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