The Escape Artist
Joseph R. Quinlan
I'm asking is what's the reason. I'd appreciate it if you would tell me the reason."
three of us walked further out into the marsh.
said, "Pal, you been real cooperative. Me and Clinch appreciate that. If I knew the reason,
I'd tell 'ya. No kidding."
We were heading toward a dark mass on the shadowy landscape, a low clump of tangled
trees. I carried a flashlight, a big heavy club of a light: good for seeing and good for
hitting people over the head. But we didn't need it, not for either purpose so far. A lopsided
moon was rising behind us. It wasn’t
exactly full but pretty close. We could see just fine. Our pal was being cooperative.
Also I carried a shovel.
"I really got to pee," he said.
said, "We told ya' before, go ahead."
don't want to pee my pants."
"Sorry, pal, I ain't interested in taking your thing out for you."
neither," I said.
"Just untie my hands for a minute. Just to let me pee."
pal," Burke said.
"I probably couldn't pee anyway with you guys standing right next to me."
said, "I'm like that, too."
Burke said, "We're almost there."
was a warm, steady breeze coming in off the Sound, and so far the gnats and mosquitoes
hadn't found us.
I said, "They don't
tell us nothing. It's just: Here's a job to do, go do it.
Don't ask no questions."
"I don't understand how you could do this to another person without knowing the
Burke probably was sending me dirty looks I couldn't see in the moonlight for getting
our pal started on reasons again. Personally, I think it's good to keep them talking: if
you let them brood they tend to get panicky.
pal's name was Porter. I never heard if it was his first name or his last. He looked small
walking between me and Burke, but we're big guys.
Porter was medium height, wiry. The top of his head was bald and shiny, like it
was polished. What little hair he had around his ears was neatly trimmed, dark red,
"I think I'm going to be sick."
said, "Go ahead."
The marsh grass hardly showed a ripple, the breeze was so soft and so steady.
there's snakes out here."
Burke said, "Don't worry."
Easy for him, with his boots up over his ankles and his heavy khaki pants. I should
have known something like this was on the agenda as soon as I saw what Burke was wearing.
Me, I had on suit pants, regular flat-soled street shoes, thin argyle socks. I thought
we were doing collections tonight.
"All kinds of scary things out here," I said.
jumped straight up in the air. "A snake!" he screeched and dropped out of sight.
was faster than me. He threw himself down on top of the guy. I let the shovel fall off my shoulder as I fumbled with the flashlight.
The marsh grass thrashed wildly. Burke said, "Shit!" Then, "Clinch, you got him?"
sprang up out of the grass. "Bastard got away. Shine that light around. He's got to be
close by. Stand still—we'll hear him moving in the grass."
bastard bit me," Burke said.
"You sure it was him? Might’a been a snake."
I played the light around at my feet and came up with it. I handed the shovel to
Burke and he planted it firmly in the ground.
whispered like he was in church. "We're going to start circling this spot. Work our way
out from it. Very slowly. Listen for him. That's how we're going to catch him. He's got
to be close and he's going to have to move."
crept in ever-widening circles, staying on opposite sides of the shovel. It was maddening
trying to listen through the sound of the breeze and the hypnotically swaying marsh grass.
There was a thump, barely audible, in the vicinity of the shovel. I turned toward it, but
Burke called, "Don't move! He threw something. One of us is close to him. He's trying to
"How'd he throw something with his hands tied?" I asked.
shadow streaked through the grass beside me. I swung the light around and caught Porter
with the beam. He ran, crouched, his hands secured behind his back. No question, he would
have been faster than me without his hands tied. I chased him down and tackled him. As
we hit the ground, the flashlight went out.
could hear Burke beating through the grass, huffing. "Where you at?"
"Where? Keep talking."
Porter lay perfectly still. I sat across his legs, breathing hard, and held the
rope that bound his wrists. Maybe he felt me relax or something. All of a sudden, his body
writhed and whipped in a furious effort to escape. I was surprised how strong he was. But
I was too heavy for him, and he didn't have the use of his hands. He couldn't get his
legs out from under me fast enough.
"No you don't," I said, bending his arms back until he gasped. He went limp.
Burke's pale shadow fell across the two of us.
One-handed, I flipped the switch back and forth, rattled the flashlight.
When we were all standing, Burke said, "Gimme the light."
I gave him the light.
this suit's ruined," I said.
Burke said, "Hold him."
Before I knew what was coming, Burke clubbed him across the temple. Porter sank
to his knees without a sound, me holding onto the line at his wrists.
said, "Jeez, Burke, take it easy."
"Bastard bit me."
"We're still taking him to the trees, though, right?"
where we're taking him."
"Well, do you want to carry him?"
kicked him in the gut, and Porter doubled over, grunting.
fucking drag him if we have to," Burke said.
it easy. You got him back; you're even now."
thinks he can go around biting people."
not dragging nobody," I said.
I pulled Porter off the ground. He took small, wheezing breaths. I started marching
him toward the trees, keeping him on the side of me away from Burke.
do what we came here to do."
Burke said, "We got to go back for the shovel first."
Burke had a good sense of direction and led us right back to the shovel. Then we
headed for the trees.
you throw that rock with your hands tied?" I asked.
"D'ya use your feet?"
"This guy's like a Houdini or something, a regular escape artist. Burke, you think he used his feet?"
"I'm just wondering."
We were almost to the trees. Porter's breathing was back to normal. He was looking all around him, his head swiveling one way then the
other. Not so much nervous as excited, like
he was expecting an infantry division to spring up out of the grass and rescue
Some guys get like that. They can't accept what's going to happen. They think we're joking. Or it's a test—of loyalty or courage
or whatever. Or they think some miracle's
going to save them.
"How come they call you Clinch?"
maybe they can make friends with one of the bad guys. Let him think it.
used to box. Wasn't no good. Couldn't keep my hands up. Used to get in a clinch all the
time to run out the clock, keep from getting beat up so bad. Finally wised up and found
something else to do."
Burke said, "Not soon enough from the looks of your face."
laughed heartily. "Good one," he said. "That sure was a good one."
right," Burke said.
I said, "Well, here we are."
We ducked in under the first low trees. A few feet in, things opened up and we could
stand up straight. There was a buzz of insects. It was a lot darker under the trees.
said, "Look, I apologize for all that back there, trying to get away and all that. I'm
"Forget about it," I told him. "Keep walking; we're almost there."
you guys please do me one favor?"
"Could you please let me write a note to my kids? I got two kids. A little boy and
a little girl. Just a quick note to tell them good-bye and Daddy loves them. I swear I
won't try to get away. You guys got kids?"
us think about it a minute, how about that?"
sure, think about it."
"Kneel down right here."
"Yeah, right here."
"Why do I have to kneel down?"
we know you won't run away while we're thinking about it."
Burke carried the gun. He kept it in a holster under his armpit. A silencer of some
kind would already be attached. He always used a different gun for each job, never anything
bigger than a .38, always got rid of it later.
Burke said, "Hey, Clinch let me see that shovel a minute, okay?"
handed him the shovel.
Burke stepped in front of Porter, reared back with the shovel like a home run hitter
and swung the blade of the shovel edge-on into Porter's face, aiming for his mouth. By
then my eyes were adjusted pretty good to the dim light and I guess Porter's were, too.
He saw it coming. He tried to turn out of the way, and the shovel split his cheek above
Porter fell, screaming. Blood erupted from his face.
the fuck is the matter with you?" I yelped.
Burke ignored me. He dropped the shovel and pulled out the gun. With deliberate care he shot Porter, first in one knee, then the other.
Burke hit him a little high in the first knee, the right one. The bullet must have caught
the side of Porter's lower thigh: a tear appeared in his pants leg. The second bullet hit
square on the mark. Cartilage and bone splattered.
screams turned to strangled moans.
Burke lifted the shovel handle by stepping on the blade. "Here," he said to me;
"That was too much noise," I said. "Someone might come looking."
gun shots hardly made it past the trees."
screaming, I'm talking about."
“Did he scream? I didn’t hear it.”
course he screamed.”
"He ain't screaming now, is he?"
might start again any minute."
"Nobody comes out here. Nobody heard nothing.
I took the shovel. "This ain't how we do things,
Burke. This ain't professional."
Burke poked around for the two spent shells.
"Wish that light was working," he said. Porter continued to moan. Mosquitoes converged
on us from all over the marsh.
"The sooner you get that hole dug the sooner
we can get out of here."
The ground was damp and loamy: easy digging.
One of the reasons we picked this spot. The earth was black as ink and smelled like stale,
was curled into a ball. Burke gave him a vicious kick in his spine.
hide your face, prick."
"Jeez, Burke," I said.
Another kick, this one in the kidney. Porter
gave an involuntary, almost childish cry.
just peed yourself, didn't you?" I asked.
"It's okay. It happens."
Burke said to him, "Keep your eyes open, you
son of a bitch. I want you to watch that hole getting dug. I want you to think about being
down in that hole."
The hole was taking shape. It was maybe three
feet across, big enough to stuff a guy in. It was already about a foot deep. Usually we
went four feet or so.
I say usually. In fact, this was only the second
or third time we'd done a job like this by land. Usually we took guys out on a boat. A
little fishing boat that belonged to my uncle. Usually we had them blindfolded, hands and
feet tied. Sometimes we drugged them. We'd take them out a few miles: sit them up (so as
not to be aiming the gun at the deck), two quick bullets in the back of the head, stuff
them in a sack, weight it down, toss them over the side, hose down the boat on the way
to shore. Very clean. But my uncle had taken the boat to Florida to do some real fishing.
And this was a job that couldn't wait.
don't get the idea we did this kind of thing all the time. We did maybe four or five jobs
like this in a year. Guys who deserved it, guys who had screwed up badly. Obviously. Or
else it wouldn't have come to this.
never liked doing this kind of thing and I never saw Burke take any pleasure in it either.
It was just a job we were sometimes called upon to do—unpleasant but unavoidable,
given the nature of our business. I never saw any moral advantage in refusing the work.
If we didn't do it, someone else would. As far as the guy getting killed was concerned,
the outcome was the same.
I said to Burke, "Would you blow his brains
out, please. I really don't like him looking at me."
him suffer. Teach him not to go around biting people."
and saliva and pieces of broken teeth oozed out of the long gash that was now Porter's
mouth. I couldn't easily see them, but I could hear the cloud of mosquitoes that swarmed
around his head. His eyes glittered in the dim moonlight, wide open.
I said, "scream. If you scream, he'll have to kill you. It'll all be over. There
won't be any more pain."
I could only see the shine of his eyes, but
it seemed to me that he was encouraged, that he would scream. He reminded me of a kid I
once saw, alone in a group of rambunctious children, trying to work up the nerve to jump
across a creek. It was a narrow creek, an easy jump. The others hurled themselves across
without a thought or a care. But something held this one back. Fear of landing in the water,
maybe. What else could it have been? He never
jumped, that kid. He stood beside the creek, hopping madly from one foot to the other,
working his arms back and forth, but he never jumped.
The other kids jeered and taunted; he never jumped.
couldn't bring himself to scream.
I'd like to say I dug the hole in record time.
That's not really how it was. Digging's hard work, especially when you're not in shape
for it. I went a little faster than usual, but mostly because I was spooked about all the
noise we'd made. I was anxious to get finished and get away from that place. Also, the mosquitoes were an inconvenience, and the digging had stirred
up some gnats, although mostly they concentrated on Porter. I dug steadily, but
I took a few breaks. Porter had an out, if he wanted to use it.
Burke didn't help with the digging at all.
I said, standing in the hole, "it's done. Give me a hand out of this."
ground was so wet that water was already seeping into the bottom of the hole. My shoes
were filling up with it. Burke helped pull me out.
me see that shovel one more time."
"Nothing doing, Burke. Shoot him."
held his hand out to me but I wouldn't budge.
let's put him in the hole first."
"Jeez, Burke, just shoot him."
him in the hole."
Burke stepped to Porter and grabbed him by the
back of his shirt collar.
"Come on," he said.
Porter kept glancing back and forth between
Burke and me, like there was an invisible game of ping-pong going on between us. His eyes
were alert and bright with fear.
I laid down the shovel out of Burke's reach
and took Porter by the ankles. His left knee crackled. "Owowowww," he said. He smelled
I eased his legs over the edge of the hole and
Burke, jerking on his collar, spilled him in.
His legs buckled under him, and Porter wound
up sitting in the hole more or less Indian-style. It must have hurt terribly with both
legs shot and at least one knee blasted, but the only sound that came from him was a kind
of choking sob.
"Cover him up," Burke said.
couldn't believe my ears.
Burke said, "Do it."
"Tell you what," I said; "I'll hold the gun
and you cover him up."
"Nah, you'll shoot him."
"Damn right I will."
"Cover him up."
"Look, Burke, it's one thing to kill a guy,
it's a whole other thing to torture him to death. That's what this is. No priest is ever
going to forgive this."
"What do you mean, no priest is going to forgive
"You tell this stuff in confession?"
Murder's a bad sin. I don't want things like that on my soul."
can't believe you tell this stuff in confession."
confession, for Christsake. The priest can't say nothing to nobody. He takes, like, a sacramental oath or
"And what do you say exactly?"
quiet sobs were starting to get on my nerves.
specific, don’t worry. I just say bless me, Father, I killed somebody. But I can’t
divulge no details. Sometimes I gotta say something like: this was the first time I was
ever called on to do such a thing, and my own life was at stake, and I swear I'll never
do it again."
"But that's a lie."
"Well, sure. But I don't think the priest would
give me forgiveness if he knew this was a regular thing."
the good of getting forgiveness under false pretenses?”
don’t know. I figure it’s better to get some kind of forgiveness than none
Burke slapped at a mosquito on his neck. "I
don't believe I'm hearing this."
Porter's sobs of pain had turned into a steady,
tensed, turned his head. Then I heard it, too. Voices. We couldn't tell how close they
were or in what direction. I glanced at Porter. I didn’t think he could hear them,
being down in the hole.
Burke quickly took off his windbreaker, wound
it several times around his gun hand, and reached into the hole. Porter struggled to get
away from Burke. Burke tried to position the gun behind Porter at the base of his skull.
Porter continued to struggle, his breathing was quick and ragged. The best Burke could
do was to lay the gun beside Porter's neck and aim slightly upward. He fired once.
stiffened and his head shook like the tip of a car antenna after a sudden stop. Then he
slumped against the side of the hole, rubbing his forehead into the dirt.
gun had made very little noise. Burke and I crouched beside the hole, listening. The voices
continued. That was a good sign: they probably hadn't heard the shot. I could make out
at least two people, maybe three. Their voices
sounded young. A boy and a girl or two boys and a girl. Then we heard a plunk,
like an oar plashing in water, a giggle, and then several clear oar strokes. We
turned toward the sound. Sure enough, they were out there. In a small rowboat. At
least a quarter of a mile away. Their voices carrying clear over the water. I
still couldn't tell if there were two or three of them.
let the windbreaker fall off his hand into the hole. Blood was splattered all over it.
We watched the rowboat glide out of sight and waited until we couldn't hear the faintest
hint of the oars. The mosquitoes were swarming us like they had swarmed Porter. "Damn
bugs," Burke said. I started shoveling dirt into the hole.
was that?" Burke said and we froze but there was nothing. We were both spooked.
threw another shovelful of dirt, heard another phantom tick. I said, "I think it's him;
I think he's still moving."
"Cover him up and let's get out of here."
we had that flashlight. Can you tell if he's breathing?"
had replaced the gun in its holster. He snatched the shovel out of my hands and rapidly
filled the hole. When he had Porter covered with about a foot of loose dirt, Burke jumped
down into the hole and packed it with his feet. It made me sick to see how far down the
dirt moved. Then Burke clambered out, threw in more dirt, packed it down hard
and kept working furiously until all the dirt was back in the hole.
I carried the shovel back to the car. Burke
sucked air like a racehorse. It took him
a long time to catch his breath. I had no idea where the car was, but Burke marched forward
through the marsh grass without the slightest doubt.
don't think I want to work with you anymore," he said.
thought about the gun in his holster, about how many shots he had fired, and how many bullets
he probably had left.
"I don't want to work with you no more, neither,"
I had the flashlight in my right hand and the
shovel across my left shoulder.
"No hard feelings," Burke said. His tone sounded
fake. "Okay? I'm just weirded out about
the whole confession thing."
I said. "No hard feelings."
The moon was near the top of the sky, glowing
at the center of an enormous hazy misshapen halo.
My socks were soaked. My shoes were full of
water. I was getting blisters on my heels.
said, "A lot of snakes out here, I bet."
After a while Burke said, "Don't worry, they
got really good senses. They get out of the
way when they know people are coming."
Quinlan lives in Asheville, NC. His work has appeared in Zahir, The Leading Edge, Space &
Time, "A La Carte" (a
Main Street Rag anthology)—and Yellow