed across the walls, and pooled at his feet. I could hear myself laughing, like an actress in a cheap horror movie. Tinder glared back, his eyes bulging, stricken with panic.

+++++I saw my chance to grab the rifle.

+++++He was weakening now, with rapid blood loss, but as I loosened my grip on the glass to grab the rifle, he pulled the shard out of his neck.

+++++I pointed the rifle at his face and fired.

+++++And I’m not sure what made me madder: finding that it wasn’t loaded or seeing how pathetic he really was.

+++++I waited: maybe a long time. It was difficult to tell. Watching without moving, just to be sure he was dead. It turned into a pathetic sight. The whole time he was bleeding out, he didn’t make any effort to disguise his pain. It was crazy, but this seemed to anger me the most. Where was his discipline now?

+++++My leg wasn’t really broken, as Tinder had suspected. Although it still took me forever to haul my way up the steps. When I finally made it out of the basement, I felt an odd sense of calm. It felt surreal to be upstairs again; my eyes straining against the light.

+++++I wasn’t too concerned about Claire and Tinder’s bodies being found. I figured everyone would believe Tinder had killed his wife and committed suicide. Why else would a man be found dead in his basement, next to his wife’s remains, with a fatal wound in his neck from glass in his fist? I thought about leaving the photo of Claire at the scene, to make it look more poignant. But I couldn’t bring myself to leave her behind.

***

+++++Back at home, there a couple of messages from regular clients on my answerphone. One of them telling me he’d already found someone else, as I was “clearly unreliable and should be ashamed of myself for letting him down.”

+++++“Good luck, you poor bitch!” I shouted to my replacement – whoever she was.

+++++I had officially gone into retirement.

+++++I was done with women’s work.

+++++My retirement stash from the sale of Claire’s ring had been a hell of a lot more than I had expected. The diamonds alone were worth a small fortune. I knew something was up, when the dealer looked a little too excited when I showed him. He pretended that it wasn’t anything special, but I wasn’t fooled. I doubted that Tinder had bought that ring for her; maybe it was a family heirloom.

+++++You may choose to believe that I stole the ring, but after what happened in Tinder’s basement, I feel Claire would have wanted me to have it. And it was thanks to me, indirectly, that her body was buried back in her home town.

+++++Picking up the crumpled photo, I smoothed it out. It didn’t look so bad. I moved the picture of my late husband aside, and placed the photo in the centre of the mantle. As the evening light faded, I lit a fire in the hearth and poured myself a glass of Stone Hill. Not the cheap stuff. I needed something special for my toast.

+++++It’s odd, but as I raised my glass to her photo, I saw Claire’s smile flicker back to life. Maybe I was a little tipsy? Or, perhaps it was my imagination? I swear there was no mistake. That night Claire’s smile blazed through the darkness so bright; it was on fire.

Dyin’ Down The Road

Lifting his foot off the gas the car slowed to a safer speed. He was still driving faster than his brother would have liked but he heard no complaints. The last time he’d been out of the city his brother Tom had been with him.

+++++“Turn right up ahead,” Tom’s voice whispered from the back seat, disconnected and far away.

+++++Rounding the corner Bill glanced in the rearview and looked away. His knuckles cracked as he gripped the wheel and thought about what lies ahead. Rain beat un-rhythmically off the windshield, a stark contrast to the steady rhythm of the wipers. It had been raining the last time he was out to the Ansie’s.

+++++That night his world had turned to shit. Tom took two slugs in the back. Bill had one clip his shoulder, superficial no big deal. They had barely escaped, Bill dragging his brother along. Tonight it would be different. The element of surprise was on his side.

+++++“You sure you wanna do this bro?” Tom’s voice crept in his ear.

+++++“I gotta.”

+++++“No… you don’t.”

+++++“Yeah I do. Eye for an eye, know what I mean? Family is all you got in life, without you I got nothing. I gotta make things right, and you can’t talk me out of it.”

+++++The air chilled inside the car.

+++++“You gotta plan little brother?”

+++++“Yeah, I’m gonna knock on the door and shoot the first fucker that opens it and keep shooting till they’re all dead.”

+++++Silence hung in the air as he traced his way along the woods bordering the Anise’s place. He parked and glance at the rear view mirror before getting out, half expecting some words of encouragement. Outside the car he stretched and looked skyward. Bill hated the country. He preferred the yellow moon on every street corner, opposed to the single soulless eye that dipped in the sky outside of the city.

+++++“Back in a few,” he said to the night and walked away.

+++++Minutes passed. The rain slowed to a trickle. Briefly the quiet of the countryside erupted in a storm of gunfire. As quickly as it had started it stopped.

+++++Bill stumbled through the brush, branches scratching his face and tearing his clothes. One hand pressed on the gaping hole in his gut, trying to slow the flow of blood. He climbed into the car and fumbled with the keys.

+++++“You did good little brother. It’s time to go.”

+++++The car jerked and shot forward. Bill drove as blood soaked through his shirt and pants and into the seat. Erratically the car swerved along the winding road. With one hand on the wound trying to staunch the flow, his vision blurred and then doubled. The car drifted and stopped on the roads berm. Taking shallow breaths Bill desperately tried to stop the bleeding.

+++++“I’m dying Tom…please help me,” he said to the empty rearview.

+++++He knew Tom couldn’t help; he’d bled out on the drive home the last time. As the life seeped out of him he felt himself being slid over and his head propped gently against the passenger side window.

+++++“C’mon little brother let me drive for a while. You sit and relax, close your eyes.” Tom’s voice whispered in his ear, clear for the first time.

+++++“I’m getting cold Tom.”

+++++“It’s okay, you’ll be warm soon. Home is just a little further up the road.”

Blood, Sweat and Sawdust

Courage swells and dissipates like the tide. I drop my eyelids and shove hands deep in my pockets. Hides the shakes I get from my brothers.

+++++Horses hooves, pig oinks, tension strung tight as barbed wire. The church-sized barn heaves with associates. Sweat, light beer, and animal dung mingle. Cheers and jeers.

+++++A horse stomps ahead of the McLennans whom it yanks into the pit by rope. Their legs are chained to each other’s, their necks in clamps – one fat rope a lasso on them all.

+++++Seven men, two women. Daylight streams through the barn doors and pings off their naked bodies. I grab a beer from Tracy, whom my old man sells to the lonely or bored. I brush her arm and my eyes fill in for the nod I want to give her. I swig and stare hard at the ceiling, a blank slate to paint clean thoughts across. Jim, my third eldest brother, steps into my space. Budweiser, Old Spice, meat in his teeth.

+++++“You’re gunna’ watch this one. All dad’s friends are here, and other families are looking for weakness. We – all of us – are going to show them strength. Keep your peepers on the action and your mouth shut, runt.”

+++++My eldest brother, Jacob, alarms the horse into jerking the rope. The McLennans stumble and writhe to keep their balance. Someone in the crowd whoops, another laughs. Tracy checks her shoulder my way, flashes her eyes for me to take action. I told her a week ago how my family murdered her father when she was just a kid. Now we’re in cahoots.

+++++Jared, my second oldest brother, elbows my ribs and grins. “Fun, right?”

+++++I push my tongue against the back of my teeth. I must look drunk because he rolls his eyes and moves on after he tells me to “toe the fucking line.”

+++++A chainsaw rips through the chatter and sputters to a standstill. Silence heightens the senses. Cologne mingles with sweat. The horse whinnies and eyes the exit as best it can from behind its blinkers. Jack, my fourth oldest brother, jerks the chainsaw into another momentary growl. He spits, all stoic as it grinds still once more. Dad enters the square space. His benign beam shines the authority he holds over the audience. Ignores the pleas from his captives. One of the women, Meg, cries for mercy. Dad holds conference with Jack as if a little bird sings over his shoulder. They crane their necks for me, but I’ve ducked behind a tall man in a tall hat. They wave Tracy over as they would the family dog. She slides and swivels from unwanted gropes, leans into dad and Jack’s whispers, and heads my way.

+++++Hands grab at the two drinks which remain on her tray, and one man grabs her boob and squeezes with his dirty, greasy hand. Sniggers with the man next to him as if they sat at the back of third grade class.

+++++“Your dad wants you.”

+++++I hear her, but don’t register. I search for life behind her flat eyes. She blinks at the examination and sparks.

+++++“He wants you to take the chainsaw out back and gas it up.”

+++++I grab her hand and squeeze, but she slips away with a fake smile. She thinks me a coward.

+++++I squirm through hot bodies. Someone asks if I got a feel. Pretend I didn’t hear.

+++++Dad plants a beefy hand on my shoulder and squeezes. “Fill it up and be quick. People here are impatient for the games.”

+++++I watch the McLennans over his shoulder. I see no mercy in dad’s ancient, primeval eyes. This is a humiliation for the McLennans from which there ain’t recovery. They will die today.

+++++Jack, like some sniffer dog, senses the sentiment in me. He leans in and twists my nipple. “You do it, runt. You don’t want to end up like Beth.”

+++++Jack steps back and glares at the sawdust in hope dad never heard it. Doesn’t matter. He just confirmed what I knew already. Dad was about to deflect my thoughts on which ditch my bastard family had buried my sister for her rebellion against what they are, but big Tom McLennan spits and that big gob of green hits the back of dad’s ear and gloops from his lobe like an earring.

+++++Jacob whips at the horse’s feet. It rears and jerks the McLennans into the dust. Drags them a few yards until Jacob reins it in.

+++++“Fill the chainsaw, runt.” Dad thumbs at the barn entrance. I charge out as dad begins his speech about how the McLennans betrayed all the families’ fraternal aims by dealing with the Feds.

+++++Tracy sits outside on a bale of hay, a cigarette in her mouth, a blanket over her shoulders as if she needs to warm the ice within her. The heat blisters the air, the breeze only an aid to burn them all.

+++++“You alright?”

+++++She shrugs her shoulders. Stupid question. What do you think? “Did they kill my mother, too, all those years ago? That why they took me in? Guilt?” She lifts her smoke to offer me a drag.

+++++Shakes her long brown hair at my misconception and pats the fuel cans stacked by the hay. “Funny way of showing guilt, I’m sure.” The devil curves her smile into a scythe.

+++++My tongue curls dry. She’s had it. Desperation has crushed her faculties. I glance back at the barn. Guards by the door, but on the inside, the horror show their distraction. Tracy bites at my hesitation.

+++++“You wanna end like Beth and my parents, eaten by worms before your time?”

+++++“No… course not.” I fidget at my cowardice.

+++++“We rescuing the McLennans?” She shrugs. “I wouldn’t. They’d do the same given the damn chance.”

+++++What I imagined Beth’s eyes to look like now, blank and cold in contrast to their warm living glow, imprints on my mind. I fill the chainsaw and lug a can to the entrance. The horse neighs and some of the crowd jeer the captives. The pigs in their pen to the back whine from agitation. Seems a shame they’d die too soon.

+++++Tracy calls out. “You’ve been promising me action. Let me see your balls.”

+++++I puff through the crowd as if the damn chainsaw weighs a sow. Dad reaches for the tool, a wry grin on his wobbly jowls. He jacks the chainsaw and raises it above his head. Sweat patches the armpits of his shirt. My brothers work the crowd to bolster the courage of some grim-faced viewers. The Jacksons and Steiners amongst them.

+++++They’re all as bad as each other. Nobody looked into Beth’s death. Some of them used Tracy.

+++++Fuck ‘em all. Fuck me for not confronting them with the truth.

+++++The gap in the barn door narrows. Tracy has started early. I should join her. Help ring the barn in gas and turn the building and all of them inside to ash.

+++++Jack manacles my skinny wrist with his beefy hand and “Ah-ahed.”

+++++“Let me go.”

+++++“No, runt. You’re starting this thing off. You slice yourself a McLennan joint.”

+++++“What?”

+++++Dad thrusts the chainsaw at me. Lucky I didn’t lose an arm. Tracy has the barn door shut. This is our chance. The McLennans were all gunna die anyway. Better quick than in a fiery agony. Dad laser-eyes me, tracks every twitch that ripples my face. The fans on the ceiling hardly touch the heat. My hands slip on the tool, so I grab tighter and rip the cord. My brothers huff at my bravado. They don’t reckon I can do it.

+++++I gulp down fear and let my stomach acid deal with it. Turn to the McLennans. Meg McLennan’s lower lip drops in anguish. Brian McLennan stares at me, as if he could will away what he had coming. Old Col McLennan licks his lips. He’s lived his life. He could go now. His nod said just make it quick.

+++++I close my eyes a moment to project happy times to the back of my lids.

+++++Me on ma’s lap on the swing.

+++++A donkey ride on Jack’s back before dad corrupted us all.

+++++Beth reading The BFG to me in what she thought a good English accent.

+++++Tracy holding me tight when I broke down about the things I’d seen.

+++++My broken promises to her. To get her out safe.

+++++I plunge into the McLennans and rip right through big-bearded Mick. He shudders and spits blood. His family swerve and duck as if dolphins attack their shoal. Blood splatters us all. A shout hits the ceiling and the fans circulate calls of “Shame.”

+++++Jim launches at the source, arms in swim-crawl through the crowd. I drop the chainsaw, my hands splay out my side, afraid of the blood which clings to me. Marks me as a typical Graham family member.

+++++More shouts. The yelps race around the walls and kick sound against the structure. Somebody calls “Fire” and the crowd surge. Smoke billows up the walls in waves, many shades of black and gray.

+++++Tracy’s started without me. Locked the barn doors. The back door should have remained open. A log jam blocks that exit.

+++++“We’re locked in.” The man’s voice could scrape paint from a wall.

+++++No.

+++++No we’re not. She would wait for me. Jack grabs the chainsaw and attacks a wall. Fashions a hole big enough to clamber through, though the black smoke veils much of the inside now. Wood cracks and the pigs screech enough to shift bowels. The horse stamps and rears and lands on one of the McLennans, whose cries melt into those of the pigs and everyone else.

+++++Tracy? Why not wait?

+++++Jack drops the chainsaw and gets a leg through. A crack tears the air and Jack slumps back, a hole in his head, the leg on fire and still in the gap. Tracy shimmers outside through the flames, both hands on the gun.

+++++“Tracy.” I shout louder. Again and again until the smoke clasps my lungs and squeezes.

+++++I hit the floor to search for air and scrabble on all fours. Shots fire out as if people could climb through a bullet hole. Bodies pile up. The walls shimmer at the reverse-flow waterfalls of fire. A beam collapses and smashes Jared to the ever-after. The horse lurches at the wall and bounces off. Drags the family with it and tramples men who crawl the floorspace. Jim perishes beneath its hooves.

+++++“Tracy, goddammit. Why’d you not wait?”

+++++My eyes sting, lungs ache, throat burns. Jacob thrashes at the fire which licks up his front until he falls to his knees and slumps into the ground. The fire thrusts in my direction, a sun storm, and catches my pants. It flares up my leg until it grabs me with its full fury and I propel myself at the wall, burst through its weakened fibers, and land out on the charred grass. I scream a flutter of birds away. Crawl into the longer grass and hope dew would put me out. It only flickers the dried stems into candle wicks.

+++++I think I’ve reached the end, but a moment’s solace drenches me. The cool water splashes my sores if only for a second, before the pain sears my flesh again. I see Tracy flicker away from me with a bucket in hand. She flings it aside. Random shots … no … targeted shots punch above the crackle. I open an eye again, the only one I can. Tracy steps, careful, amongst the ruins. Finds a survivor. Dad. Puts him out of his misery with a shot to his temple. Moves on.

+++++Moves on until she stands above me.

+++++I shake and words fail. She drags on her cigarette. “I’m sorry you had to burn, I really am. But you took your damn time and I knew – I just knew – this was my only window of opportunity. If I didn’t take my chance …” Her voice trails off, or my consciousness does – I don’t know.

***

+++++The north is cooler than the needling heat of the south. I hate the snows, but it keeps me comfortable. The cream eases my burns, and I imagine it hisses as it touches my emaciated skin. Tracy rubs it in deep, from calves to neck, and hushes my whimpers at the release it gives me. It’s my second application of the day. It’s noon.

+++++“It’s okay, baby, I got you.” She wipes her hand on the towel and kisses my forehead. She hasn’t kissed me on the lips since the fire.

+++++“You don’t have to look after me like this. I can cope.”

+++++“I know you can, but I want to. You helped me. Big time.”

+++++She kisses me again. When she kisses me again tonight, or maybe tomorrow morning, a musky scent will hang from her skin and taunt me.

+++++She takes the gun, the one she shot dad with, and places it on the pillow. Pats it. “Just in case.”

+++++I watch her leave for the bar she works at. Once her Datsun chokes round the bend and out of sight I study the gun. Just in case. She used to mean in case we got any blowback. Now she just means in case I want to kill myself and put us both out of our misery.

+++++When she does get back, I’ll take her up on that.

It’s Not The Pale Moon

It was early November, evening, cold, but no snow predicted. Ellie sat in her chair by the window and watched a full moon rise in an already darkening sky, its mottled surface scarred by a web of black branches at the top of a tree that grew in the garden. A draft of air nudged the edge of the window, rattling the pane and puffing out the curtain. She pulled her blanket tighter across her legs and closed the top button of her sweater, never taking her eyes off the rising moon.

+++++“Earl,” she called. “Earl, come on over here. Look at this moon. Ain’t it a sight? Come on. Put your arms around me like you used to.”

+++++She could almost feel his arms around her. Almost.

+++++“Remember how you used to hold me? How we watched the moon together. Coming up full and bright like now. Oh, we used to love it. didn’t we?”

+++++Earl didn’t answer. But she thought she could hear him.

+++++“Yes. It’s lovely. Just like we were. Remember? Holding each other, loving each other.”

+++++She smiled at the memory. She stared at the moon.

+++++“Loving our Cathy.”

+++++Then it slipped. Fell from her face. From her eyes.

+++++“You always thought she was a beauty. She was, wasn’t she?”

+++++Earl didn’t answer.

+++++“She was, wasn’t she?”

+++++Earl didn’t answer.

+++++The moon retreated behind a cloud.

+++++Ellie backed away from the window.

+++++“I saw you, Earl. I saw you leaning over Cathy’s bed. You didn’t hear me, did you?”

+++++Earl was silent.

+++++“I watched you, Earl. The full moon outlined your dark, huddled shape. A crouched monster. You have nothing to say for yourself?”

+++++Earl remained silent.

+++++“I slammed that phone book so hard up the side of your head. Surprised you, didn’t I? Knocked you clean off that bed. Cathy screamed. You remember?”

+++++He couldn’t answer.

+++++“You hit your head on the corner of the night stand. Right in the temple. I didn’t plan it. But I couldn’t have planned it better. Trust me, Earl. You’re better off. I would have killed you.”

+++++She looked up. Moonlight painted a window shape on the carpet. She moved closer to the light. Looked up at the moon just escaping the tips of the garden tree’s dark branches. No longer a prisoner behind bars. Free now to forge its path through a clear, star-filled sky.

+++++Ellie backed away from the window. She turned. She wheeled her chair through the doorway and down the hall to their room.

+++++She pushed open the door and entered.

+++++Their room offered no view of the moon. She wheeled her chair up next to her bed, locked the wheels, and shifted herself onto the bed’s firm mattress. She lay back on the pillow and lifted her legs up and over so her body was aligned on the bed. Her bathrobe covered her like a thin blanket. She glanced over at the bed beside her.

+++++The constant sucking rhythm of the respirator was like a lullaby. Tubes and needles, a comfort. The monitor displayed a reassuring normal pulse and blood pressure.

+++++The comatose Earl was still holding on, alive and as well as could be expected.

+++++Ellie listened to the breathing machine, watched the green peaks and valleys on the monitor. They made her feel good. Earl couldn’t hurt anyone any more. But just in case.

+++++“I’m watchin’ you, Earl. You bastard. As long as you’re alive, I’m keepin’ you near me, real close.”

AND BEHIND DOOR TWO

The deceased was a balding middle-aged male, lying face up, eyes partially open in the gaze of eternity. Homicide Detective Felix Kowalski knelt over the cadaver carefully, avoiding the pool of crimson on the entry way tile. “Perp knocked on the door, the vic opened it and took two to the heart.” He glanced up at his partner, Detective Sheena Washington.

+++++She nodded. “Vic’s wallet is on a bedroom nightstand, cash and credit cards undisturbed. Driver’s license says he’s Wilson McDowell, 53, a plumber and the homeowner of this address, 5912 Easton Terrace. His wife confirmed that information.”

+++++He glanced around. “Nice house for a plumber.”

+++++“He owns the company.”

+++++“That his wife I hear crying?”

+++++“Yeah… in the kitchen with the E.M.T.’s. She’s a wreck, Kowalski.”

+++++“Was she…?

+++++“Came home, found him dead where he lays, called 9-1-1.”

+++++“Unless she came home, shot ol’ Wilson, then dialed 9-1-1. You remember the case we worked last year?”

+++++“She’s putting on a hell of an act for a shooter. I couldn’t get a coherent comment. Tears are real. I don’t think she…”

+++++“Have techs found a firearm on the premises?”

+++++“No.”

+++++“Have we swabbed her hands… the paraffin test?”

+++++Sheena sighed. “Yes, Kowalski. First thing I did when I arrived. It appears the shooter walked off with the murder weapon.” Slender, 35, and attractive, Sheena was known as a tough customer.

+++++Kowalski went through the dead man’s pockets, inadvertently moving the victim’s right arm. A sparkle of metal in the hand caught his eye. Unfolding the cold fingers, he removed a small silver ring with a green stone on a broken silver chain. The initials, “RMD” were stamped inside the ring.

+++++“Ripped from the shooter’s neck?” Kowalski stood, holding the ring and chain out for Sheena to examine. Tall, angular, his close-cropped hair was flecked with gray.

+++++Sheena dropped the ring and chain into a plastic evidence bag and handed it back.

+++++In thirty minutes of interviewing the distraught wife, Marilyn McDowell, they learned he did in fact, own McDowell Plumbing, attended church regularly, neither drank nor smoked, and had no enemies that she knew of. She said she did not recognize the chain or ring, nor had any idea as to who “RMD” might be.

+++++Kowalski and Sheena talked quietly on the front porch, turning their back into the freezing cold November north wind. Tomorrow they would re-interview Mrs. McDowell to develop a list of his associates then drop by McDowell Plumbing and visit with whomever they found.

+++++Kowalski said, “She didn’t do it.”

+++++“Like I said.”

+++++“Girlfriend… or angry husband?”

+++++“We can look at that, but I don’t think so.”

***

+++++Kowalski dropped off the ring and chain at the county crime lab the following morning, picked up a city car, and he and Sheena drove to McDowell Plumbing. Two clerical employees and five plumbers seemed appropriately stunned at the boss’s death. Mrs. McDowell had phoned them the night before. None provided a solid lead.

+++++“McDowell was a real nerd,” Sheena remarked as they drove away. “You suppose somebody meant to do a home invasion robbery, panicked, and shot him when he came to the door.”

+++++“Possible, but not likely.  Looks too personal.” He looked at his wristwatch. “It’s nearly eleven. Let’s grab a burger.”

+++++Kowalski was working on a grease and cholesterol special while Sheena picked at a salad when the crime lab buzzed Kowalski’s cellular. He listened, then said, “Great. We’ll need to drop by and pick it up.”

+++++Sheena studied him expectantly.

+++++He said through a mouthful of sandwich, “The chain has a trace of blood where it was busted. They raised a mitochondrial DNA sample but found no match in any database they have access to.”

+++++“Bad news.”

+++++“Good news is, the chain had previously been broken and repaired…silver link replaced. How many jewelry shops in this city repair jewelry, a dozen at most?”

+++++She punched her iPhone. “Good guess. Looks like thirteen. We can cover that by quitting time today.”

+++++They had progressed to number ten. The thin, morose jeweler peered at the ring and chain through his glass. “Never saw the ring before, but I recall this chain. Came in maybe two months ago with a busted link here where you can see the replacement.” He dug in a floor-safe and tossed a folder on the glass-topped counter.

+++++Kowalski said, “Sir you’re gonna’ have to…”

+++++The jeweler pulled a yellow, carbon copy of a receipt from the pile, showing Patricia Davis had paid twenty dollars for “chain repair” ten weeks earlier. Sheena copied the address. The jeweler machine-copied the form and handed over his original.

+++++The address shown was on the far side of town from the murder scene. They were greeted at the door of a poorly kept house by a graying lady of at least 80. She appeared to be incapable of standing upright without the aid of an ornate cane she clutched in her left hand.

+++++“Ma’am, were from the metropolitan police homicide unit. We’re looking for Patricia Davis.”

+++++“I’m Patricia Davis,” she replied in a weak voice, heavy with age.

+++++Kowalski produced the ring and chain. The elderly face, ever so slightly, showed recognition… and something else neither cop could quite decipher.”

+++++“Do you recognize these items, ma’am.” Sheena asked, the answer already apparent.

+++++“My granddaughter’s… Rebecca Marie.  She broke the chain and we dropped it off for repair. I picked it up from the shop. My husband bought it for her twentieth birthday. He bought it too small and she wore it around her neck on the chain. Too sentimental, I guess, to alter her granddaddy’s gift.”

+++++Kowalski and Sheen, cop-style, stepped past her into an immaculate living room.

+++++“We’d need to speak to your husband, too, ma’am,” Kowalski said.

+++++The tired eyes teared up. “He uh, died ten days ago.”

+++++“We’re terribly sorry for your loss, Mrs. Davis.” Sheena offered the standard comment. “Could we speak with your granddaughter, please?”

+++++More tears. She died in an accident… not long after we put her chain in for repairs.”

+++++“Accident?” Sheena asked.

+++++The tears exploded. “Our baby fell in front of a city bus. It was grief from that, killed my husband, Herman.”

+++++“Oh my,” the hardened Kowalski said as tenderly as he could. “So sorry. Please sit down, Mrs. Davis.” He helped her into a chair.

+++++“The chain and ring?” Sheena asked. “We need to see…”

+++++“Stolen from her body in the funeral home. What animals would…?”

+++++Kowalski and Sheena hurried to the homicide office and spent several hours milking the computer.

+++++“Kowalski, Rebecca Marie Davis did, in fact, die beneath a city bus. Note here, the responding patrol officer wrote that the scene had indications of suicide.”

+++++“Yeah, and look at this. “Herman Davis didn’t just die. He was a suicide by hanging in his living room. I guess you saw those open beams in the ceiling?”

+++++“Granddaughter died, grandfather killed himself. We’ve seen that before.”

+++++“I don’t think the Davis family has squat to do with this, Sheena. Wilson McDowell has no connection that I see with the tragedy. Besides, the old lady couldn’t possible drive cross town, shoot McDowell, then make it home. Her life expectancy looks to me to be measured in hours.”

+++++“Well, back to square one.” Sheena shut down the computer. The crime lab called and reported no gunshot residue on Mrs. McDowell’s hands, the victim’s wife.

***

+++++At just before midnight, Kowalski was dozing on his sofa in front of the TV when Sheena called.

+++++“Another murder identical to Wilson McDowell a block away from his house. Note the address: 5912 Easton Drive. McDowell was at 5912 Easton Terrace.”

+++++Kowalski arrived at the latest murder scene, worked his way through the glut of emergency vehicles and found Sheena stooped over the body. A smallish man of about thirty, with sandy blond hair, lay face up, eyes fixated in death on a spot above the ceiling, three bullet holes prominent in his chest.

+++++She looked up. “Three in the chest. Looks identical. He opened the door and received some final justice.”

+++++“Justice?”

+++++“Don’t you recognize this creep, Kowalski?”  We arrested him for rape two years ago. The vic was a 16-year-old with Down syndrome and his lawyer got him off. Looks like he ran outta’ luck.”

+++++“Yeah, yeah.  Willie ‘Chickie’ Wilson. Good riddance. Any suspects?”

+++++“Nada. The list of people who wanted this loser dead is two blocks long. Maybe just write it off to an act of God?”

+++++“Sheena, the address thing… Easton Terrace and Easton Drive is a damned strange coincidence.”

+++++“Kowalski, I have trouble connecting Wilson McDowell, hardworking plumber to this sorry mope.” She gestured to the floor.

+++++“Sheena, we canvassed hell outta’ McDowell’s neighborhood, but typically, lots of folks aren’t home or just won’t answer the door. My gut says go back and finish McDowell’s street, Easton Terrace, a block over before we spin our wheels sorting out suspects on this guy. Then we start here on Chickie’s Easton Drive.”

+++++They split up, a uniformed officer present with each so residents could look out and confirm it was police knocking on their door.

+++++An elderly man in a nightgown, six doors down from the McDowell house greeted Sheena and her uniformed escort, a classic deer in the headlights expression.

+++++“Sir,” Sheena began. As you must have heard, a neighbor was murdered up the block night before last. My notes show we didn’t manage to get you to answer the door.”

+++++“Whut? Police?” He fiddled with an earpiece. “It’s the middle of the night.”

+++++She repeated her words, raising her voice.

+++++“Well, by God when you can’t hear, you don’t always know somebody’s knockin’. I had got up to pee when you two walked up the sidewalk. Whutcha’ want?”

+++++“Did you see or hear anything unusual two nights ago?”

+++++“Naw… well, this old lady managed to bang loud enough to catch the attention of the Devil himself. Ask me if I knew where “Wilson” lived. Told her I didn’t know no Wilsons.”

+++++Sheena scribbled in her notebook. “She say anything else, sir?”

+++++“Then she ask me if she was on Easton and I said ‘yeah, Easton Terrace’. Couldn’t half hear what the old heifer was saying and she couldn’t hear me. Sent her on her way… couldn’t hardly walk. She hobbled out to the sidewalk on a cane and I went back to bed.”

+++++Sheena found Kowalski down the block. She relayed the conversation with the deaf neighbor.

+++++Kowalski called Records on his iPhone and requested a detailed search for any rape complaints against Willie ‘Chickie’ Wilson in the past six months. He listened, jotted notes rapidly by flashlight, and broke the connection.

+++++“Damn, Sheena, a Patricia Davis of the address where we interviewed a lady of the same name this past afternoon tried to file a rape charge against Wilson three months ago. She had no evidence, no rape kit, no witnesses… but get this. Rebecca Marie Davis, the alleged victim was her granddaughter and affected with Down syndrome. You don’t suppose…?”

+++++They exchanged knowing glances. Sheena said, “Maybe a feeble old lady can actually drive across town.”

+++++Kowalski replied thoughtfully. “Twice…and at night?”

***

+++++The Davis house was dark. Kowalski shined his flashlight in a side window. Clearly visible was a frail body hanging from a rope wrapped around a ceiling beam. They called for backup and kicked the door.

+++++The note was in plain view on the same sofa they’d used during their earlier visit. Sheena read it aloud:

+++++“To the nice police officers who called on me yesterday. I knew you’d figure it out and be back. That animal hired my Rebecca Marie to clean his house and then took advantage of her child-like trust. She was two months pregnant and couldn’t deal with the shame when she jumped in front of that bus. I asked that stupid old man where Wilson lived and he didn’t know, although I already had the address. I just couldn’t see very well in the dark and I got on Easton Terrace instead of Easton Drive. I asked the man if he was Wilson and he said yes, then I learned from the newspaper I’d shot Wilson McDowell instead of that awful Chickie Wilson.”

+++++Sheena looked up at Kowalski.

+++++“Is there more?” He asked.

+++++“Rebecca’s chain and ring weren’t stolen at the funeral home. My husband picked them off her poor, sweet neck in that coffin and the whole affair killed him. I’ve worn them since. I drove my husband’s old car to Mr. McDowell’s and when I got home, I saw that my chain and ring were missing. I went back tonight to make sure the right monster got what he had coming because I knew it was over. It wasn’t enough, but it was all I could do.”

+++++“Good Grief.” Sheena handed the note to Kowalski. “A coincidence of names and addresses. The media will make her another Lucy Borden.”

+++++Kowalski pointed to the .38 snub-nose laying in open view on a counter. “We have the evidence. Ballistics will match this pistol to both shootings, the rape connection to Chickie Wilson. The defendant is beyond reach. McDowell is a tragedy, but Chickie Wilson needed killing.”

+++++He stepped to a kitchen garbage disposal, ripped the note in small pieces and flushed it down. “The newsies spend a lot of time in the sewer. Let ‘um practice on that.”

Blood Sport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++He nodded. “Go ahead…”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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 Good Fortune of Augusta

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

 

END.