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