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