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