Colleen saw the problem outside her restaurant half an hour after closing on Tuesday. Inches from the dumpster, the bag of garbage she carried split at the bottom and spilled onto the pavement. Colleen grimaced and bent down. At knee-level she spied what looked like fingers beneath the storage shed directly behind her building. The hand retreated quickly, but not before Colleen realized it was in fact a hand. She edged to the back door. As calmly as she could she walked inside the restaurant.
“Shawn! Ricky!” Her strident tone lifted the heads of both cooks. She pointed to the office. ”Get the flashlight from my desk and go out back. Someone’s under the shed.”
“You’re kidding.” An excited Ricky headed for the office. More doubtful was Shawn. “Are you sure? There’s like half a friggin’ inch under there. There’s no way anyone could squeeze in.”
“Just scare them off, all right?” The way Colleen saw it anyone hiding under a shed had to be up to no good.
Ricky came out with the flashlight and Shawn went to the back door still carrying his knife. Hand on the knob he winked at Ricky and said, “Let’s do this fast, all right?” Ricky nodded and Shawn jerked open the door. Ricky barreled out at a run, slid in the greasy garbage left by Colleen and went down hard. Shawn was too close behind Ricky to avoid landing on top of him. The two rolled around in culinary remains and cursed a lot in the next moments as the knife cut at least one of them. Colleen leaned out to see what had happened. They got up to wipe themselves off and waved the flashlight at her. “We’re okay!”
“I should have asked Sergei,” Colleen muttered. She closed the door and returned to the dining room. Sergei looked up from the table he was clearing. It was only after dark that the slender Russian was able to bus the tables in the dining area. During the day patrons grew uncomfortable at sight of his scarred, mottled face. Because she liked having customers, and because she liked Sergei, Colleen moved him to evenings and lowered the lights. He was quiet, worked hard and had eyes that reminded her of Leonardo DiCaprio, only under black hair instead of blond.
His look was questioning, as if he had heard her mention his name, and she gave her head a small shake to tell him never mind. He went back to his work and she took out her cell phone. Then she put it back in her pocket. No sense calling the police. She’d get Sergei to walk her out to her car for the next week and nix any nefarious plans for purse or person, should that be the reason for skulking under the shed. She didn’t think so, hoped not, but a couple times there had been some nastiness after hours, making Colleen glad for the presence of her knucklehead cooks and scary Russian.
A week passed before she saw something new. On yet another dumpster trip she noticed a half empty water bottle on its side beside one wheel of the dumpster. Colleen intended to pick it up and put it in, but the cell phone in her pocket rang and she stepped away to get better reception. Out of the corner of her eye she saw movement. She turned around and stared. The water bottle was gone. Colleen returned inside the restaurant.
Sergei looked up from a sink of dishes and reached for a towel. “What is it?”
Normally Colleen liked how the intuitive Sergei cut right to the chase in his thick Russian accent, but today it unnerved her. “Tell me,” he said.
“Last week someone was hiding beneath the shed. I don’t know how it’s possible, but today I think they’re under the dumpster.”
Sergei reached for a bag of garbage. No doubtful questions, no standing around asking if she was sure. Colleen watched him go out the door.
He didn’t come back the rest of the shift.
At closing Colleen considered calling the police and telling them she had sent her Russian dishwasher out to find a dumpster diver and he had yet to return, but Shawn and Ricky talked her out of it. “He’s half Roma, you know,” said Shawn knowingly.
“What does that mean?”
“It means he’s been kicked around enough to know how to take care of himself,” Ricky informed her.
Colleen wondered how they knew this about the silent Sergei, but did not ask. She had no idea what being Roma was and wasn’t sure she wanted to from the gleam in Ricky’s eye.
The next morning when she arrived at the restaurant Sergei was waiting for her. Her look of relief caused the side of his mouth to twitch. “I have him,” he said by way of greeting.
“You have who?” Colleen looked around. Sergei indicated she should follow him around back. Colleen walked after him and her jaw dropped as she saw what appeared to be half a man, torso, arms, and head, trussed up with electrical cord. “My god, Sergei,” she whispered, and approached the misshapen form with dread. “What did you do?”
The eyes in the dark face popped open and looked at her. Colleen’s vision went dark and her knees buckled. Sergei caught and steadied her. He gave her wrist a small pinch. She took a deep breath and focused on the half man again, dark-skinned, bone-thin under a ragged cotton covering, staring with a black, sullen gaze.
“He is from India…or Pakistan,” Sergei said and let go of her.
“How did he get here?”
The Russian shrugged as if the question was a silly one. “The port is not far.”
“Right, of course. What happened to him?”
“I look beneath his shirt. He is born like this; legs like a tiny baby under the chest.”
“Oh, dear. How long has he been hiding under my shed?”
“I don’t know. What will you do with him?”
Colleen stared. The electrical cords around the half man appeared very tight. She opened her mouth and Sergei held up a hand. “If I loosen cord he will escape. He is very fast on his hands.”
She swallowed. “I’ll go call the police.”
Sergei snorted. “Why police? What has he done but eat your garbage?”
“He’s a vagrant, and in a few months it’ll be cold.”
Sergei shook his head and appeared disturbed.
Colleen offered a compromise. “I don’t have to call the police. I’ll find some agency to take care of–”
“Sure,” Sergei interjected. “They take care by deporting him. Where he is from, there is not even food in garbage for his kind. He live like rat here, he is eaten by rats there.”
“Okay, then what?” Colleen was growing frustrated. “What should–” She stopped, suddenly suspicious. “Why tie him up like this if you only want to let him go? This better not be part of some weird gypsy con. Ricky said you were Roma and I went home and looked it up online.”
The insult went deep. Sergei looked abruptly away. “He is dangerous to get close. To kill him I think would be best, to show most mercy.”
“Kill–are you insane?” Colleen’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Sergei, we don’t do that here.”
“So I free him. He will go. He is too frightened of me to come again.”
“But then he’ll just be someone else’s problem.”
“How is this problem?” Sergei was exasperated. “Because you have to look at him and know he is eating your garbage?”
Before she could reply Sergei produced a long sharp knife and reached for the half man. A shriek rose in the back of Colleen’s throat, but it died as the blade slit not through flesh but electrical cord. With the bonds loosed the half man made a noise through his nose and swung away across the ground faster than Colleen would have believed possible. Sergei straightened and replaced his knife. “I find new job now.” He walked away across the parking lot.
“Sergei, wait,” Colleen called. “I’m sorry for saying what I did. Please. Don’t go.”
He didn’t stop and though Colleen wanted to, she couldn’t leave the restaurant and go after him. Later she made every effort, but Colleen could find no trace of him and his last paycheck went uncollected, a true mark of wounded pride according to Shawn and Ricky. Colleen sincerely regretted her remark about the gypsies, hated herself for having blurted it out, but didn’t know how to take it back. Sergei had no phone that she knew of and all the letters she sent to his last address came back unopened.
There was no sign of the half-man either, but the full dinners she began leaving on the pile of trash inside the dumpster mysteriously disappeared after about ten days. At first she knew it was raccoons or cats getting into them, but then the Styrofoam containers themselves began to disappear, so she assumed the half man was back and eating very well for a change. Colleen kept close watch, but saw no trace of where he might be sleeping or hiding. Her conscience was somewhat assuaged. Shawn and Ricky thought she was nuts, particularly when she added a fork and spoon to one night’s offering.
A month after Sergei’s departure the ice cream store down the block from Colleen’s restaurant went out of business and the plate glass windows were boarded up. On the morning of the first hard frost Colleen was on her way to the restaurant when she spied the tiniest curl of smoke coming from one corner of the boarded up ice cream store. Her first instinct was to call the fire department. Then she remembered the half man and paused with her finger on the button until she was sure the store was not in fact burning down. After closing the next evening she placed a bag of food, a two liter bottle of water and two heavy blankets in her car. Shawn and Ricky shook their heads as they watched her get in and drive away. They stood beside their cars and smoked cigarettes.
“She thinks she found the half guy,” said Shawn. “I bet you twenty bucks.”
“Maybe she’ll hire him to wash dishes,” Ricky replied.
“Which reminds me, my sister saw Sergei, said he works at the hospital now.”
“You’re kidding. Doing what?”
“He’s some kind of half-assed janitor or something.”
“No shit. Hey, I need to go. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“All right, dude, later.”
The two tossed their butts and went their separate ways.
Colleen was still sitting in her car behind the boarded up ice cream store when the cooks drove by. She fumbled to put batteries inside the flashlight she had purchased to leave there–in case the half man ever needed light. Once the batteries were in she placed the flashlight in her bag of goodies and opened the door to get out and explore the exterior of the building. It didn’t take long to find the loose piece of plywood and the broken glass underneath. She moved it then went back to her car for the blankets and bag. On her hands and knees she carefully squeezed in through the opening and dug around for the flashlight because the store was pitch black inside.
“It’s just me, from the restaurant,” she said cautiously and heard her voice echo. “Don’t worry. I’m here to bring you some–”
A fork through her larynx, the very same fork she had placed so carefully inside a Styrofoam container so many dinners ago, prevented her from finishing the sentence. Incredibly strong hands grabbed her by the throat, ripped up with the fork and flooded her esophagus with blood. Colleen clawed and scratched then fell back with a gurgling sound. A hand snatched up the bag of food and the blankets before a swift exit was made through the plywood.
Sergei knew something was up when he came across Shawn and Ricky smoking cigarettes in the hospital parking lot. For one to be there alone was nothing but together it had to be restaurant-related. Though he was curious he would have kept walking if Ricky hadn’t spotted him and called out: “Sergei! Hey, man, how are you? Did you hear about Colleen?”
“It’s not good, brother,” Shawn added.
“What?” Sergei asked, and they told him what they knew, how Colleen had crawled out of the ice cream store all bloody and flagged down a car. Then they told him about the fork, the dinners and all the ways she tried to find Sergei after he left.
“We just left her,” Shawn said. “She got through surgery okay but she’s not gonna be talking for a while. We told the cops about the half guy but they acted like we were crazy. You should go see her, man. She’d like that.”
“Maybe,” Sergei said, but during his break he found her room number. The door was open and he peered inside. Her neck was swathed in bandages. She appeared to be sleeping, but when he turned to leave, a box of tissues hit the door and he looked back to see her hand beckoning. Colleen’s eyes were round and dark as he came to stand beside the bed. She made a writing motion and seeing nothing handy Sergei removed the pen from his breast pocket and pointed to her palm. She took the pen and wrote FORGIVE ME? She held up the palm and waited the long moment it took before he nodded. Then she reached for his hand and wrote something in his palm.
After work that evening Sergei went out and did not return to his rented room. For the next eight hours he searched and finally in the cold dawn he was rewarded when he spied something crawl over the lid of a dumpster behind a burger place half a mile from Colleen’s restaurant. Sergei crept up to the dumpster and took out his knife. When the half man threw an arm over the side to pull himself out, Sergei grabbed the man by the neck and stabbed at the hand and the arm that had wielded the fork against Colleen. The half man savagely bit and scratched while Sergei hacked until the arm came away just below the elbow and hung by a shred of flesh. Blood pumped black onto the garbage in the dumpster. The half man keened in pain then growled and clamped his good hand over the gushing wound. He gasped a word that Sergei knew meant Why?
“Because I am only half Rom,” he said, and shoved at the man’s face with the palm upon which Colleen had written SHOW MOST MERCY.
Sergei then wiped the blood from his knife and walked away.
Copyright © S.K. Epperson
The Good Deed
Theodore Quinlan was twenty-two years old when he met and married Theorosa McGuire, also twenty-two, in the year 1951. Theodore became Ted and Theorosa became Rose and the two settled into a comfortable existence that lasted until they were both nearly eighty, when Ted and Rose made one of those joint marital decisions and agreed it was going to be necessary to kill their neighbor, Anson “Rocky” Rochlitz and somehow ditch his rusting tan Oldsmobile with the annoying muffler.
The plan commenced on a bright Friday morning. After the Oldsmobile rumbled noisily down the road Ted broke into Rocky’s house. It wasn’t a literal break-in since years ago Ted had owned the property and still happened to have a key to the mud room door off the breezeway. Once inside the house he went in the kitchen and sprinkled the powerful pharmaceutical concoction he and Rose created from their combined medications into every container he could find in Rocky’s refrigerator. Ted shook everything well then slipped back home again.
They waited all day to hear Rocky come home from the garage where he worked as a school bus mechanic. It was difficult to understand why someone who worked as a mechanic would allow his own automobile to suffer a rusted exterior and faulty exhaust system, but the engine itself Ted imagined to be in spectacular condition.
An hour and a half after Rocky came home Ted glided next door and first listened then knocked. There was no answer. Rocky often came out to sit on his front porch after work, soda in hand, but today he was still inside and the house was quiet. Ted knocked again, and a full fifteen minutes later (in case Rocky was in the shower) he knocked once more, waited, then finally used the key and very quietly let himself in. He made a quick scan of each room while there, just in case something needed seeing. Then he went looking for Rocky.
Ben Lee Dixon, twenty-eight year old junior pharmacist from the nearby drugstore, arrived at the Quinlan house and looked over the wooden fence at the end of the drive to see Ted and Rose struggling to drag a massive man to the open bay of their garage. Ben Lee jumped out of his Jeep and crashed through the gate to help, certain medical intervention was necessary. The Quinlan’s faces went white as they saw him. “What happened?” Ben Lee asked. “Is he unconscious?”
Rose dropped Rocky’s arm to clutch at Ted’s shoulder. “Ben Lee is from the pharmacy, Ted. I didn’t expect our prescriptions until Monday. They told me your delivery man was off today.” As a result of the mass dose administered to Rocky it was necessary to call for a refill of their medications.
“He is, and I knew you needed them for the weekend.” Ben Lee dropped to his knee to check the pulse of the man on the ground. He wasn’t a doctor, wasn’t even a certified pharmacist technically, but because in the evenings he was a personal trainer at a local gym he knew CPR. “How was he injured? Have you called an ambulance?”
Rocky’s head twisted and he vomited nearly a pint of medicated Pepsi. As the man’s shoulders heaved, Ben Lee noticed something the elderly husband and wife wished he hadn’t: Rocky’s hands were bound behind his back. And there was black cord around Rocky’s ankles under his pant legs. Ben Lee turned round eyes on the elderly couple. “What the hell is going on here?”
“Not what you think!” Rose said in a shrill voice as Ben Lee reached for his cell phone. “Ted, tell him!”
Ted’s mouth opened but Ben Lee was already punching buttons—until Rocky did a surprise sweep with both legs that upended the unsuspecting Ben Lee and sent him hard to the concrete drive. His cell phone flew up and crashed apart as it landed. The extremely healthy Ben Lee did better as he landed, though he did crack an elbow and his head smacked the concrete with enough force to cause momentary darkness followed by a rush of nausea.
Ted grabbed a shovel from the garage and whacked the still vomiting, bucking Rocky in the head with it, leaving a huge purplish-red dent near the temple and sending him back into unconsciousness with such finality that Rose asked, “Is he dead?” She was breathless and growing slightly nauseous herself because of the smell and sight of the vomit now all over Rocky.
“I’m all right,” Ben Lee said in answer, not realizing she was talking to her husband.
Rose and Ted looked at each other in continued distress. Not long ago the worst they faced in the course of a day was an arthritic flare-up or an infestation of gophers in the back yard. Events of late were adding deep new wrinkles both literally and figuratively to their lives. Finally Ted said, “We have to talk. What was your name again?” He honestly didn’t remember, Rose was the one who remembered things like pharmacy clerk’s names.
“Ben Lee Dixon,” he said and looked pale with shock as he scooted away from the unconscious Rocky. He felt his elbow then cursed softly as he tried to flex it. “Who is this guy and why do you have him tied up?”
“He’s our neighbor,” Rose said quickly. “He lives in his parent’s house but they’re both—”
“Can you get up?” Ted interjected and Ben Lee nodded. He rose slowly to his feet. When stabilized he looked around for his phone. A whispered curse met its condition. He turned as if to leave but Ted grabbed his elbow, the injured one, and Ben Lee’s knees weakened instantly. He growled as he jerked his arm away from the surprisingly strong grip of Ted, who informed, “I had thirty-seven years with the police department.” In those decades of experience Ted knew exactly what was coming next, abrupt stillness and a lot of eyeballing due to sudden non-blinking. Ben Lee didn’t let him down. “When I retired I was a Captain in the Homicide division.”
“So you caught this guy doing something?” Ben Lee guessed. “You’re holding him for the police?”
“Yes and no,” Rose supplied and Ted gave her a look that told her to let him do the talking.
“You have to understand we can’t hold this conversation out here,” Ted said, and without waiting to see what Ben Lee would do he walked back to Rocky and placed his hands under his shoulders. Rose immediately joined him and Ben Lee watched for maybe two seconds while they struggled with the weight of unconscious Rocky before moving to help them get him inside the garage. Ben Lee straightened after dropping Rocky’s legs and warned, “Don’t close that door,” when Ted reached for the garage door button. Rose grabbed a blue tarpaulin and placed it over Rocky, covering him from view. Ben Lee backed out of the garage again. “Start talking, old man. If I’m not back at the pharmacy soon they’ll come looking for me.”
“You call me old man again and you’ll need a pharmacy,” Ted said and for the first time Ben Lee realized how tall Ted was and how agile in handling the large Rocky. Had some bulk going on in the arms still, Ben Lee realized and wondered what kind of Jack La Lanne workout was in play.
“It started with a dog,” Rose said. “When someone loses or finds a dog they post pictures on the poles so whoever finds the animal has a number to call. There was a black chow that had what Ted and I called a psychedelic collar because of all the different swirly colors in it. One day a few weeks ago the owner posted a dozen lost signs with a picture of the dog and its collar. Not long after that Ted saw that swirly psychedelic collar in the trash cart next door. Ted was doing yard work and came across some trash in the adjoining yard and since he was close to Rocky’s cart on the street he just lifted the lid to stick it in. It wasn’t until later that he realized where he’d seen that dog collar before.”
“So your neighbor had the missing dog’s collar in his trash cart,” Ben Lee said.
“That isn’t all,” Ted said. “Other things have turned up in the cart.”
“You mean you’ve been going through his cart since you found the collar.”
“I had a hunch about him and I was right. He’s so very careful with everything he does that he leaves no evidence. I know how police work and I know the limits of the system. If they tried to get him on anything we’ve found he’d walk free.”
“All because he had a dog’s collar in his cart,” Ben Lee repeated, and in response to his bored, almost snide tone Ted’s voice grew Homicide Captain terse, “Because he had the head of an eleven year old girl in his freezer.”
Ben Lee’s everything went dry, his mouth, his throat, his voice. “What?”
“I used to own the house next door,” Ted explained. “I sold it to his parents. I still have a key.”
For the next seconds Ben Lee wished very much he had never decided to play Superhero Pharmacy Man who delivered much-needed meds to desperate, turns-out-not-so-decrepit patients. ”You didn’t stop with the trash cart. You’ve been going through his house.”
“He had a hunch,” Rose said. “Because of other things he found in the cart.”
“So now you see why they won’t be able to get him,” Ted said. “It’ll never make it past a grand jury.”
“Because of you,” Ben Lee accused.
“Because of me, the guy who should have known better.”
“So you’re taking matters into your own hands and doing what exactly?”
Rose shrugged. “We have to stop him.”
Just how they intended to do that was obviously what Ben Lee had stumbled upon. “Wait a minute,” he said, one hand going to his now throbbing elbow. “You didn’t think of sending an anonymous letter to the cops or something? And how do you know the girl was eleven?”
“I made a call,” Ted told him. “The department sent a jackass detective stupid enough to put Rocky on his guard. The head disappeared from the freezer the next day and he’s been Windex clean ever since.” Ted jerked a thumb to the house across the street where an attractive thirty-something woman was getting out of a car and reaching for a bag of groceries. “The eleven year old girl was her daughter, Chelsea. Chelsea disappeared at the beginning of spring. Everyone thought it was the guy in a van trying to pick up kids around Clark Elementary. But it wasn’t that guy, it was this one, Rocky.”
The three of them looked down at the tarp-covered Rocky. Ben Lee said, “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
“Ted,” Rose said, and Ted’s mouth tightened. He took out his cell phone and pushed buttons before handing it to Ben Lee.
The picture was dark, but Ben Lee could tell what it was. The nausea returned with a rush. His skin crawled with disgust.
“I cried the whole day,” Rose whispered. “That poor child.”
Then a voice said, “What’s up guys? Everything all right?”
Ben Lee nearly dropped the phone trying to get it closed. It was the woman from across the street. Simone Mars eyed Ben Lee suspiciously as she approached. If he was trying to scam or invade the home of the old couple she was there to bravely thwart his evil scheme, all five feet four inches of her. Ben Lee saw himself in her, someone coming to the rescue of two elderly people who just happened to be plotting the death of a neighbor, the same neighbor who possibly murdered her eleven year old daughter. His tongue went thick and he managed to come up with exactly nothing. Her eyes were sad and beautiful.
“Simone, this is Ben Lee, our pharmacist’s assistant,” Rose said. “He didn’t want us to be without our medications for the weekend so he brought them himself.”
“Nice to meet you,” Simone said, relaxing somewhat.
“You too,” Ben Lee managed, and awkward and surreal as the moment was he still felt a tiny jolt pass through him when her gaze met his, which made him feel even more horrible at what he might be standing there keeping from her. He hastily gave the phone back to Ted.
“Oh my goodness,” Simone said upon seeing the destroyed cell phone parts around their feet. “That was your phone?”
“Yeah, actually, could I borrow that again?” Ben Lee asked Ted, and Ted’s gaze narrowed as he handed the phone over. A warning glare from the ex cop made Ben Lee give a short jerk of his head and a glance that said don’t worry, old man.
Ben Lee stepped away from them and turned his back to call work and tell his boss he had run into someone and wouldn’t make it back for a while. He hung up before his boss could ask any questions, like was it running into someone with his car or running into someone he knew? Ben Lee was a good employee, he’d be given leeway. He gave the phone back to Ted with an all clear glance and heard Rose telling Simone how pretty her blouse was and had she had time to do anything with those herb starters Rose had given her? Rose was good, Ben Lee acknowledged as the older woman steered the younger away from the garage. Rose was the perfect partner in this crime not quite complete.
He knelt down to pick up the parts of his busted phone and saw Rocky’s bound feet jerking under the tarp. Crap. Ben Lee looked up and saw Simone’s head turned for a last look at him, which at any other time would have flattered and pleased him, but then her beautiful eyes fixed on the jerking blue tarp. Alarm filtered through her expression and she looked suddenly afraid…of all of them. She pulled apart from Rose and began backing away. Ben Lee looked at Ted, who was looking at the tarp with something like amazement and then Rose said, “You might as well know, Simone. We’ve caught Rocky Rochlitz doing something horrible, revolting, and Ted hit him with a shovel. Please don’t tell on us. If Ted goes to jail he’ll suffer terribly.”
Simone stopped backing up. She looked at Ben Lee. “Did you…?”
“No, I just got here, same as you,” he told her, which wasn’t exactly the truth but wasn’t exactly a lie either. “What was Rocky doing, Mrs. Quinlan?” Ben Lee found himself holding his breath, waiting to see if she would tell the woman about her daughter.
For the first time Rose choked, unable to come up with what Ted stepped forward and said easily. “This morning he was sitting in his car and, pardon my frankness, but he was masturbating while watching the children on the corner.”
Half truth or whole, it was horrible enough for Simone. Her brows rose and her mouth filled with questions. “Oh my God, has he been investigated? Do you think he knows something about Chelsea?”
Ben Lee turned away. This was just sad…sad and grotesquely, criminally awkward. Ben Lee didn’t want to do it, but he thought they should tell her about her daughter.
And that’s exactly what Ted did, baldly, without prelude. “Yes, ma’am he does know something about Chelsea. I believe he took her and killed her. I went into his house and found things of hers. But since I did that, any smart lawyer can get the evidence thrown out of court. I fouled things up completely. That’s why we’re here doing this.”
Simone staggered while assimilating the first two sentences out of Ted’s mouth then her beautiful eyes went dark, glittering with a malignity that spread across her face and pulled down the corners of her mouth, like some fierce entity carved into Mayan stone. “He took my daughter,” Simone said in a whisper.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m certain he did.”
”You found things? Her things?”
“What she was wearing the day she went missing. Her little soccer shirt and her shoes.”
Simone drew a long shuddering breath. “How do you know she’s dead?”
Rose said, “We know, Simone,” and the finality of her words left no room for doubt. Simone was shaking as she brushed past all of them and entered the garage. “Take off the tarp. I want to talk to him.”
And of course by talking she meant shrieking through her teeth when his eyes opened then jumping on and proceeding to kick and stab up and down on his tarp-covered form with the stiletto heels of her pointy-toed boots.
Gouged and bleeding from the divots dug by Simone’s wrath, Rocky rolled to get away and shouted in pain before he started bucking again. He succeeded in spilling her off against Ted, who firmly but gently handed her to Rose while he got a length of duct tape and slapped it over Rocky’s growling quivering mouth. Rocky’s dark bloodshot eyes were cold as they bored into Ted’s. Rose’s arms went around her as Simone began to sob. Hearing the rawness of the sound Ben Lee had to ask himself again what possessed him to leave the pharmacy. One little delivery six blocks from the store and he stumbles into a plan to commit murder.
“I really need to… I should go,” he said, and Simone lifted her head to glare at him with reddened orbs. “Go where, to the police? So they can come and put him in a nice cell right next to the BTK killer, where he’ll read emails and play chess and chat all day with reporters, writers and doctors about how he came to be so disturbed?”
Ben Lee lifted a shoulder. “Isn’t that how we learn about people like him?”
“Yes, but we never learn in time do we?” Rose was firm. “We’re always too late for the victims. But in this instance we can prevent there being any more of them.”
“So can the state,” said Ben Lee. “If you kill him you’re just as bad as he is.”
“As bad as a grown man who derives sexual release from torturing pets and murdering innocent young girls?”
Okay, Rose was very good. “Look,” Ben Lee said, “I don’t care what you do. I won’t say anything. I just don’t want to be a part of it.”
Simone wiped her face and stepped away from Rose. “Doesn’t that make you just as bad? Like it or not you’re here, so you’re part of it.”
He thought it was funny her talking that way when she didn’t know the half of what the guy had done to her daughter. He didn’t know why he was taking the position of moral defender, he wanted the man punished as much as anyone after seeing what he had done. It just felt too real suddenly, like a moment stretched so thin it was in danger of never ending. “I don’t think you’ll get away with it,” he told them. “No one ever gets away with it.”
“If we don’t it’s because of you,” Ted said.
“If you hadn’t shown up Rocky would already have been in the garage with the door down and no one would be the wiser because no one else saw.”
Simone touched Ted’s arm. “So you were really going to kill him?”
“Yes,” Ted said. “There’s no other way to stop him now. We can’t leave it to the courts. The law will protect him. I’ll be arrested for kidnapping, you for aggravated assault and he’ll go free. He’ll probably leave and start somewhere new and when he feels comfortable he’ll start trolling for victims again. It has to end here, today.”
A short uncomfortable lull followed. Glances met then fell.
Rose said, “It has to be you.”
Ben Lee knew she was looking at him. He felt it. Her stare filled him with dread.
“It has to be you, Ben Lee. You’re the only one without any stake, and to make sure the rest of us don’t live out our lives worrying if you’re going to tell or not, it has to be you. Do you see?”
“No,” Ben Lee said automatically.
“My prints are probably in his house somewhere,” Ted told him. “I was careful but careful doesn’t always take the prize. Simone has motive with extreme prejudice. Should she have to worry about prison because you don’t want to hurt a child killer?”
Ben Lee was beside himself. “So since I’m the only one without motive here I should be the one to kill him? I can’t believe you people! All I wanted was to bring you your fucking medicine!”
“It’s the only way the rest of us will feel safe,” Rose told him. “I know Ted and I aren’t going to say anything. Simone won’t say anything because she’ll have the justice the courts will deny her. If you do it then the three of us can be certain you won’t talk either.”
“What if I say no? What if I just leave right now? What are you going to do, shoot me?”
Or maybe they’d come later. Maybe he’d find himself being dragged out of his apartment some night, bound at the hands and feet by Captain Ted.
The shooting question hung in the air unanswered until Simone started crying again. Then she said, “I’ll do it with or without you here. I’ll gladly kill the monster and just as happily go to prison. Just tell me what to do, Ted. Show me how to kill him.” She looked around the garage. “We shouldn’t stab him, right, because of the blood? Do you have any anti-freeze? Something we can make him drink?”
Ted looked at his watch. “It’s already too late. Look around, people are coming home from school and work. If we take the tape off and he starts yelling it’ll draw too much attention.”
Ben Lee listened and tried to make his feet move to make a break for it but couldn’t do it. He could not. “Simone,” he began, “don’t you want proof? I mean, you’re just taking their word for it that he killed your daughter.”
He didn’t know why he said it. He felt sick and uncomfortable and angry at them for involving him.
“Do you have proof?” Simone asked Ted. “Do you still have her clothes?”
Ted’s eyes closed briefly and Rose gave Ben Lee a look of deep disappointment that shamed him and made his color rise.
“No. They were in a bag in his dumpster.”
“You were going through his trash? I thought you said you found them in his house?” Doubt crept into Simone’s gaze, confusion followed by mistrust, and Ben Lee was glad and dismayed at the same time because when Ted moved he knew what was coming. The phone flipped open and Ted said, “This is what I found in his house.”
Simone blinked and moved close to the phone while she tried to make out what she was looking at. Then her mouth opened. It kept opening until it was a big round oh of horror in a soundless scream. When all the air left her she dropped, crumpled to the floor of the garage as her legs gave way beneath her. Her sad, beautiful eyes now held a torment that promised to be permanent, the image of her daughter’s frozen decapitated head seared into her memory forever. Rose began to weep. Ted closed his phone.
Ben Lee’s eyes burned as he jerked up the shovel Ted had used to whack Rocky earlier. He walked around to Rocky’s head and heard Ted say, “You have to hit him really hard to kill him. Skulls are a lot harder than anyone thinks.”
In one swift movement Ben Lee placed the blade against Rocky’s neck and jumped on the shovel with both feet, partially severing Rocky’s head from his body. Blood gushed then pooled on the cement floor. Ben Lee dropped the shovel and walked past the twitching tarp, past Ted, to Rose and Simone. “I’m sorry,” he said to Simone. Then he walked down the drive to his Jeep, not caring about the bloody tracks he made as he went. Let Captain Ted hose it off. Ben Lee saw their prescriptions in the passenger seat and tossed the bag into their yard. The toss made his elbow throb. The thing hurt like crazy and would probably keep him off the equipment at the gym for days, dammit. This was it. This was definitely the last time he played Mr. Good Guy.
When the day was finally over, after the laborious disposal of the body and the massive efforts at cleaning up were complete, Rose and Ted sat exhausted in their recliners in the living room and watched the nightly news together without speaking. Finally, Rose said, “You may have gone too far with this, Ted. That picture…”
“We both know Chelsea is dead, Rose. Dead and gone, it doesn’t matter if it was van guy or someone else, now Simone can have some peace, believing she has her justice.”
“But what about poor Ben Lee?”
“You’re the one who told him to do it.”
“I didn’t see any way out of it, with both him and Simone there. He’s such a boy scout. That was quick thinking on your part, I have to say, using the picture of your retirement cake.”
“We still have part of it in the freezer don’t we? The bottom part of the jaw?”
“I don’t know why you kept it. I’ve always hated the department’s morbid gags.”
First Rose yawned and then Ted. Slowly, Rose smiled at her husband. “Guess what we don’t have to listen to in the morning?”
Ted sighed happily. “The deafening fifteen minute warm up of that rusted piece of shit Oldsmobile next door. Should’ve killed the sonofabitch years ago…”
Copyright © S.K.Epperson
Dinah peered through the thick glass of the restaurant and wondered how one person could eat so much in the morning. On the table nearest the window were scrambled eggs, sausage, an order of pancakes, a breakfast burrito, a cherry turnover, two containers of orange juice and one coffee. The breakfast bounty was for one large woman with a drooling interest in the latest copy of a tabloid, the headline of which proclaimed that Bat Boy Needs Eye Surgery.
“Over there,” said Mick. “The geek by the street side window, the one with the stringy hair.”
Dinah looked. She swallowed. “Mick, can’t you do this one?”
“Sure, I could. But I wouldn’t be helping you if I did. Time to bust cherry, Dinah. Go for it.”
“Wait,” she said uneasily. “Are you sure he isn’t dangerous?”
The red-haired Mick sighed. “I’ve been in this business a long time. I know dangerous when I see it.”
Dinah placed her back to the window. “That’s what you said yesterday. I’d call a twelve-pound mace pretty dangerous.”
“Hey.” He lifted a freckled hand. “Renaissance freaks are like that. This is McDonald’s. No one’s pulling metal in here.”
Funny, Dinah seemed to recall reading about an incident where someone did in fact pull metal in a McDonald’s. Heavy-resulting-in-several-dead-metal.
Mick was watching her. “I knew this wasn’t gonna work. Little candy-ass girl wanting to play hardball. It’s the same old shit. I suppose you’re gonna tell me you only wanna do the girls?”
“No, I just didn’t think it would be like this. I didn’t know we’d be dealing with so many nuts. That guy yesterday could’ve killed us.”
“Me, you mean,” Mick corrected. “You never left the fucking car.”
“You told me not to,” Dinah reminded him.
Mick looked at his watch and expelled a loud breath. “Come on. Get your ass in there and do it. He’s not going to run and he’s not going to dunk you in his coffee. I swear the guy’s harmless. Crazy maybe, but harmless. I know he is, because I did him the first time. He’s just another street nut.”
“Why are you in such a hurry?” Dinah asked. “You said he was here from eight in the morning until ten. It’s only eight-thirty.”
Mick growled under his breath. “Look, Miss Blondie Blue Eyes, I’m not wasting the whole goddamn morning here. Now, I’m going in to get a cup of coffee, you wanna stand out here and piss in your panties that’s just fine with me.” When Dinah’s head jerked around he continued, “You’ve been shifting feet and squeezing knees for the last five minutes. Now come on. Jesus, you’re like a fucking ten year old.”
He was already moving toward the entrance. Dinah had no choice but to follow him; she seriously did have to pee.
Mick got his coffee and sat on the opposite side of the room from their man. Dinah made a note of Mick’s table and hurried to the bathroom. She told herself that when she came out she would simply walk over to Richard Heffel and get it over with. With Mick there it would be easy. He wouldn’t let anything happen to her. He’d been mean to her from the first day, said she was too pretty and soft for this kind of work, but she thought Mick liked her.
She changed her mind about that when she came out of the bathroom to find him gone. Mick left a napkin propped up on his table. The scrawl on the napkin said he would be back for her by ten o’clock.
“Shit.” Dinah wadded up the napkin then apologized to the raised eyebrows of the gluttonous woman with the tabloid.
A feeling of being watched made her glance at the table by the street side window. Richard Heffel was smiling at her. Abruptly Dinah turned and made her way to the counter to order a cup of coffee.
“Make it two,” said a voice behind her.
She didn’t have to turn. The guy was fast.
The counter girl was waiting.
Dinah’s mouth was dry. “Uh…okay. Two coffees.”
“Thanks,” Heffel said.
Dinah still couldn’t make herself turn around. Only when the coffee appeared and one long, thin arm reached past her to collect a cup did she dare to glance at him. His hair was longer than she had at first thought; oily, blond, with wispy ends that reached the middle of his back. His beard was scraggly, reddish-gold, and unusually fine for facial hair. His eyes were solid green, no flecks or darker splotches in the irises. The whites were clear.
He smiled again and she saw that his teeth were still in good condition. Most of the street people she encountered had rotten stubs or no teeth at all.
“I…have something for you,” she said.
“I know.” He gestured for her to follow him back to his table. “I recognized the man you came in with.”
Dinah hesitated, looked around then decided she would be reasonably safe with so many people in the restaurant. She carried her coffee to his table and sat down without looking at him.
“Go ahead pretty lady,” he said. “Serve me.”
She blinked. Then she opened her purse and handed him the summons. “I haven’t been a process server very long,” she explained. “I’m glad you’re being cooperative.”
Heffel laughed a surprisingly soft and somehow charming sound. Dinah felt herself begin to relax. Maybe he was harmless after all. Not all crazy people were dangerous, were they?
She forced herself to speak slowly. “I used to work for the judge who issued this. What it’s telling you is that you’re in contempt. You haven’t paid the child support the judge ordered you to pay. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Heffel said. “But what he doesn’t seem to understand is that I have no children. I have no wife.”
Dinah tried to smile. “Well at one time you did, Mr. Heffel. That’s what this is all about.”
Heffel eyed his coffee sadly. “What a terrible waste of the taxpayer’s money. You can see I have nothing.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s not my concern,” Dinah responded, though she did wonder at the reasoning behind the summons. The man was clearly indigent now, regardless of what he may have had before.
“I was required to fertilize the egg,” Heffel explained. “I did. But my responsibility ended there, in that moment. I told her it did.”
Dinah couldn’t help herself. “So you agreed to donate sperm and that was all? It was an in-vitro birth?”
“Not at all. There was definite coitus.” He was smiling again.
“Then how can you say you have no responsibility? You were married to her, right? It’s not like you’re some fish swimming around and spawning.”
“I’m not a fish, no,” Heffel agreed. He lifted one arm and pointed to his bicep. “I’m a snake. See the scales?”
Dinah saw dry skin was all. She sipped her coffee and told herself it was useless to argue with a nut. She had heard Mick call him the Snake Man, but she’d thought it was because of a tattoo or something. This was…well, that’s why he was crazy and homeless, she guessed. After looking at her watch she decided to humor him. “Do you have fangs, Mr. Heffel?”
He frowned. “I do, but I don’t use them. I’m an anaconda.”
“Okay,” she said with a smile. “When did this affliction, uh, strike you?”
He missed the pun.
“After I was recruited for the Drug Enforcement Administration. We were flying from La Paz, Bolivia to Caracas, Venezuela when our plane went down in—“
“Wait, let me guess,” Dinah said. “Near the Amazon river, right? In the jungle.”
Heffel nodded. “That’s right. The nearest town was a place called Fonte Boa, but I didn’t know that when we crashed. I didn’t know where we were. I’d been sleeping when we went down, you see, and I woke up to find myself alone. There was only one other agent besides myself. And the pilot, of course.”
“And the mission was probably hush hush,” Dinah said, enjoying herself. “So the DEA didn’t bother to look for you. They couldn’t acknowledge your existence, let alone search for you, right?”
“Exactly,” Heffel said. “We had a cover story that explained our reasons for being in South America but our actual assignment was to follow the movements of one man and gather information on his operations.”
Dinah nodded. She’d watched enough of Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal to know where this was going. “A vicious drug kingpin?”
“Yes,” Heffel said in excitement. “He was in La Paz to guarantee shipments of ether to three cocaine processing plants in Colombia. In Caracas he was to meet with two pilots, both Americans. My partner recognized one of the men as a former agent. Anyway, after we crashed I got out and discovered the reason: we were shot down. A plane circled the site of the crash for ten minutes—I could swear it was an old B-52, but maybe it was my imagination. I had a compass with me so I decided to start walking. I eventually found the river and then some natives found me.”
“Natives?” Dinah repeated. “As in brown and mostly naked?”
“I still don’t know who they were,” Heffel replied. “They didn’t speak any of the languages I knew. They took me to a small camp—they were obviously nomadic—and turned me over to a woman.”
Okay, here it comes, Dinah thought. “She was their leader?”
“She was the Snake Goddess.”
Heffel paused and rubbed his eyes, as if suddenly weary of talking. “I know it sounds crazy, but have you ever read the story of Medusa?”
A crazy man thinking something sounded crazy was what Dinah thought was crazy. “Who hasn’t?” she said. “Mythology, right? Lady with snakes for hair?”
Heffel nodded. “She was the only mortal of three Gorgons.”
Dinah lifted her cup to hide her smile. “And completely lost her head over it.”
Heffel’s green eyes flickered. “I just realized that I haven’t asked your name. I don’t usually care about names, but I’d like to know yours.”
Dinah gave a shrug and told him.
He repeated it three times, slowly.
“Okay,” Dinah said, slightly creeped out. “So what happened after they turned you over to the queen?”
“She was a goddess, a daughter of one of the immortal Gorgons.”
“All right. A goddess. What happened?”
“She kept me in a cage for a week and just stared at me. She seemed enamored of my coloring, as if she’d never seen blond hair and blue eyes before.”
His eyes are green, Dinah told herself as she listened. Does he not remember?
“The second week she began feeding me a strange, bitter-tasting mixture of roots and menses. Hers. She fed this to me for six days and every night she took me out of the cage and stroked and played with me as you would a pet. On the seventh night she copulated with me and performed a ritual.”
Dinah’s mouth pinched in distaste. “What kind of ritual?”
“She anointed my glandular areas with something—I don’t know what. Whatever it was, she took it from a snake thirty feet long and at least a foot and a half wide. Then she allowed the snake to eat me. I have no idea how long it took. The strength of the snake’s contractions was incredible, but it felt like forever before it swallowed my head. I was nearly dead when she slit the snake open and took me out. She was enraged to discover that one of my legs had been broken. Before I passed out I saw her split the head of the snake in two and suck out each eye.”
“Yuck,” Dinah said, her stomach rolling. Okay, the story was interesting—better than the alien tale she and Mick heard last week—but she didn’t go for the gross stuff. And where the hell was Mick? He wasn’t honestly going to leave her here until ten, was he? She nervously glanced at her watch again. “I, uh, thought those snakes squeezed you to death before they ate you?”
“This snake was under her power,” Heffel replied. “That’s why she was so angry about the broken leg. It wasn’t supposed to hurt me.”
“Right,” Dinah said. Unable to resist, she said, “So then what happened?”
Heffel drained his coffee before answering. A single drop cascaded down the side of his mouth and became lost in his beard. “I slept. The next morning I found myself in the back of a Jeep. A group of British ethno-botanists found me. When I asked about the camp and the goddess they looked at me like I was insane. They had seen no trace of a camp.”
“What did they do with you?”
“They set my leg and took me to a clinic, where I made contact with a U.S. ambassador. Then I came home and spent three or four weeks being debriefed. Richard Heffel isn’t my real name, by the way.”
“Of course not,” said Dinah.
Heffel’s green eyes narrowed slightly. Then he sighed. “It was months after my return before I noticed anything wrong. It was gradual, but I felt myself changing. I tried to tell the woman I lived with, but she’d been told by doctors to expect a certain amount of odd behavior. I’d been through a harrowing ordeal, they said, and like other post-traumatic disorders the effects could last for years. Eventually I had to leave her.”
“After fathering a child,” Dinah said.
“Her idea, not mine.”
“Dinah finished her own coffee, now cold. “You used this snake story to justify your desertion?”
Heffel shook his head. “I had to leave. I couldn’t fight it. I was changing inside and it was time to go.”
Dinah smirked. “Time to move on and fertilize other eggs?”
Heffel’s look was direct. “I won’t do that if I can help it. Sometimes I can’t help it.”
Her gaze skittered away from the probing message in his. “So…now you live on the street. I know how you get your coffee; dare I ask what you do for food?”
“No,” he said. “You don’t dare.”
Dinah stared and a creeping sense of peril claimed her as she stared back.
“Dinah,” he said. “Do you believe me?”
The earnest tone of the question made her keep staring. She gave a helpless laugh. “I’m sorry, but how can I?”
“I have a driver’s license that says my eyes used to be blue.”
She tried to tear her gaze away and couldn’t. “They could be contacts. I don’t see any scales, Mr. Heffel. I don’t see anything but a man who’s given up on himself. You don’t have to live on the street; you’re articulate and you appear able-bodied enough to go out and find a job to support yourself—and the child you fathered. If you need help there are plenty of programs available for—“
“No one can help me,” he said harshly. “How can anyone help when they won’t believe me? I’ve been in hospitals and seen dozens of doctors. I’ve told everyone I’ve ever met what happened, but no one will believe me.”
Dinah grew flustered. “Maybe if you had some kind of proof they would. But you don’t. All you have is a wild story about Medusa and a mamba.”
“It wasn’t a mamba.”
“Okay, an anaconda. But you see what I mean, don’t you?”
She forcibly tried to look at her watch and found it impossible. Her eyes were burning with the need to blink.
“I see what you mean,” he said slowly. “So I might as well go on being crazy until I change completely. The seventh year, I figure. That’s probably when the scales will burst from beneath my skin. My eyes are already beginning to slit. Have you noticed?”
Dinah couldn’t notice anything but his eyes. And yes, his pupils were beginning to look strangely oblong. But that was only because…because his story was so good?
“I’m growing stronger every day,” he said. “I don’t have to eat but once or twice a week. It’s the change. I think it’ll end the seventh year because it was on the seventh night that she performed the final ritual. I sleep near the river now, but that’s only because it’s easier to catch animals when they come to…. Anyway, when it happens I’ll probably live down there permanently. I’ll miss coming here and drinking coffee. It’s the only way I can feel like my old self. And talking. I’ll miss talking with people like you.”
Hypnotism, Dinah thought suddenly. Is he hypnotizing me? Did anacondas do that? Did any snake really do that? Just birds, right?
“Dinah, Dinah, Dinah,” he said softly. “You’re so pretty. I might not be able to help myself with you.”
She tensed. It was time to go. She could wait in the parking lot.
“If you want proof I’ll give it to you,” he said. “Just you. The only way I can think of. Maybe then you’ll let me come and see you. We can talk some more. I like you, Dinah. I like you very much.”
Dinah started to speak, tell him no fucking way, but she suddenly found her throat as uncooperative as her eyes. Panicking, she jerked her mouth open to shout. Nothing came out. Her throat began to tighten, closing in on itself.
“I learned how to do this just recently, “Heffel said in the same soft tones. “The Goddess did it to me when I panicked. She simply immobilized me. It’s not something I’ve been working on, Dinah, it just came to me one day.”
It was getting harder to breathe. Dinah lifted her hands to claw at her throat, but even her fingers were sluggish and unresponsive. Lost in the green depths of his gaze, helpless to do anything but stare, she felt something wild and frenzied break loose within her when the hairs of his beard suddenly began to writhe. A tiny yellowish-green head burst forth just below his chin. Another emerged from his scalp. Threadlike black tongues flicked from impossibly small mouths. Heffel didn’t seem to notice.
Dinah tried to throw herself out of her seat. She went nowhere. Her paralysis was complete.
“Is it happening?” Heffel asked her. “What are you seeing, Dinah?”
The truth, she thought wildly.
Idiot! She screamed in her mind. He wasn’t going to be a snake. How could he possibly have thought he was going to turn into a snake? He was going to be like her. Like the goddess. Didn’t he know that? How could he be so blind and stupid? Dinah knew the reason for the ritual; the Snake Goddess had wanted him for a mate.
“Do you believe me now?” Heffel asked anxiously.
Dinah’s lungs were heaving. She was close to the point of losing consciousness. There was no air. He was killing her. He was squeezing her, swallowing her whole….
“Jesus Christ!” someone shouted beside her. She saw Heffel start and look away from her, breaking the spell. Then she felt herself being dragged from her seat.
“Do the Heimlich!” another voice shouted. “She’s choking on something!” It was the woman with the tabloid and the big appetite. She had egg on her upper lip, Dinah noted wildly. Eggs.
Someone lifted her off the ground from behind and buried a cruel thumb under her sternum, causing her stomach to give up its contents to the floor, after which she was able to breathe again.
“Don’t call a goddamn ambulance,” she heard Mick say. “I’ll take her myself.”
She expanded her lungs over and over, sucking in air until she could taste it along with the bile on her tongue.
“Dinah, Dinah, Dinah…” came a whispering voice.
She squeezed her eyes shut.
“Hey, get the hell away from her, asshole.”
“See?” the whispering voice hissed.
Dinah cringed away from it.
When she opened her eyes again she was in the car and Mick was pulling her skirt down over her thighs. He put her hands in her lap and slammed the door. When he climbed behind the wheel he said, “I’m not going to argue about this. We’re going to the emergency room. Whatever you were choking on may still be lodged in your pipe. Nothing came out but coffee.”
“That’s all I had,” she croaked. “I didn’t eat anything. I never eat breakfast. What about the Snake Man? Did anyone see what happened to him?”
Mick started the engine and put the car in gear. “What do you mean? He’s still sitting there looking like the damn dummy he is. He would’ve let you choke to death. Goddamn psychos. What the hell were you doing talking to him? You were supposed to serve the paper, period.”
Dinah ignored him. Her pulse was pounding again. No one had seen. No one but her.
“Mick, you were right,” she said in a rush. “I can’t handle this job. I want to quit, and I want you to take me home right now.”
“No way,” Mick said. “You’re going to see a doctor. You don’t know how blue your face was in there. Scared the shit out of me.”
“Please,” Dinah said frantically. “He knows my name, Mick. I told him. I have to get home and get my things.”
Mick glanced at her. “What’s wrong with you? Did he threaten you?”
“Not in…he didn’t…Mick, just forget the doctor and take me home. I have to get away before he realizes what’s really happening to him. He’ll want someone of his own and he’ll come looking for me because I saw his proof and I know and…please take me home. I’m begging you.”
Mick was frowning. “Hey, don’t come apart on me, all right? I said you were too much of a looker for this job. Guys’ll come on to you, crazy or sane. They see a pretty girl and they think they can either sweet talk or intimidate her. I should’ve known Heffel would lay his best stuff on you. Sonofabitching shrinks make the worst crazies.”
“Shrink?” Dinah said.
“Yeah. Didn’t you read the file? The guy has a degree in psychiatry.”
Psychiatry. Dinah sagged against the seat in relief. She had the hysterical urge to laugh. So she had been hypnotized after all. Somehow.
She coughed in embarrassment and leaned her head back, unable to believe her own gullibility. Mick had been right all along; she was too soft for this kind of work, too easily suckered by a charming liar with a good story. A psychiatrist. Good God you’re dumb, Dinah. Dumb, dumb, dumb…
She gave Mick a weak smile. “I guess I should have read his file. What happened to make him like he is? Did he snap under professional pressure or something?
Mick lifted a shoulder. “He didn’t have time. He never got to practice. After graduation Heffel and this other newbie flew down to South America to learn a treatment from this world famous guy. On the way there they got kidnapped by a bunch of rebels. They broke every bone in the other guy’s body, but Heffel came out alive and distinctly wacko, as I’m sure you noticed. He claimed his friend got fed to a huge snake by a very weird lady. Crazy. Anyway, that’s why he’s called the Snake—hey, are you sure you don’t need to see a doctor? You’re getting paler by the minute.”
Dinah was sitting up. Her throat hitched in remembered anguish. “Home…” she managed.
“Don’t look like that,” Mick said. “You’re scaring me again.”
“Home!” Dinah shouted. “I have to pack! He wants to fertilize my eggs, Mick! Take me home!”
“Okay, okay, Christ you’re a nutty broad. Just calm down and tell me where you live.”
Dinah wiped her perspiring forehead and touched her throat. She flicked away the tiny scale she found there and heard herself whimper.
“I live on Riverbend Drive. Right on the river. Hurry, Mick. Please hurry.”
Copyright © S.K. Epperson
A somewhat different version was published (a long, long time ago) in a little magazine called 2A.M. Anyone remember them?
The Yellow Bell
Two patrons sit in a dim downtown bar and watch the large screen TV behind the bartender with leaden gazes. The bartender, an ex-biker named Fly, pours a glass of soda for local man Stu, whose unshaved face, unkempt hair and tattered jeans are sad contrast to the immaculate white polo and neatly pressed trousers worn by close-cropped Dil, the other patron.
“That’ll be two dollars,” Fly tells Stu.
Stu digs out the money and scoffs as Dil sips delicately at his draft and puts on a foam mustache. Irritated, Dil puts the mug down hard and slops beer on the bar.
“Just what is your problem, Stu?”
Fly reaches for a towel.
Stu says, “Ain’t got one.”
“Why are you following me?”
“I was here before you, Dil, so who’s followin’ who?”
“You knew I was coming here. You heard me say so at the funeral home.”
“I heard jack shit. I come in here all the time, just ask him.”
“For a two dollar Coke?”
Fly nods and mops up the spilled beer. “Easy now boys. The mortician did a good job on her, right? Evelyn Zeck was King George’s queen. Held mass with a glass in here every Sunday.”
“Yeah, well, drinkin’ that damn Scotch is what killed her,” Stu says.
“No, Stu, I believe it was the Feingold Fruit Company truck attached to her grill that killed her.”
“You know what I meant, pickle boy.”
Dil swears. “Don’t call me that, ass hat.”
“How old was she, anyway?” Fly asks.
“Eighty-four,” Stu tells him.
“Damn. Surprised she lasted that long, way she drank. I can still hear that laugh of hers. Like the backfire of a damned diesel engine.”
Stu looks down. Dil looks down. Fly moves to hold out a hand to Dil.
“Name’s Fly. I moved here last June. Evelyn was my first regular. How’d you guys know her?”
Stu and Dil look at each other.
“We used to do stuff for her,” Dil says.
“Did you now?”
Stu growls in irritation. “Farm work, fool.”
Dil sips his beer again. “You didn’t say no to Evelyn Zeck. She’d stand on her porch with a glass of Scotch in one hand, cigarette in the other and bark orders at us. We worked for her when we were kids. We’d chop her wood and mow her fields and she let us fish her ponds and hunt birds on her land.”
“So you were Evelyn’s neighbors?”
Stu smirks, “More like Evelyn’s suckers. We also helped our parents work her store.”
“She owned a store?”
“The Yellow Bell Market on Winchester,” Dil tells him. “It was the town’s biggest grocer till Wal-Mart moved in and shut it down.”
“Huh.Yellow Bell. Ain’t there some story about a treasure in a lead bell?”
Stu and Dil look at each other again.
“Fairy tale,” Stu says.
“Yeah? It was the first thing I heard when I moved here.” Fly tosses his bar towel over one shoulder and leans against the bar. “An old boy said it was something like 1929 that some safe robber from Chicago was passin’ through town with a sack of jewels hidden inside a lead bell. He was drivin’ his old Ford fast when a drunk comes out of a bar and lurches into the street trying to get away from someone. The robber jams the brakes but hits the drunk. He stops and gets out to look and the drunk gets up and punches him. He knocks the robber out cold then jumps in the car and drives off, but he runs out of gas and the guy from the bar who was after him, this big tattooed guy, finally catches up. The drunk gets beat to death by a guy chasin’ him for five dollars. The tattooed guy from the bar sees this box inside the car then. He finds the robber’s stash, buries the bell somewhere safe then goes back to town to bail his brother out of jail. The cops nab him for beatin’ the drunk to death and he dies in prison before he can tell anyone what he did. Legend says the bell’s still here somewhere.”
“Bullshit,” Stu says.
“Well it’s funny Evelyn would name her market The Yellow Bell, don’t you think?” Fly comments.
Dil laughs. “Everything in town was named The Yellow Bell. The newspaper, the diner, even the schoolhouse. For years you couldn’t walk downtown without falling in a hole.”
Fly nods. “So Evelyn never talked about the story?”
“Evelyn Zeck talked about everything and everyone,” Stu says.
“Yeah, well, what does that mean?”
Dil says, “It means she claimed to know where it was buried. She used to say she’d give us shovels and send us out to dig one day. Man, we ate that stuff up when we were kids.”
Stu scratches his scraggly head and a smile tugs at one corner of his mouth. “Yeah, she’d get us goin’. Make us think we were in on that secret treasure. Just us and her.”
He stops smiling in sudden remembrance and scowls instead.
“Crafty old carp.”
At the cemetery the next day Stu’s disposition is little better. His hair is combed and his face is shaved but he still looks awkward and unkempt as he stands beside the grave.
Dil in an expensive suit is on the opposite side. Both Dil and Stu look up in surprise when Fly appears. Fly nods to the pastor, who nods in return then says, “Evelyn made it known to all that she wanted no service, no memorial, and absolutely no speakers. So to honor her wishes…”
The pastor lapses into silence, closes his eyes, and clutches his Bible.
Fly moves to stand next to Dil. “Why are they puttin’ her here? Shouldn’t she be in the plot next to her husband?”
He points to a nearby towering marker engraved with the name ZECK in six-inch high letters.
Stu points angrily at Fly. “Hey. She said no speakers.”
Fly glares at Stu but falls silent.
In the lawyer’s office later Dil and Stu get up from chairs and shake hands with a what- a-waste-of-time-this-has-been attorney named Riley.
“Sorry to drag you both in here. See my secretary for the key.”
Dil holds the door open for Stu, who shoves past him to get out.
“She left us the contents of her shed?” Dil says. “What’s in the shed?”
“How do I know?” Stu replies. “Same junk that used to be in it. She’s probably givin’ us that piece of crap riding mower with the banana bicycle seat.”
Dil shakes his head.
Behind Evelyn’s farmhouse Stu and Dil approach the shed, a dilapidated structure with gaping holes and rusty hinges. Dil hangs back, the key in his fingertips.
“Shit. There’s a wasps’ nest in there.”
Stu moves forward. “You want me to go in and look?”
“Probably snakes too,” Dil adds.
Stu takes the key and reaches for the lock on the splintered door. “I’ll be right back.”
Dil pushes forward. “No. Wait. I’m coming.”
Stu scowls over his shoulder. “You think I’d lie about what’s in here?” He opens the lock, shoves open the door and steps aggressively inside.
Dil falls back as a half dozen wasps come flying out. “Whoa, shit!” He flaps his arms and ducks as the wasps dive-bomb him. “What’s in there?”
Stu doesn’t immediately answer. Dil takes a step, but more wasps come out and drive him into a jerk and twirl dance of avoidance.
Finally Stu emerges, a wasp clinging to one ear. His hands are empty, his expression disgusted. “Shovels. About fifteen of ’em. Nothin’ else.”
Dil points to Stu’s ear. Stu claps a hand to his ear. He takes the wasp and crushes it between his fingers. Dil stares. “Shovels?”
“Yep. Must’ve had herself a good laugh at us. Probably laughin’ right now.”
Dil moves to the shed. “Not that I don’t trust you. But I don’t trust you.”
He darts in the door and after half a second darts out again.
“Like I said.”
“Must be her treasure hunter collection. Well, hell, she always said she’d give us shovels, right?”
Dil turns as if to leave, then stops. His eyes narrow. He whirls to look at Stu.
“Wait a minute. Did Evelyn get married after I left town?”
Stu is confused by the question. “What? No. Why?”
Dil takes off running.
Stu runs after Dil, abandoning his own truck to hop in the passenger door of Dil’s sedan.
Dil shoves at Stu. “Get out!”
Stu shoves back. “No way. What’re you thinking?”
Frustrated spit flies from Dil’s mouth as he slams a fist against the steering wheel.
“Get out of the car, Stu!”
Stu crosses his arms. He’s not moving. “Nope.”
Dil gives up. “All right. That bartender mentioned a spot for Evelyn all picked out beside her dead husband and he couldn’t understand why she wasn’t being buried there.”
“When did she get married?” Stu asks.
“So why have a plot and stick a fake headstone over it?”
“The grave marker was brand new,” Dil says.
“Don’t call me that. Oh man…you think that’s where she put it, knowing we’d see the marker?”
“It’s perfect! She always told us she knew where it was. And she was the one who donated all the land for the cemetery!”
Stu is excited. “Holy headstones. Open the trunk, we need those shovels.”
In the cemetery that night at the Zeck plot a kerosene lantern casts an eerie glow on the faces of the two grave diggers as they labor away at their task.
Dil stops to wipe his forehead. His progress is minimal. “Stu, wanna switch places for a while?”
“Sure, long as I don’t have to wear what you’re wearin’.”
Unexpectedly, Dil laughs. Stu chortles and the two momentarily pause in their digging.
“Hey,” Dil says. “Whatever happened to us?”
“Gee, lemme think. Could be that you accused me of stealin’ three hundred dollars and a carton of Yoo-Hoos from the store, which caused my dad to come at me with a tire iron and break my jaw in two places.”
Dil looks down as he remembers. “Oh. Right. So, uh…you went on to junior college?”
“Just shut up and dig, Dil.”
“Well, you did take the money.”
Stu wheels on him. “I didn’t! Dammit, Dil, I told you a hundred times what happened!”
“You told me some poor people came into the store and Evelyn told you to give them money. Evelyn.”
“That is exactly what happened,” Stu swears. “I was stocking shelves when this worn out lookin’ one-armed man comes in with his skinny, coughing wife and baby. I see him dig the money out of his pocket to show her all they have to spend and it ain’t much. It’s barely a dollar. Old Evelyn was standing there with her glass of Scotch and she motions to me to come over. She said to open the register and give ‘em all we had in the till. I got it all out and the man stands there with his mouth open as I put it in his hand. Evelyn stuck her cigarette in her mouth and went to the refrigerated case to get milk, a carton of Yoo-Hoos, some juice, and then she grabbed a bottle of Vicks 44 cough syrup for the wife. They didn’t know what to do, no one had ever been so good to ‘em like that.”
“Then why didn’t Evelyn remember doing it?”
“I don’t know! Why did she lose bank bags, hit stop signs, and call you Jonah for two years?”
“Because she said I had a whale belly.”
“No, because she was a sad old drunk who got shit-faced every day and blacked out every night. I never lied to you in my life.”
“Not even about Monica?”
“Dil, I never touched Monica.”
Dil leans on his shovel. “I wish I hadn’t. Friggin’ alimony’s killing me.”
Stu sighs. “You’re not digging.”
“Stu…I hated what your dad did to you.”
“You did it because of Monica. That’s why you accused me. You were jealous.”
“No, I…okay, maybe that had something to do with me telling on you but I swear I didn’t know what would happen. You were my best friend and I felt awful. Evelyn put me through hell after you left.”
“You deserved it.”
“I mean it, Stu. She constantly ridiculed me, trying to show me I was no better than anyone else. Instead of Jonah she started calling me Judas in front of everyone. God, she made me hate her.”
“Just dig, okay?
Dil looks pained. “You’re not going to accept my apology?”
“I still haven’t heard one.”
“Okay, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. All right?”
“Shake on it?” He extends a hand but Stu glares and Dil hastily picks up his shovel again. “Fine.”
Dil digs. Stu digs. Then Stu’s shovel dings against something.
“What is it?” Dil asks. “Sounded like metal.”
Stu squats in the hole to scoop dirt away with his hands. Dil jumps over and joins him. They uncover a coffin lid.
“Uh-oh,” Dil says. “This wasn’t supposed to be here. She was never married…right?”
“I don’t know, man. I don’t think she was.”
“What do we do now?”
“Open it. We’ve come this far.”
Stu reaches in and opens the lid.
Instead of a corpse there is a dirty, crusted bell the size of a soccer ball inside.
Stu whoops. Dil whoops. They jump up and down with each other in the hole.
A grinning Stu reaches inside the bell, and out of nowhere a shovel appears and conks him over the head. Stu slumps.
Fly then conks Dil on the head, and the last thing Dil sees is a tattoo of a big yellow bell on the bartender’s bicep.
Fly reaches inside the bell and feels around. He draws out nothing but a piece of paper. “What the hell?”
He holds it next to the lantern and squints.
You guessed right, boys. But where’s the jewels, you ask? They went to buy the farm, the house, and the store, that’s where. Did you lazy little bastards think I was rich or something? PS: You can have the bell. You earned it.
Fly spits in disgust and tosses the letter on top of Dil.
“Crazy old bitch.”
Stu wakes up and feels his bloody head. He sits up, steadies himself, then looks around for Dil.
Dil sits with the letter in his hand and stares at the dirty, crusted bell in the coffin.
“Fly?” Stu asks.
“Then call me flypaper ’cause I’m gonna stick his ass good.”
“Yeah. That’ll happen.”
Stu points to the letter. “What’s that?”
“It’s from Evelyn.”
Dil hands it to Stu, who reads it and scoffs.
“The historical biddies’ll buy it if no one else. Grab the bell and let’s go. I think I need stitches in my head.”
Dil gets up and reaches for the bell. The crusted matter crumbles in his hands, revealing a smooth surface. He reaches in again but can’t pick it up.
He stares at Stu. Stu reaches in to help and the two scrape hard at the surface until most of the dirt and crusted stuff is gone.
They stand blinking at one another.
“You know what’s really heavy, don’t you?”
“But lead isn’t yellow…is it?”
The two men grin at each other and say it at the same time, “Gold.”
From somewhere in the aether Evelyn Zeck laughs, sounding just like the backfire of a diesel engine.
Copyright © by S.K.Epperson