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