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