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