The Killer Kills the Coopers in Middle America

by Joshua Allen ©2005

1. The Coopers He was no fan of unlined pictures. She couldn't fathom any but the most rudimentary of non-geometric shapes. Yet, somehow, their love survived, as it must between those encased in borders and without imagination. Their friends would joke and they would laugh in unison and give each other the sly look that only those who never get the joke understand. In love-making they were as missionary-minded as Billy Graham. They filled their minds with no pictures handed down from ancient India, nor did they delight in even the simplest of perversions. Never would he sit up and cup her ass for a deeper thrust or to pinch her nipples. Never would she give his left butt cheek the slightest of squeezes. Their bedroom contained no dildoes, no vibrators, no lubricants-water-based or otherwise--no dirty magazines, no books of erotic fiction, no lacy lingerie, and no condoms. Their foreplay involved no felatio, no cunnilinguis, no kisses with tongue, not even any breast squeezing. He felt her breasts--more so after the first baby--under him like a man feels his pillow: it was

there and necessary, but not even slightly erotic. She felt his weight and his penis inside her with the same enthusiasm as one who feels a tomato in the refrigerator that one is mostly certain must have gone rotten by now. Their children, a boy and a girl, were B students and, if asked years later, no teacher would even be able to recall their names. So sure were their mediocre/good performances that often their teachers didn't even bother to read their homework or tests, but would just put "B" on the top and be done with it. Their peers in class, if asked by FBI agents during an abduction investigation for descriptions of either child, would have said that the kids smelled vaguely of Ivory soap. The children never failed and never succeeded. They never cheated and they never told beautiful stories of dragons and knights and cucumber fairies with wishes of Prince Pickles. They both always sat in the middle of the classroom and answered questions with adequate responses on the rare occasions the teachers would remember to call on them. In art class, both produced the sorts of works that the art teacher establishes in his mind as the standard variety acceptable at the level the kids were. Somehow the children were just what each teacher would expect of kids that age, nothing less and nothing more. The children were exactly good enough to be of no interest to anyone.

Their dog, a neutered female who was androgynous in a way only dogs can be, was of the mixed variety. It was one of those dogs you see that you think may be a Labrador unless you look at it long enough. Then you think it might be a Spaniel or a Beagle with no spots or a short-haired yellow Chow, or a larger terrier. The dog only barked when the mailman came by. It issued one short, full yap and then resumed sitting next to the Barcalounger, chewing pointlessly on a raw-hide bone, the kind you see in every store that sells anything even remotely related to dogs. The dog didn't pee on the carpet, nor did it fetch. It did exactly enough not to be considered a bad dog, but nothing to be considered a particularly good dog. They had hamsters: two of them in two separate, identicalexcept-in-color cages, a male and a female. The hamsters ran in their wheel until the squeaking just became noticeable, then they stopped and chewed on little yellow wooden sticks-the kind you see at any story that sells anything remotely related to hamsters. Their cages were cleaned regularly enough not to be a bother--they never stank, nor did they ever retain that smell of fresh Cedar. They were, in fact, so unobtrusive that the kids and the parents only remembered to feed and water the hamsters enough to keep them a notch above the "barely alive" level, as was true for most hamster owners. The hamsters were nothing that

any other hamster wasn't and their owners took as much care of them as did most every other hamster owner.

The house they lived in was one of those houses you see in every town in America the looks like at least half the rest of the houses in its neighborhood. It was one story with a garage and was painted white. It resembled every other house on their street, only the black aluminum numbers on the door distinguished it. They decorated their house with a few modest lights around Christmastime, always after about half of the rest of the other houses had done so and never to a degree to elicit any response from the casual passerby one way or another. They decorated with no unusual lights and the quantity was neither too many nor too few. There were no Christmas characters in their lawn. None of those gigantic self-inflatable figures of Santa, Frosty, or any other vaguely Christmas-like characters that have become popular and attention-getting had yet made an appearance in their lawn; although, supposing most of the neighborhood finally succumbed to the lure of giant inflatable figures, then they would have them as well. They had begun to decorate at Halloween, but for now kept it discreet and tasteful. There were no automatically triggered ghouls or skeletons adjacent to their walkway on October 31st. They had also begun to do Easter decorations. They had a few

white lights around one window, a tastefully bland bunny in the yard and a tree with those little plastic eggs hanging from it on their table. The little plastic eggs were always empty. On the Fourth of July, Flag Day, and Memorial Day they put out their American flag. They set no trends, broke no rules and behaved in the most forgettable of manners. There was nothing to them. No one noticed them. No one, not even they, cared that no one noticed them. What happened was absolutely no fault of their own. It was all because of a pair of eyeglasses mistakenly swapped. The killer was simply too proud to admit the Armani eyeglasses were not his own Armani eyeglasses, but those of his sometime acquaintance, Billy "Piecemeal" Ray. Piece would not be too proud to admit that the Armani eyeglasses in his possession were not his own, but he didn't know. He didn't know because, truth be told, he had started having problems seeing out of his own glasses and so when he accidentally swapped eyeglasses, he figured it just meant his eyesight was getting worse-but he was too proud to admit to that openly. But we haven't been properly introduced yet to the Coopers: parents Bob and Debra, children Jim and Francis-Francis in the female sense and Fran in the shortened sense. The Coopers were averagely devout Methodists plugging away in one of those medium-sized towns in Middle America. Jim, the dad, was fortyish

and balding, with a slight pudge that should have been just in his midsection, but seemed to be in every part of his body. No, Bob. Bob, the dad, was the fortyish one. Jim-the son-was tenish and was the kind of kid who, like his father, would start to go bald at twenty. He was one of those kids not fat enough to be teased, but not trim enough to be attractive to members of the opposite sex. Should he live long enough, which is not guaranteed, he would marry a plain woman with straight, brown hair and dull blue eyes exactly like his mother, Debra. Fran had straight, brown hair and dull blue eyes and had yet to develop at the age of thirteenish. Or, if she had developed, her breasts were average enough not to be noticeable by members of the opposite sex. She had a face containing just enough subcutaneous fat to smooth out every possible distinguishing feature, but not enough to suffer notice from her classmates-exactly, as far as it goes, like her mother. The Coopers looked like they had all descended from beautiful people, but had all gotten that one-in-a-million gene cocktail that gave them all the worst traits of beautiful people. The Coopers, like most Americans, had moved to Middle America from Small Town America in the eighties when things were booming and the medium-sized cities were where the boom was biggest. Alternatively, the Coopers had moved to Middle America from Urban America in the eighties, when real estate prices were

low. They came from long lines of Rural/Urban dwellers who learned early on to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and work seventeen-hour days to feed extended families of at least ten people. The Cooper men were known for their industrious attitude. The Cooper women were known for running tight households and for superb child-rearing. The Coopers came from the Old Country at the height of the Industrial Revolution. They were originally called the Coopersteins. Jim--Bob, of course I mean--was an actuary, a mid-level one who would never pass all the tests necessary for full induction into the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS). His numbers were always correct, though his formulas were not innovative. The company he worked for was moderately successful and every month Bob received no recognition for outstanding achievement because Bob never did anything outstanding. When Christmas bonus time came around, the bosses would all scratch their heads and ask each other, "Now, who's this Bob Cooper?" Then, they would give him a bonus right in the middle of the mid-level employees because nobody could think of anything he'd done wrong. On the weekends, Debra attended a book club where she read classics like Mrs. Dalloway and Moby Dick. Debra never said much, and when she did her literary observations were so obvious and bland they sparked no conversation and were instantly forgotten. So average was her perception and demeanor she failed

to inspire even the ire of fellow book club members who could really be quite nasty when they wanted. Luckily for Debra, there was always someone in the group more banal and idiotic whose obnoxious ramblings always overshadowed Debra's meager comments. That was the distinguishing trait of the Coopers: they could not inspire hatred, laughs, or even occasional smirks. There was always someone dumber, fatter or balder. Always someone smarter, funnier and more attractive. The real point is that the Coopers had absolutely zero enemies. Not one person cared enough about them to hate them. Not one single, solitary person on the entire planet that any of them had ever come across would manage as much as a scowl in their direction for being so horribly average. On the other hand, no one really liked them either. No one thought much about any of the Coopers and no one, not even the census bureau whose job it is to catalog every person in the country, would ever notice if the entire Cooper family disappeared from the face of the planet. Although to be fair, in certain lights--lights no other human being had ever seen--Fran was, dare I say, kind of cute. If she'd put on a little eyeliner, a touch of lipstick and push-up bra just one day in her life, every boy in school would suddenly notice. Unfortunately, every girl would too and she would simultaneously become the most sought after (like the newest girl in school is sought after, not the prettiest) and hated

(again on the "new girl" level) girl in Middle America High School. You're thinking to yourself that no one could fall through every single crack. Everyone gets noticed eventually. You are wrong. I can prove you are wrong. Do you know the Coopers? Wrong! You do know the Coopers and you don't even realize it. If you realized it, they wouldn't exist. But they do exist and thanks to a mistaken Armani sunglasses swap, the killer has taken notice of them and intends to--as his moniker subtly implies--kill them. Here we require a tangential elaboration and an elaborate tangent. First thing's first, the killer could go by several different epithets: the rapist, the child pornographer, the pimp, the part-time male prostitute, the bookie, the smuggler, the hit man, the arsonist, the extortionist, the blackmailer, the auto thief, the embezzler, the money launderer and once, in the early eighties when the economy was booming and real estate prices were especially low, the Realtor. That one gets a capital "R" because it's trademarked; although, for sake of clarification, the killer was not an official "Realtor," but had killed an official Realtor for the official Realtor's jacket in order to kill a nice family of three, but before he could track down the family of three had, due to an elaborate misunderstanding, succeeded in selling three houses to different

families. So you be the judge. However, the killer seems to suit him best for his relationship to the Coopers...for now.

2. The Strange Case of the Swapped Armanis It was the roaring eighties and everyone who didn't own a small business was doing great. It was also a great time for people who didn't own any government-subsidized services such as local television and radio stations, local utilities, small phone companies, and local cable service. It was a really great time not to work in an American industry unless it was in Korea, China or Mexico. One of those non-small-business owners was a man you've been off-handedly introduced to already: Billy Ray. Luckily for Billy Ray, he acquired a nickname in the late sixties--"Piecemeal," or just "Piece," or, on rare occasions and always by accident, "Peace"--due to his proclivity for selling mixed bags of his favorite drugs; otherwise, he might have suffered loads of second-hand humiliation from being similarly named to Billy Ray Cyrus in the early nineties. "Billy Piece," as his friends called him, was a no-good, dirty son of a bitch. He had lied, cheated and bribed his way out of every tough situation since age three. Actually, one could argue it started earlier. As a baby, when "Piece Ray," as he was known to some, wanted love, he found he had no word to express this desire. Instead the sly devil would cry for food and when the food

arrived, it would often be accompanied by a warm embrace or some other semblance of love. That started a long track of crime for Ray Ray which culminated in a deal with a man most people just called "the killer." "Hey Piece of Shit!" Bill looked up from his fettuccini with pesto sauce and sun-dried tomatoes to a face he did not recognize. It was a clean face, scarred yet stunning-beautifully crafted as though from solid glass or marble. The face, along with the unassuming body attached to it, sat down at Bill's table in a dark hole in the back wall of the restaurant, bringing with it a breeze of Old Spice covering sweat and the stench of armpits. Bill was not too impressed with his first meeting with the killer until the killer slapped down a stack of curled twenties on the Formica table. "Dick Tucker says, 'thanks.'" Bill smiled, waved his hand, and made the money disappear into an inner pocket of his faux-fur lined winter coat. "You must be his lackey. I've heard such good things about you--like how you finally tracked down the Windsor's in the Real Estate Caper of '82. Got some good prices on the houses, I hear." The killer picked an olive off Bill's plate with a dirty finger and thumb combination and popped it into his mouth with serpentine precision. With his lips parted, he squeezed the olive with his perfectly pearly teeth until it burst into his

mouth. "Thanks, the market was good then. Say, Bildungs Roman, you ever think about dentistry?" Bill self-consciously closed his mouth. He suddenly felt dirty next to this nothing of a man with a sharp face. The killer was about the most unkempt person Bill had ever seen. He'd pass for a homeless man if not for the teeth-those perfect porcelain chips all lined up in a perfect row in his mouth. Bill answered, "No." "Well, Raymond, you call me a 'lackey' again, and I'll take you back to my place and we'll do a little dentistry. I'm actually a fan of the older dentistry--dentistral history, if you will--when dentistry was an art performed by men and you had to be a man not to die from it. Well, Wild Bill? You want to see if you're a man?" Bill was looking down at his fettuccini now, and nodded silently. The killer punched him in the arm, and started laughing. "Lighten up Billy Boy; you act like you've never had your life threatened before." Bill hesitated, then cracked a grin in return, "Yeah, I guess you got me. Ok, I take back what I said, you lackey." The killer's eyebrows went up and his smile dropped. For a tense moment Bill was sure the man was going to have Giordino, the chef, fry up his liver to serve on the fettuccini. But the

killer started laughing again and Bill joined in. "Gonna kill you next time, Bill." He said, in between laughs. That was when Bill noticed the striking black metal frames the killer was wearing. They were smooth. The metal had an eerie tone to it, as though it had eaten the color black but was not satisfied. They looked quite beautiful and quite expensive. Bill thought he's seen similar ones before, in a magazine, maybe. Bill didn't realize the killer's frames were the same as his own. Bill's ex-girlfriend--dead now--had picked them out for him a few years ago. Bill's glasses had been broken in a fight with Timmy Two Pockets and so Bill had been unable to see the frames and had trusted his girlfriend's judgment. In retrospect, he had also trusted her not to cheat on her, but she'd done that, so he had never really liked his glasses. He had also never really seen them, not up close. In face, it was only when the killer leaned in quite close that Bill could make out the frames at all. So it was that as the killer left that day, laughing and on the verge of murder, that Bill began a plot that would, unbeknownst to him, result in the deaths of a very average family of four: The Coopers. Bill, cheat and liar that he was, decided to steal the killer's frames and procure them as his own. It was actually, though a half-assed plan at best, one guaranteed to work since the killer would, although Bill didn't

realize this, have no chance of discerning, should Bill's plan succeed, that anything out of the ordinary had even happened. The problem, Bill realized as the killer climbed into his black Mercedes and drove away, was that Bill had no idea how to contact the killer or even what his name was. Bill then devised another plan, this one no less nuanced than his plan to steal the glasses: he would call Dick Tucker and ask him. Dick Tucker was the key, Bill realized, to get a hold of this killer if Bill was ever to make those eyeglasses his own. "Say, Dick?" "Yes, Carol?" "There's a Lowell Caruther here to see you. He says he's from actuarial." "Yes, Lowell." Dick quickly sifted through the personnel files on his computer until he found Lowell's. He pulled it up with a few quick keystrokes (this is the eighties, remember), and read a few lines. "Yes, I know Lowell, I met him at...the.....barbeque last year. Yes. The company barbeque. Send him in, please." Dick had attached a few lines at the beginning of every employee's personnel file that remind him quickly who the employee was in case just such a drop-in as the one Lowell was performing should ever occur. Dick hated not knowing who people were. It had nothing to do with courtesy, Dick felt that somehow

his power was sapped when the other person knew him, but he didn't know them. As though that person was, in that one way only, smarter than Dick. Dick hated for anyone to be smarter than him. It made him want to punch the other person in the face, so he could assert his dominance. It made him flush with anger. It was the reason, nine times out of ten, that his wife received correction at home. Sure, he regretted that she had to receive the brunt of his anger, but when things like that happened, Dick would usually forget about it until he got home. Then, inevitably, the cans would be all askew or the soap would be at an 87 rather than a 90 degree angle, and the anger he'd done such a good job of getting over would be right there again, in his face and laughing at him. So he would show his wife the correct way he wanted the task at hand performed then he would give her some gentle negative reinforcement--never enough to leave marks on her face--to ensure that she never ever did that one thing again. Then he'd apologize and something about the way his wife bowed her head after the correction was over would always turn him on. It was like she wanted him to fuck her afterward so she knew he loved her. She wanted to apologize to him at that moment and she wanted to be close with him as a way of thanking him at the same time. So, he would fuck her and blow his wad in her face and, in the end, everyone felt much better.

Lowell Caruther was a mouse. He lacked only the whiskers. He stared perpetually at his shoes as though they contained a morsel of cheese that he dare not eat when everyone was watching. His nose twitched due to perpetual allergies and his breath always smelled like rotten shit due to a combination of smoking and excessive coffee-drinking. Dick hated coffee drinkers. Hated their inability to "get going" without a "cup of joe" in the morning. It sickened him. How much did it sicken him? Just ask his wife, she could tell you. Besides that, coffee made your teeth brown, your breath stink and your bladder scream. It tasted disgusting and made your shit runny and rank. Dick despised coffee. Besides its ill-effects it was completely unnecessary. Dick had discovered, just recently, in fact, that a quarter gram of cocaine in the morning was much better than coffee and didn't have any of the side effects. Lowell, on the other hand, was probably too poor to afford a gram of coke every four days and that pissed Dick off to no end. "Lowell! Damn glad you came by, sir. How are things in actuarial?" "Sufficient, Mr. Tucker, more than sufficient." "Lowell, what did I tell you at the company barbeque last month? Huh? Call me Dick! Mr. Tucker is my father, I hated that fat old bastard and I'd much rather be just Dick to you. Can you try it once for me, Lowell?"

"Dick, sir, yes." "We'll work on it, Lowell. Now tell me, what can I do you for this fine morning?" "Well Mr...ah, Dick, things, as I said, are going quite well in actuarial." "I sense a 'but,' Lowell, is there a 'but' coming? Tell me, Lowell. Blurt it out. What's the 'but'?" "Dick, I believe, although obviously I'm neither the final say nor the expert in such matters, as far as personnel and money and that goes, but I believe that we could, if it's not going to be a burden, of course, Dick, use a new actuary in our department. I only say so because we are doing so well, you understand, that our workload has increased to the point where I believe and new actuary would be just what we need to keep up." Dick leaned back in his chair, interlacing his hands. He was doing the "boss stare," one of the many looks he'd perfected. This one came only when the subject was money and involved staring out the corner of the room over the moneyasker's left shoulder. It was a look of contemplation. It was a look that said: "I'm paying your remarks--close attention--and deciding what to say to you so I can belittle you in the most back-handed way possible." It was a look that terrified his employees--the more mousy ones especially. Dick hated mousy people.

"Wow, Lowell, this is quite a proposal you're bringing to my table. Did you really think this through before you brought it up to me?" Lowell's face twitched. It was a satisfying twitch, for Dick. It meant that, had it been another situation--a playground on a schoolyard for instance--Lowell would now be bursting into tears and crying "uncle!" "Well sir, I did. I drew up a proposal here. I thought it would be good to get a person fresh out of college who had only taken one or two of the actuarial exams. That way we could pay him the minimum salary, which is quite low in terms of our company, but a recent college grad would see it as quite generous. From there, it's just a matter of encouraging him enough to do well, but not so much that he finishes all the actuarial exams and we have to pay him full price. I had thought, perhaps, Dick, that if we found somebody in the middle of the candidates, that person would fit this qualification perfectly and we could keep him on for years without ever giving him a serious promotion." Dick leaned back again into the boss stare. He was fucking pissed. If he could have, he would have punched Lowell in his mousy teeth and fucked the bloody gap his fist had left. Lowell had showed him up. Lowell had made a good point. Lowell had told him how to do his job. Worse, Lowell was dead on and showing a good head for business. Dick would have to accept Lowell's

proposal, but that wouldn't be the end of it. Dick would, of course, claim the idea as his own, but that still wouldn't be enough to satisfy this day of one-upsmanship. Dick would have to think of a way to pay Lowell back--to trap him in a scheme that would cost him not only his job, but his membership in his precious Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) and any chance at a future job anywhere in the industry. Dick smiled wide at the mousy little man, who dared to raise his defiant eyes and meet the grin. "Well, Lowell, that sounds wonderful. Why don't you go ahead and draw up that proposal, and I'll send it out immediately to human resources and to Mr. Fuller himself for final approval." Lowell stood up and handed Dick a copy of the proposal, which had Lowell's name and Lowell's name only at the top. It was cc'd to human resources and Mr. Fuller. "I took the liberty already of drawing it up, Dick, sir. I thought once I had final approval from you, we could send it right out." That motherfucker. "Great initiative, Lowell. I'm sure Mr. Fuller will look forward to seeing such a fine proposal." "Thank you, Dick." It wasn't enough. Dick would have to double-time, now, to take any credit for this proposal. Lowell, this mousy little fucker, had somehow gotten the better of him twice in one day.

Dick knew the Lowell was a dead man. Dick was going to do whatever he had to in order to bring this mousy shithead to his knees. Dick was going to fuck him if it was the last thing he did. Lowell left the office and winked at Korla, Dick's secretary. Dick saw none of this, and so had no way of knowing the plot that Lowell and Korla had just propagated against him. Had he known, he would have probably taken Korla, with whom he was having an affair, out to dinner, taken her to a motel, and strangled her with his belt while he was fully inserted in her. He'd never done anything like that before, but embarrassment plus a gram of coke before dinner would have been enough to tip the balance of his sanity right over the edge. Korla wasn't worried. She knew Dick better than Dick knew Dick. She had him in the palm of her hand, thanks to her cousin Bill Ray. The phone rang on Korla's desk. It was the interoffice ring, which meant Dick was about to tell her not to take any more calls or drop-ins, since he was going to be on a conference call for the next hour or two. "Karla," Dick always called Korla "Karla," "hold my calls and let anyone who drops in know I'm going to be on a conference call with Mr. Fuller for the next hour or two, ok?" "Ok, Mr. Tucker." "Mr. Tucker, huh?"

She smiled in a way he would never see. "Maybe I'm Mr. Valzjuegos, tonight." Korla had expected something like this. "What do you think? You want daddy to take you to some dirty motel and fuck you in the ass, my little whore?" "Mr. Tucker--I don't think--," Korla bit back a laugh; the game was so easy when you knew all the rules and the other team didn't. "No more back talk, little girl. You march right over to that Super 8 on 51 and you spread open those cheeks. You've been naughty and daddy's doesn't like it, but he's going to have to punish you." "Yes, Mr. Tucker." "Excuse me, young lady?" "Yes, daddy." "That's better, you be in there and ready at 8 o'clock, or else you're going to get a spanking as well, you understand?" "Yes, daddy." Dick hung up the phone and Korla hit the cutoff button on her own phone, then dialed Lowell's extension. "Lowell Caruther's desk, how may I help you?" "Lowell. It's set up for eight tonight, at the Super 8 on 51." "Are you going to go, Korla?"

"This one last time will be all it takes, I promise." "My love, the thought of that thing touching you sickens me." "Fear not, sweet man. I will think of you the whole time and besides, his penis is so small I barely even feel it. It is nothing like yours, my little accountant." The "accountant" bit was a running joke between them--it would take too long to explain and winds up being funny only to nerdy actuaries, anyway. However, he liked her to tease him, she knew, so it would pay dividends for her later. "Stay strong Korla, soon you will run this company." "Oh, believe me, my ratónito"--that's an easy one: it means "little mouse" in Spanish--"I know." She puckered a quiet kiss into the receiver, which he returned. "Stay strong, my love." Korla set the phone down. She would have to kill Lowell, she knew. He was too attached to be of value. True, he was loyal and--she'd told no lie--had a substantial penis, but he was ambitious, too. Sure, for right now all he wanted was to be head of the actuarial department and have as many as three new actuaries to help lighten the workload. But what about after that? She could imagine what when he finally got his three new actuaries, suddenly he would think he had power. Soon he'd be asking for new computers, or a secretary. The next thing you

know, he'd want Korla to make him a partner. That couldn't happen. She couldn't have that mousy little moron as an equal, no matter what. As she contemplated offing Lowell, "Piecey," as some called him, opened the door and stepped in. He shook the snow off of the faux-fur jacket Korla had gotten him last Christmas. Korla hate faux-fur almost as much as she hated Bill. The two things together allowed her to economize her hatred. "Beel. What brings you back here? Did you not get the money from Mr. Tucker? I thought Dick's man delivered it." "No, no. I got the money, Korla, my love. What I needed was some information about that man Dick sent." Korla raised her eyebrows in question, but made no move to pick up the phone or to reach for a file or to do any of the things Bill assumed his question would prompt her to do. "Do you know him?" He hated the awkward silence, and never really understood the way his cousin acted toward him. He felt sometimes that she didn't even like him. His mother would box his mouth if he every told her that her brother-in-law's baby didn't like him. They were family and family loved family and that was that. "I know him, Beel. They call him 'the killer.'" "'The Killer?'" "No no, just 'the killer.'" "Why do they call him that?"

Korla suppressed her rage. Her cousin was, quite possibly, the dumbest human being on the face of the planet. Although, his bitch mother was no better. "They call him that, Beel, because he kills. He enjoys the act of killing. He is a killer." Bill nodded; he understood. "So, what's his name?" "He has no name." "Everyone has a name." "Nope." A furrow formed on Bill's brow as he considered the implications of the killer having no name. It was like one of those horror movies--the one with the kids who all got killed by the single lone killer with potentially supernatural connections. A chill ran down Bill's spine. "So, how do I get a hold of him?" "Well, Beel...First you have to call a dentist in the phone book. It doesn't matter which one. At the dentist office, you make an appointment for a week from next Thursday at four o'clock p.m. It has to be a week from next Thursday and it has to be four o'clock p.m." Bill had a pen out and was scrawling furiously on his lunch receipt. "If they are booked up, then you have to call another dentist until you find one that has an opening for a week from next Thursday at four o'clock p.m." "Hold on a minute. Week.....neeext Thursday.... Four... o.....clock....p.....m... Ok, go on."

"When you get there on Thursday, you sign in under your own name and you tell the receptionist--and this is important Beel-you must tell her you want the doctor to give you 'the works.' You have to tell her, 'the works.' Are you writing that down?" "The....w....orrrr....ks." "Ok, if she asks what that means, just tell her, 'do as much as you can today, everything you can fit in in one day.' You got it? The works. Then you have to let the doctor do his thing. When you get done, you'll be numb and shit, so give yourself a few hours to let that wear off. As soon as you can form words again, you go home and you call this number on your phone at home. That will be disconnected, but the operator will give you a new number to call instead. You must go to a payphone and call the new number." " I think I got it. Why do I have to go a dentist? The guy's a dentist, huh? He mentioned something about dentistry to me today; I bet that's what it is. The guy works for a dentist, huh?" "No, Beel. You need to go to a dentist because your teeth are disgusting. They are all brown and make you breath smell like shit, like a festering asshole. It's disgusting. It makes me want to puke. You talk to me like that, I almost want to kill you--so, I know you talk to the killer with your shit breath he'd probably just stab you in the heart and be done with it."

Bill averted his head and slipped the last stick of the minty gum he'd bought after lunch into his mouth. "You got all that, Beel? Need me to repeat anything?" Korla snapped Bill was admiring the artwork on the far wall, his back to his cousin. "No, no. I got it. Thanks, Korla." He turned to leave, "Want me to say 'hello' to my mother from you?" "Tell that bitch she still owes my father money for the funeral of that no-good brother of his." Bill was dumbstruck. When he tried to speak, the gum slipped down his throat and settled in a lump in his chest. "Just kidding, Beel, lighten up. Of course, tell her 'hi.' That's what family's all about, right?" Bill broke a smile and nodded, then pointed at Korla because the gum was still heavy in his chest and he couldn't speak. She pointed back. He left. Partly because he was paranoid of the killer's reaction, and partly because Korla had hurt his feelings, Bill did make the appointment for the dentist for a week from Thursday at four o'clock. As predicted, by the time six o'clock rolled around that day, the dentist was done with as much as he could do in a single day and Bill's mouth was swollen and numb. He went home, lay down for a few hours and when he woke up, found that he could keep liquid food in his mouth and form most

words while only sounding like he'd had a minor stroke. So, he called the fake number from home, got the disconnect message and the new number message, and then set out to find a pay phone. It was dark, though not really that late, and snow was blowing in all directions at once. He pulled on his faux-furlined hood and set out up the hill he lived on to the convenience store on the corner. He was breathing heavily by the time he got there. The payphone was out of order. He picked it up and worked the lever a few times, but to no avail. He went inside and shook the snow off. "Excuse me, miss?" A young woman, who looked strung out and irritated to be living, rolled her eyes toward him. "Can I use your phone?" The "ph" in phone had come out a little spitty. Bill wiped his mouth. It was for the better, he figured. The girl might think he was a stroke victim and take pity on him. "It's for customers, only." Bill looked around the store for an item he would purchase. He considered the chip rack, but decided that he really didn't need chips, he was starting to get a gut and besides that, the dentist had warned him from eating extremely salty and extremely sugary food for at least two days. He finally settled on a bottle of tea. He figured iced tea was as neutral as you could

get. He took it up and paid for the tea and then repeated his earlier question. The girl pointed absently at the phone on the other side of the counter, but made no move to get it for him. Bill went around the side of the counter and reached in behind a rack of breath mints and felt around for the phone. He found it and pulled it closer to him so he could see the numbers. He looked over at the girl to see if she intended to help him, but she had started working a Rubik's cube and seemed much more interested in the colored squares than in helping a potential stroke-victim with the phone. He finally got the phone within reach and dialed the number on the back of his now-filled lunch receipt. The phone rang once before the operator's tone came through. "We're sorry; you have reached a number that has been changed. The new number is--" Bill scrambled for his pen and his new receipt and scrawled the new number on the new receipt, then hung up the phone and started dialing. Then he stopped. He was supposed to go to a payphone for the old new number. Was he now supposed to go to a new phone for the new new number? He dismissed this idea: how would the killer know? Then again, he retorted to himself, how would the killer have known if you had just called from your phone with the old new number? This guy was a killer. Killers had strange habits

and access to new technology, and according to the movies he'd seen possible access to the supernatural realm. Bill was still debating when the girl snatched the receiver out of his hand. "Time's up, sir. You'll have to make a new purchase if you want to use the phone some more." "But I never even drank my tea." "Not my problem, you want to use the phone, you gotta buy something else." Bill decided that this woman had probably saved his life and resolved to walk further to the next payphone. The hospital was nearby. Surely they'd have a payphone. Bill walked out into the frigid wind and wished, not for the first time, that his cousin had gotten him the matching faux-fur scarf to go with his coat. The snow stung his eyes. He had to remove his glasses after a minute when they felt as though they were starting to stick to his face. Now he was doubly blind. Bill wandered in circles for a few minutes, attracted by the light blurs which were streetlamps, before slipping his glasses back on and resolving to walk straight back down the hill to his house and try again tomorrow. That's when he realized the game he was playing. It had been right in front of him all along and now he saw the truth. He was supposed to go back to his house. It was such an elegant solution. An even number of calls meant call from home, but an

odd number meant call from another phone. This killer guy was smart. He knew how to make things work. Bill felt the warmth of the central heat in his house blast his face, turning the snow on his cheeks instantly into water. He dove inside the heat and waited there for a few minutes to warm up enough to where he could remove his coat. He put his now-defrosted glasses on and went upstairs to call the new new number. The phone rang twice before the operator's signal came on again. He got a new, new new number. He looked at his coat, wet with melted snow, and his boots, still frozen, and simply dialed the new, new new number, hoping for a new, new, new new number so he would still be at the right place. The phone rang once, twice, then the killer's voice answered. "You called from home on even number of numbers, didn't you?" "Please! I'm sorry, it's so cold outside. Please!" "I'm just fucking with you, Piecey. I got that caller ID business, like the phone company. Cost me an arm and an eye, but it's handy. So, what's going on? "Look, about our meeting today." "It was something wasn't it? The light in the place, the cozy warmth of that booth you had, the way the snow was drifting in big, gentle flakes down to the quiet earth."

Bill scratched his head, "Yeah, listen: I wanted to ask you..." "Bill. Look," the killer seemed to be searching for the right words, "you're a sweet guy, I'm sure--although you're teeth could sure use a cleaning. Problem is, I'm already in a committed relationship, Piecewise." Bill shook his head, tried to speak. Words failed so he shook his head again. That seemed to work. "I had...I had a job for you. That's why I called. I needed you to kill someone." "Right! Rrrrrriiiiiiight. That's what I mean, P.R. I'm committed right a job with...someone else. And... obviously I'll have to do that before, you know, I can kill your guy." "Yeah. Yeah, that's what I thought you meant." "Oh, good. I was afraid you misunderstood me..." "No. no. Of course not. You know. That's what I thought. Nothing else. That's.... So, when do you think you'd be free, then?" "For the job? Tomorrow, I could do it tomorrow. You want to meet in the morning, for breakfast? I could have your guy killed by noon if you need me to." "Ok, breakfast tomorrow at Denny's?" "Six o'clock?"

"Sounds good....." Bill waited for the killer to fill in the blank, "Mr.......uh.......killer." "Great Piece of Ass. We'll see you then, ok?" "Ok, take care." "You too, Bill. You take good care." Bill hung up the phone and looked around his house. No one was home. No one else lived there. Bill decided he had to clear his mind and start thinking of how to develop this plan of his to swap his eyeglasses for the killer's. He took out the receipt from the convenience store that had the killer's number written on it and wrote: Steal eyeglasses. Below that, he wrote: Take to glasses place. Next: Swap lenses. And, finally: Return other glasses to killer. He smiled at his plan. It was fool-proof. Denny's, at six o'clock, was a crowded place. There were all kinds of people there: farmers, business men, drunken college students, stoned high school kids, everybody who had any reason to be up early in the morning and be hungry for greasy food. Bill and the killer had to wait around ten minutes before a table opened up for them. They said little. Bill felt a little awkward about the whole situation. He wondered if he should have called for reservations. Then, he wondered if a place like Denny's even took reservations or whether it was like McDonald's and you just got what was available. He decided to ask the

hostess. Before he could do that, the hostess called his name and took them back to a booth in the corner which, conveniently, happened to be out of earshot from every other patron in the restaurant. "So, tell me: you ever get anyone calling you 'Peace'?" Bill ordered the Grand Slam breakfast and the killer ordered the same. "Not since the seventies. All that hippie bullshit, I guess." "Ah well. So, who do you want killed?" "Honestly, I'm not sure." The killer nodded. "That makes this rather awkward, you know. Usually people only solicit me when they've already decided." The killer bit off a chunk of his fingernail and spit it on the floor. His hands, as they were in the restaurant where Bill had first met him, were filthy. He looked like just come from working on his car: they were streaked black. "So, you want to brainstorm, or what?" Bill nodded. "I know I don't want it to be Korla. Then I wouldn't know how to get a hold of you anymore." "Say Bill, those are some nice frames you got there." "Oh, thanks. My ex got them for me. I don't know about them though. I'm thinking of trading them in." "Seriously, Bill. They look good on you. Where did she get them?"

"In the mall, I think. I don't really know. You think they look ok?" "Yeah, they're really great." The killer inched over closer and leaned in to look at Bill's glasses. He examined them up close. Bill could smell the killer's breath. It smelled like dental floss. The killer's look focused on Bill's eyes. "Bill, did you," the killer tried suppressing a smile, "did you go to the dentist?" Bill blushed and looked away. "Korla. She suggested." The killer leaned back as the waitress set their plates down on the table. The killer found himself looking at his own hands. He realized, then, that Bill hadn't come here for death. God bless the guy, he was in love. "Because, I was going to say how much I liked your glasses." Bill said, once the waitress had left. "Oh Bill. They're alright." "No, I think they're awesome. They're black from a distance, but when you get close to them they turn shades of silver. They're quite beautiful, when you get close to them." The killer took his glasses off and handed them to Bill. "Here, Bill. You look at them; I'm going to go wash my hands real quick."

The killer left the table in a hurry. He felt as giddy as a schoolboy. Sure, he'd thought Bill was cute when he first saw him, but he was equally certain that Bill was one of those macho tough guys who likes the broads. The killer applied a liberal amount of soap to his hands and scrubbed. He looked at himself in the mirror, wishing he hadn't threatened the poor guy's life when they first met. On the other hand, maybe that's what had turned Bill on. Maybe he was blowing it now, playing the softy. Not for the first time, the killer wished there was some instruction book on love. He wished people could break through these facades and just communicate. His face, he saw, was much more creased than it used to be. Once upon a time, he'd been a lean and striking man, he thought--like a young Wittgenstein. Now, when he looked at himself, he could see the age setting in. He felt so old. He hoped he didn't blow this thing with Bill. He needed love as much as anyone and he knew the window was closing forever and soon. He felt hot tears push his lower eyelids. It was during this moment, as the killer was wiping the tears from his eyes that a young man entered the bathroom, in a hurry to evacuate his bowels. The young man stopped for second, seeing the sharp faced little man before him, obviously weteyed. "Dude, your boyfriend dump you?"

As a word of explanation, a justification for this guy's comments. First of all, he had seen the exchange in the dining room, though he had heard none of it. Second of all, he and his friends were all really drunk. Third of all, the guy was one of those guys who doesn't understand boundaries. One of those guys who says things to people without thinking them through. He hadn't been popular in high school and now, in college, had a circle of friends who looked up to him and gave him, for the first time in his life, a feeling of power. This power had led to women, which made him feel even more in control. It wasn't that he was a bully or a complete asshole; it was just that power and prestige were so new to him that he still had a few years left to adjust. Unfortunately for him, alcohol and power had made him smart off to the wrong guy--a guy who was in a fragile place in his life, on the cusp of something he thought might be new and surprising, life-changing, even. The guy walked right on by and into the stall without another thought on the matter. That is, until the thin little man at the sink kicked his door in. The guy had about a millisecond to register his decision and even less time to feel remorse for what he'd done, for the women he'd treated like toys and for the people he'd stepped on. He had been one of the stepped on once and knew, knew it wasn't fun and it was no way to treat another person. None of that mattered once the killer

fired off a single shot from a silenced 9 mm pistol. The bullet went right into the guy's skull and out the back of his head, taking plenty of brain and bone with it. The killer closed the door again. He would have time, but not much. He replaced the gun in its holster, which was invisible to the untrained eye, and made for his and Bill's booth. He had to act casual, like nothing at all was wrong. He had to act in a way that was completely forgettable, but he had to do so quickly, before one of the friends decided to go check on their buddy. He reached the booth and met Bill, handing him back his glasses. Bill had a sheepish look on his face, a look that made the killer's heart swoon. He smiled and touched Bill's hand. "Bill, there's no time for discussion; we have to leave, now." Bill could see the tenderness in the killer's face, and the stone in the killer's eyes. He knew the killer knew what he had done, or would figure it out before long. He went over the plan again in his head and realized at that moment what an awful error he had made. He forgot that he would need time to switch out the lenses. He had no excuse prepared for why he wanted to hold onto the killer's glasses. He stood up and followed the killer out to the killer's car. But he'd been rushed. While looking intently at the killer's glasses, he'd removed his own,

thinking without them his close vision might improve. It hadn't as Bill was near-sighted in one eye and far-sighted in the other eye, making any focus nearly impossible. When he'd heard the killer's voice, he'd put the glasses on, but they'd been the killers, not his own. Bill, of course, had no idea he'd made such a mistake. The killer pulled him close. Bill could feel the killer's penis rubbing his own. "Bill, leave this instant to a safe place. Contact me in a week, when things have died down. Don't let anyone see you before then, understand?" Bill nodded and felt the wet, hot lips of the killer pressing his own. He was so afraid of possible repercussion that he kissed back. He was sure that the killer was onto him and that this was some sort of kiss of death before the game of cat and mouse that was to follow. Bill handed the killer's glasses back, ashamed at the idiotic stunt he'd tried to pull, hoping that this last minute change of heart would rectify the situation. The killer, however, looked as resolved as ever. Bill thought of the places he could hide, but knew it was a matter of time before this maniac caught him. They parted, then, and Bill sped away in the opposite direction of the killer. He drove until he got to the old warehouse where he used to play as kids.

He parked his car inside and decided he would just sit here and wait for the inevitable end that was to come. The killer knew, as soon as he put on his glasses, that Bill had switched them. It made him misty all over again. Bill, big dumb Bill had wanted him to have his glasses, as a token to remember their meeting by. After all, he gushed on so much about them; Bill must have thought that's what he wanted. The killer smiled and touched the frames, identical to his own and purchased at the same Armani store on the same day. He couldn't see as well in them, but he felt he had to wear them, regardless. It was how he would prove to Bill that he loved the big dumb sap. In a week, when it was safe to come out and he could have a reunion with Bill, they'd go down together to the eye doctor and have new lenses put in each other's glasses. Bill would wear the killer's glasses with his own prescription; the killer would wear Bill's glasses with his own prescription. Can you imagine anything more romantic?

3. Korla's Poorly Planned Execution It hadn't take Korla long at all to have Dick under her. From there, it was elementary to get Mr. Fuller under her too. Within a year, she was the top executive of the company and downsized Dick and Fuller while assembling a board of yes-men and women who would run the day-to-day operations. Their goal

was simple: they were not to let the company grow beyond a moderate amount. The company was to stay in the middle of the corporate scheme and remain off the radar of all the bigger companies, but maintain enough size to keep it afloat in the era of deregulation that, as the nineties approached and Clinton loomed on the horizon, was near an end. You're probably wondering, and rightly so I might add, what all of this has to do with the Coopers. Some of you may have already guessed. If so, don't tell the ones who don't know yet, don't be that guy who gives away riddle before the others have had a chance to properly examine all parts. Some of us are slower than others and sometimes it takes a little longer to get it, so just wait, will you? Bob Cooper, in this time, had recently graduated from Middle America State University with no honors. He had found a few jobs outside of his chosen field, actuarialism, and they were paying the bills in Rural/Urban America, but Bob new that the real boom and the good real estate was to be found in Medium Town Middle America and so he and Debra had been saving every penny and buying the Medium Town Middle America Times everyday to check the want adds. Things had gotten rougher when Jim came around. Money was tight, bills piled up, credit cards were maxed. Things seemed hopeless for our non-heroes until Bill saw an ad in the paper that made him almost jump with moderate contentment. That day, he answered the

ad with a passable letter of application and a mediocre resume done on plain white typing paper with everything in a single column. This no-frills resume and lackluster letter of application reached Lowell Caruther on the day Korla empowered him to hire as many as three new actuaries, under the prescriptions of his original proposal. Bob Cooper was a cinch for the job and Caruther hired him on the spot after only a four-minute interview. Caruther knew that Bob was the most perfectly average person that ever existed and would do a perfectly adequate job without ever drawing attention to himself or making a name for himself or in any way advancing his own career. Twenty minutes after Lowell and Bob filled out the necessary paperwork and Lowell entered Bob into the computer to begin receiving a regular paycheck, Lowell began to forget, exactly, what Bob looked like. He forgot within a day his enthusiasm for Cooper and by the time Bob started working at the company, Lowell barely registered his existence. Everything was going exactly as planned. Things between Bill and the killer, on the other hand, had failed to materialize. After waiting four days in the old warehouse, Bill had gotten hungry and had decided that if the killer wanted to kill him, he would have to do it at Bill's house or at McDonald's. A few days later, when the hubbub over the kid being murdered in the Denny's bathroom died down, the

killer emerged from hiding, Bill's glasses firmly in hand, and had set out to begin his new life. He decided not to rush into things, as he didn't want to appear overly eager and scare Bill away. He decided that Bill was gay-curious and that his little modest attempts to show affection were equivalent to a cat sniffing a potentially dead opossum--it wasn't quite sure what to expect or even what it really wanted, so it was going to approach the situation guardedly. In fact, by the time the killer emerged from hiding, he had strengthened his resolve to maintain his tough image around Bill because he knew that Bill would respect that. He knew that's what Bill had been attracted to and that was how he was going to win Bill over. He further decided that he would not approach Bill directly, one-on-one, but would orchestrate some situations where he could run into Bill in a social setting to make sure Bill's desire hadn't been diminished. He figured the easiest way to do this would be to maintain contact with Korla. It would be nearly six months before he saw Bill again. Six agonizing months. Korla was quite receptive to the killer's need to be present. He had the feeling she had some ulterior motive. She did. She needed him to kill. The first victim was a pleasure; he'd done it for free. Anyone who'd met Dick Tucker, especially his wife, wanted him dead. They'd offered the killer twice his

going rate, but he'd turned it down. They gave him a list of specific directions for the killing on a 3x5 card which he'd carried with him when he did the deed. Each person involved in the murder plot: Korla, Lowell, Dick's wife, Mr. Fuller, Mick the Janitor, Betty from Temporary Services Plus, One-Eye Dick's coke dealer, and a host of other, had all gotten to write one thing they wanted done to Dick. They had conglomerated the list and crossed off the repetitious requests to come up with a nice succinct list that fit on one side of the index card. It was winter again before the killer received the final "ok" from the members involved. Dick was at home, enjoying some fresh coke and the company of his latest girlfriend. The killer stopped his black Mercedes in front of the house, killing the engine and letting the snow pile up in a neat stack on his hood. He flipped on the interior light and looked at the list. Then squinted and, finally, removed Bill's glasses so he could read the list. The first two things on the list were standard, though more detailed than normal. The killer read these over and nodded. When he got to item three he fliched, read it again and flinched again. That was going to be tough, physically. He contemplated the mechanics of item three; the logistics along were stunning. He wished then he'd brought some more tools. However, after a few moments thought, item three started to fall into place. He nodded and smiled. That would be creative, item

three; he would have to remember to compliment Korla on that one--who else but her could have thought up something so devious? He checked his sport bag and ran through his list of usual items plus the few things he would need for this job: baseball bat, tennis racket, Tabasco sauce, etc. The girlfriend would get it too, but that was really sort of a shame. It's not like she was the first girlfriend, though she would certainly be the last. From what he'd heard, Korla herself had actually been Dick's favorite. But bygones being bygones, the wife wanted a girlfriend killed and she and Korla were now such good friends that this current little vixen would have to stand in for all of Dick's trespasses. He wouldn't torture her, though. He wasn't a cruel man. Dick had pled, Dick had begged, Dick had beseeched, Dick had implored, Dick had entreated, Dick had appealed, Dick had importuned, Dick has supplicated, Dick had prayed and, in the end, Dick had died--though certainly not soon enough for his own liking. The killer had walked out exactly as he'd walked in. He'd left his Merecedes idling for the entire time because he hated getting in a cold car. Then he drove away, back to his hiding place until things died down a little. Korla was right in the middle of an important matter when Bill came in for the first time since he'd asked for the

killer's phone number, several months ago. His faux-fur-lined coat was making its first appearance of the season, though to Korla it looked like he had been wearing it the entire time. "Say, Korla..." "What Beel?" "That killer guy isn't here, is he?" "You know, I haven't seen him since he killed Dick. The heat's been on him for that, he may have left the country for awhile." "That's good, actually. I'm sort of embarrassed to run into him." "Did you not pay him or something?" Bill looked around to see if there was a hidden camera on him. What could she have meant by that? She knew about the glasses, too, didn't she? "ForYMBOL188\f"Symbol"\s12for what?" "For the killing. You wanted me to give you his name so he could kill someone for you. Did you forget to pay him?" Bill nodded. "Yep, that's it. I forgot to pay him. Want to loan me the money?" "Beel, you stupid fucker, you're lucky I don't--" "Relax, cuz, I'm joking. I got the money, but I lost the account number and so I'd have to give it to him in an envelope, and I don't want him to think I'm unprofessional, so I just feel better if I could avoid him for a little while."

"You want the account number?" "Yeah, that'd help. Thanks Korla." She scrawled the number down on yellow sticky note and handed it to him. He folded it absently and stuffed it into one of his many coat pockets. Korla assumed the conversation was over and went back to work. The numbers she was crunching were all wrong. They were way too big. She was trying to figure out ways to spend some more so they could bring those profits down to a more manageable number. She'd just bought all new computers, so that wouldn't work. She'd heard somewhere that one of the hardware companies was starting a line of laser printers for businesses--they were supposed to be expensive. The reality was, and she knew it, she was just going to have give slight pay raises across the board and hire a few new workers, and she was going to have to lose their biggest account. If investors came in and saw a load of brand new laser printers, they'd start thinking the company was doing well and the next thing you know stock prices are going up--what a headache. "Hey the real reason I cam down here--" "Beel, you are still here? You cannot see I'm busy?" "I was just going to ask if I could have a job." "Doing what? What are you qualified to do here?" "I don't know...I could sell stuff." "What--and be precise here Beel--do we sell?"

"Well...the things...the packages..." "The packages? Get out of here Beel. I have enough salesmen. You need money? Rob a bank like you usually do." Bill bowed his head and left. Times had been tight for Bill. The problem was, he was afraid to leave his house. With guys like the killer, you never knew when they would strike and how; one had to be extra cautious. As a result, his lying and cheating hadn't really been paying off lately. Well, there were always drugs. Everybody liked drugs. He figured he needed to get into the drug business if he was ever going to make some serious money. Bill just missed seeing the killer as he took the stairs while the killer had taken the elevator. It would still be three more months before the killer saw Bill again. Three agonizing months. Three long, heartbreaking, soul-sucking months. At least he had work to keep him busy. He was on his way to Korla's office to get the new list: Mr. Fuller's list. It wouldn't be as extensive, he assumed, because Mr. Fuller was merely incompetent; he was no Dick. He rapped his knuckles on Korla's door when he saw she was poring over some numbers. She looked up, annoyed, until she saw that it was the killer, not Bill as she'd assumed. "Come een, Come een." The killer entered her office and sat down across from her.

She signed her name to the bottom of some report and gave him her attention. "So, how did it go?" "It went without a hitch, as I'm sure you heard. By the way, item three: very nice work." "You knew it was me?" "Of course, who else could come up with something so single-mindedly evil and despicable?" "Well, I try. The police were really scratching their heads on that one, weren't they?" "They probably think they have some sick serial killer on their hands. Did they question Dick's wife? I haven't had access to the news much as of late." "They did, and released her. It is as you said; they are looking for a very twisted killer, not some ordinary, run of the mill dispute. Besides, Dick had so many enemies; they'll never piece all of it together." "Very good. So, you have Fuller's list prepared?" "Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that. It turns out we aren't going to do Fuller." "No?" "We decided it would be too obvious: both of them working here and all. We decided, instead, he would be more useful if we promoted him, where his lack of ability can keep us in moderate

standing--make sure we don't get too big for our britches, so to speak." "Fair enough, although once contracted..." "Of course I'll deposit the money in your account this afternoon." The killer stood up. "Well, then, if you don't need my services, I'll be heading back into hiding." Korla stood up and shook his hand, then pulled him closer. "Actually, there is one thing more you can do for me--make that two things." The killer cocked his eyebrows. "I'm listening." She led him down the hallway to a room labeled "Actuarial." She pushed the door open slightly, revealing a room of cubicles where pudgy men with glasses were diligently trying to look like they were working. "You see that man there?" She indicated the far corner. Unfortunately, the killer did not see the man she was referring to, the one nearest to them, because that man was well within the blurry range of the Bill's glasses and was distorted to the point that he blended in with his white-topped desk. The man the killer did see was sitting about 20 feet away from the man Korla intended him to see. This man was in perfect focus. He was medium height, bald and pudgy all over. His glasses were

plain, his demeanor seemed to be inconspicuous, or lacking entirely. "Yes. I think so." "Memorize his face. It won't be anytime soon--maybe ten or even twenty years down the road, I'll need you to kill him. Quickly." "I'm intrigued." The killer committed the man whom he thought Korla was pointing out to memory. She closed the door after a few seconds, latching in the actuaries. "So, the other thing was: would you like to fuck?" The killer looked into her eyes. She was serious. "Before we do anything like that, I was thinking it might be a good idea to go in there and talk to that man, get to know a little about him so I make sure--when the time is right--that I kill the right person." Korla shrugged. "Fine. I'll be waiting in my office--don't be long." As she left him there, standing outside the door, she gave his balls a gentle squeeze. When she was out of hearing range, the killer let out a sigh. It wasn't that he'd never had sex with a woman before--far from it--but the idea always put him on edge. He wasn't a man of facades. He liked to be straightforward and honest. Sex with women always felt like a lie. For one

thing, he was thinking of men the whole time. For another thing, he rarely could work up the excitement to actually finish and usually just faked it. That was tough to do, for a man. It was easier with a condom, which he almost always wore in those situations. Also, he'd found that telling a woman he'd had a vasectomy often worked to explain the lack of mess. Granted it wouldn't really make that much difference, but most people didn't know that. He considered, briefly, imaging Bill this time. However, the thought turned his stomach. Not because he didn't want Bill-he dreamed at night of holding Bill, being close to him--but he wanted the first time with Bill to be the first time, not some masturbatory fantasy. He felt something special with Bill and that would be spoiling his feelings, betraying the love he felt. He bit his fingernails and debated on what to do. Then, he saw an entertainment magazine lying on the adjacent break room's coffee table. He walked over and picked it up. George Clooney was on the cover. Problem solved. The killer set the magazine down, then waited for his erection to abate before entering the actuary office. He made a B-line for the far corner because the thought of thinking about Clooney during what was about to happen had actually made him excited about sex--even if it was with a woman. He followed the wall right up to the pudgy man's desk

and, when he was close, shot his hand out like a diver entering the deep water. "Good afternoon, sir." The man jumped, looked around, slowly interpreted the scene, and offered his hand back. "Hello?" That was exactly how it sounded when he spoke: like a question. "Hello, sir. I'm Jerry B. Jenkins with the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) and I'm in the area doing an informal audit of all our actuaries: checking their progress, getting a feel for where people are and how many new fellow applicants we can look forward to in the coming year." "Yes. Hello. I am an actuary." "Yes, sir, so I noticed. Tell me: have you completed level five yet?" "No. No, I'm only a level three, so far." "Sir, can I ask you your name?" "Yes. Certainly. It's Bob Cooper: that's B-O-B-C-O-O-P-ER." The killer looked around to see who the guy was spelling his name to. Then he decided it might be more convincing if he had written it down. So he pulled out his notebook and pen and scratched the name down. "Now, that's C-O-O-P-E-R?" "Yes, and Bob: B-O-B." "I see. Is that short for anything? Robert, maybe?"

"No, sir, just Bob." "Ok. Now you tell me you're a level three. So, how long have you been doing actuarial work?" "Oh, about six or seven years now." Bob hung his head, he looked slightly ashamed. Now that he was looking, the killer noticed the Bob seemed to be highly embarrassed by the fact that he was taking notice in him at all. Sure, the killer had met shy people before, but Bob acted as though no one had ever taken notice of him. It was something in the way his eyes looked about that gave it away. The killer was convinced that Bob had never been singled out before in his entire life. "So, Bob, why have you taken so long to get the tests done?" "Mostly...mostly, it's money. We had some hard times and things are just now picking up." "I see, so we can expect to start hearing from you soon?" "I suppose so." "Now, Bob, have they started letting you form probabilities yet?" "Oh no! No no no. That's Mr. Caruther's job and Mr. Caruther's job only. I'm just a number cruncher." "Well, would you say that you were a vital member of the team at this organization?"

"Well, sir, I believe that even the little toe is vital to the body. I think that we are all important in our own way." "I see. Thank you very much, sir. I'll be speaking with you again in the future and I'm anticipating you reaching level five by the end of the fiscal year, Ok Bob?" "Yes, sir, I will try." The killer B-lined right back out of the room. That was odd. Why would Korla want this guy whacked? The killer went back into the breakroom and grabbed the magazine with Clooney, then marched down the hall to Korla's office. He gave Clooney one last look before setting the magazine aside and knocking on Korla's door. "That you, keeler?" "Yes, ma'am." "Come, then" With Clooney fresh on his mind, he ripped Korla's shirt open and proceeded to do the things heterosexual lovers are supposed to do. Then he turned her around and bent her over the desk, thrusting himself into her. He closed his eyes, holding George's chiseled face firmly in the center of his mind. That's when Bill popped into his head. He could see Bill's hands most clearly. He hadn't wanted it to be like this, but there Bill was and George was nothing but a distant star, winking out of existence. Oh, those hands! They were ancient hands, beautiful.

They were hands that had gripped the powerful men and women through the ages and refused to let them go. They were Antony's hands as he held Cleopatra, Aristotle's hands as they guided young Alexander--they were hands creased with memories and scarred with history. They were hard and beautiful. They'd been eroded by age, water and weather and achieved the beauty of the Grand Canyon. The killer could see his own slender, perpetually dirty fingers reaching out for those hands: to be held, squeezed, stroked by those calloused fingers. That's when it hit him and he let out a breath he'd been holding since Clooney fled his consciousness. He retracted from Korla and she collapsed on the floor. "That was amazing. I had no idea you had such passion." The killer lit a cigarette and blew grey smoke toward the ceiling fan. "I don't, usually." "To be honest with you, there was a time I thought you were gay." The killer inhaled another drag. "I've had plenty of women. They're all the same to me, in the end: a warm pussy to fuck." "I think I'm in love with you, killer." "Love's meaningless in my line of work. One day someone could hire me to kill you, and I wouldn't think twice." Korla shook on the ground, then convulsed once, holding herself in a fetal position. For a second he feared for her

safety, but made no move. Then she breathed a sigh and he realized she'd just had an orgasm. "I love it when you talk dirty to me." When he said no more, she added, "We should do this again sometime." The killer nodded, pulling his pants up and disposing of his soiled condom in the trashcan under her desk. He snubbed his cigarette in the black-glass ashtray she kept on her desk and left her lying on the floor, her perfectly eighties female slacks around her ankles, her perfectly eighties female blazer undone and in a pile, her perfectly eighties fake breasts heaving as she planned for their next encounter. He meandered out to the elevator and pressed the button. Once inside the comfortable privacy of the elevator car, he wept.

4. Bill Kills the killer Getting into the drug game turned out to be quite easy for a no-good, lying, cheating son of a bitch like Bill. He just found Dick's old coke dealer, shot him in the head with a thirty-eight and viola: Bill's a drug dealer. Getting rid of the body was a different story. That required a bath tub full of acid, some pay offs to the neighbors, and a little quicklime in some fertile soil. But, in the end, the body was disposed of and, to be honest, never really searched for. Bill knew nothing about cocaine. He didn't know how to produce it, he didn't know

how to ship it, he didn't know how to cut it, he didn't know how to weigh it and he hadn't the foggiest clue how to sell it. So he did what every incompetent middle manager does: he delegated. He hired up some kids to sell it, a few college guys to cut and weigh it and a shady Hispanic guy to ship it in. He was never sure who produced it, but it seemed to be good stuff, judging by his sales. Bill's functions were coordination and location. Being in the apartment of a former drug dealer, he found that people naturally just kept coming by and purchasing. The users didn't much care who was selling, as long as the price was good. He inherited most of the ex-dealer's clients--except Dick, because Dick was dead. Bill was doing well in drugs and so it wasn't long at all before the feds started getting wind of his dealings. After that, it was elementary. Some dealers were busted and they, being somewhat underpaid anyway, all pointed fingers right back at Bill. Bill, in turn, blamed everything on his Hispanic smuggler and since the cops figured the drugs were coming from Central or South America anyway, they had no problems believing this drug mule was the biggest coke supplier in the country. They figured they had a bust worthy of the front page so they gave Bill two years in prison and ten years of parole. Given the headlines surrounding Bill's arrest and subsequent turncoat maneuver, the killer finally found him.

Bill was surprised one morning when the guard tapped his baton on Bill's bars. Bill was engrossed in a get-rich-quick book he was planning on implementing the day he got out of prison and nearly spilled his morning coffee on his lap when he heard the clang from the guard. "Bill, you got a visitor." "Yeah, hot chick with dark hair?" The "hot chick" in question was Bill's cousin, but give him a break--he'd seen enough male genitalia in two months in prison to last him a lifetime. "No, small dude, pointy face, dirty fingers." The killer? Bill was confused. Surely the killer couldn't do anything to him her in prison, not without seriously jeopardizing his occupation. Bill figured the guy was probably just delivering a message from Korla, so he'd probably be safe enough paying the guy a visit. After being searched twice, Bill was finally allowed into the cafeteria-like visitation room. He took a seat at a round table with a circular bench around it--the kind you see in grade school cafeterias--next to the killer, who looked to be brooding. "Hello?" The killer looked up at him with his glassy blue eyes. He gave him a slight nod, then motioned with his chin to an

envelope that lay on the table. It appeared this was a message. Bill released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding and reached out for the envelope. The killer's hand intercepted his like a snake intercepts and unwary mouse. "Don't touch, Billy Piece. Against the rules." The killer threw his hand back to him and took the envelope himself, opening it and spilling its contents on the table. "They told me you're not to touch these, and you're certainly not to take them with you." The killer narrowed his gaze. "You never know when something might be tainted, when someone might have dipped this innocent looking paper in LSD or liquid cocaine."

"That's safe, I suppose. Although I have to say that if you're the kind who likes drugs, getting them in here is no problem." "Of course," the killer smiled with both rows of teeth, like a shark, "because the guards control the traffic." "Anyway, what is this crap?" The killer showed him a picture of an empty beach. "What's that, Hawaii?" The killer said nothing, just set the picture aside and took out the next one, of a beautiful town full of Spanish architecture and cobblestone streets.

"What, you trying to sell me real estate? Did Korla give you these?" "Do you like what you see in these pictures?" "It's ok. Looks tropical." "Bill, I took these on my last escapade--after I disposed of a certain Dick." "Oh yeah? Nice little vacation." The killer put the photos away. He had a letter too, but stuffed it into the envelope quickly. He looked suddenly embarrassed. "I didn't think you'd like them." "Look, killer, if this is about the glasses thing, I'm going to come right out and apologize. I didn't mean to try to steal your glasses. I just liked the frames so much." The killer touch Bill's frames that he wore on his face, then adjusted them as though they were his own. "I'm sorry, I should have just bought my own." "Bill...I don't care about that." " just came down here to show me pictures of someplace I can't go?" The killer chewed his index fingernail, then spit the husk onto the concrete ground. "You could go there." "Oh yeah? You gonna pay for it?" "I could."

"What do I have to do? Suck your dick, or something?" The killer turned his cold eyes to Bill. Bill realized he'd touched a nerve. He realized that if they weren't currently surrounded by armed guards, he would be dead right now. He realized also that somehow, this guy was packing a weapon and could have already killed him. Bill was scared. He wanted nothing more than to be back in his cell right then. "You don't have to be crass. I thought...I thought you understood." Bill saw a tic on the killer's face. The killer looked away. Was that a tear? Holy shit, what did he do? Now the killer was crying? Christ Bill was scared; he'd somehow gotten tangled up with a maniac. "What do you mean?" "Bill," the killer turned back to look at him--his eyes darted right, then left, "Bill, don't you see?" Bill didn't answer. He didn't see anything except a psycho sitting in front of him. "Do I have to spell it out? I love you, Bill." Bill tried to stand suddenly as though the killer had just pulled a gun. His knees hit the table, which was designed for small children, and his ass slammed hard against the bench. He was trapped here and now the guy was turning really crazy. "Bill, what's wrong? I thought...don't you?"

Bill wanted to be dead, or in prison for much longer. What was so great about the outside world, anyway? He got three square meals in here. He didn't have to worry too much not that he was in a group--he only had to give it up to the leader and only once a week. He was protected. He had cable. Suddenly the outside seemed like a much stranger place than Bill remembered. He thought everything was black and white, dead or alive. He had no response. "I see. I get it, Bill. You've found someone in here? Maybe you never loved me. I'm just going to go." Bill nodded, but could make no words sound. He realized, of course, that this professed love explained a lot of weirdness between the killer and himself. "Bye Bill." The killer then did something that changed Bill's life--for the better or worse is up for debate. He stood up to leave, but then turned, leaned in quickly and kissed Bill on the lips. No magic fairy came down at that point. There were no angles and no revelations. Bill wasn't Snow White waking from a long heterosexual nightmare or anything. In fact, Bill was annoyed by the whole encounter. However, Bill was so shocked and taken aback, that he failed at that point to consider the repercussions that this kiss would have on his life. It never occurred to him that half the guard population and about a dozen

fellow inmates had seen that kiss and made some snap judgments. No, that realization would come later and in physical form. The killer fled the prison, dropping his pictures in the trashcan of the prescreening lobby as he left. He got into his black Mercedes and started to drive. He reached up and adjusted his glasses. Then he ripped them off and was about to throw them out the window, onto the highway, but he stopped. Bitterness and hatred wouldn't help anyone. So Bill didn't love him anymore-maybe he never had. There were other fish in the sea, other people, better people, to experience. The killer took the glasses, folded them gently and placed them in a case that used to be for his own glasses, which he'd kept all this time in the glove box. He would go out, he decided, and buy a new pair of glasses. Perhaps he'd dazzle people with a new pair of gold wire rims. Maybe he'd go retro with a pair of Buddy Hollies. The sky was the limit. He was a new man--Bill had freed him. Part of him knew that this was all façade, and that as soon as he got home the demons he was outrunning in his Mercedes would finally catch up to him, but that part of him was quiet enough for now. Because for now, he decided he would let the road carry him and let freedom ring its bell in his ear as he sailed into the next phase of his life.

5. Bill's Sentence

Bill, after word spread of his homosexual partner, soon found that the protection he'd been relying on was starting to falter. It started with a rape in the shower. Not a big deal-it's bound to happen now and again even with the best protection. However, before too long other inmates started raping him everywhere. The other guys in his gang even took turns gang-raping him one night. The leader of their gang just laughed and watched. Bill realized that the killer had marked him. This must have been the man's plan all along, to mark him as a homosexual in a maximum security prison and doom him to four long months of gang rapes. It didn't take him long to see that his situation was headed downhill unless he took some action, so he started fighting back. It worked for a little while, at least against the weaker inmates, but many of the men were lifers who'd been there for years doing nothing but pumping iron and learning to restrain their fellow man in the proper position for anal pounding. Bill had to get creative in his protections. He started carrying a shiv to scare away attackers. When that didn't seem to be working, he started going on the offensive. He killed one man in the beloved shower--which cost him a month in solitary that he was more than happy to receive. A week after he got out, he stuck a sharpened butter knife into a large man's throat during supper. With the shower incident he'd gotten off

light because there wasn't enough evidence to prove it was he that had done it, but killing a man in the middle of a crowded room with guards everywhere and damn near starting a riot got him more than a slap on the wrist. He got six months of solitary and the state charged him with second-degree murder. They convicted him and extended his sentence for five years. It would now be well into the nineties before Bill would see the outside, but after the second stabbing, Piecemeal earned a little respect. After a year, Bill was the most feared man in the joint. He was a legend. He started his own gang and finally became the giver rather than receiver of the sexual favors. Bill went to prison a small time semi-crook, but was quickly learning the skills he needed to become a full-fledged criminal. He prison experience was gaining him qualifications for murder, extortion and general gangmanagement and the state was paying for it all. When the nineties rolled around and Bill was finally given his release papers, it broke his heart to leave. He felt like a kid leaving home for the first time. His only hope was that he could put all of the skills he'd learned to good use and really make something of himself--really pull himself up by his bootstraps. Bill left prison with little to him but his name and a dufflebag containing a pair of jeans, a cheap leather belt, a pair of socks, a pair of boots that no longer fit, a T-shirt and a faux-

fur-lined coat that would come in handy since the day they released him was the first day of winter and, right on schedule, it had snowed fourteen inches. 6. The killer gets serious about killing I know you're thinking, "yeah, yeah, but what are the Coopers doing during all of this?" Have you not been listening to anything I've said? Nothing! Got it? The Coopers were doing absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. I'll get to them when their time comes--if you don't mind letting me tell the story, that is--but during this whole period they've been like perpetual motion wind-up toys, doing the same thing over and over again without stopping. Just assume they're being painfully average and forget about it. If they were doing something, they wouldn't be the Coopers, somebody else would be the Coopers; this story isn't about somebody else, it's about the Coopers. The killer, heartbroken and tired of life decided he deserved a vacation. He went to Acapulco, but there were too many half-naked women. So he took a trip over to France, but the men all smelled bad. He wound up in Norway and that seemed to suit him. He made a couple of trips to Amsterdam to forget his troubles, but it seemed like there wasn't enough magic mushrooms or male prostitutes in the world to ease his woes. It was a late December night in a hash bar in Amsterdam when he realized what he had to do to get back on track. It hit him in the midst of a

swirl of purple and off-purple colors as he stared at a ceiling fan and listened to electronica music. He took one last drag from his reefer and snubbed it in the ashtray. A small group of young men were sitting at the far end of the bar, talking and giggling. He approached them. They looked him over, shrugged, then say his hands--caked with black soot or grease--and began to laugh. "I have copious amounts of money and absolutely no inhibitions about spending it. I just need some companionship for this one night." The men cut their giggling short and looked at each other, each daring the next person to be the one to escort this auto mechanic in an expensive suit. None of them were jumping at the opportunity. The killer was weaving slowly to the beat of the melody. The hash he'd just put out he guessed was laced with some psychedelics. However, as soon as the thought occurred to him, it was whispered away on a stream of pure melody and he let the flow consume him. "Like, how much are you talking American?" "Thousands." The one who had spoken arose and took the killer's arm. "Then I am your bitch for the night, what you say?" The killer caressed the young man's hand. "You won't regret it."

"You hungry, American?" "Starved." The young man led him out into the streets, which flowed with red like blood, but swirled in pools of blue and yellow, so he guessed everything was ok. "What your name, American?" "'American' is fine for tonight." "Oooooh, mysterious American. Like Clint Eastwood? You the man with no name or something?" "I guess so." "Well, American, you like to go into the alley over there with me?" The killer assessed the situation, even through the haze of colors and lights that shouldn't have been there. "A little warm up?" "You guessed it, a taste of what I offer, if you want." The killer followed the boy into the alley. When they were encased in darkness, the young man got down on his knees and began unbuckling the killer's belt. His hand found the killer's crotch and seemed to like what it found. The young man began to reach into the killer's pants, but his hand never made it. The killer snatched the boy's hand from the air and before the young man knew what had happened, he was face down in a puddle of piss

with his arm cocked up behind his back in a manner never intended by biology. The young man screamed, but the killer stuffed some dirty rag into his mouth to muffle him. The killer applied pressure slowly to the arm, cranking up the pain a new degree with each centimeter of radial motion. The young man screamed harder, from the lungs using the diaphragm as it was supposed to be used. The killer swiftly twisted the arm and heard the crunch of bone popping and snapping out of its physiological composition. The young man was lying there, not moving--going into shock. The killer resuscitated him, got his heart and mind working again. The colors the killer could see were focused, now. They still weren't right, but they had drawn together into a single point, the young man's heart. At that point was a deep darkness, like a black hole. The killer couldn't see this black hole, not yet, because it was buried beneath useless flesh, sinew and bone. But he would dig and he would find it. He would penetrate the young man in the most intimate of manners. The killer drew a breath across his teeth, stinging them with frigid air, and began to dig. The killer--or more apt to his current role, the serial killer--rampaged Europe. The police were confounded because the serial killer left few clues; when he did leave clues, they led nowhere. The killer was a phantom; he didn't exist on paper or

in any computer database. He was a man so buried in secrets and lies that no one alive knew who he really was. He was a ghost walking among corporeal people, a spirit, a shadow. He was nothingness--thin air or a speck of pollen floating in thin air. He killed in Europe until he felt the heat on his back, then he moved on to Asia, Australia, Indonesia, and the Pacific Rim. When he found himself on the West Coast again, after all this time, he barely recognized himself. He decided then that he was back home and would have to stop killing at random. He went to a national park full of giant sequoia trees, and began to let his mind float free among the soothing, dynamic essence of nature. He found a place away from the tourists and hikers and for three weeks camped naked in the woods with nothing but a small knife--a weapon that police in several countries would have very much liked to get their hands on--and a piece of flint. He made only the smallest of fires to cook food--warmth was not really a problem, thanks to the warm Pacific winds. He ate little and drank even less. At nights he would sit on the needle-strewn ground and try to consciously clear his mind of all senses and perceptions. It wasn't until the middle of the third week, just as he was starting to feel better, when Bill made his first appearance into the killer's meditations. That was when he knew he had a problem.

He was sitting there, his mind clear, feeling on the verge of Samadhi when he saw those beautiful hands reach into the void of his mind. In a flash he went from being almost perfectly detached to being highly aroused. He didn't move, though his erection made sitting on the pine needles uncomfortable. He tried to push the hands back out, but they refused, as though they had taken control of his mind. The killer pushed harder, but the hands remained there, doing nothing but existing, which was more than enough. Finally, he relented in his attempt toward nirvana and allowed all of his worries to flood his consciousness. He wondered if Bill was still in jail. He wondered if the other inmates had hurt him bad. He wondered if Bill would recover from institutionalization or if he'd be one of the many that went back. The killer knew he was in trouble, and that he'd never gotten over Bill. It occurred to him that all of those dead young men he'd left behind on his travels might all have been Bill-substitutes. The killer began to feel the weight of his life on his heart. He was a killer and killing was what he was good at and what he did to be one with the universe. Yet, he could see now the separation, the pain in killing, too. He saw now how it could be just a substitute for living. This was life? The killer opened his eyes to the darkness. He stood and let his senses guide him back to the smoldering embers of his

fire. He picked up his knife and resumed his position on the dry needles. He sat in the full-lotus position and rested his left hand resting palm up on his left knee. He held the knife loosely in his right hand, like a surgeon would hold a scalpel. Then he applied the blade's edge to his left arm and pressed. What stopped him from opening up his artery and leaving and unidentifiable corpse for the police to find was the image of those hands, strong and sure. He let the knife fall and resolved, then, that he would no longer kill unprovoked. He wouldn't be that serial killer he was in Europe and Asia--that person would be dead from now on. He decided to go back to the pure and simple life he'd had in Middle America. He would find Korla--maybe she still needed that accountant killed. He would kill only for the purest of reasons: survival. He realized now, of course, that Bill had never loved him, that the whole thing had been his own misunderstanding. That didn't mean Bill wasn't capable of loving him. He resolved to try. He would try until his last breath to make Bill see the love he could offer. This was all the killer had left and all he could think of to keep himself going even one more minute. The wind carried a rustle to his ears, just to the left, upwind from where he sat. Without looking or even opening his eyes, he let the knife fly. He heard the yelp of a mortally wounded animal and then he relaxed and let nothingness consume

him. The animal would sustain him. His trip was nearly over and felt more cleansed now than he ever had before. He tilted his body forward and kissed the ground, then gathered some heavy black soil in his hands and washed them, grinding and rubbing all the years of accumulated rot and waste that constituted soil into the creases and folds of his palms. He shook the loose particles off and stood, renewed. He would retrieve his kill, feast on it tonight, and would set out tomorrow towards Middle America and life.

7. The Coopers under fire Korla, as it turned out, needed his help almost as soon as he got off the plane, back in the wonderful life of the Mediumsized City in Middle America. Bill, as it turned out, had killed a couple of guys in prison and would be there a while longer. Korla, of course, had no love for Bill, but he was family. So, she contracted the killer to do some extortion work. She needed him first make sure Bill didn't get life in prison for the second homicide and she needed him to make sure the rest of his time went by easier. The truth of it was, Korla felt a little guilty about Bill's being in prison at all. She could have given him a job in records or some other tedious, menial position when he'd asked. She knew nothing of the killer's own hand in Bill's troubles, but he agreed readily to do the tasks for her because

he, indeed, felt somewhat guilty himself when the news of his beloved's trials. He knew that the kiss he'd given Bill was a kiss of death, but at the time he was hurt and wanted revenge. It would be nice, the killer decided, to do something for Bill behind the scenes. It would go a long ways toward repairing the breech between them, which was the first step in winning Bill's heart. The extortion part of the job turned out to be incredibly easy. The judge, he found, was not a very suspecting fellow. Apparently, the judge thought Bill was one of those career criminals with no real friends. He lived in a nice inherited house on the edge of town. It was one of those houses with a thick stone wall around it that said "rob me" to passersby. The killer suspected there would be dogs, probably two of them. A lot of people kept one dog, but people who were serious about protection kept two. The second dog could make a hell of a racket while the intruder was taking care of the first dog. The killer approached the house from the adjacent hillside and scanned the property through the night vision scope of his rifle. He saw two dogs by the front door. The dogs were key in a situation like this--most people neglected the dogs. Dogs always did what they were supposed to do: they barked when they sensed something dangerous or amiss. The killer was both dangerous and amiss, so he would have to snipe both dogs. The dogs, he could

see, like the judge were lax. They lay snuggled up next to each other, their heads nearly touching. The killer hoped these two were it. He hoped the judge wasn't one of those rare people who kept three dogs. Three-dog owners had something to hide. Besides, the killer hated to shoot even these two dogs, let alone a third. The killer looked at the dog's heads through the crosshairs. He had to be Oswald on these dogs--only without missing the second shot; he was going to have to out--Oswald Oswald. Both shots would have to come in the same second and both had to be head shots. All this with a rifle equipped with both a sound and light suppressor. It would be nearly impossible for the most skilled gunman. The killer squeezed off his first shot, which took the head off the dog further away. He worked the bolt action, leveled the rifle on the second dog, which was raising its head to emit its alarm, and fired again. The dog never got its chance to bark. Both shots had come in just under a second of each other. The killer felt a twinge of guilt about the dogs. They were beautiful Doberman's, neither expecting nor deserving their fates. People were one thing--hell, most of them deserved it--but the dogs were just following their training. He wished he could kill the judge for forcing him to kill the dogs. The killer disassembled his rifle and stuffed the pieces into pockets he'd sown into his backpack. He took out his

silenced pistol and descended the hill. He used the momentum from his run to scale the wall in two quick moves. On top of the wall, the killer surveyed the property for a possible third dog or other security system. He saw nothing and within a few minutes he was inside the house. He climbed the stairs toward the master bedrooms. The surveillance Korla had given him on the judge said that he and his wife slept in separate rooms. He would have to neutralize the wife without waking the judge before he could confront and extort the man. The killer crept into the wife's bedroom. The blankets were rumpled, but the bed had been emptied relatively recently. He moved quickly to check the adjacent bathroom; it was empty. He went back to the hallway and down to the judge's chambers. He turned the bedroom door handle, crouched low and pushed the door open with his fingertips. The door swayed about half way open and he saw the judge and his wife were sleeping in the judge's bed. She was naked on top of the covers. His bare arm was resting just beneath her breasts. The killer stepped up to the foot of the bed. This required a new strategy. There was no way to tie the wife up now without waking the judge. He couldn't kill either one--though neither knew that. The killer's black ski mask was making his face well up with sweat. He would have to act soon or he would pass out from exhaustion.

He slipped his backpack off and set it carefully on the hardwood floor. He positioned himself next to the wife. In one swift motion he scooped her off the bed and turned her, allowing her to emit one piercing scream before he choked off her airway with his right arm and locked her wrist behind her back with his left. The scream was just enough to get the judge awake and active with a proper amount of adrenaline. The killer knew how to make adrenaline work for him, but most people did not. For most, it was a paralyzing hormone that focused the attention too much to allow the person to think through their options. The judge snapped into consciousness. He saw the killer with his wife in a death grip and the killer's hand holding a silenced; the killer could see the judge comprehended and appreciated the situation. The killer could also see, as he had hoped, the judge was too focused on the danger to think through things logically and realize that the killer did not intend to live up to his name. Logic would have told the judge that when someone intends to kill people with a professional silenced pistol, the person would not need or desire to wake the victims up first. The judge, in his right mind, would have realized he could act. On the other hand, without adrenaline pushing him, the decision would come too late and the other person, the killer in this case, would see the action coming. The killer knew this was the difference between himself and others, the

ability to see the logic even when inundated with adrenaline. The killer knew he would have to keep the tension high and speak and move quickly if he was going to keep the judge from thinking things through completely. "Judge Parker, in just a second you will see me rape your wife in front of you then snap her neck while you watch." The judge made a movement, but the killer trained the pistol on him and he froze. "Unless, sir, you agree to comply with a simple request." The judge stared hard at the killer, trying to discern a face through the mask. "It's easy and not necessarily illegal, so there's no professional danger to you. All we want is for you to see to it that Bill Ray gets the minimum sentence for a lesser crime than Murder 1. Do you understand? Bill Ray is not to get more than five years added to his sentence." The judge nodded slowly. "If Bill happens to get twenty years or ten years or five years and a day, I'll be back and I'll leave the gun at home. The only thing I'll bring is my knife and my cock. Am I making myself perfectly clear? I will force-feed you your wife's heart." The judge remained mum, but nodded again.

"Bury your dogs properly and pretend like nothing ever happened here tonight." The killer forced the wife's head to the side and licked her face, then winked at the judge. He shoved the woman down and in an instant grabbed his bag and disappeared silently into the hallway. By the time they recovered enough faculties to consider chasing him, he was already over the wall and gone. The judge played ball perfectly, sentencing Bill to four years and three hundred sixty-four days extra on the charge of manslaughter. The second phase of Korla's plan was a little trickier. First, the killer had to bribe some guards to learn the basic structure of the prison system Bill was in. He did this while Bill was still in solitary. He further bribed the guards closest to Bill to make sure they gave him some protection, but that wouldn't be sufficient, he knew. He began passing messages to some key lifers via the guards and offering them generous sums of money and drugs if they would form a gang of protection around Bill and elevate him to the leadership position where he would be least vulnerable. The guards assured him that the leaders were rarely murdered and always by someone within the gang, rather than an outside member. So, the killer made it his job to keep in constant contact with the guards to make sure the prisoners in Bill's new gang were constantly appeased.

All of this was fine and good, except occasionally a guard would get greedy and start skimming the prisoner's cut for himself. This was unacceptable as the killer had to keep Bill on top, so he had to break a few thumbs and, in one case, put a bullet through a guard's head and have someone more reliable assigned to Bill's section in order to make sure Bill stayed safe. It was a tough job and the people in the guard system got to know the killer quite well before it was all over. The payoff for all of his hard work, however, was not to be immediate. When Bill finally got out of jail, he hopped put what savings he'd had before he became a drug dealer combined with the money he earned while in prison down on a used Buick. The killer kept tabs on this. Bill moved into the halfway house and stayed there for three days. Then, he disappeared. The killer could scarcely believe a two-bit crook like Bill had slipped him, but all roads led nowhere. Bill had gotten in his rusty gray Buick and vanished into Middle America. The killer was depressed and out-of-work for awhile. Korla wasn't too concerned about Bill--she was actually relieved that he was finally out of her hair and no longer costing her money. Besides, she had bigger fish to fry at her company, which she was constantly struggling to keep of moderate size and success. While the killer sulked in his hideout, Korla put in overtime to keep her spending up and profits down. Lowell, the scorned

actuary and part-time lover (Korla kept a stock, a habit she'd picked up from her mother), started realizing how much work Korla was doing to keep the company middle of the road. He also worked hard, fudging statistics and making up formulas that would increase costs for the company, but was growing weary of working for a company that was going nowhere by design. Yeah, it had worked for awhile to keep their profile low, but the nineties were upon them and the age of Clinton was here and it was time to grow and get rich, in Lowell's estimation. When he first brought it up with Korla over lunch, she had feigned interest and had even verbally committed to start letting the company blossom. She had told Lowell that his time was coming and soon he would be a Vice President. In her mind, however, she had realized that her fears about Lowell had finally come to surface and it was time to call on the killer once again. She dug out his number, realizing that she hadn't needed to call him in months because he was always around or nearby. She called the number, got the disconnect number, called that, got the second disconnect number, etc. until she finally got to a number that rang. The killer answered, sounding melancholy. Korla assumed that was because she'd not offered him sex in awhile. The truth of the matter was, he was the one who had been denying her sex. Whenever he had sex with her, he always thought

of Bill and his beautiful hands and then always felt dirty and guilty afterward. He started arranging things better so he wouldn't be alone with Korla and have to either make up excuses not have sex, or have sex and feel like crap for three days. He had quit responding to Korla when she did make advances and, as a result, she had assumed she was no longer interested in the killer and had quit trying. "Keeler, I need your services. Meet me tonight." "What now? I don't know, Korla. I might be busy tonight. Meet you alone, you mean? What's this about?" "You will find out tonight, but I need you immediately. I have a job for you." "A job? Ok. I'll meet you tonight. Where? Like at a restaurant? Have you been to that new Chinese place on 51? I hear they have excellent crab legs." "No, keeler. It will have to be in my office." "Really? Because I think we could find a nice table at the Chinese restaurant where no one would bother us. Or, we could go to that Italian place Bill likes so much; they have all sorts of shady booths where deals much worse go down." "Keeler, I have time to argue. Meet me in my office tonight. Bring some toys for afterward." It occurred to her that this would be the perfect opportunity to cheer him up, and to relieve some tension.

"Ok. Fine. I'll be there tonight, but I do have someplace else to be so it would be helpful if we could make it brief." "Keeler, what kind of boss would I be if I didn't give you proper payment." "Ok. Sounds great. Be there tonight. Looking forward to it. Gonna be fun." "Of course." That night, for the killer, was anything but fun. Korla certainly seemed to enjoy it, but then again, she liked having sex with members of the opposite sex. The killer put everything he had into the operation. He could only hope his face didn't reveal the repulsion he had. He was an expert on facial tones. He'd gone for pleasantly neutral, though slightly detached--like a porn star. It seemed to work. When it was over, Korla revealed to him the job. "Do you remember that man I pointed out to you, the one I wanted you to keel about seven years ago, who I said I would have to call on you one day for?" The killer juggled the words in his head and came up with a meaning and an episode to attach them to. "Yeah, the actuary?" "The actuary. You still have his name and everything?" "I do." The killer could see himself writing a name in his notebook, although he could not see what the name was.

"Ok, then will you please kill him as soon as it is convenient?" "No problem, babe. I'll get on that right away. Will he present any problems that you can think of?" "Oh, no, just walk into his house, put two in his skull and leave." "Family?" Korla thought about this for a few minutes. "You know what? I have no idea." "What if he has family?" "Well, then just keel them too. Make it messy, lover, and you'll be compensated extra." She winked at him. He suppressed a shiver. Bob Cooper was happy to be alive. Literally. Most people saved that particular sentiment for when they had nearly died, but not Bob. Nothing even slightly out of the ordinary had happened to him in six years. Ok, to be fair, one thing slightly out of the ordinary had happened. He had been sitting in his office, minding his business and churning out his numbers like usual when a man from the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) had approached him and seemed quite perturbed by the fact that he had been working for a few years and had yet to rise above level three. So Bob, honestly scared witless by the encounter, sure that soon the Actuarial Police would be after him (this is no

metaphor, Bob was just dull and lacking in imagination enough to believe that there were such people as the Actuarial Police). So, he'd saved up the money, which was quite a bit, and had taken the fourth level actuarial test. He was one step away from becoming an associate in the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS). However, when it was clear that he would receive no further visits, the plans to take the fifth level test floated away and Bob resumed his normal life. Back to what I was saying before: Bob was happy to be alive. He'd had no occurrences with cancer, no near-miss airplane incidents, no unfortunate road-rage encounters, no catastrophic weather events, no episodes of brief insanity, no occasions of misfortune of any kind, really. However, despite his lack of skirmishes with all of the possible tragedies that can befall a given human being, Bob was just plain happy to be alive. He was content to be breathing, pleased to have limbs, satisfied just waking up in the morning. Not many people can claim the sort of contentedness Bob had. Bob would have been quite surprised, had he known who the representative from the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) really was and had he been looking over his shoulder when the fake representative from the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) looked up a long-forgotten name in his notebook. Bob would have been even more surprised to learn that his name being in that

notebook meant that the killer had marked him for death. He would have been downright frustrated to learn that his name would not be in that notebook if only the killer and Korla had talked without the need for a degree of secrecy or if the killer had not been too proud and too in love not to wear Bill's glasses. However, despite the reasons and the logic, it was the

name "Bob Cooper" that the killer found ten pages back in his book and it was this person and this person's potential family that the killer set out the following Monday morning to go about killing. The first step, like most first steps, was easiest. The killer went to the human resources office, lied about his credentials and obtained Bob Cooper's personnel file. He noted Bob's address and that Bob listed his marital status as "married" and had claimed two additional exemptions for children. The killer considered this fact: married with two children. From what he could tell, this actuary was quite the lover--according to Korla. Perhaps it would be fun, the killer thought, to reveal Bob's secret loves. Korla said she wanted things messy. Maybe he could work it out where he could get the wife angry enough to kill the husband for him--then he could fabricate the situation as a triple murder/suicide. That might be a fun challenge.

The killer handed back the personnel file when he got the necessary information recorded in his notebook and went out to his car, which now was a black BMW--in keeping with his penchant for German cars and his desire to stay hip to current trends. He drove through Bob's neighborhood and noted the similarity in houses. He would have to be careful not to let the similarities confuse him--it would be a tragic to kill the wrong family. The killer decided that he would book a flight to Barbados that afternoon, kill the Coopers that night and be sunning on the beach by tomorrow morning. It sounded good until he remembered his exploits in Barbados. The police had probably kept the file on his string of murders hot after all of these years, and Barbados had been a bloodbath because of him. He decided maybe Sau Paulo, Brazil might be a better choice. He hadn't made it to South America that summer and besides, he had a couple of contacts in Sau Paulo who could help him find Bill. The killer went into the streets in front of the office with a spring in his step. Things were working out well; though he'd spent most of his money keeping Bill safe in prison, this killing would give him the resources to find Bill and to get a small vacation. Korla, on the other hand, was a little tenser. She ran into Lowell twice that day and both times he gave her leery sidelong looks. She quickly left when she encountered him. She wasn't really interested in sex with Lowell at this point.

What do you say to a man you've contracted to kill? Korla had a near miss when Lowell came to her office while she was in the bathroom. She saw him loitering when she was returning and she decided it was time to call it a day. She left out the back door quickly, got in her Mazda and drove toward home, happy that by tomorrow the killer would have taken care of Lowell Caruther. The afternoon approached and the killer decided to cruise by Bob's house and assess the situation. Bob was still at work, but Debra was home, staring aimlessly out the window. The killer noted her face in the window and decided she didn't look the jealous type. He decided that if his first plan didn't seem to be working, he would just shoot them and be done with it. The killer circled the block a couple of times to plan his route of approach and escape. He saw that two blocks away was a clear area to park his car and found a route through the hedges that led right to Bob's front door. Satisfied, he went back to his hideout to collect his tools. This would be a light job. All he would need would be his black outfit and a silenced pistol, preferably a semi-auto with a large clip so he could kill the entire family without reloading. Like the judge's dogs, children and wives could often throw wrenches into decent plans. The killer came back to the neighborhood with two silenced pistols. Sometimes silencers would lose effectiveness after a few shots, and the killer didn't want to wake up any neighbors

before his work was done. As always, the killer had his knife with him--the knife was guaranteed to be silent. The killer had some trouble finding the parking place he had picked out during the day. He was a little distracted by this trouble because he had planned out the operation, he thought, so well. He found the parking spot and checked his gear. He looked up from his weapons and suddenly was unsure that he was in the place he had picked out so carefully. The houses looked similar, but something was off. All of the houses were carbon copies, he realized--made from the same blueprints. At night, without house numbers, there was no way to be sure where he was. He scanned for landmarks, but could make out nothing. Then he saw the row of hedges with a hole, exactly like the one he'd found earlier and decided that he had, in fact, found the correct place. He slipped his pistols into his shoulder holsters and put his knife in a sheath hanging from his belt. He left his car and went quickly through the hedges. He went forward to the picket fence opposite the hedges. It wasn't there. He backed up to the hedges, trying to remember if he had made a turn earlier. He went forward, searching for a picket fence, but found nothing. Had he dreamed the picket fence? He went out onto the street opposite the hedges and looked up and

down the street for a picket fence: nothing. Was he on the right street? The question made him a bit woozy. But there, across the street, was the house he was going to. He was certain of it. It was the right style, but that meant nothing in Carbon Copy Land-the key was the number on the house. That matched exactly--he always remembered numbers. So maybe the neighbors had picked today to tear up their picket fence. It seemed improbable, but other than the lack of fence, everything looked kosher. He approached the house cautiously. He would be happy to have the Coopers dead and be in Sau Paulo soon. This whole operation was starting to feel like amateur night at the Apollo. The killer pulled out his pistols, intent on beginning the killing with no preamble. He'd shoot them one by one, or all in a group--however it worked out. The killer scanned the streets and saw nothing unusual. Everyone appeared to be asleep. That would make things easier. The killer decided on the direct approach and tapped lightly on the front door. A light in the foyer flipped on just a few seconds later. This was going to be easier than he had thought. Why had he been worried? The door opened a crack and a plump, middle-aged woman pushed her face to the opening, peering at him. His guns were out of her line of sight when she opened the door. Before she could ask the inevitable pleasantries, the killer brought his gun down from behind its hiding place by the

door jamb and shot her in the face, erasing the Cooper's mediocrity and replacing it with a pulpy horror. But it didn't feel right. Something was off. He pushed the door open the rest of the way, shoving the body out of the way to do so. The killer shut the foyer light off and went into the living room, where a TV a late-night monster flick of the Ghoulies variety (it wasn't Ghoulies, but it had puppets and blood and might as well have been). The living room was otherwise empty. He went up the stairs in front of him and opened the first door he saw with a light shining out from under it. It turned out to be a bathroom. A young boy was on the toilet, masturbating. "Your mom told you it was bad for you," the killer said as he shot the boy in the head. Now he had to suppress his laughter. That comment had come out of left field. That was genius. If there were such a thing as a killer's convention, that would definitely be the anecdote he told at the dinner table. This was turning out to be kind of fun. The look on that boy's face had been priceless--the killer could almost see all the years of berating the boy had suffered for doing what all boys his age did play out on his face as the bullet went from gun to brain.

With a big smile on his face, he opened up the next door over. There was a bunk bed on the side of the room. The top bunk was ruffled, but the bottom bunk was filled by another child. The killer used his second pistol this time; his second shot had been just a little louder than the first and there was no use taking chances. He nailed the other child with one shot, staining the bed sheets red. Three down, one to go. He turned and opened the next door, behind him, and found the master bedroom. Now it was just him and Bob. He decided that he would fuck with Bob a little bit. He would let Bob know exactly who was killing him and why. It wasn't really necessary-Bob certainly wouldn't be able to use the information, but it would be cold-blooded and that was one of the killer's trademarks. Plus, the killer was thinking about that bonus for messiness that Korla had promised him. He went to the bed, holstering his pistols and drawing his knife. He pulled back the covers, and the feeling that this was all wrong struck him again. The man on the bed, it wasn't the guy he remembered Bob being. That guy had been sort of pudgy all over and bald. This guy was bald and short--but seemed too skinny. Maybe Bob had lost weight. It had been known to happen. He slapped the man he was no longer sure was Bob Cooper in the face a few times to wake him up.

The man stared up at him, then at the knife, and his eyes widened. He made a move to flee, but the killer was, for one thing, blocking the doorway and, for another thing, was much too fast and strong for this man. He clamped down on the man's shoulder and sent him ass--first into the ground. "If you want to feel an extraordinary amount of pain, please continue trying to escape. If you want to watch me filet your kids in front of you, then by all means try to run away." The man stayed motionless on the ground, to proud or to afraid to look at the killer now. The man spoke, his voice breaking, "Who are you? Are you a serial killer?" The killer pondered the question and the appropriate answer for a moment. "Not on this continent. Here I'm just a regular killer." "Why me?" The man burst into tears. The killer leaned over and whispered in the man's ear. "Ambition, Bob." The man's eyes shot out toward the killer like lifelines trying to rope his heart. "My's not...not Bob. No! Oh, thank God! This has been a mistake, my name's Lowell, Lowell--" Lowell didn't get to finish his statement because the killer shot him in the top of the head, sending a bullet through key parts of his brain, then down through his throat, through

the fleshy parts of his innards and finally out the rectum and into the floor. This was quite the problem. How had it happened? Never, in all of his years killing, had he made such a grievous error. The killer re-holstered his weapons and backtracked out into the foyer, where he dragged the wife into the living room and propped her back up on what had probably been her favorite perch. This was quite the problem. It wasn't that he cared about killing innocent people--such people did not exist, in his estimation--but now he had four dead bodies that were sure to draw much attention and still had four more to kill. Plus, he had to do it quickly if he wanted to make his flight to Sau Paulo. On the other hand, he could leave. He didn't have much money in savings, but he did have a few credit cards under various names which he could get cash advances on to live off of for awhile. His friends in Sau Paulo might front him some money and there were always people to kill there or in Rio de Janeiro and plenty of wealthy businessmen and drug dealers to pay him. He could get word back to Korla, apologizing for the error and promising to correct his mistake once he returned to the states--after the hubbub had died down, of course. And yet...

There was something so dissatisfying about leaving a job unfinished. He could empathize with Lee Van Cleef's character in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly who, once paid, always finished the job. It just seemed wrong to operate otherwise and could come back to haunt a person later on. Yes. He would have to kill the Coopers tonight, no matter what. The killer left out the front door of the house and cut back through the hedges to his car. He took out his jacket from the back seat and slipped it on, covering his weapons. He couldn't drive his Beemer anymore. It wouldn't do to have such an expensive, noticeable car cruising around a neighborhood where a family of four, and soon a second family of four, was just murdered. People tended to remember things like that. He decided to huff it for now, and steal a car later. He went around the block to the street he was just on, which was surreal because he knew that it must be a different street--sure enough, the street sign said the wrong name--and yet the street looked almost identical to the street where the Coopers lived. He went down to the next block and found this, also, was the wrong street. He continued on and the road took a curve he hadn't remembered from last time. He pressed on, over a small hill and came to a dead end. That wasn't right. He backtracked a few streets and decided just to roam down the street a ways and see if something struck him as familiar. He found this new

street curving in an unfamiliar way and finally ended in an abutment with another street. Nothing looked familiar now, but he pressed on, sure that he would eventually come out on a main road that he could start all over from. The road curved around and he found himself, after a few minute's walk, at his car again. He checked the license plate, just to make sure. Yes, this was his car. He went back to the street with the family he'd just killed and walked down it a ways, then took a cross street to the left and walked until, eventually, he found himself on one of the main thoroughfares, which was the local business route of a highway. This seemed promising. He knew approximately where he was and now just had to retrace his steps from that afternoon and he'd be there in no time. He went up a few blocks, turned down the street he was almost certain he'd gone down earlier that day. He went up about five blocks, but, again, nothing looked familiar. The killer's confidence was waning. Things had looked so clear during the day, why was he now having such a difficult time finding one stupid street? He turned and went down a hill because he vaguely remembered there being a hill involved and found a cross street that looked familiar about halfway down the hill. He turned and walked down this long street which had no other roads emptying into it. That didn't seem right, but he pressed on, sure that

this would take him to the right area. He was no longer even sure where his car was in relation to himself. The road he was on finally dead-ended and he had to go several blocks back the way he'd come to get back to the hill he'd been on. He continued down the hill and up the other side. He could hear the semis rumbling down the highway nearby, so he knew he couldn't be that lost. He went up the next hill and the road ended in a T. He went left, because he was certain the highway was to the right and walked on, encountering numerous side streets and homes, none of which looked even vaguely familiar. The killer followed the road diligently until he came back to another main road that he wasn't as familiar with. That's where he finally called it a "night." He resolved to find his way back home, get on the internet, look up the address and directions and come back early in the morning. If he could get that all done in a relatively short amount of time, he could still make it to the airport in time for his flight. He walked back down in the direction of the highway. He walked and walked and walked, but found no highway. He could hear semis. They sounded close. Finally, he cut through a yard toward the sound and found himself on a completely different highway--the new bypass they'd recently built. He was miles away from where he'd left his car and even further away from his home. He hated this town. It was built on a river, like a lot of towns in Middle

America and the city planners apparently felt that every road in the town had to follow the same logic as the river--lots of aimless turns and dead ends except on the main currents, which ran through and, luckily for them, straight out of town. The killer went back to the front of the house whose yard he had cut through and got in the car parked out front. In a few quick movements, he hotwired the car and drove off, making as little noise as possible. Three cars later--he never drove a stolen car more than a few blocks--he was back at his hideout. He went inside and quickly connected to the internet. He got on a maps webpage and typed in the address he had for Bob Cooper. The system returned the address as non-existent. He tried several variations on the address, including eliminating "ave." from the end and leaving off the number. Nothing worked. He logged onto a different maps site and was met with similar success. He got out his phone book and looked up Bob Cooper. There were fifty Bob Coopers in the phone book. He went through the list, looking for a Bob Cooper that lived at an address similar to the one he had written down. None of the Bob Coopers in the phone book lived at such an address. The killer screamed. Bob was starting to piss him off. Bob was starting to make this thing personal. All of the problems he was having, assuredly, were Bob's fault.

The killer looked at his watch. He still had three hours to be at the airport. He got into one of his reserve cars and sped down to the company. He didn't have time to contact Korla and go through all of that, so he broke into the place. Then he broke into the human resources office. Then he broke into the file cabinet and found Bob Cooper's file. He checked the address next to what he had written. What he had was correct. The killer was getting furious as well as frantic. He left the building, not bothering to relock all the doors because he no longer cared about anything but finding Bob Cooper, killing him and getting his ass to the airport. He drove around for a few minutes until he found a twentyfour hour convenience store. The people that worked at these places knew everything, the killer told himself. They would know where this street is. They had to. The place was open, but empty. The killer wandered the aisles for a few minutes, figuring the night clerk was in the back stocking up for the midnight beer rush. He tried to be as conspicuous and loud as possible, but was getting no response. He went over to the beer cooler and opened the door, intending to call in. When he opened the door, he heard a squeak like tennis shoes on linoleum and a long scratch. Then he heard a brief pant and another squeak and scratch. "Hello, you need some help in there?"

The noises ceased. "Hello, I just need to ask a quick question if I could." A face appeared on the other side of cooler, followed by a gun. The killer dropped to the floor and rolled as two silent shots hissed over his head, striking potato chips and bottled pop on their way out the windows on the other side of the store. The face was one the killer recognized. "Tim, stop shooting at me, you idiot." The killer saw the face reappear, look over the cartons of beer, then disappear again. A few minutes later a man emerged from the cooler doors. "Hey!, how's it going?" "Tim, you asshole, you clipped my jacket." "Jesus, I'm sorry, I thought you were a cop or something." "So you're killing cops now?" "Well, I'm sort of in a bind." "Are you on a job right now?" "Sort of, come back here, I'll show you." The killer followed Tim back into the cooler. There was a man dressed as a convenience store clerk lying dead on the floor. His throat was cut. "What are you doing? Are you supposed to be killing convenience store clerks? What kind of job are you on?"

"Look...dude, it's a long story. But suffice it to say that this guy wound up dead and I got to do...something." "Who is this guy? A Mafioso or something?" "No. He's just a convenience store clerk as far as I know." "What the hell did you kill him for, then?" "Ok-ok-ok. So I was on this job--killing some dude uptown-when I stop in here to get directions--" "This town is goddamn confusing, isn't it? That's actually why I stopped in here too." Tim nodded and continued, "Exactly, this guy starts giving me shit, treating me like I'm stupid. It pissed me off. So I ask the guy to take his tone down a notch and talk to me like a human being or he'd be sorry. He's like, 'fuck off man, I don't need this shit.' So I tried staying calm and asked him one more time to repeat the instructions. He flipped me the bird, so I cut him." "So what's the problem? Leave him in the cooler and let's go." "Well..." "Jesus, Tim, what?" "Well, I still don't know how to get to this guy's house. I gotta hang out here or something. Ask somebody who comes in, but then I might get found out. I don't know what to do." "Where's this house you're looking for?"

Tim opened a small black notebook and flipped through a few pages and finally showed an address to the killer. "Yeah, I know where that is. You go up the highway like you're going to the SuperCenter. You take the second exit. Take a left off of that exit and straight down almost a quarter of a mile. The road starts to bend to the left--are you writing this down? You should write this down. Ok. When the road starts to bend to the left, take a right. Follow that down a ways until you get to a fork in the road. Follow that to the left, then take the next left. Then two blocks and a right. Then two more blocks down, curve around until you get to a T. Left on that, follow that to the end, it turns into the road you want." "Wait, so where does this road begin." "It begins when this road ends. There are no signs to mark it, but the numbers all start over again, so that's how you can tell." "Ok." Tim started to leave. "Tim, you want to look at my address, see if you know where it is?" "Ok, sure dude." The killer took out his little black notebook and flipped back a few pages until he found the one with Bob's address. He showed it to Tim. Tim scrunched his beady eyes, hunched his stocky shoulders and started the cogs in his brain spinning. The

killer was pretty sure he heard the squeaky grind of metal on metal from inside Tim's head. "Never heard of it. Sorry buddy." With that, Tim slapped the killer's notebook back to him, clapped his hands and made for the door. The killer unholstered his pistol and aimed it at time's moronic head. Then relented and fired a shot which sliced open Tim's jacket sleeve. Tim went through the door, which now had a hole in the window, without looking back. The killer put his gun back and stood in the middle of the store for a few minutes, thinking about cashing in on Tim's plan. Running into the competition was always awkward. The killer hated how Tim could never remember his name. He went back out to his car and sat in the driver's seat for a minute. He had to think of where another twenty-four hour store was, but his enthusiasm was about gone. He only had one more hour to make it to the airport. He'd started to accept that he might not get the Coopers tonight. Now he had to decide whether to fly on out of town, or stay an extra day and finish the job. He leaned back and closed his eyes. When he opened his eyes, he saw a cop had just pulled into the parking lot and was heading inside. The killer fired up his car and drove away.

8. Korla meets her maker

Korla, despite what the killer may have thought, was actually quite happy when she saw the morning news. They announced that police were investigating the murder of a family in the northwest district and released the name of the father of the family: Lowell Caruther. The man she had wanted killed was now dead. She set to work transferring the funds into the killer's account. Lowell had lived, unbeknownst to the killer, only a few blocks away from the Coopers. Neither Lowell nor Bob were aware of their own proximity, so it seems to have been a forgivable error. Bob came to work as usual that morning having no idea how close he'd come to having his brains blown splattered all over his bed. Bob had no idea that a killer named "Tim" had killed somebody else and thus prevented his own killer from acting. Bob lacked the information necessary to see this man as sort of his own, personal Jesus. That man's death let Bob live on, but Bob never even knew the poor sap existed. Tim, by the way, never did find the house he was looking for--but more about him later. Bob did notice that his boss was absent, but there was nothing startling about that. Bob went about his daily business. Korla was a little worried about the break--in, but she had a feeling the killer was behind it. It seemed that the person who had broken in had gone straight for personnel files and straight for the "C" drawer, which Korla naturally assumed meant

that the killer had run into some trouble and had come to look up some more information on Lowell Caruther. Since she would no doubt see him before he left the country, she decided to push the incident to the back of her mind and let him explain when he could. Since everything else seemed to be going so perfectly, Korla decided to take a brunch break (even though it wasn't Sunday) in celebration of one less headache she had to deal with. She went downstairs, got in her red Corvette and drove toward the highway. She intended to eat at a small coffee shop that served a nice selection of bagels. She meant to spend only a few minutes there and be back in time for the investors meeting. She certainly didn't intend to spend the next few months in the hospital and thus miss all the action. The accident wasn't even her fault. She was driving in the righthand lane, cruising at a nice, below-the-limit speed and jamming to "Cult of Personality" when the semi in the left lane, whose driver was hopped up on a combination of No Doze and caffeine, swerved into her lane. She slammed the brakes, but a slick spot (it was, after all, the beginning of winter), and plowed into the embankment. When the left, front tire hit, the momentum of the car sent it into a barrel roll. Anyone watching could have told you that she would have landed it perfectly. The car would have landed hard on the right wheels and there probably would have been extensive

damage to the vehicle, and some injuries to Korla, but it wouldn't have been nearly as bad as it was had she not clipped the overpass. The fiberglass sports car exploded into millions of fibery fragments. When the paramedics arrived awhile later, they found Korla's car upside down. The car's engine was resting on her leg as the impact had driven it through the firewall and into the driver's compartment; the engine left a nasty burn on her thigh. She was banged up bad when they found her, but she was still alive. The seat belt had done a number on her abdomen, but had kept her from getting pitched into the concrete pillar supporting the overpass, which would have killed her instantly. The door was open and the EMTs had no problem extracting her from the wreckage--this was a plus considering she had broken two vertebrate in her neck and a difficult extraction probably would have paralyzed her. The trucker who had caused the accident was nowhere to be found. Unfortunately for Korla, without a trucker or a witness the scene looked like an open and shut case of a person driving too fast and losing control, so the cops issued her a citation for failure to maintain control of her motor vehicle. If she ever woke up, she could contest it, but it was the least of her problems. The paramedics lost her twice on the way to the hospital, which was only a few of blocks from the scene of the accident.

The emergency trauma doctors and nurses worked on stabilizing her so she would survive the helicopter trip to the state hospital, which was better equipped to handle her injuries. She was in and out for awhile, but the doctors finally-after nearly calling her time of death twice--stabilized her and loaded her onto the chopper. In a few hours, she was in the Intensive Care Unit. Both hospitals tried contacting Bill, her only known relative, but Bill was a ghost. Since Korla failed to regain consciousness after two days, the doctors went ahead with surgery on her fractured neck. In the end, she came through the surgery fine; her motor responses seemed to be intact, and so they moved her to a private room, but a week passed and still she did not wake up. They monitored her vitals, which were fine, given her condition, and contacted the other executives at her company. The Vice President authorized full medical care as the doctors saw appropriate and he authorized the company to cover all costs. He was sure this would mean a promotion when Korla came to, as it was just the sort of opulent spending that would keep the company in the middle range that Korla liked so much. On the other hand, if Korla died that would also be a promotion, but the Vice President wasn't bold enough to ever even consider knocking Korla off, which is exactly why he was Vice President. As the weeks passed, Korla's ever waking up seemed less and less likely. She was in a deep coma, but the EEG showed a lot of

positive movement, so the doctors remained hopeful. One doctor noted that her brain activity resembled that of a person solving a complex problem or having a very vivid dream. The doctor planned, if Korla ever woke up, to use this case to write an article on brain activity during a coma. This was the most active he'd ever seen and yet nothing could roust her from her state. The doctor, of course, had no way of knowing what, exactly, was happening inside Korla's mind. All he could see were lines on a paper and all he could do was make inferences based on the size, frequency and shape of those lines. He had no way of knowing the adventure that Korla was experiencing inside her coma. Should we do what the doctor could only dream of and examine the inner workings of Korla's dreams? It may be difficult to understand considering the metaphoric and symbolic nature of the subconscious, but perhaps it is worth the effort. It started in a void she understood--although, lacked the word--to be the aether--the unifying nothingness that holds the universe together. It was a palpable darkness and she pushed through it like Indian Jones through the cobwebs in that creepy jungle temple. She came to a point of awareness that she could not define. It was a brightness without light and contained a multitude of Korlas. Each Korla had a point of need. They screamed at her without words, crying for their need. She knew this without physical sense. The only faculty she still had was

a sort of smell. Maybe it was something more primal, like an olfactory sense. It wasn't a specific sense, but she could feel it operating in her brain in that unique place that smells operate--the front center space. She knew, on one level, that her brain didn't work right and that whatever she was wasn't a physical body but a spirit, maybe, or a memory. But she could feel the multitude the same way a person remembers Thanksgiving dinner when they smell turkey. The voices at the point of awareness sensed her as she sensed them. They reached out and screamed and cried and wailed. Each drop of anguish from unfulfilled need from the Korlas-shedid-not-know hit her nose like a full drop of Chanel number 5 and brought up feelings in the center--front of her brain she couldn't quite name. Because these feelings made her want to cease to exist, Korla decided to press on. She reached a fork in the aether and picked the left-handed route. She smell-sensed her way down a winding path that felt like it was flanked by living trees, she wondered if she was Dorothy and this was Oz. She came to another nexus of awareness and again met a conglomeration of Korlas that were her and nother. They feared what she feared, they loved what she loved and she could smell their hatred for the long-dead Dick who had hurt her in ways she could never admit. She sensed their frustration at the killer. Why did he have to be gay? they asked her. She

hadn't thought of that before--that she knew of. He was such a wonderful lover. She loved the way his sweat smelled when it dripped from his forehead to her lips. She loved the way his cock felt when it reached places inside her she hadn't yet discovered alone. She loved to taste his semen. And yet... She knew that it was fake. All of it. She knew he thought of men when he fucked her--because, to be honest, "fuck" was the only word that described what they did. Maybe he even thought of her cousin, Bill. The idea was revolting and attractive at the same time. How could that be? Was she in love with a homosexual? She had never been in love. She had never thought about a man before in any way other than as a sexual object. She had never loved anything about a man except his penis and the muscles that propelled it and yet here she was in agony over this one, diminutive homicidal homosexual. She asked the chorus if she was in love and they responded with a resounding "YES!" How did she always let things get so fucked up? First she couldn't escape Dick and so had to have him killed, now this. She needed a knight, but so far all she'd gotten was the sword and the chivalry. Because she was so disgusted with herself, she moved on. She wandered and roamed and found nothing more to latch onto. She sort of struck out in one direction that felt

strongest, and found herself reaching and edge. When she explored awhile, she realized she was in a room. It was a huge room and went for what might have been light years in every direction and she was at just a corner of it. The room had a floor, but she felt that she be just as comfortable on the opposite side of the floor as she was on her current side. Up and down, left and right were little more than scents, like cookies and chocolate. This room contained an awareness; she could only feel it when she was still. It was a big one, bigger than all the others she'd encountered: it contained all the others and herself. She ambled around, looking for the awareness's location, but nowhere she could go did she find the awareness to be any stronger or weaker than anywhere else. Then it struck her: the room was the awareness. She could smell it engulfing her in every way. The room was not only the awareness, it was creating awareness--her own awareness as well as her being. What was this room? Was it her own mind? If so, where was she--what was she? She asked the room, but it remained silent. She screamed without lungs and the sound bounced off of nothing. She switched tactics and remained quite and still. That's when she heard the tiniest of laughs. It was like a child's laugh, high and fast. It was tiny and singular, but seemed to contain a chorus as well. It was another multitude, she realized. She was just a part of another multitude that

created her and fashioned her to its own liking. It had nearly killed her, she knew, and now it mocked her. It had wanted her out of the way and why? Because it had cared more about the killer and some guy named Bob than about her. She knew this to be a truth of her universe like she knew gravity was true. It had trapped her and wanted her and liked to watch her fuck and plot death, but it needed her gone for now and so she was gone. A tiny seed of hatred sprouted then in her mind. It was a hatred at that multitude that couldn't love her, yes. But it was also a hatred at the killer. It was his inability to love her that made her disposable. It was his inability to need her that made her useless in a story which could only be his own. She hated him at that moment and vowed to cling to her hatred when she awoke. It would be what gave her story, she decided, thrust towards meaning. She never considered that maybe, just maybe, the multitude wanted this to happen too.

9. Bob's Bad Day Bob hadn't heard the news that morning and hadn't really paid much attention to the mess of police cars, FBI cars, ambulances and fire trucks a few blocks from his house. This is why his boss's absence didn't alarm him. He also didn't hear through the office gossip pipeline later that afternoon that speculated that the CEO, Korla Valzjuegos, had gotten into a car

accident and was dangling to life by the barest of threads. You could fill a book with the things Bob was unaware of. The sight of killer entering the office that afternoon didn't alarm him, either. At least, not for the reasons it should have. He didn't look at that short, somewhat pointed-faced man and think, I better run or that guy will kill me, but he should have. The killer was there to fess up to Korla and admit his failure. He'd come too late to catch her. He hadn't checked his monetary supply and would have been quite confused if he had. He hadn't read the papers, nor seen the TV news, but he could have guessed nearly word for word what the story of the day was: nice, pleasant, and innocent family of four brutally murdered, the cops found a suspicious vehicle in the vicinity and are asking anyone with information about this crime to step forward. The names of the victims would have rung only the tiniest of bells with the killer. It was a name Korla would have mentioned from time to time, but never in relation to this job because she was very low key about who she wanted killed and why--it was safer for everyone that way. Everyone but Bob Cooper. When the killer found Korla absent, he set out looking for Bob Cooper. He was going to get this guy one way or another and so one more confrontation probably wouldn't hurt anything. Bob caught a glimpse of the killer coming at him and immediately averted his eyes to his work and started typing diligently. He

was neck-deep in number crunching by the time the killer made his way over to him. The killer didn't know what he would say when he encountered the man; he had long forgotten the content of their previous conversation. Luckily for him, Bob initiated the conversation. "Mr. Jenkins! It's nice to see you again after all these years I finished my level four, isn't that great?" It all came out just like that: one long sentence. This information sort of reminded the killer of what he'd said before. "Cooper, right?" "Yes sir, Mr. Jenkins. That's Bob Cooper, B-O-B C-O-O-P-ER." The killer took out his notepad and pretended to write Bob's name down. Level four? What was this guy talking about? He remembered that Cooper was an actuary, but it had been so long since he'd thought about such things, and besides that, where the hell was Korla? "What level were you before, Bob?" "Well, sir, I was level three but after our visit inspired me to go right out and take the next test, sir. Why I remember it like it was yesterday, I wore a blue shirt..." The killer let Bob ramble on for awhile. He couldn't figure this guy out. He was a level four actuary, which meant very little to the killer except he'd only been a level three a few

years ago. The killer thought, vaguely, that this was fairly slow progress. Where was this ambition that Korla had told him about? This guy seemed about as ambitious as a garden slug. Not to mention the fact that the killer was pretty sure this guy had low-grade retardation. The repetition, the babbling about menial things, that all seemed to fit in with a mental handicap. Then the killer realized it wasn't stupidity that made Cooper babble-well, it was a little bit, but not completely. The fact was, this guy was scared to death. Now, if this guy knew the killer's business with him, he'd have good reason to be scared to death. However, the killer didn't think that was it because if Bob did know the killer's business, he would have run away or called the cops or done something. No, the killer could see that Bob Cooper was scared of him simply because he'd taken notice. Either this guy was some sort of xenophobe, or he had something to hide. This guy liked a low profile, but he had taken, the killer could see, a road that led to low profile on every level. The guy was so low profile that he stuck out like a laundry machine's coin tray, which was always there to whack your arm on because your peripheral vision saw the laundry machine, but always forgot about that metal coin tray coming out. It was like a trick your mind played on you to avoid the big white thing, but forget about the little metal thing until it caught you and hurt you. This "Bob" guy was just

to average to be real, the killer realized. This guy was hiding something. Bob had stopped babbling. For a second the killer didn't know why; then his subconscious told him that Bob had asked a question. "What was that?" "I that acceptable, for the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS). If not, I certainly don't mind taking the next test. It's only that my company doesn't pay for them like most companies do and I'm not sure it would make Mr. Caruther happy." The killer tried to interpret what Bob had just told him, but couldn't make much out of it. "No, Bob. I'm afraid it's unacceptable. At the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) we have standards to uphold. We have deadlines and schedules and numbers and money to worry about and we can't wait for one little FUCK UP like you to get off your ass and fucking take the tests." The killer hadn't intended for his voice to get out of control like that. No one had ever gotten to him the way this guy had. The killer wondered what he was up against. Last night he'd felt rage, real and pure, for this short little bald man and today he couldn't stay focused and had just lost his temper over something he cared not one iota about. Bob, of course, was stunned into silence. The killer thought he could see tears forming in Bob's eyes. Everyone in the actuary's office was staring his direction. This was no

good, no good at all. "So, Bob. Try to do better in the next year, ok?" Bob nodded and the killer beat a hasty retreat. He was almost out the door when an idea struck him. The killer turned around and went back to Bob, whose eyes had never left the killer. "Look, Bob. I'm sorry. I have an idea: why don't I make it up to you by taking you out to dinner tonight? I'll treat you and the whole family to a nice dinner and you and I can talk shop. What do you say?" "Why me, Mr. Jenkins? Why are you taking such an interest in me? I'm nobody." "Chance, Bob. Random chance. Every year we pick one random actuary who's sort of lagging or has fallen through the cracks and we talk to him and see if we can't get him back on course. You see, Bob, when you become an actuary, it's more than just a job, it's a society of friends helping friends. So, what do you say, Bob? Will you let me help you?" The killer could barely see Bob's head move, but it did--in the affirmative. So the killer told Bob he'd pick him up at seven and made Bob write down very precise directions to his house. The killer went back to Korla's office and checked for her, but she had yet to return. He slipped into the small room and went to Korla's desk, picking up the small photo of Bill she

kept there in a simple frame. He touched Bill's image with his fingers. He wondered, not for the last time, where Bill was. On his way out, he told the door man to give him a jingle when Korla returned. The cops were combing the city for him, although not even they really knew that at this point. Korla was AWOL for the moment, but he would find her and talk to her and get his money, then tonight he would kill the Coopers and tomorrow he would leave for Sau Paulo and start searching for Bill.

10. Bill's voyage Bill, it turned out, had driven his rusty gray Buick straight to the airport. The car had stayed there for almost two months before airport security got tired of it and had it towed. Bill had decided to travel to Europe. Since the killer had come by that day in the prison, Bill had thought about far off beaches, sun-warmed wind, and plump women. Bill had started in Amsterdam, which wasn't known for its beaches, but Bill needed a little escapism to start his journey off on the right foot. He ended up getting himself arrested, then getting questioned in a murder that was several years old. When the released him a few days later, Bill shrugged it off and went to the nearest hash bar to smoke up. The place was like most in Amsterdam: full of drunks, weirdoes, whores, fags, and everything in between.

Bill enjoyed his smoke in peace for awhile, but he started to notice a skinny guy with half-red hair was giving him the eye. He almost left. He was about to get up and leave--he was sure of it--but his hands had other plans. They gave the skinny guy a little motion and soon he was joined by the queerest queer in Amsterdam. The guy took a long drag off Bill's rented hookah. "What's your poison?" Bill shrugged and pointed at the bag of marijuana on the table. "Is that Red? That's some good shit. You have good taste-for an American." "Is that so?" The boy winked at him. "Tell me what you know about that boy who got murdered. "Milly, was his name. I didn't know him, but I knew of him. Why did you kill him?" "Maybe I did. It was an American, right?" "Are you going to kill me?" The boy was leaning closer to Bill. Bill could smell perfume. It was lady's perfume and it was expensive stuff. "Maybe." "Make it quick. Stab me in the heart, ok?" Bill turned his head, tired of the game.

"Well, hey, don't get mad. What do you want? I can tell you about that guy, Milly. He was a raging queen. He was the kind of guy asking for it because he always wanted to be in trouble-like he had a victim complex or something. I guess him and some of his friends were at a bar trying to pick up tourists for cash and he met the wrong dude." "The American killed him because this Milly kid hit on him?" "I don't know why the American killed him. Could have been anything, I guess? From what I hear, it may have just been that the American didn't want to pay. Wanted a little free Dutch, if you catch me." Bill turned this information over in his head. "What about you? You want a little free Dutch? I promise not to make you pay if you promise not to kill me." The boy reached out and touched Bill's hand. He knew he shouldn't, but Bill's hands were so rugged and yet beautiful. He couldn't help himself. Bill jerked his hand away as though bitten by a snake. "Fun's over, guy. I got to get going." And leave Bill intended to do. He meant to get up out of there and walk out and not look back. However, his feet wouldn't do it. He stood well enough, but he couldn't make his legs go.

He looked around, confused and the boy stood up and pressed his chest against Bill's. "Come on, big American; dance with me just this one song." The young man wrapped his arms around Bill and held him as the music played. Bill didn't move, but let the man move and sway next to him. When the song was over, the man took Bill by the hand and led him toward a private back room. It was the pot, Bill realized. Someone had spiked his hookah and had turned him into some kind of a queer zombie. He was horrified as he watched himself have sex with the man. He couldn't believe that the drugs could be so powerful. When it was over, Bill was filled with rage. He threw the man down on the bed and started to squeeze the man's throat. The kid looked scared-terrified. The kid struggled and his eyes bulged. He flailed his naked body on the bed and tried to kick and scratch and tear but nothing worked. But before the young man could drift completely away, Bill let go. As soon as he did the boy inhaled and gasped for air. He inhaled so big, Bill felt a breeze. The terror, however, had not left the young man's eyes. Bill pinned the man to the bed and whispered into his ear. "I let you live, but I don't know why. If you tell anyone, I'll come back and kill you like I did Milly." The boy shook his head, tears streaming down his face.

"Will you tell?" The boy shook his head harder. Already bruises had started to appear on his neck. "Good boy." With those words, Bill was finally released from the spell of the drugs. He left the room, pulling his clothes on as he made his way back to the bar. Something was wrong with Amsterdam, Bill decided. He needed someplace quieter. Bill left the bar, then left the city in a rental car. He drove until he reached Luxemburg, Germany. He stayed at a hostel the first night, and then went sight-seeing in the ancient city. He decided the second night to put the incident in Amsterdam out of his head and go pick up a couple of party girls at a dance club. He had little trouble finding a club and less trouble finding the girls. There were two of them: Darnisha and Vivica. They were hot, in Bill's estimation and they snorted coke most of the way back to his room. Luckily for him, they had snorted up most of it when the cops pulled him over for speeding. Since he spoke little German, Darnisha translated for him. It wasn't long before the girl let fly a few choice words, mostly spoken by her friend cocaine, and the whole lot of the wound up in jail. Once they had Bill in jail, the immediately started questioning him for murder. He thought, at first, that this was the same murder that the Dutch police had questioned him on, but

after a little while it became clear that the Germans were talking about a whole new murder. This new murder was almost exactly like the other one. An American male picked up a young, openly gay man in a bar, took him outside to a quiet area, and tore him to pieces like an animal might. Bill was horrified and fascinated by this killer everyone thought he was. This guy was sick and yet untouchable. After the cops were satisfied that it wasn't he that killed the boy, they released him back onto the street. Bill thought for awhile about what kind of man could tear apart two boys in such close proximity and not yet get caught. The man, Bill thought, must be a vampire or a werewolf. He knew he was in the Old Country, where all those stories that had scared him so much as a kid were given life. Maybe such stories had grains of truth to them. Bill thought about what it would mean to be a werewolf. He thought about the hunger and the uncontrollable rage that he would feel when the moon's beams bored into his mind. Lunacy, they called it in older times, when men believed such things. Insanity brought on by the moon, Luna. Bill could feel the raw urge of becoming a beast, of feeling the claws stretch and burst through the ends of your fingers, of feeling your bones crackle and misshape and grow large, tearing teeth. Bill thought it was beautiful above all, and natural. Man was a beast and this killer, this werewolf, understood that.

This werewolf was an arm of Justice, reaching out and ripping the guts from the unworthy and feasting on the spilled blood. Bill went to a nearby library and dug into the newspapers from the time of the killing. He started there with the gruesome descriptions. The victims were all ripped apart as though by an animal. Both victims had had their hearts torn out, wrenched apart and apparently danced on. Bill laughed when he read these accounts. He started combing through papers after the second boy was killed, but he needn't have bothered combing because the next murder and the subsequent murders were all front page news. Each boy was murdered with the same MO, each left heartless, each heart left in tatters. From Europe the killer moved onto Malaysia, Australia, some Pacific islands and the newspapers were on top of it all, collecting the stories and showing the connections and filling people's hearts with fear and terror. Then, one day it all stopped. It wasn't too long after Bill stabbed that guy in the throat during meal time, when he finally broke and became an animal himself that the werewolf changed back into human skin and ceased his rampage. The killer had left few clues. What clues the police had didn't add up to a single living person they could find in all of Interpol. The guy was a ghost, a demon, a shape shifter.

That night Bill repeated his Amsterdam act in a bar not far from where the werewolf had struck. He wasn't the wolf and he had a record, so he left nothing but bruises and fear, but he decided he would follow the wolf's steps and he would try to get inside the head of so perfect a human being as the wolf was. The next morning he drove onto Italy, then back up to Switzerland. Where ever the werewolf struck, Bill was there, seeing the city, smelling what the wolf had smelled, breathing what the wolf had breathed and feeling what the wolf had felt. By the time Bill got to Australia, he felt that he and the wolf were brothers. They were intimate in ways no one else would ever understand. He'd followed the wolf's steps and tasted blood and fear, as the wolf had. The world could never understand the werewolf the same as the world could never understand Bill. Bill could feel himself changing at night. He could feel the power of the wolf inside him, altering his chemistry. His hair grew long and his skin grew thick. He could feel his teeth sharpening to points. Everywhere he went it was the same. Bill was arrested and released. Later he would find a young man, fuck him and choke him almost to death, then leave town as quickly as he'd come. No one thought to look for him, everyone thought only about the werewolf--the cops were disappointed not to have found the wolf and the boys were happy not to have met him. So Bill just kept on going. But as the wolf began to take over him, he

began to feel his hunger grow. He was somewhere in the Pacific when he thought it might finally be time to cross over and become the wolf. Bill went out the night after being arrested with the intention of completing the cycle. He had learned as much as he could from the wolf and now it was time to become the wolf. He sniffed the air as he walked toward the bar. It smelled of spicy food, fire and shit. It was all the things animals are and all that they fear. Bill went into the bar and played it low key. His eyes filtered out the lights and all was amber-colored. He could only see the group of young men sitting in the corner, whispering and giggling to themselves. But the Billwolf wasn't as bold as the werewolf, not quite as much of a ghost. The Billwolf found the loner. The young man who looked unsure of why he was in the place he was in, not sure how he could tell his young wife and young kids back home what all of this meant should they all happen to walk by and see him. Nothing made sense to this man except his desire and desire was something he'd learned to bury long ago. The Billwolf approached the young man as he had so many others. The man was, as the Billwolf had found most to be, utterly enthralled with Bill's hands. When the Billwolf took the man's hand and led him into the street, the man was thinking about what an odd thing to do, and what a strange, other world

he'd found. The man was thinking about how funny it all was and how wrong and scary and sick and funny. It was all so funny, really, not serious at all, like life, but funny like a cartoon or like a strange dream. That's what this all was to him, just a strange dream. The day time, his children, his wife, those were reality. The man seemed to be floating away when Bill touched his penis for the first time, floating into some void where his conscious mind could sleep and his primal instincts could abound. After the sex, the man laid on the bed, like a man who'd achieved enlightenment--like the very Buddha himself--this man looked to be the pinnacle of unworldly peace and separation. The Billwolf would act now. With his hands he would bring this quite, lonely stranger to the gates of Justice's hall and force this man's face into sweet Justice's dirty cunt and make this man lick her juices while her legs wrapped around his neck and snapped it. That's what the Billwolf would have done. That's what the Billwolf even began to do. But before he could break the man's quite contentedness, his own world faded away. Bill felt a sharp pierce in the back of his neck, which at first didn't strike him as very important--incidental, really. Subconsciously, of course, he must have known approximately what the piercing was that he felt. A part of him must have known what was happening even as his body began to shut down. He

wrapped his hands around the young man's throat, but they lacked the ability to operate with any force. His legs gave out, but Bill thought it must be his own conscience kicking is knees in, forcing him to resign to the werewolf's supremacy. He wondered, briefly, what he was doing lying on the ground, but decided it was his own decision, his own attempt at Nirvanic peace. Piecemeal laid there, not fully realizing how he'd gotten there and drifted into dreamless sleep.

11. Bob gets lucky When Bob got home that evening, he was in a panic. It was a dull panic, to be sure, but it was a colossal panic for the likes of an average guy like Bob Cooper. He was sure, convinced, certain beyond any reasonable doubt that he was in the deepest of trouble with the Society. He had a feeling in his gut as he calmly set his bag down by the kitchen table and called for his wife that his time as an actuary was soon over. Debra came in, obviously slightly alarmed by her husband's tone. "Bob? Are you...upset?" She was more flabbergasted than anything. "Debra, I have some bad news. I think the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) is mad at me. I think they want me gone." "Why? Oh, Bob...what?"

"They think I've been slacking off on my testing duties. I tried to explain the situation to their representative, but he wasn't having any of it. He yelled at me and almost stormed out...but then he did something funny." "Like...tell a joke?" "No, Debra, he invited himself to dinner, tonight." "But, Bob...we've will I..." "I know this sounds crazy Debra, but there was something about his Society rep that scares me." "What can they do?" Debra was sitting now, her hand dabbing her forehead with the dusting rag it held. "I don't know. Maybe they can bar me from ever getting into the Society." "Do you want to be in the Society?" "I never thought of it. I guess so. That's what all actuaries aspire to, right?" Debra's answer was a blank stare. She had no idea what an actuary even was. "Regardless, if they bar me, it will probably mean my job." "So that's it? We're done. What happens to us Bob? What do we tell the kids?" Bob took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose where his nose pads sat. "I don't know Debra. I don't know."

Little Jim walked in just then, lunch box in one hand, school books in the other. "Dad, you'll never guess what..." happened at school today was how the sentence was supposed to end. To which is his dad was to reply: I give up, son. What happened? To which little Jim would reply: We learned the neatest things. Like about government and frogs and music and sports. At which point Bob would tussle little Jim's hair and tell him to run upstairs and do his homework before supper. It was, you could say, sort of a routine. Today the routine didn't get its chance to finish. It was the first time this had happened was the first time this had happened. "Jim...sit down, honey." "What's wrong, mom. Is dad losing his job? Is he sick? Do we gotta move to Kentucky?" Jim was terrified of Kentucky. There was no good reason why, but something about the sound of the word made him tremble. The image he had of people from Kentucky was probably the most creative thing his mind had ever come up with. To him, they were covered in sores, missing all but a few teeth and all had white hair slicked back with chicken grease. When the drove past Kentucky Fried Chicken, Jim would quake and fight back tears. Jim was certain that Colonel Sanders was Satan's evil inbred brother. No one knew of Jim's secret fear of Kentucky.

"I don't know, son. I think maybe I am losing my job. It doesn't look good." Fran walked in, then. Her routine was to set her lunchbox (she was really too old for a lunch box, but neither her nor anyone else had noticed yet) down, grab and apple, give her dad a peck on the cheek and head upstairs to listen to the latest pre-teen music sensation on her headphones while she did her pre-algebra homework. Today she came in, assessed the situation and froze. She knew immediately something was wrong because by this time, in all the years they had lived in this house, not once had Jim ever still been downstairs when she got home. She was scared. Terrified really. All of a sudden, though outwardly she changed only slightly, all of Fran's teenage social and sexual development happened. Everything she had never worried about suddenly sprang up in her subconscious; like daisies in sprouting in time lapse photography, they popped through the fertile loam of her inner mind and bloomed. She suddenly felt resentment toward her father and didn't know why. She had the sudden urge to touch a boy's penis. She wanted nothing more in life than to be normal. She felt awkward. Like new shoes, she realized at that moment that she had grown breasts and she folded her arms in front of her because a part of her was certain that everyone was staring at them. She wanted to yell at her mother. She wanted to dress in black clothing, wear dark eye

makeup, dye her hair purple and put on long, fake nails and sit in the back of the classroom, filing her nails to sharp points so she could scratch the boys that turned her on. She wanted to die melodramatically by being stabbed in the chest by the guitar played by that guy from that band that everyone liked so much. She wanted to read about vampires and Satan. She wanted to become a Wiccan. She wanted to look at Lesbian porn when she knew her mother would catch her and then laugh at her mother behind her back when she freaked out about it. She wanted to date older guys because they were more mature. She wanted to be done with high school and study medieval literature in college. But above all, like Mount Everest towers over the plains of India, she wanted smoke pot. Yes, she wanted, at that moment, nothing more than a big blunt full of the stinky. She wanted it bad enough that she could taste it, though until that moment she had no idea that pot was anything else but a device for cooking noodles. All of this, of course, happened in her mind without her consent and almost escaped her conscious mind. However, nothing that intense can stay buried. When her parents saw her not saying anything and saw her folding her arms over her chest, they got worried. "Honey, we have some bad news. We think your father may be losing his job." "So what, are we going to move now or something?"

"M..maybe. Honey, what's wrong?" Fran couldn't control herself. She didn't want to say what she was about to say, but it was as though a new Fran had just been born. Just before she stormed out, she said, in a quiet, but sarcastic tone, "This is so typical." Debra and Bob were astounded. They couldn't believe their daughter had just said what she had said. Debra waited a few minutes, then went upstairs to talk with her daughter. "Fran, can I come in?" "Whatever." Debra opened the door. Her daughter was lying on her bed, reading a teen magazine that Debra was sure she had never purchased. "Fran, honey...your father didn't do anything wrong. He was supposed to take some tests and he couldn't afford to. He didn't want to give up Christmas's and your college fund and all the clothes and things that make you happy--all the things that make everyone happy. He really didn't know they would take this so seriously. It's out of the blue." Fran threw her magazine across the room and looked about ready to scream at her mother, but then the old Fran suddenly woke up, and wondered what had happened to itself. She broke down and started to cry. Part of her was sick at herself for being a pansy little bitch, but the other part of herself couldn't do anything but feel sorry for her dad and for her

family and especially for her own selfishness. She held her mother and they both cried for a few minutes. "Come downstairs honey, I'll make some tea and we'll all talk about this." Debra, as promised, brewed some herbal tea. It was almost five o'clock, but "Mr. Jenkins" had told Bob that the reservations weren't until seven, so they had some time. Bob explained the situation to his family and they took a few minutes to absorb the information. Debra broke the silence. "Bob, I think we should confront this man, and you should lay it all out for him. He must be a reasonable man, surely." "Debra, you don't know how these people work. They're killers. They go around and they tell you what's what and they ruin your life because they can. They aren't human, they're animals--they're like...squirrels or some other animal." "But, surely he can't mean to kick you out of the society...not when you have a family to support." "I guess he does. His demeanor, it was funny. He isn't just coming by to talk shop; I know it. He's coming by and he's going to pull out a gun, a gun loaded with bullets of...failure. Yeah, failure, and he's going to point that gun at my head and he's going to pull the trigger and splatter my...lack of ambition all

over the ground and leave you all to clean up the mess maids." Debra nodded. It was probably the most profound thing she'd ever heard her husband say. He might have said something more profound in college, before she met him, but college was a time of thoughts and growth and LSD, so everyone was more profound, then. Fran first made the suggestion. Fran was the one, the only one, with that spark. No one had seen it before, but it had always been there. She was the one Cooper with potential to be something, anything. That spark was part of why she spoke. The other part was the change. It was the new Fran inside her who really needed a bowl because these other guys were bringing her down. It was that Fran, still quiet, but there. It was the Fran that, in a way, the killer had unwittingly created who suggested, "Why don't we just pack up and blow this town?" Debra and Bob's jaws dropped. They had never even heard of such a thing. They couldn't fathom where their daughter might have gotten any such notion of anything of the sort. This suggestion was insanity. It was illogical. It would be suicide, surely. How could they even afford it? There was the savings and the kids' college funds, but surely those two sources were too important to blow on this adventure, this throwing things into the wind, this complete, utter insanity.

They looked at Jim, who was nodding. "Yeah, if dad's gonna get fired anyway, we might was well do something fun. There's gotta be other actuaries. Like in Florida, New York, California, anywhere but Kentucky." Bob shook his head. "Son, when trouble starts knocking at your door, you don't just pick up everything--" "You know Jim's got a point," Debra broken in. "We've barely ever even been out of this area. It doesn't have to be running away. You've got some vacation saved up, you could just take it now and we could go on a drive, see the land." That was the last straw, then. The vote was three to one and if there is one thing Bob Cooper was above all else, it was a conformer. "Maybe. Maybe you all are right. We have never really done that sort of thing before. What would even do? Where would go?" With that, the Coopers decided to break their dinner date with Mr. Jenkins, call in sick to school (it was nearly winter break anyway) and work, load up the car and just start driving to parts unknown. The Coopers, by mutual agreement and maybe because it seemed to be in fashion that time of year, were going to go on a trip. Spontaneity did not become a family such as this. The very concept was difficult for them to adjust to. For a few minutes after they had made up their minds to be

spontaneous, they all just sat around the table, staring at each other. Fran suggested they should each pack a bag, and quickly so they wouldn't have to explain things to Mr. Jenkins. They did so, but none were really that good at packing. The only reason they even had luggage was because it seemed like something everyone should have. Bob and Jim loaded the car while Debra and Fran made some snacks for the trip. By six thirty, they were on the road to parts unknown. They flipped a coin to decide which direction and ended up choosing south. And so the Cooper's rode into the sunset and never looked back on their old lives and were forever changed by their experiences. But, you're asking. Is that really an example of Bob getting lucky? He didn't so much get lucky as bold. His instinct was to be scared of "Mr. Jenkins" and that was the correct instinct, so that can hardly be luck. Fine. They pulled into a motel a few hours later and a few towns over. Bob was on the verge of panic, to be honest, trying to decide if what he was doing was the right thing when every fiber of his being was screaming at him to go back and return to normal. Debra wanted him to calm down, wanted to reassure him. So, after they had tucked the kids into their room, Debra sent Bob out to get her something from the vending machine. Keep in mind that Bob was really worried and that he might have

turned the whole family around that night even and been back in time to catch the evening news. Keep in mind, also that Bob was, really the only one who felt this way. The rest of them were scared. Debra was as scared of change as Bob, but, in a way, Debra was even more of a slave to routine and so appreciated the break even more than Bob. Fran was scared because something inside her, like an alien, was growing and changing her and she didn't know who to tell or what to do. Jim was scared because the South was where Kentucky was. So, in the midst of all of this fear and uncertainty--but with a sliver of hope that everyone except Bob held out--Debra decided she would do the one thing she knew she could do for her husband as his wife. However, and here's where things alter course, Debra did something she had never done before. When Bob returned with a soda and a bag of pretzels from the vending machine, he realized he had left the key in the room. He rapped lightly on the door and called out for his wife. At first, there was no answer. Then, the door flew open and Debra was standing there in the cold night air, naked. Her skin was covered in Goosebumps and her nipples were like little cylindrical ice cubes, but she had done it: something sexy. Bob hurried inside and closed the door. He tried saying something, but stopped. He started to say something else, but stopped that too. Bob, after all, was a man.

He was a man: a male of the species; thus, he got lucky that night. What Debra and Bob did not know, or did not think about, was the thinness of the walls in that dive of a motel. Although Jim was fast asleep by the time they started making love, Fran was not. Now, don't get me wrong: Bob and Debra weren't loud; you can't expect miracles overnight without the involvement of a thirteenish's hormone level, but they made enough noise that Fran, a relatively smart girl for being a Cooper, figured out. She didn't try to listen, or anything, but she couldn't help but hear. She didn't get disgusted or cover her ears or bury her face in her pillow and make gagging sounds. She listened and understood, then she drifted into sleep with just a slight smile of content on her face.

12. Tim kills the killer The killer was late that night, so the Coopers needn't have rushed in their attempt to flee his assumedly vengeful actuarialness. The killer stopped by a little late to put the Coopers on edge. He had it all worked out. He knew he'd frightened Bob. He knew that he had the upper hand in every context. He, of course, couldn't go to dinner with them unless he wanted to be caught by morning. What he could do, was get there late, make Bob think it was his fault, suggest they all--

to save time--ride in the killer's new Blazer to the restaurant, and then start the office gossip about Bob. He'd get them all good and riled up, then he'd shoot them all, one by one starting with the wife, then the kids. He'd save Bob for last. Bob would have to know his wife died knowing about his cheating. He would have to know, like Caesar, how ambition was rewarded. He would have to have watched his children die for his sins. Then Bob could go to Hell, for all he cared, because the next thing on his list was a plane ride to Sau Paulo, Brazil. Yet. Something felt off about the whole thing. Ambition. Korla had called Bob ambitious, but he couldn't see it. Where the hell was she? He really needed to talk to her. She had a habit of disappearing like this, when people needed her, he knew. Her disappearance wasn't always physical; sometimes she would just let people down, like she let Bill down. Where she was didn't matter, he supposed. He would do his job and carry on because that was what they paid him the big bucks to do. Besides, she'd been monitoring this guy for the past seven years. If she had watched him that carefully for that long and had seen his ambition come to fruit in that time, then who was he to argue? The guy was obviously hiding something. He had no doubts of this. So, if Korla thought it was ambition, she was the boss.

The clock passed seven and the killer pulled out his notepad and started his Blazer up. He went over the directions a few times, and kept the notebook handy as he started over the hill toward the windy, rivery roads. When he reached the bluff and swerved to the left, then turned up the alley and swerved to the right, the house came into view. It was exactly as he remembered it and exactly like the house where he'd killed the other unfortunate family. The difference was, all of the lights in their house were out. This couldn't be right. The killer checked the directions and the address Bob had given him. He went to the next intersection up and doublechecked the street name. Everything was correct, but there was one car missing from the driveway and every light in the house was extinguished. This could only mean one thing, really: they had decided to go ahead to the restaurant without him. That was the one thing that could have short-circuited his plan, but he'd guessed Bob to be too eager to please to do anything like that. Perhaps he was underestimating this Bob Cooper. Was that Lexus following him? The killer knew that this wasn't the end of his plans, by a long shot. He would attend dinner tonight, then kill the Coopers and then he would disguise himself and go to the airport tomorrow to buy a last minute ticket to Sau Paulo under a different false passport. He knew for a fact one of the seats

would be empty, so that would be no problem. Still, things felt a little shakier now and the killer hated when things felt shaky. He pulled away from the house and took the winding route back downtown so he could orient himself and head to the restaurant. At the bottom of the hill, the Lexus was still behind him. It was one of those new ones, black with the annoying blue headlights. The killer could not see inside, even when the car passed under a streetlamp. Whoever it was in that car, he was apparently trying out for Amateur Night at the Apollo in the category of tailing because he was fucking this all up. The killer debated stopping his car and pulling the man out by his hair and slapping him around a little bit. However, he was intrigued as to why somebody this amateurish would be following him and decided to allow it for now. It couldn't be the cops, the feds or even international spies, none of them were that bad at tailing a suspect. Besides, none of them could afford shiny new Lexuses either. The killer got to the agreed upon restaurant and drove around the parking lot--ostensibly for a place to park, but really just to see if the Cooper's car was there. It wasn't. The killer allowed the Lexus to follow him as he parked. Maybe the Coopers had gotten a new car since that afternoon. Anything was possible; it was worth checking out. The killer watched the Lexus in his

peripheral vision as it found a place to park and sat there with the engine running. With a few quick, seemingly casual, movements, the killer checked out every possible point of ambush and saw that he was clear. The guy in Lexus was too amateur to have backup. When he got around to that guy--which he would-that amateur was going to find himself in serious trouble. The killer entered the restaurant and found the hostess waiting. She had her arms folded on the hostess board which showed the table layout. She was blowing her bangs out of her face and letting them settle back down on her forehead, then repeating. When she saw the killer, she brushed her hair out of her face and composed her best fake smile. "Hello, will that just be one for dinner?" "Actually, I have a reservation under Jenkins." "Ok, Mr. Jenkins, party of five? Would you like to sit now, or wait for the other members of your party?" "They aren't here yet?" "No, not yet, sir." The killer paused while the hostess stood suspended in uncertainty, somewhere between showing him his table and awaiting his answer. "You know what? I'm gonna check the parking lot for them, they were right behind me."

"Ok sir!" The hostess was relieved to have meaning in her life reestablished. She settled back into the bang-blowing game as the killer walked out the door. The killer often looked unassuming. Many who saw him thought he was a normal guy with normal thoughts, normal ambitions and normal reflexes. This was a carefully constructed façade. The killer was always assuming, always aware, and his reflexes were superb. This saved his life on many occasions, this being one of them. He saw the object coming and until he was already mid duckand-roll when his brain told him, "bat." The bat clanged off the door and he could hear the echo of the impact both in the parking lot and in the restaurant. No doubt someone--the hostess, more than likely--was coming to investigate and soon the cops would be coming as well. The killer knew two things before he could even properly settle to look at the situation. One was that the bat was aluminum and a solid blow would rearrange the inside of his head. Two was that the attacker was the man in the Lexus. The killer came out of his roll just after the bat impacted the door, sending a violent reverberation into the hands of the assailant--one of the many drawbacks of the metal bat as opposed to the wooden one. The killer, whose feet hand landed firmly planted on the asphalt, fired the muscles in his legs and hit the reeling

assailant broadside, T-boning him and slamming him into the fake adobe wall of the restaurant. The bat fell to the ground and began rolling in an arc, the way bats tend to roll. The killer shoved with his right arm while keeping his left leg where it was, behind the assailant's knees. The man went down and the killer pivoted away, dipping to pick up the bat. Now that the assailant was in a position of weakness: weaponless and prone, the killer had time to assess. The assailant didn't move, knowing himself bested and the killer could see the face of his old compatriot, Tim. "Compatriot" is actually a weak word to describe Tim and the killer's previous relationship. They had worked together, as the word implies, but in an odd way. Tim rarely saw the killer and on the rare occasions he did see him, they never spoke, they just launched into passionate sex. It was the seventies. Free love and mind-altering-drug experimentation was in. The Establishment was the enemy. Things were easier, then, with such a clear foe to fight and such powerful drugs and sex to fight Him (because the Establishment was The Man as well and The Man was always men). Tim always figured that he would be a serial killer, like Jack the Ripper, or a mass murderer, like Hitler and Stalin. He never figured he would be a hired gun. It also never occurred to Tim that he wasn't much of a killer. From the earliest days of shooting

birds with his BB gun to the adolescent years of torturing mice, gerbils and rabbits on up through the tween years when people became the prey of choice, Tim knew he had a gift. He knew how to make pain and he knew how to make life end. He was the opposite of God. He was God's foe. God's foe wasn't Satan. All Satan did was question everything; anybody could do that. God's real foe was destruction and that was Tim: a Destroyer. The killer, from the minute he saw Tim's eagerness to kill and his gross ineptitude at doing so, knew that Tim was a man who could be easily manipulated. Don't misunderstand; Tim was capable of killing. He never shied away from blood and gore. He knew where and how to cut people to make them bleed slow deaths. He knew how to shoot a man to disarm him and how to shoot a man for the instant, silent kill--these parts of the killing game Tim was good at. What Tim was no good at was all the stuff leading up to the killing, and all the stuff after. The killer saw killing as a process. Tim saw killing as an event, like ejaculation. Tim would have been a terrible lover had the killer let him be in control. It would have been wham, bam, thank you ma'am. Tim was all action and no foreplay, certainly no snuggling afterward. Tim's style of sex was also his style of killing. The killer needed a few big names killed in that time and had been working day and night to try and figure out how he

could kill all three without having to leave town as he usually did in between. Meeting Tim was a convenient coincidence. The killer had taken a break from his plans and had gone to a bar to blow off some steam. Barhopping was not something he did often, but occasionally everyone needed a drink. So, he did what most people did in those days, he dropped some acid and went to the nearest disco and got loaded on whiskey and sang out Gloria Gaynor songs at the top of his lungs with a group of drunken fairies. Tim was there, sitting in a back booth, trying to look like this wasn't his scene. The killer knew Tim's type and knew how to handle them. You had to approach as though sex and men were the furthest thing from your mind. The sex had to basically be an accident. Whoops! How'd that get in there? The killer decided he needed the challenge. It was a struggle, but by the end of the night, he had Tim in his car and they were slumped over each other like two 'Nam buddies, singing disco songs at high decibels and out of key. The next morning was when things got weird between them. Tim was a little freaked out when he woke up with a somewhat mousey man in his bed and dull ache in his ass. Tim had no idea who the killer was and where he was. Tim was the kind of guy who only liked men when he was extremely stoned. The killer knew the type, but hadn't guessed it of Tim. So, he was a little

surprised when he woke up to see that Tim had taken one of the killer's ceremonial katanas from its display case and was standing mid-swing at his side, intending to separate the killer's head from his body. The killer had easily turned the tables that time too and had nearly finished Tim then and there, but stopped the blade short of its intended striking point when his brain spewed forth the solution to all of his troubles. Tim had the instincts of a killer. Not a good one, he could see, but one that could make someone, once living, cease to be. The killer had offered to "teach" Tim the art of death. Tim had agreed. Killing the killer's targets, with Tim's help and with Tim to be the fall-guy, had been a cinch. The three Senators had gone down like shooting-range ducks: ping! ping! ping! The killer sicked Tim on the first one, in a location relatively private: a wharf after dark. He had supervised from a distance. When he saw Tim completed the job with clumsy, but adequate, results, he heaped praises on his protégé and had sent him after the second and third Senators the next day in a slightly more public arena. While he watched through the high-magnification scope of his old sniper rifle, Tim went crazy at a carnival and the two men, who had been there with their families (and who were secretly in love, though that isn't why they had to die), wound up dead. The killer had been thankful he hadn't had to

pull the trigger on his rifle, as that would have diverted attention from Tim; although, he had come close to pulling the trigger when Tim beheaded one of the children of the second, at that point the only living, Senator quite unnecessarily, which sent said Senator into a panicky run and Tim, for the briefest of moments, had almost not given chase. True to his lumbering form, Tim had come through and chased the man down, beating him to death with his fists. The whole scene was glorious in its spectacular wastefulness. In the end, he had no idea how he'd talked Tim into doing it. The cops had no trouble arresting Tim and they never suspected Tim was anything other than a stark, raving maniac probably created by Mr. Leary's funny little drug. They put him into a psychiatric hospital and he spent a whopping four years there before they decided he was cured and released him back into the general population for more exciting bloodshed. The killer had visited Tim once in the four years he was locked up. They'd had a private room and hadn't said much, just launched immediately into sex which, as always, the killer controlled. Tim had apologized for forgetting the lessons the killer had taught him and begged forgiveness. The killer had nodded but had told him that he had taught him all he could and that from here on out, he would have to make his own path. Tim

had shed some real tears; the killer had shed some fake ones while trying to bite back laughter. And so, Tim was released and began to thing of himself as a real professional killer--one who had learned from the best. His sole asset, as well as his biggest fault, was that he was a shameless self-promoter. He kept a steady stream of work flowing from people who had no idea what killing was and how to go about hiring somebody to do it. He would do their dirty work, get paid too much for the shoddy service he provided and somehow, in all this time, had managed to avoid getting thrown in jail. He'd started to think of himself as pretty hot shit. He'd started to think he was the best killer in town. The killer saw Tim from time to time and they were always affable, though said little to each other. The killer suspected Tim was overcompensatingly heterosexual these days. He didn't much care; Tim had never been anything more than a substandard piece of ass and a bit of a joke. The killer knew that Tim had figured he was good enough to take the killer out and eliminate some major competition. He figured that was the meaning of horrible tailing and the baseball bat, now that he saw it was Tim lying at his feet. The killer was wrong. Tim struggled onto his feet and rubbed the back of his head, which was bruised from where it had hit the asphalt. "Jesus, man, that hurt."

"Tim, why are you trying to hit me with a baseball bat?" Tim said nothing. "Thought you'd take a swing at 'the best' or something stupid? How many times do I have to tell you that we are not in competition? You have your own clients, your own niche and I have mine. What is your problem?" "It's not that...killer." Tim hated the fact that he didn't know the killer's name. He hated it all the worse because he felt a little dirty and guilty when he was around the man who used to be his lover--even worse because Tim had never been on top once. "I...I knew you'd be a tough one to get. I've learned a few moves since the old days, and I thought it was worth a shot. Guess you learned a few new moves too." The killer had used exactly the same move he'd used twenty years ago when Tim had come at him with the katana. "Then what the hell are you doing? Did someone hire you to come after me?" Tim said nothing. "Tim, don't make me have to slit your throat after all these years, just answer me before the cops get here and arrest us both." As though on cue, they both heard a distant siren. "You see, Tim? Come on, let's take your car--mine's stolen."

"You steal cars? How do you avoid getting caught? I'd probably get caught red-handed doing something like that." The killer nodded, but didn't answer. The truth was, he didn't usually steal cars. But he also didn't buy them from dealers or anyone else who needed a paper trail. They were perfectly legit to the casual observer and all but the most rigorous of police officials. Every car he drove was apparently properly licensed, registered and insured to a person whose name matched the one on the driver's license the killer had with him when he drove that particular car. It was all bullshit, of course. Tim, on the other hand, drove a car registered to him, paid for by him--in cash, no less--and only owned one fake ID, which was just a standard driver's license and wouldn't pass even the simplest of police checks. Tim slid into the driver's seat, leaving the bat on the ground by the door. The bat would be useless in the close confines of the car and he didn't like the idea of carrying around obvious weapons when he rode through public spaces. His knife would suit him fine. The only real way for Tim to get the upper hand was to do something to put his own life in jeopardy, like drive off a cliff, or set off a nuclear device. The killer suspected that Tim was willing to do neither. They drove in silence for a few minutes. The killer realized Tim was taking him back to his place.

Given the free time, he diverted some of his concentration to the question of the Coopers. Where had they gone? If they weren't at home and they weren't at the restaurant, where were they? The killer hoped to get this business done with Tim as soon as possible so he could get back to the Cooper's house and figure out where they went. Tim stopped the Lexus in front of an inconspicuous house. It had two stories, peeling paint and a satellite dish attached to the roof. It was the only inconspicuous thing the killer had ever seen Tim buy. "Nice house." "Yeah, I like to keep a low profile. Wait 'til you see the inside, it is bumping." "I bet." Tim took the killer inside and gave him the tour. The upstairs looked normal and low-key. He then took the killer into the basement, which was a nice billiards room/wet bar. From there, Tim took the killer through a "secret" passageway, which was so obvious that the killer had almost asked about it when the first got into the basement. The passageway led into another large, basement-like room that Tim had converted into a disco club. It had the mirror ball and everything. It was actually fairly spacious, if not gaudy and pointless. "It's so awesome, and it's buried underneath tons and tons of dirt, so we can crank up the music as loud as we want and no

one can hear and complain. It's the coolest thing I've ever done in my life. Say! Do you recognize this place?" The killer scratched his head. He did; it was painfully obvious, but he answered, "No, is it Studio 54 or something?" "No, man. It's that place where I met you: the man who made me what I am today; the man who taught me everything I know about killing folks." The killer nodded at this "compliment" and looked around the place. It was a pretty good replica of that disco where they'd met. The only problem was that the main entrance wasn't soundproofed. He didn't bother pointing this out to Tim, but if a police officer were at Tim's house, investigating something, the man would know exactly where Tim was and what he was doing. Also, the lack of security cameras in the front room meant Tim would have no idea if he were partying and someone came in to set fire to the place. This little disco had no escape route. It was a death trap. Things like that, he supposed, didn't matter to guys like Tim. "Why are you showing me this? Does this explain why you tried to rearrange my face with a softball bat?" "Look, man. I brought you here because I have to ask you...I have to know what your name is. It's been eating me alive for years now. What we had, it was special and I'll never forget it. Please, if you ever loved me, tell me your name."

The killer was slightly touched by Tim's outpouring, but only slightly. "Ok, Tim. I'll tell you my name if you tell me who hired you to kill me." Tim came closer. "Deal." "My name...I haven't told anyone this in years. My name is Timothy Leary." Tim smiled wide like the idiot he was. He bought it like a kid buys gum in a convenience store. "So you can see why I didn't want to tell you." "Totally. Totally, Tim. It's like...being in love with someone with the same first name as you. I can totally see why that would have been awkward for you." The killer nodded, as though Tim had hit the nail on the head. "So..." "Right. The guy who wants you dead." Tim took out his notebook and flipped through a few pages. "Anderson. Milt Anderson." "Who the fuck is Milt Anderson?" "He's this brother of that convenience store dude. You remember? The one I killed." The killer sighed. "And why, Tim, does this Milt guy want me dead." "Well," not that the killer didn't know what was coming, but he feigned attentive interest, "it turns out I know that

guy. So, I killed his brother because he was being a dick, but then I run into Milt at this bar a few nights later. Milt's all crying and stuff and telling me he'd give anything for the head of the guy who killed his brother, since the cops were telling him they had no leads. So, he knows what I do--" "Of course!" "And asks me if I'll look into it. As you know, I know who killed the guy, but I can't tell him that. So a few days later I called him and told him it was this killer friend of mine from way back, but I told him it was a total accident. I told him you were trying to show Marty--that's the dead guy, Marty--how to throw knives and one slipped. I tried to make it into a total accident." "Oh! Thanks, pal." "Yeah, I know--it was going well. But Milt, Milt's kind of a psycho. So he fronts me all this money if I'll track you down and kill you." "It makes perfect sense, really." "I know. So, sorry about all of that. I figured if I could get the upper hand, it would be payday. If not, I figured you'd understand." "Hey Tim, let me ask you something." "Yeah?"

"Did it ever occur to you that I might kill you when you attacked me, before you could tell me this lovely story?" "No, Tim. I figured you would know it was me and you'd go light on me." The killer had to admit he was right about not killing him, but wrong about the reasons. It didn't have anything to do with their past relationship; the killer never killed unless he had to or was paid to, not since his European adventure. "So. This guy promised big bucks to the guy who could find and kill the person who killed his brother?" "Yeah, but don't worry, man. I won't try to kill you. This guy ain't too smart, so I'll just tell him I killed you and we'll split the money, ok?" "Oh yeah? And what makes you think he would believe you?" "That's easy. All we have to do is put some fake blood on your face, snap a few Polaroids and we're done." "So now you want to take my picture?" "Yeah, that cool, Tim?" Tim was already on his way to the DJ stand of his disco where he no doubt kept a Polaroid to document his thoroughly heterosexual exploits in his magical time capsule disco. The killer could never and would never allow his picture to be taken. His image on film meant that there was proof he existed. If such proof were out there, which it was in limited supply--

mostly his fake IDs--the killer would have to have complete control over it. No, this would most definitely not work. But before he could object, Tim snapped his picture from across the room. He then set the photo down on the DJ stand and turned on some low music. "You remember this tune?" It was the song playing when the killer had first introduced himself to Tim. "It's such a beautiful song, isn't it?" The killer let Tim snap a full picture of his face. The more pictures Tim took, the easier, the killer supposed, it would be to justify killing him--an act which seemed increasingly likely. Tim came up close the killer and snapped another picture. He pulled it out and let it float to the shagcarpeted floor. "We had some good times, didn't we? Although, I think this is the most we've talked since we met, Tim." The killer nodded, but said nothing. "You ever take pictures of yourself when you're...doing it?" Doing it? The killer shook his head. His anger and annoyance were definitely taking an upswing.

"I have a video camera, too. You ever taped yourself before. It's probably the most erotic thing I've ever experienced." Tim snapped another picture. He was circling the killer now. He leaned over and whispered in the killer's ear, "I want you, Tim" as if it weren't obvious. The killer wandered over to the booth that was the replica of the one he'd met Tim in years ago. It did bring back a certain swirl of nostalgia. He sat down. "Ok. That's perfect. Slump your shoulders and lay your head on the table. That'll look good." The killer did so and Tim snapped another picture. "Now, sit up, but slump down in your seat, like you were stabbed in the gut and finally gave out." The killer did so and Tim snapped another picture. Tim was standing across the table from the killer, looking around the room. "One more picture ought to do it, one good one. I wonder if we have anything around here that would look like blood." The killer let his knife fly in response. The knife hit Tim in the throat and blood jetted out onto the wall behind the killer's back. It would have been the perfect shot. Tim struggled briefly, fell to the table, and then slid to the ground. The killer shook his head. It was kind of a shame, but

the killer knew Tim needed to be killed. He knew people like Tim gave professional killers a bad rep. He knew that people like Tim were begging for death or imprisonment. Yet, as he retrieved his knife and began gathering the pictures Tim had taken, he couldn't help shake the feeling that he'd done something wrong. He set the stack of pictures down on the table and bent over to peer into Tim's glassy, dead eyes. Had there been something there the killer had loved, once? He couldn't see it now, but he could almost feel it. Then he saw Tim's hands. They were calloused and thick, yet long and graceful. They were Bill's hands. Or rather, Bill's hands were Tim's. The killer stood up as though struck. He quickly diverted his mind from the flood of possibilities that flowed into his consciousness by burning the Polaroids one by one until he was sure his image was forever gone. He came to the last one in the stack. It was the one where his head had been resting on the table. He couldn't see his face in this picture. He wasn't thinking, but he moved the flame away from the picture. He placed it on Tim's chest, and backed away. The killer rubbed his temple, a headache had begun to form there and it felt like a tiny needle pricking the brain beneath the soft point in his skull. Killing Tim should have been easy. It was something he should have done that day at the carnival, all those years ago, after Tim killed the Senators. In fact,

when he thought about that day, it hadn't been the Senator he'd had in his sights at all. It had been Tim. He could see, in his mind, the crosshairs highlighting Tim's head as Tim went down for the killing blow on the Senator, reared up and crashed back down with his fists for effect. He should have pulled the trigger, then. He should have ended Tim then, but he hadn't. He'd let him go on and on living his own life. The killer left the house in a hurry, preferring not to think about why it was he had done that.

13. Cat and Mouse and Dog Bob's house was deserted. Things were obviously messed up, as though the Coopers had left in a hurry. Clothes drawers were open. Toiletries were gone. A half-empty bottle of shampoo lying on the bathroom floor told the story. Doubts of Bob's potential innocence waned in the killer's mind. Bob had known something was coming. Bob had been ambitious, after all. Why else would he leave? In an ironic way, the killer was even more resolved to kill the Coopers. Of course, he probably would have killed them anyway. In a way, the situation was like a witch trial; the accused died either way, it was all a matter of severity. The killer searched for some indication of their destination. For a while, he found nothing. The maps were all secure in their positions with no extraneous marks. The travel books were all

still in the office, un-creased with bindings unbroken. Notes about hotel reservations, if they existed, were all with the Coopers. Plane tickets, if they had chosen that route, were not unremembered. The killer saw the personal computer and at first thought nothing of it. He was not shy around the machines, but recently, due to the efforts of Microsoft, they had become ubiquitous and it was easy to forget that people used them for everyday things now. After fruitlessly searching the house, it finally struck him to give the computer a try. He fired it up, which, since it was powered by the newest in Windows technology, took forever. Q: Why did an average family like the Coopers have a computer so early in the decade? A: Because everyone was getting the newest and best computers in those days and the Coopers always followed, though not consciously, trends and fads. The program on the startup bar was a map program from Rand McNally which had come with the computer and which Debra, in her infinite cautiousness, had consulted before the family had left. Unfortunately for her, she was still confused about the difference between the old Windows "dash" button at the top right and the new Windows version. She thought, like a lot of old Windows users, the "dash" meant that the program was closed. It didn't, that was not the "x" button's function. So, the

killer maximized the program and brought up a graphic depiction of their entire trip. They didn't appear to have a particular destination in mind. They were heading south, then through Kentucky, on to Georgia, up to Maine, and back across Canada. All the motels were marked with big red stars. The killer printed out this information on the Coopers' new inkjet printer. The printer, like the computer's boot up, was painfully slow. It was go-makea-sandwich-eat-it-and-brush-your-teeth-after slow. Once he had the printout, he looked for keys to the second car. They were nicely hung on a board that was in the shape of the word "KEYS." It seemed like a safe bet that the Coopers wouldn't have reported their car stolen, considering they were planning on coming back home. Of course, that depended on how much Bob knew about the killer and his methods. The killer suspected it wasn't much. He was making a bit of a gamble, but his instincts told him it was a safe one. As the killer opened the door that led to the garage, he heard a "yip" from the back yard. He pulled out his pistol. Never forget the dog. He had neglected the dog. Now he might be in trouble, depending on how cautious the neighbors were. The killer peeked out a darkened window and saw a blissfully ignorant dog sitting on the ground, chained to one of those hanging cords that let him run the length of the yard. The dog's

tail was wagging. The killer opened the window slightly and slipped the barrel of his silencer out the crack and took aim at the dog. Pow, and the dog would be gone, erased from its mediocrity and its ugly, mongrel existence. But the killer couldn't do pull the trigger. The dog just wanted to come inside and warm up. He was a little angry at the Coopers for forgetting the dog. The dog was obviously good-hearted, not dangerous, and completely dependent on its masters. The dog had a certain dullness in his face--the same dullness he'd seen in Bob's face-that told the killer that this animal was stupid. It was incapable of scrounging and finding food the way most dogs could. It lived from bowl to bowl on kibble and kibble alone. The killer knew it would be a crime to kill the dog. He looked out the door, into the garage. The Coopers' second car was one of those generic, tan cars you see everywhere. It had four doors and a large back seat. Unless the dog was a serious barker, the killer doubted it would cause him any problems. He didn't like x-factors, but at least he could give it a lift to a farm house and let it go free. That wouldn't hurt anything, surely. The killer felt a foreshadow lurking. His instincts screamed for him to either leave the dog or put it out of the coming misery of starvation now. He decided if he was going to kill the dog, he couldn't do it from a distance. He would have to look the dog in the eye, apologize and then take

it down easy. He couldn't be a coward. The killer went to the back door, one of those large, glass ones, and slid it open. He stepped out into the crisp autumn air. The dog whimpered once, but stayed seated and wagged its tail. The killer's gun hung loosely on at his side as he approached the shivering animal.

14. Bill Wakes up and Smells the Coffee Bill woke up and was certain he smelled the aroma of coffee brewing. Folgers. Columbian blend. A strong pot, too. Bill was a connoisseur of cheap coffee. Not realizing he was tied up, Bill tried to stand to fix himself a cup of brew. He was tied to nothing in particular, only bound up, so when he tried to stand, the result was that his bonds tightened, which made him reflexively jerk. This put him right on the floor. Realizing his situation, Bill struggled to his knees and surveyed the room. It was a dirty little bedroom and he'd been sleeping on a fleainfested mattress--or had been, until his recent acrobatics. Bill struggled to his feet and flopped down on the edge of the mattress. He couldn't quite remember how he had gotten there. He remembered hunger. He remembered arousal. He remembered someone called "Billwolf." None of that mattered too much. All that mattered now was that somebody wanted him bound and present. This meant he wanted to be unbound and absent.

The ropes were sisal, so they were flexible, but coarse. He worked them for a few minutes, and his wrists began flaring with raw pain, but the ropes started to loosen. He could foresee freedom in his near future--freedom was tangible, if painful. He could taste freedom, smell it a little. That's when the voice behind him spoke. "Keep it up and I'll tie you with barbed wire." Bill sprang up like a thirteen-year old who'd been caught masturbating. Of course, most thirteen-year olds didn't have their hands and their feet tied when they were doing the deed. Bill went down on the floor again. He heard a laugh from the same voice who'd given him the start. The laugh was nice enough. The voice was a woman's and the laugh had a throaty/giggly quality that seemed to start normal and increase in pitch, ending on a perfect fifth from its tonal center. Before Bill could struggle back to his feet, a pair of pointy-toed boots appeared next to him. Two strong arms pulled him to his feet. This woman was built like a tiger, sleek and powerful. Bill, though women didn't do much for him anymore, couldn't help but be aroused by her right away. She commanded arousal. He felt, on some level, that it was a choice between being aroused and being beaten to death--which was not an altogether unpleasant thought, either. He felt like a kid

standing next to a porno star. He was flushed, for Christ's sake. She shoved him into a sit on the bed. She spoke again. He could hear a slight accent, but couldn't place it. "You are wondering why you are here, tied up-yes?" Bill nodded: that summed it up. "I will tell you." His ears perked in anticipation, but he couldn't bring his eyes up to meet hers. "But first I will ask you: What were you going to do to that young man?" "Fuck him, I guess." "You already did that Bill. What were you going to do next?" Bill thought hard, trying to remember what she was referring to. It came back to him in chunks like puzzle pieces snapping into place and revealing the picture: the boy, the Billwolf, all of it was clear now. "Kill him." "Why?" Bill shrugged. She waited for more, but that was all he had.

"So, you've been tailing a serial killer, going where he went, seeing what he saw. In each place you are arrested, freed, and then you go out and strangle a young man." "No. No, I never killed anyone. I just roughed them up a little." "But you were going to kill this man--why?" "Still don't know. I guess it seemed right." "Did you know your cousin has been in a coma for a couple of months now?" "Who? Korla?" "Yes, Korla." "What happened to her?" "Bill, you say that as though there is animosity." "No animosity." The woman waited for more; it came. "She could have saved me some trouble awhile back, that's all." "You mean: she could have given you a job which may have kept you out of the drug trade which would have kept you out of prison." "Uh...yeah." "You see, Bill, we know. We know more than you could possibly know. But that's all beside the point; let's go back to your cousin. She is in a coma and the doctors are not hopeful of any return to consciousness, I'm sorry to say. Now, we care not two shits for your cousin and less than that for you.

"The person we are interested in is a man you know only as the killer." "The killer? What do you want with him?" "That is no concern of yours. What is of your concern is that your cousin was one of the people who knew how to get a hold of the killer. There were others, but they kept popping up dead of mysterious causes." "Like heart attacks and poison and stuff?" Delusions of global conspiracies popped into Bill's mind, conspiracies that didn't even brush the surface of the truth. "Like gunshots, knives in the throat...something we'll just call 'number 3' because it is too disturbing to describe." "Oh, Dick. Yeah, you can thank Korla for that mess. That was just plain evil." "I suspect that the killer didn't mind people who knew him disappearing, but until recently our employer didn't care. We always had Korla to rely on for the information." "Korla knows you guys?" She smiled a smile that you might give to a two-year old who had just called God "impotent." "No, Bill. No one knows us. But we have many ways of getting information we need. Back to the point: we need now to contact the killer. You know how to do that, right?"

Bill scratched his head--or would have if his hands hadn't been tied; it really turned into more of an eye-poke face-smack. "Bill, you don't know how to contact the killer?" "I used to, but that was a long time ago." "We thought as much, but we have a backup plan." Bill raised his eyebrows in the universal expression of inquiry. "We turn you in as the serial killer the cops have all been searching for. The killer will come to help you because of two things. 1) he will feel guilty that you are being accused of a crime he committed. This normally wouldn't upset a man like him except for 2) he is in love with you." Bill needed a moment. The woman allowed him to take it. The killer was the werewolf? Where did this guy find the time? Had he been tracking the killer the whole time? Had he felt something more than admiration for the werewolf? Now that Bill was making some serious reflection, he had had to admit to himself that he had not been going around thinking the werewolf was a woman. So, what did that mean? Was he a homo? Bill replayed the adventure in his mind. Things were all out of whack. Something occurred to him: "It won't work. I've been cleared everywhere."

"Bill, our employer has resources you couldn't imagine. It won't be difficult for our employer to set up some new evidence, tip the right people and build a conviction against you. This is the Old Country. Things work well for those with large resources." "Who is this guy?" "Why do you assume it is a man? It doesn't matter. S/he is an artist, Bill. THE artist. S/he can make things happen. Big things. Assassinations and nuclear accidents. Plane crashes and terrorist attacks. Earthquakes, Bill. Given the right conditions he can make earthquakes." Bill tried to remember the name of even one artist, but all he could come up with was Picasso, and Bill was pretty sure that guy was dead. "Its not...Picasso, is it?" "Picasso has been dead for twenty years, Bill. And Picasso was a hack compared to the artist. The artist is a painter--yes-but more than a painter. He's a sculptor--yes--but more than a sculptor. He is a...tinkerer. And, Bill, he's decided to tinker with you and your boyfriend." Bill blushed. "I like women." The woman smiled. "Are you coming onto me, Bill?"

Bill blushed deeper. What was this power the woman had? She was like Aphrodite--she was walking, breathing sex. Bill couldn't wrap his mind around it. The woman pushed Bill, still deep in thought, down to his back. "Let's find out together, Bill. Let's see who you really are. Soon you'll be back in prison where all you will have to choose from is fresh meat and queers--and your boyfriend won't be there to buy your protection this time." Bill shook his head as though to shake loose crumbs of thoughts from his brain. Maybe he was just trying to make his thoughts line up, trying to shake them around until they landed in the right combination. The woman loosened the bonds on his feet and hands. He knew she felt perfectly safe. He was powerless beside her. He knew she could kill or incapacitate him in a dozen different ways with only her tongue; if she happened to have concealed weapons, she was invincible. She slid his pants down his legs and gripped his penis, which was already prepared and had been since he'd first laid eyes on the woman. Then she ripped off her own clothes straddled his head, rubbing herself on his face. He made feeble attempts to pleasure her, but she was doing fine on her own and climaxed quickly in that position. "I always come first, Bill. I am the woman." When she moved off his face and straddled his penis, a strange thing happened to Bill. All he could see as she slid him

into her, was the man he'd almost killed. The images popped into his mind on their own and he relived the experience of the sex he'd had before he'd almost killed the man. That ended and the woman returned. She was wrapped in pleasure, but she looked him squarely in the eye. Her hazel eyes changed, morphed into an ice blue. Her elegant nose shrank and spread. Her full lips thinned and her long blond hair fell away like molting bird feathers to reveal the coarse, curly braid of the killer. Her skin bronzed and her stature shrank. Bill climaxed, almost in self-defense from the strangeness he was witnessing. The woman leaned in close to his ear. She was herself again. He could feel her lips brushing the hair of his ear. "Now you know, Bill. I'm like a divining rod for your fantasies. I could smell and hear them as you lived them. I know what just happened as well as you do. You just fucked a goddess and all you could think about was your precious little killer." She raised herself. He could see her eye smeared by a tear which had puddled and spread and filled the minute crevices of her face. "I...I'm sorry." "I should kill you, Bill." Bill had no response. She was probably right, but... "But the artist wouldn't like that, Bill. What he could do to me is much worse than simple death." Bill nodded.

"Don't worry, Bill. I don't hate you. You are how you were made to be. We are all what the artist made us to be."

15. Great America The killer would have caught up to the Coopers the second day, but he didn't realize they weren't fleeing him; they were on vacation. He couldn't have anticipated them stopping at Six Flags over Middle America for a little late-season amusement. He also was nervous and in a hurry because he kept having to stop to let the dog--whose bladder and colon were the sizes of a peanut and an acorn, respectively, but whose appetite was nearly equal to the killer's own--out to relieve himself. These postponements, though minor, ate the killer's sense of security and kept him driving faster than he would otherwise. This whole letting the dog live and taking it with him thing still ate at his conscience and his comfort. Something stank about it beyond the dog's breath. To be fair, the Cooper's didn't anticipate their stop either. They were just passing by the amusement park, assuming it was closed, when Jim happened to notice that the electric billboard out front was advertising a "Warm Weather Winter Blast." For this one day all the rides that could be open were. There was no snow and the temperature had been mild for almost a week, so the park had opened to scoop up one last gob of money.

Actually, despite the somewhat desperate-sounding advertisement, the park was open one day after closing season every year so the place was surprisingly--to the Coopers, at any rate--packed. Fran, with her newfound adolescence, would have, only a day before, loved to spend time with her family. Now, she was embarrassed by the lot of them. She hated the way her dad rubbed his head and constantly played with his glasses. She hated her mom's perpetual smile that could have been painted there by a prescription drug company to make her a walking poster-child. She hater her little brother's general lack of knowledge and sophistication. He was a child and probably always would be, like her father. As soon as they were inside, Fran asked her father for some money so she could go get cotton candy. All he had was twenties, so he gave her one and sent her off. She took the money and as soon as she was out of sight she ditched her family and ran. Fran was fiending. She needed to score a J or a bowl of something sweet to hold her over until she could get a real hookup. She figured it would be difficult and dangerous to find anyone with pot at a place designed primarily for kids and families. She underestimated the drawing power of roller coasters to potheads. She saw a group of teens slightly older than her and approached them with a confidence unbecoming of a Cooper.

"This place sucks without some herbal supplements," she said. They sized her up and decided--and this is probably the first time this had ever happened to a Cooper in Fran's immediate family--she was cool. They opened up the circle to allow her. They were in the midst of passing a joint when she'd approached them, so they incorporated her into the cycle easily. There were four of them. A tall boy, a shorter kid with a teenager's moustache, a chubby kid who looked a little like Jon Voight, and a skinny girl with too much eye shadow who had dyed her hair black. They didn't bother introducing themselves: everyone was too stoned for formalities. The tall kid passed her the half-smoked joint. She took a long drag and held it as though she'd been doing so her whole life. She passed the joint to the Jon Voight kid and well after he had coughed and sputtered and passed, she blew out a stream of now-thin greenish smoke. The buzz hit her immediately. She felt like her eyeballs had detached and were floating just in front of her face. She bullshitted with the group a little until the joint got to her again. They were all from the nearby town, one of those suburbs of one of those large Middle American cities. Getting stoned and riding the coasters at Winter Blast was a yearly tradition for them and had been since junior high. It was a tradition passed

down from previous classes and that they would soon pass down to the upcoming classes. Fran took her second drag and passed. The Jon Voight kid got the last nip from the roach and dropped the joint on the ground, stamping it out with his foot. Fran's head was lighter now, her neck felt too weak to support it, even as it seemed to defy gravity. She tried to walk, but her knees buckled. She recalibrated her body with a jerk and turned, lifting her right foot three inches off the ground, moving it forward six inches, and setting it back down on the ground toe-first. Success. The Goth girl slapped Fran on the back. "Good job. Let's go hit the Cyclone: it's wicked-cool when you're high." The others laughed in agreement. Fran nodded, took another cautious step forward and realized it wasn't so hard when you just realized that it wasn't ground you were stepping on, it was clouds: clouds of atoms unified by unknown principles to resemble solids, in sufficient quantities. The clouds were unstable. That was the secret: the instability of that which you had previously thought was solid. The cloudiness of reality was truth, the solidity was a lie. She knew further that if she could concentrate hard enough, she could see the overwhelming nothingness that constituted reality. A little more and she

could see the gaps in herself and she would be able to alternatively step through solidity and make solid the fluid. Her new-found friends looked back at her. She was staring at the asphalt--that mixture of tar, rocks and general slag--as though it contained accusations against the most integral parts of reality. "Quit tripping, small-fry, we'll show you reality--we'll show you fear in a handful of coaster restraint bar." Not poetic, perhaps, but convincing. Fran walked, increasing her pace as the secrets of walking on solid ground revealed themselves for the first time. The Cyclone did deliver the spiritual experience promised. Everywhere Fran looked as they loaded into the cars, she saw a thin veneer of reality filled with infinite gaps. How could such emptiness suspend them from the ground? They'd die. They'd plummet. The thought of impending death that the hands of an insubstantial universe made her, for the first time, doubt the existence of a god. The strong and weak bonds of atomic attraction that was really just a specialization of the electromagnetic field created by all matter--which, being thirteenish, Fran could neither define nor name, but only know intuitively--was her god. A fickle god it was. Because her god was neither omniscient nor omnipotent, it had no chance of answering prayers or appeals.

So she screamed as the coaster fell. She screamed out of fear, yes, but not fear of mortality. She screamed out of fear of the universe which cared nothing for her and which allowed itself to be nothing but vast emptiness broken up only slightly by a few bits of almost nothing. She also screamed in rage against the universe which let people believe those bits of nothing was matter when it was really emptiness. She screamed in fear of losing space. The space, which she must accept as reality, was being pressed against itself, squeezed against the back of her seat. If the space closed in on itself, then she would become a white dwarf, spinning and destroying everything around her, ripping apart space-time. She screamed because a part of her wanted that space gone, wanted the world to be swallowed by the singularity formerly known as "Fran." After the second plummet, she began screaming in joy. The coaster was giving her a feeling like an orgasm composed entirely of THC and adrenaline. When the ride jolter her at the end of its prescribed route, the orgasm finished and she turned to the Jon Voight kid, who had unwittingly taken the seat next to her. She grabbed his face in her hands and kissed him. He reacted like a person ambushed. He did not kiss back--he was incapable of responding quickly enough to do so if he had wanted to. He let her shove her tongue into his mouth and when it ended he felt used.

Gloriously, splendidly, magnificently used. He had been used. Fran had used his lips and his mouth to transfer her joy and excitement to a new medium. It hadn't taken long and when it was over, she flew from her seat and rejoined the long line to get back on the Cyclone. The Jon Voight kid trotted up behind her and stood there, unsure if what had happened united them in anyway. He brushed his hand intentionally against hers, and she latched onto it with her own hand without acknowledgement. None of this was the amazing part of this situation. The Jon Voight kid was just lucky in the seating arrangement; Fran would have kissed whoever was next to her. What was more amazing was that the tall kid was jealous of the Jon Voight kid. He could imagine himself being the one kissed and like the image. That wasn't the half of it. The mustachioed youth was also jealous. The Goth girl was too. In that one moment of youthful sexuality, Fran had gained--to use a very un-Cooper-like word--charisma. She had gone in an instant from a small-fry of unknown origins to the dominant personality of the group. She rode the Cyclone again and when she went back for thirds, the others followed. From there they went, with Fran leading, to the Swinging Galley, the bumper cars, the carousel, the house of mirrors, two other roller coasters and the spinning G-force chamber where, if the mustachioed kid had had anything

in his stomach, he would have hurled. Finally, she used her twenty dollars to treat the four of them to hotdogs. This was where--much to her vexation--she ran into the left-behind Coopers. They seemed mildly worried when they saw her. Bob asked, "Honey...did you find the cotton candy stand?" "Yeah, dad. Look, we're going to watch the fireworks over in Liberty Land. Catch up with you guys after, ok?" All Bob could say in response was "Ok." The four kids traipsed off with no further words of introduction or explanation. Bob looked at Debra for help. She shrugged and got in line for a milkshake. Bob decided that there was no reason to worry. Fran had never led to them before; hence, there was no reason to think she would do so now. In Liberty Land, the tall kid produced his second and last joint. He lit it and the passed it as the fireworks began to pop and expand in bursts of white-hot color. When the joint was done, Fran stood and took the Jon Voight kid's hand. The others looked on as she led him away from the crowd. The tall kid wished he were shorter. The mustachioed kid wished he had shaved his ridiculous moustache before going out today. The Goth girl wished she were a boy. More than that, she wished she were a girl and a boy at the same time. She wished she could choose what she was and that when she fell in love she could be the sex

that would most appeal to that person. Life was unfair. So many people to love, only one sex to love with. As the grand finale began, Fran and Voight-boy found a quiet wooden bridge across a concrete canal filled with giant carp. She turned him toward her and kissed him. This time he was ready and kissed back. She was still the leader and he but the second, but it was the most exciting thing he'd ever done. During the kiss she took his right hand and put it on her left breast, which, since yesterday, had started to become a living organism of its own complete with its own desires and motivations. Both of them were beginning to grow like caterpillars growing in their cocoons, quivering and expanding and changing into something new and beautiful. When the fireworks ended, Fran pecked the boy on the cheek and started to walk away, toward the parking lot and her family. "Wait! My name...your name....I...." Fran turned and blew him a kiss. It sealed his lips. None of it mattered. There was no way for her to stay and no way for him to go. He could still taste her lips and her tongue as he made his way back to his friends. He could still feel her breast in his hand. She tasted like Mary Jane and felt like a goddess come down to bless his fantasies. He sat down on the knoll his friends were perched on, saying nothing to each other, only staring where the fireworks

had been. The tall kid relit the roach and passed it carefully to the Goth girl, who hit and passed it to the mustachioed kid. He hit and passed it to the Jon Voight kid. Voight-boy hit it and hit it again. Then he stamped it out on the grass. "That was some good shit." Fran made it back to the car before her family. They were relieved--though never sufficiently worried--when they saw her. They loaded into the car. No one said anything until they were almost out of the parking lot. Then Debra, as though she was an actor remembering her lines, said, "Everyone have fun?" Everyone nodded but said nothing. Debra looked at Fran. "Honey, what is that smell?" Fran, still stoned and on the verge of sleep, responded without hesitation, "Did you guys have the hotdogs?" "No." "It's the hotdogs. Nasty things. I think I'll quit eating them." "Ok, dear," said her mother. That was that.

16. Nipped in the Bud The killer stopped at a truck stop, let the dog, whom he'd named "Stupid," out to pee, loaded the dog back up and went inside to get himself some caffeine and nicotine--stay awake medicine. He was still an hour two away from the next red star

on his map. He had no idea that the Coopers had stopped for the night a few hundred miles back. The killer stepped into the bathroom and took a leak in the dirty, foul-smelling urinal. A man beside him wearing a red baseball cap and a flannel shirt gave him a nod when his eyes drifted from the usual focal point. The killer nodded back, then let his eyes settle back on the matter at hand. The man next to the killer spoke. "You need some smoke or something?" The killer shook his head. "I'm good." "You know where to find me." The killer looked around the bathroom. The guy looked to be peeing and looked to be a trucker. The killer doubted the guy would still be here in two minutes, let alone two hours should the need for pot or crack take him. Odd. The killer zipped up and left. The next day at almost exactly the same time, Jim walked into the same bathroom and used the same urinal. He was peeing quietly when the voice next to him sounded. "You need some smoke or something?" Jim looked up at the man. Then he looked around the bathroom. The man had spoken to him but Jim hadn't understood the request. "Excuse me?" "Smoke. You want something to make you feel alright?"

"I feel fine." "This will make you feel even better, I guarantee it." "But I don't feel bad." The man relented. "Whatever kid. You're daddy or mommy needs some smoke, you tell them where they can find me." "Ok. My parents don't smoke though." "Yeah, right. Me neither." "Smoking causes cancer." "What are you, a Partnership for a Drug Free America?" "No, I'm Jim." "Get out of here kid, before I knock your block off." Jim flushed the toilet, too dumb to be scared and skipped out the door, making a "squeak-squeak, squeak-squeak" with his shoes as he went. Jim almost ran into his sister as he exited the room. "Fran, some guy in there is selling smoke. He wanted me to tell you." Fran's eyes widened. "Who is it? What does he want? Does he know me? Why would you think I smoke? What the HELL have you told mom and dad?" Jim physically ducked the fury of questions. "He said he was selling smoke and if I knew anyone who needed it, I should tell them. I know you smoke because I saw you smoking with those

kids during the fireworks. I wouldn't rat you out, Fran. I'm your brother." Fran shoved him. "I don't smoke, I was just being polite. Don't tell mom and dad. Go on, scram you nosey little punk." She shoved him almost playfully. He laughed at the game he thought they were playing and scrambled away. She smiled as he left until he was out of sight. Then her face dropped and she slipped into the men's bathroom. The man with the red hat and flannel shirt was standing at one of the urinals as he had been all this day and yesterday. Fran went up to the urinal two away from his and pretended to pee. "You're in the wrong room girlie." "That's not what I hear." "That so? What did you hear?" "My brother tells me you're the man to see for all my lungpolluting needs." "That may be. You got to show me the green before you get the green." Fran took out a twenty dollar bill and put it on top of the urinal casually. "That all you got?" "What can I get for that?" "Only a couple of Js. Of course, we can work something out for more, if you're willing."

Fran, not quite as savvy as she pretended to be as yet, couldn't imagine what the man meant. "What do you have in mind?" "There's an empty stall, there. We go in, you make me feel good and I hook you up." Fran recoiled, grabbing her twenty dollar bill. "Ew. That's gross. I'm only, like, thirteen you know." The man laughed. "Don't get your panties in a ruffle, girlie. Give me the twenty." She held the money out like it was tainted. His hand moving as fast as a hummingbird wing, he made the twenty disappear and made five joints appear in her hand. "I threw in an extra because I like you, girlie. You got spunk; although, I could have given you a little more." Fran stuffed the joints into her jean pocket and left, glancing once over her shoulder at the laughing man to make sure he wasn't following her. She made it to the door unmolested and b-lined for front door and the car. Apparently she would have to be cautious when it came to people who dealt in drugs--they weren't all as nice as the ones she'd met at the amusement park. Fran's family was still inside when she got to the car. She opened her purse and took out her makeup case. She took the lipstick tube out of the cute little holder she had and inserted the joints in its place. She dumped both things back into her purse. She couldn't wait until they got to the motel.

Just ten hours previous to the Coopers arriving at their motel, the killer packed his car and left the same motel. He'd waited there and the Coopers had never shown. He decided either they were making good time, they had changed courses or he was now ahead of them. He decided he would drive to the next motel, and wait three days. If they showed up in that time, he would have them. Otherwise, they would be so far ahead of him, he could cut to the northwest and intercept them that way. It wasn't pretty, but tracking people was not a pretty business. He drove off after letting the dog take a shit in the parking lot and away he went to wait it out. By the time the Coopers pulled up it was dark and they were all tired. Bob got them two rooms, like they had done at every other place. Everyone went right to bed. Fran pretended to sleep for a few minutes until she was sure Jim was asleep, then she snuck out the front door and lit up one of her joints. She had the whole thing to herself, but she promised herself only to smoke enough to catch a buzz, then to put it out and save the rest for later. She breathed the smoke into her lungs and closed her eyes, letting the drug take its effect, feeling the world start to cloud and melt around her. She never heard the next door over open, nor did she hear her mother step outside. "You shouldn't be smoking, dear. I was worried about something like this."

Fran nearly had a heart attack as the air and smoke in her lungs, rather than making a controlled exit from her body, went everywhere at once. She coughed and thought she might die. Her mother patted her back. "I guess I understand, dear. You had some friends and they smoked the cigarettes and you wanted to be cool. We're all stressed, honey, but this isn't the way to handle it." Her mother took the joint, inhaled a strong drag off of it and handed it back to her daughter. "I used to do it when I was your age. But I quit after only a few times and I want you to promise me this is the last-cigarettes sure taste different than the used to--last one you'll--whew, head rush--you'll ever smoke--mmmmk?" Fran nodded. Her mom was a bit wobbly as she turned and went back inside. Fran suppressed her laughter. She took another drag and thought maybe she should throw the other joints away. Her mother was right, wasn't she? Fran didn't know, but she took another hit. When the door opened again, she thought maybe it was her mother, wanting another hit. "Fran, what are you doing up so la--are you smoking?" Fran had tried to hide the joint from her father, but she couldn't hide the smoke seeping out of her nose. "Jeez, Fran, I come out here for some fresh air and find you smoking. I'm disappointed. I mean, I guess I understand--I

used to smoke when I was your age, but I quit and you should to." Bob took the joint from his daughter and took a bit drag off of it. "I want me to promise you...that you'll never smoke this smoke again. Is that appeptable, young lady? Now, get to bed." Fran's eyes were wide as her father turned and re-entered his room. She looked at the joint. Did that all just happen? She couldn't tell for sure. She was really stoned. Fran took one last hit and stamped the joint out, partially resolving never again to smoke the weed, but not going so far as to throw away her other joints. She lay down in her bed and started to drift off into sleep when she heard her parents next door. They were probably talking about her. They were probably going to search her bag and see if she had more "cigarettes." How could they invade her privacy like that? She was pissed, but terrified, too. She put her ear against the wall to try to hear what they were saying. "Bob, I....mmmmmm. Just like that, my Bobbykins. Mmmmm...." Fran recoiled for a second and almost jumped back in her bed, but curiosity about the subject in question had been mounting since two days ago, and she decided it wouldn't hurt to listen for a minute. "Bob...oh that's good, baby. Oh Bob. Fuck yes, Bob. Yeah, right there. Yes. Yes, please."

This time Fran did dive back into bed and cover her ears with her pillow and try to eradicate what she had just heard from her conscious mind. She wondered what had gotten into her parents. She had never heard them making noises of sex before. In fact, she had never seen them do anything more than kiss before. It couldn't just be the pot they had inadvertently smoked: they were different than they used to be all around. She realized she was too--drastically. They all were, except maybe Jim, but he was too young to change much, she figured. She heard a slam of her parent's bed hitting the wall of their room. Faintly, through the dampening of the wall, she was certain she heard her mother say, "Put it in my ass, Bob. Do it, do it do it do it." "Go mom." Fran said to herself before drifting off to sleep.

17. Bill Learns a Lesson Bill had been in prison a month and there was no sign that the killer was coming to save him. He hadn't gotten any word from the outside world, but he had been interviewed by both Amnesty International and the American Consulate. As an American citizen in prison in a foreign country, they were all quite concerned about how the foreign government was treating him. If he had been in an American prison, of course, he would have been

executed long ago. However, things being what they were, the prison wasn't so bad. He had regular exercise, had managed to avoid the rapists so far and was taking classes in international law. He was reading more than he ever had. Three life sentences gave him plenty of time to think. The weather was temperate and the view beyond the bars was spectacular. He'd heard nothing from Korla or the mysterious woman who had gotten him into this mess. As far as he knew, they were still watching him and Korla was dead. The killer's fate he couldn't imagine. Maybe he was dead, too and they had framed him for murder as bait for a man who could do no more than rattle some chains at night on Halloween. Still, there were worse fates, he supposed. He had a reputation and commanded a certain amount of respect, so that was a notch in his favor. The woman's prediction of a tortuous time in prison turned out to be false. Still, it wasn't freedom. He couldn't go anywhere and unless someone got him out, he couldn't ever go home. He tried writing the hospital where he guessed Korla was and heard nothing in response. She must be dead, though, or she would have seen him on the news. Judging by the quantities and varieties of cameras at his hasty trial, he guessed about everyone in the world had seen him convicted for killing three young men he never killed. At least, he didn't think he killed them.

When he looked back on the events, it was difficult to separate what was happening in his mind from what was happening in the world. The Billwolf had been there for a much longer time than he had admitted to himself. Sometimes what was happening to him got tied up with what had happened to the werewolf. Maybe the killer wasn't really the werewolf; maybe it had been Bill all along. He no longer knew for sure. Prison had that affect on a person: making them question reality and their own actions because all they could do was think and think and think themselves into oblivion. Bill decided that there was no one coming to help him. He had to assume Korla hadn't and wasn't going to wake up from her coma. He had to assume that the killer had been killed or just didn't care as much as the woman had thought he would. He had to assume and assume and it ate him up, but he knew that the only way he was going to ensure his own survival was to escape. However, as far as Bill could see, escape was impossible for him. They watched him all the time. He decided to take some time to think about it. Four days later Bill came up with solution he thought might work. He would escape in the one way no one expected him to: he would study the law and prove himself innocent. The plan was perfect. He would bring the outside world to him, use it and get himself out of this hell-hole. After all, he was sure he really

was innocent. How hard could it be to prove the truth? So Bill set work studying the murder laws of his country of incarceration in every spare minute he had. He found his international law teacher helpful in this case and he began writing letters both to the guy from Amnesty International who had visited with him and left him a contact address, and the American consulate, who had done the same. He pled his innocence and begged them both for help. Months dragged on and Bill seemed to be getting nowhere. Playing by the rules was a miserably slow process, he realized. Then, there was a breakthrough. Bill found some inconsistencies in the report filed against him after poring over it for the hundredth time, he finally saw it. His mind began firing, making connections and the next day he began filing the paperwork for appeals and retrials, anything he could do that might get people to reexamine the evidence against him. He won his appeal and was appointed a lawyer whom he coached on his case. In the end, Bill won his freedom on a technicality. However, it was an important technicality because Bill was, in fact, innocent. On the day Bill was released from prison and given his passport back as well as a plane ticket back to America, he saw a face he thought he recognized nearby the prison walls where a small crowd of supporters of his cause had gathered. There were

a few people on the other side who cried out for his blood, but the face he recognized wasn't among them. He got into his cab and got to the airport quickly. When he got out, he caught a glimpse again of something familiar, but it was gone before he could think about it much. He checked in his meager luggage--just one tiny suitcase-and received his boarding pass. As he made his way to security, he decided to stop off in the bathroom. He relieved himself for the first time in a public bathroom in six months. He went to the sink and started washing his hands. He looked at himself in the mirror. He looked old. Creases abounded on his face that hadn't existed a few years ago. He wondered who the man he was seeing really was. He didn't feel like the thug he used to be. He felt like wiser man than that. He knew a lot about law, now. Maybe he would enroll in law school when he got home. Crazier things had happened. He didn't think he was too old, but he'd been wrong before. A man entered the bathroom behind him. The man was dressed in a red, checkered flannel and wore a baseball cap. Bill finished washing his hands and was on the way out the door when the man spoke. "You need some smoke, man?" Bill glanced at the man. "No, thanks just the same." Bill resumed his exit. "You're no fun anymore, Bill. You and I used to have fun."

Bill looked over at the man. He thought he recognized him, but he couldn't be sure. He took a few steps closer and a feeling of déjà vu hit him. Where did he know this guy? The question sent his brain into a frenzy, but nothing was coming up solid in the memory banks. "I have a message from our employer. We thank you for your service, but we have gotten what we wanted, and that is why we freed you." Anger flared in Bill. "I freed myself." The man laughed. "No one frees himself. You are free because we want you to be free." Bill took another step toward the man. "How many times did you look that document over, Bill? How many times did you scan it and rescan it and then one day--bam!-there's an inconsistency. What did you think? It was just hidden or you were just too dumb to see it? We put it there, Bill. Our employer put it there because we didn't need you to be incarcerated anymore." Bill stopped moving. "You're the woman, aren't you?" "Of course, Bill." "How did--" "Don't think about it, Bill, just accept it. Tell me something. Do you want me now? Am I the right person for you now, do you think?"

Bill looked the man over. "You're cute. What were you thinking; we just go right here in the bathroom?" "I'm always up for it, Bill." The man took his hat off. His hair was shaggy and blonde. "Are you real?" The man took a step back and showed Bill his penis, then stepped forward to finish peeing. "As real as it gets." "Is Korla alive? Is the killer?" "Bill, I can't give you all the answers. Some things you have to find out on your own. That's life. They're going to call your flight soon, better get going." Bill backed toward the door. The man smiled and Bill felt a tug in his groin. He was attracted to this man, like he had been to the woman, but this time it felt real--still cheap, maybe, but real. Bill left the bathroom as the called his flight. He ran toward security, checked through quickly and loaded onto his plane just after they made the final boarding call. In a few hours, he'd be home in Middle America, where things made sense.

18. The Car Thief Fran resolved to make sure she never again smoked where her parents could possibly catch her. The whole experience had been surreal. She doubted it had even happened. And yet... If it had happened, what, exactly, had it been? Had her mother known it

was a joint and told her father, who also wanted a hit? Had it been a coincidence that they had come out so close together? It was possible that when her mom lay down, that had awaken her father, who had come outside to catch some air as her mother had. That was possible, wasn't it? Why had they both taken drags off the joint if they both thought it was a cigarette? They were both stressed, she told herself. This was a stressful and awkward situation and people acted crazy when things were stressful and awkward. Still, Fran knew she had to hide her habit better. She didn't want her parents to catch on and she certainly didn't want them to find out what she had really been smoking. These thoughts plagued her as the car rolled further south down the highway. Jim, sitting next to her, had problems of his own. The highway they were on, which he'd checked on the map, took them dangerously close to Kentucky. If they stayed on the road, in fact, they would eventually be in Kentucky. Jim could not go to Kentucky. He didn't know why but Kentucky was the worst thing he could ever imagine happening to him. He had to do something before they reached mile marker 237, according to the roadmap he was looking at in the back seat. After mile marker 237, there was nowhere to go but Kentucky. How had things gotten so messed up? He had thought this would be a fun family vacation, but now they were on the verge of going to Kentucky

and he could feel himself getting sicker and sicker with fear every mile they went. Luckily for Jim, there was one more stop, one more red star, before the day they would make it to mile marker 237, so he had time to ponder the situation and come up with a plan. All of his plans, though, were stupid. He wished he wasn't a kid. He wished he were smart, like Fran and his dad. Jim closed his eyes and pretended to sleep while thoughts ran through his mind. He had to think. He had to plan. Kentucky loomed on the horizon and he had to make sure they never got there. On the second day of the killer's three day layover, he got sick of room service and started feeling claustrophobic. He decided to make a temporary change in scenery and go wander around the mall for awhile. The killer had snuck Stupid into the room with him and found the dog was very quiet, so he had no problem concealing his presence. As he left, he could only hope the dog was as quiet with no one around. Stupid was sitting on the bed, staring at him and slowly wagging its tail as he began to shut the door. "Stay, Stupid, Ok?" The dog lay down. The killer closed the door, tried to make some noise like he was leaving, then stopped and leaned in towards the door to see if he could hear Stupid making any

noises. He heard nothing, so he tip-toed away toward the Cooper's other car. The mall was a nice one, as far as malls go. Most of the shops were still open, as companies hadn't yet bought completely into the strip-mall fad that would follow in a few years. The killer checked out the major department stores. He browsed the power tools, wishing, like most men, that he owned some nice power tools so he could make furniture and what-not. He looked at the clothes and saw a few styles he liked. He usually wore just a T-shirt and khakis, but every once in awhile he liked to fancy up. The sport jacket/slacks combo was on sale, so he decided to go ahead and splurge a little. He gave them one of his credit cards and waited for the clerk to scan it. He saw her punch a few buttons and slide the card through the reader a second time. When she tried it a third time, he asked, "Is there a problem?" "I don't know. It could be our machine. Do you have another card I could try?" The killer looked through his things. He had a few other cards with him, but they were maxed out. He had some other cards at the motel room under different names, but they wouldn't do him much good in this situation. "No, nothing that would work." He never carried card of different names at the same time. It tended to make people suspicious.

"Well, I'm sorry, sir, but this card is maxed out, I guess. Or anyway, it won't go through on our machine. Do you have another form of payment today?" The killer shook his head, thinking about his barren bank accounts. "No, I don't." "I'm sorry, sir. Why don't you call the credit card people or you could try back again tomorrow." He nodded. He left the store, embarrassed. It was tough to be a hard-up hitman. Why hadn't he been more frugal? He always had to go on elaborate trips and such. He thought about all of the years where he hadn't worked. Now he was in the middle of nowhere with no way to contact potential employees and was running out of funds. He decided to take out some money from one of his accounts. They were all slim pickings, but better than nothing. He went to the ATM and slid the card in, then punched in his PIN. He checked the account status. The account was full of money. Korla. It had to be her. Who else would have given him money? How had she known where he was or what he was doing? Had she decided to front him the money for the job? Had she known in what dire straits his monetary situation was in? How? He was going to have to have a serious discussion with Korla when he got done killing the Coopers. Something about this made him very nervous. In the

mean time, he needed the money so he withdrew the maximum amount, which amounted to a couple hundred dollars. He stopped at a payphone and made a long-distance call to Korla's office. He got the voice mail and hung up. Where the hell was she, anyway? He went out the door and made his way back to the car. He wandered up the row, but didn't see it and wandered back down another row. The car wasn't there either. He knew which direction he had parked, so he went to the rows with the cars parked the right direction on either side of the row he'd started in. Nothing. His stomach sank. The car was gone. Someone had stolen his car. He cursed under his breath at the luck of the situation; then proceeded to look for a temporary replacement. He had to be cautious because he was planning on still staying in town. This meant he would have to steal the car, but only take it far enough to steal another and eventually, he would have to walk some of the distance to his motel. The more he thought about it, the more it seemed that stealing a new car wasn't worth the effort. He was better off--and less likely to wind up in jail-if he just took the bus. The killer cursed his luck. This situation was going FUBAR in a hurry, but at least he had some money, now.

Exactly twenty-seven minutes after the killer entered the mall to begin shopping, a car parked two rows over and Bob emerged from the driver's seat, alone. Jim had had an accident and Bob had to get some first aid supplies and he had to do it in a hurry. Bob ran into the drugstore near the wing entrance of the mall and quickly purchased the supplies he needed. He ran back out and saw his car immediately. He jumped in, and tried to start it, but had the wrong key. It didn't strike him as odd, he just put found the correct key on the chain and fired up the vehicle and started back toward the motel. As he drove, he thought about what had happened. What kind of kid was afraid of Kentucky? He had never suspected that his son harbored such a fear for a state that, to him, seemed so benign. He had never suspected that Jim had been sitting in the back of the car with the map in his lap, dreading the inevitable crossing over into Kentucky with every fiber of his young being. He wished Jim hadn't decided to end it all as a way of dealing with the situation, but thankfully Jim was only tenish so "ending it all" for him meant swallowing a couple of his mother's new happy drug--Prozac. Bob got to the motel and hopped out of the car. He ran into the room and handed Debra drugs he'd gotten to make Jim puke up the few pills he'd swallowed. It was probably an unnecessary procedure for such a minute quantity of pills, but he and Debra

both though that it was better to do it this way and be safe-not to mention teach Jim a little bit of a lesson. Debra forced the nasty concoction down Jim's throat. She made him hold it for a few minutes then stuck her finger down his throat so he puked it all into the toilet. Fran was sitting on the edge of the bed, wishing she could sneak out and smoke. Debra brought Jim back into the bedroom area and laid him on the bed. "Now, you feel better, mister. And you promise mommy you'll never do anything like that again, ok? You promise?" Jim nodded. Taking the pills was the best he could come up with and it hadn't worked very well. He'd been caught midswallow by his father and then he'd been forced to fess up why he felt the need to resort to such measures. Upon hearing his explanation, his parent's reaction had been incredulity. How can you be afraid of state? they'd asked him. The truth was, he didn't know. Some movie he'd seen once, maybe, had planted in his mind the most horrible feeling imaginable about Kentucky. So, to Jim's dismay, they had decided that he would have to puke up the medicine so he didn't get sick and they would have to drive through Kentucky so Jim could see that the state wasn't such a bad place as he had made it out to be. In that moment, Jim wished, briefly, that he'd swallowed more of his mother's pills.

Fran stood up and went to the door, then sat back down. She wanted to smoke. Her parents were distracted worrying about Jim and his crazy Kentucky fear. Now would be the perfect time. She stood up again and sat back down. She had to be cool. She didn't want to become some kind of addict. She lay down next to her brother, setting her purse on the floor. She folded her arms across her stomach. It was getting late, she decided she would sleep. She could hear her parents talking to each other in their room, which was attached by a thin door to hers. At first they sounded distressed and worried, about Jim and his phobia, most likely. The more they talked, the more heated they got. Their voices ceased abruptly. She heard nothing for awhile, then she heard their bed creaking softly. Jesus Christ. Talk about addicts. Exactly twelve minutes and fourteen seconds after Bob returned to the motel, the killer stepped off the bus in the street in front of the same building. He saw the car immediately. The little punk--whoever it had been--had been staying at the same motel he had. Bob shook his head at the amateurishness of it all. He looked at the rooms, trying to decide which one held his car thief. The motel was packed tight. There was no way to determine which room belonged to his thief except by knocking on each one, which would be too obtrusive. He got in the car and drove it around the corner to where his own

room was. He locked the doors and got out. When he got upstairs, he unlocked his room door and found Stupid lying on the bed exactly as he'd left him. "Who's a good boy?" Stupid raised himself up to a sit and wagged his tail a few times. The killer went to him and rubbed his ears. "You're a good dog, yes you are." He kissed the dog on the head and lay down to watch some television. He found a show he could stand and set his alarm clock for 6 o'clock. He wanted to make sure he was up early in case there was trouble with the car. Bob rolled off Debra and kissed her passionately one last time, before collapsing in a heap next to her. "Missionary" would not be a word in the same universe as the one you would need to describe what they had just done, and had been doing for the last two days, since they'd left. Debra pulled the blankets up to cover her breasts. She was quivering--in a good way. Bob checked the alarm clock: 5 o'clock. They needed to get up early tomorrow so they could make it to Kentucky and show Jim that there was nothing to be afraid of from a state that boasted the home office of the Presbyterian Church, USA and the factory where they made the world's most popular baseball bat. Nothing to worry about at all. Bob rolled back over and wrapped his arms around Debra.

"This has been the best trip, hasn't it?" "It has, Bob." "We should have done this years ago." "Definitely." "Why didn't we? Why didn't we ever do...anything, really, before this?" Debra thought about the question for a minute. "I don't know. I guess we never needed to." "That Jenkins guy, he really opened our eyes to the world. In a weird way, he brought us closer together, improved our sex life and--I don't know if you've noticed--somehow made our daughter finally start to bloom into a woman." Debra agreed and they were silent for awhile. Bob thought Debra had fallen asleep and was on the verge of doing so himself when she spoke. "I caught Fran smoking a cigarette last night." Bob came to and thought about the statement. "I did too, right before we..." "Yes, I caught her and then came back in and went back to sleep and the next thing I knew..." "Well, I had just gone out and caught her; apparently, right after you did." "What did you tell her?" Debra had turned to look her husband in the eye.

"I told her that I tried smoking when I was her age too and that I wanted this one to be her last and that she had to quit." Debra slapped his arm lightly. "That's what I told her." "Funny." "Yeah." "She's a good kid." "She is."

Fran was out on the balcony that ran the length of the second floor of the motel. She walked to the end, slipped around the corner and lit up her joint. She closed her eyes and held her breath. It felt soothing, like going home. She walked to the railing and leaned against it, then released the smoke into the world and opened her eyes to look on it with new vision. There was a car parked below her that looked exactly like her dad's car--the one they'd left back at home. She took another deep drag and giggled a little. Maybe it was her father's car, and it had followed them all this way like a dog, wondering where they went. Fran blew out her smoke and felt her stomach fall into an abyss. Dog. They had forgotten about the dog. Fran fumbled with her purse and took out an old receipt and her very adolescent-girlie purple pen. She wrote down a note to herself: TELL MOM ABOUT DOG. NEIGHBORS? She put the receipt in her pocket and the

pen in her purse. She smiled. She had handled that like a pro. Fran took another drag and realized she was thousands of feet above the center of the earth, just hanging there on a mantle made of dust. If she were to jump off the balcony--doing it just right--she could penetrate that dust and fall right into the earth's core. She laughed to herself. Of course, her dad's car would probably catch her like the faithful critter it was. It would catch her and tell her a story to put her to sleep, then it would drive her back home through the clouds. That damn car. "Kind of late, isn't it?" Fran opened her eyes and saw a short, thin man wearing a white undershirt and a pair of khakis standing in front of her. "I guess." She took another deliberate drag. The man was very attractive. It was nothing in particular. He seemed quiet and safe. Especially when he talked. "What are you smoking there?" "Just a cigarette." "That doesn't smell like a cigarette." "It's a special cigarette, it makes you see the world in the way it was meant to be seen." "Oh. That kind of cigarette. Mind if I give it a puff?" She handed the joint to the short man. He took a drag, let it out in a few minutes and took another drag. Another thing she

liked about the guy was his height. He was almost as short as she was. Just his height made her feel like an adult. She hit her joint and thought that if this man asked her, she would go to bed with him. Fran wasn't entirely sure what that would involve, but she knew it would be scary and exciting and painful and pleasurable all at once. The man didn't ask though. They passed the joint back and forth several times. The man looked over the balcony and peered at the car that looked like her dad's. "Can you believe someone stole my car today?" "That's not your car?" "No. I mean, it is, but someone stole it." "If they stole it, why is it here?" "They stole it and brought it back here." "Maybe someone just thought you needed the exercise." The man laughed. His laugh was like a steady rain. You could lose yourself and drift into perfect sleep by that laugh. "You're an alright girl. What's your name?" "Esmeralda, you must be Quasimodo." The man laughed again. He presented his hand for her to shake. She shook it and felt a pleasant chill that left the hair on her legs and arms standing at attention run the course of her skin.

"Nice to meacha Ezzey. I'm going back to bed, but you keep an eye on my car for me, ok?" She smiled at him the only smile she had. She didn't know if it was a good one or not. It didn't work in this case--but it was a good one. "How do you know I didn't steal it?" "You're right, get out here." The man squeezed her hand and chuckled. He opened his door and said, "Hello, Stupid" to no one she could see. Fran took the last hit alone before snuffing the roach and tossing it off the balcony and into the parking lot. She sprayed some perfume on herself before reentering the motel room. Jim was still passed out on his bed. She lay down in her own bed and fell right to sleep. Six o'clock came and Bob began dressing, being quiet so he wouldn't wake Debra up. Bob, unbeknownst to Debra, had made a purchase besides the puking mixture for Jim while he had been at the drug store. He had gotten himself a pack of Camels--for nostalgia more than anything. And yet, he was dressing silently and quickly because he had the overwhelming urge to enjoy one outside the awareness of his wife. Bob stepped out on the porch and lit the filter--less cigarette. He took the first drag and coughed out the smoke a little. The second drag was easier. By the third drag, the

nicotine buzz hit him and he was James Dean. It was sometime about halfway through the cigarette when he looked down to see the car was gone. He remembered parking it right below his door, and now it was gone. Bob panicked and scanned the parking lot, but saw no sign of their little black Honda. Bob flicked the cigarette and re-entered the room. His rushed entry woke Debra up. "What's wrong, Bob?" car's been stolen, baby." "Have you been smoking?" Bob tossed her the open pack. She tamped a cigarette out and lit it up without a word as he dialed 9-911 on the motel phone. In a few minutes, the police arrived and took Bob's report. They put out an APB right away in case the theft had happened recently, but assured him it had probably happened early in the night and the chances of finding the car in one piece were slim. The officer then began taking down Bob and Debra's contact and personal information. In the middle of this, a call came over the officer's radio. Another office had found their car. It was fine. The thief had parked it in the mall parking lot and just left it. Bob and Debra sighed a breath of relief while the officer arranged to have the car towed back to the motel, free of charge. When the car arrived with nothing missing and no damage done, the police told them how lucky they were that the "The

situation wasn't worse and encouraged them to always lock their cars and keep spare keys with them at all times. Bob assured the officer he would. Having survived that little moment of alarm, the Coopers loaded up their car and started out for Kentucky--to show Jim it wasn't such a bad place after all. The killer woke up to his alarm, but hit the snooze button a few times. He felt hung over. He hadn't smoked weed in a long time and that lady last night had had some nasty stuff--not ineffective-and-crappy nasty, but hangover-with-a-touch-ofhorniness nasty. In fact, he'd finally retreated back into his room, because he was starting to inexplicably feel some sexual attraction to the lady. It wasn't that she was overly attractive, but she had a spark--a wit and maybe a certain hint of charisma--that the pot seemed to magnify. The killer didn't need a woman and didn't need the weirdness that always came as a result of sex, so he'd retreated like a gentleman. The pot, however, had lingered in his system like a disease and he felt it still, like a million little animals gnawing at his mouth and stomach. The snooze went off again and the killer slapped it off and rolled over. This cycle repeated a few more times until the killer finally looked at the clock and saw that it was past seven. The killer jumped out of bed with a start. He pulled his pants on and opened the front door. The car was still there. The

killer glanced around the side of the building, where the lady with the killer pot had come from, and saw two uniformed police officers standing on the balcony. The killer ducked back behind the building. They couldn't be there for him, could they? Surely no thief was dumb enough to report their stolen car stolen. Of course, the killer had no way of proving that the car was his because it wasn't. The thief was going to get them both in serious trouble, if that was his game. The killer decided to wait in the room, ready for anything and just see what would happen. When an hour passed of quiet contemplation and nothing happened, the killer peeked out again and saw that the cops, and their cars, were gone. He checked his car and saw that it was still there. He sighed. It was nothing. Somebody beating their wife or some trucker soliciting a prostitute, most likely. The killer dressed for the day, gave Stupid some food and went down to the lobby to get himself a breakfast of stale donuts and shitty coffee. The desk clerks recognized him by this point and greeted him with the name on his ID--a fake. The killer sipped his coffee, read his newspaper and ate his donut in silence. After the food was gone, he went up the front desk. "What was that excitement about this morning?" The lady leaned toward him a little. He realized she was flirting. "Somebody got their car stolen."

The killer remained neutral, though the information was a little too close to home. "Yeah?" "Yeah, but the cops found the car at the mall, so it wasn't a big deal." "The mall? That's odd." "I know. You'd think a car thief would have better places to go than that mall--that place sucks." The killer agreed and started to walk away, then stopped. "Hey, I'm supposed to be meeting some friends, but I thought they'd be here by now. They haven't called or anything, can you check to see if they cancelled or something? I'm a little worried about them." The lady looked at him and smiled. He leaned in and smiled back. Might as well get some use out of the situation. "Sure, what name would it be under?" "Either Bob or Debra Cooper." The woman was standing at the computer, but looked at him when he said the name. "Cooper? They checked out just a few minutes ago. They were the ones whose car was stolen." Everything fell into place in the killer's mind. He'd been so stupid. "Shit. I can't believe they didn't call me. They must not have seen my car. Look, can you check me out while I run and grab my stuff? If I hurry I can still catch up to them." "No problem, but it'll be a shame to see you go."

The killer was already half-way to the door and he turned and winked at the woman behind the counter, "I'm sure business will take me back this way in a few days." "I'll be waiting." The killer was back on the road in twenty minutes. He was cursing himself for missing the Coopers so easily. He felt like an idiot. He hadn't even checked the car to see if it had been hotwired. If he had, he would have seen that it hadn't been. From there, the only answer was that the thief had had a key, which could only mean one of the Coopers had taken it. He was able to construct what must have happened in his mind and came close to the reality of the situation. He cursed himself again and again as he cruised down the highway, toward Kentucky. He wasn't too far behind them; he could catch up to them easy enough and tail them for awhile. It wouldn't do to try to kill them on the interstate--there was too much traffic--but everyone had to stop to use the facilities, or, if nothing else, he would find them at the next motel and take them out there. He was close enough he could taste their blood on his lips.

19. What? I know what you're thinking. You're wondering where I am in all of this. Those of you who are perceptive will have already realized where I am in this tangled mess of narrative. Those of

you who haven't figured it out yet, quiet down and let me finish my tale. I promise you that by the end of my tale, you'll know exactly where I am in this one. Take heart, all secrets will be revealed for you by the end. I mean, am I the one on trial here? I didn't think so. Behave yourself children and listen, let the words mix in your mind and the secrets will present themselves, it's the only way.

20. Kentucky, Fried Children Jim had to admit, Kentucky wasn't so bad. When they first entered Kentucky, nothing happened at all. It was just like any other place. The road was a little rougher, but otherwise nothing changed at all. The fear was still there, though. For one thing, they hadn't stopped yet. He knew Kentucky wasn't just a place, it was also people. The people were the ones who haunted his dreams and attacked him in the dark places of nightmare. He would have to see some pretty convincing evidence that the people weren't scary in any way before he could start to give up his phobia. Until that happened, the fear would stay right there, in his lap, ready to tear him to shreds. Another thing that kept him nervous about Kentucky was the changes he suddenly noticed in his family.

Fran's eyes were darker and her clothes seemed darker, too; even her hair seemed darker. She'd painted her fingernails a dark purple. She was detached, but it didn't seem like a disaffected sort of detachment. It was a superior detachment, like she knew something that Jim could only guess at. His parents, too, had changed. They were holding hands and whispering secrets to each other, which he supposed was ok--that was love, right? They seemed happy and free since they'd left and that was good, Jim supposed. But they were both smoking, now, like Fran. Their cigarettes didn't smell as bad as Fran's-at least; they smelled bad in a different way. He'd never seen his parents do anything vice-like and so this was a shock to Jim. His parents had always been perfect and asexual around him and his sister and now they were people. They were just regular people. Jim was scared of them. The killer wasn't doing a very good job of remaining inconspicuous in his tailing, but he wasn't worried because Bob hadn't seemed to notice and besides that, he wasn't about to take any chances with the Coopers again. He would keep them firmly planted in the middle of his vision until they were dead, each and every one. Around noon, Bob decided to pull off the road for some lunch. He also wanted to show Jim that the people of Kentucky, like the highways of Kentucky, were as normal as back home. He

found a fast food joint right off the interstate about a mile later and exited. Bob didn't see that the car that had been following him--his own car--passed by the exit without slowing. Everyone in the car was asleep until Bob pulled to a stop. The internal mechanisms that tell people of a change in situation kicked in and his family started opening their eyes and stretching. "Food break." Bob announced as he put the car in "park" and opened his door. Everyone stretched as soon as they got out of the car, everyone except Jim. Jim was trying to calm himself down. What was going to happen inside? He had some ideas and none of them were pleasing. Bob led with Debra just behind him, followed by Fran and then Jim. Jim walked slowly. His mind was telling him just to sit in the car and hide there until Kentucky was a dot on the horizon, but his legs kept on walking. He entered the restaurant half-expecting to be decapitated immediately. When he found he was still alive, he realized he was holding his breath, so he let it out slowly, so as not to startle the Kentuckians. Jim followed his family to the counter and looked at the menu. It was normal, just like the one at home. He peeked around his mother to catch a glimpse of the Kentuckians both ahead of him in line and serving. They looked like normal people. When they talked, that was a different story.

"Kin ah help yee-ew?" "Ya'll come bake na." It was like English, but it wasn't like any English he'd ever heard. He kind of liked it. It was sort of musical, like everything had extra syllables and had to be sung to be pronounced properly. Jim smiled. Kentucky wasn't so bad. He didn't mind Kentucky at all. Jim placed his order without incident. The lady behind the counter was pleasant and even joked with him. These people weren't mutant zombies. They were ok. After he ordered, Jim told his mom he was going to the bathroom. The place smelled like stale urinal refreshers. He walked up to the urinal and began to pee when he heard a voice beside him. "Hey, kid, you need any smoke?" Jim turned and saw a man about three times larger than him. The man wore a red padded vest over a pair of blue-checkered flannels that looked like they hadn't been washed since Carter was in diapers. He had long, greasy hair and a black sweat and dirt stained hat advertising some trucking company. The man stank. He smelled like the worst toilet smells when it's backed up. He absolutely reeked. He smiled at Jim, revealing a mouthful of rotten, black, broken teeth. Jim pulled his pants up quickly and started for the door. He didn't hear the man coming until it was too late. The man was

enormous, but moved as silent as a cat. Before Jim could start to run, the man's meaty hand was on Jim's neck, squeezing and pulling Jim back toward the center of the room. Jim struggled to get free, but it was no use. The man's grip was like steel. "Where you going kiddie? You don't want to play with Daddy Bear?" The man pulled Jim's flailing body toward one of the stalls. Jim screamed, but the man slapped the back of Jim's skull with his free hand, which had a giant stone ring perched on the pinky finger. The pain was instant and silencing. Jim didn't know what would happen if the man managed to get him in the stall, but he could imagine about a million possibilities and none of them involved money or magic beans. Jim could feel a darkness pulling him. He could feel his legs were already numb and that the rest of him would be soon. He still struggled, but both his energy and his will were burned away in the initial flare. He supposed this was life: one terrible premonition coming true after the next. Jim was close to the door of the first stall when he heard the door open. A short man in a white T-shirt walked in. The man paused for just a second when he saw there was something amiss. The big man paused, too. The big man must have known the jig was up, his fun was over, but maybe he thought he could still muscle his way out of things. He pushed Jim to the floor.

"And don't you ever do that again, little mister, do you understand me?" Jim said nothing. The big man looked at the short man, who had entered fully and let the door close behind him. "Get out of here; this is between me and my boy." The short man smiled. "You want me to bust you up next?" The short man shook his head slowly from side to side, never taking his eyes off the big man. Jim was busy crawling towards the door while this was going on. The short man lifted Jim to his feet. "Get out of here; you don't want to see this." Jim made no acknowledgement except to leave the room in a hurry. With the boy gone, the killer looked up at the fat man. "Do I know you?" The fat man smiled. "Sure you do. Everyone knows me. I'm the guy you go to when you need things." The killer's face dropped. His eyes fell from the big man for the first time since he'd entered the room. The words or maybe something in the tone of the words the man had spoken had triggered something in him, something dark and quiet that had hid inside him for a long time. The killer felt cold and dead

inside. He felt like he had just stuck his bare feet into fresh snow. "What's wrong, dude? Aren't you going to kick my ass or something?" The killer found his legs unable to respond any longer. He moved his eyes with great labor back to the fat man's face. The man was no longer fat at all. The person before him was skinny, though still as unkempt and just a rank. When the new man smiled, his mouth was full of the same black and broken teeth as before. The man approached the killer and produced a knife from his belt. He meant to open the killer up slowly--he could see it in his eyes. He meant to let the killer feel his intestines squirm out of his body and land in a pile on the ground. He meant to mash those same intestines with his big, black boots while the killer looked on. The killer could see these intentions in the man's eyes and could do nothing to stop them. The man neared and the knife snickered in the air. Jim woke up with a start. He was sitting in the back of the car. Had that been a dream? He tried to remember the dream, but could only remember a fat man with sweaty hands who smelled like the inside of a freshly-killed deer. Jim had never smelled the inside of a freshly killed deer but for some reason he knew that would be the smell if he had. He remembered something else, too. He remembered being someone else. He remembered saving himself

from the man only to die in a terrible, painful manner. What had it been? He didn't know. He looked at his sister, who was sleeping. He felt full. Had they eaten already? Jim couldn't say for sure. Before he could think much more about it, he fell back into sleep. The killer awoke with a start. He was sitting in the car. Stupid was behind him, panting and looking about for something interesting to focus on. Had that been a dream? He tried to remember the dream, but could only remember a fat man who had turned into a skinny man with a sharp knife. He had been someone else, for a moment, too. He had been a kid--a boy--who the fat man was trying to take into the bathroom stall. The man wanted to do bad things--horribly ugly things to him until he had come in and saved himself, only to be killed in a terrible manner by the skinny man. The killer looked around the parking lot. The Cooper's car was gone. He must have dozed off waiting for them to finish eating. He started the car and began re-entered the interstate. He felt detached, spaced. How long had he been out? It felt like days, but it couldn't have been more than a few minutes. The killer sped the car to ten miles over the speed limit. He didn't know how much time he had to make up. Falling asleep had been a careless mistake. What if the Coopers had recognized their car? The Bob Cooper he'd met in that medium-sized town in Middle

America might not notice, but Bob was changing, somehow. How did he know that? The killer wasn't sure, but he did know and it was right. He wondered how much longer until they were out of Kentucky. He couldn't remember if the next red star was in the next state or not. He hoped so. Something about the place really creeped him out. Bob decided around noon to stop for lunch. Wait, didn't that already happen? That was a dream, remember? He decided to stop for lunch at a fast food restaurant, one of those that straddled the highway. He took the exit and brought the car to a stop in the parking lot. The car stopping woke everyone in the car up. Bob decided this would also be a good opportunity for him to show Jim that people from Kentucky weren't scary, but just normal people who talked funny. Bob didn't notice the car-his car--that had been following them pulled off the road also and parked at the other end of the lot, just out of sight behind a semi trailer. Bob stepped out of the car first and stretched his body up and back. When he pulled himself back together he had to blink a few times to get rid of the spots in his vision. He figured he must be more tired than he had thought. Debra and Fran both exited the car and began to stretch. Jim followed last. He didn't stretch. He looked half-asleep and petrified. "Where are we, Dad?"

"Fast food joint. Let's get some burgers, ok?" Jim nodded slowly. "Ok. You sure it's ok in there?" "Positive, Jim-bo. Let's go." The others followed Bob. Jim hesitated at the car. Hadn't he had a dream about a place like this? He felt a chill ripple his skin and he shivered. Something was wrong with this place, Jim thought. The whole thing stank like the inside of a freshly killed deer--not that young Jim knew that smell, but thinking it felt right. He saw his family enter the door and trotted up toward the restaurant. He opened the door and saw his family, lying in pools of their own blood. Each of his family members had been decapitated. Their head were gone, stolen by whoever had done this. A large man dressed in a red-checkered flannel stepped into the door way. He was greasy and stank and held a doubleheaded axe in his hands. The axe was covered with the Cooper's blood. Jim screamed and ran, but the man was quicker. He caught Jim by the hair and lifted him off the ground, slamming him into the asphalt and sending bursts of pain throughout Jim's body. The man pressed his big, brown boot against Jim's head and held it there. Jim was glad, because even though it was painful, it covered his eyes. With that boot in the way, he couldn't see the man raising the axe. He couldn't see the sharp blade descending toward his tiny neck. But the end didn't come. The

pain and pressure on his head was lifted suddenly, as though the man had changed his mind. Jim rolled over to see what had happened and felt something warm and wet flop onto his face. He brushed whatever it was with the back of his hand and then he could see the big man standing above him still, but now there was a smaller man in a white T-shirt there, too. The smaller man had stabbed the bigger man and the wet, sloppy thing that had landed on Jim's face was the big man's guts. Jim awoke with a start. He was in the back of the car, which was rolling steadily down the highway. He looked at his sister, who was asleep next to him. His mother was asleep, too. His father looked almost asleep. Jim could barely keep his eyes open, but he was too afraid to close them, too, because...why? He couldn't quite remember. It was bad and nasty, whatever it was and that was enough, wasn't it? He saw his dad's head slump forward. "Dad." Bob's head rolled up, then fell back down. The car was starting to drift into the next lane. "DAD!" Bob jerked awake and corrected himself. Jim wanted to sleep. He wanted to close his eyes and not care. He wanted more than anything to be in the land of dreams, but a fear kept him awake. Death wasn't what he feared. He wasn't worried that they

were going to slam into an overpass, or roll into the ditch. He was scared of the dreams that waited him. They were terrible and scary and smelled...terrible, anyway. Bob's head lulled again and Jim kicked the back of the seat. Bob lifted his head again, with great effort. "Dad, pull over. Pull over, you're falling asleep." "It's ok, Jim-bo. It's ok." And Bob's head lulled again. This time Jim's did as well. As soon as Jim closed his eyes, he felt a warm slap in his face, like a greasy, snowball striking him and it scared him enough to pull him awake again. "DAD! Look out!" Bob jerked awake and saw the semi in the lane he was drifting into. He pulled the wheel away from the lumbering behemoth. When he was safely in his lane, Jim could feel the car begin to slow. Finally, it slowed enough that Bob could pull the car off to the side of the road. Jim, now more awake, looked at the road around him. It was night now. The road was barren. There were two headlights behind them that were far enough away to have blended into one, and two taillights quickly fading ahead of them, but otherwise the road was deserted, like they were the last ones on Earth. Fran mumbled something in her sleep and rolled slightly. Debra

snored. Bob's head fell again to his chest and Jim was alone in being awake. He looked out the back window again. The headlights were now distinguishable as two. The car, Jim could tell, was moving fast. Jim hoped his dad had pulled off the road far enough so this guy wouldn't hit them. The car approached. The lights get brighter and Jim is thankful because he sees the car is slowing down. The car stops, still in the road and Jim gets out. He can feel the driver looking at him, though he can see nobody. Finally, a man gets out--the man in the white T-shirt. The man looks tired. He looks hungry and dirty and sick and most of all tired. He looks like he hasn't slept in four years. Jim waves at the man who has saved his life twice already. "You've come to help us again." The man gets comes close to the car and looks in the window and sees Bob sleeping there. The Cooper's car is still idling. He looks at Jim and sees a tired sadness. He looks at himself and sees a man wasted. "I'm supposed to kill you." The man in the white T-shirt takes a gun from out of his shirt where before there had been nothing. Jim has seen such a weapon in movies and TV shows. It has been silenced. The bad men in movies and TV shows always have their guns silenced so they can kill people without anyone knowing.

Jim isn't scared because he's seen the man in the white Tshirt save him twice and he knows the man won't let them down again. "You're here to help us." Jim's tone is insistent, almost exasperated, like he's had to remind the man in the white Tshirt of this fact before. The man in the white T-shirt is confused. Maybe the boy is right. Maybe it was save instead of kill. The man in the white T-shirt tries to remember his name. He can't. "I don't know." "Yes, you come and kill the big man, in the flannel. You never let him hurt me." "Why would I do that? I don't care about you; I just want you and your family dead." "No, no. No you don't. You're wearing white. That means you're the hero." The man in the white T-shirt looks at his shirt. It isn't white anymore, it's red. It's been stained red by blood. It's soaked with blood and water. It has begun to rain hard--like before a tsunami or a hurricane. "It's not white." "It is." The man in the white/red T-shirt looks harder at the shirt and instead of seeing it turn back to white; he sees a nametag he never noticed. It's one of those cheap things they hand out

at class reunions and homecoming gatherings. It says: "Hey, remember me? I'm" at the top. Someone has written in his name in marker, but the rain has washed it away. He watches as the colors bleed. The bleed and seep and soon they reconstitute and he can see his name again, or what passes for his name these days. "the killer," the tag tells him. "Hey, remember me? I'm the killer." The killer does remember. He remembers money and death and sex and blood and a gathering of identities that are all him and all not him and anyway whoever they are they scream and wail and moan and they scream and wail and moan not for him but for themselves because they all want something and they want him to give it but it's something he lost long ago. They want his name and when they find out he can't give it they look him in a huge room with invisible walls that he can't escape and they tell him to wait there while they decide his fate. They tell him he's not important anymore, that his role has played out and his part of the story is now gone forever and ever. The killer raises the pistol to the young man he's never met before and never seen before and pulls the trigger. The boy falls, drops like a marionette whose strings have been cut but a single swipe from a sharp knife. That's not altogether untrue, either, because they are all just puppets, the killer realizes. So he opens the car door and shoots Bob in the head to and Bob's

brains and pieces of Bob's skull fly out and land in his wife's lap, but Bob doesn't even move. His wife shifts and still asleep she swats a piece of her husband's brain off her cheek like it were a discourteous fly. Then the killer opens the back door and sees the lady he'd shared a joint with at the motel all those years ago. It must have been years ago, because now he can see she's but a little girl and he realizes that time has run backwards and that's ok because maybe she's got some better pot than that cheap shit she was smoking that night. So he steps over Jim's dead body and sits down in Jim's old seat. He puts a bullet into Bob's wife's side and her guts poke out through the hole, but she just rolls like she's adjusting position and, he assumes, dies. He wakes up the girl and she looks at him and he knows she's in love. He asks her to light up one of those joints and she opens her purse and takes the joint out of her lipstick case, which has a small mirror on the inside flap that he can't see into but knows if he could he would see that this mirror reflects not who you are but who you always wanted to be. She takes out a thin, loosely rolled joint she probably bought from some truck stop along the way and lights it with a small Bic lighter. She puffs to get the cherry burning then inhales and passes it to him. He puffs twice and takes a drag that, because

the joint is packed so loosely, eats up almost half of what's left. She closes her eyes and blows out the smoke. He tells her things no little girl should hear, whispers them right into her ear. She smiles and takes another hit. He leans over again to hit the joint that's nestled between her fingers. When he does this, he brings the gun with him and points it at her ear. He takes the hit from her living hand and fires the gun, turning her living hand into an interestingly ornamental, inanimate roach clip. He lets the hand drop and blows out the smoke. His mom will kill him when he gets home, smelling like he does. But he doesn't care because sometimes you do things just because they feel good. The killer opens the door again and steps out and sees the kid he's never met standing by his own car. He shot the kid in the face, but he guesses the kid must not have died, or at least not completely. The killer knows there are degrees of death and that sometime deaths are just stages into new beings. The killer knows that if you can see the clouds, the atomic clouds full of nothingness and know them for who they truly are, your own specks of nothingness begin rearranged won't be enough to stop you from giving life a shot. He approaches the boy and the boy turns. His face is a black, swollen bubble, like a terrible zit. The boy speaks and

his words are garbled because his brain and his mouth have been destroyed, but the killer decides he understands anyway. "You were the man in the white T-shirt and you were supposed to help us." "Sometimes white is evil to." "Then why did you help us before?" "Because that's what I was supposed to do." The killer raises his gun. The silencer is surely worthless now, that last shot still rings in his ears, but at this range it didn't matter. Nothing mattered. At this range he couldn't miss, there was nowhere else for the bullet to go but into the boy's heart; there was no one left to hear the sound; there was nothing left but his finger and the trigger. He fired the shot and the boy's heart must have exploded, but the boy didn't move. The boy was too angry, too betrayed, to die. The killer knew this and knew that his gun was now meaningless like life and words. He threw it aside. The boy would be killed, but not by something impersonal like a gun. The killer drew his knife. The boy demanded that he be ripped apart, and stabbed and murdered in the way befitting of someone who loved him. The killer knelt in front of the boy and hugged him. Then let him go and drew his knife back to begin the mess that must ensue. But there, where his last bullet had entered he now could

see the boy had been wearing a nametag, too. The killer stared at it and realized he could see the name and it wasn't the boy's name at all because the boy was named "Jim" and the tag didn't say Jim. The killer leaned in, staring hard, trying to make sense of the burned tatters, trying to piece together from the threads and fragments around the hole he'd made what name had once been there that he'd erased because the name, he knew, was his own and it was his job to see it. But the name wouldn't sort itself out, no matter how much he wanted to see it and how important it was for him to be somebody and have something more than just death and a redstained T-shirt. But there wasn't enough left of the name to make out so he leaned back, resolved to finally kill and when he did, he saw the boy Jim smiling at him but it wasn't Jim, now. It was Bob. It was Bob as a boy and the killer knew it was Bob because he knew this boy; knew him. He could see that even past the black blood bubble and the shattered skull and the fragmented teeth. He saw the face of a boy he knew, once, long ago and it was Bob and he was Bob but not really and it didn't matter anyway because now the boy dropped and was dead forever and his secrets along with him. The killer stood up and just before he could plunge his own knife into his own throat, he snapped awake. He was in a parking lot. It was late afternoon and the place was nearly empty except

for semis. He looked around the lot, and saw that the Cooper's car was gone. He'd fallen asleep in the parking lot after circling back when they pulled in for lunch and like an idiot he'd fallen asleep. What if they had recognized their car? What if they had called the cops while he'd been there sleeping, dreaming of...what? He couldn't remember, and besides that, it didn't matter. He had bigger problems than dreams and bad memories and tracers from acid trips he'd taken long ago. He had to catch up to the Coopers, get them into a nice, secluded area and kill them one by one. He had to rape them, beat them and cut them and make them bleed and cry and beg because that's what he did. He was the killer and he killed and that's what mattered. He knew, of course, that Bob Cooper wasn't the man he was after, had known it probably from the beginning, but it didn't matter now. Bob Cooper and his family were the ones he was after now and he'd come too far not to kill them. He'd killed hundreds before the Coopers and planned on staying around long enough to kill hundreds more. They didn't matter; they were less than important. They were stupid, dull, boring idiots and they deserved to die not because they were bad but because they weren't anything at all. The killer started his car and floored it out of the parking lot, squealing the tires as he rounded the entrance ramp and rejoined the highway. Stupid, jostled by the harsh motion of

the car, stood up in the back seat and whined. The killer had forgotten to take him out. The dog was such a pain in the ass. The killer pulled his pistol out of the shoulder holster that rested between his jacket and his white T-shirt and pointed it at the dog, using the rearview mirror to help him aim. The dog, too stupid to see death coming to him, licked the end of the gun. The killer pulled the trigger.

21. Korla Awakens and sees the void that Bill has become and weeps bitter tears of anguish and fury Korla woke up to see her cousin standing over her bed. Her awakening was the greatest of coincidences. Bill had stopped just for a day. He was going to find the killer and...well; he wasn't sure what he'd do when he found him. Korla woke up from her coma with a jolt. She saw the room that contained her and knew this was just a new manifestation of the terribly infinite, empty room she'd just been in. She had to get out and ripped at the tubes that threatened to keep her there, in their tortuous grasp. Bill's strong hands gripped her arms, but she didn't see hands only tiny specks of nothingness willing themselves upon her. She blew on them, trying to scatter them like milkweed spores, but they resisted. They were stronger than she. Korla screamed out from the cells in her body. She joined them

together in one final push. All of her cells, she knew, would have to work together for this to work. They would all have to coordinate and scream at the exact same time as loud as they could if she was going to be free of the miniscule dots that held her. She reached down deep within herself and bellowed and would have broken free. Freedom was there. All of the other Korla's could sense it and for a moment their grief and anguish became joy. But... But one cell wouldn't cooperate. It was just one cell that was a few days old--old for a cell--and had been in the middle of debating whether to propagate itself, die or let the cancer it's genes contained finally spill out. It was a cell deep in her lungs--one that didn't get as much oxygen as it used to and was always slightly dizzy. In the middle of its debate it missed the call to action and so was shocked by the sound of millions of cells crying out at once and if it had had ears, it would have covered them. That one cell didn't cooperate and so Korla collapsed into her bed. Still she struggled, but she knew it was in vain now. All was vanity and she had nothing substantial left to offer. Bill held her in his strong arms to keep her from injuring herself while he hit the call button for the nurses several times and screamed toward the door. The nurses came in,

immediately assessed the situation as only nurses can do and rushed to administer a sedative. The bigger nurse peeled Bill off Korla and took his place restraining the frantic woman--only much more effectively than Bill had managed because she knew what she was doing, she understood the art of restraint and the muscles and joints that had to be silenced in order for it to be effective. If she'd needed Korla's neck snapped, Bill would have been her go-to man. However, she didn't and so she restrained Korla and let the second nurse jam the needle full of hot opiates into Korla's arm and send her into quiet, floating alteration. So altered, she was, they felt, safe to leave alone momentarily while they called the doctor, who would be surprised to hear any news on his patient other than the time of death. Bill looked at Korla's now-glassy eyes and saw fear lurking in those dark orbs. He didn't know what had happened to her in that hole her mind had been in, but it didn't look good. She looked vaguely in his direction and he saw tears appear in her eyes. She was weeping, he understood, not for him but for herself. He realized at that moment that she was physically as healed as she would ever be, but she was completely detached somewhere deep in her brain. He couldn't bear to see Korla--so strong-willed and beautiful--broken like this by an illness that he thought was nobody's fault.

Bill left the hospital, telling the nurses to get her the best psychiatrist in the country and try to fix her. They didn't understand until later that week when they realized that Korla wasn't just suffering from post-coma panic, but was deeply disturbed and needed severe and immediate psychiatric help. They sent her, with the approval of her vice-president who saw not an unrecoverable boss whose vacuum of power he could fill, but only his own ambitions crushed by his boss's awakening. Again, he was chosen for his inability to see opportunity when it presented himself. Korla was transferred to a psychiatric institute. The doctor there began administering shock therapy in low doses to try to kick the reset button in her brain and get her mind back to some semblance of what it once was. It was a controversial and new technique reserved for worst cases--shock therapy had received such bad press that it was difficult to justify whatever healing effects it actually had except in the most desperate of circumstances. Only time would tell the procedure's effectiveness. In the mean time, they had to keep her sedated, only allowing her brief moments of lucidity to check her progress--which continued to be absent. They kept the routine going, knowing it was her only hope, and they waited.

22. Past tense of Kentucky

Bob snapped awake. He had been dreaming of being trapped in a box. The box was himself and there was no escape. He dreamed that he finally did escape when someone shot a hold through his head. The hole was an air hole and finally he'd been able to breathe. He crawled out of the hold and felt the sweet taste of freedom. Only then he realized that the new self was a new box and that he was trapped again. Bob rubbed his eyes and shook his head to chase the dream away. Usually, he tried to remember dreams and hold them like precious stones, but they always evaporated into the aether. This dream was like a lead ingot surgically implanted in his stomach. It had weight and refused to leave--his body couldn't pass it. Bob looked around. The sun was shining in his face. He assumed that's why he'd awaken. His neck was stiff. His shoulder ached deep in the joint. His left leg was asleep. He was slumped in the driver's seat of the car. The car was half-way pulled off the interstate, but the tail was still sticking out, as though he'd coasted to a stop while still asleep. Had he? He couldn't remember. Nothing from the previous day made sense in his mind, only the dream remained. He started the car, which appeared to have stopped on its own but whose battery was thankfully still alive, and pulled the rest of the way onto the shoulder. Bob's head ached in a single spot. It was the spot the hold had been in his dream. He touched the place, expecting to find

the hole still there, festering and moist. But he found nothing, only his scalp covered with quickly thinning hair. The ache was somewhere deeper. Bob looked at his family. Debra was turned away from him, curled up under a blanket she kept in the car for just these sorts of occasions. One hand was gripping her side; he couldn't see her chest moving. He thought he saw a red stain on her hand and panicked. He grabbed her hand and turned the palm to him, and saw that it had been nothing more than the reflection of the sun off the fibers in the blanket. Debra opened her eyes and looked at him. He let go of her hand and she seemed to recently awakened to be concerned with his strangeness. She began to stretch herself into consciousness. Jim opened his eyes and saw nothing but white, painful light. He squeezed them closed, and was vaguely surprised he could work his eyes at all, though at the same time it didn't seem like it should be surprising. Jim absently felt his face and found everything in its proper place. He pressed his hand to his chest and found it whole. He wasn't sure what else he expected to find, but he felt better knowing that everything was correct. He opened his eyes a slit and realized his head was pointed at the sun. He turned it to look at his parents in the front seat. They were holding hands, still looking groggy, and

saying nothing. The car was parked on the side of the road, idling. Jim was glad they weren't dead. Fran came to at the same time as Jim. Neither one knew how long the car had been sitting there, running, with their parents holding hands in the front seat. Fran's throat was scratchy, as though she'd smoked a joint last night. But she couldn't have. She'd been in the car all night. She also noticed a ringing in her ear left ear. After a few minutes, they all agreed silently that it was time to move on. Bob let go of Debra's hand and put the Honda into gear. He threw some gravel as he pulled off the shoulder. The interstate was strangely empty. "How much longer until we're out of Kentucky?" Jim asked. Bob smiled. Jim was still worried about Kentucky. He thought he had shown Jim how innocuous the state was, but perhaps the poor kid still wasn't completely convinced. An idea occurred to him of how he might be able to cure Jim of his paranoia. "Who wants to stop for something to eat?" As soon as he said it, he felt like he might vomit. Debra looked

uncomfortable and began rubbing her side as though she were running a marathon. The kids were looking down at their shoes. No one seemed eager for food. The words hung in the air. Bob wished he could snatch them back and eat those instead of the proposed food.

"Never mind." Fran spoke up, "Dad, Jim's right. Let's just get the hell out of here." Bob said nothing, but she was right. They all felt it. Bob checked his rearview mirror and for a second he thought he saw a car in the distance that looked exactly like his car--not the Honda, but the one he'd left at home. He looked at the road to check his path, then looked again in the rearview, but there was nothing there. He was getting batty. He stepped on the gas pedal and increased his speed. He was now doing a risky five miles per hour over the limit. He felt like a criminal recently set free. He turned on a radio and found a station playing some oldies music. The thought of leaving Kentucky made him inexplicably happy and he began to sing along. "Bob Iraaaaaaaaaaa-aaaaaa-aaaaan." Debra rolled her eyes, but soon was caught up in the moment. Fran followed suit. Jim sat in the back seat, fretting. The mile markers were going the wrong way. He knew because he'd been watching them like a hawk since before they'd entered Kentucky. Maybe they'd gotten on a different road. Jim didn't know. His memory of the previous day was filled with scenes of horror that couldn't have happened. Besides, who said that mile markers didn't change when

you entered a new state? That seemed likely, didn't it? Jim wished he knew more about traveling cross country.

The killer drove like a man in a Meat Loaf song. He was pushing the tachometer into the red and blazing across the state with little regard to his safety or the rules of mortal men. His tires were on the verge of melting. Should he have to make an evasive maneuver, the cheap tires on the car would probably deform into twisted versions of their former selves and he'd be left skidding on soft, sun-heated asphalt with nothing but rims if he was lucky, directly on the rotors if he was not. He didn't even know if the Coopers were still in front of him. He didn't care on one level. He was willing to declare the currently leg of the journey a wash should he discover himself in the wrong part of the country if it meant he would get out of Kentucky that much quicker. The place bugged him. There was no better word for it. Although, Stupid didn't seem to mind it too much. This had been, after all, the state where he had stared death in the face licked it away. Twice the killer had tried to kill Stupid and both times the dog had survived. The killer figured Stupid was on his third life. He was sort of curious to see how many lives Stupid got. Cats got nine, what about lucky dogs? How lucky was this dog? The first time his looks alone had saved him--

although, the killer had to admit, having had to shoot the judge's dogs, who had done nothing to no one, hadn't hurt Stupid's chances. The second time, when the killer had pulled the trigger of his gun, he had heard the hammer fall on the chamber, and hadn't expected to hear much more than that. What he had expected was to feel warm bits of dog head splatter onto his hand and back of his head. That hadn't happened. The bullet had been a dud. He was certain because the primer was dimpled. The firing pin on his pistol was perfect. The hammer showed no signs of wear. After it had happened, he'd torn his gun down, looking for some malfunction. He was impeccable about weapon maintenance and was paranoid that he had missed something important. He hadn't the gun was mechanically as perfect as it had been since the day he'd purchased it--maybe more so considering the shady quality of the weapon's dealer he'd found on the west coast (those west coast guys were hustlers one and all, all trying to be movie stars and thinking getting into guns is the way to do that). Seeing that his gun was fine, he'd pulled the bullet apart and dumped the gun powder. He'd lit it. It flared perfectly and completely. He'd taken out the primer and tested it. It sparked on the first try. So, he'd reassembled the bullet, sans gunpowder, crudely with a pair of pliers and drilled a small

hole through the lead slug. Through that he'd put a key ring and that he'd attached to Stupid's collar. When he was attaching the collar, he noticed for the first time that Stupid was wearing tags. He looked at the tag. It gave the number of a veterinarian to call should the person reading the tag discover Stupid wandering down the highway or some other place he wasn't supposed to be. At the top of the tag, in bold letters, was engraved the word "Girl." He'd checked Stupid's parts. Castrati, maybe, but girl, no. Stupid was all boy. Then it hit him. The Cooper's had named their dog "Girl." Their boy dog was named "Girl." The killer wondered if it wasn't Fate herself driving him towards this family. Surely the checks and balances system of the universe, if it existed, meant to cancel out these people long ago and just hadn't gotten around to it. The killer stopped at a gas station. He checked his map. He figured he should be within a few miles of the border by now. Soon he'd be in Tennessee heading south towards Georgia. He wondered what was in Georgia that drew the Coopers southward. It didn't matter. They'd stop in Savannah, he'd catch up to them. Then...well, whatever would happen he'd let happen. He was the master of improvisation. That's how he'd managed to stay alive all this time.

He got out, used the service station's bathroom, bought a small bag of fresh fruit he found near the checkout counters and went back out to his car. He opened up the side door. "Let's go Girl. Let's go pee." The dog yawned and lay down. "Come on, Girl. Let's go pee." The dog began to lick itself. The killer looked around, making sure he had the right car. "Stupid?" The dog's ears perked up. "Stuuuupid?" The dog twisted his head, as though he needed a new perspective on the killer's face to translate the word. "Stupid wanna pee pee?" The dog wagged his tail. "Let's go pee, Stupid." The dog leapt out of the car and went immediately to the ditch to do its business. The killer took a peach out of his bag and bit into it. Juice poured into his mouth. The fruit was warm and as many as three days old despite the advertisement of it begin "fresh," but it was juicy, he'd give them that. He took another bite and swallowed it down. Stupid wandered back and jumped back into the car. The killer got back on the road.

The killer wasn't on the road long when he saw the sign-one of those green ones that announces what and how far away t e next town is. He hit his breaks and as he did, he saw a black car in the distance disappear over a hill. It could have been a Honda, but he wasn't sure. What he was sure of was that the sign he saw showed that he was almost out of Kentucky, but in the wrong direction. Somehow he'd gotten turned around. It couldn't have been at the restaurant. It was one of those that spanned the interstate, with a separate exit going each direction, so there was no way he drove through the restaurant and went the wrong way. He tried to remember what had happened the previous night that could have gotten him turned around, but he couldn't think of anything. In fact, nothing about the night was clear. He'd woken up after that crazy dream that he couldn't remember, that was all. But all wasn't lost if that had been the Cooper's car ahead of him. That meant, if he had turned around, he had apparently done so following them. On the other hand if it wasn't... Actually, when he thought about it, if it wasn't that didn't change the fact that he was more than ready to have this state behind him. He decided that he would push on. If that wasn't the Coopers ahead of him, then he'd just head back to the beginning and start backtracking their route, run into them that way. It

was enough of a plan and it included leaving the state he desperately wanted to be out of as quickly as possible, so he reentered the interstate and resumed speed. "Bob, did you see that sign?" Bob hadn't, he'd been thinking about other things. He'd been thinking about the previous night and the box he'd been in. He'd been thinking about his childhood. "No, why?" "I think we're going the wrong direction." "Is that what the sign said?" "Well it had the name of a place we've already been, so yeah." "Was it a place in Kentucky?" "No." "Screw it; let's just get the hell out of this place, huh kids?" Jim perked up for the first time since he first realized where their trip would take them. He looked up at his dad's eyes in the rearview mirror. His dad gave him a wink. Debra laughed. "Should we stop at that same motel?" "The one where the car got stolen? No, let's head a little further west. There's a nice national forest just west of where we were. We could do some camping." Even Fran smiled. "With campfires and s'mores?" "Why not?"

Fran wasn't really thinking about the ooey-gooey scrumptiousness of s'mores, she was thinking how the smell of a campfire would cover the smells of other types of smoke. She smiled. At the next rest stop, on the Kentucky border, she checked her lipstick case in the bathroom. She was down to one joint. Where had the other gone? She remembered how her throat had hurt when she woke up in the car. Could she have smoked it? There was no smell in the car, so if she had, she'd at least had the presence of mind to step out of the car. Regardless of where it went, it was gone and she wanted to score some more before they got out in the middle of nowhere. She wasn't about to ask her dad to stop at a truck stop again. She wished she would have gotten into smoking sooner, so she would know who to ask and how. She would just have to improvise. Lately, that seemed like all she was doing, so what was once more? The killer watched from a distance as the car he thought might belong to the Coopers pulled into the rest stop. He debated going on and picking them up at the next exit, but he figured it would be best to make sure he was tailing the right car. He pulled in and parked between a couple of semis. As soon as he stopped, Stupid started to whine. He patted the dog's head. The Coopers piled out of their Honda. He breathed a sigh

of relief. That was one less worry. Stupid whined again in the back seat. "Not now, Stupid, next stop, I promise." Stupid scratched at the door. "No, Stupid, next stop, I promise. Just hold it." Stupid gave a bark. He could see the Coopers getting back into their car. "Fuck! Ok, but make it quick boy. Lightning piss, come on." The killer found himself wishing he'd bought a lease somewhere along the way. Stupid decided there were too many interesting smells to get this piss over with quickly. The killer watched from a safe vantage point as the Coopers pulled away and merged onto the highway. The car went up and over the horizon before Stupid finally got bored of sniffing and decided it was ok to pee. The killer grabbed the dog's collar and guided him back toward the car. A man in a baseball cap and red flannel shirt was standing between the car and the semi the killer had parked next to. Stupid almost tore out of the killer's grip. He began barking and snarling as though the man were the Devil himself. The killer had never seen Stupid bark more than once or twice. He'd certainly never seen Stupid freak out like he was now. It took all of his strength--the dog was wiry and strong for such a small-looking beast--to wrestle Stupid into the car. Once in, he

leapt into the back and continued barking and growling. He was working up a foam in his mouth he was so angry. The man grinned in a way the killer recognized and didn't like. "Vicious dog." "Not usually. I forgot his liver treats." "There's a leash law in this state you know." "That so?" "For good reason." The killer nodded and started to get into his car. "You need some smoke, man?" The killer paused, remembering the lady he'd smoked out with. Except she hadn't been a lady, she'd been a young girl. He didn't know how he knew that, but it was true. There was something else important about the girl. He couldn't remember now. Had she been one of the Coopers? The daughter? He did remember seeing clothes and posters that looked very girl-esque at the Cooper's house. That must have been it. When Bob stole his car she must have snuck out to smoke that night. That didn't answer another question. Why had he thought she was a lady of about twenty? He remembered the posters looking more like the property of a teeny-bobber than a college or even high school student. The Coopers were changing, he realized. But why? "Yeah, why not. How much?"

"Depends on how you buy." "I don't have any papers, and no particular desire to stop for any, can you help a guy out?" "I can sell you a pack of my best stuff in a cigarette box, complete with filters, how'd that be?" "Filters, huh?" "I care about your health. Makes them look like cigarettes as long as the person looking doesn't sniff them." "Good idea, you pack them yourself then?" "One of the tricks of the trade." "How much?" "Fifty for a whole pack." The killer reached into his wallet and took out two twenties, "That's what I got." "What the hell, I guess I've been in a generous mood lately: giving discounts to everyone." "When the markups two hundred percent, you can afford a twenty percent cut." The man smiled and tossed the pack to the killer as he took the two crisp twenties from the hood of the car. "You got me there." The killer opened the pack and took a whiff. It was genuine, and smelled better than the crap he'd smoked with the Cooper girl. "Pleasure.":

"All yours, I'm afraid. Truth is, I just gave you a discount so you wouldn't sic your dog on me." The man tapped the windshield, which made Stupid redouble his efforts. "You're lucky I don't carry my gun on me." The killer opened his jacket and showed the man the butt of his gun. "You're lucky I'm in a good mood." The man swung the door of his truck open and started to climb in, saying, "touché," as he entered the cab. The killer sat down and started up his car, pulling out and maneuvering around the truck, which hadn't bothered waiting for him before it had started to pull out. The killer shook his head. Some people. When they were back on the interstate, Stupid started to settle down. However, whenever he saw a truck with the same colors as the one the mobile drug-dealer had been driving, the fur on his back stood on end and a low growl rumbled out from deep in his throat. It was odd, Stupid's reaction. Had the Coopers seen "Girl" (as they called her) react that way to a person, they probably would have driven her immediately to the vet. He'd never been a vicious dog. He'd never done anything even remotely aggressive. He was, in fact, the most low-key animal they had ever seen, which was why they had been attracted to him when they had gone dog-shopping at the humane society. The killer didn't know this

per se. He knew the dog was well-behaved, but he just assumed that the man had reminded Stupid of the mail man or some other person that Stupid was prone to barking at when at home. He had no idea how seriously he should have considered the dog's reaction. The killer, blissfully ignorant, continued down the road. He caught up with the Coopers then backed off so they wouldn't notice them. Every once in a while he would pull up to make sure they were still in view. They crossed the border and left Kentucky a few hours after the pit stop. As soon as Kentucky was a place in the past tense, the killer started to feel good. He felt light. He felt like dancing a jig. He cranked up his radio and belted out a Carol King tune at the top of his lungs. So into the song was he that he almost missed seeing the Cooper's car cross an overpass directly above him. The killer's singing turned into violent cursing. He drove on a ways further before making an illegal U-turn through the grass median that divided the interstate. He had to time it well so that he could pull right onto the opposite lanes without getting stuck. He gunned the motor and exited on the road the Coopers had taken. He prayed they hadn't turned anywhere yet. He saw that the road was a state highway and that gave him some hope that they were going to travel this road for a little while. He cut off a slow-moving pickup and raced down the

highway until he saw the familiar rear end of the Honda ahead of him. He would have to be more vigilant now and follow a bit closer. This was more risky, but he couldn't afford to have the Coopers turn off and lose him. Bob needed a WalMart. He drove down the highway, knowing it would eventually lead them to the National Forest, but he hoped being in relatively close proximity of the birth place of the WalMart chain would mean that WalMarts would be plentiful and open at all hours. He was taking his family camping, but they had no tent, no sleeping bags, no air mattresses, no matches, no mosquito repellent, no flashlights, no pillows, no drinking water, no provisions, no camera, and (most importantly) no graham crackers-marshmallows-and-chocolate. They were utterly unprepared. Yet all were excited about the prospect. When he'd exited the interstate for the trusty back roads of the state highway system, Debra had given his knee a squeeze. She also tossed a glance accompanied by a slight smile his way. Two tents, they would definitely need two tents. The sleeping bags would have to be warm ones, and they would probably need heaters for the tents at night assuming they could find heaters designed to be in a tent without starting it on fire. He wondered if they made such things. He guessed they did and he further guessed that if such a thing existed, it existed at WalMart if it existed anywhere.

The WalMart which Bob could only assume was in their path, loomed over the very next hill. It was a SuperCenter. They had found their Mecca. Bob pulled in. Fran and Jim were fidgeting in their seats. They were more excited for WalMart than they had been for the amusement park. All cares are forgotten at WalMart. Unless you work there. Or work in one of the factories that makes the products for the place. But I digress. The Coopers elatedly found a parking place close to one of WalMart's entrances. It was always a good day if one found a parking space close to an entrance at WalMart. They piled out of the car and went inside to no doubt buy even more than what they planned on. The killer parked in a crowd of cars about halfway up the lot. He watched the Coopers enter and walked slowly toward their car, making sure they didn't run back out for a forgotten wallet. When he got to the car, he found the doors unlocked. He opened the back door and found that the Cooper girl had left her purse in the back, pushed halfheartedly up under the passenger's seat. He pulled it out and unzipped it, then stuck the half a pack of joints into the purse's depths before replacing it under the seat. Why only half a pack? He had to keep some for himself, didn't he? The killer went back to his car and waited.

Bob sent the kids off on a scouting run to the camping section with their own cart while he and Debra took a cart to the grocery area. They got to the beverage aisle and Bob looked around to make sure they were alone. He leaned in closer to her. She thought he was going to say something sexual. Instead, he said, "I have to tell you about this dream I had last night." "Yeah?" He sounded scared. His fear was contagious. Bob started to speak and the words failed. He tried again, but nothing happened. He realized the dream was gone. It had troubled him most of the day, but now had floated away and popped like a soap bubble. He could still recall some of the residuals of the dream, but the content was absent. He felt good about that, safe and calm. "I guess I don't remember. Never mind." She smiled. She felt better when she realized that whatever was troubling him was gone. That's what mattered to her, not the source of anger, fear and other emotions, but the reactions and their ceasing. This one had ceased and so was better. They got water, s'mores ingredients, material for class-A hobo dinners, and some items for breakfast. They bought a bundle of firewood and some matches. They got a couple of pans to cook the food in. They got more water for cleanup. They got paper towels and napkins and Handiwipes. They got paper plates and plastic eating utensils. They bought some fruit because it was on sale and some

bread because it was cheap and looked delicious. They bought some low calorie snacks for the ride. When they caught up with the kids, they found the kids had done more than scout out some items. They had found subzero sleeping bags for all, figuring it was better to be too warm than not warm enough. They had picked out two tents. They had picked up two self-inflating air mattresses. They found cheap pillows. They got two blankets, just in case. They also found fire starters, a batter powered lantern, stakes for roasting marshmallows, tent stakes, a netted picnic shelter to keep the bugs out that Bob and Debra made them return because they didn't think bugs would be a problem this time of year. The real find was two portable heaters guaranteed to be safe in any tent properly rated for combustibility. They also had in their cart some practical things that no one had thought of yet. For instance, Fran had a CD player with seven second skip protection and a selection of CDs, including albums by Nirvana, Tool, Pearl Jam and others. Debra rolled her eyes when she looked at the covers, but not being hip on the musical selections available to disenfranchised youth, she allowed them to stand. Jim, on the other hand, had a couple of hand-held video games, a board game the whole family could enjoy and enough batteries to last through a nuclear holocaust. Bob protested, but Jim talked him into the purchases.

So the Coopers figured they were ready for their camping excursion and waded through the mire of the WalMart checkout area. Waiting in line for that, of course, they found a few other things that looked like they might come in handy on an overnight stay, such as pop, candy bars and gum. These things they purchased as well. By the time they got the carts out to the car, they had purchased so much stuff that they could barely fit it into the trunk of their car. So, a few items had to be stored in the back seat in between Fran and Jim. The killer watched their struggles to load their purchases into their car and almost asked if he could help them by loading some of it into his car, which was also their car. However, in the end he decided it wasn't the right time to make his presence known. He still wasn't sure if was going to kill them or not. He did know for sure he wouldn't kill them until he'd had a chance to speak to them. It appeared now that they were going camping, so killing them might not prove too difficult if that's what he decided to do. With this new knowledge, he found himself wishing he had time to run in to WalMart as well so he could purchase some outdoor gear. But not knowing exactly where they would end up, he had to keep on tracking them. Finding a place to camp proved more difficult than the Coopers had assumed it would be. A lot of the parks were closed for the season. Surely, they thought, there had to be at least

one place that was open to late season campers--a rare and slightly crazy breed. They skirted the edge of the National Forest awhile, where their map showed the highest concentration of campgrounds and had no luck. The Coopers proved to be difficult to follow in their periodic stops and turnarounds. The killer was sure a few times that he was going to be spotted. Anyone with any experience in counter-surveillance would have spotted him a long time ago. Luckily, the Coopers were too distracted with their own problems. After hitting all of the major campgrounds and a few smaller ones, they realized they would have to venture into the forest itself if they were going to have any luck. The forest edge of the forest was marked with large wooden signs painted brown with the name of the forest carved into it surface and painted yellow and green: Mark Twain National Forest. Fran had read some Mark Twain this year at school. She wondered if there were monuments to Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn out in the forest. The trees were mostly conifers, but there enough leafed trees to dot the sides of the hills and mark it with speckles of yellow and red, in sharp contrast to the almost blackness of the conifers. They drove down and up through the winding mountain roads. There were virtually no cars on the road. Occasionally, Bob would see a car in his rearview mirror. It was a car much like

his own car. It even sported plates from the same state though he couldn't make out if the county was the same. Seeing a car similar to his own did not surprise him. He'd purchased the car for the quality of it being so ubiquitous so as to be inconspicuous. Bob had never considered before the implications of that decision. Why had it been so important to him to be so inconspicuous? When he thought about it, everything he'd done since he'd graduated college had been in almost excessive effort to appear normal. He thought about his childhood for the first time in a long while. He had never really considered it before. He grew up with a brother and sister and a mom and a dad. They had been normal. Perfectly normal. They had even had a white picket fence and a dog. Every so often they would get into the kind of trouble kids get into and they would have to make decisions about what they really believed in and the true nature of their morals, but in the end their upbringing always triumphed. The dog--THE DOG Bob had completely forgotten about Girl. The dog belonged to the kids, technically, so they should have thought about it, too. But since he did most of the caretaking of the dog--who would otherwise starve to death--he knew the real responsibility fell on his shoulders. However, he decided he would take the opportunity to teach the kids a lesson in responsibility; he

only hoped Girl hadn't paid the ultimate price for their hasty departure. "Kids." Fran and Jim had been sleeping in the back. Debra had been staring at the trees as they whizzed by. All eyes now turned to Bob. "Kids, I just remembered that we forgot the dog. We forgot all about him. This is no time for finger-pointing or blame, but we need to remedy this as soon as possible. Fran, hand me your cellular phone." Fran, being a teenager, had owned a cell phone for almost two years now, to be used only in emergencies. Unlike most teenagers, Fran actually did save it only for emergencies, and since she had never actually experienced an emergency, she barely thought about the device. She dove into her purse and dug out the cell phone. When she dug into her purse, her hands encountered a small box that was unfamiliar. She teased it to the surface through all the other things she kept stuffed in her purse. She nearly brought it out completely, but saw what it was and shoved it back down in a hurry. Why were there cigarettes in her purse? The next thought that came to her was that she needed a smaller purse: something lightweight and compact, something that would go with a dark-colored skirt. She had never worn a skirt before but made a vow at that moment that when they got

home, she would go to the second hand store where she bought all her clothes and get a nice dark-colored skirt. She immediately amended her vow and decided instead that she would get one at the mall. Once these important decisions were made, she had time to consider the fact that there was a pack of cigarettes in her purse. Had her parents put them there? Were they secretly condoning her actions? Had Jim done it in a moment's panic to avoid the rest of them finding out his secret only to forget he had done it? She looked over at Jim, who was looking at her expecting her to produce a phone any second now. He looked sublimely innocent of any knowledge of the item in her purse. She looked at her parents, also looking at her expecting a phone. Neither of them looked in on a gag to make her look silly. They rarely locked their doors; maybe somebody had broken into the car. Who would break into the car and instead of stealing something, add something instead? Maybe the potential thief had been interrupted in the midst of his deed and somehow placing cigarettes in her purse had been a cover. The only other possibility was that strange night in Kentucky, there seemed to be a lot none of them could remember and yet none of them seemed too concerned about that. No, she knew those cigarettes hadn't been in there earlier that day. There had to be a rational explanation. For now, she

needed to get her phone out before her family started thinking she was spaced out on drugs. She was a little. She'd ducked into the bathroom after her parents had sent her and Jim off alone and in the stall she'd taken a few hits off her last joint--just enough to feel a buzz. That had been awhile ago, but she could still feel her high there, lingering. She found her phone on the bottom and dug it out, careful not to let the pack of smokes rise to the surface. She handed it up to her father. Bob handed the phone off to Debra who began to dial the neighbor's number from memory. They weren't exactly friends with the neighbors, but the neighbors had kids too and the Coopers had exchanged contact information with them because it was the safe thing to have more than two sets of eyes who could watch out for the kids and the neighbors understood this. Debra deleted and repeated several digits of the phone number until she was sure it was correct. Bob waited until she had a strong signal at the top of a hill and pulled off to the side of the road. They were all too occupied to notice the car behind them and too focused to look at it as it drove by very fast and disappeared around the next bend. They, of course, couldn't have seen it then pull off onto a side road and wait like a policeman in a speed trap. Debra listened to the phone ring several times and almost hung up when finally she heard a voice on the other end.

"Kim, thank God." "No, no, everything's fine with the kids. Look, we took an impromptu mini-vacation and we completely forgot about our dog, Girl." "Yes. That's the one. Look, can I ask you a huge favor? He should still be chained up in the backyard; could you maybe check on him and give him some food--just until we get back? I would pay you back with interest if you could." "Oh! Ok, that'd be great." "Mmmhmmm." "Ok." "That's fine! Why don't I call you back later so we can discuss that? Thank you so much, you are a godsend." With that, Debra hung up the phone. "Everything's fine, she'll feed him until we get back, no big deal." Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. What no one could hear, on the other end of the line, was Kim telling Debra that she was near the rear window of their house and could check on the dog now. No one else subsequently heard Kim tell Debra, in a worried tone of voice, that their dog appeared to be gone. No one could see Debra's thoughts as she pleasantly ended the phone call at that point. If they could have, they would have seen her turn from worry to horror. She had let her children down and now the

dog was gone and probably either dead, taken in by another family, or captured by animal control. Since they weren't there, they would have no way of reclaiming Girl and she would be the property of another family or resident of the humane society's incinerator by the time they got back. No one could also know how quickly Debra's urge to protect her children kicked in, allowing her to think all these things with no one having access to her immediate expressions and tones of voice had any inkling of--except maybe Bob, but only because they'd been married for however-many years. Debra held the phone in their hand, wishing she could somehow signal to Bob to stop somewhere and take the kids away so she could call Kim back and try to find out some more details. But she couldn't, not without making the kids suspicious, so she sat in her seat, holding onto her daughter's phone and staring out the window as if everything were right with the world. It was easier to fake peace-of-mind when Bob asked her again where the next campground was. She pulled out her map, located their approximate position and told him where to turn. The turn was a few more miles down the road. The Coopers were smack in the middle of the Mark Twain National Forest and the road they were to turn on would take them up over on of the largest peaks in the area and down the other side where they

would, hopefully, find the campground nestled next to a cold, spring-fed lake in a small clearing on the hillside. When Bob found the road to turn down, Debra gave him a preview of the next few instructions that would lead them to the campground and summed up by giving him the next thing to look for. The road was fine until Bob got to the fork where they were to make their first divergence, and then the road went from old pavement to gravel. With the next scheduled turn, they found themselves on little more than a deer trail with twin, parallel wheel ruts ground into it. This continued long enough that Bob started to worry. Just before Bob could declare this camping idea a bust and throw in the towel, turn around and head straight home, the path met a new gravel road which led to a paved driveway that was the entrance to the campground. The campground was indeed nestled on a hillside next to a beautiful mountain lake of modest size. The campground was barren of campers from all appearances, but the office had a sign in the door that said "Campground open every day until December 25 and every day after." This appeared to be the place. The sites were invisible from the parking area and the Coopers figured they must be embedded in among the forest that surrounded the lake. They couldn't drive further than the parking lot, so that meant they would have to carry their equipment out to the campsite.

Bob pulled the car into a parking spot and went into the cabin to talk to the grounds keeper. When he did that, Debra sent the kids off to check out the lake. As soon as they were out of earshot, she redialed Kim's number. She got nothing but static in her ear. She checked the service and had no bars available. She tried walking around some to see if the phone could find a signal with no success. She even hiked a short way up a small hill and still her phone could find nothing. It was a void in the service field, a black hole of cell phone signals. She cursed her luck and prayed that Kim had the wherewithal to try calling the humane society and the concerned initiative for her neighbors to at least look in the paper for an advertisement for a found dog, if not to take out her own advertisement for the same lost dog. But the truth of the matter was she didn't know if Kim knew or cared enough to do any of those things. She barely knew the people they trusted the most next to themselves for the care of their children. That wasn't unusual in Debra's life. She knew hardly anyone and relied solely on Bob and her children and the internet to provide the stimulation and entertainment of her life. She had a book club, but didn't know anyone there and was always afraid to say anything more than the most obvious observations about the book they were reading for fear of sounding either snobbish or stupid. However, never until that

moment where she thought the dog was dead or missing did she realize just how lonely was the existence she led. While Bob negotiated a campsite and a fair price and the kids skipped stones into the pond as kids with nothing better to do often do, Debra sat on the top of the hill she had climbed for her cell phone's sake and cried quiet tears that none of her family would ever see or even suspect. The killer found tailing the Coopers without being spotted increased in difficulty substantially when they started going down the loosely maintained back roads toward the campground. He had to stay out of sight, but he also had to know where they turned. There were other methods of discovering this information, but those methods were slow and tedious. When the Coopers took a fork in the road and the road they were on became gravel. The killer decided that he would only be able to follow them by riding their tail. He did not have the benefit of a map because the car belonged to Bob and Bob had never found any reason to carry a map. In that respect, the killer was at Bob's mercy. So, instead of trying to tail them closely enough to see their route, the killer backed way off from his pursuit to give them time to find their way and then resumed the chase. At every possible turn, the killer had to stop the car, get out and check for some telltale signs that the car had left the gravel road

for greener pastures. He almost missed the real turn when he got to it because it was covered well--not a very prudent business move on the part of the campground proprietor, the killer thought--but when the killer got out to investigate, it was obvious off the bat that was where the Coopers had turned. The killer followed this path carefully, checking each bend for sign of the Cooper's car. The killer wondered what could be at the end of this dirt trail. Surely there was no campground back here in the middle of nowhere. Surely this meant that Bob and the Coopers had decided to find a quite place off the beaten path to settle in for the night. However, he could tell by the grooves in the road and the depth of the tire tracks that the Cooper's had continued on this path at a constant speed as thought they knew exactly where they were going. When the dirt road abruptly ended in a paved driveway, the killer hit the brakes and backed off out of sight. He got out of the car and went up through the woods, finding a vantage point where he could assess the situation. The Cooper's car was parked in the small lot, nearby a plain brown shack with a black on yellow sign advertising year-round camping. He didn't see any of the Coopers at first, but then he heard a shout and a woman's voice responding. He pinpointed Mrs. Cooper, who was sitting on a hill. The kids were down the hill, near a lake judging by the sounds he could hear. He supposed

Cooper must be in the shack, setting up the family's camping adventure, which apparently involved sleeping directly in the woods as opposed to a campsite like most of the other places had. He waited and watched.

23. The woods are lovely, dark and deep It took the Coopers the rest of the afternoon to set up their tent. The man in charge of the place was a nice older fellow who looked to Bob like a retired lumberjack, judging by the dirty old had and red flannel shirt. He'd told Bob just to pick a spot any old where and pitch their tents. He gave them a broom to sweep away pine needles and rocks and such and even offered to lend them a couple of fishing poles to fish for the wild trout which swam the lake. Bob had at first declined, thinking it would be too cold for trout fishing, but then he thought of Jim and how Jim had begged them not to go to Kentucky and how they had laughed it off, despite the suicide attempt, and how right Jim had been all along. He figured he owed it to him to at least offer to fish with him. Bob couldn't remember the last time he'd gone fishing. He couldn't remember any specific time he'd gone fishing. He remembered whistling and taking his old cane pole down to the local creek with his brother. He remembered how they would get

into trouble, but he didn't remember anything else about fishing. He couldn't picture any of it. He couldn't remember any specific sights, specific sounds or ever catching any fish. He wished at that point that his brother was still alive so he could rehash those old times, but his brother had been killed in the war. His sister had died not too long after that of birthing complications. His parents had been taken in a car accident a few years before he'd moved to that Medium-sized City in Middle America. Bob got a little choked up when he thought about how he had lost his family and wished they were around for just one afternoon so he could reminisce with them. There were so many things he couldn't remember well. Just talking with them for a little while, he was sure, would bring it all back. In the midst of all of this, Bob decided he would take the old man up on his offer and he and Jim would fish a little while for trout. When they got the camp all set up, Debra and Fran collected rocks while Jim and Bob dug a hole out for the fire. They stacked the wood in a teepee and with some kindling and fire starters, got a pretty good blaze going to which they added their hobo dinners. While those cooked, Bob tried to show Jim how to tie fishing knots and cast and such, but found most of that knowledge was too far in the past. They gave it a try anyway and Jim even caught a small trout, but they both grew

frustrated and were happy to quit when Debra announced that dinner was ready. After dinner, Jim and Fran roasted marshmallows while Debra and Bob enjoyed a couple of after dinner cigarettes from the back Bob had purchased before their excursion into Kenutcky. These two cigarettes were only the third and fourth from the original pack. Bob had almost thrown them away after that first day, in fact, but smoking now, in the quiet evening while a fire blazed seemed the right thing to do. Having eaten their fill of marshmallow and chocolate sandwiches, Fran announced that she was going to find a place to relieve herself. She took the roll of toilet paper that the old man had sold to Bob and wandered up the hill, into the woods. She made sure she could see the fire from where she was, but she wanted to be far enough away from her family that they wouldn't know that kind of relief she had gone to do didn't require toilet paper. She took the small flashlight and opened her purse. She sat down on the hillside overlooking the lake and took out the pack of cigarettes she had found. She opened them up and sniffed them. They weren't cigarettes, unless cigarettes smelled that much like marijuana, and she didn't think they did. She took one of the ten white sticks out and looked at it. It had a filter and perfect paper cover like a cigarette, but it was

definitely filled with marijuana. She smelled it, trying to detect any hints of poison it might contain. It smelled no worse than the others she'd had, actually a little better. She put the filter in her mouth and lit it. With the first hit, she knew she was dealing with something much more potent than the other joints she'd had. She leaned back until her head was touching the ground, then settled the rest of her body down on the hard, cold dirt. There were pine needles and jagged branches that stabbed her back and arms, but she didn't notice. Through the trees above her, she could see stars and strings of nebula. She didn't hear, despite the dry twigs and needles that under a normal foot would have crackled and popped, the approaching footsteps behind her. The killer had done this before. She didn't hear him sit down because he didn't want her to hear. He drew his knees up to his chest, resting his forearms on his kneecaps. His gun, with silencer, hung from his right hand, tracing circles in the air between his feet. She giggled at the sky. She was just one girl against the universe armed only with a stick of burning plants and the chemicals it produced. But she knew she was winning. She could see all the stars and nebulae and un-see-able particles bowing in her direction, acknowledging her existence. She giggled

because she knew the secret that the universe only pretended to be big and powerful. It was really like her biology professor back at home, large and intimidating, but empty in the places it mattered most. She smiled. She took another drag and while she held the smoke in her lungs, handed her joint up to the forest. The forest took it from her hands gently and took its own drag, blowing a cloud of pungent smoke back in her direction. She giggled at the forest for participating in her illicit activities. The killer took another drag from her joint. He set the gun in the dirt. The end of the barrel pointed at the top of her skull. He thought it was time to reveal his presence to her. He wanted her to take him down to where the other Coopers were and there they would commune and reach some conclusions. He wasn't still thinking about killing them, not anymore. He looked down at her, smiling with her eyes closed. He pulled the trigger of his gun. The bullet shot through the top of her head, tore through the soft tissues below and ended up in her heart. Had he meant to do that? He didn't know. He took another drag, wondering if he felt bad that it had happened. He tried to cry. Nothing happened. He blew out the smoke. He leaned over and kissed the girl on the lips. "I'm sorry," he told her, unsure if he meant it.

He looked at his gun. He was a killer, after all. He'd snuck up on her without her knowing in the dark. What else had he meant to do? He had no answer. He snuffed the joint in a clear space of dirt and stood up. He stretched and trudged down the hill, not caring if he made noise anymore. Fran stayed on the hill, her eyelids closed, but beneath the lids her eyes were still pointed up at the heavens, and her mouth was still stuck in its sardonic smile, mocking a universe that pretended not to care about the little tiny bits that composed it. She was no longer a little girl, nor even a young woman, but only a statue, a piece of artwork commenting sending its comment back to the world. The killer broke through the edge of the forest near the Cooper's campsite. A voice--the mother's--called, "Fran?" The killer, still hidden behind the tent, did not answer. Debra was the mother's name. He wondered how he knew that. He decided it was because he was a killer and a killer had to know every detail about his target so he could maximize his opportunities to kill the target. It was simple math. He came out from behind the tent. The Coopers were so full of questions. They probably wondered who he was, what he was doing, where Fran was, among other things. Only Bob had a look of recognition and his face was filled with horror. The killer, before the Coopers could

articulate their questions, held up his hands like a politician silencing the crowd. He didn't consciously notice the gun, still in his right hand, because for him it was an extension of his body, like his fingers. The Coopers, on the other hand, saw the gun and fell silent. The barrel of the gun was covered with thick, congealing blood and bits of flesh. Debra noticed that the killer's legs were covered with sprays of the same thing. She started a scream which died in her throat and dissolved into a weak gurgle, backed by wide eyes and shock. Seeing the blood hit a reset button in her brain and she simply reverted to the innocent numbness of a baby, unable to comprehend or articulate. She tried pointed and discovered she had no arms. She didn't have to bother, Bob had seen the blood, too, and was already shielding Jim's eyes from the sight. The killer took a seat on the Cooper's cooler, where Fran had been sitting. He sat for a minute, searching for the right words. "What's your son's name, Bob?" Bob couldn't make words. The gun was a like a force, closing his throat while it existed. "Bob?" Bob found his breath, "Jim, Mr. Jenkins. His name was Jim." "You said, 'was,' Bob. Your son's still alive, though, isn't he?"

Bob felt tears tickle his stubble. He wished the tears were poison as they slipped into his mouth. He nodded. The killer reached out for Jim. "Let me get a look at him." Bob turned his body, shielding Jim from the killer. Bob pointed his gun at Debra's heart without even looking. "Bob, don't make me shoot your wife in front of you." Bob shook his head and reluctantly released his son, allowing the killer to pull the boy closer. Bob still clung to Jim's shirt, as though he could pull the boy out of the path of a bullet should the need arise. Debra covered her face with her hands, unable to watch what might transpire. The Coopers, being simple people, had reduced their mourning, they had moved right to acceptance. They had seen the blood. You couldn't deny blood. You couldn't bargain with it. You couldn't hate it because it just was without regard to your feelings and your actions. All you could do was accept it and let the sadness it created become you. The killer looked into Jim's eyes. He didn't know the boy. He became frustrated and looked harder. Still nothing. Something had told him that he knew this boy, but now, here before him, he didn't see anything he knew. He put the gun in the boy's belly, shielding the gun from Bob and Debra.

He almost pulled the trigger, but then he saw something. It wasn't something he recognized, it was recognition itself. He didn't know the boy, but the boy knew him. Curious, he asked, "Who am I, kid?" Jim spoke through gasps as though he were crying without making tears, "You're the man in the white T-Shirt." "And who is that to you?" "I don't know?" "Why not?" "Sometimes he wants to help us, save us from the bad man in the red flannel shirt who sometimes looks big and other times looks small." Jim stopped as though that explained everything. "Go on." "Sometimes he..." Jim didn't want to finish the sentence. He looked at his dad who nodded urgently. Tell him, the nod said, tell him whatever he wants to know. "Sometimes he wants to shoot us. He doesn't care. He just wants to shoot us and be done with it." The killer let the gun drop between his legs. "But you have to tell me why. You have to tell me how the man in the White T-Shirt knows when to do which."

Jim thought hard, trying to come up with something in the cloud of memories that old dreams make. "When he wants to kill us, his shirt is red. He can't remember his name." The killer opened his coat, to show Jim that his undershirt was still spotless. Jim looked and saw a big red spot of blood that had bled out from its original pinpoint size to the size of a half-dollar. The killer followed Jim's eyes. He nodded. "But my name, surely I know my own name." "What's your name?" "The ki--" The killer stopped. His mind was blank. He'd been the killer so long, he couldn't remember being called anything else. He searched his memory banks for something else, anything. He wondered why he was trying so hard to come up with a name. He had killed the girl with a clean shirt, why should it matter now? Why should he care? Whether the Coopers were who he had once thought they were or not, they were at least nobody. Couldn't he kill a group of nobodies? Couldn't he end them right then and there? The killer realized he had been silent for a long time. He looked at the Coopers. Jim had resumed his seat next to Bob and was staring up at him, not knowing what to expect. The locked his eyes on Jim's. The boy contained an answer he couldn't quite get at. It wasn't fair.

He fired a shot, without looking, into the mother's heart. She rolled over backward. Jim and the killer's eyes stayed locked. He swung the pistol around and shot Bob in the face. The boy had tears in his eyes now. The killer wondered if he could make tears. While still looking at the boy, he fired a shot into his own foot. He felt no pain as the shot ripped through bone and flesh. "I don't know my name." "Why not?" It took Jim a long time to spit out those two words. The killer considered the question. "Maybe I don't know where names come from." "You get them when you are a kid." "I don't think I was ever a kid." "Everybody was a kid, once." "Maybe I wasn't." "Everybody was." The killer grew weary of debating the point with the child. He pointed the gun at the boy's chest and fired. As the bullet left the gun and flew toward its final destination, a wave of recognition washed over the killer. He remembered his dream. It wasn't the boy he knew, but the man. He saw in that instant before the bullet impacted the boy's chest, the bits and pieces

of a boy he'd known once, long ago. But it wasn't this boy, it was another boy; the boy who became the boy's father. The bullet erased the boy's life and the killer fell at the side of the dead man. He looked hard for the face of the boy he'd known. He looked for the answers that the man who was the boy might reveal. But all that was left was a black blister of already-congealing blood. The face that he once had known was gone. The brain that contained, somewhere deep, the memories, he'd scrambled. He touched the face and felt the skin stretched thin. Why had he never noticed this absence of childhood? Why hadn't he listened to the boy? A memory hit him then. It was he and Bob. It was just a feeling, maybe even created in his own mind, but it was set in the lightest of summers and he felt the warm breeze brush his face. He felt the soft, damp, yielding ground beneath his feet. He felt the warmth of first love's kiss press his cheek. The killer raised his gun to his face and erased the memory forever.

24. The End That's the story we all know. The boy's vision comes true. It's always the last vision that becomes the reality, isn't it? It's the last things we cling to and the last things that destroy us. Yet, I hear you screaming. I hear you telling me to tell the story right. You want to know about the dog. You are

begging me to tell you about the dog. I don't know what happened to the dog. More than likely, the killer left him in the car and eventually he died of starvation, being too quiet and calm to ever alert the kind old man shed, he probably put his head down, maybe whined once at the death he smelled in the air and let life go. Bill? No one knows. His story is lost. He went looking for the killer and found his end. He disappears from the history and never returns. Korla. Korla Korla korla korla. She never recovers. Her company eventually dies because she was its heart, its only reason for being. She chose her subordinates so well that when the time finally came for them to admit that Korla wasn't returning, they found they couldn't and so they let things falter and die. She faded away as the ones lacking both mental faculties and loved ones often do. What secrets did Bob's memory hold? Surely since I who know all things about these people, I must know that. You're wrong. I know only what they reveal to me and nothing more. I don't know the secret of Bob's memory. I don't know the name of the killer. I am no omniscient, just an old story-telling fool. But there I see the daggers in your eyes. I see the looks on your faces that tell me that promises were made and that I have broken them and let you down. I promised to reveal to you secrets, not simply tell you stories you've heard before. And as you press me, you threaten my life, little ones, in this world

of lightness and love, indeed I do remember. I know, as I said, only what the people reveal to me. I have a manuscript and from it I have seen more and stranger things than what I have laid out. However, it can't be truth, can it? Truth is simple and tragic. What I have seen is hard and magical and unbelievable and I wonder if you could believe me if I told you. But you press. You pres, but don't blame me if what you find in here you scream at and wrench against. Is it truth? I don't know. Stop listening, tune out. I beg you not to hear the lies that spill out of my mouth because in them is doubtful truth but doubtless lies. Let's return to that forest.

23. The woods are lovely, dark and deep ... with the first hit, she knew she was dealing with something much more potent than the other joints she'd had. She leaned back until her head was touching the ground, then settled the rest of her body down on the hard, cold dirt. There were pine needles and jagged branches that stabbed her back and arms, but she didn't notice. Through the trees above her, she could see stars and strings of nebula. She didn't hear, despite the dry twigs and needles that under a normal foot would have crackled and popped, the approaching footsteps behind her. The killer had done this before. She didn't hear him sit down because he didn't want her

to hear. She knew he was there, however. She couldn't hear him, but she could sense him the way any animal can sense another's presence. Perhaps it's the breath and the other minute sounds and smells that we can't consciously detect that gives us the sense of another's presence. He drew his knees up to his chest, resting his forearms on his kneecaps. His gun, with silencer, hung from his right hand, tracing circles in the air between his feet. She giggled at the sky. "I'm just one girl against the universe armed only with a stick of burning plants and the chemicals. And yet. Ye I know I'm winning. Everything, the stars and nebulae and un-see-able particles, they all bow in my direction. It's like the universe is acknowledging my existence, but it's just kind of shy, you know?" She giggled again and took another drag. "The universe only pretends to be big and powerful. It's really like my biology professor back at home, large and intimidating, but empty in the places it matters most." She smiled. She took another drag and while she held the smoke in her lungs, handed her joint up to the forest. The forest took it from her hands gently and took its own drag, blowing a cloud of pungent smoke back in her direction. She giggled at the forest for participating in her illicit activities.

The killer took another drag from her joint. He set the gun in the dirt. The end of the barrel pointed at the top of her skull. "Is that a penis reference?" She laughed in that wonderful way only women can laugh-delightful to the ear with a hint of wickedness--as she rolled and rested her head on his shoe. Maybe it was the pot, but somehow she looked even older than she had last time he'd met her. She looked old and wise and, above all, sexy. She somehow emitted sexuality like the sun emitted warmth and though. She was staring into the deepest part of the darkness. "Sometimes I wonder when I'll rejoin the universe. We all do, you know? We become little bits and pieces when our world explodes. We fly off and we become the next stars. Nothing ever stops turning and whirling." "You're still young. You have a while to go before you rejoin the cosmos." "But not really. Isn't that the trick of life? We have moment to moment and by the time we realize how much we've had, our final moment comes and there's no way to go back to those old moments, the ones we've had, and reclaim them. They're gone." The killer took another drag and placed the joint between her lips with his own fingers. She sucked the soft end of the

cigarette. He could feel her lips pucker against his calloused fingers. He retracted the joint and held it smoldering in his hand. He wanted her to take him down to where the other Coopers were and there they would commune and reach some conclusions. He wasn't still thinking about killing them, not anymore. He looked down at her, but could no longer see her face. With the innocent tenderness of youth, but with the desirous knowledge of adulthood, she reached up to him and he let her touch him. Christ, what was he doing? This was the first woman he'd ever been attracted to in his life and she was but a child. He pushed her hand away and she pushed herself up onto her knees. Her face was only millimeters from his. His breath caught in his throat. She spread his legs to move in closer to him. He felt dominated, helpless. She kissed him and he let her because he couldn't deny her what she wanted. He could feel her body press against his crotch and it was arousing. A part of him thought he should feel horror or sickness as well, but those feelings simply weren't there. She pushed his back to the dirt and he let himself fall. This couldn't happen. Something was wrong, he knew, with the entire situation. He didn't love her. He didn't love women. However, she wasn't acting like a woman and wasn't treating him like a man and maybe that was the key.

He decided for reasons he couldn't explain, backed by emotions he couldn't feel, that he couldn't go through with the act. He pushed her away and sat back up. She looked wounded. She looked at him as though he'd just denied her something sacred. Maybe he had. He picked up his gun again. If she could have seen the color of his face in that darkness, she would have seen him blushing. He wasn't blushing with shame at what she had tried to do, but what she had succeeded in doing. He'd felt something he'd never felt for a woman before. He thought about Korla. He had never loved her, but she had loved him and yet had never been able to do what this young girl had done to him. She had never been able to make him desire her. "We can't." "Because it's wrong?" "Yes. I don't know. I'm not sure what that means." "I'm too young?" "No, it's not that." "What, then?" "I'm...I'm a homosexual." She nodded as though she understood, but in truth she was too young to really understand. "But that's not it completely. I'm attracted only to men. Only to men and to you. I don't know why. That's the truth. I

can't because I know who I am and I don't know why you have the power over me that you do." "I understand." He touched her hair. It was light and free. He caressed her face. She closed her eyes, leaning into his touches. He raised his gun to her chest. He tried to pull the trigger, but couldn't. He didn't know why. He wanted to kill her, wanted to erase the one existence that could make him doubt his own, but he couldn't do it. "I don't think you can." He leaned over and kissed her on the lips, gently, almost paternally. "I'm sorry," he told her, unsure if he meant it. They heard a scream below, from the campsite. Fran turn and stood, trying to make her eyes penetrate the darkness to the scene below. The killer was already moving. He tore through the woods, into the dying light of the campfire. A man stood over the boy. He had a hatchet in one hand and a knife in the other. The knife was buried in the boy's gun. Bob was in the lake, struggling to keep his head above the shockingly cold, deep water. Debra was twisted in the wreckage of the kid's tent, screaming in primal, maternal fury. The killer brought his gun to bear on the man, but the man saw the movement in the periphery and with a lightning strike

swiped the gun from the killer's hand with his hatchet and released the boy, turning to meet the new assailant head-on. The speed of this foe had surprised the killer. The man looked old at first sight. He looked, in fact, like a kindly ex-lumberjack. His red-flannel shirt and baseball hat sealed the deal. It was a façade, the killer saw. The man was a beast and the killer wouldn't be fooled again. He pulled his knife from his belt. He made the first move, feigning an all-out dive in for the heart. His real move was a pivot on his left foot and an upward slash on the man's attacking arm. The man in red flannel read the move and reacted, smashing the killer's hand with the broadside of his hatchet before bringing the weapon across the killer's stomach. The killer felt the blade bite into his stomach. The cut wasn't deep enough to spill his guts, but it wasn't far off either. He would have to be cautious not to tear the wound. This man knew his business and knew how to handle his weapons. That move had been the killer's best. He was fast running out of options. The man laughed with mouth full of snarled teeth. The killer could see that Bob's hands had found purchase on the rocks, but his struggles to pull himself out were in vain and soon the cold water would make the decision of whether or not to

continue struggling for him. Debra, the mother, was crouched beside her son, who was also clinging to life be a thread. The killer fended off two swings of the man's hatchet which had been designed to do nothing more than back the killer up a few steps. The killer could feel the tree trunk behind him. He knew if he stepped left, he would plunge into the water, which was apparently much deeper than it appeared. He took a small step to the right and found more tree. The tree behind him was large, or it was two full-sized trees grown together at the roots. It didn't matter much, the killer wouldn't be able to dash around them before the man could reach him. The guy was simply too fast. The killer heard a noise to his left, from up the hill, deep in the woods. The man hadn't heard it, or didn't mark it as important. The killer played his poker face. The sound might have been what he thought and might have meant what he hoped it meant. It was a long shot, but it was all he had. He needed to stay alive for just a few more seconds if he was to have a chance. He tipped right, the only way he had to go. The man bought the bait this time and the killer went left, then launched off the tree and dove into the dirt, past the man. He held his stomach as he fell, refusing to let the rocky ground open his wound further. The man turned and saw his prey was now prone and

without leverage and smiled. The delay was what the killer had really hoped for. The sound he'd heard had become a reality. Stupid shot out of the woods like a homing missile launched at the stranger. The man heard the noise, but had failed to read the importance of it on the killer's face. The poker eyes had succeeded. The man whirled with the hatchet, which bit into the dog's flank hard, but it was too late for him. The killer knife flew true from his hand, sticking into the man's neck. The man dropped to his knee, losing his hatchet which stayed stuck in Stupid's side. He reached up slowly and touched the new growth on his neck. He pulled it out. This was a mistake, and the man didn't have too many left to make. The blade sliced the muscles and tubes inside his neck further than they already had. Blood sprayed out in a tube, landing on the ground next to him. He fell against he tree which he'd had the killer trapped and leaned his head against it, breathing his last. The killer lifted himself up, intending to use the adrenaline while he still had it to pull Bob out of the frigid water. When he reached took hold of Bob's arm, he saw Fran join his side and take the other arm. They pulled Bob out of the water and onto the dirt. He was barely conscious and now covered in mud.

"Debra," he wasn't sure how he knew her name. It came to him like every name came to him, as though he'd known it his whole life, "get Bob out of those clothes, wrap him up in some blankets and get that fire going--get any heat on him you can." She looked down at Jim and then up at the man she didn't know. "Do it. I'll take care of Jim." Stupid whined nearby. He knew that he shouldn't be thinking about the dog at a time like this, but the fact that Stupid was still alive proved he had four lives, so he figured the dog must be worth saving. "Fran, go get Stu--I mean, Girl. Bring him over here." Fran bowed her head and did as she was told. The killer lifted the boy up and took him closer to the campsite, where Debra had already stripped Bob and begun wrapping him in blankets. The killer cleared a space on the ground and set the boy down. The knife wound was deep, mortal. He looked away from the wound and his eyes found the boy's. "You're the man in the white T-shirt." The killer looked at his shirt, which was a color study in shades of red from both his blood and Jim's. "Do you know me?" "I thought the red on your shirt was bad, but I guess I was confused." "Who am I?"

"I don't know. You're the one who saves us and the one who kills us. You saved us from the man in the red flannel shirt, but it wasn't his guts that got spilled." "Yours aren't spilled either, we'll fix you up." The boy smiled. "I know." Fran set the dog down gently on the ground. The dog had apparently whined when the hatchet had finally come dislodged. He licked his back leg a few times, lapping up blood and hair. Then the dog limped over to Bob and licked his bloody tongue across Bob's forehead. Bob's eyes opened. "Hey, Girl. Where have you been?" Bob's eyes drifted shut again, and the dog seemed satisfied. It limped over to Jim and licked him on the face, then again. Jim held out his palm for the dog and it began licking there intently, cleaning the dust and dirt from the boys fingers. The killer looked back at Jim, whose eyes had never left him. "You name. You only killed us because you couldn't remember your name." The killer looked to the others for help, but they had none to give. Bob's eyes fluttered open again and they were absent, but the color in Bob's face looked less blue, less like that of a dying man. "Mr. Jenkins? What are you--" Bob's voice trailed off as he drifted back into sleep unconsciousness.

The killer looked back at the boy, hoping for an answer in the boy's little, lost eyes. "Why can't you remember?" The killer shook his head. "Where do names come from? I've been the killer as long as I can remember." "They come from being a kid. What did they call you when you were little?" The killer thought for a long while. "I don't think I ever was little. I can't remember being young." "But you must have been, you have to remember." "I want to. I thought seeing you would help me remember." But when he looked in the boy's eyes, he didn't see anything he knew. The whole thing was ridiculous anyway. He knew if he wanted the boy to live, he should be getting him to a hospital and quickly. He also knew that the ride to the hospital would kill the boy. The road they had come down had been too old and worn down. If he drove with the boy in the car, the knife would jostle around, scrambling his insides until he finally succumbed to the shock. If the boy had any chance, it was removing the knife and somehow stopping the bleeding. But doing that, he knew, would also be deadly. He had no options. The kid would live for hours, though, in his condition, until septic shock finally overcame him.

The killer stood up. He looked around the woods, and out to the lake. Nothing was nearby. He could see no power lines or telephone wires. They were alone and isolated. A cell phone probably wouldn't even work in these hills. They had nothing but each other. He hadn't stabbed the boy, but every option he had available would turn him into the boy's killer as sure as if he had. He looked down, again, at the boy by his feet. Then he saw it. Close up he could only see the boy's face: his lips, his nose, his long juvenile eyelashes, his downy hair, the hint of a pimple--just the parts that constituted the whole. When he drew back, he could see now what had eluded him before: the whole picture. In the dark half-light of the fire from a few feet away, he saw a hint of a boy he'd once known, but it wasn't the boy at his feet. The boy he'd once known shared some things with this boy--the nose and the eyes, but not the lips and the forehead was all wrong. The boy he knew had been different but this boy was a mixture of those features and other features. He looked at Bob. Bob was still unconscious, sleeping off his hypothermia while his body worked hard, vibrating and rubbing itself together to try to re-stabilize his core temperature. Debra brought out one of the battery--powered heaters the kids had picked out and set it next to her husband's back, flipping it on. As she went about stoking the fire, he

could see hints of her in the boy. What wasn't her in him, was Bob. It hit him as the fire roared back to life. Bob was the boy he knew. Somewhere, buried deep where he couldn't quite retrieve it, he and Bob were playing together and laughing together as boys. Something else to. Something important that he couldn't remember. He knelt beside Bob and tried shaking him awake. "Bob. Bob, who am I?" Bob's eyes rolled and opened up slightly. "Mr. Jenkins," he slurred, "Mr. Jenkins I'm taking the next test, I promise." "Bob. I can administer the next test now if you'd like." "Ok, Mr. Jenkins." "What's the square root of 9, Bob?" Bob's head rolled. "That's a tough one, Mr. Jenkins, let me think." Bob closed his eyes and fell back into sleep. This was getting nowhere. The killer heard the boy whispering behind him. He looked and saw Jim talking to the dog. The dog stopped licking the boy's hand and tried standing, but fell. "White T-shirt man, can you help Girl? She doesn't have much strength left, but she can help dad be awake. Then you can ask him your questions."

The killer didn't know if the boy was right or not, but Stupid hadn't let him down yet, so he picked the dog up in his arms and set him next to Bob's face. The dog licked a few times slowly. Stupid was on her last leg. Three lives had been enough, apparently. Bob's eyes opened again and for a moment they were lucid. "Bob, what's my name?" "It's not Mr. Jenkins?" "No, Bob. It's not." Debra finished with the fire and pulled her husband's hand out of the covers. She had done what he had asked her to do without much thought because she knew somehow it would save her son. She wanted to scream at the stranger to quit babbling and help Jim, but she could see the knife and she knew this was all delay. She knew Jim was already dead and that this was all façade to keep her from knowing it. She wished the part of her that felt pain could shut off. Then it did, just as she wished. He grip on Bob's hand loosened slightly and she realized she was dead. She was cold and shriveled just like Jim, except for her it was only in her heart. Being a simple person, she had forgone the normal routes of grieving and had gone to acceptance. She could see the knife sticking out of her son. She could see the blood. You couldn't bargain with blood. You couldn't deny blood. You couldn't hate

blood because blood wasn't what you hated but it's leaving and how could you hate that? You couldn't let it make you sad because then you would be sad and never wake up. You could only accept it. She had a hint of a smile on her face. Things were so easy now. She looked out to the lake. When this whole nasty affair was over, when Bob had his strength again, she would go for a swim. She would strip to bare skin and plunge into the water and swim like she used to do in middle school. She'd swim right out to the middle and float there on her back, staring up at the moon like she used to. She would stare at it until it took her home to the Man-on-the-Moon's shed and let her live there and eat all the honey she could want until she was full and never hungry again. Fran was worried about her mother, who stared longingly into the lake. Fran took out one of her joints and lit it. The man whose name she didn't know but who reminded her of a pleasant dream was debating with her father while Girl licked her father's face. He was debating his name. Her father kept insisting it was "Mr. Jenkins" and the man kept telling him, "Dig deeper into your past, Bob, who do you see there?" Jim was laying there with a knife-handle appendage growing out of his stomach. Nothing was quite right so she smoked. Her mother looked at her absently. "Honey, those things will kill you."

"I know mom." "Let me have a drag." She passed the joint to her mother, who took a hit off of it and held it in before passing it to Bob. Bob let go of her hand long enough to drag in a full lung of the smoke. He passed it to the killer who hit it absently and passed it back to Jim. Jim took the joint in his fingers. He looked at it for a long time, unsure what it was or how one used it. He put the butt, wet with the spit of those around him, in his mouth and drew off it. He coughed the smoke out, an action which was indescribably painful. He quelled his coughing with some shallow attempts at deep breaths. He took another drag. This one went down easier. He let the smoke go and flicked the joint off into the water like a pro, but then, all kids are expert flickers. Bob's eyes rolled once more, but this time not from hypothermia, but from THC. He looked at the killer. "Hey, I think I know you." The killer, who had, since before the joint had been passed to him, quit talking in order to develop a new strategy, looked back at Bob. "Yes. We were kids together, right?" "What do you remember of your childhood, Bob?"

Bob leaned back. "Nothing specific. I remember the adventures where we would learn that the morals of our parents were the correct ones." "That's not a childhood, Bob, that's Leave it to Beaver." Bob's squinted, as though this would help him put his childhood memories into perspective. "Didn't the Beaver have a brother?" "I think so." "Did he have a sister, too?" "I don't know, Bob." The killer was right. Bob's memories weren't real. They were fabrications modeled after some old sitcom. He thought about his parents' deaths and the deaths of his siblings. He could recall the dates and locations, but he couldn't recall the memories of the funerals. He couldn't remember crying over their caskets, or being comforted by family and friends. He had no other family. He had no friends but his wife. Everything he knew was a lie, he saw. It was like the Man on the Moon, or Santa Claus, just something people told you that you accepted until you saw that it was really just craters and really just your parents staying up too late to enjoy eggnog and sex by the soft lights. Once you saw that, the dreams and the magic was gone and you had just reality.

"I can't remember a single clear event before we moved to that Medium-sized town in Middle America." He looked at Debra, who was inside herself and he was afraid that he would never be able to reach her. But he couldn't worry about that now. "I can't remember meeting my wife. I can't remember when my kids were born. I know these things happened, but it's like they happened to someone else. I can't even remember the name of the town we live in, or the state, but surely those places have names. I've never even tried to think about any of those things. I've just always taken them for what they were and pressed on." The killer felt each of Bob's words like a new needle piercing his skin in a new place each time. They dropped into place, propelled by an unseen force. He realized he had no memories outside of Middle America either. He could remember only routine and death. He could see himself doing things, like sitting naked in the woods, and knowing he'd done those things often before, but he couldn't remember where they started. He could remember a war, but no battles. Everything that had happened to him before he'd met Bill was vague, with no specific words or deed attached. "Bob, who am I?" Bob looked at the killer as a man looks at someone he is seeing for the first time. He glanced and looked around the

killer's face, not directly at it. He skirted the edges of the killer's face, letting the detail stick in his mind. Finally, he leaned back and took in the face in its entirety. "You're Jim. Not my Jim, though. You're little Jimmy from down the street. Or down the hall. Yes, it's a hall. And we have different beds, but somehow they're the same. And we run through a field of mowed grass and the sun-warmed breeze kiss our faces. But then I feel your hand holding mine and that's ok. I feel your lips press against my cheek and I like the way they feel. I feel your lips press against my lips and it's the right thing." The killer picked up the story, "Then there's a darkness. An eclipse that blots the sun, but it's not eclipse. It's the man of the hall. He has found us and is angry. He is angry because we have escaped the halls. I think he will punish us." "I think so too. Instead he talks. We sit on his lap and he talks. We...that's all I can remember..." The killer replayed the scene which Bob and he had described to each other. It all fell into place, like when a moment in the day remind you of a dream you had but you can't remember if the dream was just last night, or many nights ago in a different bed in a different town. The killer picked up Stupid and took him back to Jim. The dog had little left, but licked for what he was worth on Jim's

hand. "I knew you'd be back. Did my dad give you what you needed?" "I think so, Jim, but I can't give you what you need." "What's your name?" "It's Jim. I'm Jim, like you." "Pull the knife out, Jim." "But you'll die." "Do you believe that?" "It's true, it's the way of the world." "That's not true. The man in the white T-shirt killed us because he couldn't remember his name. All he could remember was that he was the killer and the killer must kill. You're not the killer, you're Jim, like me. That man in the white T-shirt saved me from a man in red flannel who wanted to take me into the bathroom and make me hurt in ways even I don't understand. That's the man you are now, you are Jim saving Jim. Girl, Stupid as you call him, has done all he can for me. He hasn't got any lives left and so you have to pull the knife out. Jim saving Jim. You have to believe you can or the man in the red flannel gets Jim and hurts him." The killer nodded. A drop of rain fell on the boy's forehead. The killer looked up and saw the sky was clear. He felt another drop trickle down his chin and stop there, at the end. He felt it. It was warm. He tasted it. It was salty. It was

no raindrop, but a tear. He wondered where they came from. He took the knife in his hands and slowly extracted it from Jim's body. He expected Jim's guts to spill out after the knife, but they stayed inside. He took off his T-shirt and ripped it into long strips. He twisted these together and tied Jim's wound, trying to apply the pressure necessary to stop the flow of blood. It looked like a flood. He hadn't thought a small boy could have that much blood in him. Jim the boy reached out and touched the scar on Jim the man's belly. It was a recent scar, but had been a nasty wound when it had happened. Jim the man looked at this scar as the boy traced it with his finger. This was no scar. This was the wound the man in the red flannel had administered with his hatchet. It had healed cleanly. The killer looked around for the trick mirrors. How long had they been there? But that wasn't the answer. It wasn't the passage of time that had healed him, but the boy--the boy and his dog. Jim the man reached his fingers under his makeshift bandage and found the boy's stomach was no longer punctured. The wound was still there, still a deep cut that would need stitches, but the serious wound as gone as though it had never existed. He went to pat Stupid on the head and realized Stupid's tongue had ceased. The dog had used his remaining lives saving

his boy. That's what dogs are supposed to do, Jim the man thought. Jim the man, when he'd been little Jimmy, had had a dog once. He could see the thing, full of mange with fleas jumping off it in hordes. He'd fed that dog milk every night and watched from a window as the dog lapped the treat up. He'd never been able to pet the dog, only leave it milk and watch it from the window. One night, the big man who Jim the man couldn't remember but who little Jimmy was terrified of, had caught the dog and had grabbed it up by the scruff and smashed its head into the brick wall and left it there, twitching. Little Jimmy had seen the twitches and cried out for the dog to be ok. He knew as long as the dog twitched that meant it was still alive and was trying to stand. He knew that the mean man had hurt the dog, but it would still be ok. He cried for it to keep twitching and begged it to finally stand. Then it had struck him. The twitching wasn't a sign of life at all, but only a final throe of death. The twitching meant death as much as it meant life in other circumstances. It had been is fault, too. He had left the milk out and lured the dog to its death. He was nothing but a stupid, horrible killer. "The man..." Jim the man looked over at Bob, whose eyes were glazed again, but open and looking around.

"The man in the red flannel." Jim the man came again to Bob's side. "He's dead, Bob." The lumbering figure was still slumped against the tree where he'd left him. "The man in the red flannel found us Jimmy. He killed your dog, not you. He did it. You're innocent." "If I'm innocent, then you're stupid. You're nothing," Jim the man repeated little Jimmy's words as they came to him. "You're nothing but a stupid, mediocre balding fat kid who will never amount to anything and will marry some plain-Jane girl and die too stupid to save himself." The words had hurt then, they had been meant to. Little Jimmy had loved his friend, Bob, but the pain the man in the red flannel had caused hadn't been Bob's, but his. The man had sent Bob away and Bob had left little Jimmy there with the man who always wore a red-flannel robe. The man had done things to little Jimmy that Bob couldn't have known. Little Jimmy had cried later, not because Bob didn't care and didn't offer to help, but because Bob hadn't been the one it had happened to. He also cried because he knew Bob was frightened. Bob was frightened by what they had done and the man in the red flannel only proved to Bob how wrong it all was and now Bob would never like him the way he liked Bob and that bitter truth stung him.

Jim the man looked at Bob, wanting to rebuke him and remind him of the betrayal, but Bob had fallen back to sleep. Jim was glad he had. It wasn't Bob he hated and never had been. It had always been Bob and the absence of Bob that had hurt him. It was the pain of lost first-love but it was more than that because it was also the pain of the real world and the pain of ones in charge hurting the helpless. Jim the man saw that Debra's breathing was shallow. She was staring off at the lake, no longer holding her husband's hand. He saw that Fran was looking at Jim the boy. She was probably wondering how much time her brother had to live. The killer who was no killer, or at least not anymore, realized he had to say something. "Jim is going to be alright, Debra, Fran. It turned out the knife didn't cut as deeply as we thought." Debra looked at his mouth as he spoke, her eyes still vacant. "That's just a lie," her voice was flat. Jim the man thought this is how the devil must sound. "My boy Jim is dead--I saw the blood." The killer looked at Jim, who had fallen asleep. He picked the boy up, and the boy adjusted in his sleep. The killer took the boy to his mother and put her hand on the wound, showing her it was deep, but not mortal. "The blood," Jim the man told her, "it was mine."

She blinked and saw her son and saw the shirt wrapped around her son and cried silent tears. She took her boy in her arms and squeezed him, promising never to let him go again. The boy cam to full awareness and told his mom to lay off--his stomach was sore. While they reunited, Jim the man took a seat next to Fran, the still-a-little-girl. She took his hand. "I'm sorry," she told him, and meant it. "Nothing to apologize for. You have IT. Whatever that certain something is that some people have. Just don't break too many hearts, ok?" She nodded, but the woods had lost their power and the pot had worn off and she was just a little girl again, scared and cold.

24. And miles to go before I sleep Jim, the man formerly called the killer but who maybe wasn't such a killer after all, left the Coopers in a hospital, promising to return and promising to help them find new lives in any town anywhere except Middle America. He had to meet one more old friend. They found each other in an Italian restaurant near the border of Kentucky. They had shot the breeze like old friends rehashing old times over old beer.

Bill told Jim about the werewolf and the Billwolf. Jim told Bill about a boy named little Jimmy and his friend Bob and the Coopers and a place he could barely remember and a dog who never had a name. "What happened to you guys, do you think? Why can't either of you remember?" "I don't know. I only know that it has something to do with a man in a red flannel shirt." Bill set his drink down. "A checkered shirt, with a baseball cap." The description fit the old man Jim had killed more than the memories he had. Yet it seemed right as well. "Maybe." "Jim, I--" Bill stopped, unsure of how to proceed, but then dove into it anyway. "There's one more piece to my story. While I was tracking you, I was kidnapped by a woman who claimed to be a goddess. She showed me things--things that don't matter now except to say that I know who I am now. She set me up for murder, Jim. She had me put in prison for the murders you committed. For six months I was in a prison there in the Old Country. Desperate, I finally learned the law and got myself freed." "Six months? Bill, you've only been gone for a few weeks." "This my conscious mind knows. Yet I also know that six months was no dream. Somehow, when I was there, I lived six

months in that prison in only a few days. When I got out, I ran into that woman again, only this time she was a man and she told me they had found you and didn't need me anymore." "Me? What did they want with me?" "I have no idea. Maybe I dreamed them. Except both times the woman--the goddess--wore a red-checkered flannel shirt and a baseball hat." Jim rubbed his cheek. He didn't know what any of this meant. It meant so much and so little at the same time. It was both a lie and the truth as Bill saw it. To him it was just a story, but it had happened, somehow to Bill. He reached out and took Bill's hand. Bill let him take his hand and for the first time in his life he felt conscious desire for another man. It felt like slipping into an old shoe, long forgotten. He looked in Jim's eyes and knew he loved him. "The goddess said she worked for a man she called the artist." The drink in Jim's hand crashed to the table, rolled there, fell to the floor, finally shattered into millions of tiny particles. What had once been a glass was now mostly just air and space. Thoughts flashed through Jim's mind at hypersonic speed. He couldn't see them individually, but they fed his unconscious and the answers to every question he'd had started to become clear. The one in the red flannel was the artist:

purveyor of drugs called dreams, killer, nightmare, goddess, beauty, truth, life and death. The killer, only no longer called so, looked at his hands and Bill's hands and saw little pieces of the artist stuck in there among the normal particles, just as airy but with hints of density between the gaps. Somewhere in the back of his mind he could here the artist laughing.