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Joseph R. Quinlan
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Nobody Told Me Nothing

 

Joseph R. Quinlan

 

 

          “You might as well cooperate, friend, ‘cause let’s get something straight, this thing is only going to end one of two ways, bad or very bad, you decide which.”

          “I swear, I’m telling you guys everything I know.”

          “So far you ain’t told us nothing.”

          “Yes, exactly! Because I don’t know anything!”

          “That’s not our question.”

          “Not your ques-?”

          “Who did you meet under the bridge last night?”

          “Nobody.”

          “What were you doing there?”

          “Nothing.”

          “Nothing, huh?”

          “I couldn’t sleep; I went out for a walk.”

          “What keeps you up at night, friend?”

          “Nothing.”

          “Yeah, exactly. So this ‘nobody’ under the bridge, what did he look like?”

“He didn’t look like anything; nobody was there.”

          “Okay, good, we established something. You’re telling us something we already figured.  Nobody was there.  Go on.”

          “What do you mean, ‘go on’?  Nobody was there; nothing happened.”

          “That’s very interesting.  Did you actually witness nothing happening?”

          “Now you guys are just fucking with me.”

          “No, friend, let me assure you we’re quite serious. Please answer the question: Did you witness nothing happening?”

          “I didn’t witness anything. There wasn’t anything to witness. I was there by myself, just walking.”

          “Hold on, friend, let’s go back over your story. You already told us nobody was there with you.”

          “Yes, that’s right.”

          “So then you weren’t there by yourself.”

          “I wasn’t?  How do you figure?”

          “You were there with nobody.”

          “Yes, right, that’s what I’m saying.”

          “Looks like our friend wants to be cute, wants to go around in circles. Are you trying to be cute, friend?”

          “I’m not trying to be anything. I’m just trying to tell you guys what happened.”

          “So, were you alone, or were you there with nobody?”

          “What’s the difference?”

          “You tell us.”

          “You guys are crazy. I want a lawyer.”

 “Not an option, friend.”

          “I know my rights; if you’re charging me, I have a right to a lawyer.”

          “We’re charging you with nothing, and in that case, you don’t get a lawyer.”

          “If you’re not charging me, then let me go.”

          “Nobody said we weren’t charging you.”

          “Look, I’m confused. Can we take a break? Can I have a drink of water?”

          “Sure, friend, no problem, you can have as long a break as you want, just as soon as you answer a few more questions. . . .”

 


thepoisoning.jpg
Art by W. Jack Savage 2016

The Poisoning

by

Joseph R. Quinlan

 

My slovenly live-in housemaid enters the room, carrying the tray: two warm milks and two whiskey shots. This is our nightly custom. We sit together at the end of the day, pretend that we take some small pleasure in each other's company. Her habit is to take tiny sips of milk then whiskey; one then the other then the other, on and on, back and forth, until there is perhaps a tenth part of each liquid in each glass, which she will not finish. It drives me mad. Why can she never finish a drink?

My habit is as follows: I sip once from the milk. It is pleasantly warm and it coats my stomach. I sip once from the whiskey to taste, to enjoy. Then I throw the rest down. To experience the satisfying burn of it, I tell myself; but really there is no pleasure in drink for me anymore: I'm simply trying to imitate myself as a younger man. Then I finish off the rapidly cooling milk in a few quick swallows; it ameliorates the conflagration I have started in my belly.

Tonight I notice her taking too much care over which glass of warm milk is at which end of the tray. When has she ever taken such care over anything? The phone happens to ring and she ambles off to answer it. Just as a lark, because the odd notion has flitted into my head that maybe she's planning to poison me, I switch the milk glasses, while I watch her slumped shoulders and her over-padded rear leave the room.

Her name is Pearl. She prefers to be called Pearl, I should say. Her real first name is Margaret: that is the name that appears on the check I write to her every month. (Actually, she fills out the check; I merely sign it.) If she would lose some weight, about twenty pounds, it might be a pleasure to look at her ass on the way out of a room. The two of us could perhaps make a game of her slovenliness; I could take her over my knee from time to time...

I call her neither Pearl nor Margaret. A pearl is a thing of grace and beauty; there is nothing pearl-like about her. And Margaret is a name I have always associated with strong-willed women, women of character. When I address my housemaid, I call her Miss James. In my mind, I think of her contemptuously as Maggie. She calls me interchangeably Mr. Zachary and Mr. Zachariah. My name is Zachary Zachariah. I think she has always been a little confused by that.

It is a political season and the call, she reports, was some kind of campaign fundraiser disguised as a survey. I do not ask Maggie if or how she answered the survey, or if she pledged any money on my behalf.

She sits down across from me and she raises her glass of barely-warm milk, as I raise mine to hers, and her dull muddy eyes gleam for just an instant, her small teeth flash in an unaccustomed smile. We both sip. I make my usual comments about the weather. Not that I pay any attention to the weather: it’s just something that vaguely happens outside the closed, draped window of my study throughout the course of the day. But what else is there to talk about with a girl like Maggie? 

I take my first sip of whiskey. She sips and sips: tiny sips. I toss back the rest of the shot. I send the milk, now almost at room temperature, dribbling down my throat in small doses. She's watching me with an eager happiness, a contentedness I have never seen from her before. She throws back her own shot all of a sudden like an old hand. She follows with her glass of milk, mostly still full, gulping excitedly.  It’s all quite out of the ordinary. A moment passes. Her eyes bulge in excruciating pain and, after some casting about, comical and dreadful at the same time, she collapses, convulses, dies.

I sit looking at her for a long time. Her skirt has ridden up partway on her stout legs, so that one knee is exposed. Her right shoe has fallen off. There is a hole in the heel of her stocking. The whites of her staring eyes have turned red, and her lips are a ghastly blue. Against all reason, I keep expecting her to pop up and announce that it was a prank.

“What just happened?” I ask myself or maybe I’m asking the corpse on the floor. “Could there really have been poison in the milk?” It’s absurd, impossible.  “Was it a heart attack?” But what are the odds? Maggie was young – well, youngish – and despite being overweight I assume she was otherwise healthy. So, a heart attack was unlikely to start with, and then for it to happen just as she drank a glassful of milk that I had playfully imagined to be poisoned…it’s too strange a coincidence. Still, I find myself asking again, “Was it a heart attack?”  

Maggie is no help at all.

I lift myself wearily to my feet, using my arms to push myself up as much as my legs. Somehow or another she managed to set her milk glass down on the side table next to her chair, and the glass managed to remain standing while she thrashed about. I pick up the glass and sniff. Is there a faintly bitter smell? I think so, but I’m not sure. I carry the glass back to my chair, stepping carefully around the body. I sniff my own milk glass, then the other, then mine, then the other, back and forth. I think there’s a difference but I’m still not sure.

If I call the police and it turns out she was poisoned, of course they will assume that I poisoned her. Who else could have done it? I’ll be arrested; I’ll have to stand trial. I’m too old and frail and too preoccupied with my work to go through something like that. But what can I do? Even if I could remove her from this apartment without being seen, even if I knew of a place to deposit her, Maggie is – or was – a big girl. I have trouble carrying more than two books at a time from my library to my study.

I need time to think. While I’m thinking, I go into the kitchen. If she put poison into the milk, there must be a container for the poison somewhere about. I look all over the kitchen, even in the trash, but I can’t find anything out of place.        

It’s a big kitchen. It’s a big apartment, a relic from another life, far more than I have needed for some decades, if there ever was a true need. But all my books are here, my vast collection. All of my best writing has been done here. (Yes, I am that Zachary Zachariah, the author of all those thunderous, inspiring, heart-pounding, war-torn best-sellers: a lonely man always, a recluse in his later years – a not very pleasant recluse, I suddenly am forced to admit – who never served a day in the military and who never came anywhere close to an actual battlefield. What can I say?...I’m a good researcher, or the reading public is easily duped, or perhaps both.)    

I wander back to the sitting room where Maggie is sprawled on the floor. I notice she is wearing a sweater with pockets. I check the pockets. Maggie’s corpse chooses that moment to belch. I’m on my knees and I fall over backward, startled, frightened for an instant. But I know perfectly well from all my research that dead bodies sometimes do that. I catch a strong whiff of that bitter smell. I can almost taste it. I slowly collect myself from the floor, checking to see if I am injured. I don’t think I am.

Maggie’s pockets were empty.

In her purse, hanging from a hook beside the entry door, I find a vial made of brown glass. It contains the slightest trace of a clear liquid and, when I remove the cap, the distinctive bitter smell is quite strong. My hand begins to shake; I put the vial back inside her purse, afraid that I will drop it. My God, she had intended to poison me! I ought to be the one dead on the floor – saved by the merest passing whim.

In the sitting room again, I sit where she sat, I look at her. Her face has lost all its color, has become a grimacing, pallid death mask. “Why did you want to do it?” I ask her. “Was I as terrible as all that?” I want to believe that I was not, want to claim that I never raised my voice to her, never derided her or belittled her, never directly, never in so many words, no matter how sorely I was tempted – no, I always kept my cutting remarks, my unkind observations subtly below the surface, believing Maggie too unimaginative, too uninquisitive, too dense to ever understand that levels of communication might exist below the surface. How cruel I must have been in my misjudgment of her.

A thought occurs to me. I ask Maggie, “How were you going to dispose of me?” Silence. “You weren’t going to just leave me here and walk away for good, were you? No, of course not. You would have been sought for murder, you must have known that. Surely, you weren’t going to call the police and try to pretend I’d died of a heart attack – too risky: even a casual examination of the body would probably have revealed the true cause of death. What were you going to do?”

I get up, go back to her handbag on the hook beside the door, rifle through it for more clues. Nothing. The bag seems to be full of damp tissues, as if she suffered from allergies. Did she suffer from allergies? I try to remember but it’s no use – I never paid attention.

I find myself back in the sitting room, not sure how I got here. I am talking to the poor dead girl again. “And another thing – okay I get it, I treated you badly, you probably hated me – but could that be sufficient reason to do a thing like this?  No, of course not, it’s obvious, surely even you can see that. If that was your only reason, why didn’t you just walk out the door, go find another job? No, there has to be something else.”

And I think I’m beginning to see what that something else must be. Maggie always screened my mail. There were always lots of documents coming in from my attorney or from my literary agent, things I had to sign. I hardly looked at any of it. It would have been so easy for Maggie to slip in something extra, like a fake will leaving everything to her. It has to be something like that.

I rise again from my chair and shuffle back toward Maggie’s narrow room at the end of the main corridor. On the way, it also occurs to me that she probably has an accomplice. Some man who was going to help her dispose of my body. One way or another they were going to carry me out of here, dump me in the river or someplace, then report me missing. Maggie could claim that I was growing more and more confused and that, although she tried her best to keep me safely indoors, I sometimes wandered out on my own. I can easily imagine the stories she must have been planning to make up about me, can practically hear that annoyingly ponderous, mournful voice of hers.

All I have to do is find the fake will. Then I can call the police. Then I’ll have evidence to back up my story. They’ll be able to see what her motive was for trying to kill me. Or maybe I’ll find she kept a cell phone in her room. (It seems everybody nowadays has a cell phone; personally, I have no use for them.) Maybe there will be a voicemail message from her accomplice: “Did you do it? Did you kill the old coot? When should I come over?” That would be even better evidence than the fake will.

I find no cell phone in her room. I do find a drawer full of papers. This seems promising. I have to shuffle all the way down the corridor to my study for a pair of reading glasses, then all the way back. Along the way, randomly, as such memories come into my head nowadays, I remember a picnic lunch eaten long ago on vacation in the English countryside. My third wife was there with her young son, who idolized me at the time (oh how rapidly his idolization faded), along with my daughter from my second marriage, a glaring, sullen teenager. We stopped for shelter from the sun under one of those peculiar outcroppings of rock called “tors” by the locals. I recall watching great gliding birds circling high overhead and wondering what species they were. The meal was utterly simple: bread and cheese and, as I recall, a raw onion – that was my third wife’s idea of culinary excellence.  If I did not specifically complain, I’m sure I let my unhappiness be known in some way. We must have hiked for miles that day. 

For me now, back and forth along this corridor is a very long walk, and the big, empty apartment brings back memories of all the people who once lived here, people whom I have driven out of my life. Poor, dead Maggie is only the latest of a long line: all the others exited less drastically.

The papers are not what I expected. They are handwritten, some kind of diary. Or, actually, what they appear to be is an interminable love letter, written in the hand and the voice of a simpleton, sometimes to, sometimes about a person named Z. They are full of nonsense, ungrammatical nonsense at that. “Z is my hearts [sic] desire.”  “…Z is who [sic] I was put on this earth to find.”  “Z treats me cold [sic] but I now [sic] hes [sic] only hiding his true feelings.”

Painful as it is, I keep reading.  There has to be something in all of this to incriminate her. Finally, toward the end, I come across: He confuses me the way he treats me I wish he could stop pretending and just say he loves me like I love him.  Today I finlly saw why. We cant be lovers in this world we are too far apart because of our age. We hav to go to the next world. Tonight I will poison him and me both and when we meet on the other side it will al be as it is supposed to be.  There will be no miscommunication between us no more. I will understand him compleat and he will understand me. We’ll be together forever in that next life which is eternity so it will be either heaven or hell.

At some point, reading has become listening. Maggie is speaking those words to me. I turn and find her standing in the doorway, shoulders slumped, her face still a horrid death mask.

“You poisoned both drinks,” I say.

“Yes, it took you forever to die,” she says, moving toward me, her hands becoming talons.

“I didn’t want to.”

“I see that now,” she screams.



escapeartist.jpg
Art by John Thompson 2016

The Escape Artist

Joseph R. Quinlan

 

          "All I'm asking is what's the reason. I'd appreciate it if you would tell me the reason."

          The three of us walked further out into the marsh.

          Burke 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.

          Burke said, "We told ya' before, go ahead."

          "I don't want to pee my pants."

          "Sorry, pal, I ain't interested in taking your thing out for you."

          "Me neither," I said.

          "Just untie my hands for a minute. Just to let me pee."

          "Sorry, pal," Burke said.

          "I probably couldn't pee anyway with you guys standing right next to me."

          I said, "I'm like that, too."

          Burke said, "We're almost there."

          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 reason."

          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.

          Our 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, almost brown.

          "I think I'm going to be sick."

          Burke said, "Go ahead."

          The marsh grass hardly showed a ripple, the breeze was so soft and so steady.

          "Bet 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.

          Porter jumped straight up in the air. "A snake!" he screeched and dropped out of sight.

          Burke 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?"

          "No."

          Burke 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."

          Nothing.

          "The bastard bit me," Burke said.

          "You sure it was him? Might’a been a snake."

          "Where's the shovel?"

          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.

          He 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."

          We 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 misdirect us."

          "How'd he throw something with his hands tied?" I asked.

          A 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.

          I could hear Burke beating through the grass, huffing. "Where you at?"

          "Here!"

          "You got him?"

          "Yeah."

          "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.

          "Where's the light?"

          One-handed, I flipped the switch back and forth, rattled the flashlight.

          "Broke."

          "Pull him up."

          When we were all standing, Burke said, "Gimme the light." 

          I gave him the light.

          "Well, 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.

          I said, "Jeez, Burke, take it easy."

          "Bastard bit me."

          "We're still taking him to the trees, though, right?"

          "That's where we're taking him."

          "Well, do you want to carry him?"

          Burke kicked him in the gut, and Porter doubled over, grunting.

          "We'll fucking drag him if we have to," Burke said.

          "Take it easy. You got him back; you're even now."

          "Bastard thinks he can go around biting people."

          "I'm 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.

          "Let's 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.

          "How'd you throw that rock with your hands tied?" I asked.

          No answer.

          "D'ya use your feet?"

          Nothing.

          "This guy's like a Houdini or something, a regular escape artist.  Burke, you think he used his feet?"

          "Shut up, Clinch."

          "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 him. 

          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?"

          Like maybe they can make friends with one of the bad guys. Let him think it.

          "I 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."

          Porter laughed heartily. "Good one," he said. "That sure was a good one."

          "Yeah 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.

          Porter said, "Look, I apologize for all that back there, trying to get away and all that. I'm really sorry."

          "Forget about it," I told him. "Keep walking; we're almost there."

          "Could you guys please do me one favor?"

          "What's that?"

          "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?"

          "Let us think about it a minute, how about that?"

          "Sure sure, think about it."

          "Kneel down right here."

          "Kneel down?"

          "Yeah, right here."

          "Why do I have to kneel down?"

          "So we know you won't run away while we're thinking about it."

          Porter knelt.

          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?"

          I 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 his jawbone. 

          Porter fell, screaming. Blood erupted from his face.

          "What the fuck is the matter with you?" I yelped.

          But 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.    

          Porter's screams turned to strangled moans.

          Burke lifted the shovel handle by stepping on the blade. "Here," he said to me; "dig."

          "That was too much noise," I said. "Someone might come looking."

          "The gun shots hardly made it past the trees."

          "The screaming, I'm talking about."

          “Did he scream? I didn’t hear it.”

          “Of course he screamed.”

          "He ain't screaming now, is he?"

          "He might start again any minute."

          "Nobody comes out here. Nobody heard nothing. Dig."

          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, sweet wine.   

          Porter was curled into a ball. Burke gave him a vicious kick in his spine.

          "Don't hide your face, prick."

          "Jeez, Burke," I said.

          Another kick, this one in the kidney. Porter gave an involuntary, almost childish cry. 

          "You just peed yourself, didn't you?" I asked.

          Porter said nothing.

          "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. 

          Also, 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.

          I 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."

          "Let him suffer. Teach him not to go around biting people."

          Blood 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.

          "Porter," 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.

          Porter 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.

          "Okay," I said, standing in the hole, "it's done. Give me a hand out of this."

          The 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.

          "Let me see that shovel one more time."

          "Nothing doing, Burke. Shoot him."

          Burke held his hand out to me but I wouldn't budge.

          "Then let's put him in the hole first."

          "Jeez, Burke, just shoot him."

          "Put 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 of urine.

          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.

          I 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 this?"

          "In confession."

          "You tell this stuff in confession?"

          "Sure. Murder's a bad sin. I don't want things like that on my soul."

          "I can't believe you tell this stuff in confession."

          "It's confession, for Christsake. The priest can't say nothing to nobody.  He takes, like, a sacramental oath or something.”

          "And what do you say exactly?"

          Porter’s quiet sobs were starting to get on my nerves.

          "Nothing 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."

          “What’s the good of getting forgiveness under false pretenses?”

          “I don’t know. I figure it’s better to get some kind of forgiveness than none at all.”

          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, low blubbering. 

          Burke 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.

          Porter 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.

          The 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.  

          Burke 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.

          "What was that?" Burke said and we froze but there was nothing. We were both spooked.

          I 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."

          "Wish we had that flashlight. Can you tell if he's breathing?"

          Burke 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.

          "I don't think I want to work with you anymore," he said.

          I 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 said.

          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." 

          "Sure," 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. 

          I 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."


Joseph R. 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 Mama!

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