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FRESH KILLS, Tales from The Kill Zone
By James Scott Bell Michelle Gagnon John Gilstrap Clare Langley-Hawthorne Kathryn Lilley John Ramsey Miller Joe Moore Scribd Edition Copyright 2010 John Gilstrap All Rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the copyright owner. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental. "Laughing Matters" Copyright © 2010 by James Scott Bell "The Chicken Guy" Copyright © 2010 by Michelle Gagnon "In the After" Copyright © 2010 by John Gilstrap "The Angel in the Garden" Copyright © 2010 by Clare Langley-Hawthorne "Blood Remains" Copyright © 2010 by Kathryn Lilley "Family Again" Copyright © 2010 by John Ramsey Miller "Final Flight" Copyright © 2010 by Joe Moore This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the individual author's imagination and are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is coincidental. Cover design: Joe Moore
General editor: James Scott Bell Line editor: Cindy Bell
The Kill Zone blog (www.killzoneauthors.blogspot.com) features seven top suspense/mystery writers. Some time back we were discussing the e-book revolution and decided to jump into it with what we do best––killer stories. So here they are. Be sure to drop by the blog and leave us a comment. We'd love to hear what you think of this collection. But most of all, enjoy these brand new stories from––
The Kill Zone Authors
James Scott Bell is the national bestselling author of Deceived, Try Dying, Try Darkness, Try Fear, The Whole Truth, No Legal Grounds and several other thrillers. He served as fiction columnist for Writers Digest magazine and has written three craft books for Writers Digest Books: Plot & Structure, Revision & Self-Editing and The Art of War for Writers. Jim has taught writing at Pepperdine University and numerous writers conferences. A former trial lawyer, he now writes and speaks full time, occasionally leaving his hometown of Los Angeles. www.jamesscottbell.com. Michelle Gagnon is a former modern dancer, bartender, dog walker, model, personal trainer, and Russian supper club performer. Her thrillers The Tunnels, Boneyard, and The Gatekeeper have been published in North America, France, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Australia. All were IMBA top ten bestsellers. Michelle lives in San Francisco with her family. In her free time, she runs errands and engages in endless online Scrabble games. www.michellegagnon.com. John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of No Mercy, Six Minutes to Freedom, Scott Free, Even Steven, At All Costs and Nathan’s Run. His second Jonathan Grave thriller, Hostage Zero, will be released in July. His novels have been translated into more than 20 languages. John has also adapted four bestselling novels for the big screen. He is currently writing and co-producing the film adaptation of his book Six Minutes to Freedom for Sesso Entertainment. A former firefighter and EMT, John holds a master’s degree in safety engineering and a bachelor’s degree in history. www.johngilstrap.com. Clare Langley-Hawthorne was raised in England and Australia. She was an attorney in Melbourne before moving to the United States, where she began her career as a writer. The first two novels in her Edwardian mystery series, Consequences of Sin and The Serpent and The Scorpion, introduced Ursula Marlow, Oxford graduate, militant suffragette and amateur sleuth. Her first novel, Consequences of Sin, was nominated for the 2008 Sue Feder Memorial Historical Mystery Macavity award and both Consequences of Sin and The Serpent and The Scorpion were IMBA bestsellers. Clare lives in Oakland, California with her family. www.clarelangleyhawthorne.com.
Joe Moore is the author of the international bestselling Cotten Stone thrillers including The Grail Conspiracy. and a Barry Award. which was the 2008 Audie Award Winner of Audiobook of the Year (Beating out Harry Potter and The Bible) and is now available in print. Smoke & Mirrors and The Last Day. His first novel.com. He and his wife. was a Literary Guild Main Selection. His novels. www. A Killer Workout. Too Far Gone. Greek and Chinese. www. The Hades Project.kathrynlilley. He writes full time from his home in South Florida.Kathryn Lilley is a crime writer and former journalist who pens the bestselling Fat City Mysteries (Dying to be Thin. The Last Family.joe-moore. Inside Out. She serves on the board of directors of the Southern California chapter of the Mystery Writers Association. Joe serves on the International Thriller Writers board of directors as Co-President. The Last Secret. Susan. in audio format.com. John Ramsey Miller is the New York Times bestselling author of seven thrillers including The Last Family. Makeovers can be Murder).johnramseymiller. She also wrote Young Adult detective mysteries under a nationally-known pseudonym. He was one of fifteen thriller authors of the audio book. written in collaboration with Lynn Sholes. live outside Gold Hill.com. Side By Side. and The 731 Legacy. and he has been nominated for both an ITW Thriller Award. Kathryn is a graduate of Wellesley College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. California. 4 . Kathryn lives and writes in Hermosa Beach. North Carolina. The Chopin Manuscript. www. Upside Down. have been published in 24 languages including Russian. His work has been published in twelve languages.
Pete Harvey. Now that I got me a job that pays great. then turned to the guy. right after I do the Golden Globes. "What?" "Five large. I don't really—" "Hear me out. It was his final bid to break out of the huge ocean of sludge that is the stand-up scene in L. He sucked.m. Gee. He did look serious. man. on top of that. Had he ever thought of that? He was thinking a lot of things now. Jerk. Ready for the devil – the very devil.A. Just what a comedian who bagged loves to hear. Pete ignored him. random mind flashes that popped and zinged across the wasteland of his brain: Career over? What now? Car wash management? Anything left? Will I ever make it? Sell my soul. Pete said nothing. "But you got potential. signaled Arianna for another." Right. ." "Right! Got it! And I'll host the Oscars next year. engaged him in a little conversation. good looking. "Not exactly a good night for you. Satan himself – to come sit next to him and offer to buy his soul in exchange for getting him to the top. and maybe that was sapping his comedy chops." the guy said. . For one performance. where do I sign?" "I'm serious. maybe. Then again. the bartender. "You interested?" Pete waited until Arianna refilled his glass. He'd given four months to the new stuff. so sure was he that he could capitalize on this new way of doing comedy. what did Satan look like? Red with horns? He'd probably be a lot more subtle. The new cutting edge material didn't work the way he was sure it would. he bit. he was there all right. What if I told you I got a way for you to get your name out there with buzz like you've never experienced before? And what if. This guy was big.Laughing Matters James Scott Bell He died. "I can do something for you. as a good luck move. that's it ." Pete looked into the guy's cold blue eyes. Truth was. he was handling three ladies at present. drained the Beam. I tell you that you can make five grand in one night?" Pete coughed. But he died just now. put it all on a CD first. just flat out died in front of the 11 p. the way it had to. and she was cool with that. sustained laughter at some of his freaking jokes. The man who sat next to him did not look like Satan. crowd at the Comedy Zone. doing what I like to do. he blew. dressed sharply. "Look. "I know what it's like to struggle in this town. including Arianna. Arianna." the guy said. "The Harv" as he billed himself. I feel for you. and it was chewing away at his insides as he downed a bourbon at the bar. For you. About 35. too. He'd slept with her a few weeks ago and not since. was it?" the guy said. or at least some outright. He'd even. Yeah. "But you just said I . He smiled into his glass. baby.
"Don't make me do what I do. "Well. "Your shot at the big time. He threw down his bourbon. so what? So he threatens to shoot you. big deal. Don't use hit. The guy put a hand on Pete's arm. Everybody does. what is going on?" Pete asked. it's been nice. I said you had a hard night." the guy said to Arianna." "Look in my eyes." the guy said. pulled him back on the stool and said." "Don't say shot." "What's going on. It's not rocket science. Guy with gun gives order. Nutty things." "What the hell?" Pete said." "No way." Pete blinked a couple of times. So a guy's got a gun. The butt of a gun stuck out from the waistband of his pants. You get five grand for one performance." "When?" "Now. It was a big." Pete whispered. into a secure garage of a high rise apartment building on Sunset. starting to get up." Okay. "So you come along with me and I don't have to do you. This is L. The doors opened. he thought. "Dude." "Very good." "Yeah? Doing what?" "Killing people. "Let's go." *** Okay. "I think he's had enough. This is going to be great story for the Tonight Show once he hit the big time. "Now get out. as in ex-linebacker size. Crazy things." "You are nuts––" "Give us a minute. It's not even advanced algebra for a guy who almost didn't graduate from Canoga Park High School." the guys aid. "You need to be sharp for the performance. Ha ha. The guy with the gun. walked with Pete to the elevator. man?" "Keep your voice down." the guy said." Pete swallowed. "Man. The guy said. who seemed a lot bigger now. waved his finger at Arianna. Guy without gun follows. black Cadillac the guy drove." With his other hand the guy pulled his jacket back. "Where?" "Just down the street. She nodded and moved to the other end of the bar. 6 . He parked in the space by the elevator. hit the button." Pete said. too. I've had hard nights. I'll drive.sucked. This is what happens in this town. Not with this guy sitting next to you. Pete thought. Pete told himself." "No.A. And especially here on the Strip. Especially late at night. She came over. "Look.
The tough guy said. The penthouse apartment must have taken up half the top floor." "In order to distinguish you from all the other Harvs in this world?" "I guess. "What am I doing here?" "This is your moment. There was a big door in front of them. The Donald Trump Story maybe. It looked like a movie set." "All comedy is based on pain." he said. "yeah. He could do anything. man. and Harv the school teacher." "Okay. As they went up." Pete said. Pete tried to stay cool but the robe guy's glare was like police lights in some old cop movie." . "Tell me what this is about. worn longish. This was just on some new kind of gig. The guy winced and shook his head. A minute later a man in a red silk bathrobe entered. "You should know that. there's Harv down the street." "You know." Pete said. There's Harv the basset hound and Harv the who-knows-what.4 temblor? The elevator dinged at the top floor of the high rise. "Of course." All right. that's established. He kept his hands in the pockets of his robe and stood for a long moment staring at Pete. That's what you want. Why should The Harv care about anyone else? Or anything else besides his precious career?" What was this going to be. Finally the robe guy said. "So you are The Harv. And what a room it was."Get in. "You first. if the movie was about the extremely rich people who lived in fabulous penthouses. is make me laugh. He was about forty. So why was he shaking like a 6." Pete said." the guy said. an insult fest? Pete started to stand but a rock hard hand pushed him back in the chair. yeah. But you are The Harv. "That's what you're doing here." the guy said. Who—" "I mean. my gimmick. You see. with a keypad beside it." the robe man said. "You mean the elevator?" Pete said. and shoved Pete through the doors. scaring the crap out of me is not exactly the way to set me up for success." Tough said. "You're gonna have to do better than that. Why am I here?" The man in the robe stepped in front of the fireplace with no fire in it. He could do it. Why the gun?" "You'll find out." and Pete stepped off into an opulent corridor." "Uh. within the next half hour. trim. pointing to a large chair in the center of the room. "Sit there. with a full head of brown hair. I'm doing you a favor." "Then all you have to do." Pete said. isn't it?" "Well. man. "Of course. The tough entered a code then opened the door for Pete. "Come on. I'm The Harv. It was a lame attempt at humor and Pete knew it. Sure. That's my handle. He'd almost forgotten about the linebacker with the gun. I am someone who has the power to make you a star in your chosen profession. "Do you have any idea who I am?" Pete shook his head slowly. "Nice crib. Your chance to rocket to the skies. Pete had done his act in clubs smaller than this place. Pete said.
Mr. "So what do we do now?" Rockwell sat in the stuffed chair next to the fireplace. "No. Do that. and I will give you five thousand dollars and I will see to it that your comedy CD takes off and you become a household name. But she won't be needing it any more. "Now? Here's what we do. descended on the room. "I really think there's been a misunderstanding. man. Pete said. On more than one occasion. eh?" Uh-oh. I worked the last ten years to get good. What was this about? Had Pete had this guy's wife? Please no." He tried to stand again. huh?" "Sure." "Even other men's wives." He bobbed his eyebrows. Harder. Think you can do it?" "I have no idea—" "Come on. Pete swallowed hard." "Sure you do." "Ignorance of the law is no excuse. I didn't know she was married. Harvey?" "Um. "Bring back memories?" Robe said. "Am I right?" Robe said again. The big guy reached in his coat and pulled out some photographs. unless it had hemorrhoids and sandpaper in the same sentence." Okay. "The comedy thing is a chick magnet. Are you any good at what you do or not?" "Yeah. "I do okay." Pete said. Not smile. A lot of action. as if to say. yeah. he remembered her now. am I right?" Pete could not think of a more uncomfortable conversation. who. which he tossed on Pete's lap. The Harv. who? More than one occasion? How long ago? Someone from the club? "I honestly think there's been a mistake. you'll recall. level with me. got pushed down again. The one you have dishonored. "Excuse me?" "You're quite the ladies' man. Pete thought. what was her name again? Yes."Make you laugh?" "That's it. With all kinds. The last name is the one I gave her." "That's not all you worked on. Robe nodded at the big guy. isn't it?" "You know." Oh man! What was going on? One of those pregnant pauses. . I don't know." "Melissa Rockwell. Come on. a fake smile on his face. And neither is ignorance about another man's wife." Robe said. You slept with my wife. having no idea if there had been. I really don't. and the fake smile was gone. She never said she was. But if I fail to 8 . So what's that got to do with anything? "Come on. "You can level with me. Mr. Laugh. "Look. Do you recall that. I'm good. Robe's eyes were narrow now. Finally Pete said. There has not. ." Robe said. They were clandestine photos of him in his car with ." Pete put his hands out." "We're a couple of guys. the kind just before the perfectly delivered punch line. You have thirty minutes to make me laugh. Her name is Melissa.
No response. Hey. well." the big thug said. maybe some of the classics. and they all looked weird to me. maybe bolt from the room. He was like a mime doing a statue." Pete said. He had to make the guy in the robe laugh. I am a serious man. The wall clock had ticked off three more minutes. and used to talk about an American skier named Bud Werner. but I stopped when I saw what it did to my friends. "I don't know. His dad gave him a Henny Youngman joke book for Christmas when he was thirteen. sir? Because I only gamble for laughs. 'Tell me everything. How's that happen?" He paused. "You'll never make it out alive. You ever read the obituaries? People die in alphabetical order." Pete said. So what choice did Pete "The Harv" Harvey have now? There was nowhere to hide." Silence. The sort of thing a real performer or athlete lives for." The clock ticked. Pete told himself. Werner died that day. "And what's the deal with dogs? You own a dog. Made the Olympic squad three times. Instead of taking safety behind a tree or rock." Pete's legs were shaking. Let's go with this.laugh. Because I'm not an athlete and can't get my hands on the good stuff. One he lost." Pete said. I'd get high." Nothing. Pete reminded himself." "I'm waiting. If his own material wasn't working. Okay. he had to. Slowly." "Hey. as if he could read Pete's exact thoughts.' I did. Last week I laughed away my car. He didn't even know if he could stand up. sir?" Rockwell said nothing. I must be horizontally parked in a parallel universe. "Tough living room. He had to beat the avalanche. looked at Rockwell's face. Rapid fire." Rockwell said. I am. he knew it. this is the challenge of a lifetime. death. and you better make me laugh. you just. "You're a stand up comedian. I used to do drugs." The sound of imaginary crickets chirped in Pete's head." the thug said. die. Then retired. "But I would never advocate the use of drugs. "And don't try running. he stood. "You cannot be serious." "Oh. "On Tuesday I got me a prosthetic arm." . "You on drugs? Because if you're on drugs that's unfair. nowhere to run. The race of a lifetime. Bud Werner decided to race the avalanche. and that's your challenge." A shudder like a drunk's cackle coursed through Pete's body. after all. "Are you a gambler. what do you send to a sick florist?" "I went to see a psychiatrist." Pete said. He says. and was doing a ski film in the Alps. Not even a twitch. "What can you say? It's crazy. He was skiing down a mountain when an avalanche happened. In the late 50's and early 60's Werner became the first world class skier America had ever produced. But if he was going to get out of this sick joke." "Now you can stand up. It was made of pure granite. Pete had to dig deep. and Pete memorized the whole thing. Now he's doing my act. and you better do it in—" he looked at a wall clock – "twenty-nine minutes. "Hey. "I got me a pit bull on Monday. "Hey. trying to get the timing down. Pete's dad was a ski enthusiast.
Fifteen minutes to go. Closer. closer. who gets the word there's a pardon from the governor. slimy. It doesn't matter that I was laughing at your pitiful. my ex." Rockwell said. Time to bring out the jokes about wives. 10 . . Pete had not even gotten a nose wrinkle. It doesn't matter that it wasn't at your jokes. where she was voted Most Likely to Succeed With Anybody.Pete tossed out five more one liners. It was an automatic response. But Pete wasn't exactly slaying him right now. at the big thug. no twitch. well. race jokes for three – channeling Don Rickles. Nothing but dead air in return. Then Pete started to laugh. Dead. The avalanche was coming. He did some Seinfeld. "Look at that. 'You're gonna have a what?'" Anything? Maybe–– "I met her in college. spent. huh? My ex-wife kept complaining she didn't feel wanted. Passed gas . but nobody started the bidding. Rockwell was Mount Rushmore. He looked at Rockwell. Was he trying hard not to laugh? "You know how I proposed to my wife? I said." Rockwell's face returned to its former stoic aspect. True. but never with death hanging over him. Rockwell. He was weak. the crazy laugh of the man in the death chamber. "And what's the deal with wives. desperation and the crash after an adrenaline rush. unfunny. His mind was a blank now. Thirteen minutes left. and at the clock. Was that a crack in Rockwell's face? "Yeah. With one minute left Pete's heart was pounding." Rockwell's eyes narrowed and his lips tightened. Pete tried sex jokes for two minutes. "I used to work in a fire hydrant factory." Did Rockwell's cheek just move? "I decided one day I wanted to get something for her. finished. And that's when the guy laughed. there was a chance he'd just get angrier. So I went down to the post office and put up her picture. will you? I laughed. some Steven Wright." Zip. did we just have some thunder from down under? Is somebody hunting ducks?" No laugh. So what had just happened? It was almost as if the guy had simply passed gas. no mercy. to be sure. Fifteen seconds. Five seconds left. . And Rockwell was still laughing. She can find a fault quicker than anybody. born of fatigue. Maybe he could get a sardonic laugh out of Mr. his mouth opening up with nothing coming out." Wait. You couldn't park anywhere near the place. too. "Well. the needle going into his arm. Huh? Pete looked at the clock. the best of the best. no smile. And then Pete Harvey started to cry. "Hey. what can I say? She should go into earthquake work. Pete had been in front of audiences like that.
success is suddenly his. The Harv could have gone to great heights. Rockwell said. get in bed – alone – and stay there. But instead of heading toward the door. flying over Sunset Boulevard with its red and gold and green lights." "Good. *** A week later. Bobby. "I trust you. "A real tragedy. I laughed. New Life for Tragic Comedian Pete "The Harv" Harvey's CD and iTunes sales continue to climb." declared Bill Bronstein. show The Harv out. because the big thug tapped Pete on the shoulder and handed him a thick envelope. Bobby brought Variety to his boss and showed him the story. And I will. ironically. Bobby took Pete's arm and started him toward the penthouse balcony. who committed suicide last week by jumping off the roof of the Archwood Arms apartments on Sunset Boulevard. I'm a man of my word. And so I'll say good-night. In his possession when he died was an envelope with five thousand dollars and a typed note that said Money means nothing to me. who has shot more comedians to superstardom than anyone else. "He may have been an undiscovered genius. And it was clear where he'd be going next. Now it was time to get home. down. It can't buy me success as a comedian. Harvey. From inside the penthouse. which was produced by an anonymous benefactor." Pete felt the bear trap hands of the thug grabbing his clothes. Show over. "No. Wish I had a joke. but I'm all out. And the guy had said something about making his CD take off and him being a household name and all that." he managed to say. "You can. but the thug was too strong. You can. will you?" Pete stuffed the envelope in the back pocket of his jeans. "You said I could trust you!" Pete screamed. Pete just wanted to get out of there. Maybe it will for somebody else. give him the money. was despondent over his lack of success in the world of standup comedy.worthless self. Now. Bobby pushed Pete out into the night." What? This whole bizarre thing wasn't just a bad dream? Apparently not. Down. And then Pete was flying. I said I'd give you five large. He would see about that later." . lifting him. flying over the city he once thought he would conquer. Curiosity about his comedy has fueled a demand for his only known CD. And a deal's a deal. "Hey!" Pete tried to fight him. down. Rockwell met them at the balcony door. which he opened. Bobby. and get great buzz for your material. "You want to count it?" Rockwell said. So what if the guy didn't laugh because of his jokes? He was five thousand dollars richer.
" 12 ."Or fallen from them. "Now that's funny. And laughed." Rockwell said to Bobby.
But as soon as she spotted the dim light illuminating a window at the far end of the building. set in an abandoned industrial zone in Trenton. saying it was related to the Chicken Guy case. which raised the question of how the killer got there. a local waitress and mother of three named Patty Gill. Patty had been observed flirting with him. He was close now. the pale figure on the table was victim number four. shifting back and forth in the shadows of the building as she waited. Apparently Patty grinned as she got in. Even from this distance he appeared enormous. tightening her grip on the Glock. She’d called for backup. an anonymous voice on a blocked number. and dark stains marred the floor. she’d known in her gut that this was the place. shrugging it off in favor of a hot shower and a night in front of her motel room TV. But the killer she hunted was responsible for far worse. nothing. She’d vanished on her way home from work four nights ago. Kelly thought. She’d entered through a back door and crept for a hundred feet along the dark corridor where chickens once lined up to have their throats mechanically slit. The assembly line had been partially dismantled. she’d opted to check it out alone. Kelly hadn’t passed a single car on her approach.” This story details how she barely survived the encounter. Kelly had nearly dismissed it as a prank. and the sitter’s frantic call was routed to Kelly’s task force at 5AM. She risked a peek around the corner of the machine. she reminded herself. probably sold for scrap. The coppery tang of blood still scented the air. The mass of buildings that had once swallowed and regurgitated workers in endless shifts now sat silent and empty. She should have guessed that this was a good tip. Crap. Meaty shoulders worked up and down like pistons. Based on their killer’s MO they only had seventy-two hours to save Patty. As it was. It was the perfect location for a kill room. As he shifted to one side. which involved. A day or two after that her body would turn up boned and parceled out in neat wrappers like a carved bird. Where the hell is my backup? she wondered again as the sawing noise resumed. If she was right. Another witness saw a dark car pull up at the bus stop later that evening. clearly relieved to avoid the forty-five minute wait for the M49. The caller had only provided an address. less than fifty yards away. As the saw spun.The Chicken Guy by Michelle Gagnon In my debut thriller The Tunnels. a chain with a broken padlock still dangled from it.G. The door at the rear of the building was ajar. she felt compelled to enter. And then. and hers was the only one in the lot. and one customer thought she saw her slip him a phone number. Several diner customers remembered a guy staying at her station until nearly closing. But when the shriek of a circular saw pierced the night. Kelly spotted something pale laid out on the table before him. one character makes an oblique reference to FBI Special Agent Kelly Jones’s previous case. A trace of Patty’s cell phone had led them to a dumpster a few blocks . – M. but the conveyor belt remained. Kelly was in an abandoned processing plant in New Jersey that for years had served as the last stop for poultry. “the Chicken Guy. FBI Special Agent Kelly Jones’s legs ached from maintaining the same position. A man was silhouetted by the light of a portable fluorescent lantern. but she didn’t dare shift for fear of making noise. No time to think about that now. The search for Patty had initially been promising. flecks of matter sprayed around him. The call had come in as she was leaving for the day.
this was Trenton. Kelly sighed. But still. momentarily overwhelmed by the thought of how easy it would be. They were supposed to approach silently. refusing to drop his weapon. she thought. Kelly glanced at her watch again. There would be no witnesses. where they found it still securely tucked in her purse. the victims’ families the pain of facing the man who wreaked such havoc on their lives. not to mention eliminating the slim chance that he might walk on a technicality. seemingly oblivious to her approach. and a search of the nearby area had elicited no new information. hoping the noise from the saw would cover her movement. they were all alone here. Ninety-eight hours had passed since Patty disappeared. Perhaps he’d worked in this plant. “Where I can see them!” She wouldn’t be able to explain how later. Kelly glanced at her watch. everyone deserved some dignity in death. After a minute he turned back to what he was doing. Her task force had been looking for someone with a background in butchering. Over the next two days. slicing the space where her head had just been. The moniker was doubly ironic considering the place he’d chosen to dismember his victims. She couldn’t just sit there while this guy carved Patty up like a turkey. Kelly had met her kids. she was going in. and had returned to satisfy a grisly need in familiar surroundings. Based on what Kelly could see from her vantage point. it wasn’t like they harbored a host of Pulitzer nominees. She’d been staring at the woman’s photo for three days. darkness shielding his face. It had been nearly fifteen minutes since she’d called for backup. The man stayed bent over his work. Kelly landed hard on her side and struggled to level the gun. The saw whirred. He paused. He glanced back over his left shoulder. Kelly aimed her gun squarely at the broadest part of his back. eyes firmly focused on the floor as they answered questions with terse one-word responses. but she sensed what was about to happen and reacted a moment before he swiveled. Kelly steeled herself for the confrontation. “FBI! Hands in the air!” She shouted. She tightened her grip on the Glock and eased forward. and could picture her puzzled brown eyes gazing up from a stringy mass of poorly-dyed hair.from the bus stop.” Not terribly original. Kelly waited. Kelly probably wouldn’t have been able to stand her. “The Chicken Killer. then took a deep breath to steady herself. or even accurate. The press had dubbed him. that of a lonely woman who found comfort in the arms of strangers and left her kids to fend for themselves. No sign of a struggle in or around the dumpster. In life. A grim portrait of Patty’s life had quickly emerged. but with remarkable speed 14 . to avoid spooking the suspect. she was already too late to save her. But the sound of metal slicing through bone was becoming unbearable. Kelly froze and held her breath. but he didn’t turn to face her. The butcher knife somersaulted through the air. Bureau policy be damned. The saw fell silent. But at least she had the killer in her sights. But then. Kelly thought. as if sensing the weight of her eyes. and killers frequently chose kill sites that held some personal meaning for them. although perhaps that was why he’d selected it. It would spare the state the cost of a trial. three of them side by side on the couch. shifting her finger back. She eased her finger over the trigger. feet planted apart to brace her against the gun’s recoil. Her wallet had been intact. lights and sirens off. She closed the distance between them to ten feet. The dark figure suddenly straightened. “I said hands in the air!” She repeated. every lead had dried up. She could claim that he charged her.
lifting her off her feet. Splayed across it were the remains of Patty Gill. It was a sad end to a sad life. When the hand clamped down on her shoulder.” and the hands around her throat went slack. hoping to fool him into thinking she’d passed out. What was taking them so long? This was the biggest case to hit the area in years. and she’d been promised that all local resources would be made available. Kelly continued fighting as she struggled for air. Kelly dropped to the floor. with multiple levels and offices on the upper floors. but the fourth one nearly knocked her unconscious and the Glock slipped from her grasp. blood clotted where the joints used to meet. Hard to believe that something more important had come up that night. closer this time. panning her gun in a constant arc. With her pale skin she looked like a disassembled mannequin. slamming her hard against the cold metal side of the vat. and backup should be arriving any minute. Her eyes gazed blankly at the ceiling. There were marks on her neck consistent with strangulation.” The breath in her ear was hot and reeked of garlic and something stale. The smart move would be to head back outside. stumbling and landing hard on one knee before . Kelly could cover it while she waited for backup. she’d catch hell for going in alone. Flexing her neck muscles she launched backward with as much force as she could muster. Shadows seemed to lunge for her as she crossed the warehouse. Yet even as she thought it. willing her eyes to adjust. and his grip loosened just enough for her head to lower forward. conveyor belts circling the lower interior. at least then he’d be fenced in. The table was set in the center of the room. again annoyed by the delay. Kelly made her way toward the door quickly but stealthily. Kelly tried to spin out of his grip. the size of two football fields. An arm locked around her throat. The killer could have stashed weapons anywhere in the factory. She’d been in worse situations. If the killer had his wits about him he’d try to escape. then slammed them both down at the same time. but he didn’t fall for it. same as the other three victims. If this guy got away. Kelly went limp. She probably should have waited for backup. It sounded like a pipe had clattered across the floor. It was an enormous space. and none of her self-defense training had any effect. The hairs stood up on the back of her neck. Her lips pursed and she allowed herself a quick glance at her watch. but he propelled her forward. and she eased behind a large metal vat—God only knew what it once contained. He yelped. but it smelled foul. Kelly heard a noise off to her right and reflexively swung her gun in that direction. He’d already carved through her arms. she yelped. She peered through the murk. She gouged at his eyes with her fingers. She cursed and got to her feet. But there was nothing she could do about that now. Another loud “crack. She heard a “snap” as her heels connected with kneecaps. she wondered if this was how she was destined to die. still stiff from crouching. they lay slightly apart from her body. as did her left leg. and there was only one road out of here. Stars popped in her eyes. Kelly gritted her teeth and drew her knees in to her chest. landing with a clatter. enveloped in the arms of a madman. She managed to stay upright through the first few blows. and she fought to keep her breathing steady. one of the former stations where in the past inspectors examined samples from the line. and Kelly experienced a flash of pity for Patty’s kids before regaining her focus. Another metallic ping. “I’ve been waiting for you. trying to keep her mind clear and calm despite the alarm bells ringing in her ears. already puddling white and distant. flailed at his legs with her heels…but he was too strong. exploding through the gloom.the killer vanished into the depths of the factory. She battled panic.
but could overtake her while she was distracted. Fifty yards past that lay the exit to the parking lot. Spying a long metal bar on the floor she ducked low. straining to hear above her own panting gasps. slowly so as to minimize the sound. Barring that. The thought of traversing the factory gloom unarmed made her shudder. stashed in the trunk of the rental car along with her backup weapon. As she retreated she kept expecting to feel that horrible breath on the back of her neck. she reasoned. For most. she could call for help. Adrenaline coursed through her veins. grabbing it without breaking stride. Carefully scrambling over a stack of packing crates. she could make another run for her rental car. But if he came after her again. she realized it had been jarred loose during the attack. it would take several tries to get the door open. she shifted her grip on the pipe and said a silent prayer. she needed to know the status of her backup. and the spot where he had briefly overwhelmed her. but even that was better than nothing. She was at the far end of the factory. With a sinking feeling. skirting the outside wall. He’d easily overpowered her once. it was all about the hunt. She ran as hard as she could. groping along her waist. steering clear of larger pieces of machinery he could be lurking behind. waiting for an opportunity to finish what he’d started. He was probably huddled in the dark. and try to retrieve her sidearm. And by that point. Kelly reviewed her options. And her cell phone was still in her purse. She moved quickly but silently. it took a few minutes to realize he wasn’t pursuing her. all she had to fend him off was a length of rusty pipe. She pushed on the bar to open it. There was only silence. hands outstretched to maintain her balance. She could leave this way and double back to her car. but it wouldn’t budge. those meaty arms closing around her throat. listening for any other movement. Aside from a steady drip of water 16 . She reached for the radio hooked to her belt loop. It was tempting to just stay put. Clearly she hadn’t spent enough time in the field these past few cases. there was nothing they loved more than a good game of cat and mouse. hoping that at some point reinforcements arrived. Kelly picked her way through a jumble of equipment until she reached the rear wall. Deciding. weaving to avoid equipment. All she had to do was find it. She was so focused on escape. hands brushing the polished metal side of a storage tank. Kelly paused. the killer would not only be alerted to her position. She could wait here. A building this size had to have at least one another exit. But if Kelly could just reach her car. and there was an excellent chance he’d do it again. She couldn’t stop shaking. Kelly heaved a sigh of relief. a gleam of light on the ceiling marked the spot where the lantern illuminated Patty’s corpse. Kelly kicked herself. She scanned the darkness. This time she stuck to the periphery. careful to avoid the pools of light filtering from the center of the room. She looked around for something to break the chain. she’d gotten sloppy. It was cold to the touch. She’d dealt with this type of psycho before. then stopped with a rattle. And she’d have a Sig Sauer to keep her company while she waited. She tried to organize her thoughts. Now she had no way of determining if help was even on the way. she spotted a set of double doors. First and foremost.regaining her footing. opposite where she had entered. back to where he jumped her. Kelly pressed harder. It opened an inch. Dead center in the room. Kelly took a deep shuddering breath to calm herself. then realized that even if she found anything. The alternative was to cross the length of the warehouse. In a fight against someone the killer’s size it would provide a negligible advantage. The door was chained shut on the outside.
Hopefully enough to get her the hell out of here. Kelly moved toward the open space in the center of a snarl of equipment. A shuffle off to her left at ten o’clock. and she knelt to examine them: blood.” She called out. it was still. looking for her Glock. she had a fighting chance of making it out alive. It sounded like he was behind a tank that rested on its side about fifteen feet away. So she’d done some damage to the bastard after all. Kelly repressed a shudder before spinning in a slow circle. kitten.” There was another throaty laugh. She couldn’t see anything.” Kelly bit her lower lip and tried to stay calm. Rushing in unarmed would be foolhardy.from the depths of the building. the whole place is burning. The exit was so tantalizingly close. Kelly had a full clip. keeping your hands where I can see them. arm outstretched. It remained just beyond her grasp. Kelly spun the gun toward it. even if it meant shooting this bastard in the back. another few hundred yards away. then dropped down. She needed her gun. and was waiting to use it against her. “You should surrender yourself. Kelly straightened and scanned her surroundings. She stood slowly. but she wasn’t about to be fooled by that again. After five minutes she was standing next to the vat he had slammed her against. As quickly as possible she scooted forward. Even if what he was saying was true. And this time she had no qualms about pulling the trigger. Kelly’s heart caught in her throat. Kelly tried to get her bearings. barely audible. gutting equipment. fifteen rounds. there was a low chuckling noise behind her. coming to rest against the bottom of the table. and low hanging splatter tarps that provided perfect hiding places. she noted with grim satisfaction. “Big riots downtown. She groped along the floor.” As she spoke. A black chasm yawned open in front of her: the conveyor line. She could barely make out the outline of her weapon. Hopefully enough to prevent him sneaking up on her. her senses hyper-attuned to the slightest sound and movement. “Backup is almost here. she was screwed no matter what. she had to fight an overwhelming urge to bolt for it. It skidded a few inches closer. it had skidded all the way underneath. Of course there was always the chance that he’d managed to retrieve her Glock. It was probably fifteen yards toward the center of the room.” he said. Grabbing it with her left hand Kelly spun quickly. “It’s just you and me tonight. staying in the shadows. knocking the gun sideways. smart enough to keep her from getting a fix on his location. the top of her head jamming against the metal crossbeam. she felt naked without it. almost a growl. waiting for him to make the next move. She closed the distance. Kelly kept her gun steady. At least with that in her hand. “Come on out. There was a gap there. but she had to be near the spot where he’d jumped her. parallel to where she was standing now. It was hard to tell. He didn’t respond. between two vats. When she reached the bench she dropped to a crouch. To retrieve it. It felt like forever before her fingers fumbled across the handgrip. She’d have at least eight feet clear on every side of her. knocking her head against the crossbeam. There was a sharp clatter about ten feet to her right. she’d have to crawl on her belly. she spied a darker shadow under an overturned workbench ten feet away. There were some dark spots on the floor. She made a sweeping motion. Kelly eased around a large vat and scanned the darkness. trying to reassert control over the situation. As she struggled to reach it. She debated whether or not to press forward. she was still armed. Glancing to the right. She edged slowly back into the interior. make it easy on both of us. rough concrete scraping her palm. But if that was the case. easy to mistake for a whisper of breeze. As she aimed at that . But the hallway was filled with a tangle of hooks. The narrow passage led to the exit. leaving her exposed.
Kelly squeezed off two rounds in succession. She fell back a step. There were no windows. Kelly took one step forward. She heard retreating footsteps. The passage stretched out before her. the tunnel flashing white with each percussive blast.” When the attack came. putting some distance between them. staying behind each successive tarp. Kelly squinted: the tarp up ahead on her left hung further from the wall than its twin on the opposite side. In this light. emptying the clip. This guy was leaving the building tonight handcuffed. something flashed across the divide between them. he dashed along the wall. “Trust me. Her ears had caught a stray sound. then another. No movement. The stench of old blood was stronger here. gun still grasped firmly in both hands. the last few shots had practically been at point blank range. or in a bodybag. “Last chance. closer and closer to where she stood. Earlier. She sensed something behind her and spun quickly. She sniffed again: garlic. The killer could be lurking in any of the shadows. blotting out the light from the door beyond. As Kelly braced for the attack. down the conveyor belt passage. on a gurney. she had made her way through by touch alone. She was thirty feet from the end. then twentyfive. It took a second for her eyes to adjust from the barrel flash. hopefully injured him badly. Kelly jumped back. but instead of moving into the center of the passage as she’d expected. legs bent. She hesitated. When they did. She kept firing. listening hard. aiming. sticking to the center of the passage. He was headed for the exit. She heard a muted yelp. Kelly started firing off rounds. and the walls were covered by dark flaps stiff with generations of avian offal. A pool of blood was expanding around him.” Kelly said. hands still clenching the Glock in a death grip. the deafening noise shattering the stillness. the space between the vats was empty. Each time she only caught a glimpse of him before he vanished behind the next wall of black canvas. it was impossible to tell whether or not he was still breathing. Her heart pounded. He remained motionless. Kelly experienced a visceral wave of fear. The door at the far end was still propped open the way she’d left it. arms by his sides. he suddenly keeled forward. she knew which she’d prefer. the sound of sirens. Kelly paused at the entrance. The tarp flapped outward. And given a choice. 18 . She was out of ammunition. In the distance. only ten feet across.spot. carefully picking her way along. She inhaled deeply and felt the tension leave her body. her resolve steeled. but there was no one there. Kelly eased forward. The blood trail vanished into the dark matting on the floor. It was narrow. it shifted ever so slightly. Metal hooks hung in a row along the ceiling. This might just be another trap. His bulk loomed over her. The dark folds see-sawed toward the center of the tunnel. It was like a giant flock of dark birds descending on her. She judged it to be about ten feet away from the entrance. She jogged forward. Kelly sucked in a deep breath and held it. Kelly took a step forward and nudged him with her toe. He was waiting for her. it was swift. She had to have hit him at least once. a gulp of air. and the little outside light that filtered in dissipated after ten feet. The killer barreled to a halt a foot away. The flap closest to her swung out as he lunged at her. there’s nothing I’d like better than shooting you. the night outside glaringly bright in comparison to the dank tunnel. and Kelly detected a trace of something else in the air. until her finger clicked the trigger impotently. There was a trail of blood on the floor: she’d hit him. As she watched.
digging the hook into his temple. Kelly landed hard. dropping her hands. In the parking lot. I’m unarmed!” She called out. “Not so fast. “Don’t shoot. Blood dribbled from his mouth as he said. “I’ve always hated that name. She shifted it. Their red lights strobed across the back of his head. Four uniformed cops were stationed behind open car doors. knocking her upper body to the floor. but after a suspended moment it broke free. making her cry out in pain. Something sharp pierced her thigh. He rose up above her. She swung her arm forward. As he reached for her throat. “The Chicken Guy in there?” “You know. his breath a raspy gurgle.” She said. raising her arms as she crossed the threshold.” She muttered aloud. She squinted against the sudden glare of headlights. two black and whites were parked at odd angles. Kelly could only manage a nod.” Kelly tried to kick free but he wrenched her leg sideways. and drew her arm back. pressing her into the floor. horrified. hot and wet. She gripped it hard.” . The killer was crawling up her legs. Kelly staggered to her feet. switching her grip. “Federal Agent!” “Special Agent Jones?” One of them asked.“Finally. Kelly felt the hook biting into her palm. Kelly summoned all her remaining strength. Kelly looked down. something clamped down on her ankle. gasping for air. His mouth gaped open like a fish as he collapsed to the side. As she circled his body. She tried to scramble back but his grip was steel. guns drawn. A leering face peered up at her. As she fell backwards she flung her hand out. trying to keep herself upright. dripped onto her face. Kelly heard cars screeching to a stop in the parking lot outside. kitten. hand over hand. His blood. She stumbled to the open doorway. grabbing hold of one of the hooks dangling from the conveyor belt. The weight of him on her lower body was crushing.
don’t even talk about that. Tony pushed the button for the garage door and pulled into the rightmost bay of the fourcar garage. pure fear. Ellie’s eyes bulged with terror. giant circles. certainly not twenty-five—and on a different night under different circumstances. If Tony could stay calm. “She’s okay. 20 . Perhaps it had been a mistake to take the trip up from Chapel Hill in one long gulp like this. Tony jumped back and yelled when he saw them. Her neighbors seem delightful. he tried to look calm. violence would follow. “I’m not hurting her. “Trust me. Ellie made a beeline for the house while Tony policed the four empty water bottles and too many snack wrappers. On his way inside. Carrying an oversized black gym bag in one hand and his pistol in the other. the intruder led his captives to the dining room. As adrenalin flooded his body.In The After John Gilstrap Tony Emerson piloted the Mercedes up the long driveway toward the twelve thousand square feet of colonial grandeur that he called home. Eleanor—Ellie—his wife of twenty-one years yawned noisily and stretched in the seat next to him.” Ellie insisted. calm would beget calm. I bet she’s already found a brand new best friend.” She found his hand in the dark.” the intruder said. He walked them out to the trash bin. the crook of his elbow tucked under her chin. He was a young man—a kid really.” Tony raised his hands as if to ward off an angry dog. Dark eyes and dark hair complemented an olive complexion. “Is Amber all settled in?” the intruder asked. This is not pain. just let him steal whatever he wanted and get the hell out. I know how to hurt people. “I don’t think I can feel my legs anymore. and in a world where things made sense.” Finding friends had always been easy for their daughter.” The next few moments passed in a kind of dazed blur. red with tears. Ellie. but he never saw it. either at work or at the gym. “God. he might have been handsome. “If dropping her off at college is this hard. His chiseled jaw and thick neck spoke of someone who labored hard.” she quipped. When the engine stopped. Tony was beat—ready for a short scotch and a long nap. Whoever this guy was. so would Ellie. The man smiled without humor. “You’re going to just die when you hear the answers. he looked right at the severed telephone line.” Ellie gasped. It was an animal sound. across the center console.” “Yes you are. He felt a rumbling in his gut that made him think he might soil himself. He instructed Tony to sit in the massive master’s chair that dominated the north end of the inlaid mahogany table. “Are you all right. *** The intruder held a gun to Ellie’s head. “Two very fine questions. Ellie?” Somehow he knew that if he surrendered to the panic. “He’s hurting my neck. “Easy. how am I going to cope with her getting married one day?” Ellie gave a dramatic shiver.” He tightened his grip on Ellie and brought his mouth close to her ear. okay? Who are you? What do you want?” The intruder smiled broadly. “She’ll be fine.
” The intruder scowled as he clacked the computer keys. Do I sense a blackmail pitch coming?” . God I love that tough talk.” he said. “Don’t give him the satisfaction. it didn’t matter. so what do you need me for?” The humor evaporated from the intruder’s face. The intruder never broke eye contact with Ellie. “How do you do it. “Who are you?” The intruder laughed too loudly.” The intruder laughed. He appreciated his wife’s efforts to keep the tape loose.” “The truth will do. “From two days ago. “Oh. “Don’t beg.” Ellie stammered. When she was three-quarters restrained. “Ah!” he proclaimed as he finished. You tell her. “You’re pretty tough with words. Tony saw the tears on her eyelids and was surprised by the anger he felt toward her. “That’s right. opened it.” He spun the computer back to face him and started typing again. “Everybody comfy?” “Please don’t do this. Melissa and Sam. Tone? You catch ’em redhanded in the act of doing wrong. He stood to his full height. Tone?” He pulled out a laptop computer. That was the second time this lunatic had mentioned her.” He returned his gaze to his computer screen.” Tony’s stomach tensed. He recited from memory: “Ellie to Amber. “I’m sure she was taken out of context. wrists and elbows to the heavy wooden frame. and started the boot-up procedure.” Ellie begged. he paused and glared. Ellie? How do you process such genius day after day?” Tony’s ears went hot as his wife shot him a pleading look.” he said.” Tony said.” Tony made a puffing sound that was supposed to be a bitter laugh. she wrote essentially the same things to her friends Sharon. too?” Tony rolled his eyes. “I expect answers. After a few seconds. He can be such an ass. he turned the screen to display what clearly was an email. “I think you’ve made your point.” he threatened. El. “Don’t consider any of my questions to be rhetorical. the intruder forced Ellie to secure her own ankles and one wrist to the matching chair at the south end of the table. In fact. I ask questions because I want answers. You spied on us and found embarrassing things. but in the end. Such an ass. “Don’t you find him to be such an ass sometimes?” “No!” she exclaimed.’ Those are the very words you used. I can only imagine how safe Amber must have felt growing up with a tough-guy writer as a father. Sorry. aren’t you. ‘Your father continues to think that he’s king of the world. and right away it’s somehow your fault. “I-I don’t know what to say. Tone. Tone. A wonderful husband. With Tony thoroughly trussed. not me. “I’ll give you the same warning that I gave to Hubby. Should I pull those up. “You’ve clearly determined the right answers. he managed not to sound terrified.Tony followed directions and allowed Ellie to use the intruder’s duct tape to bind his ankles. The intruder dropped his gym bag heavily on the table and opened it. “Isn’t that just like a wife. The man with the gun insisted that she wrap each point of attachment so many times that there was no such thing as loose by the time she was done.” “You spied on my email?” Ellie gasped. A terrific writer. When he didn’t get an answer to his question. no she wasn’t. the intruder felt it safe to finish the job by binding Ellie’s remaining wrist. “What’s the point?” Despite his galloping heart and fiery stomach. “He’s a brilliant man. that’s your bride talking.
The intruder remained focused on the screen. “This isn’t about money, Tone. This is about retribution. If it was about money and blackmail, I’d have threatened to tell Ellie about Marcie.” The words landed like a fist in Tony’s gut. This was not possible. The look he shot to Ellie was supposed to scream innocence, but clearly it missed its mark. “Oh, Ellie,” the intruder said. “You don’t know about Marcie? I could show you pictures, text messages, emails, or credit card receipts. Which would you like?” Ellie stared, her face blank. Overwhelmed. “Marcie McLean?” she asked. “It’s not like he says,” Tony tried. “Oh, it’s exactly like I say,” the intruder said. “Jesus, Tone, this is a critical moment in your spiritual journey. One of you’s going to be dead in a few minutes. You don’t want to shed this mortal coil with a lie on your soul, do you?” Tony felt his world closing, strangling him. Somehow this man had accomplished a surveillance miracle. He knew things that no one could know, and he’d somehow obtained proof to back it all up. Tony’s mind raced. If he tried to deny, the man would make a fool of him. If he owned up . . . “It was only physical,” Tony said, finally. “It was never love.” Even as he spoke the words he knew how awful they sounded. Ellie’s face had hardened into something poisonous. “Marcie McLean.” The intruder made a clicking sound with his tongue. “If it helps, Ellie, I have no idea what he sees in her. You look way better naked than she does. Although I think you might want to have that mole on your tummy looked at.” “Stop!” shouted Ellie. The man finished making a connection in cyberspace and seemed pleased with himself. “Isn’t it remarkable how quickly a happy family can transform into something ugly? It’s almost like watching a smile turn to cancer, isn’t it?” Tony flexed his wrists, testing the strength of his bonds. They remained impossibly secure. “Why are you doing this?” The intruder looked to Ellie, his eyes wide. “Did you hear that? Did you hear that change in his voice? Did you hear the whine in Tone’s tone? I’m doing it because I can, Tony. I’m doing it to hurt you. To ruin things. Same reason a man brings a baseball bat into a china shop. I want to make pretty things ugly.” He spun the computer around again so they could see it. At first, it appeared to be a smear of black and gray, indiscernible. Then the angle shifted, and as the picture resolved, Tony’s insides dissolved. The intruder looked so proud. “So you see it,” he said. “You were quicker than I thought. Amber’s pretty while she sleeps, isn’t she?” Tony gaped, his mouth dry and his brain numb with fear. “What have you done?” “I haven’t done anything. At least not yet. Certainly nothing as terrible as what you’ve done.” The intruder leaned in closer. “I haven’t killed anyone. That’s more than you can say.” Tony reared back in his chair. “What are you talking about? I’m a writer, for God’s sake.” “A famous one at that,” the intruder agreed. He removed a phone from his pocket—the kind that doubles as a walkie-talkie—and pressed the button. “Okay, Max, we’re online now and I have their attention. Move the camera in closer so that our new friends can see just how close you are to lovely Amber.”
The image on the screen jiggled and jerked as the camera moved closer to the sleeping teen. Ellie gasped, “Jesus, Tony, what have you done?” “What?” How could she ask such a thing. “What have I done? Don’t listen to him. I never killed anyone.” “Always listen to me,” the intruder corrected. Into the radio, he said, “Pull the covers down so we can see her pretty nightie.” Tony shouted, “No! Stop! Please stop!” A man’s hand appeared in the screen, and with just two fingers it pulled down the blanket and sheet far enough to reveal the girl’s bare shoulder and pink teddy. “For God’s sake, stop! Just tell me what you want and I’ll do it. Please leave her alone.” The intruder regarded Tony for a moment, then keyed his microphone. “You can stop now, Max.” The hand retreated, but the cover remained down. “She’s drugged, of course,” the intruder explained. “What with all that money you’ve got, I know you thought you were doing her a favor by getting her an apartment to herself, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am. You made all of this much easier for my brother and me.” He looked to Ellie. “He should have listened to you, Ellie.” Tony felt light-headed. How did this madman know these things? He and Ellie had argued repeatedly over Amber’s safety while living alone, but it had always been in private. Jesus, they’d bugged his house! “You said I killed someone,” Tony said, hoping that something would make sense. “Who did I allegedly kill?” “Whom,” the intruder mocked, leaning on the M. “Whom did you allegedly kill?” He shook his head sadly, as if dealing with a dim-witted child. “There’s no alleged about it, Tone. You killed my father.” Ellie gasped. “I did no such thing! Ellie, he’s lying.” The intruder turned his attention back to the gym bag and withdrew a bag of fluid in a sealed plastic container, followed by a coil of intravenous tubing. “I’m hurt that you don’t remember, Tony. It sure was a momentous day for us. Maybe even for history. On that day, you proved literally that the pen is mightier than the sword. How can you not remember? It’s only been eighteen years. Do you really kill that many people that they run together?” Eighteen years. Something stirred in Tony’s memory. Something about a bad source. “My name is Frederick Reasoner,” the intruder said. He spelled it out for them, letter by letter, enunciating carefully. “Freddy to my friends and to people I’m going to kill. My father was Chad Reasoner. Ring a bell?” Oh, God yes. That was the guy. Tony felt the blood leaving his head. Ellie saw it in his face. “Did you kill his father?” “Of course not,” Tony snapped. But he knew the words had come too quickly; that he’d sounded dismissive. Disrespectful. Still, there was a larger point to be made. “The man committed suicide.” Freddy froze, his eyes hot. “You drove him to it,” he seethed. A long moment passed before he turned his attention back to the IV bag. “You reporters amaze me,” he said, inserting the tubing into port on the bottom of the bag. “Everyone else is accountable to you, yet you’re accountable only to yourself. You’re free to slander anyone—free to ruin anyone—so long as
unnamed sources tell you the lies you want to hear. Facts don’t matter so long as you get to see your name in the byline.” “That’s not what happened,” Tony insisted. His mind screamed at him to do something, but what? This madman was going to poison him to death! “What did happen?” Ellie asked him. Tony closed his eyes. If he enveloped himself in darkness, maybe he could make it all go away. “Tony?” “It was a long time ago, El.” He opened his eyes to look at his wife, praying that her look of betrayal and sadness would not be the one that he took with him into death. He tried to ignore Freddy’s ongoing preparations. “This man, Chase Reasoner—” “Chad Reasoner,” Freddy corrected. “Chad Reasoner, then. He was a high-ranking civilian with the Army, as I recall.” Freddy corrected again: “A civilian after twenty-seven years of active duty and retiring as a colonel.” “I’d be happy to let you tell the story,” Tony offered. “I’m sure you know it better than I.” “What are you doing?” Ellie snapped. Freddy’s eyes rolled up from the tangle of IV tubing to glare at Tony. He brought his phone to his lips and keyed the mike. “Hey, Max, Tony’s being a smart ass. How about you let us see Amber’s nipples?” Ellie gasped, “Oh, my God, no.” Freddy swiveled the computer so that they could see again. The hand eased the strap of the teddy down the girl’s shoulder. “I’m sorry,” Tony said. “Please, God, I’m—” A finger hooked the fabric of Amber’s nightie and gently pulled it straight down. “—sorry. I was just—” When the fabric was down far enough, the hand touched her. “—frustrated by the question. It’s been—” “Stop it!” Ellie bellowed, making them all jump. “For heaven’s sake, she’s just a girl. She’s done nothing to you.” Freddy stopped her with a raised forefinger. “No,” he said. “That’s where you have it wrong. That’s what you’re not understanding. Amber is not just a girl. She’s Tony Emerson’s daughter.” He pointed the forefinger like a gun at Tony. “Daughter of the same man who taught me at age seven that innocence can’t buy justice. Not when a reporter is out to do damage.” He gathered up the mess of tubing into both hands. “Isn’t that right, Tony?” He moved carefully to keep track of the dangling ends as he edged over to Tony’s side of the table. “Tell Ellie what really happened.” On the verge of tears, she waited for it, her eyes pleading. Tony wracked his mind, trying to come up with the right thing to say. It’s hard to focus on details when a psychopath is readying a needle for your arm. Freddy seemed particularly interested in the bulging veins on the back of Tony’s hand, made even more pronounced by the tight binding of the duct tape. “I did a story,” he said. “It was a piece on government corruption. We got tipped by a source that Chad Reasoner was guilty of taking bribes and we printed it.” He winced as the needle found its mark and Freddy slid it into the vein.
He picked up the discarded needle from the table. I’m beginning to change my mind here. When Freddy didn’t retreat. isn’t it. “They lied because of a personal vendetta. It wasn’t your fault. doesn’t he? You and your paper didn’t cause any of that. Chad Reasoner was an easy take-down because he was new to the political system. “The sources were lying!” he blurted.” He moved the needle closer still. ever the peacemaker.” “And it told the story that you wanted to tell. he repeated. “Personal vendetta!” Tony yelled. and it was an election year. fought the fear. “Except it wasn’t a mistake. jiggling the needle and extracting a yelp of pain. “Perfectly harmless. We made a mistake. We published a retraction.” “Mistakes are going to happen. and we did it responsibly. but he knew it was useless. is that what you’re looking for?” Freddy steadied the IV connection with one hand while he withdrew the needle and tossed it onto the table. pure anguish. He remained quiet as he inserted the IV tube into the catheter and rolled the valve to get a drip going. leaving the flexible catheter in the vein. what could be worth this? Tony. “You know. igniting a flash of agony through his teeth. He could hear the defensiveness in his voice.” Freddy helped.“Don’t stop there. “The sources were from the President’s opposition party. was it. “Maybe I shouldn’t kill you. He hadn’t thought about any of this in years. but stopped himself.” Freddy slapped him in the face. This story played right into the theme of your editorial page. Looked through Tony. “We had two corroborating sources. hard enough for Tony to smell blood. “I wrote a perfectly good story that turned out to be wrong. “Stop! Good God.” Freddy slapped him again. Isn’t that right. Tone. didn’t it?” Tony closed his eyes and hung his head. The next blow Freddy delivered hit harder than the others. Tony?” . “I don’t remember how much money was involved.” he said. for God’s sake. right? Any man whose sense of honor drives him to take his own life to protect his family from shame just has to be unstable. “It was an election year and you and your paper were backing the other guy. There.” he said. Sure would put a new spin on the phrase eyewitness. Tony?” Tony wanted to lie. Procurement was a hot issue at the time. “Just saline for now. give him what he wants!” Tony locked his jaw. when in fact no bribes were ever taken. “Tell all of it. “I should have known better. “What are you putting in him?” Ellie demanded. and the other side conspired to make him the scapegoat for taking bribes. and it nailed him in front of his ear. Freddy looked at Tony.” Tony said. Why did your sources lie?” “Why does anyone lie?” Freddy drew back to deliver another slap.” “It wasn’t a mistake!” Freddy bellowed.” Ellie offered. “And the fact that a man commits suicide and leaves his family without a father is just so much collateral damage. He opened his mouth to deny it. but you printed a lie. Maybe I should just blind you and leave you here. but it was substantial. “Don’t you dare call it a mistake! It was your duty to print the truth. Ellie made an animal sound.” “I am telling all of it! We did our jobs to inform the public. and the facts were all a little too convenient. One stab each of this needle in your eyes and then in Ellie’s.” Freddy said.” He steadied Tony’s head by grabbing a fistful of hair and brought the needle to within an inch of his face.
“But don’t worry. Isn’t that enough? Please don’t do this. Isn’t that what you call it when only the innocent die?” Ellie jumped reflexively as Freddy tipped her chair backward until its front legs were in the air. “Sorry to startle you. cut-and-dried. “Nothing happened to them. either. until she was elbow-to-elbow with her husband. when he feels a little randy. “This is what we’ve come to.” “Aha. Then. You’ve hurt our daughter. This isn’t collateral damage. “Can’t you people come up with your own lines? Tell you what I’ll do. El. now it’s time for consequences. Then the real guilty parties get to live their lives without consequence because they are protected sources. “We’re going on a little trip. Freddy stood to his full height again. all on the front page. “So. “In fact. he tried not to see the disappointment in Ellie’s face. It was anything but.” Tony was working very hard now not to throw up. Freddy. Way to stand up.” He held the syringe up against the light so they all could see the liquid level. what happened to those sources who lied to you after you revealed their names?” Tony’s heart hammered at a deadly rate and his breathing chugged. Tony.” Freddy turned to Ellie.” Freddy said.” He pointed back to the computer screen. you printed a three hundred word mea culpa three weeks later on page A5. Tony? This is murder. “That’s not love. is it. he picks someone at random and has a little fun. “—only reporting what he had been told. This is what your husband calls ethics. and then loaded up a hypodermic syringe from a small vial of medicine. Tone. And why is that?” “Because we never reveal our sources. “Do you now see what your husband does? He gets paid to fabricate stories. “What you see here is enough sedative to make you sleep forever. “You’ve made your point. and then hides from the consequences.” Ellie begged. but he was powerless to stop it. Fear enveloped him like a wet rubber shroud.” he said. You’ve humiliated him.” Freddy mocked. That incident triggered a massive internal review.When Tony opened his eyes and looked at the intruder.” Freddy positioned the needle against an injection port in the tubing. “You make it sound simple. She only got a tenth of what we’re going to give you. “For God’s sake.” he said. Tone. He attached one more length of IV tubing to the rig already taped to Tony’s arm. between the first and second fingers of Ellie’s left hand. One man drives another to suicide. “So. so sorry.” Freddie said. though.” Freddy moved behind Ellie and rested his hands on the back of her chair.” He leaned in till he was nose-to-nose with Ellie. She closed her fist to be 26 . Tony jumped as the intruder pierced the needle through the rubber cap. connected to the IV tubing. chilling his body and making it hard to breathe. “I’m so.” He placed the barrel of the syringe. it’s the same drug we gave to Amber to make her so cooperative.” Tony started to tremble. “Please don’t.” With the chair and its occupant tipped back slightly more than forty-five degrees. It was never love.” he said. please don’t do this. “After five straight days of incisive investigative journalism that caused a good man to kill himself. Max can do whatever he likes.” “Please don’t do this.” “Navel gazing. So I guess by Tony’s standard. then gets to hide from the consequences because he was—” Freddy used finger quotes in the air. “We never released their names. he dragged her down the length of the table. Please don’t do this. He knew where this was going.
what do you say. But think of the suffering you could save. “Oh. Ellie. “Oh. “Ellie. Step up. God. your wife can be spared from killing you. though. too. For all he knew. Ellie. and Tony dies. filled with love and security.” he whispered. You’re running out of time.” Into his radio-phone Freddy said. “There you go. You just have to say please. “Don’t say it unless you mean it.” “No. don’t. but he didn’t dare look. You can be a rich woman and save your daughter’s virtue at the same time. “You only get one chance. You can ruin one or end another.rid of it. This couldn’t be all there was.” Freddy said. his mouth screamed.” Tony begged. look at the screen.” Tony’s head screamed. “Oh. Give it thirty seconds. Her thumb depressed the plunger. God. “Don’t fight me. Be a man. It’ll take thirty seconds or so. You can’t change your mind. This is almost over. How often will you get a chance to prove your loyalty to your child?” Tony saw something change behind his wife’s eyes. Tony knew what the right decision was.” “Ellie. It wasn’t fair. I’m going to give you complete control over the plunger.” Tony’s stomach cramped hard. though.” He slid the syringe between her fingers again. “I’m sorry. Press that plunger in. I’m sure Tony has insurance.” He moved the computer monitor closer to Ellie and angled it so that Tony could not see the image. “Okay.” Tony said nothing. that’s good. “Oh. Tony. and Ellie and I will push the plunger and make it stop. Let me put this in your hand. She shifted her grip on the syringe to put her thumb on the plunger. Be careful. Let’s see what it’ll take. “God. you can stop it at any time.” She closed her eyes. Ellie? Want to kill him for what he’s done?” “No!” she insisted. sweet Jesus.” Freddy warned. You know. Tony.” she moaned. At any time. “Congratulations. Freddy shifted his gaze. He’s a pig. but there’ll be no going back.” she whispered. Make it all go away. He stared at the syringe. Say hi to Satan for me when you see him. please. We have our baseline.” “But he’s a bad man. He had an unfinished column due in . Nice little body. He cheated on you. Ellie? Life is about choices. You only get one chance. This seemed to be what he had been expecting. no!” Tony yelled. think about what you’re doing. Jesus. He knew what the noble father was supposed to do. Your daughter won’t have to be raped. It couldn’t be this easy.” Freddy smiled. “Nicely done. Come on. “Of course not. You start the morning just like any other. “He doesn’t respect you. Wetness spread on his trousers and chair. Tony. too. “So. all you have to do is say stop and push the plunger. Amber is all about the future. “What do you say. no. He watched the horror on Ellie’s face blossom and darken. “Start having fun with the girl. Ellie. Hell.” The poison felt warm as it hit his blood stream. and then it could all be taken away on the whim of a crazy man? That wasn’t right.” “Good looking girl. He had things he had to do for crying out loud. he watched the movies and read books just like everyone else.
You’re insane. then. “Hardly. it hurt. Yeah. my God. Ellie honey.” Tony struggled to make sense of it. I think we learned a whole lot. “It’s not poison. “A bluff? All this was a bluff?” Freddy continued cleaning. Who was this nutjob to think that he had the right to make it happen? But the plunger had fallen. If it was going to happen. Two hundred. He could see the blunt black rubber flat against the stop. Ellie. as if to stockpile oxygen and stave off the inevitable. She was sobbing and pleading with Freddy to make the pain go away. He stood there. and everything terrible that has happened to me in my life is your fault. Burning up. That’s where the real pain is. the question on her face obvious. And you’re willing to kill him outright if the circumstances fit. breathing rapidly. I’m a pissed off orphan. he bounced it lightly in his hand. With his bag re-packed. I got your pain right here. I’m sure they’ll hear you. I worried that I was going to run out of bluff. Once we had her naked. How long could thirty seconds last? Tony gasped for air.” “You’re going to prison. He felt hot. “Oh. want to trade? Thirty seconds. I’ve arranged for a delivery to the house tomorrow morning that will require your signature. “You had me worried. “I’m not a killer. He was almost finished cleaning up. and I’m not a rapist. It would all be over in thirty seconds. Ellie. one loving image to take with him. As long as you held out. Tony. smug with his arms crossed while Ellie’s head bobbed with wracking sobs. Freddy shrugged and started cleaning up his toys.” he said. babe.” Freddy clarified. What the hell? “It’s just more saline. Collateral damage. Jesus.” Tony threatened. please God let it happen soon. Pain. Hey. but she wouldn’t make eye contact. than he does about his libido. We know that Tony cares less about you. Tony was going to die trussed to a chair and soaked in his own piss. You needed to understand that death racks up an enormous debt that can only be paid by the survivors. If you shout loud enough.” Tony opened his mouth to say something. I needed to teach you a lesson.” “This was a lesson?” Ellie mused aloud. Nothing changed. He loves his own sorry life more than he does the future of his own daughter. That was the word she used. I’m a teacher with a lesson plan. but words wouldn’t come. they can cut you free. 28 . she got the real stuff. He looked to Ellie for one last glance. “Okay. Ellie’s gaze shot to the computer screen.” He left the IV line connected. But it didn’t happen. no liquid remaining in the tube. He wasn’t ready to leave the world. almost convulsively. You needed to know how quickly life can change. I’m not sure what we would have done. “Well.two days. Tony realized that Freddy was smiling at him. That’s what Freddy had said. When they do. It’s all in the after. Want to trade? At least you get a tomorrow. and whatever reaction he saw in Tony’s face made him throw back his head and laugh. “A lesson about destroying lives. but not enough to hurt her.” Another laugh.” Tony felt himself breathing heavily again. Think about all we’ve learned in the last half hour. Tony felt his body flush hotter. As the panic diluted to mere terror. A hundred degrees.
In the real world. Alone now.“No I’m not. Amber will have no memory of any of this. “That’s a shame. There had to be justice.” He left. They could make this work. Say. but I think you’ll be frustrated. It’s gone. and it might take counseling.” Tony felt pressure behind his eyes. Tony told himself there had to be something left to salvage.” Tony’s mind raced. Homicidal. You can try. but in the shared trauma of the evening. and there’s been no physical harm done to her. It’s over. the Emersons sat in silence for a long while. but surely there was a way. It might take time. If we—” “No. “Don’t. unable to move. That would be the key— “And if you’re thinking of tracking me down by the surveillance I’ve done on you. I’ve got unnamed sources who will swear that I was with them tonight. I’m sorry. “Ellie. A word. I sure would love to hear what you two talk about after I’m gone. Damage was done.” He started walking toward the front door then stopped. We can get counsel—” Her eyes turned hot. “Don’t say a word.” she snapped. It couldn’t end like this. “It doesn’t have to be. too. forget it.” . Then he remembered the surveillance. you need evidence.
Her pale blond hair hung limp around her tiny. The hat was tied with a ratty white ribbon and there were grass stains on her shirt. Duff rubbed the stump where his left hand once poked from his sleeve. There was no medal for that. crouched over the body. he did not need to witness any more. the taller and older of the two. wrapped like a present in a pink silk dressing gown. recognizing his childhood friend. dove-like face. Across the way the two sisters stood. The world had a surfeit of tears. having lost both his job at the local foundry and having spent six months in prison with hard labor for associating with members of the International Workers of the World.The Angel in the Garden Clare Langley-Hawthorne Wyndham. Even the gardener. There was also no medal for the poor sod who had drowned in the Manley’s pond. So bloody what. There would be few tears shed in Wyndham for one who had refused to heed the Empire’s call to fight. “It's Tom Renton. a particularly rotund specimen of the breed. shadow images behind the stone statue that graced the center of the pond. the scorching late afternoon sun rendered the sisters dark. he’s dead now. While the cold marble Pan was caught mid-dance. It was nearly four o’clock and still no relief. leaning against his rake at the rear of the house. As he examined the body. He couldn’t stand how the townspeople slapped his back and feigned their smiles as if they needed reassurance that one of their own. The dirt road that led to the Manley property shimmered in the heat. remained unscathed. dry ground. No escaping that. Duff unbuttoned his police uniform jacket with his one good hand and stepped forward as the body was dragged and turned over. Pants that would have once been considered risqué now seemed little more than a shabby reminder of ‘women’s work’ during the war and no one gave a toss about that anymore. Duff looked down at the cracked. The coroner. Duff thought. his spectacles slipping down his nose in the heat. Vera. looked embarrassed by all the excitement.” he said. Even in death Tom looked like a hard-nosed battler – a typical trade union man full of brawn and bluster. Well. Constable Duff McManus remained stony faced. set against the earth. as far as Duff was concerned. Ten minutes was all it took before the coroner stood up and declared: “Poor 30 . He winced as his eyes adjusted to the ferocious glare of the sun. Duff turned away as Alice began to sob. He’d seen too many corpses sink into the mud to triumph over the piddling efforts of the local firemen to pull one unknown man from the water. Tom’s once fiery blue eyes gazed vacantly now and his blond hair was matted green with pond scum. The heat he could endure – he’d dreamed about it enough standing waist deep in mud in the bitter cold of France – but it was the torpor that hung heavy over his life that sapped the remaining strength from him. Victoria. Tom had already paid dearly for his anti-conscription beliefs. but. one of the few of their own to return. flute in hand. So he’d survived. Vera’s sister Alice stood a couple of feet from her. immobile effigies. her straw hat perched on her head concealing her eyes. next to the sandstone wall. A week before Christmas – his first Christmas home in five years – and all he could think about was how much he hated being here. December 1919 A cheer went up as the body finally emerged from the reed-tangled depths of the Manley sisters’ ornamental pond. The edge of his dark blue uniform jacket now flapped uselessly against his side – like a disused flag no one had bothered to bring down. was still wearing her gardening clothes – khaki flared pants and short sleeved white shirt.
It was a habit he’d developed as his stomach succumbed to the forces of his wife’s cooking as well as gravity. Muddy and water damaged he could hardly make any of it out but it looked like a page from a book. Duff gingerly dropped the handkerchief in the brown paper bag. placing it on the stones to dry. “Careful. “Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage – you know the one that lists all the best families in England. but you’d have to ask the sisters. torn from the book. The coroner leaned over his shoulder. Duff flipped open his pocket watch awkwardly.” the coroner observed “What the hell was Tom doing here in the first place?” Duff asked. He checked but there was nothing in Tom’s pockets except a sodden white handkerchief. “Looks like a listing for the Manley family. Duff thought of the empty table that awaited him – another silent meal over a chipped mug of tea and a stale bread roll with tinned ham just depressed him further. you know the Sarge will kill us both if we balls this one up. The coroner shrugged as he hitched up his trousers. Did the Manley sisters not realize the futility of keeping an ornamental pond in the height of an Australian summer? His eye caught sight of a piece of paper caught beneath the algae.” the coroner said. It was he who had left them the Wyndham property.” .” “I didn’t even know they had a brother.” “Debrett’s…” The coroner squinted as he tried to read the text.” he said. The coroner continued examining the body. The old guy would go on and on about it after he’d had a few beers. The Manley sisters are true ladies back in England you know – father’s the Earl of something or other. “Better get the autopsy over and done with right away. “But the wife was planning a nice cold tongue salad for dinner.” A flash of reflected sunlight on the watch face made him feel disoriented and. for a moment. On cue his stomach rumbled. He hung over the edge and pulled it free. He rolled the body onto its side and pulled back the top of the trousers to reveal the mottled purple and blue skin beneath. “I reckon he’s been in the water about ten hours – give or take.” the coroner protested. Passchendaele I think it was.” the coroner advised as some shards of brown glass fell. “Debrett’s. “Still doesn’t answer why Tom was here or why he was carrying a page from whatever the bloody hell you called it. “Must be an old edition though…see here. A verdict of suicide and he could be home by tea. “Not unless he managed to whack himself on the backside.” the coroner added. says the heir apparent is William Manley. which he handed to Duff to place in an evidence bag. “Suicide?” It would certainly make his life easier. he fancied he heard the sound of machine gun fire in the distance. “Tell her to keep it on ice – Come on.” Duff muttered. “You what?” Duff answered blankly. “Looks like glass from a medicinal bottle. but he’s dead.” Duff said.” “Accident?” Duff asked.” The old guy he was referring to was the Manley sisters’ uncle. When he blinked the illusion vanished. “That places time of death sometime in the early hours of this morning.” “Never heard of it.sod drowned.” Duff walked to the edge of the pond and looked down at the brown sludge that passed for water this time of year.
“Who told you that?” Duff demanded. “Could have been knocked unconscious and drowned. Everyone in Wyndham considered Billy to be a bit of a half-wit. but he’ll probably deny it. all grief. The only difference between Duff and the likes of Billy was that his mind still marched on.” “What do you mean?” Duff asked.” Duff stared back across to where Vera stood next to her sister Alice.” “Nonetheless. He’d seen enough of the same drifting down the hallways of Stoneyhurst convalescent home. “Yes.” The coroner pointed meaningfully to the glass fragments. “Wait up!” Duff called out. incoherent and strange.” “And then what?” Duff demanded.” The coroner signaled to his men and the body of Tom Renton was carried off by stretcher. “Tom was a burly bloke but a blow from behind could have easily sent him head first into the pond.” Duff’s eyes followed the coroner’s gaze to the garden shed and then moved quickly to where the gardener stood. “You can ask Doctor Fisher. Vera turned.” “Is that really necessary? I assure you. what is it constable?” Beneath the petulance in Vera’s well-to-do pommy voice Duff detected a tremor. The gardener may have even held his head down –” “And the motive to do all this would be what? Anger that Tom had trampled his petunias?” Duff’s patience had worn thin. Though I find it hard to believe either sister would associate with the likes of Tom Renton.” 32 . “I need to ask you all a few questions. He noticed Vera starting to lead Alice away. The coroner walked to the lorry to accompany the body back to the morgue still muttering theories under his breath. The coroner was at his most irritating when he tried to play detective. his face starting to flush as it always did when something unsavory about women was concerned. “Maybe it was the gardener who whacked him with a shovel. Shellshocked men. The younger woman was still leaning against Vera’s shoulder.“Who dares speak of the past anymore… though –” the coroner paused as he cast a trenchant glance in the Manley sisters’ direction. but the bruising could have been easily made by something like a shovel. everything came out stammered. One look at her eyes told me all I needed to know. but I need your report as soon as practicable. Perhaps our Tommy here was her delivery boy. of course. Billy’s dark hair sagged over the husk of his gaunt face. Ghosts of men. and he hurried over. still” – the coroner sniffed – “There’s no accounting for taste – not these days. neither my sister nor I heard or saw anything. Vera’s mask of self-control slipped for just a moment. but her cries had subsided to an occasional hiccup.” the coroner mused. “I’ll have to examine the body more thoroughly of course. On the rare occasions that he ever spoke. People avoided him in the streets but Duff recognized him for what he was. “You probably don’t need look too much further than those two for your answers. “I’ll talk to them. “I mean our little young pink puff over there is not averse to a little morphine in the morning. her straw hat still concealing her expression. if you get my drift. No good me bandying about allegations of drug orgies if it turns out drugs had nothing to do with Tom’s death. and all semblance of the past. I’ll have to speak to you both – and the gardener too. determined to stay alive even if it meant stamping out all feeling.
” Reginald puffed.” Reginald replied. Out of the corner of his eye Duff observed Billy. while Alice. “Alice and I have nothing to hide.” “Then they won’t mind answering a few questions will they. confronting him with pale blue eyes.” Duff said coldly. smoothing his moustache down repeatedly as if he was stroking a cat.” Vera said. The son of a wealthy sheep farmer and product of a prestigious Melbourne boarding school. sympathetic towards them.“Then you’d better come inside. “I think it’s obvious that neither of these fine young women could have had anything whatsoever to do with this unfortunate incident. her dressing gown crumpling around her like a discarded ribbon. approaching above the hedgerows.” He adjusted his wingtip collar and fancy knotted tie as he continued to catch his breath. Barely twenty when he left for the war. “Why?” Vera said. Reginald flushed. “I’m here now – there’s nothing to worry about. “Constable. Reginald walked around as a living tribute to those who fought for King and Country. Duff guessed they just couldn’t bear to abandon a broken man and it made him less. Duff ignored Reginald as he followed Vera. Vera led Duff inside the cool dark interior of the house. No one had been waiting to help him pick up the pieces of his shattered life when he returned from the war. there now. Duff noticed with petty satisfaction that the heat had caused a rash to form beneath Reginald’s collar. The entrance hall to the Manley house was wallpapered in opulent green and gold stripes. Owens. rather than more. Reginald’s face was flushed beneath his tan as he hastened toward them. while Duff. Wyndham’s resident barrister and war hero. “I think . petal. Duff’s older brother. hand still poised over his diamond-encrusted tie pin. angered by his own embarrassment. You know Tom Renton was considered a coward and a traitor. my sister is in shock.” Vera said. “Reggie!” Alice cried. Duff saw the wellproportioned torso of Reginald Owens. trailing behind them both. “Thank God you’re here! What an awful. Mr.” Duff answered. “Can you not come back tomorrow morning?” Her tone was the crisp upper-class way people spoke to their servants. “It was good of you to come. on the mantel above the fireplace.” Vera replied coolly. next to the telegram she still refused to open. Duff felt his face redden again. told Reginald in a tiny voice that he’d best come back later. the gardener. “A man’s been murdered. awful. “There. with his missing limb and scarred body was little more than an uncomfortable reminder of the reality of war which no one wished to see. His own mother moved to Melbourne just so she didn’t have to face him – though no doubt she kept the photograph of Harry. A yell from beyond the gardens caused them both to turn round. business…” She flung an outstretched arm toward him. Constable. still standing by the sandstone wall. Alice leaned against the balustrade before sinking to the bottom step of the staircase.” Vera walked away leaving Reginald standing on the path. No one in Wyndham thought to question why the sisters brought their gardener out with them from England. “As you can see. His eyes stared blankly at the ground. thinking that Tom knew exactly what to call Reginald – a capitalist boil on the arse of the proletariat. It was only a matter of time before something like this would happen… Memories are long round here…These ladies could not possibly be involved. he’d had little experience of women. but I think we had best handle this on our own. “Don’t you think you should have a lawyer with you?” he asked.
” “Excuse me?” Duff said. “Why?” Duff asked. Vera got to her feet and crossed to Alice. that was never it…never it at all!” Alice exclaimed. Soft and rubicund in her silk dressing gown. The ornamental pond in which Tom Renton’s body had been dredged was. now displaced. They were renowned across Western Victoria. “Marriage was totally out of the question. “That’s just the drugs talking. During the summer it turned into little more than a muddy. He felt uncomfortable perching on such a finely carved chair – like a bear at a circus trying to balance on a foot stool. “Because Tom was working class?” “Oh. childish voice.that’s reason enough for urgency. “He wanted to marry me…” Alice said. Duff gave her a respectful head start. in Duff’s mind. his harsh words clearly hitting home.” Vera interjected. She tucked the strands back. Alice was lying on a green and yellow upholstered chaise longue. algae choked cesspool that smelt almost as bad as a newly dug trench but which bred mosquitoes rather than rats by the thousands. suddenly looking much younger and more vulnerable. You can then follow us into the front parlor and ask your questions. “You keep thinking the worst of him but I swear he wouldn’t have told…” “Wouldn’t have told what?” Duff asked in confusion. The pencil in Duff’s hand hovered in mid air. she looked like a migratory bird blown off course. “Let me at least get Alice settled and comfortable.” “He…he…” Alice’s eyes filled with tears. Her eyes were closed and her lips parted.” she said in a small. “He never meant any harm. “That’s what I’m here to find out. “I can’t bear people thinking that Tom was the sort who would hurt our family in anyway – Oh. “I think Alice is merely referring to the morphine. but Alice shook her head. Her hair. “Who could do such a vile thing to poor Tommy?” Duff sat down next to Alice and took out his notebook and pencil. Vera…Vera. as if thinking of some far off land. Her gaze then returned to him.” Vera’s chin quivered as she pulled off her straw hat.” she insisted sharply. not just for being a ridiculously inappropriate replica of an English manor garden but also for the museum worthy sculpture collection (most of which were considered ‘lewd and distasteful’ by the local Women’s Temperance Union). how could you think such a thing?!” 34 .” Vera called from the doorway. “I thought Reginald Owens”– he began but Vera’s expression stopped him short. more burnished than her sister’s was coming loose from the chignon that had been coiled at the nape of her neck. had been lost forever. “Oh Vera. “You can come in now. darling…” She fluffed up the pillow behind Alice’s head. “Constable. a place yearned for but almost forgotten.” she sobbed. As he entered she gestured for him to sit. darker. disoriented as if her internal map. gazing out of window at the gardens once more. the greatest folly. She looked up at him as he entered the room and her red-rimmed eyes momentarily lost focus.” She didn’t wait for his response before escorting Alice down the corridor. her head propped up on a silk cushion.
” Duff opened his mouth to object but as he saw Alice’s limp frame collapsed against the cushions he knew she was right. “We should continue this conversation later. struggling to untangle some of the many possible strands of motive. “Constable. “I think I’d better take Alice upstairs to lie down. “It’ all right Alice.” Alice said weakly. moving her hand away. past the dining room and billiard room. “Oh Vera.” “How did Reginald Owens feel about your. What little strength remained in Alice had been exhausted.” Alice answered. Alice?” Alice’s face turned to her sister horror. yet alone use it to kill. While Vera accompanied Alice to her bedroom Duff took the opportunity to scrutinize the room more closely.” “And left?” A small nervous pink tongue emerged from between her lips and licked the corners of her mouth.. “He didn’t see did he?” She fell back against the pillows in a pale faint. “We had a terrible row. after the effects of the morphine have worn off. “Tom just couldn’t understand.” “She seems lucid enough to me.. “I think. That’s why he tore that page out – said our kind could go to hell for all he cared…” “So tell me. “Must you be so cruel?” Vera hovered on the edge of a reply but remained silent. “Did he think Tom was trying to hurt you when you were fighting. “Reggie had no idea. He doubted Alice could even lift a shovel. “Alice could never have harmed Tom.Vera’s expression remained inscrutable. He saw no signs of violence in here at least – though given the estimated time of Tom’s death at least a couple of hours had passed before the Manley sisters reported the discovery of the body – time enough for any physical evidence to have been cleaned or removed.” Duff asked.” “Just before five. “It’s clear she’s in no fit state to answer any further questions. “Vera?” she queried.” Vera said swiftly. Most families in mourning had at least some form of reminder – even his own mother kept a .” Duff answered. “When did you last see Tom?” “He arrived about midnight. “What about Billy. That’s why we fought. that’s all.” Vera said quickly. For a family that kept a copy of Debrett’s there was no evidence of their heritage or estates in England.” she whispered. “Why should he? Alice’s infatuation was bound to pass. “I’m sure the Constable has no more interest in your love life than I do.” “Oh Vera.” One look at Alice’s tiny frame confirmed that. Alice leaned over and grasped him by the shoulder.” Vera said. still puzzled. the gardener?” Duff asked.er…relationship with Tom?” Duff asked. What struck him as he paced the room was the total absence of photographs or family mementos. “So you and Tom fought the last time you saw each other?” Duff probed further. He wandered down the hallway. Where were the grandiose family portraits? Where were the nostalgic images of their English home and gardens? There was not even a photograph of the brother who died in the war. Tom couldn’t understand that there was no way I could marry him. Alice nodded.” she said slowly. this line of questioning is absurd!” Vera protested.
when his body was still whole and innocent. you mean? Well. “If you don’t let me see him. I think we both know he’d be quite capable of doing what needs to be done. I swear I’ll tell! He has to know that I loved Tom…I loved him…” Vera caught hold of Alice’s hand but Duff had already seen the flash of panic as it flared white across her face. Henry Rider Haggard. Duff looked up. Royal West Kent Regiment but there was no mistaking who it was.” Duff wasn’t sure whether to interpret this as a warning or a consolation. you are thinking I am covering up for either of them you are mistaken. He could never murder a man. You’ve seen Billy – he’s barely capable of tying his shoelaces. The sheer simplicity of her loyalty was touching. Perhaps it was the row of small miniatures along one wall of watercolor rendered flower fairies and elves. He recognized the sprawling script from his schooldays. was a handwritten note saying “It’s the only way. before stepping into a small study at the back of the house. brandishing a photograph in her hands as if it was a weapon. Alice abruptly appeared in the doorway. He knew instantly that this was Vera’s domain. It’s what they trained us to do. Miss Manley. Written along the band of white at the bottom was Captain William Manley. however. “Do you always go through people’s rubbish?” Vera asked from the doorway. Having shed her pink dressing gown she stood in a flimsy white cotton nightgown. signed by Reginald Owens. On the floor was a crumpled letter that had not quite made it into the waste paper basket. Duff could see the fresh red needlepricks on white flesh of her inner arms. who would?” Duff’s throat constricted. or maybe it was the choice of literature he noted as he scanned the bookshelves. “I can easily obtain a search warrant if that’s what you want.” Vera said quietly. Whatever I have to do I will” – There were no other fragments of the letter to be found. “If. Eyes wide. pupils dilated. There was something sadly wistful about everything he observed. released from Alice’s grasp floated like a sepia and white feather to the floor. “Then why don’t you explain why you feel the need to protect them both?” “Alice and Billy.” Duff said. It was a typed letter from a specialist at an asylum in Melbourne. “No photographs anywhere in the house and yet she appears with this…” The photograph was of a young man dressed in khaki. Duff bent over and picked it up. Duff bent over and picked it up.” Vera said. though he was hard-pressed to explain why. “You have to let me talk to Billy!” she cried. “It’s nothing. she was close to hysteria. The photograph. Billy was clearly suffering shell-shock but was he dangerous enough to require incarceration in a mental hospital? Duff rummaged in the waste paper basket for any sign of Vera’s reply but all he found was a torn corner of a letter in Tom Renton’s handwriting. “You must think me very dense. “Don’t deny your sister this happiness.” “Oh. The room reminded him of his own abandoned childhood. if you think I can’t see the bleeding 36 . Edgar Rice Burroughs. His reaction caught him by surprise. Duff wandered further along the hallway.” “No. Arthur Conan Doyle. collar bones protruding. if I didn’t. Across it. Soft strains of music filtered down from above as Vera turned on the gramophone to soothe her sister upstairs.photograph of him taken in uniform before he left for war.
“There’s not enough evidence. “No trouble now. A family used to secrets would find covering this up no different. “No need to worry. he went to speak with Billy for a final time. He knew tonight he. “Billy would have been shot if he was discovered and you can see the state he’s in…That’s why none of us can ever marry.” Duff shifted his weight uneasily. mate.” As he walked with Billy along the garden path. Billy was a deserter. Alice rushed from the room. of the noise of machine gun fire . She was hardly the sort to fall apart.” Vera reached out and steadied herself in the doorway. Compassion was something he thought he had left behind on the battlefield.” Duff answered. even now. He only joined up because father insisted” –– there was a sudden flash of anguish in her eyes –– “but father was quick to disown him afterwards. Morphine’s all that keeps her going. would soon be trapped in his own nightmare of guts and barbed-wire.” Billy said bleakly. If it hadn’t been for Alice’s love for Tom. Duff saw a flock of squawking sulphurcrested cockatoos arise from the top of a gum tree and he envied their ability to flee. Billy shook his head as soon as he saw Duff approach. Vera and he remained transfixed. The noise never stops. no one would have been any the wiser as to Billy’s true identity. like Billy.” “Are you going to expose who he really is?” Duff shrugged. her grief at his death.obvious. “I know mate. no sign of anything to explain how Tom came to drown in the ornamental pond.” Duff could have sworn he saw her blinking back tears but Vera’s self-restraint kept them in check. “It’s alright. “They never stop. As for Alice.” Billy rocked back and forth on his heels. when he saw what Billy had become.” “They keep coming you know.” Duff recognized the sounds of his own nightmares. well.” Duff replied.” Duff replied. “Are you going to arrest him?” Vera asked. “I know. “Isn’t that what we women are good at?” she said quietly. you know. Thought he was just a coward. “Don’t you think you’ve carried both their burdens long enough?” Duff asked. “We knew we had to get out of England. she never recovered from the death of her fiancée in 1915. “They just keep coming. of grave-like trenches filled with limbs and skulls beneath the mud.” Billy repeated. Duff shook his head. Duff could hear her anguished sobs even as she stumbled along the hallway. There was no sign of blood. rhythmically. as they stood on the steps leading up to the house. Duff was not surprised. We have to protect Billy’s secret. “We had to bring our brother with us. “What would be the point of that?” As he was leaving the Manley gardens. “Did Tom find out your little family secret? Was that what the row was really about this morning? Did Billy overhear? You really cannot protect him any longer. “Bearing the burdens of man?” *** A thorough search of the house and gardens the next morning failed to reveal the implement used to hit Tom in the back. His interview with Billy yielded nothing either – poor sod’s mind was addled enough as it was.” Vera continued.
and artillery that never ceased. Before he left he took one last look at the house. Vera was standing at the window watching. The sun blazed above, turning the sandstone white against the blue of the sky. Billy shielded his eyes against the glare. “I saw her once,” he whispered. “Above no-man’s land. She glowed like an angel.” Duff grunted. He’d heard the stories of course – the Angel of Mons was a myth they had all longed to believe – but he’d never seen any bloody angels over his battlefields. He envied Billy his woman in white, the sister who protected him and Alice. But as the fierce midday sun beat down, as Vera remained standing in the window, he finally understood the truth of what had happened to Tom. He may have recognized the burden she had borne but until now, he realized, he had never understood what women were capable of after all.
Kathryn Lilley Dreaming of birth causes death. From an old wives’ tale The letter arrived on the morning of my baby shower, via snail mail. It was from my mother (who didn’t have a computer and refused to pick up a phone). A crisis involving my sister, her scrawled note announced. As usual, Mother’s communication was short on details. I had my own dibs on crises—eight months into a complicated pregnancy, unemployed, with a husband serving overseas—but her letter short-shrifted those details, too. Bottom line: Mother wanted me home. Technically, Six Mile was no longer my home. Spiritually, it never had been. I’d escaped —for good, I’d thought—the week after high school graduation. Clutching a promise of a paid internship in one hand and a scholarship to Duke in the other, I hadn’t looked back in seven years. Most small towns seem changed when ex-patriots return after long absences; Six Mile, South Carolina wasn’t one of those places. Recumbent in the shadow of its namesake mountain, my childhood hometown seemed just as small, just as unevolved as I remembered it. After the second stoplight and the Baptist Church the hamlet tapered off quickly into rural depression. King Cotton had disappeared overseas after the Big War, replaced by a succession of crop trials, none of which had taken root. Most of the local farmers had changed livelihoods or given up, judging by the number of frame houses and barns that were weathering from neglect. At the end of its long, packed-clay driveway, my family’s home resembled those failed enterprises—not yet abandoned, but resonating defeat. The rambling tin roof had a tracery of rust, and showed no sign of the replacement that was to have been funded with a check I’d mailed a few months back. I sensed, but couldn’t see, my sister Audrey. As always, she’d be crouched by the window of her second-floor bedroom, watching as I parked the spleen-shaped Prius next to the family pickup. My mother, Beryl, opened the door as I raised my fist to knock. She bounced a glance off my shoulder to scan the highway, then brought it back to rest on my humongous belly. “Shouldn’t be driving at eight months.” “It was the only way I could get here. Hi Mother.” As we air-brushed cheeks she said, “The roofers are coming next month, in case you were wondering what happened to your check money.” As she led the way inside, more words drifted over her shoulder: “I can’t deal with her anymore, Lucy,” she said. “It’s too much. I’m going to send her away unless you do something.” Send my sister Audrey away, she meant. The front parlor smelled like lemon oil, with a sour undernote of feline. Pushed against the wall, the rattan furniture and fringe of desiccated palmettos suggested a cheap remake of Casablanca. Everything was frayed at the edges, like the battered Oriental rug with its constellation of white pick marks: the legacy of claws. My mother bred Persian cats. Through the archway that opened onto the hall, I could see Audrey’s bare feet resting on the stairs. She’d moved her perch. “Audrey,” Mother called to her. “You ignoring your sister? Come say hello to Lucy.”
Feet shuffled on wood. Audrey entered the parlor, head down, keeping her gaze focused on the rug’s design of blue diamonds. She navigated her feet carefully to avoid stepping on them. Two diamonds short of the chair where I’d taken a seat, her toes stopped. To greet her, I made a token butt-wiggle in lieu of heaving myself up from the chair again. Heading toward the kitchen, mother paused to grimace at my sister’s dirty toenails. “Put some damned shoes on,” she said. “Unless you liked picking out splinters last week.” Audrey was 30 years old to my 25, but she’d always seemed like my younger sister. By the time I knew enough about autism to know she needed special education, she’d seemed lost. After I left Six Mile for Duke, she’d disappeared inside herself, submerged beneath the bubbled surface of an unknowable realm. I felt guilty for leaving. Audrey continued staring at the floor; by the rapt stillness of her posture, I knew she was slowly building up to a sentence. I waited. Finally: “Sarabelle told me you shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t have come home, Lucy.” “Sarabelle? Who—what are you talking about?” But even as I asked the question, the answer came in slow progression, like a single, chill droplet that was trickling along the spine of something half-forgotten, something that brooded in silence deep inside my memory. It had been there all along, hidden; but now I felt its cambered haunches begin to stir. I knew. “Sarabelle told you I shouldn’t come home? She just told you that?” To her barely perceptible nod I said, “I don’t know about this, Audrey. When you say—.” My sister had already wheeled away, headed for the stairs. Audrey didn’t finish conversations she didn’t like—she simply dematerialized. The baby seemed to feel the sudden twist of apprehension in my gut. A defensive heel jabbed into my ribs, as if to escape. * ** Sarabelle. The name hadn’t crossed my mind in years. She’d been a fanciful creation of my childhood—a “haint,” the old-timers of Six Mile would say. When I was five years old, I’d been convinced that a strange creature named Sarabelle was living at the bottom of the old orchard well. I’d long since forgotten the silly phantasm of my youth, but obviously Audrey hadn’t. That was disturbing—even more disturbing was the idea of a haint telling me not to come home. Maybe I’d heard my sister wrong, or maybe this was her way of expressing resentment for my having left her behind. She was such an impossible read. When I joined Mother in the kitchen, I winced at the sight of a white Persian cat grooming herself on the counter; some of that floating dander would season our dinner plates later that evening, I knew from past experience. Mother didn’t look up from the carrots she was chopping with a chef’s knife at the counter. “People are coming next week from Clemson,” she said. “To evaluate Audrey for a group home. They better take her.” I cast a wary glance at the baseboard register, fully aware that conversations carried through the air ducts to the second floor. As children, Audrey and I had often huddled by an upstairs vent, listening in on grown-up talk. Audrey was sure to be hunched in the same old spot,
listening to mother and me discuss her future. “Let’s take this outside, okay, Mother?” “We won’t ‘take this’ anywhere,” she snapped. “Audrey knows what’s what. She’s not stupid, that one. The doctors say she’s autistic? I say she’s an overage brat. Bad luck of the draw she was.” Grabbing a carrot by its leafy end, she beheaded it with a firm chop. I felt a surge of the old resentment, the helpless rage that used to engulf me when I was growing up in this place. I had to escape. “I’ll be back in a minute.” I turned away and pushed belly-first through the screen door that gave onto the orchard. It yielded with a groan that was louder and rustier than I remembered. To get to the peach groves I had to pass the storage shed that housed my mother’s “good” car, an ancient brown Mercedes. Mother had always refused to drive it for some reason. It stayed in the shed, neglected, just like the orchard—and we—had been neglected. I’d hated the orchards when I was little. I’d developed a dark fear of them after watching The Wizard of Oz, began looking over my shoulder for the trees to sprout monster-faces, to start pelting me with peach stones. I didn’t like the way their rows seemed to narrow as I progressed; it felt as if I were being drawn into the suffocating point of a triangle. Anchoring the tip of the illusory triangle was the orchard well. It wasn’t much to look at: a three-foot wide circle of piled stones, covered by a wooden lid that had once been painted green but now weathered bare. According to local lore, the underground spring that fed the well was considered sacred by the Native Americans who had once populated the area. I got into big trouble over the well when I was five years old. Against strict orders one day I clambered onto the wide, round-cut board that covered the shaft; I sat cross-legged upon it, brushing my fingers along its woody-green rough until they caught splinters. Gradually I became bolder in my forays. One August afternoon I managed to struggle back the lid. Peering into the well shaft, I could just make out a crescent of mottled, light-gray stone, which quickly dissolved into deep. A whiff of something dank—not unpleasant—rose from the well’s core, perforated with citrus. It smelled like fermented peach juice. I used to drop pebbles into the well, then larger objects, trying to judge how far it was to the water below. Sometimes I’d hear noises—splashing sounds and odd murmurs—coming from deep within the well shaft. I’d hoot and holler into the void, trying to rouse an echo. One day I yodeled, “Hello-o-o-o…is anybody there?” Silence. Then, a reverberation began deep inside the well; it became lighter in pitch as it flickered upward through the shaft. A taut modulation sprang past me to the surface—it sounded like a whistling yo-yo being snapped back on a string. I got excited. Something was down there. Something amazing, like…like a critter, maybe! An older head would have suggested that what I’d heard was only the croaking of a frog or a bit of mud sliding into the water; but my five-year-old’s brain decided that I’d heard a well critter. Case closed. I developed a personality profile for my mysterious critter, complete with a name: Sarabelle. Instead of pebbles, I started dropping bits of my leftover lunch sandwiches into the well for her. I was sure I could hear a frenzy of her limbs as she went after the crumbs—peanut butter-and-jelly seemed to be her favorite. Audrey was terrified of Sarabelle. When I dragged her to the well one day to introduce her to my critter, Audrey bolted, screamed that Sarabelle was dangerous, that I should stay away from the well. I told Audrey she was being a baby. Eventually Sarabelle spoke to me. It happened only once, on my last-ever visit to the
She said my name. disoriented. She stood in the shaded gap between two peach trees. As the newly designated household goat. When the same thing happened again the next week. the old woman. The sentence included my first taste of forsythia. I didn’t know my father—who’d deserted us before I was born—but I found myself desperately wishing for him to magically appear from wherever he was. sun-spotting disheveled features. I barely recognized our neighbor. grizzled hanks fell about her shoulders. though. mother had come screaming in from the back yard. plus lavish application of forsythia. She’ll kill you.” I spent the rest of that afternoon—and night—without supper.” Sarabelle would kill me. rather than heard. Go back. Be careful be careful be care—” The force of my mother’s scream hit my eardrum before the sound tore through it. for reasons I couldn’t fathom. I had my own suspicions about what was happening to the well cover (Sarabelle did it) but couldn’t voice them. Two days later. claiming that the well cover had been pushed back during the night. her face looming close so we were practically nose-to-nose. now. and spilled out my fears about Sarabelle and the well. And from then on. She looked right and left. I was no longer the golden child. like a Good Witch Glinda. One night after final lights out. I envisioned him floating through the front door in a giant. I rubbed my belly. just to have a distraction.orchard well. A patch of light drifted across her face. My sister’s reply reached across the dark void. not even when she was whipping Audrey with a forsythia branch—her standard punishment for “acting up. like a confused garden gnome. “Go back Lucy. The worst thing was that I had to strip the leaves off the branches myself so that the wood would make better contact with the skin of my thighs. My mother was bent low from the waist. pink rescue-bubble. locked in my room. I turned. No fear. Lucy. but she’d retreated into her private cave. I was suddenly worse than Audrey had ever been. I tried to stay under mother’s radar. (My first promise to you. staring at the flimsy wooden lid of the orchard well. In a clear. After that incident I was banned from the orchard. Twenty years later. worried-sounding voice. swaying uncertainly on her feet as if her ankles were loosely sprung. She wore a fancy silk blouse tied with a floppy bow but nothing else underneath 42 . Sarabelle said. I’d never seen her face so angry. or my mother? I tried to pry the answer out of Audrey. hoping to become smaller. sharp understanding of the fear that must have gripped my mother when she found her five-yearold pirouetting on top of a death trap. Verna had always worn her hair sleeked back in a neat ponytail.) *** I felt. Verna Mays. or the way they were always applied to the beat of vicious. I crept down the hallway into Audrey’s room. In fact. I felt a sudden. hateful words. the place where she dreamed and plotted. I got two nights lockup in my room. “Miss Verna?” I ventured. everything changed between mother and me. “Don’t tell mother about Sarabelle. justified the forsythia-rages that had followed. little one: I will never raise my hand in anger. I willed my body’s cells to shrink.
Your people are the Saint Augustine Claflins. But for the heartbeat that it took for me to think it through. Stop it. It was like the orchard’s airless triangle of death. “You introduced yourself as Sarah Bell. of course—one of life’s weird.” “I don’t know about that. as if someone had stepped on a patch of dried autumn leaves. I’m Lucy Poteet. logic overruled perception. and I—consuming a delightful dish of Chicken con Cat-hair. Bell. the kind one might use with a slow person. Mrs. I heard a soft crunch. Did you take the little girl kitten I mentioned? She has such beautiful copper eyes.” I said. “I thought that was you. Sarabelle. “Did you find a kitten?” “A kitten? No. Okay?” She didn’t reply. “My car’s parked in front of the house. You wanted to look at Beryl’s litter. Before Verna appeared. I’m so glad. You were going to bring home a kitten. you said. “Let me drive you home. not Sarah Bell. then. I think you’ve confused me with someone else. “But I’m certain that my name is Lucy. Miss Verna. as in anything to do with Audrey’s future.except for a pair of pink nylon panties. but allowed me to point her toward the driveway.” I said. We were sitting at the wobbly kitchen table—mother.” “Miss Verna. Audrey. I gave you directions to this farm. “I live here.” “I don’t— ” In a patient voice. embarrassed. Sarah Claflin Bell. Her eyes were lit by an eldritch glow.” Verna blinked back tears—the pain of an old woman who’d gotten lost in place and time —which prompted me to reach for her arm. random parallelisms. Stupid—not possible. Bell!” Verna stepped forward with a smile of recognition. Think.” As her smile faltered I continued. The noise came from behind us. I mean. I looked away. simply another optical illusion. brows knit as if she were pondering a difficult crossword clue. Beryl Poteet’s daughter.” Verna studied my face and belly. *** I didn’t mean to toss a grenade into the dinner conversation that night. the hairs lifted from the back of my neck. Sarah Claflin Bell. I thought. you mentioned. “Remember. I’m not Mrs. I used to live here. I’m— ” “So you found Beryl Poteet’s farm. something had changed: The cover of the orchard well had shifted —slightly but distinctly—to one side. Sarah Bell. Mrs. my old well critter. trees frowning down on us. I was trying desperately to steer the conversation away from anything dark—dark. Sarah? You got lost and knocked on my door. When I looked back. It was a coincidence that the two names were alike. A new kitten for the new baby. The well cover hadn’t moved—couldn’t have moved —while I was talking to Verna.” she said. “But…we just met a few hours ago. If I brought my sister back to live with me in Charleston—assuming she’d come—I’d . she went on. It wasn’t until I’d returned from taking Verna home that the similarities of the names struck me: Mrs. As we tromped through the orchard. She switched her gaze back and forth. Quickly. the lid had sat dead-center over the well shaft. Miss Verna.
44 . “So.” “Hang on. I heard her tread going up the stairs. plus uncertain finances. feeling stupid. pivoted awkwardly around the Jupiter-sized center of gravity that was my stomach. I had to adjust my eyes to a flood of incandescent blue light that filled the tiny first-floor bedroom of my mother’s house. Do you happen to remem—” There was a sudden clank of china on metal. mother—another pregnant woman. Mrs. After a few minutes. I heard it slam. The creaking footsteps stopped over the kitchen ceiling. more urgent—Morse code from the Titanic on its way to the sea bottom—until it forced me to surface through multiple layers of slugged-out sleep. where the air vent was. (I’d been laid off from my job mid-way through the pregnancy. That damn fool!” “Who?” I said. She focused her eyes on mine and cocked her head back from her neck. Not yet. The light pulsed through the window and splashed up against the interior. like dry branches scratching against a window pane. so the effect was startling My sister rose from the table and scurried out of the kitchen. As I blinked to awareness. A pair of focused eyes stared back at me.” I said to the observing eyes. the ones that my obstetrician. Audrey almost never made direct eye contact. painting the rose-patterned wallpaper neon blue. “Miss Verna or Sarah Bell?” “Don’t you ever. We’d been subsisting since then on my unemployment and Ron’s Army salary. “That damn fool. Verna Mays. and—surprise!—no one was in the mood to hire a visibly pregnant software manager. Two things had happened simultaneously: my mother slammed her palm onto the table hard enough to rattle the plates and utensils. Then the rapping grew louder. They belonged to a man who was holding a badge flush against the window glass. She confused me with one of your old kitten customers. her old gesture for: Shut the hell up. I was starting to feel sharp pains in my left side. My sister looked frightened. ever say that name again. Its heavy wheels churned up the rutted driveway as she drove away. Dr. since there’d never been any allergic reaction to Verna’s name in the past. *** Noise invaded my sleep. had told me to watch out for—the ones that could signal the onset of labor. then the engine of the Ford pickup kicking to life. Mother scraped up her truck keys up from wall hook and disappeared in the direction of the front door. and Audrey pushed her chair back. plus a sister with special needs.” I had to assume mother meant I shouldn’t mention Sarah Bell.) These issues were weighing on my mind when I mentioned my run-in with the senile neighbor. I was left to clean up the dinner by myself. At first it was a series of ignorable taps. “It must be Alzheimer’s. Behind him sat a white SUV with a green stripe down its side—the stripe said “Pickens County Sheriff. inhaled the greasy air of dirty dishes.” I said. Selverstone. I felt reassured that I wasn’t in trouble. an amount that didn’t even cover the basics. Verna kept calling me Sarah Bell. In the silence that followed. Miss Verna seemed completely out of it. and counted between the spasms. pushed by a soughing breeze. Sarah Claflin Bell.have a new infant to manage. I leaned against the sink. I threw back the sheets. and craned my neck to peer through the window.
Out. He’s got no business. “Sorry to disturb you. she’s deceased. The cop standing on the front porch was unusually tall—another inch and his Smokeythe-bear’s hat would have gotten seared by the bare bulb that illuminated the overhang. as far as I know.m.m. as if that explained much. isn’t it? Beryl Poteet’s?” As I nodded. I just saw Verna yesterday.” . That cracker of a sheriff’s got no business coming to my house.I kicked my feet free of the bedclothes and flailed about for a robe.. How?” “An intruder. May I come inside for a moment to speak with you?” “Oh. you said you are? What time did you see Verna Mays. “Put that away. reaching for a wicker chair to steady myself. “Ah. not a prowler—I saw his badge. I fumbled my fingers along the wall to find a light switch.” Except for the woman inside who wants to blow your head off. he said. did you?” “No. “I was in school a year behind her.” “I know who they are. according to the luminous green dial of the bedside clock. “Why? What’s going on?” “There‘s a problem down the road at one of your neighbor’s houses. “I can’t believe it. Officer. You didn’t hear anything last night around ten p.” “Oh my God. Mother’s silhouette stood at the top of the stairs.” I said. next to his gun. “Lucy Poteet. It was her shotgun. Cochran looked up from his note-taking. praying he’d pick up my message: Stay. You know her?” “Yes—is she okay?” “No ma’am. I recognized the long. I had a vision of Mother and her shotgun in the darkness: the two of them frozen in position. he eyed my stomach. adding that I’d given her a ride home around 5 p. Mother. “It’s the police. my mother and Audrey. dark profile of something she held in her arms. opened the front door. Do you want to get killed?” The stairway light clicked off.m. “Or anyone here at home with you?” “Just me. Which neighbor had a problem?” “Verna Mays. “Was there anyone else around her house when you took her home?” When I shook my head he added. on guard..” “That a fact?” He pulled a notebook from a leather case that was attached to his utility belt. It was 5:30 a.” “Don’t let him see a gun. Is everything okay here?” “Everything’s fine. “This is the Poteet residence. I reached the central hall just as the domed light at the top of the stairway lit up.” Glancing past me into the darkened house. startled.” he said. Lucy?” I recapped my encounter with Verna in the orchard of the day before. I’m Lucy Poteet. ma’am—I’m Special Investigator Randy Cochran with the County Sheriff. we think. She’s hacked up pretty bad. like a Minuteman statue. “You her daughter?” “One of them.” I said. from Charleston. Is it okay if I step onto the porch instead? My mother gets nervous.” I said.
“Have her call me. “I don’t know. and she cooked a mean lemon-pudding cake for the community pot lucks—those seemed to be the only notable things about her biography. yes—Mother went out for a little while after dinner. Mother and the shot gun had disappeared from the stairway landing when I went back inside. nine black handles shined dully under the fluorescent light. On a whim. The beam of light probed gently into the cab.“Did all three of you stay in the entire evening? Anyone leave?” “No. I did a search for references to Verna Mays near Six Mile. you say? How long you in town for?” Before I could answer: “Check in with me before you leave. Momentum carried me through the hallway into the kitchen. but there. I’m sorry.” That didn’t go over well. One slot was empty—the chef’s knife. lingered on the hardwood block that housed a set of kitchen knives. I flicked on the ceiling light and stood for a long minute. would you?” “Of course. it was weak. and saw an interesting link: Sarah Claflin Bell – National Center for Missing Adults (NCMA) 46 . A strange pain was radiating up and down my left torso. But I’d like to talk with your mother—is she home right now?” Visions of the shot gun jitterbugged through my head again. Nothing appeared to have been disturbed since I’d finished cleaning the night before. like I said. using Boolean operators to narrow down the search. The few links that appeared mostly led to church bulletins. the next morning my laptop was able to pick up a wireless signal. I mean.” On his way to his patrol car. surveying the surfaces.” “Where’d your mother go. Something tightened in my chest—I felt a baseless sense of guilt about Verna’s death. “Is it safe for us to stay here. Her bedroom door was closed. which my mother had used the night before to chop carrots. *** Miraculously.” I said to Cochran. and one community newspaper article. Maybe it was time to head to the hospital. Cochran paused to shine his torch light into my Prius. I was about to give up when I scrolled to one more search page. then into Mother’s pickup. “You’re from Charleston. stir-fried with a side of fear. And—say hallelujah!—the network was unsecured. South Carolina. He slapped his notebook shut. staging a fit over my story about Verna Mays and Sarah Bell. you know?” I had a memory flash: My mother at the dinner table. Miss Verna Mays had retired as town librarian of Six Miles twenty years earlier. Protruding from their slots.” he said. He was looking for something. I will. “Can we make an appointment to follow up with you? She’s nervous. My gaze drifted over the tiled kitchen counter. I did a search for “Sarah Claflin Bell”—my doppelganger in Miss Mays’s mind—but no links to anyone with that name came up near Six Mile. do you think?” “I don’t think there’s an immediate danger. then made several slow sweeps of the cargo bed.
slapped my open palm against the locked bedroom door. Mother stood in the hallway.” From the other side of the door. the one she never drove. You just couldn’t leave it alone about Sarah Bell. she’d been roughly my age when she’d disappeared in 1985. “Sarah Claflin Bell. hoisted me aloft and was waving me around in the air. This is her. She was still cradling the shotgun. trying to grasp the reality that my mother had pushed me—pushed her pregnant daughter—into a wall. There was a photo of Sarah Bell displayed next to her profile: her photo looked like me. Lucy?” “To make sure we’re all right. Speaking of Audrey—I realized I hadn’t seen her since Sheriff Cochran had arrived three hours earlier with news of Verna Mays’s death. Miss Verna was killed last night. 1985—the day I’d been born. where the picture of Sarah Bell was displayed. Except for a cumulus cloud of 80s-style hair.There is No Such Thing as a “Cold Case”! According to the profile. I’d just taken a screenshot of Sarah Bell’s profile picture and sent it to my cell phone when I heard a knock on the bedroom door. Her expression froze. as if a gigantic lobster claw had grabbed me by the mid-section. I was about to pass out. I think the baby’s coming. Before I knew what had happened. I doubled over. but nothing made it past my clenched throat muscles. Sarah had been eight months pregnant. my mother said: “You just couldn’t leave it alone. The lock clicked. I tried to catch my breath. Let me out. lowered myself to my knees onto all fours. “Mother? I’ve got to go to the hospital. could you?” “Who was she. Sarah Claflin Bell had been reported missing by her husband on April 22. That was a coincidence—we happened to have an old brown Mercedes in the shed out back. Isn’t there an amazing resemblance to me? She was reported missing 25 years ago—on the day I was born. He say who did it?” Before I could reply she looked down at my handheld. Then a violent push sent me staggering into the rose-patterned wallpaper. When last seen. Not like anything I’d felt before—this pain was like a sledgehammer. driving a tobacco-brown Mercedes. Mother?” “She was the bitch you came from.” “Hmmph. *** According to Sarah Bell’s missing person profile. At the time she was eight months preg—” I felt the phone get knocked from my hand. heard it clatter onto the wood floor. I felt dazed. Sarah could have been my twin sister—she resembled me much more than my actual sister. trying to cut me in half. “What’d that Sheriff want. Audrey. I angled the phone screen for her to see.” . But that’s not what made me gasp. my mother had scooped up the phone from the floor. She looked almost exactly like me. slammed shut the bedroom door. It was Mother’s good car. I was a prisoner inside the cramped little bedroom. Pain hit my belly from all sides.
As Audrey rolled off Mother. They grappled and fell across the top of the well.” she ordered. like the sigh of a ghost. Tell them to get the police. “Where is Sarah Claflin Bell now? What did you do with her. Violent ripcords of pain pulled me into a Gordian knot. With shaking fingers. and then I got you. I pulled myself into a fetal position.” There was a strangled cry. there was a crescendo. pregnant. to keep her quiet about having seen Sarah Bell all those years ago. She was here. drawing me into a suffocating death. 48 . And then I was standing in front of the orchard well itself.” With a sick lurch. and into the groves. out the screen door. She swung it in an arc to plunge the blade into my sister’s back. Mother?” From the baseboard came a whispered moan. She was aiming it at me. she leaped onto my mother’s back. clawing at her eyes. The vintage lock had resisted at first. falling through the peach orchard. the chef’s knife was in her other. Mother managed to get a hand free—the one with the knife. There was no time to aim and fire—I grabbed it by the barrel and swung it over my head and down on hers like a club.“That I came from?” “I cut you out of her that day. “Audrey. bleeding and groaning. It was my sister’s voice: Sarabelle is in the well…Sarabelle is in the well… I could see through the bedroom window.” No reply. She was passing back and forth in front of the window. Only this time a real monster was closing in on me—not my real mother—a fiend. head resting by my drawn-in knees near the furnace vent. Lucy. “Lie down. Before anyone picked up. Underneath the attacking Audrey. Mother closed in on the other side of the well. My laptop was on the bed. Mother reeled back. I recognized a new horror: that Beryl had killed Miss Verna too. Mother had smashed the barrel of the shotgun through the window. I still had Sheriff Cochran’s card. Putting my lips close to the baseboard I said. a splintering of glass. I connected and punched in the officer’s number. I screamed for Audrey again as I made my way toward the back. “Get down on the ground! I’m ready to become me a grandmother. knocking aside the cover. I was plunging through a scene that was identical to my childhood nightmare—rows of trees closing in on me. *** I was outside: stumbling. I scrambled to grab the shotgun. desperate attempt to escape. listen. Audrey rushed into view from behind a line of trees. then gave way. My mother had moved onto the porch. Get to the road and flag someone down. The blow landed squarely on her skull. like a figure in one of those duck-shooting games at a carnival. I’d flung my shoulder against the bedroom door in a final. fell with her spine against the well. gripping the shot gun in one hand. You’ve got to get out of the house—Mother’s gone crazy. You were mine. Like a feral cat. I could make a call by using Skype.
I’d already been in touch by phone with Paul Bell. Whatever else happens. the Poteet farm has become the center of a major crime investigation. Audrey and I are about to embark on our new lives together. and will be running DNA tests to link the daughters with two bodies that have been discovered on the property. still recuperating from the knife attack. Lock your expression in neutral. That’s all I know. “The owner of the farm. a vision born of terror and pain. the husband of Sarah Claflin Bell. Gun up and you don’t say the first word. whitish-blue arms rose from inside the well shaft. Don’t ever let one of them know what you’re thinking. Had we been saved by a spirit? Had my real mother finally rescued me from the woman who was more evil than any stepmother in a Grimm’s fairy tale? I’ll never know. but both women are in the hospital and expected to recover. Sarah Bell. Verna Mays. Then silence.And that’s when I saw it: A pair of spectral. It would be weeks before DNA testing confirmed that I was Paul Bell’s biological daughter. He said he’d spent the last 25 years searching for Sarah—and for me—while trying to overcome a cloud of suspicion that he’d had something to do with Sarah’s disappearance. as soon as the barrel is up and pointing where you need it. *** The CNN reporter stared into the camera. It turned out that he was a well-known architect. according to police. flipped his wrist hard to put out the match. But most bizarre of all. Sarabelle. They believe she killed the girls’ pregnant mothers years ago. You just fire into the center of . is their suspicion that Beryl Poteet may not have been the natural mother of her two daughters. They dragged her into the well. Both the daughters were attacked by their mother. We’re alive. I named her after her grandmother. pulled. five and a half ounces. a frenzy of limbs. in order to kidnap the babies and raise them as her own. “Since the events of yesterday morning. but he’d sounded overjoyed to hear from me. Audrey and Lucy Poteet. you pull the trigger. Beryl Poteet—now deceased—is a suspect in the murder of a next-door neighbor. There was a moment of screaming. I’ll never leave my sister behind again. was the valkyrie-like being that pulled Beryl to her drowning death. Audrey was down the hall in another room.” she said. Police are still investigating this unprecedented case. He said he still had a picture of me at his home: my ultrasound photo. I heard Mother’s body fall into the shaft and hit the water below. The ghost-arms grabbed my mother by her throat and hair.” I was watching the report on TV from my hospital room in Clemson. with a deathly grip. My daughter was born in the peach orchard moments after Beryl fell into the well—she weighed eight pounds. We may never know who Audrey’s real mother was. Family Again John Ramsey Miller “What I’m saying to you is–” the old man paused to light an oil lamp. and he dropped it into the ashtray–“you ever pull a gun and. her real grandmother. yesterday. two vengeful fists wrapped around my mother’s neck. You can practice that frozen expression in the mirror. It may all have been an illusion on my part. And I may never know whether the well critter of my youth. Beryl Poteet.
“They burned up his church and took him away. let the child eat his soup. “It’s on account of this place is so far off the beaten path. “We know how dangerous it can be out there.” The boy smiled at the sound of his name. You ever see one of those zombie movies?” The boy shook his head. Headshot turns out their lights. There were cut vegetables and chunks of very tender meat. She handed him a large spoon. you couldn’t find us. Eat up.” Ernest said. Olive Baptist.” he said. “They were people who were dead but acted alive and would eat you unless you shot them in their heads and interrupted their central nervous system. She took a bowl and dipped soup into it before putting it back down in front of the boy. Like the Indians. don’t you?” The boy nodded. Used to be so many deer you had to shoo them away to walk through the woods.” she said. He was rested and fed now and nowhere near starving to death. Had he ever tasted anything like it? “Where did you come here from. “You ever shot a gun before?” the old man asked the boy. You know what a movie is. but older than anybody he’d seen in a long while. “He said his name is Robert.” The boy picked up the spoon and started on the bowl of soup. “We’re conservative with what we got. could see the heat rising into the air as she plodded to the table and put the tray down between him and the old man. “Far as I know we’re among the last there are living around here. “My mama and Sissy called me Bobby. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been in the structure. Bobby. Amy?” The woman nodded and made a loud sucking sound that startled the boy. the boy was finally warmed up. He goes down and you put one between his eyes. “Allen Burke preached at Mt.” The boy stirred his soup. Why did the old man keep asking the same questions over and over 50 . Do otherwise. Ernest.” Ernest growled. Bobby?” Amy asked.” he answered after he swallowed. What’s your family’s last name?” “Burke. If you didn’t know we were back up in here. I got a bow so I can take game when there’s any to find. “Sure you do.” “Don’t know no Burkes in Richfield.” she said.” “He’s my uncle. “Richfield.” “So you and your sister ran away?” Ernest asked.the chest where the heart and lungs are. The boy didn’t know how old they were. we use every bit of a thing. We don’t waste anything. he could live to kill you. “That’s where I grew up. “We never waste anything. “How do you get food?” Robert asked.” Ernest said. Naked under the scratchy wool blanket. “Better know it. staring intently into the older man’s eyes that reminding him of wet marbles. The old woman who lived there with the older man came into the room from the back carrying a tray in her hands. Robert nodded. Not any more. don’t we. how long it had been since he found the well-hidden door. There’s some left but they’re smart and skittish. “We got enough food and basic supplies to last us a long while. The boy shook his head after swallowing the hot wonderful soup. that was for sure. which is where he had been when he’d stumbled onto the old couple’s hide out.” She said.” Ernest said. The boy could smell the soup cooking in a pot over the fire.
“Well.” Amy said.” “A lot do. There’s no gas.again? “We went to sleep under some dead trees two nights ago and when I woke up Sissy was gone.” Amy said. All day and most of the next but she didn’t ever come back. it never freezes in here. You’ll be fine now. Ernest stared at him.” “They took her?” Amy asked. I waited a long time. I knocked and you opened it.” “Yes. First the cut off was seventy. “To have found us. “Look at the stars. thinking.” Ernest’s words trailed off to just thought. but when I got to the trees I saw the door. remembering. “I don’t think anybody still fights them much. The soldiers got most of it stopped. dark age.” “It’s hard to get food.” Robert said. Some get took in the army.” “And you were just wandering around and stumbled into our house. age of reason.” Robert said.” Amy said. acceptable living age range drops. then sixty-five and God knows what it is by now. “How long ago was that?” the old man asked. food supplies are getting shorter. Everything valuable is going to other countries for compensation.” “I’m surprised you understood what any soldier said.” Amy said. They moved us to the chicken farm compound after that. “I smelled the smoke and I followed it.. Not as much. "Trees hide the door from about any angle. Robert knew he was just playing it safe.” Ernest said.” the boy said. “We go out some in the evenings.. I’m not good with time.” Ernest said.” “You just stay in here all the time?” Robert asked. etcetera. but the smell is something I can’t do away with. you’re one lucky young man. right?” Ernest asked. We’ve got plenty of food and endless fresh water and.” “Crops fail. I built into this hill twenty years ago. age of enlightenment. or what you could see of it.” “I wish we could go out and look for your sister. A lot of people are in the army now. Robert shrugged. “The distribution station in Richfield is only open once a week now. “Sissy could tell you. Bobby. He nodded.” “You were about dead. since we’re sheltered all around by dirt and stone. Most of the gangs came in. You wouldn’t know the world was so screwed up. noting the old man’s suspiciousness. So damned few of the bastards speak English.” “Everything’s in cycles. “The smoke stack is filtered so you can’t see smoke. smiling and showing his pink toothless gums. “Some. “My mother was forty. and there’s no heat signature to amount to anything.” . His own mother had told him over and over that trusting people was stupid and would get you killed. It seems so normal sometimes. people don’t want to work for no reward.” “And there’s the gangs. I saw this coming years ago and started taking measures. “But…” “We could get caught and they’d send us off because we’re too old to be useful as anything but fertilizer. Sometimes they don’t have anything there.” Robert said. “Dark age. A lot of people are afraid to go see if there’s food because they might not get to go back home. At first it looked like a regular hill.
” “They don’t hardly even have to fight. Probably the same thing.” “Thank you. “They’re going to be big on you. Except for what the soldiers had. and it looked funny when she smiled. beans.” “How old are you. The concrete walls were dry and unpainted. “Twelve.” Amy said.” “I know that.” Robert said. you about never saw guns. Tackle. That was eight years ago. football?” Robert smiled.” Amy said. but Robert thought she was nice. Space was precious in the cave. “One of these days they’ll stumble in here. Robert saw rifles and shotguns lined up along the wall and handguns on top of the boxes. You know what that is. and tubs filled with vacuum-sealed bags of rice. Killed or captured. One hell of a fight.” “My daddy was in the national guards. When he came into the room Ernest and Amy stopped talking and looked at him. They come to tread on me and I’m going to show them. pointing to the framed picture of a young man on the hearth. “For everything.” Robert said. gangs. “Bill was always big for his age.” Amy said. “Twelve.” Robert said. A few of her teeth were missing. Robert closed the door and went into the bathroom and put on the clothes. Bunch of cowards. His heart beating wildly. Played football starting with Pee Wee and varsity in high school. enough of that.” Ernest said. Bobby. And there was toilet paper and God knew what all else. Bobby?” Amy asked. As long as powder burns I ain’t afraid.” Robert said.” Amy came back in with some folded clothes and put them on the table. and there’ll be one hell of a fight. “I’ll look for them in 52 . “You can go in the bathroom to put them on. “The main thing is we’re safe here and now so are you. It looked like the distribution center. The flannel shirt was warm. They had enough food to last for years. “American football. carrying an oil lamp Amy had given him since there was no electricity.” “You’re welcome. and the socks were thick and warm. He knew the bathroom was on the left.“I will. “They fit pretty good. and jars packed with canned meats. but they’ll do until yours are dry. the pants stayed up thanks to the belt. hike. soldiers. and he supposed there were bullets and shells in the steel boxes. Ernest nodded. He was alive. There were hundreds. smiling. Robert wrapped the blanket around him and went through the door into the short hallway. which except for a bed was stacked with boxes and plastic tubs. “Sure I do. This room was two or three times larger than the other rooms combined. twenty-two.” Ernest said. I can play soccer too. which is what it really was. but he opened the door across from it and looked into the bedroom. “I don’t really remember him. “I think I have a box of things that will fit you better.” “Not soccer.” “Small for your age.” Ernest said. maybe thousands of cans on shelves. “Missiles and bombs. They’ll just put a drone on you.” “Well. brigands of any sort. “He went north to fight with the guard. He closed the bedroom door and opened the third door and was stunned by what he saw. And there was workspace with a steel sink and a thick table that had lots of knives and a cleaver on it.” Amy said. U. Amy smiled.N. he’d a come home. “That was Bill.” Ernest said.” Robert said. which had to be Amy’s because they weren’t all that large.” “Who’s that in the picture?” Robert said.
Kids were just for work and to put in the army. it was better to be dead than powerless.” Robert sat down at the table. You were right. He knew that when people got really mad. Ernest can teach you how to play poker. and trying to get something else to eat days. The whole world goes to hell. There were lots of people out there who were surviving just fine. We’re off the radar and have been for fifteen years. . to fade into the scenery and survive.” “Amy owes me over a million dollars.” Amy laughed and waved the air between her and Ernest. and he knew if the soldiers knew about them they would come out here and take their stuff out and use it up like hogs. They would not share with people like Robert and his sister. people who didn’t… He was pretty sure Ernest and Amy didn’t believe that. The truth was that there were too many people everywhere and the carbon scales demanded sacrifice. and opening the door wide for them to walk in. “I mean you just sit in here all the time?” “It isn’t so bad. “Yeah. and the other kids. People with something to contribute earned their place. The government was cutting deals with tyrants. You ever heard the story about the frog in the pan of cold water on the stove?” Robert nodded even though he had no idea what Ernest was talking about. and Albert who ran the distribution center. I put everything I had into figuring this out. And they were for other things. He knew what the leader would say about Amy and Ernest. like his sister said. Bobby has lived through it too.” Amy said. bad things happened. Even before things got like they are I was thinking of surviving. He didn’t remember any good old days. Corrupt bastards signing treaties and cutting trade agreements with the devils of the world. even if you had a full stomach and were warm was better than being outside. When he was older he would fight back.” “And you go out sometimes at night.” Robert didn’t like it when people got mad and started talking about the good old days. He shoved the memories aside. “Morals and ethics go and the animals win.” Robert asked.” Ernest said. He wondered if staying in a cave all the time like an animal. “What do you mean?” Ernest asked. right. no longer smiling. “The more we stay in here. You’ll run up your blood pressure for nothing. Robert had seen his sister pinned under soldiers. Robert had been forced to do things that made him want to vomit when he thought about them. Provisional government is the same ass bites that ran things before. and selling us down the river. They’re exempt from everything. We can live the rest of our lives in here. “What do you do all the time?” Robert asked. I don’t look forward to shooting it out with anybody. “We play board games. the least likely we’ll have to fight. “Ernest.the morning. doing what they had to do to keep out of the sights of people who could hurt them.” “Thank you. He wasn’t about to bring that up. Probably still living like kings while everybody else fights to survive. Robert knew how to stay out of the way. I guess I’ll have to take it out in trade. but I’m not about to die without taking a bunch of the bastards out there with me.” Amy said. just never enough days.” Ernest said. “When it isn’t cold and rainy like now we can. I’m not young.” Ernest said. Maybe. “It’s about survival. “I doubt I’ll ever get it out of her. We have cards. don’t get into all that.
a tall thin figure wearing a slicker slipped silently into the room. The fire was down to just coals. The coals gave off just enough light so that when they passed the fireplace he could see the shape of her machete’s dull steel blade. you could get sick. along with a burst of cold air. After Robert closed the door gently.” Robert told them in a low voice. and the snoring stopped all at once. When he was sure his hosts were good and asleep. of course. He went to the clot of trembling children who hugged themselves to him for comfort and warmth. Robert crossed to the fireplace and found the key. 54 . She took a flashlight from inside her poncho and held it so the light was filtered through her fingers and she could control the intensity. There was no back door. but that didn’t matter. He kept the key on the mantel. the sounds of the couple snoring dimming behind him. He wasn’t sure what time it was. followed quickly by a half a dozen smaller shapes dripping chilled rainwater. he unlocked the door and opened it slowly. but it was warm. We have some medicines. bracing himself for the creaking the heavy steel hinges would make. He opened the door and led his sister to the bedroom door where Ernest and Amy slept. Taking her cold hand. Robert lay in the dark. Robert led her to the door while the others stood waiting patiently. There was a bit of white light that ricocheted from the hallway. Robert backed up and. Ernest probably knew that if you got found.“You ought to go on to sleep. getting away wasn’t going to happen. Robert went back into the main room. Crossing the room. “We will be safe here for a long. After the old people went to bed. but not nearly enough variety. Sissy leaned down and kissed him on the cheek. The front door was made of steel and Ernest had padlocked it as soon as they’d brought Robert inside. long time. He heard what sounded like someone snapping their fingers and a gasp. The frightened kids smelled like wet animals.” Amy said. Few antibiotics. “You’ll sleep on the couch there and we’ll go ahead and turn in.” Amy said.” Robert nodded. “As wet and cold as you were when you showed up.
“Actually. he studied his copilot’s features. traces of gray around the temples. “They have such compassion. anyway?” “Somebody has to draw the short straw. Makes no sense. dark bags under his eyes. Lit by the faint light spilling from the cargo bay. What could be so damn important that it had to get to its destination in the middle of the worst winter storm in years? He shifted in his seat and stared at the string of runway lights. that’s what I don’t understand. lumbering roll. a last minute arrival for the flight.” Diaz said. and a round cherub face that would make him appear perpetually young. a mystery cargo. the big guy gave me no choice. Let's just get it over with. “Cargo nine-seven-three.” While Murphy waited for the tower’s response. Blond hair. He needed some much deserved rest and peace. To hell with it. “This is nuts. “Tower. Instead he got this: a lone C-47. Plus. Despite his protests over his safety and that of his copilot. After taxiing the plane to the end of the runway. Looks like this is the only welcoming reception you’re gonna get at your new assignment.Final Flight Joe Moore The snow fell hard and the wind swirled around the Douglas C-47 like an angry white wraith. He turned to his copilot. he had been ordered to fly the mission or face spending time in the brig. first out. thanks.” “Yeah. The only bright side was a guarantee of extended R&R at the end of the mission. hair jutting out from under his cap in untidy thickets. Murphy pushed the throttles to their stops and let go of the brakes. Murphy closed his eyes.” Diaz shrugged before going back to his pre-flight checklist. the lone crewman appeared as nothing more than a ghost operating the tractor that hoisted the oblong-shaped crate into the plane’s belly.” Murphy mumbled as he turned to Diaz. A burst of static filled Murphy’s earphones. this is cargo nine-seven-three requesting clearance for takeoff.” The C-47 sat poised with its two Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engines rumbling. Major Howard Murphy. “Soon as we get off the ground. Major. he thought. their dim glow came and went on white sheets of windblown snow. you know the drill. This can't be happening. slightly curled-up mouth as if he were keeping a secret. he thought.” “Gee. and a storm in which no pilot in his right mind would dare to fly. Last in. I just arrived on base. You ready?” The copilot nodded. Stay warm.” Diaz’s smile revealed a full set of pearly whites.” “You gotta love ‘em. Murphy focused on his reflection in the side cockpit window--too many lines on his face for a man his age. First Lieutenant Angel Diaz. you’re cleared for takeoff. Murphy keyed his mic. I got hit with the same ultimatum. His shoulders sagged and he felt like a man with one foot in the grave. This was not going to go well. I’ll bet the rest of those fly boys will shut down Flight Ops and head for the watering hole. “How’d you get stuck flying in this pea soup. The plane began a slow. United States Army Air Corps frowned as he watched the fuel truck pull away and disappear behind the white curtain of the blizzard. almost as if it were hesitant to leave the safety of . fellas.
Murphy adjusted the plane’s heading and pulled back on the controls. throwing the aircraft around with a determination to prove who was boss. It was followed by a numeric heading. He engaged the Sperry autopilot and settled into his seat. “Top Secret” was stamped across the front. the storm will have let up by the time they get to their destination. When Murphy saw the marker approaching through the driving snow.” He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a brown envelope. reminding him of a giant white blanket. He felt the wind buffet its metal skin. Murphy knew he was about to run out of asphalt.” Diaz chuckled as he read the inscription. the first was rare for him. Diaz adjusted the throttles and kept them as far forward as possible while the two men labored to coax the plane up. cruising altitude. Visibility was next to zero. the red-and-white-striped doghouses marking the end of the runway appeared out of the blizzard and grew bigger by the second. but turning it over.” “Those guys love to play their little spy games just to amuse themselves. Hopefully. and duration. Turning to Diaz. “Take the controls. As the aircraft picked up speed. He let out a heavy breath as they reached 1000 feet. wherever that was.” “Never does.” 56 . “Final Flight Plan”. “The CO said not to open this until we were airborne. Murphy broke the seal on the envelope and pulled out a stiff piece of heavy paper similar to a formal invitation. The surface was blank. “That was way too close for my liking. He heard the engines scream and felt a small shudder go through the plane as the wheels finally left the ground. “Doesn’t look so bad once you get up here. Nothing else. Murphy felt the controls vibrate as he heard the engines roar. After a few moments.” “Somebody’s watching out for you. braced himself. He immediately did two things. he knew the end of the runway was getting nearer. “I heard you’re some kind of a legend around the base. that’s definitely unique. “Okay. the C-47 broke through the top of the storm and into the light of a full moon. “What’s our flight plan?” Diaz asked. he tried to ease back the yoke but was met with overpowering resistance. The C-47 passed over the doghouses. he saw written in a flowing script the heading. Even though he couldn’t see it. He exchanged a quick glance of concern with Diaz. He handed the paper to Diaz.” As the copilot complied. let’s climb out of this mess. Second. He remembered the terrain surrounding the airfield was flat with hardly any obstructions apart from a few farm houses and barns.” “Always the cloak and dagger business. Diaz said. Murphy managed to get the plane in a shallow climb.” He motioned to Diaz. and started tugging on the yoke with all his might.” It always amazed Murphy how quickly he could go from hell to heaven in the span of a few thousand feet of altitude. he put his feet up on the instrument panel. the wind pummeled it like a punch-drunk boxer struggling to get off the mat. Suddenly. He watched the clouds stretch out in all directions.” Murphy banked the C-47 while eyeing the altimeter as it crept past 1500 feet. “Good question. “Well.” Five minutes later. The plane continued to shake and sway. speed. The plane was painfully slow at gathering speed and taking way too long to get the tail up. clearing their roofs by only a few feet. He prayed. Normally he could lift off at about two-thirds the length of the runway. Major. he said.the ground. I guess we’ll know our destination in one hour.
” “What went wrong?” “Our actual bearing was one-hundred-fifty degrees from Benina. A few minutes past midnight. The ‘Hell 2 Pay’ was one of twenty bombers in the group. “So what really happened out there. We didn’t realize that the wind had veered to the northeast and increased in speed.” “Right again. Instead of being out in front of the base. I was the pilot of the B-24 Liberator. we were already a long way to the southeast of Benina and heading straight into the Libyan Desert. I don’t know about that. With the lousy equipment at the control tower. Major?” Murphy had to laugh. we’ve got a boring hour to kill.” “Did they send it?” “Yeah. it was the change in the weather that did us in. Somehow we got separated from the rest of our group. But we also got screwed by the radio fix itself. “The direction-finding signal sounds exactly the same coming from one-fifty as it does from three-thirty. It seemed like he’d told his tale a million times.” “Of course. You see. It was ancient history and he wanted to move on. No matter where he went. By the time we finished the run. some of the planes suffered flak damage and a few had engine trouble on the way back. There were two targets.” “Bits and pieces.” “So that’s why you were already heading into the desert. “Well.” Diaz said with an understanding nod. “Things went according to plan until the return trip. the desert sand was murder on those engines and the planes were constantly having problems. the guys at Benina believed we were heading in from the Mediterranean. All our navigator had to do was to compensate for the magnetic variation along with the wind speed and velocity in order to bring us overhead so the guys on the ground could talk us down through the clouds.” “I’d call it more than luck being the last man from the crew of the ‘Hell 2 Pay’. make the return flight in darkness and get back to base around midnight. We were to drop our bombs. We took off at thirteen-thirty hours with the plan to arrive over the targets just after sunset. “Sounds like you’ve already heard the story. Our mission was to soften up enemy targets in Italy seven hundred miles away. That story is destined for the history books. eleven bombers attacked the primary and the rest of us went for the secondary. Come on. We took off from an airfield at Soluk on the coast south of Benghazi with a crew of eight. Major. We were being pushed by an unexpectedly strong tailwind. somewhere on a line extending northwestwards from the airfield. Diaz would change the subject and not ask what happened. The first omen of bad things to come was a driving sandstorm blowing north from the Sahara. we had already flown right past it. When the tower radioed back. We couldn’t locate the home airfield and I was starting to get concerned about our fuel reserves. So he requested a radio fix.“Oh. but not the whole story from the horse’s mouth. Just got lucky. the exact opposite from the original bearing.” Murphy let out a sigh. he told us we were on a true bearing of three-hundred-thirty degrees from Benina.” . With any luck. ‘Hell 2 Pay’.” Murphy shrugged. Let me tell you. but what I found out later was that when we called for the fix. the conversation always turned to the final flight of the ‘Hell 2 Pay’. it was April. I asked my copilot to contact the tower at Benina. 1943. Dense cloud cover rolled in all across the North African coast and visibility went to hell.” “Exactly. Telling it one more time couldn’t hurt.
” “You can say that again. I figured we were only a few miles from the coast. The others had died such a horrible death. Everyone but our bombardier. He had an animal-skin bladder full of water and he knelt and dripped a few drops onto my parched lips. I thought we were over water and felt it was too risky. half out of my mind. Once we were down to fumes in the tanks. he had my head propped up and was feeding me more swallows. still awash in the light of the full moon.“Did you consider trying to make a landing?” “No. We called out his name into the night for over an hour but he was nowhere to be found.” He looked down at the clouds. we had to move fast before the sun came up and started baking us. “When did you meet the Arab?” “The night the nose gunner died. Little did we know it was still hundreds of miles away. We lost three men on the second day and two more on day three. long robe and all. the nose gunner and I were the only ones left. I never saw anyone else but him. Pretty soon. It had plenty of supplies and a radio that still worked. he was dead and I was on my own.” “Must have been a surprise to hit sand. Standing there in the desert.” “This is going faster than I thought. He was dressed in the typical Arab garb. I kept drifting in and out of consciousness. We never found our bombardier. At that point I was delirious and imagining all sorts of things. you know. Shocked as hell. that’s when we realized that we had missed the base. By Friday. He was missing.” Diaz glanced at his watch. and yet somehow I 58 . like nothing I’d ever experienced before. How beautiful.” “Sounds like a miracle that he found you.” “Did you?” “No. I ordered everyone to bail out. We trudged on thinking the base was just beyond them. But we figured it couldn’t be too far away. I could make a fortune. The reality was that we had over-flown the base by four hundred miles and were well into the desert. They seemed so peaceful and serene. Halfway through the next day. The boys dehydrated fast. too. We gathered in the darkness glad to discover that everyone was okay. So we headed northwest in the direction we had come. And we figured that we’d probably find our missing man along the way. Amazing stuff. I could almost feel my skin healing. If I could get my hands on the formula. he thought. That salve felt like icy velvet. but I still remember that the water tasted sweet. and wondered what it would be like to stay up there forever.” “How long did you walk?” “Five days.” “No kidding.” “I heard his parachute failed to open. Plus it would have been shelter for us until the rescue party arrived. not water. I thought for sure I was dreaming.” “That’s what I heard. We had walked seventy-eight miles and made it to the edge of the Calanscio Sand Sea. And with little food or water. Those dunes looked like mountains. After all.” “Was he alone?” “Far as I know. If we’d only known that the ‘Hell 2 Pay’ had made a pretty decent belly landing on its own only ten miles to the south. April 9th. It was unbelievably hot during the day with absolutely no shelter. Then he produced some sort of balm that he wiped onto my lips and face since my skin was covered with blisters and burns. “We’re past the halfway mark. I wound up on my back staring at the stars when I suddenly realized there was someone standing over me.
Murphy pulled on the door and stepped into the cargo bay. He figured it was about seven feet long. Screw it. three feet wide. what is it?” “Sorry. Sir. how would they know he took a look.” “Your place? What are you.” Diaz glanced back at the instruments. Lieutenant?” “It’s not that. but it’s not my place to say. Three lights positioned overhead along the curved ceiling blinked on.made it.” “Last warning. he just wanted a quick look. what’s say we have a quick look. you aren’t supposed to go back there.” Murphy slipped out of his safety harness and stood. There were always rumors floating around of captured loot being shipped back to the States. “Speaking of the mission. Sir. Please return to your seat. Empty except for the oblong crate resting in the center of the floor.” “I really don’t think that’s a good idea.” “Really? Then tell me. The cargo area. What if it were some of that Nazi treasure he’d heard about. He felt for the switch. Major. What if Diaz was right? But unless the copilot told anyone. he now realized the object wasn’t a . The guy really took care of me until the rescue party finally got there. and a few feet high.” With a huff. Unlike his obstructed view through the blizzard during the loading. Until we arrive at our destination. I must remind you that we’re under orders. What harm would that be? And he’d like to know why he had to risk his life for this cockamamie mission.” He shot Diaz a crooked smile. no one would ever know. “Stay here if you want. Sir. Murphy made his way to the bulkhead door.” Murphy hesitated. if we went back and had a look. He could do whatever he wanted.” “No sense of adventure. It’s nothing but a game with those guys. It was dark and freezing cold. was empty. Major. He was the captain and Diaz’s superior officer.” he said as he checked the autopilot. Doesn’t Diaz want to know what’s in that mysterious crate? “I can’t believe you’re not curious. Even if it were some top secret weapon or the like. I’m gonna have a look. what do you think that cargo is back there?” “All I know is the commander gave strict orders not to go near it. I feel like stretching my legs. “Suit yourself.” Murphy motioned with his head toward the rear of the cockpit. if the Arab man hadn’t come along I wouldn’t be flying this mission right now. “We don’t have that far to go. would they?” “There has to be a reason why we were ordered not to.000 pounds of payload.” Murphy scratched his beard stubble. Suddenly. “I already know what it is.” What’s up with this guy? Murphy thought. Maybe it was gold or jewels.” Diaz swung around to face Murphy. Of course. My job is to see that the cargo gets to its final destination.” “More cloak and dagger. This was stupid. Sir. As he grabbed the knob. normally able to transport up to 6. some kind of secret agent or spy?” “Nothing quite that glamorous. who’s to know?” “I will. he’s a stickler for details. Sir. They owed him that much. What could it hurt to have a peek? “We’ve got nothing but smooth sailing here. What’s back there is none of your concern. “You know. His expression turned hard. “Come on. So if I take a stroll back to the cargo bay. Rare pieces of art. he wondered for an instant if this was going to be a mistake.
Major. When he looked back. He felt invigorated as he lifted the lid. eye sockets sunken and sullen. tussled by an invisible wind. “What does this all mean?” He pointed to the dead man.” “What are you talking about?” He glanced back at the corpse. that can’t be. . Then the second and the third. It was better than the adrenaline rush from barely clearing those marker buildings at the end of the runway.” Diaz shook his head in obvious frustration. “Major. Skin pulled tight against bone. Sir. You would have completed your mission with no problems. 1943. Doing so has changed your final destination. The hair. Is this some kinda joke?” “No joke. I was found by an Arab man. He had to know who was so important to warrant taking this risk.” Murphy became light-headed. The mystery had grown more interesting. and yet . . the doorway was empty. This was something he didn’t get to do every day. it felt like a block of ice. dull-gray coffin. . There were three large latches securing the top. . A plain. I distinctly remember him--” “There was no Arab.” “Fact of the matter is. Sir. All the bodies. Diaz!” 60 . then reached to touch the smooth surface. it was . Including yours. If the cargo was a body. “Why does this guy have my name on his--” “All you had to do was follow orders and stay in the cockpit. With each clank. It would be so easy to just flip them. I think five or six days . “I don’t understand. Major. He saved my life. Murphy took a few tentative steps forward until he stood beside it. And it wasn’t a rescue party. How could he be standing here alive. the kind in which the military shipped bodies. what year was the ‘Hell 2 Pay’ lost in the desert?” “I already told you. who would know? He undid the first latch. appeared as though it would turn to dust if touched. Even through his flight gloves. His name! “You gotta be kidding me. It was a box. This was insane. it was an oil survey expedition who accidently stumbled across the wreckage and eventually the bodies. The hands were crossed at the chest and the fingers stuck out from the Army Air Corp uniform sleeves like winter twigs.” “No. He was about to uncover a military secret and be an inside man on a classified mission.” “I told you not to come back here.” He turned to see Diaz framed in the cockpit doorway. It wasn’t true.” Was this a sick game this guy was playing? “And how long was it before they found the plane and you?” “Like I said.” “I still don’t get it. He felt his balance falter as his thoughts spun out of control. lift the lid and have a look. . it was twenty-three years later. Major Murphy. he felt his pulse quicken. His eyes wandered from the face to the name stitched on the breast of the uniform: Major Howard Murphy. The corpse looked as if it were made of leather with dark papery skin like those Egyptian mummies he’d seen in the British Museum. . whose was it? Curiosity ate at him. “Hey. I’m sorry.crate at all. After all.
Murphy felt the nose of the plane tilt down slightly. Murphy braced himself on the back of his seat as he glared at the card in his trembling hand. All that was left was the card with the flight plan lying on the copilot’s seat. Flipping it over. “What the hell?” He stared at the two empty seats. Angel Diaz was gone. Lit only by the faint glow of the instruments. the turbulence shaking it to its core. “You should have stayed in the cockpit. Blackness enveloped the aircraft as the light of the full moon dissolved into eternal darkness. Murphy snatched it up and started at the inscription. He read the words aloud. In a few quick steps he was through the bulkhead door into the cockpit.” . he discovered that the once blank surface now contained writing. Suddenly the plane dipped into the top of the clouds.
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