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