Dolly’s Coffin

Dolly's Coffin

Illustration by Taylor N. Bielecki

by Wade Newhouse

 

When my daughter Julia was born, she immediately stuck her thumb into her mouth, began to suck on it, and refused to be placated with anything else. We have a few photographs of her as a baby, thumb in mouth, looking new and innocent.

Julia got Dolly for her first birthday. Dolly is a soft pink doll, basically just a puffy stuffed shapeless torso with nubs for arms and legs and an oversized head with a smile painted on. Somewhere inside her squishy middle there was a tiny rattle of some kind, and we knew that Julia had picked Dolly to be her special toy when we could hear the muffled rattle in the middle of the night.

For the first few years after that, Julia carried Dolly everywhere with her, and invariably when Dolly was in one hand the other hand was shoving its thumb into Julia’s mouth. Whatever comfort doll and thumb provided seemed to be magnified by the other; just for fun we would sometimes pull Dolly away from Julia’s arms, and as if they were connected by a magic thread the thumb would pull out also. As soon as we released her, Dolly would snap back into Julia’s embrace and her thumb would pop back into her mouth.

By the time Julia started talking, Dolly was still cute but the thumb was not. We started to ask her when she might be a big enough girl to get through the day without sucking the thumb, but that line of questioning led to silence and a tighter embrace of both doll and thumb.

Are you going to suck your thumb in first grade?

Do you ever see any of your friends sucking their thumbs?

The more you suck that thumb, the longer you’re going to have to wear braces when you’re older.

Of course our talking did nothing. Whatever compels a child to suck their thumb is beyond the reach of language. It was not something she would talk about or try to negotiate; it simply Was, before and beyond all consciousness like St. John’s Word in the Beginning. But we began to decide that the thumb-sucking was becoming psychologically inseparable from Dolly, who by now had lost her ability to rattle and was limply, flatly, threatening to come apart.

When Julia was in third grade, Dolly and the thumb-sucking were becoming rarer parts of Julia’s routine, but in those most shadowy moments between stages of consciousness—falling asleep, waking up, hiding after a particularly traumatic confrontation with authority—she would clutch Dolly and suck her thumb as heartily as when she had been an infant. We decided at the end of that summer that it was time to give Dolly up, and we decided to give Julia as much ownership of the process as possible.

“It’s time for Dolly to go away,” we said one Saturday morning.

“You’re going to throw her away!” Near-hysteria, with some hammy overacting.

“We’re not going to throw her away. We’re going to put her away, someplace safe where she can stay forever. And then when you get older and don’t need her anymore we can take her out and you can see her again.”

The hysteria became a blank stare.

“Now,” we continued. “You should make a box and decorate it however you want, and that’s where we’ll put Dolly.”

Julia considered this idea. Decorating boxes was a favorite activity, one that we had found useful to attach to all manner of otherwise unpleasant tasks. So she looked down at Dolly for a few moments, then went into her room and reappeared with her box of markers. I showed her the empty shoebox that we had already scrounged from a closet, and with a quick glance to indicate resignation, determination, and a fair amount of loathing aimed in our direction, Julia took the box and began to sort through her markers on the kitchen table.

Falling back into the routine we had established for artwork at the table, Julia reached for the day’s newspaper that she could spread out underneath her work. I got to it first and handed her the unread sports section, taking care to keep her away from the large headline on the front page. The oversized typeface announced starkly that the police were searching for the body of a third girl missing and presumed drowned in the lake behind our neighborhood.

* * * * *

Hillman Lake looks, in the early morning and at dusk, as if it might date back to prehistoric times. It is not roundly pond-shaped like those deep swimming holes carved out by glaciers in New England. Instead, it has that skeletal, graspy shape that is so typical of muddy waterways here in the south: long and narrow and winding, with fingers of water that curl in and out between jutting teeth red clay banks studded with pines and live oaks. To look across it at any point is easy, but to turn toward either side and imagine what torturous route it follows from here to somewhere further makes your head spin. Its tendrils snake off from the main body in almost untraceable tentacles of brown water that eventually appear under every secondary and state road north of Raleigh; you mount a strong bridge, believe that you have “crossed the lake” and then three hundred yards later cross another bridge. And then a mile further the trees thin out to your right and you see it over there as well. Occasionally narrow tracks of gravel lead off from the roads to those areas of the banks that have been cleared for fishing, but if you follow one and enjoy that location you might never find the same one again. Weather-blasted gray trees emerge from the shallows, showing their tangled roots above the water and then ending, broken off as if by some silent catastrophe. Up from the red earthen banks the land rises quickly into ridges and swales covered over with forests of white pine. When the water is low you can see the strata of the earth revealed in bronze and coral layers.

But Hillman Lake is not prehistoric. In truth, it is barely historic. It was created by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s to control the course and flooding of the Neuse River and to provide drinking water for the city of Raleigh, which canny planners were beginning to predict would soon burst out of its sustainable postwar growth and into something potentially unmanageable. We have arrived there now. Great care has been taken to ensure that the entire endless perimeter of the lake is well screened from the development that creeps, amoeba-like, endlessly outward from the city. The closest neighborhoods, like ours, are a half-mile away from the water and built to seem organic, entirely and naturally part of the tall leafy forest that, on good days, disguises the very fact of so many people living in such proximity to one another. Numerous paths tumble their way down from our back yards, into the screen of trees and ridges and eventually down to the shoreline.

When I was fourteen my family lived in a small house on a gravel road on a different part of the lake. There were no subdivisions then; houses and streets simply sprang up in one place or another, and ours was one of several two-bedroom red brick ranch homes that had somehow been built in a sort of row not far from SR 98. Back then that was how you got from Wake Forest to Durham, and in the course of five miles you crossed the lake four times. Our road was just out of sight of two of those crossings. Without a neighborhood we had no real neighbors, but in the summers the kids from dozens of houses like mine would drift down to the water’s edge and we would get to know one another. We pursued adventures in the trees and in the water, but none of us ever grew particularly close.

That summer Emily appeared. I don’t know where she lived; I had the impression that she came quite a distance along dusty roads and through thickets to get to the part of the lake where I spent my time. Parents are always exasperated when kids can’t answer simple questions like where someone is from, but it really just never came up. Kids become just summer friends, together as time and opportunity allow. Emily came out of the brush one day and offered to help me build some floating contraption I had pieced together out of logs. Sometimes she joined the other kids in the water; other times she was fishing with one or another. Many times there was just the two of us, playing and growing through the summer the way everyone does.

She had strawberry blonde hair and dark eyes, and at fifteen she was shedding her tomboy angles and starting to soften around the edges. As the summer wore on her legs seemed to grow longer and smoother; the white strap that fell down from her shoulder seemed to grow tighter as her breasts began to be noticeable under her shirt; when she stood in the shallow water with her hands on her hips I began to see curves there. She tossed her hair back from her forehead and laughed at me, and I had to turn away or be caught staring. The other boys I played with noticed it too, and one by one they seemed to drift away in little groups of two or three, not sure what exactly she was good for or how they ought to treat her.

Eventually she realized this, and finally (more brave than I) began to talk about it.

“You ever been skinny-dipping?” she asked me one afternoon.

“No way. You?”

“No. You afraid of some girl seeing you?”

“More afraid of what might be in the water.”

She threw a stick at me. “You think some fish might mistake your thing for a worm and take his chances? You got a hook hidden in there somewhere?”

I jumped up from the water’s edge to the line where the erosion ended and the bank rose up in a sudden jutting line of red clay layers and exposed roots. “You don’t know anything about it. There’s a lot of stress involved in packing all this equipment in the water. What if—” I struggled to find a ribald joke that might sound appropriately grown-up. “What if I got it all tangled up in some roots underwater and got pulled under?”

Now we were both laughing. “I’d come down there and pull you out.”

“Maybe I’d rather stay stuck than have you pulling on me.”

She came up out of the water too and started pulling off her t-shirt and shorts.

“Good lord! Are you really going to try it?”

“No, stupid. I’ve got my suit on.”

She wore a white and yellow one-piece swimsuit. I usually just swam in whatever shorts I was wearing that day, and I always found it fascinating that girls had to change from one look to another in order to be right for swimming. I was sitting on a dead log that had fallen from the eroded ledge down to the water, and Emily sat beside me. It was brutally hot, and the far side of the lake shivered in a filmy haze. I often looked across from here and wondered how long it would take to swim across. At that time it never occurred to me to fear what might hide beneath the surface, or to wonder how deep the water ran.

“We should go skinny-dipping some time,” she said. “Just the two of us. Then we’d know what it was like, but no one else would have to know. That wouldn’t be embarrassing, would it?” She looked at me, not quite. “I mean, you wouldn’t be shy around me, would you? You know I wouldn’t look at anything.”

I shrugged. “Whatever. It’s just looking.”

I was looking somewhere down—not straight down at our feet but kind of halfway down, toward where the waterline began, and I turned toward Emily just as she hooked a thumb into the elastic legband of her suit and snapped it free from wherever it had stuck. In that brief moment the material pulled away from her torso and I saw, unbidden, a glimpse of porcelain untanned skin and a dark tuft of hair. I turned away, pressure rising up into my chest, and then I stood up and took a step closer to the water.

“Are you going in now?”

“No,” I said. “I’m just standing here.”

She hopped down from the log and joined me, then went the few extra steps and into the water up to her thighs.

“You’re not afraid to go out there?” I said.

“I got nothing for the fish to try to grab onto.” She held out her long arms and turned her hip sideways to show me.

“My dad said two girls have been found drowned. Both in like the last two weeks.”

“Boys can drown too, you know.”

“I’m not in the water.”

“Come on in, then. Keep me safe.” She smiled at me, and the complexity of her face then has returned to me endlessly over the years since. I have seen many smiles from many girls, and then women, and each new time I try to figure out how they work, what muscles they use, what emotions they connect between eye and lip and heart. I suspect Emily’s was simply honest, but I had never seen anything like it before.

A breeze came up, and I saw the point of Emily’s nipple stiffen beneath the fabric of her suit. “I think I’m going to go home,” I said.

“Don’t you want to come in with me?”

“Not today.” Then, stupidly: “Maybe tomorrow.”

She laughed, and I think there was some sadness there. “I might not be here tomorrow.”

“Eventually?” It was the most complicated time scheme I could imagine back then. “Eventually.”

I pushed my way back through the brush and up the hill away from the water, and I thought that she might be close behind me. At some point I turned back, and I could just make out the gray glint of the surface through the trees, but she wasn’t there. When I was back on my street, with the chunks of gravel uncomfortably real beneath my feet, I felt the full weight of my foolishness. With the straight line of the road and the sight of those tiny houses tucked under their green and yellow canopies, the realization that a pretty girl had asked me to come into a lake with her pushed down on me so crushingly that I felt dizzy and out of all time and space. I turned back, but the trees had pulled over the path I had taken, and it suddenly seemed that I had been here between the mailboxes and driveways forever.

When I heard the next day that Emily’s swimsuit had been found at the edge of the lake, my first hurt, ignorant thought had been a lashing indignation that she had actually dared to go skinny-dipping without me. Even moments later, when I realized the true import of this discovery, I could not escape the mental picture of my own water-pruned fingertips touching some part of her just under the glassy green surface and how she might have smiled at me there, in secret, just the two of us.

After a day with no sign of her, the police and groups of volunteers began to descend on our corner of lake to search, dredge, and speculate. I lurked at the edge of the treeline, not far from where I had surrendered to my particular stupid fear, but after a time the police said they had enough men for the search and any more would be in the way. A Baptist preacher, his hair platinum-blonde above dark-rimmed eyeglasses, prayed with members of his congregation and explained the duality of grace and free will while middle-aged women sat in the shallowest water and clenched their hands and eyes tightly shut.

Closer to me was a plump woman of uncertain age, wrapped in thick brown and gray cloaks and blankets. She looked as if she herself might have been pulled from the water recently, with greasy brown hair half-plastered and half-frizzing around her round white face. Her skin was leathery, and a smell like old smoke lingered near her. By the time I realized how close together we were standing, she had noticed me.

“They won’t find her,” she said, as if we had been having a long conversation.

“Why not?” I had not then developed my habitual reluctance to talk to people I had not been introduced to and had no reason to trust.

“Some things just happen. Two other girls drowned, two other girls found. Third one won’t be. That’s a whole different kind of gone for a girl to be.”

“Maybe she’s not gone,” I said. “Maybe she’s just lost.”

Now the woman turned to look at me, and I wondered if I had said something insightful or irredeemably foolish. “And now you tell me,” she said, “just what would be the difference between being lost and being gone.”

“She wanted me to swim with her,” I said, and in the strange comfort provided by anonymity I felt the enormity of the horror and my own place in it sweeping around me. The sky seemed invisible beyond the huge blackness created by my smallness being driven away on inconsequential winds. “But I didn’t go.”

“Of course you didn’t go.” If the woman knew about the choking guilt that I was only beginning to realize, she did not betray her knowledge. Instead, she smiled thinly at me—my second memory-corrupting female smile in as many days.

“Some things,” she said, “happen because they do. Some things you accept, or you don’t. That’s your choice to make. You can only react. But you can react well.”

Over my shoulder someone made some kind of strangled cry, and their foot splashed in the shallows, and the Baptist preacher was going on. “We can take comfort even in grief, because the scriptures show us that we can.”

That night I dreamed that Emily came to me in the dark. I could not see her in the dream, but her voice was talking to me in my head, telling me things. She sounded very far away, but moving closer, and her voice was sad while she talked about being lonely and about how her skin felt when it was touched. When I opened my eyes she was asking me to please swim with her. I lay there breathing for a moment, staring up at the dark ceiling of my bedroom. Then I turned my body to the right and she was lying there beside me.

I closed my eyes to make her go away, and in the darkness of my head I smelled lakewater and sunscreen and wet swimsuit, and I wished that autumn would come.

* * * * *

Her brow creased in concentration, Julia was painting the inside of the shoebox pink. She had dug our miniature hot glue gun out of the drawer where we kept small tools and had plugged it in to warm up. On the table she had gathered a pile of small pebbles. She mumbled something to herself, fragments of a song, while she set the pink box down to dry and inserted a glue stick into the gun. Then she spread the pebbles out and searched for some that might match in size and general shape.

“Can we go swimming later, Dad?”

“I thought you were making a box for Dolly.”

“It will take time to dry. That leaves, like, hours.”

I could imagine the scene at the lake: police, concerned neighbors, television news teams.

“I don’t think today’s a good day to go to the lake, honey.”

Julia stopped her painting in mid-stroke and looked up at me. “What lake? I’m talking about going to the pool. Like yesterday? And the day before that?”

“We’ll have to see.”

Already she had forgotten me. “I’m going to put these little rocks all around the edge of the box. And then I’m going to put some words on the sides, so Dolly will have something to read while she’s in here. Then when I get her back she can tell me what she thinks about all of it.”

An eight year-old’s concept of time is much less absolute than ours. In our minds, we saw Dolly going into the box, then the box going onto a top shelf in a closet somewhere, hopefully to be forgotten until some distant moving day when we might, as a family, open the lid and remember how cute it was all those years ago when Julia needed Dolly by her side. But Julia was thinking not in months and years but in moments: there would be some bedtimes and some morning cranky times without Dolly, and then sometime Dolly would come back from her long sleep and they would start over again as if no time had ever passed. In short, I viewed the pink box studded with pebbles as a coffin, while Julia saw it as an elaborate drawer that could be reopened at our whim, provided that she could pressure us into having such a whim.

“You work on finishing up Dolly’s box. I’m going to take a walk for a few minutes. When I get back we’ll see about the pool.”

Of course she never swam in the lake. Our backyard was a thick forest; we had chosen the house for this very feature, and Julia complained constantly that she was the only one among her circle of friends without a real backyard. A few yards past our property line the rules of the development ended, and as the boulder-studded ground began to slope downward toward the lake you could see where primitive paths had been cut into the woods before the development had been placed here.

I walked through our leafy wooded yard and, as if crossing a magic barrier at our property line, found the end of one of the paths. From here the walk was all downhill, and I remembered a thought I had had when we first bought the house, that autumn would be a fine time to take this walk, free from buzzing insects and with a smoky gray bite in the air. Now it was hazy and steaming; the ground was dusty beneath me.

The path ended on a rise of ground, one of those thrusts of land that stretched out into the lake and made boating a matter of some skill here. As I made my way down from the high ground to the beach, I felt for a moment as if I had discovered something secret, for in the thirty years since I had last played here the summers had grown hotter and the rains less common; the lake was slowly drying up, and the waterline had pulled itself down and back from where my memory told me it should have been. The beach was now some ten to fifteen feet wide from eroded cliffside to gray lapping foam. Bony stumps and branches poked up from the earth that had once been the shallow bottom, now streaked with deep gore-like fissures as the sun had baked the clay and it had shrunk in upon itself, cracked, and split open. Each year, as the parching summers and the growing thirst of the city pulled more water from the lake, more of the bottom was being revealed. Old losses were coming to light, old discarded remnants waking up from watery graves. The lake no longer seemed prehistoric, for no Jurassic waterhole would be found with a plastic doll’s head jammed into its hot dry earth, or broken bottles and rusted cans wedged together beside the shattered remnants of a Styrofoam cooler. These things had been safely invisible, but the water was retreating and taking secrets with it.

As I had expected, I was not the only local with a mind to visit this increasingly archeological site. There was a public beach not far from here, just around two more of these narrow escarpments, but the media had chosen this stretch for their background because it looked more bucolic, more like the kind of mysterious No Man’s Land where a teenaged girl might disappear. A pretty blonde reporter stood with her back to the water (though where she was standing would have been four feet deep when I was a child) while her cameraman adjusted his position relative to hers to get the best framing of water, sky, and treeline on the far bank. Several families’ worth of fat children gaped on the sidelines.

The whole scene was strangely noisy, and people kept coming and going through the trees in groups of two or three. Curious college kids holding beer cans, mothers in large sunglasses trying to keep their toddlers from the water’s edge, an oblivious old man with a fishing pole and tackle box who appeared to be irritated that his chosen spot had been set upon like this. A man with bright blonde hair was holding a Bible and leading a small group of older women in prayer.

“Like Your son, we ask that this cup of sadness be taken from us. But also like Him, we bow to Your awesome will and ask for the strength to endure whatever You ask of us.”

Sitting on a sun-bleached log, a very old woman in a shapeless and colorless dress watched the movement of society around the waterline. Her greasy gray hair lifted itself in the humidity, half-plastered and half-frizzing around her wrinkled white face, but her leathery skin was dry, as if she had been sitting here in the sun for eons and had given up all the moisture of her body to the air. She held a stick, broken from a dead branch. I could smell faint smoke dissipating with the briny odor of the evening water.

“What do you think happened?” I asked her.

“Two other girls drowned, two other girls found. Third one won’t be.”

“Some things just happen.”

She started to turn toward me, but stopped herself, tired from the effort. “That’s right. Some things just happen.”

I heard someone mutter an Amen, and then someone said, “We can take comfort even in grief, because the scriptures show us that we can.”

I looked back up the path that snaked through the trees and back to my neighborhood. “And in thirty more years? Will we be here again?”

The old woman poked at the ground with her stick and drew something there. “Some things you accept, or you don’t.”

I remembered that it would not take Julia long to finish Dolly’s coffin. I started to scramble back up the embankment with the exaggerated quickness of someone who pretends to believe that a few extra quick steps will change the amount of time needed to get from one place to another. I did not look back to the people by the lake, but as I went into the trees the smell of old smoke thinned out and I smelled instead something like youth: suntanned skin and wet swimsuits. I picked up my pace and it stayed with me. By the time I came out from the path into the sculptured landscaping of my backyard I found myself squinting into the sun, almost dizzy with the certainty that someone was just behind me, reaching out to upbraid me for my inability to be where I was needed.

The pink shoebox, decorated with pebbles and lined with scraps of paper bearing quotations from some page-a-day calendar of aphorisms by great thinkers, was waiting for me on the kitchen table. Glued in the very center was a square of paper that read, “Put Dolly Here.”

* * * * *

That night I had to tuck Julia in without Dolly. Julia put on a brave face and pulled her covers up tightly around her. She gathered up a menagerie of other stuffed animals and placed them ceremoniously around her.

“Dolly will come back, right, Dad?”

“Dolly will come back. We won’t let anything happen to her.”

“But you can’t be sure. Sometimes things just happen.”

“That’s right. Sometimes. But we’ll take care of her.”

She considered. “Maybe I’ll write her a letter. Just to let her know that I still love her.”

“I think that would be very nice.” I kissed her on the forehead. “I’ll see you in the morning, Sweetpea.”

“Night.”

I do not know exactly where Dolly was put; by the time I had left Julia’s bedside my wife had placed Dolly in the box and hidden her somewhere. We agreed that, since I was weaker at resisting Julia’s entreaties, I should not know where the box had been placed.
Sometime after midnight, when everyone else was asleep and the house was dark, I opened Julia’s door to check on her one last time. She was sleeping peacefully, but the gaze of the damp and gently curving body of the teenaged girl in the bed beside her met my eye passively. I smelled distant sunscreen and wished for winter.

 

THE BIG PLAN or The Karma Caper

by Dan Edwards

 

As a child I never dwelled on the subject of murder much. Oh, I might have wanted to get back at another kid for some dirty deed they did to me, but with all the bullying, needling, and general kid-abuse I suffered, murder wasn’t an option—that is, until the curse of adolescence came upon me in Junior High School.

In my initial brush with near-murder, I didn’t quite kill the other kid; however, his five-day hospital stay got me expelled from classes and made me an untouchable at school when I returned. The principal called my parents and soberly learned our family secret which I had figured out for myself many years before: the two people that gave me life didn’t appear to have much interest past the initial act. They were working on careers that precluded raising offspring. My dad traveled, and when he would finally work me in for a meeting, he frowned a lot. Wrinkles from his nose up. My mom frowned also, but hid the wrinkles with the low-density cement she smeared on her face. I remember wondering, were all families like mine?

Another unsuccessful, attempted near-murder occurred in high school and that episode got me sent home for good. I was tired of faking interest in school anyway. I, Barely Parr, didn’t need a formal education; I could absorb everything I needed by osmosis from just living my life and watching television. Mr. and Mrs. Parr had no idea that they had accidently produced the Messiah of Social Change.

A short time after my exit from public school, the Beatles convinced me that a revolution was necessary to replace Capitalism with a worldwide love of everybody. Peace, love, and bell bottoms! But that proved to be just as disappointing as believing that I was a normal kid. My genius mind eventually worked it all out: you can’t love everybody. Some people just don’t deserve your love. In fact, some people just don’t deserve to breathe.

So it was with that revelation reverberating in my brain, I decided to embark on a mission to rid the world of the lower-than-scum, extreme miscreants that were ruining life for the rest of us. This was surely my calling, because it excited me when nothing else would. After all, we exterminate harmful insects, euthanize rabid dogs, kill poisonous snakes—the list goes on of necessary eliminations that somebody has to take care of. In the end, with my mission accomplished, I would announce globally that everyone could now relax and enjoy life as it was meant to be.

I was born with musical talent, so even as a high school dropout, I could always get a job. In the sixties and seventies, beer joints and nightclubs in the South were like bus stops—one popped up every few blocks or so all over town. Back then, the bars all had some funky little house band that could get through enough danceable tunes to make a night. And the bar-hopping regulars didn’t care about the musical ability of the pickers anyway; they mostly sought alcohol’s ability to make them act cool while playing musical beds. What an excellent environment for rubbing shoulders with the targeted subjects of my important mission!

Not to justify my mission, which needed no verifiable justification to the mentally astute, but to explain a relevant point in the execution of my tasks, I was patently opposed to the act of murder. Not for any moral reasons mind you, because my parents never took me to Sunday School, but only since I felt that a substantial number of governments around the world were not taking care of the problem themselves. Removing the curs of humanity was plainly the job of the world’s politicians; they were more suited to it than the rank-and-file average citizen. The perfection of my plan to eliminate certain individuals from the population without resorting to the aberrant practice of killing was what set me apart from your average social genius. My remarkable BIG PLAN came upon me with my first serious love affair.

Girls at school were always a lot of fun for me. They could be talked into anything short of sex, especially the ones that had a dysfunctional home life like me. On my first music job, a woman named Madeleine heatedly confessed that she still lived at home with her parents, and at twenty-two, she did so want to be on her own with a man by her side. She only came in the bar where I worked each night to ease the misery of being under her parents’ dictatorial rule. After a few nights together, she told me that she loved me and so I repeated that sentiment back to her. Actually, this time it was true. I had fallen in love with her due to the eager passion of her misery. I offered to let her bunk with me at my place. “Thank you, Barely,” she said, “but only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.” When I asked why only two days a week, she accused me of sounding like her father.

Well, Madeleine wrapped herself around me for a couple of months until I was a fool goner for her. Then one early morning when we were out of whisky and cough syrup, she let it slip that her mother and father were actually her husband and some other woman he kept around the house. Instead of revealing my rage at being suckered, I played the sympathy role. She was desperately distraught and a little miffed that I didn’t earn enough money to keep her if she left her rotten hubby. She raved on and on about the unfairness of life and allowed that her marriage was just a sham. Worked herself into a real tizzy fit. Without stifling my innermost disdain for her social choices, I blurted out that possibly self-destruction was her only way out. “Right on!” she gushed, but only if I would go too. It took some ardent and intense convincing, but she ultimately talked me into simultaneous suicide.

That very night we sat in her car, her in the driver’s seat. With the barrels of her husband’s matched, antique pistols in our mouths and the Beatles’ “Revolution” screaming from the dash speaker, we counted it down. At zero, she squeezed the trigger and I didn’t. I wiped down the gun I had touched, replaced it in its velvet-lined case, and left it on the seat in her Corvair. I removed any other prints from where I had sat in her car, exited, climbed into my old pickup and split for my apartment. The seeds of a highly workable plan had sprouted.

Some might feel that Madeleine’s husband deserved the same as she got; however, he had placed the “other woman” right there in the house with his wife so he wouldn’t have to lie about anything. That took a certain amount of honesty I decided, so I let him slide. Besides, there were plenty of other snakes in the pit to choose from.

Occasionally on a busy Saturday night, I would gaze down from the stage at the dancers gyrating around the dance floor. Quite often, those self-conscious bumpers and grinders resembled the animals on the nature shows on television: bobbing and weaving around like two exotic birds circling each other—the males looking for an opening, and the females coyly trying to show one. A fairly normal scene I guess, until one of those dancing female birds would smile up at me, and pardner, there was nothing coy about those smiles. Since many of the club-hopping women either came in with a date or their husband, as a matter of respect, I wouldn’t smile back. Yet, every so often, especially in the winter when it was cold and thoughts of a warm snuggle filled my head, I would smile back uncontrollably. And if memory serves me, I would also smile back in the summer when the eighty-degree southern nights heated up everyone’s biological inclinations as well. Now, that memory brings me to Sheila.

Sheila was a big girl with big needs. She needed big food to sustain her big energy. She needed big bucks to make her big Cadillac payments. She needed big men to satisfy her big need for compatible friendship. Why she picked on little old me, I couldn’t figure out; I was an even six foot and diet-pill skinny. After giving me the short version of her long story, I fell in love with her too. What a fun gal! She loved to get high and it didn’t matter on what. She loved to go out dancing every night, which was right up my driveway because I worked six nights out of seven in a fancy Texas dance hall. My music pay had gotten much better by then also. So, we swung together for about two or three months until she too dropped a bomb: she told me she had several bad organs that needed transplants. Did I know anyone? When I stuttered out a shocked “N-no,” she said that money would also help. Did I know anyone? “Well, no,” I grunted and then heard the previously dormant long version of her story. Her parents wouldn’t give her any more money because they were raising her three kids and she hadn’t been to see them for six months. Some mother she was.

Three kids! Was she married? She wouldn’t say one way or the other. Her résumé also listed several arrests for possession and possession with intent. My passion for her cooled rather quickly. It wasn’t really love anyway. When the rapid, libido cooling reached thirty-two degrees F, I told her that I had no money to help her and my friends weren’t into the donation thing. She faked a good depression attack so I told her to get high, she would feel better and forget all about her troubles. She went for that. She was already chronically drunk so I fashioned a plan to facilitate her space cadet aspirations. That night after the gig I deposited one hundred bennies into a Rexall candy box and dropped it through the mail slot in her front door. No card. I never missed the cheap uppers (by then I was downing twelve at a time) and I never missed her. I hope I did her children a favor. Society will thank me someday.

The next night two of her friends came in the bar soliciting money for her funeral. I handed over twenty dollars and assured them that, “Cremation was the latest rage.”

Now I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that I only had it in for women. My next socially engineered plan gave an old school chum exactly what he deserved. At my north Dallas high school, the worst thing a boy could do in the early sixties was to get caught smoking in the boy’s room. Big Chester Haire took the worst and made it worser. Chester impregnated three honor roll girls who quietly disappeared from classes. When it became apparent that Chester was the head stud hoss in charge of conception, he laughed it off and challenged anyone who opposed his amatory hobby to prove that he fathered any children. Paternity testing was as distant as moon walking back then.

So I and several of my fellow folly-mongers decided to teach Big Chester a lesson and snap him out of his evil endeavors. Of the five boys who planned the attack, Chester wounded three with his pistol and slashed me and another fool with his switchblade. I didn’t see him again while I was still in school. Then years later on one slow Thursday night at the Circus Bar on Denton Drive, in he walked. I knew him right off because he had a bulge about the size of a revolver under the pocket of his sport coat and a long, skinny bulge in his pants pocket exactly the shape of a formidable switchblade knife. Like a movie, the memory of the night he shot my friends and stabbed me played out on the wide Cinemascope screen in my mind. Back live in the bar, I watched while he played touchy-feely on every female within arm’s reach. It was him alright. Out of respect for his victims I immediately began to connive another plan.

The only other person I knew who packed heat was Marsha the bartender. She and her pistol were always loaded and ready for action. Marsha looked like a blonde fireplug with squinty blue eyes. She was strong as an ox, a male ox. I wanted no part of Chester’s action so I slipped off the stage at break time and circled around to the bar.

“Hi, Marsha, gimme a Stinger,” I said and drew a bead on her steely blues. “See that big fella with his hand on the waitress’s…?”

“Yep,” she replied quickly.

“Someone told me that he’s had his eyes on your fluff.”

“On Lois?” she roared.

“That’s what they told me,” I stated with all the honesty I could muster.

“I’ll kill the SOB,” she said and reached under the bar.

“You better hurry, Marsha, he keeps looking Lois up and down.”

Marsha plowed down to the end of the bar like a Sherman tank in the North African desert. As she approached Chester’s position, he sealed the deal just like I knew he would.

“Hey barkeep,” he barked, “pour me up a rum and coke and be quick about it.”

“I got your rum and coke right here,” Marsha snapped and raised her pistol.

Chester went for his, but it was too late. She waited just long enough for him to get his hand around the pearl handle, then, she squeezed. The loud pop from Marsha’s weapon brought on an impotent gasp or two, but mostly a light buzzing sound filled the room. Just another shooting… ho hum.

“Somebody call the law on this fella,” Marsha ordered. “He drew on me and I had to shoot him.”

And that was all there was to it. After the ambulance and the cops left, we returned to the stage and played a danceable cover version of Jody Reynolds’ hit record, “Endless Sleep.”

For the next few years I had some pretty good hits and several disappointing misses in my campaign to expel the world’s bottom-feeders from society. Sometimes I used the simultaneous suicide plan; sometimes the overdose plan; and sometimes the extreme jealously plan. All were devilishly fun to execute. Proudly, I had come up with, THE BIG PLAN. The plan to end all other plans. The colossal plan that would install me as the head potentate of the social engineering crowd. I had never been the head of anything before.

Somewhere in the mid-seventies, my band got a break. We were honored with a contract to tour several important cities across the South: Shreveport, Biloxi, Jackson, Key West, and a few smaller venues between Texas and Georgia. My campaign, my mission, could then be expanded to other hotbeds of sin that were defiling the warmer portions of our great country. Today, Jackson, Mississippi—tomorrow, Chicago! New York!

Our drummer quit in Biloxi. Said he felt uncomfortable in my presence. I believe he had some emotional problems that he was dealing with that impeded his ability to reason correctly. We hired a cool cat right off the stage in the lounge at our hotel and he and I hit it off right away. Here was a guy that saw the world as I did: a truly wonderful place to live once you deleted the riffraff. Never before had I divulged my great mission to anyone, yet, this dude had a mind almost as big as mine. We bunked together; we took our meals together; we shared groupies together. Me and Mattly Crow were tight. One early morning in Dothan, Alabama, Mattly and I were having a bowl of watery chili after the gig and I laid it all out. And just as I suspected, he was duly impressed with the plans I had used to accomplish my magnanimous goals. He also agreed with me, my BIG PLAN would shoot us to the top of the list in the revived New Deal, the Great Society, and the coming Era of Change!

It had occurred to me before that I possibly might need to franchise my efforts out to cover a more broad area of the world’s population. Yes, it would be risky business in light of all the bored policemen out there looking for someone to nab. Not concerned for myself, of course, since I was fervently opposed to murder, but the members of our team who might over-zealously be tempted to bypass the established plans and just shoot the low-lifes on sight. Franchisee training would have to be strict. Anyone caught murdering would be flogged publicly in the square. A lot of hard work to be sure, but worth it in the end. Any crusade for enlightenment has to have its authority figures to force the people to comply with what is best for them.

Mattly, who suggested round-aboutly that he had been to law school, drew up our franchise agreements and loyalty contracts. During our next month on the road, I signed up twenty-two incredibly smart people who agreed to use my BIG PLAN to remove only the most repulsive of the mad dogs of society. We didn’t charge a franchise fee because we might someday decide to apply for charity status on our taxes. Since our MO might inexplicably be misconstrued by some to be a little shady, we ordered everyone to spy on each other and report any non-compliance immediately. This worked well in spite of the Gestapo reference remarks of a small few of our followers. Tattletale or Gestapo, it didn’t matter, we knew that common people can’t be trusted to police their own behavior.

This common human behavior unexpectedly reared its ugly pointed head in none other than my semi-trusted partner, Mattly Crow. His brilliance must have been more than his mind could handle and he began to deviate from the published rules of the BIG PLAN. Delusions of dictatorial entitlement found their way into his rhetoric, leaving me to wonder how a man of his social intelligence could drift so far afield. Daily he got worse, until one afternoon on a dusty street corner somewhere in Georgia, he finally snapped. He commanded that we round up everybody that didn’t conform to our version of propriety and gas the lot. Think of the travel expenses we could save, he declared loudly. When I reminded him that the BIG PLAN did not include outright murder, he bristled. It seemed to him that I was letting something as insignificant as morality get in the way of social progress.

“But outright murder,” I explained, “makes us no better than the vermin we seek to remove from our Great Society.”

“Au contraire,” Mattly boldly interposed, “we have risen above the bourgeois concept of morality. The vermin problem must be addressed by those of us on a higher level. It is our duty… our destiny, to accept this responsibility thrust upon us by the degradation of society. Only we know what is best for the world!”

By the time he reached the end of his rant, he was panting and sweating. “Sit down for a moment,” I told him calmly, “and get yourself together.”

“Never shall I sit!” he bellowed for the entire world to hear. “Not until my BIG PLAN is taken to its final conclusion! My name will go down in history! Crow! Crow! The people will shout my name from the rooftops! Crow! Mattly Crow!”

His BIG PLAN? Wait a minute, it was my BIG PLAN. He staggered and grabbed my shoulders to steady himself. Then, as if delivering a line in a low-budget war movie, he dramatically whispered, “Barely, are you with me? Will you stand beside me? Tell me Barely, are you willing to kill to elevate the whole of society up to our level?”

I pondered for a moment. “No Mattly, I don’t believe I’ll do that,” I sincerely stated.

“But you must!” he shrieked. “You’re a committed member of the elite! You’re locked in! You can’t back out!”

His back stiffened, his chin shot out, his voice rose an octave as he taunted tritely, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem! Common! Average! Unknowing! Unfeeling! Just another cockroach on the kitchen counter of life!”

His roaring had drawn a crowd. The previously empty, small-town street corner where we stood became surrounded by nosy, peeping, prying, inquisitive busybodies needing a diversion from their one-horse existence.

“You… are a traitor!” Mattly screamed. “A lowdown traitor to the elite group that I so painstakingly founded!”

In my face and back down to a whisper, he repeated, “A lowdown traitor… you’ll have to step aside or be eliminated, you know that don’t you.”

“By who?” I grunted indignantly. “You?”

His wild eyes widened and his face flushed to crimson. “Yes, by me,” he replied sardonically.

When Mattly thrust his hands toward my neck, I hit him. I punched him so hard that he was out before he hit the ground. Some silly female screamed and everyone froze for a moment. Then two good Samaritans knelt over Mattly’s prone figure.

“Why… this man is dead,” one of the fellas said.

The other whipped out his cell and punched 911. Two more farmers seized my arms. “Murderer!” one of the women yelled. “Yes, murderer!” cried another.

“Stand easy,” the man twisting my right arm behind me said. “You’re in big trouble now, you long-haired, low-life punk. This town don’t tolerate killers. The more vermin like you we can take off the street, the better off society will be.”

Now, here I am in a dank city jail somewhere in Georgia. There’s no use trying to explain to the authorities that Mattly had threatened me… or that he reached for me first. It seems the folks here are very diligent about removing the vermin from their streets. A worthwhile labor, I concur; however…

As I sit here on this filthy cot in my cramped cell, I earnestly pray that someone will find this narrative. Jailhouse conversion? Not really. I knew He was there all along. If someone can benefit from my experience, good for them. My main mistake was to trust my BIG PLAN to a fellow human. Because no matter how intelligent they are, they still can’t be trusted.

 

On the Dotted Line

by KT Pinto

 

People never read what they are signing anymore. With the influx of internet disclaimers and contracts, people have just gotten into the habit of signing anything that’s put in front of them.

So I ask you, why not take advantage of it?

It’s pretty simple: you just slip in that extra piece of paper with the confirmation slip and the credit card application and you now have written permission to kill them.

It’s hokey, I know. I mean, we could kill them without their permission, but it’s such a rush to see their faces blanch when you show them their signature on the paperwork. Their whole lives flashing before their eyes as they realize that they wouldn’t be in this predicament if they had only read the form before they signed it…

We take our turns killing the customers. Since we’re a small garage it would be wrong for only a select few of us to get that rush. We keep track of our kills on a board in the office; we can’t kill indiscriminately or often, otherwise someone might catch on.

We each have our favorite types of victims:

Brady hunts the storytellers. You know, the ones who have to tell you how they got up early in the morning to take their dog to the vet, because the dog’s nose was dry and he was sluggish, and neither of them wanted to go out in the snow, but the vet was nice enough to fit them into his schedule, etc, instead of just saying that their battery was dead.

Linda likes to take the condescending men—the ones who call her “dear” and talk like she couldn’t possibly know the difference between an idler arm and a ball joint.

Jerry likes to spill foreign blood. It doesn’t matter what country they’re from, as long as it’s obvious that English isn’t their first language.

Roam takes on the P.I.T.A.s—you know them as the Pains in the Asses—the customers who keep bugging us every five minutes, wanting to know why their car isn’t in the garage yet; why cars that are getting an oil change are out faster then their car, when they’re getting a full brake job; why their size 20 tires are so much more expensive then the size 13s in the paper…

Mike kills old people. This brings up questions from us about any paternal issues he may have, but he gets people to sign up for credit cards, so we let this slide.

I personally kill women—the mousy ones that have to call their husbands for every little thing, or the ones that try to bond with me with comments like “This is something that only men are really interested in, don’t you agree?” I cringe at the thought that I am the same gender as these creatures.

It’s usually easy to pick who our next victim is going to be. There’s always one “shining star” who aggravates one of us to the point that we have to go out into the garage and have ourselves a good scream. If it happens to be that person’s turn to pick a victim, then that customer is asked to sign three forms when he pays: the pick-up slip, the preferred customer card, and the special pink slip, all of which we keep. We then take a coded sticker off of the pink form and put it on their receipt.

That innocuous little sticker contains a tiny GPS homing device that our resident techno-geek designed. We realized that we needed this particular toy after we tracked one of our would-be victims to an apartment complex—and lost the trail. This sticker helps us track our prey right into their home. It’s very rare that someone would leave their receipt in the car, since most people rely on the misguided belief that we are responsible for monitoring every bit of work that they’ve had done at our garage. So, the receipt gets brought into the house and put in a pile with overdue bills and memos from work.

Then we hunt.

Most people are simple creatures of habit. They go home; they eat; they watch TV… then they hear a noise outside… and they go to investigate.

The scenario changes from there, depending on who comes outside, but the ending is always the same:

Blood.

Guts.

Death.

And, sometimes, we get a nice car for the mechanics to chop up and sell for parts.

My favorite kill was the woman who had more plastic in her than Barbie. Her nails were long to the point of uselessness; her cheeks and chin were obvious implants; her lips looked like a hive of bees had stung her.

And she was as dumb as a box of hammers. She came into the garage in her spiked heels, her hair sprayed high, and her breasts looking like two beach balls pushing their way out of her shirt.

And, of course, she walked right over to me.

“I need tires,” she said, inhaling deeply as Tony walked past with another customer.

“OK,” I replied, already knowing how this conversation was going to go. “Do you know what size tires you need?”

“No,” she giggled, putting her hand on my shoulder. “Women aren’t supposed to know things like that.”

Stepping out of her reach, I asked, “What kind of car do you have?”

Maybe it’s just me, but that shouldn’t be a stumper.

We finally walked out to the car. It was one of those German luxury cars that hardly ever sees the road.

I measured the depth of the tread on her tires and tried to explain why her tires were wearing unevenly.

She giggled again and said that it was all just too complicated for her.

So then I gave her the price of the tires, with all the labor costs.

“Do I really need the alignment?”

So I again explained to her why her tires were wearing unevenly.

“Do I really need the balancing?”

“Unless you want the car to vibrate.”

“My car doesn’t vibrate.”

“Because your tires are balanced.”

“So why do I need to balance them again?”

Grrrrrr. “Because you’re getting new tires.”

“Don’t they come balanced?”

“When you pay for balancing, they do.”

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s all so complicated! How do you remember all of this?”

I held back the urge to say “because I have a brain”.

Ironically, stupid people tend to understand when they’re being insulted.

The rest of the conversation consisted of her rambling about the amount of time four tires and an alignment was going to take, because she had a nail and tanning appointment in a few hours, and couldn’t we push things along.

I never understood this logic. Why in the world would you want the people who are working on your car to rush through their job? Would you want a doctor to rush through your bypass?

I told her I couldn’t guarantee the time, but told her that she could take the shuttle and come back after she was through with her appointments to pick up the car. As I was explaining this, I saw her reading the work order closely; I hoped that the words weren’t too big for her to understand. I knew the question that was going to come next.

“I have to pay for the labor?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, pulling out the pink form for her to sign.

“I don’t understand that.”

“Ma’am, would you do your job if you weren’t getting paid for it?”

She laughed. “Oh, I don’t work!”

Of course not.

When I finally convinced her that our mechanics don’t fix cars out of the kindness of their hearts, she agreed to the whole thing and went on her way.

Then we went to work.

Based on the address she gave us, we knew that she lived in a middle-class neighborhood where the houses tried to look pretentious even though they only took up part of a city lot and boasted a postage-stamp sized lawn. We knew the best time to arrive on a block like that was between 8:30 and 9:00 pm, when dinner was finished, the kids were being tucked in, and the evening line-ups were just beginning.

So, at 8:47 that night, our inconspicuous mini-van pulled up across from her house. (The company owned five mini-vans, each registered to a different dummy corporation in Asia.) The one we were in was blue with a dent in the front bumper and a “My kid’s an honor student” sticker on the back.

That night it was me, Roam, and Jerry, with Tony driving. Roam scanned the house with his night vision goggles. “There’s only one human in the house.”

“Oh good,” I drawled, “So we don’t have to bring our alien gear this time?”

He made a face at me. “I meant as opposed to pets.”

“Is that what you meant?”

“Is it our target?” Jerry asked.

I looked through the regular binoculars. “Yep. That’s her in all of her plastic glory.”

“How do we know she’s not waiting for her hubby to come home?”

“Easy,” Krantz said from the back of the van; sometimes we forget about Krantz. We heard a couple of taps on his laptop before he spoke again. “According to her tax returns, she’s single… and her on-line date book has nothing scheduled for tonight. There are also no reservations listed in her name anywhere in the tri-state area.”

“What about phone calls?”

Krantz shook his head. “Nothing of note, and her blog is coming up with nothing either.”

“OK then,” I said, slipping my mask on, “Let’s have some fun.”

* * * * *

She woke up bound and gagged in the tire room of our |garage. We were all there; it’s like a little party when we make a kill, even down to the munchies and beer.

I walked over to her, pressing a long, thin blade against her cheek. “Now, if I take the gag out, and you scream, then you will lose your nose. Understood?”

She nodded.

I pulled off the gag and watched her rubbery lips quiver with fear. “What are you going to do to me?” she asked.

“Oh, we’re going to kill you,” I replied with a smile, “After a long, painful torture session, of course.”

Her eyes welled up with tears and I cringed. The bitch had contacts. I hate it when they have contacts. “I don’t understand…”

“And that’s your problem,” I snapped, “You don’t understand a damn thing. Everything is too difficult for you to grasp. You depend on all of this phony crap. This hair, those breasts… it’s all fake. It’s time for us to meet the real you.”

“What… what do you mean?”

“Wow! You are thick!” I shook my head as the group laughed behind me. “We’re going to take you apart. We’re going to cut away all the plastic until all that’s left is skin and bones… so to speak.”

I grabbed her arm, cut her bonds, and wrenched her hand in the air, causing a sickening popping sound as her shoulder dislocated. “Who wants the nails?”

Mike waved his hand in the air, as if he were still in school. I had known he was going to volunteer. Mike collects nails. He keeps them in shoe boxes under his bed. We’ve told him that keeping trophies like that was not a good idea—especially when he keeps the ones with skin still attached.

If he doesn’t start listening to us, Mike is going to have to go.

He came over with his silver-plated pliers and sat on her lap, leaning back on her so she couldn’t struggle as much. Then he started to rip her fake nails off, causing her to scream into his back as her real nails came off with them. He dropped each bloody tip into a plastic bag, sealed it shut when he had all ten, then walked over to a dark corner to admire his new prizes.

By now the girl was blubbering, her fake lips moving like a bleeding gash across her face. I found the irony interesting. The simile made me think of Nick; I called him over. Nick was new to our sales team, and had an affinity for scissors. He sat on her lap, facing her, and showed her a pair of tongs.

“Someone grab her hair,” he growled. Tony stepped forward, took hold of her hair at the crown of her head, and pulled her head back. Tony’s a good egg. He’s not really into the maiming and killing, but he helps out when he can.

So Nick, with the tongs holding the upper lip out, slowly cut the woman’s puffy mouth off of her face. Blood poured from her face as she tried to turn away, but Tony held her fast, and the lower lip came off just as easily as the upper one.

Nick dropped the lip on the floor, then wiped his scissors off on her silk shirt and stood. “Thanks, Tony.”

“Anytime.”

While Nick worked, I had noticed Brady starting to fidget. Brady is a breast man: he enjoys cutting open women’s breasts and finding out what’s inside. This woman’s breasts fascinated the fuck out of him. I was surprised he was able to hold out as long as he did.

So when Nick left the unconscious, lipless woman slumped in the chair, it didn’t surprise me that Brady stepped forward. He leaned towards her, resting his hand on the back of her chair, and slapped her over and over again, leaving gashes on her cheeks from his ring.

“Wake up,” he purred, ripping her shirt opened, “the fun isn’t over yet.”

Before she became fully conscious, he pulled out a professional looking scalpel and plunged it into her left breast, cutting through the skin like it was butter.

She screamed, loud and long. The thing was, our tire room was in the sub-basement of an old bomb shelter, so she could scream as much as she wanted. Our closest neighbors, three miles away in any direction, were not going to hear her. Roam had the DJ turn up the music. Nothing kills a party like a woman screaming her head off.

Brady stuck his hand into her breast like a kid cleaning the guts out of a pumpkin. Blood cascaded from her chest as he dug inside until he found what he was looking for.

The wobbly implant was streaked with blood and other things, and Brady felt the weight of it in the palm of his hand before hurling it across the room, where it made a satisfying splat against the wall.

He then dug for the other one. The woman had passed out again; Brady didn’t seem to notice as he pulled out his second prize. This one he cut opened and squeezed the goop out of it, letting it pour down his arm. He stared at his arm for a few moments with a small smile on his face before he stepped away.

Disgusted with how weak she was, I plunged a needle into her arm, making sure she’d stay awake until the very end. “Who’s next?”

There was a rustle through the group—what part of her should be the next to come off?

“Hey Jerry,” I said as I discarded the needle and got a drink from the punch bowl, “she’s wearing contacts.”

I walked back to the woman with Jerry in tow, watching as she tried to form words with her lipless mouth.

“Why me?” she finally managed.

I smiled sweetly and held up the pink form. “Why? Because you gave us permission to do so. ‘I, the undersigned, give Kear’s Tire and Auto permission to torture and kill me by any means they deem necessary… blah blah blah… give my car to Kear’s to be dismantled… blah blah blah… and have my body incinerated in the furnace.’ And look, right there is your signature.”

Her eyes widened in shock and tears started running down her bloodied cheeks “I didn’t know,” she croaked, “I didn’t read it…”

“That’s really none of my concern,” I answered, “I would say you are now finally seeing the error of your ways, but that would be too cruel, even for me…”

I stepped back as Jerry walked to the girl, holding something that looked like small, flat salad spoons. I turned away. Eyes creep me out, so much so that I won’t even wear contacts. I avoid the eye doctor as much as I can. Just the thought of the grape-like texture and fragility of eyeballs makes me cringe. And now Jerry was going to slide those little disks into her eye sockets and rip the orbs out, holding them gently between the disks so they won’t splatter like her implants did.

What he did with them after that, I didn’t want to know. Roam told me that Jerry made a tasty stew out of them. Linda says Roam is crazy—he only uses the eyeballs to make a broth, then tosses them away. Mike believes that Jerry eats them whole, popping them in his mouth and savoring the juicy middle like it’s a chocolate-covered cherry.

Mike worries me.

I know you’re wondering why I hadn’t done anything at this point besides talk. As I said before, I kill my victims; I don’t torture them. I torture Linda’s (picture a tazer and man’s most sensitive spot); I torture Roam’s and Jerry’s and Brady’s; I don’t torture Mike’s (torturing old people unnerves me). But my own victims, I just kill. I let my co-workers have their fun.

I waited for Roam to finish shaving the woman’s head, all the time whispering to her about her impending death, then stood in front of her, feeling the weight of my gun in my hand.

I’m the only one of our group that uses a gun. Brady uses a knife; Linda favors the garrote; Roam is fond of axes.

I like guns: the feel of one in my hand, the smell of a freshly cleaned and oiled piece, the sound of bullets penetrating flesh…

Roam slapped her a few times, making sure she was awake when I killed her, then walked over to Fredo—our resident DJ—who had just started the song “Last Dance”.

“Do you have to play that song every time?” Roam asked.

“You bet I do!”

I shook my head with a smile, and turned to the woman. “You can’t see this, but I have a revolver pointed right at your thick head. And, in a moment, I am going to shoot you. It’s a lovely little weapon, engraved with spiders on the handle and polished so well, it shines. But the best part, in my humble opinion is that the trigger pull on this is so smooth…”

The gun rang out three times: once for her head, once for her bosom, and once for her uterus. Those were the three places many pagans believe to be the parts that identify the woman as Goddess.

She wasn’t worthy of those parts.

The party wrapped up at that point. Charlie and George—our stock guys—turned on the hose, sending blood down the drains in the floor, while the body and the paper bag full of her hair were put on a gurney.

We have greased a lot of palms to get the permit allowing us to melt down tires on our property. That’s where the bodies go: into the fiery furnace. The temp is high enough that all that remains is ash among the melted tires, and the smell of the rubber hides any other distinctive odors.

* * * * *

We really don’t have much fear of being caught. We take back with us all of the incriminating paperwork from our victims’ homes, and our clothes, being black, tend to hide any blood spilled… unless they used the black lights and luminol.

But that means that they would have to suspect us, and what simple mechanics—who deal with a thousand customers a week—have to do with one lone woman who disappeared?

Will we ever stop? Perhaps. But why should we when fate keeps dropping stupid people right in our laps?

Stupid people who don’t read what they are signing.

So the next time you’re asked to sign something, and you jokingly comment that you’re signing your life away, don’t laugh.

You may be doing exactly that.

 

Around Midnight

by Jay Eckert

Dina was walking slowly down a grassy hill in Saint Luke’s Cemetery, when she spied Daniel, Tony and Bobby huddled together about twenty feet away. They were standing on the grass, alongside Kennedy Lane, quietly talking to each other. This would be awkward and likely unpleasant, she knew, but so was burying the love of your life.

Daniel, Tony, and Bobby were Rick’s closest friends and the last people to see him alive. Then again, that was not entirely true. Rick’s killer was the last to see him alive.

They were an eclectic mix of personalities with, as far as Dina could tell, some strange and possibly sordid history. She had no detailed knowledge of any of it beyond what Rick had described as “misspent Brooklyn youth”.

So, feeling uncomfortable, but well within her rights, she approached them. “Guys? Do you have a couple of minutes?” she asked.

Like a flock of birds changing course, the three of them turned as one to look at her. Despite moving in unison, they could not have appeared more different. Daniel, the tallest of the three, with dark hair and a dark complexion looked as if he had just smelled rotting fish. Tony was short and had sallow skin. He was slowly shifting his eyes back and forth, but otherwise seemed completely indifferent to Dina’s presence. She had met Rick’s friends a few times and never got the impression that they liked her very much.

Bobby was the exception. He inclined his head slightly, gently smiling, and took her hands in his.

“Dina,” he said, “I am so sorry. How are you doing?”

Bobby was neatly dressed, athletically built and had a healthy tan. He was handsome in a way that reminded her of Rick. Dina noticed Tony and Daniel looking at him apathetically. She turned to Bobby and smiled a cheerless smile.

“I’m doing…” and then she paused to think about how she really was doing, “Ok, I guess.”

“Dina, if there is anything we can do, anything at all,” said Bobby, glancing sideways at Daniel and Tony, “please let us know.”

“Thanks guys.”

“So, um,” said Daniel, “we’d better…”

“Listen,” interrupted Dina, reaching her hand out to Daniel, who seemed to recoil. She paused, staring at Daniel, and then said in measured tones, “You know we haven’t had a chance to talk about what happened.”

“No,” Daniel replied, “we haven’t.”

“The police haven’t been able to figure out what happened to Rick so far, and I just thought that, well, since you guys were with him before…”

Dina’s voice started to break up and she covered her face. She felt a hand on her shoulder, and when she looked up, she saw Bobby standing beside her.

“It’s okay,” he said soothingly. “We’re here for you.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, and gently shook her head, as Bobby lowered his hand to his side. Taking a deep breath, she continued, “The police told me they had been watching the area because a few people had been murdered over the last few months. They still haven’t found the killer, and they think it might be related.”

“Wow,” said Bobby, “I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah… So, anyway, you guys were with him before he… was killed.”

Daniel gave a meaningful look toward Tony and Bobby, but Bobby was looking right at Dina. Tony seemed to be looking at a tree in the distance.

Turning her gaze back to Bobby, she said, “Bobby, can you tell me what happened that night? Before, Rick left, I mean.”

Bobby looked at her…

* * * * *

I expected this, and I told Danny and Tony that it would happen. Dina was bound to ask us about Rick. I was certainly ready.

Poor Dina. Poor pretty darling Dina. She looked so nervous and uncomfortable. It broke my heart. It really did. So, I thought back to that day—that rotten day.

It had started with a phone call. Rick had called each of us that morning to ask if we could meet at the Slaughtered Lamb down in the Village for drinks that night. He said that he had something to tell us all—something exciting. When Rick gets excited about something, you have to go with it, so, I said sure I would come. We all did.

I showed up about eight o’clock that night. Danny was already there and Tony came in a couple of minutes behind me. Of course, Rick wasn’t there yet—not that surprising knowing Rick—so we ordered a round of drinks. Tony asked me if I knew what Rick wanted to tell us, and I said I didn’t know. Danny said he had an idea, but just then, Rick walked in, grinning like a kid going to his birthday party.

The three of us were standing at one of those bar tables, and he marched right over.

He began, “Men…”

I loved when he started us off with that.

Anyway, he just came right out and said, “I asked Dina to marry me last night… and she said yes.” Then he kept right on grinning that grin, looking at us all. His jaw looked like it was a hair’s length from being stuck in that position. How do you resist something like that?

We all offered our congratulations and ordered another round of drinks and then another. Then… another. And another. You get the idea. Happy bullshit and drink, as Rick liked to say. The night was about bullshitting and drinking.

I remember looking at Rick about a half hour before he left, and he looked as happy as a man can be. He said he was marrying the most beautiful woman he had ever met and he couldn’t wait to get the rest of his life started.

That was intense… now that I think about it.

Was I sad? Now that is a good question. I suppose I was. Things were about to change.

Anyway… Rick left around midnight. I left a little while later, and took the subway home. Danny and Tony stayed for a while, I guess. I was at work the next morning when I got the call. They found his body in an alley a couple of blocks from the bar. What they did to him was… sick. I can’t understand it. What kind of scum does something like that? I mean if you want to mug somebody, just take his damn wallet, and leave him.

* * * * *

Dina’s grey eyes were blazing as she stared at Bobby.

Bobby said, “Did they ever find his wallet?”

“His wallet? Oh, you knew about that?” she said shakily, “No. No they didn’t find his wallet. Anyway, thank you, Bobby.”

Bobby smiled weakly back at her.

Dina looked around at the tall oak trees surrounding the four of them, thinking how unlikely it should be that at twenty-five, she would now be spending time in this place.

Turning back to the group, she said, “Danny, what can you tell me about that night?”

Drumming his fingers petulantly on his leg, he replied, “It’s Daniel. Not Danny.”

Raising her eyebrows, she replied, “Can you tell me what happened that night… Daniel?”

* * * * *

Bitch on wheels. It’s as simple as that. Rick should have known, but she had him fooled. It became obvious to me after a while. She wouldn’t let him play poker anymore. She wouldn’t let him go to hockey games with us. Hell, she wouldn’t even let him watch them on television. He couldn’t be there for his friends when they needed him.

She changed him. Even Bobby noticed that he was wearing different clothes.

Now I’m supposed to stand here and tell her what happened as if she was the only person who was in Rick’s life. Bobby kept telling us that she would ask, and that she had a right to know. I guess he’s right, but I do not have to be happy about it. So, what did happen that day?

Like Bobby said, Rick called us that morning, and told us to meet him at the Lamb that night. Frankly, I was surprised that he was allowed out at night.

Oh, for Christ’s sake, Bobby, don’t give me that look.

I got there a little early, hoping Rick would be early too. Bobby is right; I did have a hunch and I wanted to talk to Rick in private first.

Rick didn’t show up early, though. Bobby and Tony got there first and we ordered a few beers. They kept asking me if I knew why he wanted to talk to us. “No,” I said, “and if you keep asking me, you’re going to need a proctologist to find those empty Heinekens.”

After a while, Rick showed up and told us the news. Bobby and Tony were definitely surprised. “Rick!” said Tony, “Holy shit!” That was about it, but it was still a lot for Tony. He had this hilarious look on his face too. I guess it was shock or surprise, or something like that.

Bobby was all smiles, but I didn’t say too much. I figured I would get my chance. The three of them got to ordering another round of drinks. It was probably the most Rick had to drink in… oh, I don’t know. When did he start dating you, Dina?

Bobby, just look away if you don’t like it.

Drink-wise, I tried not to keep up with the three of them. I needed a clear head for what was to going to happen. Rick got completely plastered. He probably didn’t even know his name by the end of the night.

A little before midnight, Tony and Bobby had to empty their beer barrels, if you get my drift, so I had a few minutes with Rick. I had already thought of what I was going to say and was going to get right to the point.

As soon as the men’s room door closed, I said, “Rick, do you know what you’re getting yourself into?”

“Well gee buddy, I’ve knocked back a few but I think I’ve still got a few brain cells left. Of course I know what I’m getting into. I’m getting married,” said Rick.

“Things haven’t been the same since you and Dina hooked up.”

He looked at me, and hiccupped. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, you’ve forgotten your friends, man. You don’t hang out with us anymore.”

“Oh, c’mon, yah big baby. Just because I don’t play poker anymore…”

I interrupted, “Rick, it’s not just poker.” Rick had opened his mouth to say something else but I cut him off. “And it’s not hockey night either.”

He clamped his mouth shut with a click.

“You haven’t been there for us.”

“What are you talking about?” Rick asked.

“Shit, Rick. When Tony’s mother died, you didn’t come to the funeral. It was a fucking Saturday, man. It’s not like you were working. You could have come. You should have been there.”

“I couldn’t. Dina…”

“Yeah, I know. Dina and you already had plans to go away that weekend.” I glared at him. “A real friend would have found a way to be there.”

“But, Dina said…”

“Dina… right. Tell me something Rick. Do you remember when the furnace in my building went out? I asked if I could stay with you for a few days until they repaired it.”

“Listen, you could have stayed with Bobby or Tony. Besides, it would have been awkward.”

“Rick, you’ve got two bedrooms at your place. Bobby and Tony don’t have the space. Never mind the fact that you crashed at my place for a couple of weeks when you needed a place to stay.”

Rick shouted, “Oh, so now we’re keeping score?”

I looked around apprehensively and noticed Bobby and Tony coming back from the men’s room.

I said in a low voice, “No. We are not keeping score. I am only telling you that things have been different since you met Dina. If one of us needed something before you met her, you would have been there. That’s not the way it is now. Shit. You gave up your freewill long before you gave her that fucking ring.”

It went on like that for a few more minutes.

At the end of it all, Rick sneered at me and said, “You know what? You’re just jealous. Fuck you.” Then he got up and left.

* * * * *

Dina looked at Daniel and said defiantly, “I’m sorry you feel that way about me.” She began to cry again. “I have my own friends too, you know. After I met Rick, I couldn’t spend as much time with them either.”

Daniel shrugged.

Wiping a tear from her eye, Dina asked, “So after you argued…”

“I said he left,” Daniel replied coldly, “I never saw him again.”

Dina was turning to Tony, but stopped when Daniel said, “You know what my last memory of him is?” Not waiting for a reply, he said, “It’s him looking hatefully at me, saying ‘Fuck You’.” He stared intently at Dina for a moment, a look of loathing in his eyes, and then looked away.

Turning, Dina mumbled, “I’m sorry for you.”

Dina faced Tony, whose eyes seemed to be following something behind her. She heard an unpleasant chirruping sound and turned to see what he was looking at. Two squirrels were racing back and forth on the lawn, chirping at each other. Together they tangled and rolled like small hyperactive tumbleweed across the lawn until they crashed into the base of a tree, which broke them apart.

Dina turned again to Tony and said, “Tony, can you remember what happened that night?”

Still watching the squirrels, Tony appeared not to have heard Dina.

“Tony!”

“I heard you, Dina.”

“Sorry,” she said.

* * * * *

It’s my turn now. What can I tell her? Boy, I can hardly remember what happened. After Rick left, it’s such a blur. Let me think.

You know what happened so far. I mean everything went down like Bobby and Danny said—at least the parts I saw. I came in after Bobby and Danny, so I don’t really know what they talked about before I got there.

I didn’t have a clue why Rick wanted us there, but what the hell. I love the Slaughtered Lamb. They named it after the pub in that werewolf movie—the one with the guy from the Doctor Pepper commercials. Totally excellent movie.

Anyway, so Rick comes in and lays out the deal. I couldn’t believe it. Now that I think about it, though, I shouldn’t have been surprised. It happens often enough. Things take me by surprise a lot, you know. I kind of go with whatever happens, and figure it out later.

We all got to drinking and talking about things. Danny didn’t say too much. I could have sworn he was keeping up with us beer for beer, but I guess he fooled me. Oh well, my mother always said my sister was the observant one… I don’t think my mother was very impressed with me.

That stuff Danny said… about Rick missing my mother’s funeral. I have to be honest. It didn’t really bother me. Shit, she had it coming—I almost skipped it myself.

There isn’t a whole lot more I can tell you. I was in the bathroom when Danny and Rick had that fight. Rick left before I got back to the table. A while later, Danny left—he was all pissed off. I left with Bobby.

* * * * *

“Wait a minute,” said Dina, “I thought Bobby went home first, and that you and Danny… I mean, you and Daniel stayed.”

“I… what?” said Tony.

Daniel said, “What the hell are you talking about, Tony? Bobby left before I did.”

Tony looked confused. “No, he… well he left, but then…”

Bobby was looking back and forth between Daniel and Dina. “Tony, you were shit-faced.” Smiling at Dina, he said nervously, “He had way too much to drink. He hardly remembers what happened after his fifth beer.”

“No, Bobby,” said Tony earnestly, “I know I was drunk but I remember you came back after Danny left. We caught a cab, remember?”

“You’re wrong Tony,” said Bobby, “I took the subway home. You’re probably confusing this with some other night.”

The exchange between Bobby and Tony, like a gathering storm, kept Dina and Daniel’s rapt attention.

“But Bobby, that’s not what I told the police. I told them we took a cab home together.”

Bobby looked horrified at Tony’s words. “Tony, I told the police I went home on the subway.”

Confused, Tony said, “You did? I thought… Huh.” Then he brightened. “This is better, though. Now you have an alibi, see?”

Dina gasped, while Daniel looked thunderstruck.

“What?” Dina asked.

Daniel’s face slowly settled into a knowing smile. “Very funny, Tony.”

Dina looked at Tony as if he were explaining the theory of relativity to her, and then gazed back at Bobby, who was not laughing.

“You shit,” said Bobby quietly.

“But Bobby, it’s better this way!” said Tony.

Louder, this time, Bobby said, “You shit, Tony!” Raising his left hand, he slapped Tony hard across his face. Tony yelped, and put a hand to his face. Shaking his head, Daniel began backing away.

The smile had gone from Daniel’s face while Dina was trying to fathom what had unfolded. Daniel called after Bobby. “It was you?”

Five feet away, Bobby stopped for a moment, saying nothing. He just looked back at Daniel and Dina, his face growing ashen. As Dina saw a single tear slowly running down his cheek, tears started to flow down hers.

“But why?” sobbed Dina. “Why you?”

Bobby did not answer. He shook his head awkwardly, then turned and ran. Within a minute, he was out of sight.

Dina, still sobbing, fixed her gaze on Tony’s eyes. “Tell me the truth, Tony. You owe me that much. What happened?”

Tony looked warily at Daniel then back to Dina. He took a deep breath. He spoke very slowly. “The first thing you need to know… is that Bobby was in love with Rick. He always was.”

Under his breath Daniel said, “Holy shit, he’s gay? Well… that explains a lot.”

Tony continued, “It was around midnight…”

* * * * *

It was around midnight—Rick had just left—when Bobby told us he was tired, and was going home. Right after that, Danny, who was still angry, said he needed to get some sleep and left too.

I decided to have another beer and a couple more peanuts. About fifteen or twenty minutes later, I was ready to grab my jacket, when Bobby came in looking kind of frazzled. He came over and told me to follow him to a quiet corner of the bar. I went.

He made me promise to keep my mouth shut, and told me what happened. After he had left, he caught up with Rick and talked to him. Bobby told Rick that he loved him in… a romantic way. Well, Rick was shocked. Bobby had never said anything about this before. Bobby told me that he had always been able to handle Rick dating women. I guess his getting engaged made Bobby snap.

It didn’t sound like Rick was real nice about it, though, and they wound up arguing. I guess it got nasty. Bobby told Rick that if he couldn’t have him, nobody would. Bobby carried a knife, and he… he used it on Rick. Bobby killed him.

* * * * *

“Holy shit,” said Daniel while Dina crouched on the ground, hands covering her face.

“Yeah,” said Tony, “And the funny thing is that Bobby told me it all sounded so… um… what was the word?” His eyebrows knitted together. “Oh, yeah. He said it sounded unoriginal and that he hated being part of a cliché. I think that was how he put it. It sounded pretty cool to me. The only thing that made him feel better about it was that he thought he could get me to keep my mouth shut. He said it gave things a little flavor.”

Dropping her hands into her lap, Dina looked up. “Flavor?” she asked.

“Oh, he got me to promise not to say anything because he knew that I paid a guy to kill my mother.”

Daniel and Dina could only stare.

Looking down, he continued. “She walked out on my old man, you know. He never got over it.”

“Tony?” said Daniel.

Looking back up at Daniel, he said, “So, yeah, Bobby thought I wouldn’t say nothing. The joke’s on him now, though, huh?”

 

Justice Is Served

by Angela P. Wade

 

“Flesh and blood, what kind of place does she think I’m running here!”

My landlady’s words, uttered in a scandalized hiss I suppose she thought was a whisper, were directed at the woman who had just walked in the front door of the Snake and Egg tavern. I frowned, trying to get a better look at her. I’d assumed she was an elf. She was dressed like an elf: all bright patterns, flashy tassels, and fringes, with every hem and corner of her clothing hung with coins and beads until she jingled when she moved. Her necklaces alone must have weighed nearly twenty pounds. But she didn’t look like an elf. A scarf (also hemmed in coins), covered most of her features, but from what I could see of her face, and her ring-encrusted hands, her skin was nearly as pale as mine.

She was still trying to adjust to the dim light inside the tavern when a couple of drunks, holdovers from the night before, saw her and jumped to the same conclusion Sadie Brewer had.

“Lookit there!”

“Well, it’s a bit early for the likes of her to be going to work!”

“Most likely she’d done working, and looking for a place to rest!”

“She’s a fat ’un—for an elf, leastways.”

“Didja know they eat pig feed? Here, piggy, piggy! Come pig, pig, pig! We’d like a taste of pork over here, we would!”

She held her head up proudly and ignored them. They continued making animal noises at the woman, and even louder and less-savory comments. I felt my face flush in indignation. No one should be oinked at, I thought, not even a whore. I got up from my breakfast and crossed the hall in a few swift strides.

“May I be of assistance, ma’am?” I asked.

She looked me up and down, taking in, I presume, my unusual height, the elaborate nature of my clothing, and my fiery red hair. “You are the man I’ve been looking for,” she said bluntly. The drunks collapsed in giggles. I blushed furiously, despite the suspicion that she was referring to my professional services.

“You are the one they call the Red Mage, yes?” she continued.

“Yes I am. Edward Red Mage. How may I be of service?”

“I have heard that you are a great sorcerer, that you find truth wherever it lies, and that you are a friend to elves,” she said. “I believe a murder has been done. I need proof. Can you tell if a man has been poisoned?”

I was a little surprised by the “great sorcerer” bit—I thought of myself as a fairly competent wizard-for-hire, but that was all. Obviously the stories going around about my activities the previous summer were getting better in the telling.

“Can you tell if a man has been poisoned?” she repeated. “I rode two hours from Portsmouth to find you.”

“Yes, ma’am, I can,” I said. “I can detect the presence of poison, at any rate. It’s quite simple…”

“Then return with me at once. My carriage is waiting outside.”

“Let me get my tools,” I said. I threw one last, longing glance at my porridge, now congealing into a gray clot in my bowl, and bounded up the stairs, two at a time, to fetch my bag and a cloak.

* * * * *

The woman was waiting by the door, an impatient frown creasing her dark eyebrows. We stepped outside into the winter dawn. It was cold. My breath fogged the air, the walls of the tavern were laced with frost, and even the muck of the street was frozen solid. And it was still nearly dark. Normally, I wouldn’t have been awake so early, but it had simply been too damned cold to stay in my cot, and I’d come down for an early breakfast, hoping that warmth in my belly would eventually spread to my hands and feet. No chance of that now, I thought ruefully. Who is this woman? I wondered, as I helped her into her carriage and climbed in behind her, and who has died that she’d have her coachman take her out looking for a wizard two hours before dawn?

She was one of the more attractive women I’d seen, I decided as the light increased. The drunks’ comments notwithstanding, she was not particularly large. She did have, however, a spectacular bosom. The low roof of the carriage caused me to stoop, and, since I was seated across from her, I had a very good view of what cleavage was still visible under the mass of her jewelry. Large breasts and fair skin were not features generally associated with the dark complected, slightly built elves. The shape of her eyes and ears, though, were definitely elven, giving her an exotic glamour. I wondered if she was of mixed race. When she finally spoke to me, as the carriage clattered over the South Gate Bridge out of Belcamp, she confirmed my suspicion.

“My name is Zora,” she began, looking through a gap in the carriage’s window-curtains at the hovels of the elves, which clustered at the foot of the bridge. “My grandmother, widowed and childless at an early age, joined the other elf women who work the South Gate. My grandfather was one of her clients, she never knew whom. My mother, wanting more from life but unable to seek a better trade, gave herself as a virgin to a nobleman who desired a mistress. My father was a Lord among your people, though your law does not recognize me as even existing. I followed my mother’s path, and until last night, I was the mistress of Baron Hubert of Portsmouth.”

“What happened last night?” I asked.

She smiled ruefully. “Hubert got married. And then he died. When I came to him, several years ago, he was a widower with no heirs. I always understood he intended to marry again. I had no quarrel with young Agnes Glazier. Hubert had promised to rent a home in Belcamp for me, and support me until…” She paused. “He owed me nothing according to the laws of your people, but he was a fair man, and he did love me.”

“Did you love him?”

Zora shrugged. “He was good to me. I was grateful.”

“What makes you think he was poisoned?”

The courtesan laughed, a bitter, barking sound. “The servants say he ate himself to death. Now I ask you, does that make sense? That a man would willingly eat until it killed him?”

A couple of my sisters had often avowed that that would be my fate, but I had tried not to take them too seriously. “No, Mistress Zora, it does not. I think you had better tell me everything that happened last night. Don’t leave anything out. Sometimes the smallest details can be the most important.”

As we rode, she told me her story. The marriage of old Baron Hubert to Agnes Glazier had been arranged for some time, and had only been postponed until she came of age. Her father, Arnold Glazier, was common-born but wealthy, the head of the glass-workers guild. I had encountered him before. He was cold, brusque, and businesslike. I could believe he could marry a sixteen-year-old girl to a sixty-year-old widower, if it meant combining his money with a title and control of a prosperous city. I was not sure I believed he could murder. In my opinion he was too much of a stickler for rules.

Zora had been no secret to anyone in the Baron’s court, and although he had agreed to give up her company as a condition of the marriage, Hubert had insisted she still remain part of his household and had even gone so far as to insist she be present at the wedding feast, though seated at the far end of the table.

“I think Arnold Glazier poisoned the truffles,” Zora told me. “He presented Hubert with a gift of rare truffles—to ensure the birth of a male heir, he said.” Zora sniffed. “They were served in a dish with oysters. I remember Hubert saying they didn’t taste right.”

“So he didn’t eat more than a taste of them?”

“Oh, he ate them all right. He would eat anything. But I remember he said he didn’t think the oysters had been cleaned properly. Personally, I think it was the truffles. I think Glazier poisoned Hubert, so that Agnes would become sole Baroness. Then Glazier could control all of Portsmouth through her, and not just Glass Island.

“I was not there when he died,” she continued. “One of the maid servants, who has been a friend to me, came and woke me and told me what had happened. Hubert had gone to his bedchamber with his wife, complaining of pains in his belly. Not ten minutes had passed before Agnes came calling for help, saying Hubert was dying. He was vomiting blood, and as the servants watched, he went into convulsions and died.”

The more I heard about this case, the gladder I was I’d missed breakfast.

“He could very well have been poisoned,” I said. “As head of the glass guild, Arnold Glazier would have access to any number of deadly pigments—the substances used to give glass color. I know as little about the process as anyone outside the guild, but my grandfather is a book-copyist, and he taught us all very early never to get any of the ink or paint in our mouths. I’m sure the glass-makers’ colors are made of the same stuff, and just as deadly when swallowed.”

“So you believe that Glazier murdered him?”

I paused. “I have met Arnold Glazier before. He was serving as a King’s Judge at the time. I thought him to be a man who revered and obeyed the law, if a bit cold. But the thought of ruling a city would be enough to tempt many men.”

Zora looked earnestly into my eyes. “It means everything to me that Glazier not be allowed to take control of Hubert’s household. He will cast me out penniless, I know it. I am too old to seek another place, and besides…” She paused. “I have other considerations. I will pay you whatever you ask if you can prove Hubert was poisoned. I have jewels that are my own,” she said, indicating her necklaces, “gifts from Hubert, and, if they are not enough…” She smiled meltingly at me. “I belong to no man now.”

I’m sure even in the dim light inside the carriage Zora could see my face redden. “Ah… I… um… ah… I would never, um, presume to, ah, take advantage of a woman in her time of bereavement.”

* * * * *

Glazier seemed to have things well in hand by the time we entered the great hall of Castle Portsmouth. His daughter Agnes, a tiny, simpering child-woman, was seated at the head of a large table, as befitted her new rank, surrounded on both sides by nobles and clergy, no doubt dispatched by the King to oversee her succession as Baroness. A sea of parchment washed the table before her, and she was industriously signing everything in sight. But it was Arnold Glazier, standing at Agnes’ right hand, who was reading the documents and showing the girl where to sign. No doubt remained in my mind as to who the new ruler of Portsmouth really was.

Everyone looked up as we came in. It would be impossible for Zora to make a subtle arrival; her coin-spangled clothing made a sound that echoed the length of the hall. Glazier appeared truly surprised to see her.

“You’ve come back?” he said.

“Of course I have,” said Zora. “Did you think I wouldn’t?”

Glazier raised his eyebrows at the woman. “I had assumed you had seduced the coachman and fled with him. You had taken all your wealth…”

“All my wealth?” Zora cried, striding across the hall toward the table. “You meant these?” she said, clutching at her necklaces. “They are nothing! They are trash!” She pulled one from her neck and threw it to the ground, snapping the cord and scattering beads the length of the hall. “How could you think I would leave when my greatest treasure lies here?” She turned to a mass of servants who stood huddled at one side of the hall. I noticed that a large number of them seemed to be elves.

“Evan!” she cried. “Where is Evan?”

A small boy, no more than six or seven, burst loose from a knot of elven servants and ran to Zora, who fell to her knees to embrace him.

“Here I am, Mama!” he said. So, I thought, this is her “other consideration”.

A balding, middle-aged cleric, a priest of Saint Gabriel by his white robes, plucked nervously at Arnold Glazier’s sleeve. “Master Arnold,” he said, “who is this, ah, person?”

“I apologize for the intrusion, Father Reynard. That person,” said Glazier, not bothering to hide his distaste, “was the late Baron’s lover. He had agreed to send her away. You will find it in the marriage contract. The boy is hers. Doubtless she has come to claim he is Hubert’s heir.”

“Evan is Hubert’s son,” said Zora, dark eyes flashing, “but I know the laws of your people well, and I know he can not be his heir. I am not here to try and claim Portsmouth for him. I am only here to protect him, and to seek justice for his father, whom I know was poisoned!”

The crowd began to buzz at this, and a tall, gaunt priest, this one in the robes of Saint Tannis the Healer, stepped forward.

“Please, please, everyone, be silent,” he said. “The last thing the Temple or the Crown wants to see is the spreading of vicious rumors. Mistress, I am certain you are deeply distressed at the sudden death of your, ahem, benefactor, but I can assure you his passing, though regrettable, was natural. I myself have examined his body, and have determined that he died of a sudden seizure of either the heart or the brain. Such deaths are not uncommon among men of his years and, ah, great physical stature.”

“Holy brother,” I said, stepping forward at last, “I agree with you that the last thing Portsmouth needs is a flood of rumors. My name is Edward Red Mage, and I have come equipped to prove or disprove the woman Zora’s accusation with a simple test.” I turned to Glazier, the real authority in the room. “Surely you will allow me to lay her suspicions to rest, for the sake of your daughter’s reputation and future rule of this city.”

“I should have known you would show up here,” said Glazier, looking me up and down. “Edward Red Mage, champion of the downtrodden, self-proclaimed savior of helpless elves.”

“Master Arnold, I proclaim myself savior of nothing. I simply want to see the truth known here. May I perform my tests? This worthy Brother of Saint Tannis may observe me.”

“Be my guest,” said Glazier. “I have nothing to hide.”

* * * * *

The test for poison is simple enough. A curl shaved from a bit of unicorn’s horn is dropped in the matter to be tested, in this case the dregs and ends of the Baron’s last meal, and spittle from the corpse itself. If the horn turns black, there is poison present. If it stays blue, there is none.

The horn stayed blue. Even in the drippings of sauce from the dish of truffles and oysters, which had been carefully preserved by the servants (probably friends of Zora’s).

The priest of Tannis and I returned to the hall, where the household was still assembled, with our findings.

“We are pleased to report that the Baron was not poisoned,” said the priest. I wisely remained silent. “The wizard concurs with me. Hubert of Portsmouth died of natural causes.”

Zora, standing near the servants with Evan still clutched protectively to her side, appeared shocked. Baroness Agnes smirked. Master Arnold looked at me in mild surprise.

“You are not going to insist upon your accusation, Master Wizard?” he asked.

“I only insist upon truth,” I said. “I found no trace of poison, either upon the Baron or in the remains of the wedding feast. Mistress Zora,” I said, turning to her, “please lay your suspicions to rest. Your patron was not murdered.”

For the first time that morning, I heard Agnes speak. “The presence of that woman offends us,” she said in the voice of a little girl. “My husband promised me she would leave the household,” she said, standing up from her chair. She was hardly taller. “Get rid of her.”

The servants stood frozen, looking at one another. Obviously Zora had been popular.

“You heard the Baroness,” said Glazier. “Throw the whore out! And take back all that she has stolen.”

“Stolen?” cried Zora in righteous fury. “I have stolen nothing! All that I have Hubert gave me out of love. But if you must stoop to calling me a thief, then I will leave with nothing more than I came with—my flesh and blood.” With that she began throwing her jewels and clothes to the ground in a pile, her necklaces and bracelets, her gold-fringed cape and embroidered robe, her scarves and spangled gown.

“Stop right there!” commanded Glazier before she could pull off her last shift. “Let it not be said that I cast you out naked. Go as you are. And take your bastard with you.”

“I intend to,” said Zora, clutching her wide-eyed child to her with bare, tattooed arms. She turned as if to leave the hall.

“Master Arnold,” I cried. “I beg a favor of her Excellency. May I borrow her coach to return to Belcamp?”

“Certainly,” said Baroness Agnes. “Take that woman with you if you like. I care not where she goes, so long as she is gone.”

On our way to the carriage, I gave Zora my cloak. “You have been most ill-used,” I said to her. “I would not have you take cold and die as well.”

* * * * *

Zora said nothing to me on the long ride back. She sat wrapped in my cloak, looking out at the passing landscape from behind the edge of the window curtain, lost in her own thoughts. Her son sat in her lap and peered out of the cloak at me with huge and wondering eyes. Finally I spoke.

“Mistress Zora, my landlady Sadie Brewer, mistress of the Snake and Egg, will be happy to find a place for you.”

The courtesan looked at me in mild amusement. “As a tavern servant? Waiting tables and scrubbing pots? I, who shared the bed of a Baron and bore him his only son?” She shook her head. “Leave me at the foot of the bridge,” she said. “I still have friends at the South Gate, friends who owe me favors.”

* * * * *

I returned to the smell of bacon grease and a minor disaster at the Snake and Egg. Sadie was back in the kitchen, bellowing at Dick, the youngest and clumsiest of the cooks.

“What’d you have to go and drop that bottle there for?” she wailed. “You’ve probably got shards of glass all in my cookpot now—I’ll have to throw out a dozen chickens, I will, and me with all the pastry ready for pies!”

I was famished, but I knew better than to enter that kitchen.

“Now Sadie,” her husband Nat was soothing, “the boy didn’t mean it. And the chickens are fine. Look—all the glass is down in the floor. Now you tell me how is any of it going to have got way up there in your pot?”

Sadie hrumphed something I couldn’t make out.

“The chicken’s fine. Go ahead and make your pies.”

“Well, all right,” Sadie said, “but it’ll be on you and Dick if I find myself serving broken glass to the good people of Belcamp…”

* * * * *

Some time later I was holed up in my private corner of the beer cellar, quietly enveloping one of Sadie’s chicken pies. I tried, and failed, not to think about the possibility of glass in the filling. I wondered what broken glass in a dish would taste like, if it were too fine to be seen. Gritty, I supposed. Like sand.

Like sand in dirty oysters.

Sadie’s dog was thrilled to receive the leavings of my pie as I dropped it to dart up the stairs out of the cellar and into the street. Baron Hubert’s funeral was scheduled for sunset, and I had barely enough time before that to confirm my suspicions.

Before going to Portsmouth, though, I went to the Great Temple of Belcamp to beg the aid of the Order of Saint Morganna. The Morganites are responsible for the proper treatment of the dead, and I had learned in the past not to go poking too closely at a corpse without their consent. Mother Lillian, the elderly head of the order, was so shocked by what I had to tell her, she not only loaned me her right-hand priestess, Sister Viola, but also a carriage to take us to Portsmouth.

* * * * *

“What are you doing back here?” Arnold Glazier demanded as I burst back into the hall, followed by the black-robed Sister Viola.

“Some doubt still remains regarding the death of the Baron,” I said.

“But you said he died of natural causes!” squeaked Agnes indignantly. “His funeral is to begin in less than half an hour!”

“I have here,” I said, holding out a parchment, “an order bearing the seal and signature of Mother Lillian of the Order of Saint Morganna of the Great Rose Temple of Belcamp to examine the body and do whatever I feel necessary to prove or disprove that the Baron was murdered. The funeral can wait until I am finished. Sister Viola here and Brother Davyth of the Order of Saint Tannis can witness.”

“Father, this is intolerable!” Agnes protested. “Make them go away!”

Glazier, however, had taken the scroll from my hands and was reading it over. “I say, this is preposterous!” he said, rolling his eyes in disbelief. “You and that elf woman are grasping at straws—I swear I’ll find the whore and have her horsewhipped!”

“Zora has nothing to do with this,” I said. “This was my idea. If I am wrong, you can have me horsewhipped!”

“Whip him now, Father,” said Agnes. “He insults our court!”

Glazier shook his head. “I don’t know how he got the clergy to go along with this, but a command from the Temple must be obeyed. Examine the body,” he said to me. “It is lying in the chapel. Do whatever appalling, disgusting thing you must, but you’d better have that body presentable for the funeral when you’re done. Sister Viola, Brother Davyth, and Father Reynard here can all watch you. But I assure you, no one here did anything to harm the Baron, and when you’re finished, I hope you’re prepared for me to bring you up on charges of slander and the sacrilegious mutilation of a corpse!”

* * * * *

In my experience, there are two types of noblemen, active and passive. The active types are obsessed with fighting, riding and hunting, and their vices tend to dueling and promiscuous lechery. The passive sort is preoccupied with money and luxury, is prone to gluttony and drunkenness, and is usually uncommonly fat. Baron Hubert had fallen into the latter category. Cutting into his corpse reminded me of the time I had once seen fishermen butchering a whale. I had to borrow a large knife from the kitchen, as my brass athame was wholly inadequate to the task. It was a bloody, slimy, wretched job, not to speak of foul-smelling, and both Brother Davyth and I found ourselves up to our elbows in the Baron’s bowels before I found what I was looking for. But I did find it.

I decided against cleaning up before returning to the court. I figured the gore would make my evidence more credible. The clerics and I were met with audible gasps as we entered. Both Davyth and I were smeared liberally with blood, and the priest carried a bowl full of some loathsome substance.

“Bring us a large bowl, a pitcher of water, and a white cloth,” I commanded, my usual shyness dissolving under the weight of my discovery. Glazier was simply too appalled to protest, and Agnes had gone pale. After an awkward pause, several servants scurried to obey me. When they returned, and the clean bowl was placed on the table, I had one of the servants stretch the cloth out over it. Davyth emptied his bowl out onto the cloth.

“Now,” I said, taking the pitcher of water from the third servant, “these clerics will all testify that this here,” I said, indicating the noxious mass Davyth had dumped out, “was taken from the stomach of the corpse, and nothing has been added to it.” I slowly poured the water over it. “Mixed with the food he had eaten, we discovered…” I began mucking, very carefully, through the slop with my fingers. “Ground glass.” I poured a little more water, using the cloth as a filter, until a small pile of glittering grains stood out against the fabric. “Someone had put ground glass into his Excellency’s food, probably in with the oysters where it might be mistaken for sand. It irritated his stomach until he went into a violent spell of vomiting, which brought on his fatal fit. I am sorry,” I said, looking around the room at my nauseated listeners, “to have to present the case so graphically, but Father Reynard, Brother Davyth, Sister Viola, and myself no longer have any doubt but that Baron Hubert was murdered.”

Arnold Glazier stood blinking for a few moments, apparently in a state of shock. “And… And I suppose you all assume I did it? Because I work in glass? Has it occurred to you that anyone could have crushed a bottle or jar and put a few shards in his Excellency’s food?”

“I do not pretend to be familiar with the workings of your guild, Master Glazier,” I said, “but Father Reynard, who has the clerical oversight of all the artisans in the kingdom, is of the opinion that the glass is fine enough to be the sort used in enameling figured window panes.”

Glazier’s shock gave way to cold fury. “And don’t you think it’s possible that someone could have chosen this means of murder to implicate me? It’s obvious what’s happened here! That Zora woman did it, so her son could inherit the coronet.”

Father Reynard stepped forward at this point. “Mistress Zora would have found it difficult to steal enameling powders from Glass Island,” he said, “as only guild members and their families are even allowed to set foot on it. It is my opinion that you, Master Arnold Glazier, have murdered your son-in-law, in order to gain control of Portsmouth.”

“That is obscene!” Glazier shouted. “How can you possibly believe…”

“We have already sent a servant with a message to the King,” began Father Reynard. I was just wondering how long it would take the King top get the message and dispatch a troop of soldiers to arrest Glazier, and whether or not Glazier would have ordered his own servants to kill us all before then, when, without warning, Agnes began screaming.

“I don’t care!” she shrieked. “I don’t care! I don’t care!”

Everyone in the hall, who had previously been mesmerized by the argument between Glazier and the priest, turned to look at the girl.

“I don’t care! I don’t care if I die, I don’t care if I hang, I couldn’t do it! I just couldn’t do it!”

Her face was blotchy, her eyes were stark and staring, and her breath came in the ragged gasps of hysteria.

“Agnes, what in God’s name are you talking about?” demanded Glazier. “Pull yourself together!”

But the girl was beyond reason. “This is all your fault!” she shrieked. “You were going to make me, and I couldn’t! I couldn’t!” She was sobbing now. “I couldn’t be the wife of that gross, disgusting old man! I’d rather have died! I couldn’t, couldn’t… He was horrible! I hated him! He made me sick! I’d rather die…”

Glazier stared at his daughter, dumfounded. “Agnes,” he said softly, “what are you saying?”

“I did it! I killed him! I watched him die and I’m glad! I’d rather hang than have let him touch me!”

* * * * *

As the Baroness of Portsmouth, however, Agnes was entitled to beheading. Out of consideration for her age and obvious madness, she was drugged beforehand. Her end was much more merciful than her husband’s had been. Of course her execution left the city of Portsmouth without a ruler. The King’s advisers, after much deliberation and delay, admitted that in cases where a man dies without legitimate heirs, a bastard may inherit. The son of a courtesan became the Baron of Portsmouth.

Zora might not have known as much about kingdom law as she had thought—but as Baron Evan’s guardian, she learned quickly enough.


Author’s note:

Although the memoirs of Edward Red Mage are based in a world wholly fictitious, this particular story was inspired by historical fact, or at least legend. Reay Tannahill, on pages 238-239 of Food in History, recounts that in 1368 the Duke of Clarence was reported to have died of a surfeit of truffles at his marriage feast.

I smell a rat.

Heavy is the Head

HeavyIsTheHead_MikePhillipsFinalCandidate

Illustration by Mike Phillips

by Robert E. Waters

 

An impish voice whispered in Palanor’s ear, muffling the bitter screams of his father. “Are you going to sit there and take his insults… again? Kill him! Kill him now!”

Palanor scratched away the voice, then drew his sword from its sheath and swung it wildly at his father’s neck, catching the old man in mid insult and knocking him off his horse.

Oh, the blood. Spurts and flows covering the road in deep crimson. His father’s blood. The king’s blood. More blood than Palanor had ever seen. His stomach turned. He looked down from his horse, down upon his father’s gurgling, moaning form.

“What will you do now?” There was that voice again. “Look at him. Even now, choking on his own phlegm, he mocks you. Finish him!”

Palanor jumped from his horse and raised his sword like an ax. Eyes wild, he brought the blade down into the gaping wound of the first cut, then again and again, until the head popped off like a ball and rolled across the road and down the gully wall.

Silence, save for the rustle of the head rolling away in the distance beneath the brown and red leaves. Palanor pulled a rag from his belt and wiped the blood from his sword. “You’re dead, Father,” he hissed, hovering over the beheaded man. “And you will never hurt me again.”

He tossed the bloody rag to the ground and stepped over his father, toward the gully where the head had rolled. A heavy suggestion of snow lay in the wind’s voice, whistling wetly through the trees, bringing to Palanor’s ears the first hopeful sounds of his life. Your father is dead and you will now rule, he thought to himself. No more shameful times. No more embarrassing moments in the courtyard, his father belittling him before his own mother and brother, his own countrymen, raising doubts about his mettle. No more feeling worthless. “Now you are the embarrassed one, Father, the weak one,” Palanor snarled at the head lying somewhere below. “You’ve lost your head, and your guard isn’t here to fetch it for you.”

Palanor stumbled down the muddy gully wall, supporting himself with the sword. His heavy boots scooped out dark cuts in the ground. Only now was his blood cooling in his face, though his heart was still beating strongly. As he descended, he wondered: How will I make it look? How will I convince everyone that we were jumped and I fought valiantly to save the king? He looked at his arms, his legs, seeking signs of struggle. None. The decision to kill had come quickly, per the advice of that tiny little voice, the meek whispery tickle on his ear that most assuredly had been his inner demon, his own conscience. No struggle except that which was now building in his mind, replacing the promise of the wind with screams of inner panic.

He reached the bottom of the gully and began poking through the leaves. It couldn’t have rolled far, being so fat and bumpy, like an over-ripe apple from a tree, popping off its branch and cracking on the roots below. He swept the leaves left to right, moving the broad blade of his sword like a broom. Where is it? He moved further down the gully, into the shadows where the ground was dark, so dark that he could only hope to feel the meaty thump! of his blade against the sallow flesh of his father’s head. His heart beat faster, forgetting the delight of a moment ago. Palanor dropped to his knees and started fishing through the sea of leaves.

“Are you looking for something?”

A childish voice from behind. Palanor’s head popped through the canopy of leaves. He whipped his body around to face the voice.

“Please don’t stop on my account.” There it was again, this time from the side and up in the trees. “But I can’t help but wonder if what you’re looking for is this…”

Palanor held his sword forward and braced for a threat. His face wild, he said, “Who’s there?”

“I’m up here,” the voice said. “Up here sitting pretty.”

Palanor turned right and looked up into the dark shadows of the twisted trees, up into a faint glow of magical light he hadn’t noticed before. And there perched his father’s head, delicately on a branch, swaying in the wind; lips crusted with drying blood, swollen, pudgy face, mangled white hair glued to a dead white brow. And eyes, covered in thick, ashen lids, accusing, mocking lids of eyes that could no longer pass judgment, but could still stir Palanor’s insecurities. The sight of his father’s face was too much for the prince to bear. The only thing that saved him from screaming was small legs crossed and resting on the bridge of the nose.

A brightly dressed pixy sat on the king’s head, subtle elfin-like lips parted devilishly, smoking a small pipe, blowing rings, swinging little legs, bouncing tiny shoes off cold flesh. Palanor fell back in terror, eyes fixed on the little imp. The pixy inhaled a long thread of smoke from the pipe, tossed his head up, and blew the smoke away. He seemed very content.

Finally, the pixy said, “Is this what you’re looking for?” It rapped its knuckles on the balding skull like knocking on a door.

Without thinking Palanor nodded.

“I thought as much,” said the pixy, cradling the pipe in its left hand. “I thought you’d come after it.”

Palanor finally gained his strength and stood. He looked around the base of the tree, searching for a way up. The steep, coarse trunk of the tree rose before him, its black roots peaking out of the eroding soil like serpents. Steps up. Palanor leaped for them, scrambling with hands and feet, pulling his way up the roots towards the little devil. His moves were violent and rash, clumsy and unprepared. It took several minutes to reach the branch where the pixy sat, but when he got there, the imp and the head were gone.

“Psst,” a voice from behind and up. “Over here.”

Palanor turned and looked up. The grinning, contented face of the pixy sparkled in the shadows. “It’s no use to try to catch me,” the pixy said, fluttering thin wings, “so I recommend we negotiate a deal.”

Breathless and dizzy, Palanor stumbled back down the tree and rested against the gully bank. Something about the pixy’s voice was familiar, but his mind could not place it. “Who are you? What do you want?”

“What do I want, you ask? I want what all men and fairies of good conscience want: World peace, a warm meal, female companionship, and a place to rest my weary head.” The pixy giggled. “But seriously, I’m no one special, and I don’t really want anything. I was just working my way through these woods, in hot pursuit of dinner, when I heard hooves on the road. My dinner spooked and ran off. Frustrated, I slipped up to the road to see who was coming and to my amazement, I saw the King of Trunkheim and his heir trotting along. I thought to myself, ‘Lucky me, I finally get to meet the great king and the prince.’ Well, you can imagine my surprise when suddenly I see you draw a sword and lop the old man’s head off.”

“You saw nothing!” Palanor screamed and flung a glob of mud.

The pixy ducked. “Not only did I see something, I felt it too. The king’s head flew right into me and knocked me down. It pushed me into the mud, it did. See…” The pixy stood up and turned, revealing a mud-streaked pink vest and wings. He sat back down and giggled again. “A pixy goes through his whole life thinking nothing like this will ever happen to him, and then it does. I feel like I’ve been hit by lightning.”

Palanor bared his teeth. “You saw and felt nothing, you miserable whelp. Now give me my father’s head.”

The pixy rubbed its chin and considered. It shook its head. “No, no. That won’t do. I think we need to talk a little more. Get to know each other better.”

“I said give me—”

“Shh!” The pixy put its hand out and pressed it down. “Don’t talk too loud. You don’t want anyone to hear you, do you?”

Palanor shut up quickly. He had forgotten the way voices carried in these woods. A childhood memory flashed in his mind: he and his brother running through the gullies, each casting his voice to confuse the other. Find me! Find me! They’d scream. Over here! No here! And then the booming voice of their father or a court aide calling them home, ending the fun. How many times, Palanor wondered, have I gone through this very gully? How many times had he climbed these very banks and flung this very mud?

Palanor breathed deeply and said, “Okay, what do you want?”

The pixy knocked the tobacco out of its pipe. “Like I said, I don’t want anything. The big question is what do you want? Political assassination and fratricide is a big step in a young prince’s life. Was it worth it?”

Tears welled at the corners of Palanor’s eyes. “He was a hateful man. He deserved it.”

The pixy nodded, tucking its legs away, still perched on the head. “He must have been. But it must have been equally hard for you to deliver the last blow…”

“Not at all.”

“…and it’ll be even harder for you to explain how it happened.”

That realization hit Palanor hard. He had forgotten that small detail in the scuffle to find his father’s head, and how he searched for excuses. “Self defense.”

The pixy shook its head, yanking a long strand of white hair from the king’s scalp. “I didn’t see any struggle.”

“The struggle wasn’t physical. It was internal and brought on by years of abuse.”

“I see,” said the pixy. “So you’re the victim in all this, huh? Please tell me more.”

“My father was ruthless,” Palanor began. “All my life he treated me and my brother like dogs, shaming us before our mother and our countrymen. When we were young, he would beat us and laugh. How many times did he call me ‘worthless’ or ‘unfit to govern’ or ‘wasted seed’? And for years I took the abuse. For years I let him humiliate and shame me. But not anymore.”

Palanor dropped down and began to cry, a cry of many years, a cry that wailed through the trees, echoing back like the howls of a lost banshee. And while he cried, the pixy flossed its teeth with the strand of white hair. “Yeah, it sounds like he was a bad man. I never knew that about the king.”

Palanor sniffled. “Few do.”

“Well, how are you going to cover it up?”

“Oh, I don’t know. We were attacked by thieves. How’s that?”

The pixy shook his head. “I don’t remember any thieves.”

“Nobody knows that.”

The pixy smiled. “I do.”

Palanor jumped up, his wild, sweat-soaked hair smearing his vision. “You little rat bastard. I’m the king now. I order you to bring down my father’s head.”

By this time, the pixy was lying on its stomach and reaching over and pulling up one eyelid and then the other, left, right, left, right. The cold, glossy eyes beneath, each time they were flashed, drilled holes into Palanor’s soul. Oh, what have I done? What have I done? Your eyes, Father, know the truth. I killed you in cold blood.

The pixy reached for the bloody mouth and pried the lips apart, opening and closing, opening and closing the hollow, dark mouth. “You are a bad son,” the pixy said, casting his voice lower, mimicking the king’s voice, opening and closing the jaw with each word. “You killed me and you will pay.”

“Shut up!” Palanor’s words bounced through the wood. He flung another glob of mud and this time hit the pixy square and sent the head tumbling down through the branches. But the pixy had disappeared again, flying into the shadows. Palanor scrambled forward, trying to catch the head before it struck the ground. He lunged and grabbed a handful of hair. He hit the ground hard, the weight of the impact knocking out his wind. But he held his father’s head firmly. Palanor brought the bloody orb to his chest and hugged it like a doll, lying in the mud and weeping loudly.

“I’m sorry, Father,” he whimpered, stroking the white hair. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean—”

“You know,” said the pixy from somewhere behind, “I think you ought to come clean on the whole thing. You’re the king now. What can they do?”

Through his whimpering, Palanor saw the truth in the pixy’s words. It’s right. What can they do? I’m the king now. Mother cannot even touch me. Suddenly, fear and despair were replaced with hope and optimism. He cracked a smile.

“You’re right,” Palanor said, turning his father’s head around to stare defiantly into the wrinkles. “I am king now, Father. It doesn’t matter who killed you. I can’t be touched.”

“That’s right,” trumpeted the pixy, suddenly appearing on Palanor’s shoulder with a flutter of wings. “They can’t touch you. And judging by how terrible he was, you did Trunkheim a favor, wouldn’t you say?”

Palanor’s eyes beamed with delight and he looked at the pixy, forgetting his desire to crush the little imp in his hands. “Yes.”

“Sure. Why I wouldn’t be surprised if they—” The pixy stopped and turned his ear to the wind. “Do you hear that?”

Palanor listened. Faintly, the sound of clinking hooves and jangling armor came from the road above, faint and distant, but growing stronger.

“The body!” Palanor said, suddenly remembering that his father’s corpse was lying alongside the road. He tossed the head aside and scrambled up the gully, like a dog, clawing at the mud and leaves. He reached the top and crawled to the body. Up the road, in the direction he and his father had been riding, came a single horse. On the horse was a man, a man of equal height and build as Palanor, but younger. A man of equally brief facial hair, but sharper. A man Palanor knew well.

His brother Roth.

Palanor rose up on his knees, but he didn’t try to hide the body, nor did he show remorse. What purpose would it serve anyway? Roth had experienced the same shame and humiliation at the iron hand of father. Surely he of all people, Palanor thought, would understand and give thanks. On his knees, he smiled faintly and watched his brother ride up.

Roth looked down from his horse, shifting his eyes from father to brother. His chest started heaving violently, his handsome face growing red with anger. “What is this? What have you done?”

Palanor spoke proudly, “I’ve killed the old bastard. I’ve killed him.”

Roth jumped from his horse and drew his sword, moving close. The sun was setting fast behind him. “I came looking for you because Colonel Gregor had sent his falcon forward with word that you and Father had slipped away from the knight’s tourney early this morning without the protection of his guard. I’ve been looking for you and this is what I find. Are you insane?”

“Roth, it’s over,” Palanor said. “Our misery has ended. I am king now.”

Roth lowered his sword, and Palanor rose to his feet and laid a hand upon this brother’s back. The young man began to weep.

Palanor pulled him close. “It’s all right, Roth. It’s all right. We’ll make it right.”

Through sobs, Roth asked. “How? How are we going to do that? What are we going to say?”

“We’ll carry the body back,” said Palanor. “We’ll tell Mother that we were attached by brigands and Father fell fighting bravely.”

Roth nodded. “But what about the absence of the guard? Why weren’t they here? Why were they left behind?”

Palanor shook his head. “I don’t know. Father slipped into my tent this morning and ordered us away. When I asked him about why we were leaving, he told me to shut up, so I didn’t press him.”

“You know,” said the pixy, setting down upon Roth’s saddle and coolly filling his pipe, “I witnessed the entire thing, and I don’t recall any brigands.”

The brothers stared at the imp on the saddle. “No one knows that,” said Palanor.

The pixy smiled, lighting his pipe. “I do. And besides, what with the story about your father’s ruthlessness that you explained to me, everyone will immediately assume that it was a conspiracy: Brothers conspiring to kill their father.”

“Wait,” Roth said, pulling away from Palanor. “I didn’t kill my father. There was no conspiracy.”

“No? Please forgive me.” The pixy stared deeply into Roth’s eyes. “Am I to assume, then, that the bag of gold you gave me two days ago had nothing to do with your political aspirations?” It giggled and patted the velvet bag tied around its waist.

“What’s it talking about, Roth?” Palanor asked, raising his brow.

Roth turned and threw up his arms in confusion. “I’ve never seen this imp in my life. It’s lying.”

“Lying?” The pixy’s little face wrinkled as if wounded. “Then I guess that knife you’ve hidden in your boot is for show and not for your brother’s chest.”

Palanor grabbed Roth’s leg and tugged down his leather boot to reveal a long blade tied to the calf. He pulled the knife out and pushed Roth back.

“Palanor, believe me,” Roth said, trying to calm his brother. “I always wear that knife. Always.”

“I’ve never seen you wear it,” Palanor snapped, throwing it to the ground. “I trusted you, Roth, and now I see that you planned the whole thing. Conspiring with Colonel Gregor to somehow lure Father and me away from the tournament early, leaving me alone with him out here in the woods, knowing full well that I’d be the center of his wrath, hoping that I’d lose it and kill him. And then you’d come looking for us and sob and weep and act the understanding brother. And when the moment was right, you’d kill me and take the throne.”

Roth backed up and raised his sword. “You treacherous bastard. You’re insane. You’re the one conspiring with Colonel Gregor, not me. You and Gregor and this pixy, luring me into a trap.”

“Me? Why you—” and Palanor raised his sword.

Roth braced and met Palanor’s attack. The swords met again and again, clanging violently in the waning light of the sun, filling the woods with the clamor of battle. The brothers moved over their father’s body, stepping on loose parts of the royal robe, stubbing their toes on his stiffening flesh, stumbling over his legs and arms. Arms stripped with cuts, legs weak and waning, the brothers cut and thrust and swung their blades, all in the presence of a small pixy humbly perched on Roth’s saddle.

He smoked his pipe.

And like before, a tiny voice entered Palanor’s ear and guided his sword home, deep into Roth’s neck at the vulnerable spot. Another blow, and another, and Roth’s head popped off his neck like a dandelion. Palanor dropped his sword and fell to the ground, chest aching for breath. More blood, even more than before, covering his father’s drying blood like a second coat of paint on a fence post. Palanor could not stop his tears.

A small body with a flutter of wings set upon the prince’s left shoulder. “You know,” whispered the pixy, “this is quite a mess we have here. In more ways than one.”

Palanor felt the pixy’s breath on his ear. “It’s you, isn’t it? You’re the voice I’ve been hearing. This is all your fault.”

The pixy nodded and smiled, shoving his smoldering pipe into his velvet bag. “It’s true, I must admit. But I’m merely a small player in a very big game.”

Right then he should have grabbed the imp and crushed him. But no. Doing so would not bring his father or brother back, nor douse the pain in his heart. He’d killed them. He, Palanor, the Prince-cum-King of Trunkheim had cut off their heads. And now lying in their blood, he didn’t have the strength to be angry.

“It’s over, isn’t it?” Palanor asked the imp. “I can’t be king now. What would I tell my mother? How could I show my face to the people with so much blood on my hands? So much shame. What do I do now, Imp? Tell me what to do.”

For a moment, no answer came. But then it did, not as a voice but as Roth’s knife, floating up from the ground and hovering before him, suspended in a magical white light. Palanor stared at the knife, and a little voice whispered in his ear, “Take the knife, my good prince. Your father commands it. Take the knife and finish the job.”

Palanor snatched the knife from the air, turned the blade toward his chest and drove it home.

* * * * *

In the dim light of the setting sun, the pixy rolled the severed heads up to Palanor’s head and arranged them in descending order. Father, Palanor, Roth. Oldest to youngest, left to right. It crawled up onto Palanor’s forehead, lit its pipe, and drew deeply. The warm smoke felt good curling down its throat. It took the chill off the bitter wind. It crossed its legs over the prince’s nose, smoked, and waited.

In time, a steady, slow clapping of horse hooves came up the road from behind. The pixy knew who it was. It could smell her perfume.

Without turning, it said, “It’s a tragic tale, isn’t it? An ancient one of hate, jealousy, greed, lust, and pain. Father sires son; son grows up weak and wanting; father hates son; son kills father; brothers kill each other. Makes you want to weep, doesn’t it?”

The clapping of hooves stopped. “Spare me your drama, Imp. I’m not in the mood. Did you have to arrange them like that? Right next to each other? So morbid.”

The pixy chuckled. “I thought you’d like to see them all together one last time, my lady.” It jumped up and faced the queen.

She was wearing a black robe with a thick hood clasped tightly at her neck. She was beautiful in black, it thought, admiring how her green eyes accentuated the darkness of the fabric cupping her face. It studied that face for some sign of remorse, some measure of guilt. Yes, yes, perhaps there it was. A flash of red in the eyes? A spot of tear on the lash? Was she, too, a victim in all this, it wondered. But that was a silly question, for it knew the answer to that already.

“My husband accepted your plan to lure Palanor here and pick a fight?” the queen asked.

“Yes,” said the pixy. “Once I convinced him that his sons were conspiring to seize the throne, he couldn’t wait to get Palanor alone. And when the moment came, I locked his arms against his side with a simple lock spell and he couldn’t defend himself.”

The queen looked down at her son’s bloody chest. The hilt of Roth’s knife stuck up like a tomb. “Palanor did what you told him? No troubles?”

The pixy sniffed, feeling the chilly air, fighting back the growl in its empty stomach. “Clay in my hands, your Highness. Clay in my hands.”

“And Roth’s knife. It was where I said it would be?”

The pixy nodded. “That was a nice touch.”

“Thank you,” the queen said smiling.

Men riding up halted their discussion. Ten mighty warriors of the royal guard lead by Colonel Gregor. They pulled up to the edge of the dried pools of blood and stared at the bodies. Gregor, garbed in the silver and red of the Trunkheim army, rode forward, eyes fixed upon the queen. She stared back. Gregor nodded politely. The queen responded in kind. Then together, they leaned forward over Palanor’s body and kissed.

The pixy cleared his throat. “Pardon me for interrupting this warm and cuddly moment, but we had a deal, your Highness. I do you a favor, and you do me one.”

The queen pulled away from her lover’s lips. “Very well, Imp. Name your price.”

“Full access to your royal grain stores and wild game reserves. Plus, if it won’t be too much trouble, a comfortable rat-hole somewhere in the castle. Winter this year, I fear, will be harsh.”

“Access to my grain? My animals? My castle? Impossible!” She looked at Gregor for support.

Gregor nodded carefully… very carefully. “It seems fair, my love.” The colonel then looked at the pixy. The little creature gave Gregor a quick wink and a smile that only the colonel could see. This tragic tale, the pixy knew, was far from over.

The queen shook her head, but said, “Okay, Imp. You have a deal.” She pulled the reigns of her horse, turned around, and motioned toward the three dead bodies, two headless. “You men clean this up,” she ordered, “and forget what you saw here today.”
Trotting up the road, the queen and the colonel held hands. The pixy flew between them, coolly smoking his pipe. “You know, my lady,” it said, “I wouldn’t be too concerned about giving me access to your food supplies. After all, there are three less heads at the dinner table now.”

Behind them, a guardsmen picked up the king’s head and placed it in a leather bag.