Suction Cups

Disraeli Jones was in a bad way. He sat on the white marble floor in the lobby in the Hampton Arms.

His right leg was splayed at an angle out from his body. His left leg was the same way to the knee, but there it bent back toward his right. The sole of his left shoe pressed against the inside of the right leg of his trousers just above the knee.

His back was against the wall, his shoulders round and sagging. His arms, along with the lapels of his jacket, framed his bulging yellow shirt. His hands lay palms-up on his lap. His hat lay on the floor at his side, and his head was slumped to his chest.

The light from the lone chandelier glistened on his slick bald head. Short, wavy red hair formed a horseshoe from above one ear and around his head to the other.

He appeared to be asleep.

At this time of night, there was no one around to make a judgement. Any guests were long since asleep. If the desk clerk was at his station, he was being very discreet about it.

Each time Jones inhaled, it seemed an effort. The air came as if it were a rope, being pulled, inch by inch, past his lips and into his lungs. His chin quavered slightly with every breath, and he made a sound like a cat scratching on a post.

Each time he exhaled it was a quiet moan wrapped in a sigh, and his thick chest and abdomen trembled slightly.

He slowly raised his head, winced with the pain, and looked across the lobby at the double entrance doors.

There was no doorman either. That was better.

The doorman’s station, a dark mahogany pedestal to the left of the door, began to waver. Time was short.

Jones allowed his head to drop again, but this time under his control.

A few inches below his face, on top of his abdomen, fabric strained away in both directions from a shirt button. The button was brown.

He frowned.

Shouldn’t the buttons be yellow, like the shirt?

To the left and closer, another, larger brown spot. Small, frothy bubbles around the edge.

Lung shot. Probably a lung shot.

If he still smoked, he could cover it with the cellophane from the pack. That’s what they taught him in the army.

It was nonsense, of course. How would you patch the hole in the back?

After that lecture, back in the barracks, he joked with his buddies, “It’s silly. It just gives you somethin’ to think about while you’re dyin’.”

They all laughed.

In the lobby, leaning against the wall, he shook his head slightly.

Come on back to now.

He raised his head again, opened one eye.

He could make it to the door.

He drew another breath, then another, filling himself with air.

He grunted slightly, hunched and all at once leaned his shoulders forward, with force. He did it again, then again.

Each time his shoulders bumped the wall, he hunched them again, propelled himself forward.

Each time he leaned over a little farther, gaining momentum.

Finally he rocked across the fulcrum of his knee. The palms of his hands, fingers splayed, splatted against the marble floor.

Behind him on the wall was a large, bright red splotch. Alongside it in three steps, three more bright red marks.

He swung his right leg around, brought his right knee up, began crawling toward the door.

A third of the way across the lobby, he thought of his gun.

His holster was there. But it felt light.

Naked.

Probably they took it.

Probably they tugged it from his holster when they sat him down.

The guy who tugged it out would glance at it, slip it into his jacket pocket to toss it into the river later on.

But they wouldn’t drop that one in the river. That one wasn’t a throw-away.

The guy who did the deed would catch a glimpse. He’d say quietly, “Hey, whaddya got there?”

Jones’ mind swayed for a moment. He reached for the wavering floor with his left hand, kept moving forward.

It was like the captain said the first time he brought the pistol to the range. “Hey, whaddya got there, Dee?”

And Jones grinned. He dropped the magazine into his left palm, racked the slide and locked it back, and passed it to the captain over a grin. “Kimber .45.” He laughed. “‘Cause you know, they don’t make a .46.”

The captain took it, held it reverently in his right palm. He rolled it over, let the slide go home. He turned, aimed it downrange, tested the heft, the balance.

Then he racked the slide, locked it back, and handed it back to Jones. “Hey, ain’t that something? I always heard these were the thing, eh?”

Today, another guy would say, “Whaddya got there?”

And the guy who took it from his holster would stop just short of his pocket

He’d stop and he’d roll the pistol over in his hand. He’d lean his ugly, pinched, pockmarked face close to read the stamp on the slide. Then he’d look up and frown. “Kimber?” he’d say. “Is that even a thing?”

Jones was almost halfway across the floor when his right elbow quavered.

He looked up.

The single column in the room. It rose from the floor to the ceiling of the lobby.

Two stories, right?  Yeah, two stories.

The column was to his right front. Only a few feet away.

So he was only a few feet short of halfway across.

He stopped for a moment, supporting himself on his left hand and his knees. He lifted his right arm, flexed his elbow once.

He thought again of the hood, rolling his Kimber in his hand. Thought of him saying, “Is that even a thing?”

Yeah, genius. It’s a thing.

His left wrist went weak and something slapped him on the left side of his face.

Wakin’ me up. My friend, wakin’ me up.

He drew a heavy breath, focused all his attention on his right arm.

The right arm’s gimpy. The right elbow.

With the slap still pressing against the left side of his face, he focused on that right arm. He dragged his right hand forward, the back of his fingers sweeping across the floor.

But at the end of the reach, they flipped up from beneath his hand.

Just like they’re supposed to.

His palm made contact.

He focused. Focused on everything. Focused on doing what he had to do.

He shook his head, but he wasn’t sure it actually moved side to side. The slap was still stuck to the left side.

Strange. Do slaps do that?

Who slapped me anyway?

But while his head was up, he glanced at the door.

Still a ways to go. Still a ways.

Back to business.

He focused. He focused on a knee, then the other hand. Then the other knee.

My right knee, right?

Then the other knee, and then his left.

He’d make it. He’d make it to the doors.

The car is there. Right there.

Parked outside. Along the curb.

The slap still stuck to his face, he glanced up to look at the door.

Didn’t I? Didn’t I look at the door?

Yeah I did.

He glanced at the door and it slid sideways.

Oops. That ain’t right.

It swung back into place.

He frowned.

Better focus.

He thought of his fingertips. He was pulling himself along on his fingertips, right?

Focus. Knee, fingertips. Other knee, fingertips.

Fingertips. Tips of the fingers.

Good design. The little mounds there. On the fingertips. They’re supposed to be for suction, right? Like holdovers from when we were amphibians? Somethin’ like that?

He’d heard that somewhere.

Then another thought hit him.

It felt like another slap. Almost. Only the first slap was still there. It was cool on his cheek.

Something about that was funny.

But it was a thought.

A thought slapped me. Where’s that thought? It was a thought, right? A thought.

He let his eyes close and looked at the door. He was over halfway. The column was behind him to his right, and he didn’t even remember moving past it. And he didn’t have to look to know it was there.

He’d make it to the doors. And his car was right outside. Right alongside the curb.

There’s the thought. It came again. The other thought like the one about the suction cups. The other thought. The one about cellophane.

He frowned.

They got somethin’ in common.

What is it? What they got in common?

What was the other thought?

There was the cellophane thought, whatever that was, and then—

Somethin’— somethin’ to do with suction cups, or somethin’.

Oh. Cellophane to stop a sucking chest wound.

He tried to grin, turned up the right corner of his mouth.

And then suction cups, so that’s like a suckin’ chest wound. Or somethin’. They both suck. That’s what they got in common. They both suck. One sucks air and one— One sucks stuff you’re grippin’.  That’s what— what they—

No. Nah, that ain’t it.

Just silly thoughts. They got nothin’ to do with anything.

“Just,” he said, barely above a whisper. “Just somethin’.”

The captain looked at his Kimber. “Whaddya got there, Dee? Well now ain’t that somethin’!”

“Just somethin’,” Jones said again.

Blood frothed on his lips.

The thought was slipping away. Both thoughts. Slipping away together.

Hold on.

Suction. Suction cups. Suckin’ chest wound. Suction cups.

“Ahh, that’s— that’s what they got— common.”

The corner of his mouth turned up again.

Suction cups an’ fingertips.

He looked up at the door again, his eyes still closed.

Hey, it didn’t waver this time.

And he was close. He was almost there.

Suction cups. Apply the suction cups on your fingertips. Get there, man!

His car was right there at the curb.

Sucked up against the curb.

He looked up at the door again. Almost there.

Suction cups on your fingers. Silly. Suckin’ chest wound. And cellophane. Somethin’ about—

Oh. Cellophane— to seal a suckin’ chest wound. Silly. How you gonna seal the back?

But that’s it. That’s what it is.

Suction cups on your fingertips. Cellophane on a suckin’ chest wound.

His army buddies faded in, grinning. They wavered.

“Yeah,” he said. He laughed, trying to get their attention. “See? Hey, see? Suction cups on your fingertips. Here. Right here.”

He stood and held up both hands, showing them the part he was talking about. “See? An’ then sealin’ a suckin’ chest wound with cellophane. See?”

He slapped his chest hard. “See? Right there. That’s where it’d go on me. Only it don’t work, see. That’s the joke. Just— just somethin’ to keep you entertained— while you’re dyin’.”

What a cool thought. And it slapped him on the left side of his face.

No, a cold thought. What a cold thought.

He wanted to look at the door again.

Open your eyes this time. Look with your eyes this time.

But his left eye didn’t want to open.

He opened his right eye.

It closed.

He opened it again. Opened it wide.

Frowned.

The column.

The column was just ahead of him a few feet.

Oh. Oh yeah.

Got it.

* * * * * * *

 

The Fading of Jill Montgomery

Soon Jill Montgomery fell into an easy rhythm on the trail through City Park. Her arms and legs pumped, her shoulders and hips rolled. It seemed easier than ever before. She felt light as a feather, could barely feel her footfalls on the gravel path crunching beneath her.

The furrows on her brow smoothed away, as if slipping from her forehead on beads of sweat. They trickled down her cheeks and off her jawline.

Running every morning was routine. The run, pushing herself, was always relaxing. It stretched her muscles. Hell, it stretched her soul, set her up for the rest of the day.

She listened to her faint footfalls on the path. The gravel, starkly white in the pre-dawn shadows, crunched, crunched, crunched beneath her Nikes. Her arms pumped, her hands clenched into loose fists. Her breath came easily, rhythmically, in through her nose and out through her slightly open mouth.

The cool, humid air, a ghostly mist, defined the pines. It draped across the thistle-laden brush, the muted red berries of the holly.

They were white pines, her father said. Yellow said the guy across the street.

Tufts of Johnson grass along the path bowed gracefully beneath the weight of dew.

The air collected scents—damp bark, fallen needles, old leaves—a thousand things gone back into the earth. The heady taste of it mixed well with the salt she licked from her lips.

After a good run and a hot shower, everything would be better. Easier.

Everything was easier after a run. Putting up with mid-town traffic, going to court, even smiling and nodding as clients endlessly lied was easier.

It was the run. The run made it all better.

The run drained the stress of the previous day and eased her into the present.

But today—she closed her eyes, tried to calm herself, opened them—today the run was necessary.

Today she was running with the past.

Bob’s past. Letting it peel away, layer by filthy layer.

Bob’s stupid, selfish admission of his guilt.

Bob’s audacity in making her the judge.

She shook her head slightly as she ran. Her pony tail passed her for a second. A flash of blond spritzed her own dark sweat across her light-grey shirt.

Just like that, in a single, greedy second, Bob lifted the load from his shoulders and slammed it firmly down on hers.

The decision was already made, he said. Oh, and he wished it could be some other way.

And then? Then he walked out. Right? He just walked out.

Fine specimen of a man.

There was no way. No way in hell she’d deal with this today.

She had the Barringer arraignment at 9 a.m. Then meetings from 10 ‘til 1, no lunch again. The old man was a stickler when it came to work. Didn’t he dock Barry Jackson’s check for that client lunch three weeks ago? No matter that Barry landed the account.

And when the day was over, there would be Bob. Stupid, stingy, selfish Bob.

She didn’t want to think about it.

But what the hell?

They’d only been married for three years. So it couldn’t be the seven year itch, whatever that was.

And he was only thirty-two. Not ready for a ‘Vette and gold chains. A rope, maybe, stretched up over a rafter.

Why did she hate him so? Men left their wives every day, didn’t they?

She clenched her fists, pumped her arms harder, watched her shoes crunching on the gravel. She dug in harder with her toes, raced hard toward the little stand of aspens that marked the final turn.

To hell with Bob. She’d shower at the gym.

She had a suit in her locker at the gym, didn’t she? Then she’d fight the boss, the court, the lying clients. Anything but Bob.

Stupid Bob.

She remembered to breathe.

Stupid Bob. That’s what the run was for. Drain the stress. Ease her into the day.

And thankfully, it was almost over. It was a great run. She’d drained a bit more of Bob, and now it was all new.

First there would be the gym, then the day.

The gym. The day. That’s all that mattered now.

She ran past the stand of quaking aspens—­she sensed them on her left more than saw them—and flashed through the turn, her fists still clenched, her arms pumping hard.

Her shoulder hurt, as if she hit it on an unseen object.

A tenth of a mile to go. It was almost over. She raised her head to spot the parking lot—

And stopped.

Still breathing hard, she frowned. She uncurled her hands and put them on her hips. She breathed deeply, frowned, breathed deeply.

What the hell?

She turned to look back along the trail.

There were the aspens. On the right as she started out each day, on the left as she raced for home.

She turned around again. So where was the parking lot? Where was her Mercedes?

She turned again, looked back.

The aspens. The trail. It was the same trail she ran every morning. The same one she’d run every morning for the past four years. The same one where she’d first met that idiot Bob.

She bent at the waist, put her hands on her knees, took a long breath.

She’d figure it out.

* * *

She was pumping her arms hard that day too, stretching her legs, reaching with her heels. Every fiber in every muscle stretched in rhythm as she climbed the long incline that passed for a hill not quite halfway through the run.

And she was focused. Tightly focused.

She probably wouldn’t have noticed a gunshot. Seriously. When she was focused on the run or free floating with the euphoria of it, even a gunshot would be a minor noise in her distant periphery.

So she was more than a little surprised when she realized there was a man beside her.

That he’d said just said “Hello” for the third time.

That he was looking at her and grinning even as he ran alongside her.

She started, and moved a half-step to the right. “Oh,” she said through her rhythmic breathing. “Hi.”

He kept looking at her. “How far?”

She didn’t look around, but frowned lightly as the self-generated breeze redistributed his words somewhere behind them. “Huh?”

“How far you going today?”

“Oh. Seven miles. Medium day.” She cast a quick glance at him. He seemed all right. Nice smile. Nothing bad in his eyes. “You?”

“I can try for seven.”

What? Why? Did he mean to run with her? Was he trying to pick her up?

He said, “You start at the parking lot?”

She nodded, trying to return her concentration to the rhythm in her shoulders, her arms, her legs.

Her legs. Is that what interested him? What was she wearing today?

But she didn’t want to look down. Men take that the wrong way.

Her breath formed before her in a series of puffs and she ran through them.

Sweats. It’s cold, so sweats on the bottom.

She visualized pulling on her sweatpants in the locker room. Red sweatpants. Then her sports bra. Then an old t-shirt. Then her shirt. Her jersey.

She was wearing red sweatpants with a mid-weight Guinness jersey her dad bought her for her last birthday.

She wanted to keep her legs warm, even if a little too warm. But she didn’t care for the weight of thick fabric up top. And being cooler reminded her to pump her arms, feel her shoulders.

She pumped her arms, monitored the muscle fibers in her shoulders and reached a little farther with her heels. Inadvertently she sped up.

He laughed lightly. “You trying to get away?”

She glanced at him, then back at the trail. “You someone I should get away from?”

He grinned broadly. “Nope. Not if I’m lucky.”

Goodfellas came to mind. The scene with Tommy DeVito and Henry Hill. Where Tommy was jerking Henry’s chain. Lucky? Lucky how? Ha-ha lucky? Serious lucky? How exactly are you hoping to get— But she said, “I’m an attorney.” That usually sent men packing.

Again he laughed. “Good match. I’m in pest control too. I’m a US Marshal.”

Really? She’d never met a US Marshal. But she said, “I’m a defense attorney.”

“Yep.”

Yep? What’s that supposed to mean? She stopped and put her hands on her hips. “Look, I’m really not out here looking for a date, so—”

“Oh. Good. I’ll make a note of it in case I decide to ask.” He grinned, then gestured toward the trail. “So you go out and back or do a circuit or what?””

She canted her head slightly, then turned half-right and started running again.

He fell in beside her, matching her stride for stride.

She said, “Out and back. With a circuit in the middle today. It’s right at seven miles.”

“That’s what you said. Mind if I tag along?”

She shrugged as she fell back into an easy rhythm. “Free country.”

“Bob Trask.”

“Huh?”

“My name. Bob Trask.”

“Ah.” She nodded.

And he stayed up with her through the course. He talked pretty much continually until they’d rounded the circuit and rejoined the main trail to head back toward the stand of aspens and the parking lot.

Before they got back, she knew all about where he was born and reared, which schools he had attended, and the horrifying event that had called him to work in law enforcement. The murder of his parents when he was 16.

Despite her curiosity about some of what he said, she limited her own responses to as few words as possible. He was easy on the eyes and seemed to have an even demeanor, but probably he was either just lonely and wanting to talk—he’d moved to Cremer a little less than a month earlier—or he was looking to “get lucky.” And in that regard, she wasn’t interested.

As they passed the aspens she slowed to a walk, then pointed to her black Mercedes, an AMG GT. “That’s my car. I guess this is where we part company.”

He grinned. “Really?” Then he pointed at the white Ford F-250 parked next to her car. The nearest other vehicles were several spaces away. “That’s my ride. I guess the universe isn’t finished with us yet.”

How did he know where she was parked? Was he stalking her?

But before she could comment, he said, “I always park as close to the trailhead as I can.” Then he grinned again. “Great minds, I guess.”

She only nodded.

“Do you stretch after you run?” He put his left foot up on the thick steel back bumper of his pickup, then walked the other foot back.

“Not always. I know I should but I’m usually in a hurry.”

He gestured toward the other end of the bumper. “Feel free. Nothing better than a good stretch after a run.”

But instead of putting her foot on the bumper, she reached high over her head and interlocked her thumbs, then bent at the waist to lay her palms on the ground. She glanced at him out of her periphery. He didn’t seem to be watching.

After he’d held the position for a long moment, he took his left foot down, put the right one up, then grinned. “Interesting run. But how do you remember where to turn?”

She continued to stretch, leaning back and then to either side, then forward to touch the ground again. “What do you mean?”

He straightened and gestured toward the trail. “There are at least what, five, six trails off to either side? And three or four off the one you turned on for the circuit. How do you keep them straight?”

“Oh. Just habit, I guess. I’ve been running out here close to a year.”

“Ah. Well, maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Maybe,” she said, then slipped into her car and headed for the gym.

Not quite an hour later, she walked into her downtown office and closed the door. She went to her computer and typed US Marshals Service Ohio into the address bar. After accessing a government page and entering a special passcode, a regional list of Marshals appeared, each with an official photo alongside it.

And there he was. Robert Trask. He’d been with the US Marshals Service a little over three years. Apparently he was one of the good guys. At least so far.

Well, good for him.

She went about her day, which was relatively light. She had one interview with a new client and would spend the balance of the day researching his case unless something else came up.

She pulled his file to familiarize herself with it before the interview.

He was charged with grand-larceny auto, driving while under the influence of a controlled substance and manslaughter.

The guy had lost control of a stolen car and rammed it through the front of a convenience store.

She removed several photos from the file and looked at them.

The first few photos were outside of the convenience store. The only tire marks at the scene were where the tires hit the curb. Nothing on the street. Nothing on the sidewalk. He hadn’t been aware enough even to hit the brakes.

The next several photos were graphic. They showed the twenty-two year old cashier from six angles. She was obviously dead, smashed like a bug between the front of the car and the counter. According to the officer’s report, he shifted the car out of gear and turned off the engine after he arrived on the scene.

She returned to the report. Six other people—an assistant manager and five shoppers—were injured, two grievously. They had been removed from the scene before the photographer got there. But the two with life-threatening injuries were still in the hospital. And this happened—she flipped to back to the arresting officer’s report—one day short of two weeks ago.

She closed the folder. Probably a slam dunk. For the DA.

But the guy surprised her, at first, with a full confession.

When she walked into the interview room, he was already seated at the other end of the table. Before she even sat down, he raised his cuffed hands and said, “Okay, I just wanna say, you know, I done what they said I done. Okay?”

She could hardly believe her ears. “You know you’re charged with grand larceny, DUI and manslaughter, right?”

He nodded, and the beginning of a sneer curled one corner of his mouth. “Yeah, I was there.”

“And you admit to all counts?”

“Right. I admit to it.”

She smiled as she seated herself. “All right. Let me just get your file and we’ll go over some things.” She set her valise on the table and opened it, then pulled out a stack of papers roughly a quarter-inch thick.

For a moment she thought she might have a cause on her hands. If the guy was willing to make an appropriate show of remorse, maybe she could get the judge to hand down a combined sentence. Maybe a shorter prison term and some sort of drug rehabilitation program.

She ran through a battery of basic questions. Did he understand each of the charges against him?

He did.

Had he been appropriately advised of his Miranda rights by the arresting officer?

He had.

Had he been abused in any way since the arrest?

He hadn’t.

And what about his treatment in jail? Was he adequately comfortable, given his situation?

“Yeah, yeah. I wish they’d allow conjugal visits though,” he said, a broad grin on his face.

Heat rose in her cheeks. But probably he was just talking off some nerves.

“Could I bring you anything or maybe get a message to your family?”

The man actually smiled at her across the table. “Nah, nothin’ like that. But me sayin’ I done it, that’s between us, right? I mean, you’re my lawyer.”

She frowned. “Well, yes. Attorney-client conversations are privileged, but—”

“An’ me sayin’ I done it, that gets me somethin’, right? You can get me off?”

She was stunned. “Off? I don’t understand.” But she did understand. She understood all too well, although she wished she didn’t.

He nodded. “Off. You know, like with time served or whatever. I been in jail for almost two weeks now.” He shook his head as if with regret. “I tell you what, chica, that ain’t no kinda life.” He laughed, then slouched back in his chair and interlaced the fingers of his cuffed hands on the table.

A sigh escaped her. She felt it go, and it was almost audible. Her hand was trembling as she scooped the short stack of papers from the table. As she inserted the papers into her valise, she looked at her lap so he wouldn’t see the contempt in her eyes. “Mr. Ramirez, you should get used to the idea that you’re going to have to do some time.” She looked up at him. “Now maybe I can mitigate some of that for you if you show a proper amount of remorse, but—”

“Remorse? Like bein’ sorry an’ all that? That’s all I gotta do? Hey, I got remorse comin’ out my ass, homes.” He laughed. “Hey, mostly I’m sorry that cop was so quick to get there. He’d’a give me another few minutes, we wouldn’t be talkin’.”

“No. I mean real remorse. Remorse for the victims.”

He leaned forward. “I am the victim, chica.” Then he sat back again. “Hey, I’m a victim of society, man. I got a drug problem, right? So it ain’t like I can do without the stuff. I gotta have it. An’ I ain’t got no car to go get it. So that’s why I hadda take that other car.” He grinned. “But it was a nice one though, huh? Least ‘til the accident.”

She closed her eyes, opened them. “I mean the cashier, Mr. Ramirez. And the other people in the store. Were you aware— I mean, did you see the cashier?”

“Oh, I get you. Yeah, I seen her. Hey, she was smashed, man. Sucks to be her, am I right?”

She stood almost too quickly and turned away. “Well, I think I have all I need for now.”

“Hey. Hey, where you goin’?”

But she was already reaching for the door knob. “I’ll talk with you again before the arraignment.”

And the door closed behind her. She was able to breathe again.

Maybe she was on the wrong side of this thing. Everyone deserved representation during their day in court. But did she deserve to subject herself to these people?

Maybe she’d put out feelers about working for the district attorney. She could still serve those she believed to be innocent. If she ever encountered any. And she would actually be more in control of making the punishment fit the crime, taking into account things like mitigating circumstances and remorse. Authentic remorse.

In the meantime, she was still here. And she was Mr. Ramirez’ attorney of record. She had to at least try to come up with a viable defense.

Back at the office, she wrestled with that problem for most of the day. When she finally gave up a little after 4:30, she could hardly wait for her run tomorrow morning. Pounding the trail made everything better.

She locked her office, walked down the hallway, and was almost to the front door of the lobby when Marian, the front office secretary, called to her. “Jill, it seems you have a secret admirer.”

Jill stopped and turned around. She wasn’t in the mood. “I’m sorry, a what?”

Marian was smiling. She gestured toward a single daisy in a small bud vase toward the front edge of her desk. A narrow red ribbon was tied around the top of the vase, and there was a small card attached. “A secret admirer. This came addressed to you.” She reached to pick up the vase. “There’s a card.”

Jill approached the desk and took the proffered vase. She bent to set her valise on the floor, then flipped open the card.

Not a date. McClaren’s. Supper. 6 p.m. Hope you can make it.

Her gaze still on the note, she shook her head. “He must be out of his mind.”

Marian beamed. “Who is it?”

“Just some guy I met on the trail while I was running this morning.” She reached the vase back toward Marian with the note still attached. “Here, you keep it. It looks good on your desk.”

“Oh, but I can’t—”

“But for goodness’ sake, get rid of that stupid card.” Jill forced a smile, then picked up her valise and turned away. “See you in the morning.”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday.”

“Oh. Well, see you on Monday then.”

As the door closed behind her, Marian said, “Have a nice evening.” Her voice carried the tone of a smile.

* * *

The faded red brick wall of the building passed by on her left as she made her way toward the parking garage.

Weird. What in the world was the guy thinking? Did he just assume he could ask her out when they’d only met this morning?

But he hadn’t really asked her out. In the note, he even said it wasn’t a date.

Still, it was pretty forward of him, sending her a flower.

Did he somehow know the daisy was her favorite flower? Or had he sent it because it was unassuming? After all, it wasn’t as if he’d sent a rose. Probably the unassuming thing. A nice gesture to get her attention without going overboard.

But McClaren’s was her favorite restaurant too. It wasn’t especially romantic, but it was slightly upscale and quiet.

Did he know that somehow? That it was her favorite restaurant?

But how could he? And really, other than the country club it was the only nice restaurant in town. So if a man was out to impress a woman, he would invite her to one or the other.

Still, she wasn’t available to be impressed. She’d told him as much this morning and—

She realized she had inadvertently walked a few steps past the entrance to the parking garage. She turned around, went back to the entrance, and handed her slip to the valet as she snapped her purse closed. “It’s a black Mercedes,” she said.

The young man grinned and nodded. “Yes, Miss Montgomery. I know.”

She looked up. It was the same young man who had been parking and retrieving her car for the past year. “Oh, sorry.”

“It’s all right. I know you have a lot on your mind.”

How in the world did he know? She frowned. “Excuse me?”

“Bein’ a lawyer an’ all.”

“Oh. Yes. I suppose.”

He tipped his cap, then turned and trotted away to get her car.

But supper. Should she go?

How couldn’t possibly know whether she had plans. And apparently he didn’t care. What she ought to do is go home and curl up with a good book. That would teach him to assume she didn’t have a life.

Then again, he hadn’t really assumed anything. Had he? The last part of the note read, “Hope you can make it,” not “Be there or else.”

As the young man—Roger, was it?—drove up with her car, she muttered, “Stop second guessing everything, Jill. Just do what you want to do.”

And actually, she didn’t have any plans.

And it had been a long time since she’d treated herself.

She would go to supper tonight at McClaren’s. If Mr. Trask happened to be there, fine. She would dine with him over some light conversation. And if he wasn’t—well, then she would still have a nice evening away from her apartment. And she could sleep-in tomorrow morning.

Besides, maybe a nice supper and a few glasses of wine would wipe Mr. Martinez and his self-righteous, entitled smirk from her mind.

That’s what she’d do. She’d go to supper at McClaren’s on her own terms, as she often did. Well, as she had done twice in the past year.

But she would be going more often from here on out. Once a month, maybe. At least once every other month. Or maybe once a quarter. A few times a year wouldn’t kill her.

So it was settled. She would go.

With any luck at all, he would show up late. Maybe even after she’d already started eating. That would show him she was neither intimidated by him nor dependent on him.

* * *

And she wasn’t.

She was neither intimidated by him nor dependent on him.

But she became infatuated with him through that first dinner.

She arrived right on time to find him waiting quietly. The maitre d’ was expecting her and showed her to the table. He also seated her, but Bob rose and waited until she was seated before he regained his chair. He did so in an unassuming manner, without flourish, as if it were simply a nice habit he’d developed.

It wasn’t what she expected. At all.

She expected him to be smug about her showing up.

But he apologized for asking her at the last moment and seemed genuinely glad she was able to make it.

She expected him to talk about himself through the evening too. After all, he was the main topic of conversation during their entire run earlier in the day.

But he asked questions about her. And when she tried to reciprocate, he turned the topic back to her.

At one point he even laughed. “After this morning, you know pretty much everything there is to know about me.”

And the rest of the evening went the same way. He was a gentleman in every respect, and an attentive listener.

When the evening was over, he accompanied her to her car, then grinned. “So, would it be all right now if I asked you for a date?”

She almost laughed. “I suppose so. Given my apparent inability to run you off.”

“Great. How about next Friday? Same place, same time?”

She agreed.

They dated almost constantly from then for the next several months.

Then they were married.

* * *

She stared again at where the her Mercedes should be.

Did Bob have a hand in this?

Well no. She wouldn’t put it past him to have her car towed, but the parking lot itself was gone. Just disappeared. That was beyond even Bob’s abilities.

Again she turned and looked back up the trail.

Definitely the same trail.

She looked at the stand of quaking aspens.

Same grove of trees she saw every morning as she started her run.

She turned around again.

Still no Mercedes. Still no parking lot. What the hell was going on?

This wasn’t right.

What the hell?

But there must be a logical explanation.

Her breathing started to calm, and she relaxed. Her focus on the run began to fade. The euphoria drifted up to meet it. Bob no longer mattered. The day no longer mattered. She had a new problem to play with.

She put her hands on her hips and shook her head.

It doesn’t make any sense. It just doesn’t make any sen—

Then she heard the gunshot. Plain as if it had just happened.

And Bob. It had something to do with Bob.

But a gunshot?

She frowned.

Okay, let’s go over it again.

He came in nonchalantly from the bedroom.

He was still tying his tie, still trying for the perfect Windsor knot, and he told her. Just like that.

Matter of factly, no big deal, he laid it all out.

There was another woman. He hadn’t meant for it to happen, but there was a timetable. Their timetable. Their flight to Barbados that afternoon.

The decision was already made, he said. Oh, and he wished it could be another way.

Okay, so? Then he just walked out. Didn’t he?

No.

No, he didn’t leave.

She paled with the memory.

He said the decision was already made.

He slipped his hand under the lapel of his jacket.

He said he wished there was another way.

He pulled his pistol.

And she turned away, her toes digging in, her eyes wide, and raced across the living room. The carpet was mottled, like white gravel. Past the painting, on her left, of a grove of aspens.

She turned down the hallway, glanced her right shoulder off the wall, raced headlong into the bedroom.

The gunshot.

The lamp on the dresser in front of her exploded.

Another gunshot.

She slammed forward, her life blood pumping, rhythmically, rhythmically into the mottled gravel. Into the mottled carpet. The carpet.

* * *

That’s what it was.

That’s all it was.

She looked again back along the trail. She would miss it.

And she faded into the mist defining the trees.

* * * * * * *

 

Ice Scream

Warning: This is a psychological-suspense horror story. It contains strong mental images.

Susan Jice-scream-180ordan jerked awake, naked and frantic and chilled. Her eyes were wide, her breath caught in her throat. But she was dizzy. Groggy. Like dreaming of being in a dream.

She found her breath, and in it, relief. A nightmare. It was a nightmare. Only a nightmare.

And it was vibrant. As she left the IGA, she looked over her shoulder. She smiled and said “I will” to Mrs. Johnson on Register 3.

There were only the two registers out front, but Mr. Minister, the new manager, called the paper-fed calculator in his office Register 1. An odd man, Mr. Minister, at least according to whispered gossip from Mrs. Johnson on Register 3.

“Transferred in three weeks ago,” she said, “from somewhere down south. Omaha maybe, or Oskalusa—something like that. I seem to be here all the time,” she said, and laughed. Then she said, “But I’ve seen him only once myself.” She shook her head. “Very odd.”

Mrs. Johnson was sweet, everybody’s mother. With her husband “lifted up by God” a year ago and her own kids grown and gone long before—a daughter to New York and a son to LA—she adopted everyone in town who was younger than she.

At the register, she scooped up the box of ice cream the way she scooped up everything and peered at it over her reading glasses. Then she looked at Susan. “Y’know, they say this stuff is bad for you, but I just don’t believe it. Anything this good for your soul has to be good for your body.” She laughed, rang it up and bagged it, then spun the carousel of plastic bags so Susan’s was right up front.

Susan smiled and nodded. To make conversation, she said, “That’s how I figure it.”

But it wasn’t how she figured it. Not really.

She was tired after a full day of work, and she was just a bit on the grouchy side. She only wanted to get home and put her feet up for awhile.

She’d been home once already. She put together a quick supper, then served Stanley in his usual position on the couch. But afterward, as she reached to mute one of the seemingly endless streams of “side effects” that contraindicated whatever drug they were selling on TV at the time, Stanley went into the kitchen.

A moment later the freezer door slammed. “Well damn,” he said and stomped back into the living room. “We don’t have any ice cream? Are we out?”

Susan didn’t bother saying yes. He had eaten the last of it two days earlier. He even put the container in the trash afterward instead of leaving it on the counter as usual.

She also didn’t bother asking why he hadn’t stopped at the IGA on his way home from work. He would mutter something about that being her responsibility. Only one thing mattered. He wanted ice cream, and they were out.

So Susan glanced at him as he slumped back into his place on the couch. She patted his thigh and said, “I’ll go.”

Then she got up, donned her warm slippers and her heavy coat and drove to the IGA. It was better than listening to his snide comments or putting up with his pouting and icy silences the rest of the evening.

But Mrs. Johnson liked to gossip, especially in the evening when few people came into the store. So after the ice cream passed Mrs. Johnson’s inspection and she bagged it, Susan turned away before she could get started.

Still, Mrs. Johnson always had a kind word for everyone, even if they didn’t hang around to chat. She watched silently as Susan quickly gathered her bag. But as she approached the door, Mrs. Johnson raised one hand. “Now you say hello to Stanley for me,” she said.

And Susan looked back, smiled and said, “I will,” then pushed the door open.

It was dark outside already, and mid-November chilly. The smell of ice was on the air and the wind was just that cold. But no matter. She’d be home in fifteen minutes. Ten or twelve if she hit all the lights. And tomorrow was Saturday. Stanley would be up and off to the golf course early, and she could sleep in. Still, she relished the thought of sitting on the couch for a couple of hours, letting brain-dead sitcoms and forced laugh tracks wash away the day.

As she crossed the parking lot, she wasn’t paying attention.

She opened her car door and leaned in to set the bag in the passenger seat.

And something hit her from behind.

How she got home, through an evening of TV and into bed, she had no idea.

But here she was. Her mind was cloudy but otherwise she was fine. Too much ice cream, maybe. Sometimes it had that effect if she overdid it. Had she eaten ice cream?

She closed her eyes, opened them, tried to see. But everything was black.

She was still locked in the nightmare outside the store. It was dark in the parking lot. Something hit her from behind.

She closed her eyes, drew a long breath through her nose, tried to scream herself awake.

But only a muffled sound came out. Her lips were thick. Or something.

She instantly regretted making the noise. It might wake up Stanley.

She lay very still, waiting. But he didn’t wake up. The bed didn’t move.

Well, that proved it. It was only a nightmare. It had to be a nightmare.

Maybe she was dreaming of dreaming of waking up from a nightmare.

She rocked her head side to side, tried to wake herself up.

It didn’t work. Maybe she should wake up Stanley. Then he would wake her up. In her dream she grinned.

She tried to fling her mouth open, draw a breath, scream louder.

But something stretchy-sticky sealed her lips, muffled the sound again. She frowned. Something warm—snot? blood?—leaked from her nose and down across her lip.

As her nostrils flared, she found her nose was sore. When had that happened? And there was something crusty on her upper right cheek. Dried blood?

Was she in the hospital? Had she been in an accident or something? Maybe she was in the hospital and they’d put something in her mouth to help her breathe.

And both her hands were numb too. Somewhere. Like they were disconnected.

She tugged to find them and fire raced through her shoulders.

What was that?

Panic began to well up inside her.

But it’s a nightmare. It’s only a nightmare. Isn’t it? Or I’m in a hospital. Yes. A nightmare. It has to be a nightmare, and I’ll wake up any second. The clouds will clear and I’ll wake up. Probably it’s time to get up anyway.

She smirked. This is ridiculous.

She tried to sit up, reach for the edge of the bed. She would sit up and reach for the chest of drawers. That would steady her even if she was dizzy. She’d grab the chest of drawers and—

But where were her hands?

She was dizzier than she thought.

Her shoulders burned. But why?

She nudged hard right, tried to nudge Stanley. If she could touch him, wake him up—

But he wouldn’t be in her nightmare. Would he?

Okay. I have to find my hands. She followed her chest to her shoulders. They were aching. Check. Good. So she was waking up. Aches don’t happen in nightmares, do they?

She followed her arms down along her sides to where her elbows were bent. They were aching a bit too. Well good. Serves them right. Then along her forearms, wedged behind her back and—

Behind her back? Her hands were behind her back?

She checked. They were tingling. Her hands? Something was tingling. They were there, maybe, lumped behind her back. That would explain them being asleep.

But how are they behind my back? How in the world did I manage that?

She tried to move them, but something tugged, pulled at the fine hair above her wrists.

Taped. They were taped. Are they taped? That doesn’t make sense.

And my eyes. She shook her head. I thought my eyes were open but they must still be closed. Probably. Everything is black. There would be some light, at least, if I wasn’t still in the nightmare. But why are my wrists taped in the nightmare? Unless I’m in the hospital. Maybe they’re actually beside me. Maybe they had to restrain me.

Either way, it’s a nightmare.

Breathe. I have to breathe. Wherever I am, I have to wake up.

She closed her eyes, calmed herself with thoughts of waking up, and opened them.

Still nothing but black.

She wanted to reach up with her fingers, make sure her eyelids were open. But she couldn’t find them.

Okay. Okay. There has to be light here somewhere.

She took another breath, then another. Turned her head left. Still black.

Turned her head right. Still black. But closer? Stanley?

No. It didn’t feel like Stanley in her mind.

Maybe he already got up. A wall?

But the wall wasn’t that close in the bedroom. There was Stanley, then the wall. Not close enough to sense it in the dark. Wow. A really bizarre dream.

I need something real. She looked back to the left. The chest of drawers. Right over there. The light—moonlight, starlight—would show her the edges of the chest of drawers. She polished it only a few days ago.

But there was nothing.

Only black.

Her perfume. The bottle leaked a little around the spritzer. She hadn’t mentioned it to Stanley. He’d want to fix it or throw it out. She liked the smell of it when she first woke up. It set on the chest of drawers next to the eyeglass cleaner and the microfiber cloths.

She took another breath. The scent of the perfume would direct her. It would bring her out.

She breathed deeply.

Onions. Old onions.

What?

She took another breath, deep, searching for the perfume. It had to be there.

No perfume. Old onions. And damp-earth. Muggy.

She frowned. Where am I?

The basement? With onions? Why are there onions in my nightmare? What am I doing in a basement with onions?

Okay. Okay. Breathe.

She could turn. Roll onto her left side and turn. Put her feet on the cold tile floor. The cold tile would wake her up.

She twisted, tried to reach for the edge of the bed with her left ankle, but the right one came with it.

Her ankles were bound.

Panic rose again. No! That can’t be!

She calmed herself.

No. No, it’s only in the nightmare. I’ll wake up.

She reached again, this time with both feet together.

The sharp grating of the links of a chain fired fear up along her spine and cleared away some of the confusion in her mind.

She was awake. She was awake the whole time.

But she couldn’t be awake. What happened at the store. What happened in the parking lot. It’s a nightmare! It has to be a nightmare! I’m home in bed! Or I’m in the hospital. I have to be!

But grating? Chains wouldn’t grate against the soft edge of the mattress, would they? Her mind was making up the chains, that’s all. After all, chains wouldn’t grate against the covers and—

Only she was bare. There were no covers.

And there was no mattress beneath her.

No! She rolled her head hard left, pushed down, and her cheek contacted cold steel.

Hospital steel. A gurney? A gurney. I’m in a hospital. But with onions?

I must be in a hospital. That’s it. The icy roads. Black ice. I was in an accident and I’m on a gurney in a hospital. And they taped something to my mouth. Something to help me breathe or something. The onions are my mind playing tricks with scents.

But they put a mattress on a gurney, don’t they? Or some sort of a pad? Or a sheet? Or something.

She pushed her cheek against the surface again. Still cold. Still steel. But maybe a gurney.

She listened. The wheels would turn against the floor. They’d clack. And the nurses would talk, but quietly.

Listen. Listen closely.

But there was only the sound of empty black.

She closed her eyes again, hard, then opened them wide. Wake up!

Still black. Still black.

A sharp click, and light flooded over her.

She slapped her eyes closed against the light. Stanley playing a trick. She should have known. Her eyes still closed, she tried to sit up.

The chains grated.

A man’s voice, husky, jovial. “Ah, I see you’re awake. Welcome back.”

Not Stanley! She tensed, naked, no covers. She opened her eyes, tried to lean up to cover herself.

“No. Lie back.”

She lay back, closed her eyes, opened them. The light illuminated a dirt and timber ceiling.

In a hospital?

A face came into view above her face, but upside down. Probably the gas passer. She was in the OR. Had to be.

The face was round, almost a unibrow. Close-cropped hair. No white paper hat? Jowls, pink, smooth round cheeks.

She frowned. He shaved too close. But who is he?

Small black, close-set eyes, a pug nose, hair in his nostrils. A slight smile.

“I’m Jonah. It’s good to meet you. And you are—” He held her clutch purse up where she could see it. He took out a card. Her driver’s license. He looked at it, flipped it away and it slapped lightly to the floor. “Ah, Susan.” He drew out the first syllable as if it had three U’s in it. “Yes, Susan.” He clapped his hands lightly beneath his double chin and turned away. “Just relax, Susan, all right? And probably I’ll let you go.” He turned away, moved off toward the other side of the room.

She wanted to ask who he was, why she was there, but the thing was still on her mouth.

The nightmare continues. She frowned, rolled her head left, followed his progress.

A table. A bench. A stool. In front of a dirt wall. That can’t be right.

She strained her neck, pressed her cheek against the cold steel to bring her back to the hospital.

Up close, inches away, the raised rounded edge of a steel table. Farther, the dull silver of a concrete floor. A red onion net bag on the floor near the table. Onions!

She remembered what he said, frowned at his back. Let me go? Home? Is he a doctor? Maybe she’d already been through the surgery. Maybe he was talking about discharging her and—

Finally her mind released the nightmare defense.

Her eyes grew wide and she stared at him. Oh god. Oh god! It’s not a nightmare! I’m awake! And I’m naked! But it made no sense. Am I in hell? But what did I do? What did I do?

He turned around and smiled, a small half-moon blade in one hand at the end of a short silver handle. Calmly, he said, “You aren’t trained in medicine, are you?”

She frowned, trembled, and shook her head. Why would he ask me that?

He held the tool up near his smile. “This, my dear, is a scalpel. It’s good to learn new things, isn’t it? Of course it is.”

He started toward her, still smiling, his elbow bent, the scalpel raised to shoulder height. “For instance, I feel a particular bent to learn human anatomy.”

Again she frowned. Why is he telling me?

He gestured toward her with the scalpel. “Your anatomy, specifically. So I’m going to have to cut you a bit, you see.”

Her eyes wide, she rocked her head hard, side to side, tried to say No. But only the same muffled sound came out.

He stopped next to her. “I wish I had some sort of anesthesia. I used to be quite fond of whiskey, but the doctors finally convinced me it was bad for my health.” He laughed and shrugged. “And it’s difficult to get the real stuff without a license. The anesthesia, I mean. If I were you, I would prefer ropivacaine. But you know how the government is with their regulations.”

He leaned forward, looked at her closely. “But we’ll get along without it. We’re going to have a good time, you and I.”

Outside the IGA, she’d opened her car door and leaned in to put the bag with the ice cream in the passenger seat. And something hit her from behind.

He did it. He hit her from behind. He shoved her hard across the car. She hit her nose on the inside of the passenger door just below the window. Her eyes watered and she was dizzy.

He lifted her legs and dropped them in the passenger side floorboard. There were a few goat heads in the floorboard. Stanley never scraped his shoes on the driveway before he got into her car. And a few of them stuck in her left knee.

Then someone—this man—grabbed the back of her hair, tugged hard on her head and slammed her face against the door again. And everything went dark.

That’s what was wrong with her nose. That’s what was wrong.

It wasn’t a nightmare. It happened.

He studied her eyes, watched as the fear crept into them, and smiled. “Ah, you remember something. Was it good for you? I do hope it was good for you, Susan.”

She forgot about the tape on her mouth, tried to ask, “Where am I?” but again only the muffled sound came out.

He held up one hand, his index finger to his mouth. “Shh. Shh. I thought you might be a talker, you see.” He gestured toward her mouth with the scalpel. “Hence the tape.” His voice quieted to a sinister whisper. “Now then, let’s get down to business, shall we? The sooner we begin, and all that.”

He leaned forward and reached with the fingers of his left hand, smoothed some hair from her forehead and wrapped it behind her left ear, then looked at her eyes. “I only want to make one incision, Susan. Just one.” He held up his left index finger. Then he touched the base of the scalpel to the front of her left underarm. “I’ll start here, you see.” He traced the path as he said, “And I’ll draw a little red line back up over your shoulder.” He smiled again. “Okay?”

She shook her head vehemently.

“Tut tut, none of that. As we’ve already established, it’s important to learn new things. Now, if you don’t move during the procedure, we’ll call it done and I’ll let you go.  All right?”

She stared at him.

He frowned. “You aren’t being very polite, Susan. I said all right?”

A hesitation, then she nodded quickly.

“That’s better. There’s a good girl. It’s like a little game. You don’t move, you don’t attempt to say anything, and I’ll let you go. And you’ll have a nice scar from the bad man to show your grandchildren someday.”

Grandchildren? She didn’t even have children yet. Stanley hadn’t decided they were ready. And at 24, she still had plenty of time. At 24 she was still a young—

He pressed the tip of the scalpel into the soft flesh of her underarm.

“Mmmfff!”

He jerked the scalpel back. Straightened. Looked at her. His lips were pressed together in a tight, thin line.

After a moment, during which he took three long breaths and seemed to be trying to decide something, he said, “All right. Well, that was probably the first time you’ve been touched with a scalpel, eh Susan? So we’ll let that one go, all right? We won’t count that one.”

He wagged his left forefinger at her and canted his head. “But any more like that, young lady, and— Well, I might not be able to let you go.” He laughed lightly, then leaned over her again. “Now, are you ready?”

She nodded frantically and pressed her teeth and her eyelids tight together.

He inserted the tip of the scalpel again.

She remained rigid against the searing pain as it sliced upward through the muscle of her left shoulder.

But when he’d moved it a little less than an inch, she had a mental image of herself walking into a hospital with her left arm in her right hand. The image caused her to shudder.

Again he straightened, but quickly, angrily. His voice was controlled, but only barely. “You just don’t listen, do you, Susan? Like all the rest, you never—you never listen!”

“Mmmfff!” she said, her eyes pleading. In that sound she tried to transmit that she would be good. She wouldn’t move. She wouldn’t make a sound. She wouldn’t do anything. She swore she wouldn’t. Just please let her go. Please.

But he was beyond listening for intent. “Oh, I see. Talking is what’s important to you. More important than anything, eh Susan? You want to talk?” He quickly raised the scalpel as he yelled, “Here! Let me remove the tape!”

He slashed down with the scalpel from near her nose to her jawline on the left side, slicing cleanly through her cheek and the tape.

She jerked her head to one side, and as he slashed again the scalpel hit just below her right nostril and sliced cleanly through the tape and both lips on right side.

She screamed, and this time the sound came out through her left cheek and through her gashed lips. Blood flowed in two streams down past her ear on the left and her jawline on the right and onto the table.

“And now you want to scream? Susan, you are untenable! But if you don’t want to play fair, here! Scream!”

He raised the scalpel, brought it down, slashed her left breast from the top to the areola. “Scream, Susan!”

She screamed and arched her back against the agonizing pain. More blood spattered out from her cheek and lips. Blood from her left breast ran down over her abdomen and side.

He held the scalpel aloft. “Be still!”

But she screamed again, then twisted hard to the left.

He slashed her right breast. “I said be still!”

She screamed and struggled hard to the right.

He slashed at her chest below her breasts repeatedly, but missed as she moved, laying bare her rib cage with three or four gashes on either side. The flesh hung in quivering red strips. “Be still, Susan! You’re spoiling it! You’re spoiling it!”

He stopped for a moment, and she looked at him, her eyes wide, pleading. She shook her head hard side to side, then nodded. She tried her best to lie still beneath the fire running all over her body.

He sighed and leaned over her. He gazed closely into her eyes, then smiled. Without warning he brought the scalpel forward and plunged it hard into her abdomen, then twisted it and held it tightly as she squirmed. “Do you understand, Susan? I wanted you to lie still!”

Still looking at him, she tried to draw her legs up, but the chains tugged at her ankles. Blood gushed from the rips in her cheeks and lips and torso.

Could she still escape? Maybe she could still escape. Slowly, she released the muscles in her thighs, allowed her legs to settle gently to the table again.

He raised the scalpel and glared at her.

She lay still, staring at him. At his eyes. Hatred. Such hatred. What did I do?

Again without warning, the scalpel descended and he slashed wildly at her hips and her thighs.

But she didn’t move other than with the force of the blade.

She kept her eyes trained on him.

It was too late. It wasn’t a nightmare. It had never been a nightmare.

I’m going to die. I’m going to die. But what did I do? What did I do?

Something about the fetal position. Shouldn’t she be in the fetal position?

He stopped for a moment, the scalpel hanging at his side as if he was tired.

The fetal position. She tried to tense her muscles and they all screamed. She tried to roll onto her left side quietly, without upsetting him further.

But the chains tugged at her again.

Oh. Oh yes. The chains. He put the chains on me. They must be necessary. But what did I do?

She relaxed in her original position, stared up at him, her eyes glassed over with acceptance.

Quietly, he said, “I only wanted you to lie still, Susan. That’s all I wanted, you see.” He took a heavy breath, hesitated, then said, “So shall I end it?”

Her cheeks, her face, her breasts were on fire. Her hips, her thighs, her abdomen. I’m going to die. Please, no more. No more. Yes. Yes sir, you should end it. Please. Please end it.

But if she told him, if she even nodded, he would torture her further.

He raised his voice slightly. “I said should I end it, Susan? I think you have learned your lesson, so you may answer.”

She stared at him.

I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything.

Gently, she shook her head side to side. For added defiance, she risked a sound, tried to say No.

His face wrinkled into a rage. “Well it isn’t up to you, is it, Susan? It isn’t up to you! Understand?”

Behind the tape, she managed a slight smile.

In a single motion he stepped forward and plunged the scalpel between her ribs just to the left of her sternum.

Her body lurched. “Unh!”

He glared at the wound, the blood pumping out in a pulsing stream, then stabbed her again. Then again. Then again.

When he finally looked up, Susan Jordan’s eyes were vacant.

A broad grin burst across his lips and he began swinging the scalpel side to side, in rhythm, as if conducting an unseen choir. Quietly, as if taking care not to wake his victim, he sang, “And on into the ground we go, as into the town we go.”

He dropped the scalpel on the table next to her left calf, turned and walked toward the exit.

* * * * * * *

Note: This story is also the first chapter of my new psychological suspense crime thriller novel, Jonah.

The Spring

the-spring-180In jeans and an olive-drab t-shirt, Mark Smith sat on his front porch in the late evening hours of November first.

His M-14 rifle—well, the civilian version, a reasonable facsimile still in 7.62 millimeter—lay across his lap. Over the past half-hour, he’d disassembled, cleaned and reassembled the rifle. It was a weekly chore, and it kept him connected.

The sounds of some inane sitcom filtered out through the door, complete with the laugh track.

He shook his head. Half the time the laugh track didn’t even make sense. Or at least where they inserted it didn’t make sense. Overall the stupid show was about as funny as a turd in a punch bowl of frothy lemonade. He grinned. Mmm. Enticing.

He took off his cap—an olive-drab with the Marine Corps emblem embroidered on the front—and ran the palm of his hand over his head. The cool night air felt good on his scalp. His hair hadn’t been cut that short for years. He’d done it himself, mostly to see whether he still could.

He put his cap back on and tilted it back slightly on his head. The poor cap was about as faded as he felt, but unlike him, at least it still fit.

He reached toward the small table next to his chair and took his corojo wrapped toro cigar from a makeshift ashtray he’d cut into an old soda can. He looked at it. Almost half was still left. He took a long, satisfying pull on the cigar, then leaned over and carefully positioned it back on the ashtray as he released the smoke and watched it waft away. On the other side of the ashtray lay his cleaning kit—already closed—and a rag.

He didn’t fit anywhere. Hadn’t for years. It was as if the whole world had turned upside down.

He picked up the rifle. The grip felt good in his right hand as his fingers flexed around it. The weight of it felt good as it caused the muscles in his right forearm to tense.

He set the butt plate it in his shoulder and lay his cheek along the stock. Then he sighted along the barrel at the street lamp on the corner. The sights looked good. He curled his right index finger into the trigger well and squeezed lightly as he concentrated on the front sight blade. His breathing automatically smoothed out.

He grinned. Quietly, he said, “Y’still got it, Smitty. Some things y’never lose.”

The spring on the screen door complained with a long squeal behind him to the right. Marcy must be coming out.

Beneath the sound of the spring were the strains of a commercial. Some actor pretending to be an old guy repeating all the things he “accepts” because some moron told him to. All to sell some drug or other.

Whoever wrote that ad was an idiot. Just the sound of it made him want to growl. When the rule of three worked well, the listener wouldn’t even notice it. But an old guy who had done significant things in his life repeating three times he “accepts” that he can’t do them anymore was just annoying.

He made a mental note to never buy that particular product. And under no circumstances would he take the actor’s advice to “consult with your doctor” about whatever the drug was. He’d rather “accept” the risk of dying from whatever the medicine proposed to cure. Probably the same drug company had dreamed up the problem their medicine supposedly alleviated.

Ah good. Here comes the list of “possible side effects” the medicine might cause on its way to depleting your bank account.

Marcy said, “You coming in soon, Mark? It’s late. Put away your things and let’s get some sleep.” She hesitated. “I wish you wouldn’t do this. You always overreact. It’s just politics after all.”

He took the rifle from his shoulder and put his rifle on his lap. “What are you talking about?”

“You, sitting out here dreaming of shooting someone with that thing.”

“I ain’t dreamin’ of shootin’ anybody, Marcy. If I wanted somebody shot, he’d be layin’ out there bleedin’ somewhere right now. Two to five hundred yards out, dependin’ on the field of fire.”

“Whatever,” she said derisively. Then the sing-song started. “This happens every time you hear a politician. Every single time, you overreact. You pull out that stupid gun and….”

She droned on as he took another puff on his cigar, then held it a few inches from his face and looked at it as he released the smoke.

Could the enemy see the glow off the tip of a cigar from seven miles away? That’s what they always said about cigarettes. When he went on patrol back in the day, he left his cigarettes back in the hooch and carried a couple bags of Redman. Never did care for the plugs.

And if he’d bothered carrying the cigarettes, chances were they’d be smashed or broken anyway. Besides, if things were calm and he wanted a smoke, he could always get one out of his C-rats.

Probably not, though, on the cigar thing. Cigarettes glowed more brightly. No ash hanging in front. Wouldn’t matter anyway. He wouldn’t have risked carrying a two- or three- or five dollar cigar on a hump either. They broke easier than cigarettes did.

He was vaguely aware Marcy had stopped talking.

She punctuated the fact with, “Well?”

He carefully positioned the cigar back on the ashtray and shook his head. “No. See, that’s what you don’t understand, Marcy. You’ve never understood.”

She crossed her arms. “What? What have I never understood?”

“It’s never been about politics, Marcy. At least not the kind of politics you’re talking about.”

He looked away for a moment and shook his head. There was no way to make her understand. Still, for some stupid reason he felt compelled to try.

He looked at her again. “What I mean, it isn’t about what people like you call ‘politics as usual.’”

She frowned and crossed her arms, a smirk suddenly on her face. “But it is politics as usual. And people like me? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You wanna pull up a chair? This might take awhile. Besides, I’m not through with my cigar yet.”

“I’ll stand, thanks. And I wish you’d get rid of those filthy things. It’s a nasty habit.”

“Oh? How many have you smoked?”

“I wouldn’t touch those filthy things!”

“My point exactly. Hard to criticize something you know nothin’ about.” He grinned. “Besides, I’m gettin’ rid of ‘em quick as I can. About time to order more.”

“That isn’t funny, Mark.”

He shrugged, then picked up the cigar and took another puff, though he didn’t really want one at the moment. But a blatant exhibition of a man exercising personal choice wasn’t entirely uncalled for either.

He released the smoke in a bilious cloud. As it wafted away, he put the cigar back in the ashtray. “See, this isn’t some cutesy giggly thing where it’s all my guys against your guys and everybody gets a participation trophy and then we all go get pizza. That’s what you don’t understand.

“It isn’t even that either my guys win and the constitution is upheld or your guys win and you get four more years to push the country down the toilet.” He paused, then picked up the rag. More quietly, he said, “All the while safe in knowing someone like me will pull you back from the edge just in time.”

He’d already wiped the stock down with linseed oil, but another swipe or two wouldn’t hurt it.

“Oh Mark, that’s complete and utter bullshi—”

He raised the hand with the rag in it and pointed at her. “No! No, it isn’t bullshit. It’s always been this way. I’m just sorry our generation was the first to push it this close. I’m ashamed of us for that. You people don’t seem to realize, there comes a point of no return. You get past a certain point on the slope and nobody can pull you back. You get beyond a certain critical mass and—”

“What? What ‘critical mass’?”

He sighed. “The critical mass. That point where the timid little people who vote for whoever says what they want to hear those of us who have to do the dirty work of pulling them back.”

Marcy’s hand went to her mouth and she gasped. Under arched eyebrows, she said, “Timid little people?”

He stifled a grin and nodded. “They come in two varieties. In the first group are those who can’t say what they mean because they’re scared to death of ‘offending’ someone. The second are those who vote on soundbites because it’s the fashionable thing to do. They know who they are.”

“Is that right? And who exactly does the ‘dirty work’?”

“Ah.” He nodded again. “Now that’s easy enough to explain, as if you didn’t know. Guys like me. The ones who make it possible for everyone else to spout off and contribute nothing but their uninformed, soundbite-in-an-onion-skin-wrapper opinions. Everybody enjoys the milk and honey, but guys like me queue up and carry the buckets.” He laughed.

“We’re the ones who understand there are certain things out there that are bigger and more important than they are. Like the freedom to make the most out of your own life or the freedom to say what’s on your mind or the freedom to defend your own life by whatever means necessary.

“We’re the ones who understand that what matters is what somebody says, not what somebody else turns it into. We understand that living on handouts is just another form of slavery. We understand that one guy’s rights stop where the next guy’s rights begin.”

“You preach a good game, given that you’re sitting there getting a weapon ready to use on ‘people like me.’”

He scowled and color rose in his cheeks. “You’re damn right I do. And yes, I have a rifle and I know how to use it. But the difference between me and people like you is that I’ll use it to defend what’s mine, not to force someone else to believe the way I want them to.”

Marcy stared at him, wide eyed.

He paused and took a calming breath.

“Look, Marcy, I’m just saying, when people think that way, one day they’re gonna look up and wonder what happened.”

“When they think what way?”

“Like I said, when they’re afraid to speak their mind for fear of offending someone. Or when they vote for a particular person just to be fashionable.”

“People don’t do that.”

“Really? Are you gonna stand there and tell me people didn’t vote for the last guy just because of the color of his skin? How is that not racist? And are you gonna tell me people didn’t vote for that woman just because she’s allegedly a female? How is that not sexist?”

“Well of course I can’t say that nobody—”

“You sure as hell can’t. Tell me this. Faced with what this nation’s become over the past eight years—we’re more racially divided, more people are unemployed, and we’ve lost our status all over the world, even to the point that our enemies are flaunting their power and our allies no longer trust us—how can anyone say the guy did a good job? Of course, he did fix it so men could go into women’s bathrooms as long as they say they ‘self-identify’ as women. Now seriously, how does any of that make sense?

“Look for once, Marcy. Just look. In this country today, if one biological male decides he wants to ‘self-identify’ as a woman, suddenly everyone else in the country—every business, every public venue, and every individual—is required to allow him to use the women’s bathroom. How do you not see how crazy and backward that is?”

“How is it ‘crazy and backward’ to allow a transgender person to assert her right to privacy?”

He laughed. “Okay, first, how can you call that person a ‘her’ when it has a penis? You’re a woman, aren’t you? Do you have a penis?”

“Oh, you’re just confusing the issue.”

“Okay, drop that part. Just tell me this. Why is it all right to stop all the other actual females in the country from asserting their right to privacy just so that one guy can assert his? You seriously wouldn’t have a problem with a man following you into the women’s restroom in a bar or a restaurant or a ball park?”

“Like I said, for you it’s all just politics as usual.”

“Right. Got it. So answer the question, Marcy. You really wouldn’t have a problem with a man following you into the ladies’ room? Or what about in a department store where they have a section of changing rooms for women and a separate section of changing rooms for men? You wouldn’t mind if a man who ‘identifies as a woman’ follows you into the women’s section?”

“I don’t have to answer your stupid question. It isn’t about me. It’s about the transgender person.”

“I guess that answers it then. See? That one man’s right to privacy is more important to you than everyone else’s.”

“That isn’t what I said!”

“Fine. Then put it in your own words. Go ahead. I’ll wait.”

“I’m just saying the transgender person has as much right to privacy as the non-transgender person does.”

Mark nodded. “Oh. Well good. Then we agree. The transgender person has as much right to privacy as the non-transgender person—not more. So it follows that the non-transgender person has as much right to privacy as the transgender person does too, right? And each person’s rights stop where the next person’s rights begin.”

“You’re impossible! You’re twisting everything around. A person has the right to do anything he or she wants.”

“Again, I agree. As long as one person’s rights stop where the next person’s rights begin. Nobody has the right to force anything on anyone else. Anything. Himself, his ideas, his philosophy.”

“Okay. So? What’s that have to do with a transgender person wanting to use the appropriate bathroom for the gender he or she identifies with?”

“The transgender person has the right to pee wherever it wants to pee. But it doesn’t have the right to force others to put up with it. It doesn’t have the right to make others uncomfortable.” He hefted his rifle. “For example, I have the right to own this, and to fire it. But that doesn’t trump someone else’s right to continue breathing, right?”

“But the president must have done some good. After all, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for—”

Mark wagged one hand. “So now we’re back to participation trophies, right? What did he actually do to get that award handed to him? Nothing. All he did was show up.

“And that woman, if she actually is a woman. What did she do that qualifies her to be the president of the United States? Let’s see.” He held up his left hand, the fingers extended. “She used an unsecured server to send and receive classified state secrets, she and her worthless husband gutted the American military when he was in office, and she took millions of dollars from regimes around the world whose motto is Death to America and who call us The Great Satan. But worst of all, she abandoned men in the field.

“Hell, Marcy, she even watched on TV as the administration’s own ambassador was raped and  tortured to death in the streets with cattle prods. And all of that after those men begged for months for an increase in security! Now how in the hell can anyone vote for that woman? And then she turned around and blamed the whole thing on a ‘spontaneous’ uprising over some film somebody made. The woman is despicable. And you want her as the commander in chief?”

“Mark, watch your blood pressure.”

“Know what? Screw my blood pressure. That’s my whole point, don’t you see? I don’t matter. You don’t matter. And those men who call themselves women to gain access to women’s bathrooms and those snowflakes in colleges who are always being ‘offended’ and crying for a ‘safe space’ and those spoiled millionaires who play games for a living and refuse to stand for the National Anthem definitely don’t matter. What matters is the Constitution and this once-great nation. Damn it, that’s what matters!”

“Well, I’m going in to bed. I hope you’ll come along soon.”

“Really? Why?”

“Because I love you, Mark.”

He looked at the street lamp again. Finally he shrugged. “Yeah. Well, I love you too. You go ahead if you want to. I’m gonna sit out here for awhile. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky and some of those ICE police will come up in their black uniforms to confiscate my rifle. ‘Course they generally only travel in pairs. That wouldn’t be much of a challenge.

“Hey, I know! Maybe they’ll bring a passel of those UN guys with them. A squad, maybe. If they even know what a squad is. Or maybe they’ll bring a whole damn platoon. At least that way it’d be a fair fight. I’ll bet I could take half of ‘em with me.”

He laughed. “I can just see the headlines the mainstream media would slap on it tomorrow: Crazed Man With Rifle Murders Innocent UN Troops In His Front Yard.” He laughed again and gripped his rifle in his lap. “Hey Marcy, did’ja hear that? Whaddya think? That’d be the headline, wouldn’t it?”

He turned to look up at Marcy. “Marcy?”

But she had already gone inside.

He frowned. “Now how in the world did she do that without that spring makin’ a racket?”

Maybe it was stretched too far.

* * * * * * *