Yellow Mama Archives II

Kenneth James Crist

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Zimmerman, Thomas
Zumpe, Lee Clark

Vickie’s Revenge

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

I was just remembering what it used to be like, making love to Vickie. I don’t know what it was, but she would really get into it. She loved it when I used to eat her pussy and then when we got into the actual fucking, she would get her ankles clear up on my shoulders and reach back and grab the headboard so I could get in deeper. She liked to yell when she came, too.

And now, here she was, sitting across from me in the booth at the Doo-Dah Diner in downtown Wichita. Even though she’d been dead for eleven years. And I’d have to say, she looked really good. Hadn’t aged a bit.

To say I was a little disconcerted would be an understatement, and when she just suddenly appeared and sashayed her fine ass over to the booth and plopped down, it was a bit scary.

It wasn’t like I’d heard rumors of her death or anything. Actually, I’d killed her, and her body was still hidden out in a field in Kingman County.

“So, Chuck, how the fuck are ya?” Her eyes were aglitter with a combination of malice and glee that seemed somehow—well, unholy was the only term that really filled the bill. But I wasn’t about to back off from her. I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. . . .

“I’m great, Vickie. Looks like you’re doing well. . . .”

“You mean for being, like, dead?” Her smile widened and she batted her long eyelashes at me.

“Yeah, well, now that you bring it up, yeah, you look great for a deceased person.”

“Deceased person. Don’t you mean fucking murdered, Chuck?”

“Tell me, Vickie, how is this possible? I mean, I never believed in life after death, and all that bullshit. I didn’t think you did, either.”

“I’m manifesting, Chuck. Spirits do it all the time. You mortals just don’t realize you’re seeing dead people, because we look just like we did when we were alive. Before some cocksucker murdered us.”

“So, you’re saying after you cross over, you can just come back whenever you like?”

“No, Chuck, after you’re murdered, you have to build up energy and you have to learn how it’s done. Some people never get the hang of it. Some, like me, get it real early and can spend hours on this side. I’m getting stronger all the time.” She demonstrated by picking up my steak knife and cutting the back of my hand with a quick swipe before I could move it away. She gave a cute little giggle that ended in a snort. Something else she used to do when we were playing in bed. . . .

“Ouch! Goddamn, Vickie, that hurt. . . .”

“What? Don’t you think it hurt when you smacked me in the head with a claw hammer, you fuck?”

Obviously, she was still upset about the fact that I’d killed her. Then she spoke again.

“You know what I really miss, though, Chuck? I miss sex. I used to really like getting my brains humped out, even when we were mad at each other, the sex was always good.”

“Yeah, it was.” I was playing to her now, as I stanched my bleeding with a couple napkins. “I miss that, too, Vick.” I had always called her Vick, especially in the throes of passion. At the same time, I was beginning to wonder if everyone else in the restaurant could see her. Because nobody seemed bothered and if they had seen me having a conversation with empty air, they surely would have been.

“When you . . . manifest?”

“Yeah?”

“Can, like, everybody see you?”

“Sure, if I want them to.”

“And if you don’t want them to?”

“I can be all the way from visible and solid to a mere shadow, to completely invisible. Like I said, I’m getting really good at it. I gotta hit the can. . . .”

She got up from the table and hiked her cute little ass back to the restrooms and I finished my coffee. I had lost my appetite for the rest of my breakfast. I waited a while and then it began to dawn on me that she wasn’t coming back. Well, yeah, dumbass. Why would a fucking ghost have to go pee?

I got up from my table and walked back to the restrooms and, as a lady came out, I asked, “Is there anyone else in there?”

She looked at me suspiciously and then said, “No, why? You the janitor?”

I walked away. Went and paid my tab and left. Headed back to my house, roaring down Kellogg in my pickup with the rest of the traffic. Made it about three miles, when I felt the steering wheel start to pull to the right. As I wrestled for control, a pair of disembodied hands appeared on the wheel, hands with lacquered nails, bright red. Vickie’s hands. We fought for control for about fifteen seconds, then she let go and I heard that giggle again. The one with the snort at the end. Under my breath I muttered, “Crazy bitch. . . .”

And she said, “Sure am . . . fucker. . . .”

 

I didn’t see or hear from Vickie for almost a month. And I got to wondering about things. When I killed her, I’d set it up carefully. No killing in the house. I didn’t want evidence there. No killing in the car, either. Same reason. Plus, I really didn’t want to have to transport a body any distance. Too many ways to screw it up. But Vickie had always been kinky and one evening, I’d suggested, just for a change of pace, that we go out in the country and find a place to park and do the nasty. At first, she just laughed it off. Then, two hours later, she suddenly wanted to go out and “do it” somewhere. We put a couple blankets in the truck and took off.

There was a pipeline being built nineteen miles west of town. It would eventually carry crude oil from area wells all the way to Texas. I meandered around out in the country, finding and rejecting one place after another until we came to the place where the pipeline was going through. There were tractors and backhoes all over the place and, at night, nobody around. Union hours and rules, apparently. I pulled the truck out into the field and parked it where it was hidden from the road, and we got out with the blankets.

We had a final lovemaking session there in the dark, right beside the pipeline trench and when we’d finished, I stepped to the truck to get cigarettes and the hammer. As she smoked, sitting naked in the dark on an old Army blanket, I caught her a good one, square on top of the head with the claw end of the hammer.

 She never made a sound. Her breathing stopped and I rolled her and her clothes and purse up in the blanket and dumped her into the trench right beside the pipeline. The pipe itself had been welded another hundred yards past where we were, and the trench was being filled in when quitting time came. The workmen just shut everything off and left for the day.

I knew how to run a backhoe and it was a matter of ten minute’s work to fill in another ten feet of trench. Just enough to cover my girlfriend. The girlfriend who had become bossy, and nasty, and demanding, and no longer fun, except when we were screwing. Ten minutes after I shut off the backhoe, I was back to the nearest highway and headed home.

Now I wondered just what the dump site might look like. Was there any chance someone was going to find her? What if she manifested to some cop and told her story? I was pretty sure I was fucked, but I wasn’t going down without a fight. And I damn sure couldn’t kill Vickie again. . . .

That afternoon, I drove back out to where Vickie was buried. I sighed with relief when I saw it was now 160 acres of wheat, ripening and waving in the sunshine and the light Kansas breeze. Well, so much for that. I figured I could stop worrying, at least about someone digging her up.

Three days later, when I went out to get the morning paper, there was a story blasted all over the front page. Below the fold were pictures. Pictures of equipment out there digging up the field. Fuck. I figured Vickie must have spilled to the cops after all. Then I read the story all the way through and on page nine, after the jump, there was a picture taken by a pilot on climb-out from Eisenhower National Airport. It showed an aerial view of the wheatfield. The wheat had been mashed down into big letters that read: DEAD BODY HERE! It was as clear as those crop circles they’re always finding in England and the tip of the arrow was right on the slight indentation, still visible, where the pipeline was buried.

I knew with modern DNA techniques, it would be only a matter of days before the cops would be knocking on my door. I jumped up and went to find my passport and pack my shit.

I stuffed clothes into bags and loaded the pickup. Found my passport and headed down to the branch bank to get cash. I had to use the drive-up because of the god-damned Covid and when I hit the button, the voice sounded very familiar. And there, in the little video screen, the teller was Vickie. I was stunned. But then I played it cool and said, “I . . . I need a withdrawal slip, please. . . .”

“Sure. Gonna take off, are we? Ya know it won’t do any good, right?”

“Yeah, okay Vick, whatever you say. . . .”

I sent in the withdrawal slip, just about emptying out my savings account. Playing the role, she asked, “How would you like that, large bills?”

“Yes, please. . . .” Fuck. I was so screwed, and I knew it, but I had to try.

Ten minutes later, I was headed south toward the Mexican border. The closest place I could cross would be Brownsville, Texas. Halfway across Oklahoma, Vickie started manifesting right there in the truck. She would show up, just popping into existence there in the right-hand seat, telling me I was wasting my time.

Every time she manifested, she was wearing less clothing. First, it was a very brief sundress she used to wear that just about drove me nuts. It had no back at all, and barely covered her ass, the skirt being short and frilly, and she always wore it with thick, cork-soled shoes that showed off her legs to great advantage.

By the time I’d made the Texas border, she was manifesting in panties and her bra, and I have to admit, she looked damn good. Only trouble was, she smelled like a grave . . . it was turning me on and at the same time, giving me the creeps. . . .

“Ya might as well slow down and look for a place to park, Chuck. You know we’re gonna knock one out here, pretty soon, right?”

That’s what she used to call it, whenever we went for a quickie somewhere, “knocking one out.”

“I don’t think so, Vick. I’m sorry, but I’m not fucking a ghost and besides, you smell like grave dirt. . . .”

She turned a bit to her left and casually draped a long, pretty leg over mine and the grave-smell went away. Now she smelled like some perfume she used to use. It was called ‘Poison.’ She pointed off to the right, where a big oil pump was cranking away, and said, “How about right over there?”

I slowed the truck and pulled in and drove back on the narrow gravel road, parking behind the oil tanks. I shoved my seat all the way back and her panties and bra magically disappeared. Neat trick. She didn’t even have to take them off. She undid my pants, and in seconds she was straddling me, and we were definitely knocking one out.

And here’s the weird part. It was better than ever. It seemed like she had learned a few things and she kept me right on the edge for a good twenty minutes before she let me come. And when it was over, she disappeared and I had a big come-stain on my jeans, like she’d never been there at all. She didn’t manifest again until I got to the border station at Brownsville. Then it all came apart. . . .

I rolled up to the gate, half expecting trouble, and sure enough, I got it. Vickie was right there, in the uniform of the Mexican Federales. Backed up by about five or six more, all males and all with an attitude.

“Step outta da truck please, Senor!”

It was not a request. The tone of voice made it an order. This was from the second-biggest dickhead of the bunch. I immediately named him Fat Bastard in my head. Vickie looked on, amused. Every one of them was armed, some with American-made AR 15s, some with H&K MP5s. They all looked like they could hardly wait to shoot someone.

“Pliz pootcher hands on da fender, Sir . . .”

They patted me down, then took me into an office that smelled of piss, and vomit, and Lysol.

After I’d been in there a few minutes, Vickie came in. Didn’t bother to open the door, just walked through the wall and there she was. “Told ya it was a waste of time. Gasoline, too. You need to understand, you can’t go anywhere and get away from me. Not until I’m through with you. And I’ll never be through with you, Chuck.”

They confiscated my money, my pickup, and they also found the only gun I had in the truck. That right there was enough to get me thrown in a Mexican jail and held for Los Americanos.

The trip back to Kansas came four days later and I saw nothing of Vickie. I was stuck on a rattling, creaky old bus operated by the U.S Marshall’s Service and they do not fuck around. I was shackled and guarded with a shotgun all the way.

I was held in the Sedgwick County jail in Wichita, in lieu of one million dollars bond. I was considered a flight risk, you see. It took five months before my trial date came up and by that time, I figured I might as well just plead guilty and get started on my sentence. During those five months, Vickie never once came to see me. I think she was building up power. When I was taken to court, guess who was there?

Yup. She was right there in the courtroom in a Sheriff’s uniform, being a court guard. The whole deal took about twenty minutes. The judge, because of my cooperation and my plea, gave me thirty-five to life, with parole eligibility at fourteen years. Such a deal . . . and all the while, Vickie was smirking at me from over by the holding cell door. I might as well have married her. No divorce now, though. Sorry, that ship has sailed.

Now, I’m not that far from home. I’m in Super-Max at El Dorado, Kansas. I see Vickie just about every day. She manifests as a prison guard now just to torment me, and once in a while, when she shows up on night shift, she’ll walk through the bars and into my cell and give me a little . . . if I’m especially good . . . I can feel myself aging every day, my life slowly slipping away, but Vickie still looks just the same, young and pretty as ever. . . .


The Lunch Box

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

My name is Kerry Howland. My friends all call me Crank. I’m a retired cop and I do all the shit most retirees do, play a little golf, ride my motorcycle. And I have a hobby most guys don’t have. I kill fuckers who really need to be dead. How do I get away with that, you ask? Who better than a former homicide detective to be able to commit murders and slip quietly away? I do what the cops can’t and I get away with it every time. Well, so far…

I think the first time I ever wanted to kill someone was when I was eight years old. I was always a nerdy little fucker, and that meant that there was always a certain element of kids that delighted in picking on me. Not the really big kids that were at the top of the pecking order. They seldom even acknowledged the fact that I existed, and that was fine by me. Besides, I offered no challenge to them, and because I was so small and so pitiful, they could actually make themselves look bad by fucking with me.

But there was always a certain group of low-life little pricks that couldn't pass up the chance to make my life miserable. Like I said before, I was a farm kid, and in those days, that meant poor. Don't get me wrong, we always ate good, and our clothes were clean, even though they were patched, and probably hand-me-downs as well, but we didn't have a lot of money. What that usually meant was that the town kids had the shiny new bikes and the latest fad toys (remember hula hoops?) and I was lucky to get enough money at Christmas to buy a model kit.

When I was eight years old, in fact on my eighth birthday, my Grandfather bought me a new bicycle. It was a Wards 24-inch "Hawthorne", and it was beautiful. It had maroon paint and cream-colored pinstriping, and boy was I proud of that machine. I guess I'd had it about a week, and I'd gotten pretty good with it, when I took it to town for the first time.

I parked it in front of the little five and dime store and went in to browse through the comic book collection. In those days a dime would buy a comic book, and I had quite a few at home, dog-eared and tattered from constant reading. I was perusing the current Batman, when I glanced up through the grimy glass of the front window, and saw Bobby Hammond leaving on my bike.

I was momentarily frozen in place. I had never before been the victim of a crime, other than getting beat up and intimidated, but this was THEFT. Then I was out the door as fast as my short, skinny legs could carry me, and I found myself running after Bobby and screaming, “Stop! Stop, you bastard!”

 He did slow down some, but only so he could again speed up and stay just out of reach while he teased me along.

“You’d better stop, you little…little FUCK!” I screamed and yelled and raised hell for quite a while, I suppose. Today, it’s all a blur, but back then it was very real.

I must have chased that asshole for half an hour, until he tired of the game. By this time, I was threatening to call the law on his ass, and I don't think he really thought I would do it, as much as he just got tired of listening to my shit. Bobby was a blonde-headed bully of a town kid, and this wasn't the first time he'd picked on me. In fact, he usually made a habit of grabbing my hat, or going through my lunchbox almost every day. If there was a juicy mud puddle on the playground, there would be ol' Bobby, pushing smaller kids into it, and laughing at them when they cried.

Anyway, the place we were at by that time was the RAVINE. Most every kid in town was forbidden to go there, especially around or on the railroad trestle that crossed it. But, like I say, Bobby was an asshole, and as such he couldn't be forbidden to go anywhere. He took the bike and just hiked his ass right out to the middle of that ol' train trestle, and there he stood, glaring at me.

“Come get yer precious widdle bike, ya mouthy asshole! Or are ya chicken?”

Well, I stood around for a few minutes, trying to get up the nerve to go out there. I had heard tales of kids getting caught out on the trestle by a fast freight, and having to hang by their hands from the timbers over a forty-foot drop while the train rumbled overhead shaking the shit out of everything and trying to dislodge their grip. I'm quite certain now that all of those tales were bullshit, pure and simple, but back then they were gospel.

Then I heard the whistle. We still had steam trains back then, big beautiful black monsters, that chuffed and smoked and gave off thrilling smells of steam, coal, and hot oil, and there's just nothing like a steam whistle to give you chills and put the wind up your ass if you're near the crossing. Bobby heard it, too. And that was when he did the unforgivable. He grinned at me, and tossed my prized possession, my beautiful new bike, which had been given me by the only strong father figure in my life, over the side and into the ravine. Then he turned and ran for the other end of the trestle. He knew he was safe. For one thing, the train was coming from my side, and besides, he knew I wouldn't go out on that bridge, even if there was never going to be another train until Gabriel blew his horn.

I climbed down into the ravine that afternoon and rescued my bike. I had a hell of a time getting it out, too. When I reached the bottom and found it, there was a lump in my throat, made up of rage, as I took in the damage. He had dropped it right in the middle, where the little stream bed ran, and that stream bed was full of rocks. Now my prized possession was scratched and dented, the seat torn, and the handlebars twisted. I sat and cried for a while, then drug it out of the ravine and walked it home. I repaired most of the damage myself, but some of the scars it carried for the rest of its days. And on that day, I vowed to kill Bobby Hammond.

This was not an idle threat, or a passing fancy. This was an assassination plot that would be carried out at the end of the summer when school took up again. I would have a surprise for that bullying, bike-wrecking asshole.

I thought really hard about the best way to kill that little fucker. Remember now, I was eight years old. I thought of putting snakes in his bed, and shooting him with any gun I could get my hands on, but I wouldn't get my own first gun for another two years, and along with it I got some healthy lessons on firearms safety.

I thought up and rejected plan after plan, and then one fine summer day I was roused out of my daydreaming by the sound of an explosion. It had come from our neighbor's apple orchard, a half-mile away, and it had been a resounding bang. The neighbor was blasting out some old tree stumps, and I was not the only kid who showed up to watch, but I was the one most under foot that day, and the only one with murder on his mind.

I remember the smell of the shattered wood on that day. It had a sickly-sweet aroma that I'd never smelled before, and I asked the man what it was.

He took his time answering me. He stopped what he was doing, pulled out a big red handkerchief, and blew his nose. He examined the result with some satisfaction, then he hawked and spat on the ground and said, "That's dynamite, little Kerry. Powerful goddamn stuff. Blow a man's head right off. Pretty safe though, if ya know how ta use it."

I proceeded to watch and learn. While the other kids were yelling and running around and making mouth noises approximating explosions, I learned how to set dynamite. I learned about blasting caps and how dangerous they were. I learned how to bore underneath a stump and pack charges, and how to "telephone" the dynamite when you were ready for it to blow. That's what the neighbor called it, because he used an old hand-crank generator out of a telephone to set off his charges. I spent all day at the neighbor's, and part of the next, too, and when the blasting was all done, I watched to see where he put the dynamite and blasting caps.

Out on the farm in those days, nobody locked anything up. If they locked up their barn or tool shed, or even their house, it might inconvenience a neighbor who badly needed to borrow something. Life on the farm was tough enough without causing each other any inconvenience. So it wasn't very difficult to sneak into the neighbor's tool shed and take one stick of dynamite and one blasting cap. And I wouldn't need a phone generator to set it off. The neighbor had told me that any amount of electricity would set off a blasting cap, and even told me it was best to always keep the wires on the cap twisted together until just before the charge was set, because the wires could act as an antenna, and radio waves could generate enough juice to set it off. So I figured a couple of flashlight batteries would suffice. I hid the dynamite and blasting cap, and kept it hidden until the last week before school took up at the end of summer, then I built my device.

The simplest designs are the ones that usually work best, and this was simplicity itself. I put the thing together in about twenty minutes. All it amounted to was two batteries, some wire, a spring-type clothespin, a piece of plastic from a model kit, a piece of string, two pennies and, of course, the dynamite and blasting cap. The whole thing was built onto a board, and glued inside my lunchbox. The string ran from inside the lid and was tied to the piece of plastic. The plastic, of course, was to keep the two pennies from touching each other. The pennies were glued into the jaws of the clothespin, and had wires soldered to them, one wire attached to the blasting cap and one to the batteries. The other wire from the blasting cap went to the other end of the battery pack. Simple. Open the lid just a little, and you could unhook the string and have lunch. Open it too far and the string pulls the piece of plastic out from between the two pennies, and it eats your lunch. The next time Bobby took my lunchbox would be the last theft he would ever commit. I don't think I even thought about the consequences of my actions at all. I only had one goal in mind. Paybacks, as they say, are a motherfucker.

I rode the bus to school on that first day after Labor Day all primed to kill Bobby Cannon. At last, I would get my revenge on that bullying prick. I never gave any thought at all to collateral damage. My only excuse is that I had just turned nine years old and had not learned everything I needed to know about human values.

We didn’t use lockers in elementary school. We had those desks with the wooden top that was a solid slab of maple and it was hinged at the front and lifted up to reveal storage space beneath and you could put your lunch box in there along with notebooks, pencils and anything else you wanted stolen.

Ten minutes after arrival at the school, the bomb was in my desk and Bobby Cannon was in the back of the room, his fate firmly lodged in my hands.

I was unusually fidgety throughout the morning and when the lunch bell rang, my heart rate was right up there, pounding along. This was going to be a hell of a bang. Getting caught had never entered my mind.

In the lunchroom, I sat down, and sure enough, here came good old Bobby. I figured the moment was at hand.

Then, from the overhead speakers of the principal’s P. A. system came an announcement.

“Attention, everyone! We have received a telephone bomb threat. Please evacuate the school building immediately. Exit the building by whatever door is nearest to where you are. The police are on their way. We will continue lunch next hour, after the building has been cleared.”

Holy shit! A bomb threat? Really? Bobby looked at me and I looked at him and he said, “I need to talk to you. Outside.”

I picked up my lunch box and we hurried outside. We went to the playground and that was when I noticed Bobby was carrying something, too. I looked closer and saw it was a Bible. Yep, over the summer, Bobby had gone to church camp, and he had gotten religion in a big way.

He sauntered over to me and said, “Kerry, I need to apologize for all the bad stuff I did to you, but especially for your bike. What I did was wrong, and I just want you to know how sorry I am…” Then he walked away.

And there I was, with a perfectly good bomb in my lunchbox and nobody to kill with it. Late that same day, I dismantled my device and took the dynamite way back to the woods on the back of our property and buried it. I set off the blasting cap the next Fourth of July when the air was full of fireworks, and nobody ever knew the difference.

I never kept up much with kids I went to school with, but I did hear Bobby went to seminary and later that he had his own church in Ohio. I still shudder to think what might have happened if that single stick of dynamite had gone off in the crowded lunchroom.

     The police made a big show of checking the school building, but they knew the bomb threat was just some prankster fucking around. They never found a thing…



Black Bag

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

 

WHOP! Ouch, goddamn, that one hurt. . . .

SMACK! Okay, that one not so much. . . still, after a while, soreness develops and they all begin to hurt.

The inside of the bag was beginning to get sticky, and I knew what from. Blood. Specifically, my blood. They’d managed to break my nose again, I was pretty sure and it was bleeding pretty good. Not that it was fatal or anything. Noses usually clot fairly quickly and since my doctor had taken me off the baby aspirin, I didn’t bleed like I used to.

WHACK! Damn! Didn’t see that one coming. Shit!

My name is Kerry Howland, by the way. Retired cop and mean old fucker. Nowadays, I take care of shit the cops can’t and I enjoy the hell outta that. I just about had these assholes right where I wanted them.

BONK! Shit, lights out for a while . . . falling, falling . . . least it didn’t hurt….

 

Okay, awake again. Quiet right now. We must be on a break. No pun intended . . . Call me Crank. Everybody does. Except these gang-bangin’ fuckers. They’ve called me every name in the book, but they haven’t even really pissed me off, yet. God save us from fucking amateurs.

Amateurs always seem to prefer flex-cuffs, for some reason. I guess it’s the cool thing to use. See that on TV all the time. I knew we were in Delano somewhere. That’s the area west of the river in Wichita, where all the whore houses and bad taverns and gambling dens were, back in the 1800s. I could tell, because of the brick streets and the noise. Then it got quiet, and a garage door rolled up. We rolled inside in their old, piece-of-shit van, and here we were. But the girl was safe, that much I knew, because if they’d found her, I’d be dead.

She was the daughter of an old friend. She had a drug and alcohol problem, but it went deeper than that. She liked to run with the so-called criminal element. Liked to sleep with them too. Seemed she was doing everything she could to degrade and debase herself. Not a good thing for a cop’s daughter. Embarrassing for the family, too. And I was sure that was the point of the whole exercise. To embarrass daddy and the police department as much as possible. What is it about cop’s kids, anyway?

Taking her off the street had been the easy part. She walked out of her favorite dope den, stoned to the gills and I pulled up on a loud purple Harley and offered her a ride. Took her about .3 seconds to jump her cute little self on the back and we hauled ass. I could feel her trying to nod off on the back. Bit of a dicey situation until I got her to the Bulgarian’s motel out in Kechi. His wife would keep her there by whatever means it took. The Bulgarian’s wife was big. Looked like someone shaved a Yeti and the Bulgarian loved her big ass to the exclusion of all other women on the planet. I had no idea what she did for him, but whatever it was, he was hooked on it.

I barely got the Harley back from the “test ride” and dropped off at Twister City Harley-Davidson, when the boyfriend and his thug buddies jumped me at a Quik Trip convenience store and here we are. I’m strapped to a wooden chair with flex-cuffs and a black cloth bag over my head and they keep asking where Alexandria is and smacking me. It’s getting tiresome, both for them and for me, but you make promises, and you keep ‘em. Simple as that. I’d promised to get Alexandria out of the grip of the Junior Boys and into rehab. It most likely wouldn’t work, but I only promised to get her there. I figured she needed a lot more help than just getting off the drugs.

One thing about flex-cuffs. They’re made of a plastic shit and like all plastics, heat is not their friend. How do we make heat, boys and girls? Friction, right. I had been working the cuffs against the wood of the chair vigorously for quite a while and they were pretty hot. Hot enough I could smell them, even with my busted, clotted nose. Finally, the right one popped. With one hand free, I pulled the black bag off my head gingerly, feeling dried blood sticking to the material.

They had given me a cursory search, looking mostly for guns. They had taken my wallet, but it was laying right over there on an old, dusty work bench. They hadn’t found the folding ceramic knife in my sock. It’s designed to open one- handed, and that was a good thing. It’s about five times sharper than any steel blade ever made, and it cut through the rest of the flex-cuffs like they were string. Let the fun begin.

I knew it wouldn’t be long before they came back, and I quickly looked around. I was in some sort of old automotive garage, and it was pretty big. Up in one corner was a heater that looked like it might be gas-fired. Over by the bench was a set of oxygen-acetylene tanks for a cutting torch. Okay, this was gonna be a blast. I went to the tanks and opened the valves all the way. Grabbed my wallet and stuffed it in my pocket, then slid under the van. The gas tank was plastic. Two jabs with the ceramic knife, and gasoline was running everywhere.

The office area was in the back, and I could see light in there, but no movement. Well, maybe they stepped out to smoke. One could only hope. . . .

By the exit door, to the left of the garage roll-up door was the thermostat for the overhead heater. I cranked it as high as it would go and stepped out the door into the night. I made it almost two blocks and I was beginning to think I’d fucked up, when there was a dull thump and then a really loud bang. I stepped around the corner of an old brick building just in case of shrapnel and when shit stopped raining down, I hailed a cab and headed out to recover my truck.

“The fuck happened to you?” The cabby was looking me over, and he handed me some paper towels. I wiped blood and gore and said, “Just a disagreement. Over a woman. I’m sure you see it all the time.”

“Yeah, no shit. What’s the other guy look like?”

“Well, did ya hear that big bang a minute ago?”

“Yeah, sounded like somethin’ blew up. . . .”

“That was him.”

“No shit? Cool. . . .”

“Yeah. Tell ya what, take me up to 61st and the Canal Route. I wanna see if my truck’s still there.”

“No problem, man. . . .” He handed me more paper towels. Evidently, he’d been driving hack long enough to know about always having sick bags and clean-up stuff handy. As he drove us east on Douglas, he kept having to pull over for fire equipment. Sorry guys, I thought, I know you got enough shit to do without me causin’ more, but a guy has to take care of himself.

My Tacoma was still there at the Quik Trip, and it didn’t appear that anyone was watching it. Hopefully all those fucks were dead. I paid the cabby and went inside and got coffee and used the restroom. In the mirror, the damage didn’t look nearly as bad as it felt.

My cell phone was still in the glove box of the truck. I dug it out and called the Bulgarian. No answer. What the fuck? It’s a motel, for fuck’s sake. I tried it again, hoping he was just busy. Still nothing but ringtone. I pointed the truck north and hit the gas.

Eight minutes up the I-135 and there was the Red Roof Inn. Six cop cars in the lot. Two had the entrances blocked, two were at the office and two plain cars were in front of room 126 where Alexandria had been. I parked a block off and walked back. Got intercepted by a uniform as soon as my foot hit the lot.

“Help you, Sir?” He didn’t look like he really gave a rat’s ass about helping me, but he was polite.

“What happened?”

“Sir, it doesn’t concern you. You need to move along. . . .”

“Yeah, bullshit. It does concern me. Who’s runnin’ the show here?”

“Captain Rogers from homicide.”

“Awww, shit. Get him.”

“He’s kinda busy, Sir.”

“Just get him! Tell him I have information.”

“And who are you, Sir?”

I showed him my retirement badge and ID card. He scurried off to find Rogers.

While I waited, being a good boy, I gazed off toward the office. Looking through the glass, I could see at least one sheet-covered body on the floor, half-way behind the desk.

Presently, Rogers walked up, looking grim and harassed. He didn’t say anything at first, but he offered his hand. We had worked property crimes together way back in the day. “Who got it? There in the office?”

“Owner and his wife. Guy named . . .” He pulled out his notebook and focused his bifocals on a page.

“Never mind, I know ‘em both. What about the girl?”

“What girl?”

“The girl in room 126. Is she dead, too?”

“There’s no girl in there. The door was kicked in and there’s a small amount of blood, but nobody there.”

“How’d you get the call?”

“Report of shots fired. Owner got off some shots, but apparently not enough. Or he ran outta ammo. They chased him back into the office and got him and the woman in there.”

“Okay . . .” I breathed out from my mouth and Rogers said, “What happened to you?”

I filled him in on the whole deal with Alexandria, my abduction and beating, and the garage fire in Delano.

“And you didn’t think you needed to call us, huh?”

“I didn’t need any help up till now.”

“You old fucker, you’re gonna get yer ass killed one-a these days. So, gimme the info on this doper chick and I’ll get it out there and we’ll see what develops….”

I gave him everything I had, then asked, “So, who can I reach out to in the Gang Unit?”

“Uh-uh, no fuckin’ way, Kerry. You stay away from this bullshit. You’ve caused enough trouble for one night. Go home. Get some rest. Keep your gun handy, too, okay?” He walked away, headed back toward the office. As I headed back toward my truck, the “No Vacancy” sign came on. . . .

 

Alexandria’s old man had made it all the way to Deputy Chief before he pulled the pin and retired. He had beaten lung cancer, two heart attacks, and prostate surgery and he looked it. Her mom had died when Alex was twelve and now Pop was in Shadybrook “assisted living” facility in Goddard, five miles west of Wichita.

I knew I’d never get in to see him in the middle of the night, so I went home and caught a few hours of restless sleep. The noise I heard when I got up was the crack of dawn. I drove to Eisenhower airport and parked in the long-term and walked over to Avis and rented a new Mustang. My truck was too well-known for what was coming. I made sure I got the extra insurance on the car. I was pretty sure this was going to get dirty. I went by the house and opened the gun safe and got out a few items I might need, packed the trunk of the Mustang, and headed west.

It was a quarter to eight when I got to Shadybrook. The old gal on the desk recognized me and buzzed me in. Assisted living, my ass. Fuckin’ place was a combination prison and warehouse for old folks. Thomas “Whizzer” Connelly was finishing breakfast. Most of it seemed to have found its way onto a cloth napkin tied on him like a bib. He offered a liver-spotted, palsied hand and his grip was as hard as ever.

“Crank,” he wheezed, “how’s it goin’?”

“We should talk in private, Tom.” All around the table, nosy old farts with ears as big as pizzas were dying to know everything that was happening out in the world. Especially if it was something juicy. Fuck ‘em. We went to Tom’s room and shut the door. Took a while, with him pushing an elaborate walker.

Finally, I was able to fill him in on everything that had happened so far.

“Junior Boys? Shit,” he said, “I thought the Crips and Bloods and MS-13s had run them outta town a long time ago.”

“Yeah, I thought so, too, but they’re alive and well. Or, some of them are. After last night, I’m sure they’re taking applications. . . .”

Whizzer gave me an evil grin. “Whizzer” was a name he’d gotten for himself way back when he was riding motorcycles. He’d had a friend modify his old, wheel-driven siren so it sounded different from everyone else’s. Sounded like one of those kids’ rings that you blew into and it whistled. Thus, he became Whizzer on the street, and it stuck. Kinda like “Crank.”

The last thing he said, as I was getting ready to leave was, “Get her back if ya can, Crank. She’s all I got left, ya know…” I didn’t have to look twice to see tears in the old man’s eyes.

 

The rental Mustang wasn’t a hot rod by any means. It had the V-6 engine and automatic, power everything and a nice stereo. It handled good, but it wasn’t going to outrun a cop car. It was dark blue and shiny and had tinted glass. It would do.

I needed someplace to work out of that wasn’t my home and Motel 6 was as good as any. I checked in to the one on the east side on Kellogg and paid in advance for a week. Then I started making phone calls. I called friends and friends of friends on the department, and also on the Sheriff’s department. Both had gang units and a lot of duplicate information. In law enforcement, there really is a “good old boy” network and I used it all to my advantage.

After almost two hours of begging and pleading, I had three addresses and seven names to start working on. As I left the motel, I saw an actual newspaper rack by the office. I stopped and bought a copy of the Eagle. Splashed across the front page was, EXPLOSION IN DELANO KILLS FOUR, INJURES THREE. I threw the paper in the front seat of my rental and took off.

Four dead and that was just for starters. Nothing to really connect me with them, except what the homicide dicks knew, and I was pretty sure they would just make some marks on their score sheet and figure the city was that much safer.

Gangs nowadays seldom have a single building where they hide out or do business. Especially so-called “youth” gangs. Lots of those little pricks still live with their Momma and whenever they get in trouble, that’s exactly where they run to. I started driving by addresses in the city’s near east side, looking for vehicles on the list I had compiled from Gang Unit information. I didn’t have to drive very far.

At 1556 N. Erie, I spotted a black Durango in the driveway. Danarius Johnson, 18-year-old black male. Armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, grand theft auto, possession of narcotics with intent to sell, all as a juvie. No adult record. Yet. Just a matter of time.

Three blocks west on Grove, I found a purple Charger registered to Mahalia R. Rolfe, Mommy of Raymond Rolfe. This prick had killed a man in a candy store holdup when he was thirteen and had just gotten out of juvenile lockup a month prior. Knowing Grove was a main north-south artery in this part of town, I set up where I could see three blocks of Grove and three of Fifteenth street.

I drank coffee and read my paper and waited to see what might develop. By noon, I was pretty sure the fucks were sleeping in, which was typical. I headed out and got some lunch at a burger joint, then went to yet another Quik Trip and hit the restroom. At last count Wichita has thirty-eight Quik Trip stores and I knew every one of them.

Back on the block I sat and watched some more. At two-fifteen, the purple Charger cruised by and I decided to see where he went. I hung back a long ways and almost lost him a couple times. Eventually, he got on the I-135 and headed north. He slowed way down as he went by the Bulgarian’s motel, but of course that really means nothing. Maybe he was involved in that whole thing, maybe not. Maybe one of his homies just told him all about it.

When he continued on north, I began to wonder where we were going. I felt like he was taking me away from where I needed to be, but all I had was time.

The city of Newton is an old railroad town and still has actual passenger rail service on the Amtrak. It’s not a very big town and I knew nothing about gang activity there. Rolfe cruised on into North Newton, a separate suburb with even less going for it.

I watched from a block and a half away as he parked in front of an old, two-story, ramshackle house. As he walked up onto the front porch, who should stumble out the door and into this asshole’s arms, but Alexandria? Bingo. Time to get to work.

I parked a block away and took a casual walk up the street. I figured Rolfe and Alexandria were probably busy reuniting and would be for a while. When I got up to the purple Charger, I walked out into the street and quickly squatted down and used the ceramic knife to stab the sidewall of the driver’s side tire. Then I walked on. Around the block and back to my car. I sat and waited a while longer.

When it was starting to get dark, I got out and opened the trunk and got out a palm slapper, a large leather blackjack weighted with lead shot. It was an old item I used to carry when I was still a patrol cop. I moved down the street and stood in the twilight behind a tree and waited.

In a little while Rolfe came out to his car and discovered his flat tire. I heard the muttered “Mother fucker—,” then he opened his trunk and got out a jack and lug wrench.

Just as he was loosening the first lug nut, I stepped up behind him and thumped him behind the ear with the palm slapper. He folded neatly to the pavement, and I left him there.

I walked rapidly to the front door and tried it. Locked. Well, fuck it. I stepped back and kicked it in and went through the house with my Glock in my hand, clearing rooms as I went. When I got to the back bedroom, I found her.

Alexandria was lying across the bed on her back, a tight ligature made of surgical tubing around her arm and a hypodermic needle still in the vein. I checked her for vitals and found nothing.

I pulled my phone, dialed 911 and sprinted for my rental car. As I explained the situation to the call taker, I rooted around in my kit and found a bolus of Narcan and a syringe and sprinted back to the house. I finished talking to 911 and administered the Narcan and started CPR.

It took four minutes, give or take, before the squad from the local fire station rolled up. An eternity when you’re doing CPR. It’s not like you see it on television. True CPR is a brutal and exhausting process and if you’re not hearing ribs crack, you’re not doing it right.

The firefighters on the squad truck made me stop and listened for a heartbeat. Checked for vitals. Took a quick temperature.

The lieutenant looked at me and shook his head, “She’s been dead for an hour, sir. It’s great that you tried, but it was wasted effort, I’m afraid.”

“All right guys. Thanks for coming. Sorry I wasted your time. . . .”

“What about the guy out front, layin’ by the car? What’s the story on him?”

“The story on him is that he’s a murderer. First cop on the scene needs to grab him up. He did this to her.”

“Okay, we’re treating him now. We’ll keep him here until they arrive.”

 

Captain Rogers from homicide was no more pleased with me this time than he had been at the motel. He and his crew worked the crime scene and took Rolfe into custody on my word that he was the only person in the house with Alexandria.

His only joy was that I would take on the chore of going to Shadybrook care home and making the notification to Tom Connelly that Alexandria had no more drug problems.

“Well, at least let me get a Chaplain to go with ya, Crank. . . .”

“Okay, Cap, that would be nice.”

Soon, the Police Chaplain had been contacted and agreed he would meet me at Shadybrook, and I took off to go deliver bad news.

I had promised to get her into rehab, and I had not been able to accomplish that one simple task, but sometimes that is the nature of police work, both active and retired. The first thing the rookie cop learns is that you can’t arrest all the bad guys and you can’t save all the good people. What you do often barely scratches the surface of what really needs to be done. And each day you do the job to the best of your ability and then put it in the locker along with the uniform and go home to your family. You suck it up and move on, knowing the next day will be a whole new ball game. . . .

I got to Shadybrook and met the Chaplain, a huge black guy named Cooper who had been around for years. He had seen everything twice and knew what he was doing. If anyone ever had special communication with The Lord, Coop did.

We went inside and managed to avoid all the nosy old birds as we made our way to Tom Connolly’s room. As soon as we walked in, Tom began to weep. He knew the addition of the Chaplain meant bad news.

“She’s dead, isn’t she?” Tears streamed down his face, and he brushed at them angrily.

“Yeah, Tom. They managed to kill her. Overdosed her with heroin. The doer’s in custody. . . .” It rang hollow as I said it, a lame excuse for a job poorly done.

I held the hand of the man I’d failed and, along with Chaplain Cooper, we prayed for Alexandria’s soul. Later, when his daughter was laid to rest, I would take him to the service and the graveyard, because there was no one else to do it.

As soon as I was able, I left and returned the Mustang to the airport. And then I took my tired, hurtin’ old ass home. I would live for another day. . . .





The Long Shot

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

The Contract

 

I never shot a single person when I was a cop. Like most cops, I just never happened to be in the right place at the right time, with the right set of circumstances. Came close a few times, but no joy. Or maybe that’s too harsh. Cops are supposed to be like everyone else. If a cop has to kill someone in a line-of-duty shooting, they’re supposed to agonize over it for months and go through therapy and have millions of sleepless nights.

I’ve known cops who shot some vicious asshole and never went to the shrink and never lost a minute’s sleep over it. And couldn’t wait for a chance to do it again. Myself—I never started killing people until after I retired from police work. My name is Kerry Howland, but you can call me Crank. Six years ago, I retired. And then I found my calling. I do what the cops can’t and I never see a shrink, either. And I sleep just fine.

Long before I ever thought about a career in law enforcement, I was military. Vietnam was my war and I set foot in South Vietnam exactly twice. And yet, I fought in the war and got my kills just like everyone else.

When I went through boot camp, they noticed I could shoot way better than average and flagged my files. Later, during Ranger school I was taken to several thousand-yard rifle ranges and given some rudimentary instruction and tested. After that, I went to the Army’s elite sniper school and that’s how I spent my war.

I would be choppered to an area along with my spotter and we would spend many hours, sometimes days getting into position to make a shot and leave. Only twice was I ever detailed to make a shot inside South Vietnam. The rest of the missions were in the north and in countries we were not technically at war with.

But long-range rifle work is a perishable skill and when the call came, along with a sizeable retainer, I had to find a private range where I could reacquire the skills that had deteriorated over the years. There are such places in Kansas, mostly hidden on farms well away from populated areas. You locate them by the old grapevine method, through a friend of a friend and certain vows are taken and promises made, not to mention the exchange of money and favors. There were six families who had pooled their resources to make this happen, families of victims who knew that without me or someone like me, justice for their loved ones would never be served. They were also aware that if we were caught, they could well be charged with conspiracy to commit murder. We did not have a meeting. There were no discussions. The decisions were made long before I was ever contacted.

Kansas is a death penalty state, but there would be no state-sanctioned execution for this guy. During the time he was active, Kansas had abolished its death penalty, only to once again reinstate it after he was through destroying lives. Ten life sentences to run consecutively was the worst the state could do with him. I was pretty sure I could do much worse.

 

The Tools

 

Purchasing a rifle such as the Barrett .50 caliber long-range sniper rifle is a tricky proposition because there are so few of them in use. At the same time, they are imminently available, but damned expensive. I started making the rounds of the gun shows, both in Kansas and Oklahoma. I had an advantage of a sort. The asshole wasn’t going anywhere and there was no time limitation to get the job done. The families would just as soon not know when it was going to happen. The money had already been set aside in a blind trust which could not be accessed by me or anyone else until the performance was over.

It took ten months to find the rifle and buy it for cash out of the back of an old rattletrap van in the parking lot of a venue in Kansas City. It had been fired a few times and the owner had gotten over the novelty and realized he had a lot of money tied up in a toy he was unlikely to ever use for what it was intended. I took it off his hands for $6,800 and no questions either way. It might have even been stolen. If I got caught, that would be the least of my problems.

I spent another thousand dollars on ammunition, and didn’t get that much. It’s damned expensive to buy and when you’re practicing at one of those hidden ranges, you don’t leave any expended brass lying around when you leave. What I purchased was the standard, military-grade .50 caliber machine gun round. After it was all fired, the brass would be perfectly expanded to microscopically fit the chamber of my rifle. As “once-fired” brass, it was actually worth more than new stuff.

Next, it went to a friend I have been using to reload match-grade ammo for years. All I had to tell him was what I wanted and how much I could afford to spend. He loves the phrase, “Money is no object…” Special bullets, designed for maximum range with a special load and primer in use behind them would add as much as 500 yards to the range of the gun, just by increasing the velocity and flattening the trajectory. I might not need it, but I wouldn’t know for sure until I found my nest.

 

The Objective

 

Locating that one spot where I could ingress and egress without being seen and get within range of the facility would not be easy. The Supermax at El Dorado, Kansas was designed not only to hold the inmates in maximum security, but to protect them from all manner of guys like me who would like to kill them. The fuck-stick I was going to kill was locked down in solitary confinement 23 out of every 24 hours. He got one hour per day in the exercise yard by himself and the time he got to go outside was constantly changed by the staff.

Unlike many older facilities, it had no walls as such. It has lots of chain-link fence and rolled razor wire and an observation tower and cameras. And guys with rifles who would do the exact same thing I was going to do, if an inmate was stupid enough to try and climb or cut their way out. I knew that among inmates at that facility there was no doubt about what would happen. In short, they would just fill you full of lead and call it a day.

My problem was that, when they planned the facility, they didn’t want anything for anyone to be able to hide behind anywhere near the facility. If you approached it from any direction, you were in plain sight for a half mile or more.

U.S. Highway 54 passed within a half mile and was in fact the only road that could be used to access the prison. Part of their protocol was to investigate any vehicle that should happen to stop within sight of the place without turning in and coming to the gate. They had their own patrol vehicles. They also had instant contact with the Kansas Highway Patrol, the Butler County Sheriff's Office, and the El Dorado Police Department. And for all I knew, the FBI, KBI, DEA and Department of Homeland Security. I might get one shot, then it was escape and evade. No second chances.

If I never got my shot, there was no loser. I wouldn’t get paid and the families would eventually get their money back after the murdering asshole died of natural causes. I had heard he had cancer, so that could very well happen. He would be just as dead. It just wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic. Or satisfying.

In the end, it was the landscape planner who became my greatest ally in fulfilling my mission, for that’s what it became. I would not let it become an obsession, because that’s how mistakes are made. I could not afford mistakes. Not unless I wanted to wind up right in there in that same prison. At my age, a life sentence wouldn’t really be that long, but still…

When in the planning stage, the architect apparently decided early on that this would not be just another ugly-ass prison. And in fact he, or they, had done a good job. From a distance, if one chose to ignore the signs out front, it really looked like a college campus, or maybe a high-end industrial park. There were no walls as I said before, and the one large guard tower looked more like a control tower at an airport. Security was accomplished by keeping inmates inside buildings except when they had access to the exercise yard, which sat directly below that control tower, well with sight and gun range of the guards.

In their anxiety over making it look like anything but a prison, they had planted a number of trees, which were now about half-grown. I hiked the area every day for a week, with a rifle and a deer tag. I started on opening day of deer season and stayed far enough away from the facility not to arouse suspicion, but near enough to be able to use a hand-held spotting scope to check out details. On day three, it dawned on me that they had planted their trees in straight rows. Far enough apart that it wasn’t obvious to the casual observer, but there it was. If I parked my ass in just the right place, I could line the trees up and use them to break up my outline, and muzzle flash, while shooting right past the nicely lined-up trunks.

The only fly in the ointment was all that chain-link fence. While a .50 caliber machine gun bullet had a lot of weight and muzzle energy, I had no idea how badly one of those bullets might be deflected by hitting a wire of that gauge and strength. Back to the firing range for more testing. Some of my expended brass were going to be reloaded for the second or third time.

After setting up and stretching chain-link fence in front of my targets and shooting from various distances I found that over half the time I could shoot through the fencing without hitting a wire. When I did hit a wire, a square hit did not deflect any noticeable amount and a grazing hit deflected so little I stopped worrying about it. Well, almost.

 

The Plan

 

I next spent two weeks hiding and observing the routine of the prison. Using my spotting scope from a spot I had picked as a nest, I watched the exercise yard at various times of day. During nighttime hours, the place was floodlighted to the max and objects and people actually were more starkly highlighted than during daylight hours. In natural sunlight, the sun moved across the sky, so highlighting and shadows were constantly changing. At night, nothing changed unless there was fog or smoke. The prison is located on the western edge of the Kansas Flint Hills and in the spring, pasture burning is a common practice. Hopefully, the deed would be done before spring.

Two weeks is a long time to spend alone, sitting in a blind and watching. When I did this in the military, a lot of the planning and intelligence work was done for me, before I ever arrived in the theater of operations. The target will be at so-and-so from such-and-such time to such-and-such time. He is five feet six inches and smokes heavily. He wears his dress uniform exclusively. This is his picture… and so forth. This time I did it all myself, because I learned long ago two people can keep a secret just fine—if one of them is dead. I could not afford to trust anyone.

I soon learned that this would be a night shot. The target was never let out into the exercise yard in daylight. It was always at night because he was not allowed contact with any other inmates. I saw him a number of times, as early as eight PM and as late as four AM. That was acceptable. In fact, that was ideal. It meant it was only an eight-hour shift. I didn’t like the fact that it would be dark. If a single staff member happened to be looking my direction, there was no way they could miss the muzzle flash from the Barrett and that would make egress much more risky. I had no way to access their contingency plan in the case of a sniper, but I had no doubt there was one. How well it would be studied by staff members was another question entirely. How well it might be executed was anybody’s guess.

I drove and timed my egress route and I hated the fact it would be mostly over gravel roads. If it was windy, the dust would dissipate more quickly, but the wind would make the shot more difficult. If it was still, the shot would be easier, but dust would tend to hang in the air longer. I needed a night when it had rained, so the dust would be minimal or absent. What I actually got was snow.

I had planned on using a Ghillie suit, but that changed when we got snow in mid-December. I changed to a white suit and decided to get it done before the snow all disappeared.

 

The Shot

 

10:07 PM. I had been in the nest since 7:40. I had parked my truck and hiked in and got myself set up. No spotting scope tonight. The rifle was set up and ready on a white ground cloth which allowed me to avoid getting wet from the snow. I had white towels wrapped and tied around my boots. Nobody would identify my boot tracks.

The target walked out into the yard, wearing a parka and his prison orange, gloves and a skull cap. I could see his glasses reflecting in the garish overhead lights. The two staff officers spoke with him for a few minutes and then went back inside. Now I had an hour.

Through the scope, I could clearly see his features and the fact he had decided to grow a bit of a beard. His color didn’t look good and I thought about the rumored cancer. But maybe it was just the lighting. The halogen lights tended to wash out color. I loaded the first shell, cycled the bolt shut and released the safety.

The optics of the scope, curiously, caused the chain link wire to virtually disappear. I settled the cross hairs on his head and gave the wind a final check. There was a windsock conveniently located off to the right, at the helipad. I assumed the heliport was probably so they could medivac any injured quickly away. The windsock was limp, so I left my windage adjustments alone. I checked my combination thermometer/hygrometer. I raised my elevation one click for humidity. I looked back through the scope and the asshole was gone.

Scanning, I quickly picked him up again. He was walking briskly around the yard. Well, shit. I never figured he would actually exercise. What the fuck did he need to stay in shape for? This was going to be more difficult. Not impossible. I was pretty good at firing a round and letting the target just walk into it when I was doing this in the military, but that was many years ago. I watched and tracked and waited. He was bound to stop at some point. And after twenty minutes, he did. A model prisoner, he didn’t approach the fence, which would be a violation and might cost him his yard time. He just stopped and stood perfectly still. And I squeezed. The recoil slammed into my shoulder and the sound was tremendous, even with the traffic noise from the highway. I threw a white sheet over the gun and lay perfectly still and waited.

In short order, two staff officers ran out into the yard and looked down at the target. The fact they didn’t bend down and assess him or touch him told me my shot was a good one. There probably wasn’t much left of his head. One of the officers spoke into his radio and in ten seconds, a siren started whooping and it was time for me to leave.

I figured if they’d seen the muzzle flash, they’d be concentrating their efforts immediately in my direction. Three patrol cars pulled out of the compound and headed three directions, beginning what I hoped would be a random search. I eased backward, folding the bipod on the gun, and keeping it wrapped. I moved back through brush, turned and crawled until I was far enough over a slight rise that I could stand and not be obvious. I headed out toward my truck, which was in a field, tucked in behind an old combine that had been left when it finally could harvest no more.

On my way there, a patrol car came down the gravel road and I dropped flat and held still. Their spotlight swept right across me, once, twice, and then I heard the brakes and the car stopped. I had nothing I could do. Running would be obvious and a dead giveaway. If they had seen enough to arouse their suspicion, I was fucked, because I would not kill a law enforcement officer to get away. The spotlight on the car was not on me, but there was no way I could tell what had caught the officer’s attention. I wasn’t even sure if there was one officer in the car or two. I held my breath so no steam would show in the cold night air and waited to be arrested. In the stillness, I could hear the engine quietly idling and then I heard an electric window motor as the glass on the side of the car nearest me went down.

A voice said, “Look at that big fucker! He’s just standing there! What a shot!”

Another, deeper voice said, “Yeah, ya never see that shit when they’re in season. It’s like they know somehow what day it is and that ya can’t shoot their ass.”

The first voice said, “Fido, man, let’s roll.” The window went up and the car accelerated, gravel crunching under its tires. I breathed at last and slowly raised my head. About forty feet away a twelve-point buck stood, unmoving and a perfect target. The car was almost five hundred yards away now and I stood up. The buck snorted and began to turn to run. I said, quietly, “Thank you, my friend.”

As I walked on to my truck, I thought about the term “Fido.” I was surprised it was still in use. It had been common when I was a cop. It meant, “Fuck it—drive on.”

White on white is some of the best camouflage. At my truck, I stashed everything in the back under the fiberglass cover then started the truck and let it warm up fully. A cold engine will leave a vapor trail that clearly indicates to a law officer that it hasn’t been driven very far. Modern catalytic convertors do a lot to make engines warm up quickly and I was soon on my way. I saw no other law enforcement vehicles on my way out of the area.

I arrived at my home before midnight and left the truck outside on the drive. I spent an hour with an oxygen/acetylene torch, cutting up the Barret into small chunks and dropping them into a 55-gallon drum that was near full of waste oil. I would sell the remainder of my .50 caliber ammo at the next gun show for more than I’d paid for it.

The demise of the aged serial killer was big news for about five days, which is about the normal amount of time for a news story unless leads are developed to give it legs and keep it going. I have heard nothing over the GOBLEN grapevine about much of an investigation going anywhere. GOBLEN? Stands for Good Old Boy Law Enforcement Network. If I had anything to worry about, I’d know.

Someday, when I need it, I might go get the money. Right now, I’m in no hurry. Sometimes, a job well done is its own reward…




An Incident in Dodge

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

April 14th, 1888, in Dodge City, Kansas.

A rather smallish dapple-gray mare ambles along the dry, dusty Front Street. She is tired and thirsty, as is the slight, well-dressed man in her saddle. He rides with the loose, disjointed posture of one who has traveled on horseback for most of his life and he is no youngster. His suit is well-cut, though dusty, and is entirely black, as is his shirt, neatly knotted tie and firmly-crowned Stetson hat. His boots, also black, could use a wax and polish and show evidence of riding through brush.

The quiet clopping of the mare’s hooves stops as he pulls her to a stop in front of the apothecary shop on the north side of the street. He dismounts slowly, giving his joints time to settle into a standing posture, then he secures the mare’s reins to a hitching rail. From his vest pocket he takes a single cube of sugar, and placing it on the flattened palm of his hand, he offers it to the mare. Her lips delicately fumble for the treat and take it without touching the man’s glove. The sugar dissolves on the animal’s tongue. The man reaches up and strokes the animal’s neck and he says, “I’ll just be a minute here, Perse, and then we’ll get you fed and watered.” Persephone’s head nods as though she might understand perfectly the man’s conversation.

Jake Withers looks up from behind the counter, as the tiny bell above the door jingles. He adjusts his spectacles and takes in the stranger as the latter approaches the counter of the apothecary shop. The man is about five feet and maybe nine inches and thin. Jake looks over the suit and notes the seams and tailoring. Expensive duds to be riding in, he thinks, and he doesn’t fail to note the pair of Colt Army Dragoon revolvers, worn butts forward and low on the man’s hips. There have been a number of improvements in firearms since those were produced and Jake wonders why the well-dressed man clings to outdated firearms.

“What can I help you with, today, Sir?” Jake’s smile is automatic and neither false nor genuine. It’s just there, the working smile of a salesman.

The man looks Jake up and down and says, “I need something to relieve a sore tooth. Probably should get the damn thing pulled, but I hate a dentist…”

“Yessir,” Jakes says, “Got just the thing, right here.” He reaches to a shelf behind the counter and brings forth a small blue bottle with an eyedropper in the top. “Whenever that ol’ tooth gets ta botherin’ ya, just put a drop or two directly on it. Fifty cents. Can’t go wrong at that price.”

“Better let me have two of those,” the man says and produces a dollar coin from a pocket. Jake wraps both bottles carefully in brown paper and places them in a small paper bag and hands them over. “Will there be anything else, Sir?”

“Ya got anything to drink back there? Anything cold, maybe?”

“Well Sir, got somethin’ new you could try. Man in Georgia makes this stuff called Coca-Cola. Got quite a zip to it. Just came out last year…”

“If it’s cold and wet, ya don’t have to sell me very hard…”

Jake steps back into an adjacent room, where his icebox is and comes back with a smallish bottle and uses an opener to pop it open. “That’s a nickel,” he says, “might help that tooth a little, too. It’s got coca extract in it.”

The stranger drops a nickel on the counter and takes the bottle to a small, marble-topped table, one of several along the west wall of the shop. He sits and sips his drink and suppresses a belch or two. In a few minutes, Jake comes out from behind the counter and asks, “How’s that drink, Sir?”

“Pretty damn tasty. What’d you call it again?”

“Called Coca-Cola, Sir. Say, can I ask a question? Not to be personal, but I was wondering why you carry those old Dragoons? There being so many more modern pieces available nowadays? Just kinda curious, ya know…

The stranger reaches right-handed and pulls the revolver from his left holster and holds it up to the light from the front window. The blued steel gleams and the walnut grip shines. “I like the smoke of black powder,” he says, “and the feel of a heavy gun. I like the noise of a .44 and the way it’ll knock a man clean off his feet. That’s all. Just my kinda gun.”

 

Outside, Persephone stands patiently, switching her tail to keep the biting flies moving. Occasionally, one will land on her front shoulder and she will twitch her muscles to make it move. Her thoughts are not deep thoughts, but she does have memories and anticipations. She is in love with the Man, as much as a species of four-legged transport animal can love a two-legged master. She has loved him as long as she can remember, but her memory is not that long. She does remember an incident that took place a long time ago involving herself, the Man and a rattlesnake. Like most horses, Perse has a loathing and fear of snakes and, though she doesn’t remember where the incident occurred, she remembers clearly the buzz of the reptile and seeing it lashing back and forth as it backed away from her and the Man. She remembers the Man, sawing the reins left and nudging her with a spurred heel, getting her to move in a side-step. And she remembers the Man pointing his finger at the snake and a strange, crackling noise, and in her panic, seeing the snake blacken and burn into a charred husk of harmless meat.

She remembers, too, the way the Man dismounted and took the time to speak with her and calm her with his gentle touch, rather than just riding on and expecting her to deal with her fear alone. Now, Perse is half-asleep, when a woman brushes past and the mare takes a half-step to the right, making way for the human. The woman goes into the same doorway the Man went into earlier.

 

As Jake and the stranger are conversing, the front door of the shop opens and the bell jingles. A woman walks into the shop and Jake quickly steps to his counter. The stranger rises and tips his Stetson slightly and says, “Ma’am…” She nods and says, “Good day, Sir” and continues on to the counter, where she makes several purchases. As she leaves, the stranger again rises and again touches his hat and says, “Good day, Madam.” Her cheeks flush a little, but she again wishes him a pleasant day and she exits the store.

Jake comes back from behind his counter and, with a snicker, says, “Madam. You’re entirely correct in this case, Sir. I’m sure you wouldn’t know who she is, then?”

“Not at all,” says the stranger, “just being polite.”

“She runs the brothel down at the end of Tinker’s Alley. That’s Susan Sullivan. Known as Curly Sue around here.”

“Brothel, huh? Well, she looks like a nice lady, so I guess she deserves our respect, don’t you think, Jake?”

“Oh…oh my, no disrespect intended Sir, I…I just thought you should know who she is…that’s all…”

The stranger’s eyes are like looking into twin gun barrels and Jake is a bit uncomfortable now. And how did this man know his name? Jake was certain he never introduced himself. Jake’s Adam’s apple slides up and down in his suddenly dry throat and the stranger says, “Judge not, Jake, lest ye be judged. That’s in the Good Book, so it’s good enough for me.” He turns and walks to the door, opens it, once more ringing the bell, and steps out into the afternoon heat.

 

As evening is coming on, Persephone is much more comfortable. She is at the livery stable, where she has been fed and watered. Her saddle and bridle have been removed along with the saddle blanket. She has been brushed down and curried and some burrs combed out of her mane and fetlocks. Some ointment has been applied to a couple of sores caused by chafing of the saddle blanket, mostly due to sweating and accumulation of dirt. She is in a relatively cool stall and the absence of the bothersome flies is a blessing. She is standing with her knees locked and is dozing and dreaming away the evening. Perse is content.

 

The stranger is also content, having had a bath, a shave and a haircut. He is wearing a fresh shirt and underwear and his suit has been cleaned and pressed. Now, as he walks the length of Tinker’s Alley, he thinks about the only need he hasn’t satisfied. He approaches the brothel and notes the elaborate, hand-painted sign over the door. Professionally done, obviously by a talented artisan, it reads, “Enchanted Evenings.” He nods his head and opens the door and steps inside.

The woman who greets him is the same lady he saw at the apothecary shop, and she speaks to him almost as an old friend. “Good evening, Sir. Welcome to Enchanted Evenings.”

“Good evening to you…is it Susan, I believe?”

“Yes, but how did you…oh, yes, of course. Jake, the druggist. I suppose my personal history is now filed away in that handsome head of yours…”

“Not at all, Susan, Jake merely told me your name and made me aware of your business location. In case I should feel the need…well, you understand…”

“Of course, Sir. Please come with me and you can look over our ladies and perhaps make a choice.” Susan escorts the stranger out of the foyer and into a formal parlor, which the stranger finds to be, like most brothels, overdecorated with overstuffed furniture, lamps with chintzy shades and throw pillows. It contains at the moment, four scantily-dressed women, three quite young and one older woman who could only be called plain. The stranger makes his choice immediately, telling Susan, “That one, with the long blonde hair.”

“Ah, yes, Madeline is one of our youngest and sweetest girls. And will this be for a short encounter? Or maybe something longer?”

“I’ll want her for all night. And a very private room, please.”

Susan smiles and says, “Sir, that will cost twenty dollars in advance. If you choose you may give the girl any gratuity you feel is appropriate later.”

The stranger places a twenty-dollar gold piece in Susan’s outstretched palm and the young, pretty Madeline joins him. She takes his arm and they head up stairs to a private room. They step inside and Susan hears the door lock. She hears nothing else for the rest of the evening.

 

In the morning, the stranger leaves early and Madeline does not appear for some time, so after a while, Susan goes up to the room. She uses her key to open the door and finds Madeline sitting naked on the side of the bed. She appears at first glance to be alive and well, but then as Susan draws closer, she sees that all is not well.

Madeline’s face is completely slack, and her sightless eyes stare at the wall. The irises, once such a pretty cornflower blue, are gone, replaced by whiteness. There appears to be bruising about her mouth and on both sides of her throat, right where the carotid arteries run just beneath the skin. Her breasts are reddened and swollen and her arms hang slack.

Susan draws closer still and detects the faint but unmistakable odor of burnt hair. She observes reddening and swelling in Madeline’s pubic area and that all her pubic hair appears to have been singed away.

“My God! Maddie! What did he do to you?” Susan cries.

Madeline slowly turns her head toward the sound of Susan’s voice and slowly, ever so slowly, a smile spreads across her face.

“He…everything…everything. He did…everything,” she says.

“What do you mean, ‘everything’, Maddie? You have been well-trained in the skills of your trade, there should be nothing a man could teach you…

“Oh, no Susan…he took me to places I’ve never been. He gave me so much…of himself. He knew things about me. Things about my family and my life. Things I didn’t even know. And he…loved me. He didn’t just rut…like, like an animal or like most men. He took time…to pleasure me.”

Susan paces about the room, concerned over the condition of her employee, already wondering what she’ll ever do with a blind whore. She notices water in the basin on the washstand. The water is bloody and next to the basin, lays a single, slightly yellowed molar.

“So, he knocked out one of your teeth, too?”

“Oh, no, that tooth is his. He had me pull it. I did it with my fingers…”

“You can’t pull a tooth with just your fingers, Maddie.”

“I know, but I did. He told me I could do it and I did. I just grabbed it and popped it right out. And I took away his pain…”

“Let’s get you downstairs and get you cleaned up,” Susan says, “take my arm, Dear.” Susan leads Madeline to the door and downstairs to the girls’ common area. The other girls are afraid when they see Madeline, but Susan hushes them and sends them to their rooms.

Later in the day, the stranger returns to Enchanted Evenings. Susan tells him if he does not leave, she will call the sheriff, but the stranger walks right past her and finds Madeline, sitting by herself, awaiting whatever comes next in her life. What comes next in her life is the stranger, who bends down close to her ear and tells her his name. He invites her to leave the brothel and travel with him and she does not hesitate to say yes. They leave together.

 

Persephone canters across open prairie, headed north. It is spring and the wildflowers are just beginning to bloom. She senses that the Man is in a good mood this morning and his mood governs hers. Once more she and the Man travel and she would have it no other way. On her back, seated in front of the Man, the Woman rides as if she was born to the saddle.

The man whispers to her as they ride. One of the things he tells her is, “Next time we stop, we’ll have to fix those eyes.”




Cook Moves On

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

Persephone snorted, as she reached the top of the hill, then blew her hot breath out from her mouth, making her lips vibrate. She was hot and tired and she could smell water. She was carrying two people, neither of them particularly heavy, but she was a rather smallish dapple-gray mare and the extra weight was beginning to take its toll.

Ahead, there was a small creek, and the cottonwoods would provide some shade. The man heeled her lightly, urging her in that direction, roughly north and Perse picked her way down. She had learned to avoid prairie dog holes and snakes and her owner let her find her own way much of the time.

The second person she carried was a blind woman they had picked up in Dodge City two days prior. They had camped the night before and the man had hobbled the mare and let her graze, but she hadn’t had enough water.

Minutes later, they reached the stream and both riders dismounted. Perse wanted to get to the water, but the man held her back long enough to slip on the hobbles. He didn’t understand that she would never leave him. She was in love with him—as much as an animal could love a human— and she would gladly die at his hand rather than leave him. She was aware in a vague way that the relationship had changed somewhat, now that the woman was with them.

The man walked her carefully to the sweet, clear water and let her drink, watching her closely. He would stop her soon and set her to grazing, not letting her drink too much. Later, before they moved on, he would water her again.

After Perse was grazing comfortably the man took the smallish, blonde woman off into a grove of trees. There, he undressed her and they made love and when they were finished, while he was still on top of her, he pressed his lips to each of her eyes, touching the eyelids with his tongue, and when they got back up from their tryst, her sight was restored. When they were dressed, he carefully wiped tears from her eyes and kissed her again, relishing the taste of her mouth and also her salty tears.

“Why did you blind me?” She asked, her voice breaking just a bit with her emotion.

“Most people never think about their sight and what a blessing it is to see. You will always know, for the rest of your life, how lucky you are to have the gift of sight. You’ll appreciate it more. It’s good to know despair and then to be restored…”

“What’s your name?” Her head was cocked to one side and for a moment he was reminded of a small bird. Her rather sharp nose even sort of resembled a beak.

“I told you that before we left Dodge. I expect you may have been addled somewhat over losin’ yer sight. It’s John Cook.”

“Where do you come from, John Cook?”

“I’m not sure. I remember living in lots of places, some back east, but I cannot remember my own childhood, or my parents. Sometimes it’s as if I was just…born an adult.”

 

John Cook was not his real name, but one he had chosen because it was short, just four letters to surname and given name, easy to remember and just as easy for others to forget. The woman, Madeline, was a prostitute he’d taken with him from a brothel in Dodge City, Kansas. He was a man with no job, no discernable past and no foreseeable future. He was just here, at any given time a presence to be reckoned with by those who let greed and avarice and plain orneriness govern their lives. John Cook was a Regulator, in every sense of the word, unconcerned with the laws of man or the lawlessness he encountered all too often, but very concerned with right and wrong and justice on a Biblical scale.

He carried a matched pair of Colt dragoons, older, black-powder weapons, much heavier, clumsier and primitive than later models, but they suited him and his methods. He wore them backwards in matched holsters mounted on crossed belts. They were never out of his reach and always fully loaded. In his saddlebags, he carried spare cylinders, also fully loaded, that could be changed out in a few moments, should he come under sustained fire from an enemy. In a saddle scabbard he carried a Henry lever-action rifle, for times when situations became really serious.

In spite of the weaponry and his attire, which consisted of black semi-formal clothing, John Cook was a peaceable man. He never went looking for trouble, but it had a troubling way of finding him. He had lost track of how many men he had killed and that fact in no way grieved him any more than a more ordinary person would grieve over killing rats.

“I think we’ll make camp here tonight,” he told Madeline, “it’s as good a place as any and my horse is tired. Carrying two people is tough on her.”

They built a small fire, using dry sticks that would make little smoke. This was still territory on which native tribes roamed—not all of them had been placed on reservations. John Cook usually had little trouble with them. He had learned a number of dialects and the mere fact he was willing to do that gained him some modicum of respect in most encounters. He had much more trouble with white men.

They cut up some bacon which in another day or so would go rancid anyway. They ate that along with some hardtack biscuits and coffee. It was meager rations, but the best they could do with what they had. Later, after the stars came out, they made love again and then John Cook took Persephone back down to the water.

When he returned to their bedroll, Madeline was asleep. He settled in and was just dropping off when he heard a sound that was very familiar to him. It was sort of like the sound of trickling water and a hard wind combined. He quickly got up and moved away, buckling on his guns and grabbing his hat. The sound was not loud enough to spook his horse or to wake Madeline, but he knew well what it meant, and he felt adrenaline begin to kick in.

A hundred yards away, a shaft of cool blue light pulsed straight down from above. Its source was too bright to look directly at. He hurried along as quickly as he could in western riding boots combined with the aches and pains of an older man. When he reached the blue light, he did not hesitate at all. He took off his hat and stepped straight into the beam. He faded to transparency and the blue light snapped off. The only sound then was crickets. Persephone had raised her head at the sound of the beam and then continued grazing. She had seen it all before and she knew the man would return, sometimes in minutes, often in mere seconds…

 

The highway bustled with shiny automobiles, their lights bright in the darkness, a white river flowing one way and a red river flowing the other. John Cook stood in a large area that was painted with stripes and had a few of the metal machines parked in it. He had moved forward and back in the timestream so many times, he had learned to observe and learn without wasting time on curiosity.

While he was being transported, he was given orders and now he acted quickly. From his instructions, he knew it would be a near thing. He had been told of the importance of saving one particular person, a girl who had already been killed further down the time-stream. He had been inserted at just the right time to save her.

He stepped off in the direction of the brightly lighted convenience store across the street. He remembered to walk to the corner and wait for the signal and then use the crosswalk. His attire caused a few heads to turn, but not as many as might have been expected. He wasn’t sure of the date, but he knew for sure the location. He was in Las Vegas, Nevada.

He went directly to the front of the store and pushed open the door and stepped inside. His advisor had told him there would be two of them and had given descriptions. It would not have been necessary, he could see now. Both individuals were hooded and masked and were none too clean. Everyone else in the store was lying on the floor. The larger of the two was intent at that moment on intimidating the clerk, yelling for him to open the safe. The smaller robber was more interested in a rather smallish girl, who was sobbing on the floor. He was standing over her, a small black revolver in his hand, practically drooling. John Cook had to admit, she was a cute gal. But he didn’t have time to really check her out. It was time to go to work. He stepped to his left and drew one of the Colts.

First things first, he decided. He cocked the dragoon and fired a quick snap shot that caught the robber at the counter at an angle, the heavy slug entering just below his right shoulder blade and exiting to the left of his left nipple, taking out the heart and both lungs, and knocking him off his feet and landing him in a rack of magazines. He was dead before his blood soaked a current copy of something called “People.”

The second thug froze for just an instant, trying to figure out where the shot had come from and which way he should run. He fancied himself a lover, rather than a fighter and he had only come along on this caper because his bro had made it sound so easy. His hesitation gave John Cook plenty of time to cock the dragoon and bring his sights to bear. The shot took the entire top off the second guy’s head, a shower of blood and brains spattering everything within eight feet. It took the thug a second and a half to fall to the floor. He landed half atop the girl he had been dreaming about raping seconds before. Her sobbing turned to screaming in record time.

Problem solved. John Cook stepped back out the door and walked unhurriedly to the alley just next door. He walked into the alley and directly to the circle of blue light beaming down. As he stepped into the beam, he holstered the Colt and removed his hat. There was the usual jolt and feeling of falling and then crickets. Fifty feet away, Persephone had stopped grazing and was standing, her knees locked, sound asleep.

In Las Vegas, a hundred and two years later, detectives would work a double homicide of two gangbangers who were killed while robbing a 7-11 store by an unknown man in a cowboy suit, armed with black powder pistols. Several descriptions came in from witnesses who had seen him just before the shit went down, but no leads were ever developed, and the Las Vegas dicks didn’t put a shitload of effort into it anyway. They figured two less thugs pulling robberies was a good deal and they moved on to more current crimes with better “solvability factors…”

John Cook changed out the cylinder in his recently-fired Dragoon. He would reload the two fired chambers later when convenient. He slid in next to Madeline and was asleep in minutes.

#     #     #

They left early in the morning before sunup and had made seven or eight miles, when Perse lifted her head and chuffed. She was ready to whinny and the man knew it and said, “Silencio, por favor…” He seldom spoke Spanish to her, but when he did, she knew he was serious and besides, she could smell the tension in him. She could also smell other horses.

The man guided her off to their right and toward a small stream where there were some willows that would give some concealment. He moved Perse down into the creek and the coolness of the water felt good on her feet. He had the woman dismount and he gave her one of his revolvers and sent her further north, telling her to keep low and if he was killed, she should hide. He didn’t need to tell her what the gun was for.

Soon a single rider came into view, riding one horse and leading another. The rider was an Indian brave who looked to be about twenty-eight to thirty years old. The man stayed hidden, but the warrior continued his approach, holding his hands out to show they were empty. Finally, he stopped directly in front of the spot where Perse and John Cook were concealed.

He quietly spoke from his mounted position. “Hau, white man.”

John Cook stepped farther up the bank and said, “What do you want?”

“You need horse? For woman?”

“I’ll not trade the woman, no.”

“White man…you need horse for her to ride.”

“What do you want?”

“You have wit-ski?”

“Whiskey? Yes, I have some…”

“You have wit-ski, I have horse.”

“Where did you get that horse?” John Cook was looking it over closely. It was nothing special. Not an Indian pony, but a well-used nag, what was commonly called a bucket-head. It wasn’t much but it would do…

“Got horse from white man,” the brave said, noncommittally.

“Did you kill a white man for it?” John Cook’s revolver was in his hand, tucked behind his back.

“No. No kill. Count coup and take horse. White man too scared to fight.”

John Cook stepped over to Persephone and opened a saddlebag and withdrew a bottle of rye whisky. It was cheap, rotgut stuff he only carried in case of snakebite. So cheap it didn’t even bear a label. He stepped up the bank and held out the bottle for the brave’s inspection.

“I taste,” the brave said, and got down from his pony. He’d been fooled before by unscrupulous white men. Cook handed over the bottle. The brave pulled the cork and smelled, then tasted the raw contents. Satisfied, he corked the bottle and untied the second horse, handing the reins to Cook.

Cook stepped back and the brave mounted and rode away, without another word. Cook whistled and a few moments later, Madeline appeared. “We’ve got to move now. He’ll be back with more braves and try to kill us. He knows now we’re alone. The trade was too easy. He’ll want to take back the horse and whatever else we have. And he’ll want to take you, too.” He helped her up onto the other horse, which had no saddle and they headed out, moving on north at a quick pace.

Perse was glad to carry only John Cook, but she could feel and smell his tension. She knew the incident was not over.

They rode on northward until dark, John Cook keeping an eye out, looking back often and checking their flanks. After dark, he found a place not far from water and there were two huge fallen cottonwood trees. Cottonwoods were not good for lumber or much else, he reflected, but they would stop bullets. He put the horses in between the fallen trees and gave Madeline a revolver. He got out his rifle and told her, “Don’t trust your hearing. They’re very quiet and stealthy. Anything you see, if it doesn’t call you by name, shoot it.” He then slipped away into the dark. For her own safety, Madeline stood between the horses. Her eyesight had actually improved since Cook had blinded her, then restored her sight.

An hour went by and then the moon came up, its orange orb lighting the area quite clearly. Minutes later, Madeline heard a bird call, then another. She was not fooled. This was the Kansas prairie. Birds didn’t have shit to say after dark. The brave and his friends were moving in.

She saw the first brave, on foot, as he moved across the moon. A classic mistake, perhaps meant to cause her to shoot and give away her position. In a second, there was the crack of a rifle shot and a breathy scream as the brave went down. Then, a second shot whizzed by her head and thudded into the body of another brave, one she had not seen or heard approaching. It was at that point Madeline realized Cook was using her and the horses for bait.

She dropped down to her knees and cocked the huge, clumsy revolver. Two more shots and more cries as more braves went down. Then, an arm slid around her from behind, a hand caressed her breast and then moved to her mouth to keep her still.

Casually, almost without thinking, she brought the revolver up under the brave’s chin and squeezed the trigger. The shot deafened her for a moment and a splash of blood and brains soiled her hair and dress. The man fell behind her and she scuttled away into the dark. The horses were agitated by the gunfire, and she narrowly missed getting stepped on.

“Madeline! Coming in!” Cook eased up to her in the dark and she could also hear the gallop of hooves moving rapidly away.

“Is it over?” There was a shuddery quality to her voice.

“Maybe,” Cook said, “but we’d better move anyway.” They quickly watered the horses from a small pool nearby and mounted back up. They rode for an hour, then stopped and bedded down without making a fire.

They awoke to gunfire off in the distance to the east. The shots rolled and echoed, the concussions could be felt as well as heard.

“Stay here. Keep that revolver ready. I’m going to check this out.” Cook mounted Perse and moved off to the east. In about ten minutes there were two quick rifle shots and soon he returned.

“Who was that?” Madeline was merely curious, but Cook’s countenance was darker than she’d ever seen him look.

“Buffalo hunters. I took care of it.” Madeline was afraid to ask any more, but he continued. “Stupid bastards shoot the buffalo and cut out the tongues and strip the hides. They leave everything else to rot out in the sun. They get a whole dollar for a hide. Sons of bitches…”

“John, what did you do…?”

“Well. They won’t be getting any more dollars…” He shot her a ghastly smile and reloaded his rifle. “Let’s go. We’re almost in Nebraska now. We’ll see the railroad tracks soon.”

Actually, it was four more hours before they found a few buildings and a single railroad track that was being built, as a rip-roaring railroad camp moved with it. They had reached McCook, Nebraska. As they clopped along down the single mud street, John Cook observed several women in less-than-decent attire, watching him. He also noted that Madeline had seen them, too.

Well, he thought, the railroad is here, the whisky is here and the whores are here. What more could a railroad crew ask for?

The local hotel was a two-story, clapboard affair, the siding already warping from the cheap green lumber used to hastily knock it together. John purchased a room and it was none too clean and sparsely furnished. Madeline opted for a bath and he left to get their horses settled at the livery across the way.

As soon as he walked the horses up in front the livery man stepped out and gave him the evil-eye. He was a grizzled old fart in a sweat-stained plaid shirt and leather apron. He was missing a few teeth, but that wasn’t uncommon.

“The fuck you git that horse?”

“Which horse would you be referring to, friend?” John Cook knew damned well which horse the man was asking about.

“That fuckin’ roan right there. Where’d ya git it?”

“Why would that concern you, Mister?” Cook was getting irritated.

“Cuz I know’d the got-damned owner, that’s why.”

“I traded an Indian a bottle of whiskey for him, yesterday afternoon.”

“Man that owned that horse was found dead day before yesterday on the tracks, ‘bout six mile up that way.” He nodded toward the east and spat tobacco juice into the dust, narrowly missing Cook’s boot.

“Don’t know anything about that, friend. I told you where I got him.”

“Well…I’m wonderin’ if you ain’t a got-damn liar. And a horse thief…”

Cook’s stare was now levelled at the livery owner like two gun barrels.

“Ya know what we do to horse thieves around here?”

Cook’s Colt revolver was suddenly in his hand, cocked and stuck under the man’s chin, pointed roughly toward his Adam’s apple. “No, tell me, friend. What do you do to horse thieves?”

The man’s voice seemed to have suddenly left him and he stared into John Cook’s eyes. Cook said, “I’m not a thief. Of any kind. And I don’t lie. Did the man leave a widow?”

“Y-yes. Yes, he did…”

“You’ll take the horse then and sell it and give the money to his widow. I’ll buy another horse from you, if you have stock to sell. Do we have a deal?”

“Yeah. Yes. Yessir. We have a deal.” The Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. As quickly as it had appeared, the Colt went back to sleep in its holster.

Cook handed over the reins of both horses and said quietly, “Good. We’ll settle up in the morning then.”

The liveryman watched the smallish man stroll back across the street and shivered slightly in the afternoon sun. He had felt a goose walk over his grave.



It’s Out There…

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

It all started with bird feeders. And guilt. Squirrels came later, but not much later. They’re opportunistic fuckers, squirrels. Later, I even had some turkeys. Yeah, really. Wild turkeys, flyin’ right into my back yard to clean up what was left on the ground. Five hens, two jakes and a big old tom. A jake? That’s what they call a younger tom. They look just like a hen, but they have that beard thing hangin’ down…

The guilt? Well, sometimes when ya get older, things you did thoughtlessly in your youth will come back and start to bother ya. That’s the way it was with me. When I was just a brat, growin’ up on the farm, kids all had BB guns. Then later on, we all had rifles. Shotguns. And we hunted. Always ate what we killed, so that was alright. Except for when we were little and got that first Daisy Red Ryder BB gun. Then we shot at anything and everything. And there were a lot of birds around.

Sparrows, starlings, crows, pigeons, I didn’t care. I shot ‘em all. Shot ‘em by the goddamn truckload. Shot a lotta rats, too, but there’s no guilt there. Gotta keep the rats down when you live on a farm. Otherwise, they’ll just about take over. But the birds? Hell, they weren’t hurtin’ a damn thing. They were just targets. Never thought shit about it at the time. They were just something to shoot. Never thought about how they might have had nests, with babies they wouldn’t be coming back to feed.

So, yeah, guilt. I decided maybe I could adjust things a little, maybe swing the compass needle of Karma a little more in my favor. So, I put out bird feeders and birdbaths in the back yard. I’d get through a hundred and fifty pounds of seed a month. The squirrels showed up right away. I didn’t try to run ‘em off, I just put the food out and let nature take its course. Never thought much about what else I might have been attractin’, either. That would come later.

I guess I fed nature’s critters for a couple years before things started gettin’ a little strange. And, at first, that’s all I could say. A little strange. Like in the spring of this year, I had as many as eight or nine squirrels out there at a time, quarreling over the sunflower seed. Then, within a week, there were none. Didn’t see any for almost a month. At the time, I figured there was just too much natural food out there and they’d be back when fall came and crops started dying back and harvest was in. Now, I know better. Couple weeks ago, I started seeing squirrels again, but they were not full-grown. They were the offspring of the adults I’d fed before, most likely.

Then I started seeing a lot less activity around the regular feeders, too. Instead of going through two feeders full every day, suddenly it was down to one every three days. The birds were a lot spookier, too. Time was I could sit out on the sunporch and watch them for hours. Then, within a very short time period, they got weird. Now, if I so much as crack open the screen door, they’re gone. I began to wonder what was going on. I made some assumptions, based on ordinary logic.

I assumed, first of all, that some predator was taking the squirrels and birds. I had seen nothing to indicate this, other than the rapid decline in the population. I had seen no hawks or any other predators hanging around in the daytime, so I had to conclude something was happening at night. Being both curious and retired, I decided to find out what was going on. After all, I had time on my hands. I went to a local sporting goods store and bought myself a trail camera.

This thing cost seventy-nine bucks and, for that price it was a bargain. It was battery powered and fully automatic and it used an infrared flash. It would take decent pictures in total darkness and record them on a computer chip, which could be downloaded into my laptop. It came with various nylon straps and fittings, so it could be fastened to a tree and left to do its thing.

There was a period of about a month, when I got pictures of opossums and raccoons and the occasional field rat, coming around to clean up what the birds and squirrels had missed. And then, they too began to disappear. And, last Wednesday night, I got the first hint of what I was dealing with.

There were three shots in rapid sequence, I would assume as fast as the camera could cycle. In the first, a raccoon is under the center of my three feeders, caught by the camera with a handful of seed. It is also turning its head, and its mouth is open in the beginning of a snarl. The second shot shows a blur of something moving with such speed and agility that the lens and shutter speed cannot match it. There is the impression of a rounded something, maybe an abdomen, maybe not, and what could be legs…but if they are legs, there are way too many of them…and in the last shot, both the raccoon and whatever got it are gone. Nothing to see here, folks, just move along…

Thursday night, nothing. Not a single frame of anything, weird or common. Friday night, ditto. Last night, there was one shot, again, blurry and indistinct to be sure, but still there and very close to the camera. So close, in fact, that only the shape of something across the lens can be seen. It’s black and spindly and a bit shiny and it looks like it has spiky hairs all over it. I know it can’t be what it appears to be…but then the camera itself was smashed and chewed by something, its tough plastic case split and ruined, the nylon straps torn like so much tissue paper. I managed to save the memory chip.

So, this morning I decided to just say the hell with this and leave. I live here alone, and it’s twenty-two miles to town. I packed some stuff for hotel/motel survival and climbed into my pickup, and of course it wouldn’t start. I picked up the hood and found that something had stripped all the wiring out of the engine compartment. Having it rewired would cost more than the old truck is worth.

I went back to the house and picked up the phone, intending to call a friend, and it was dead, too. Outside, the phone lines were ripped off the wall and mangled, just like the trail camera. So, I can hike or I can stay and fight.

Like I said, I live alone, and for that I am glad. I will face whatever it is, whenever it comes, by myself. And it will come. Because it now knows that I am aware of it. And it is hungry. Ever so hungry. I have weapons to defend myself and I am a good shot. But I have seen its incredible speed and its power…and what if there’s more than one?

It’s about forty minutes past sunset and I have barricaded everything I can. The lights are all on throughout the house but a few minutes ago, they flickered. I know it likes the darkness and I’m really worried about the service entry cable from the pole to the house…



Hanging Out

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

I made a lot of mistakes with Janey. First of all, getting involved with someone so young was not a smart thing to do. Not that she’s all that young, but I’m really old. So, the age difference kinda doomed the relationship right from the start. That, coupled with the fact that the whole thing was based on sex…well, you get the picture.

Janey was always promiscuous. I knew it when I met her. She’d been tending bar down at the Legion post where I went all the time. Always getting hugs and kisses from every guy came in. Probably why her husband, who was active-duty Marine Corps, finally kicked her to the curb. I would imagine he caught her too many times. He’d go on deployment and she’d be out…well, again, you get the picture. I was old enough to be her grandfather and I kinda treated her that way. Let her move into my place. Made sure she had a nice car and spending money. I could afford it, I retired well.

Treated her good in bed, too. She said many times I was the best lover she ever had. Nothing like many years of experience and knowing exactly what women like. There was nothing I wouldn’t do for Janey, in bed and out. I figured she’d probably be my last girl. Well, the last one that wasn’t a dried-up old hag, anyway.

So, we had a hell of a party last night. Lotta friends over. Some of them mine, some of them hers. Nice crowd. But I got tired early and I went to bed. I knew Janey would take care of getting Ubers and cabs for the ones who were too wasted. And the house has two more bedrooms for anybody who just couldn’t navigate at all. She’d lock up and set the alarm and all that. And I figured when all that bullshit was over, she’d bring her drunken ass to bed and probably wake me up for some nookie. That was the way it usually worked with us. I’d be rested somewhat and she’d be drunk and horny.  It usually made for some hot times between the sheets.

When I got up this morning she wasn’t in bed. At least not with me. And when I walked down the hall, the door to the center bedroom was open. Not just standing ajar, but wide fucking open. I glanced in and there was Janey. In bed with Joey. Almost sounds like it oughta be some kinda rhyme. Janey and Joey, sittin in a tree…F-U-C-K-I-N-G…First comes love, then comes marriage, there goes Joey with a baby carriage. Well, not fucking likely, I thought and went to the kitchen to make coffee.

Well, at least they weren’t goin at it right then, I thought to myself as the coffee machine rumbled and hissed and chuckled. That deed was already done, for sure. I took the first cup and hit the shower. Made myself some breakfast. All the time I was scrambling eggs, I was wondering how many times she’d done this shit before that I didn’t know about.

Then she finally got up. Came to the kitchen all proper in her robe. Got her some coffee. All kinds of apologies, tears and all that shit. We were keeping our voices down. Fighting as quiet as church mice. Didn’t wanna wake up Joey, I guess. She tried to kiss me a couple times, and I kept turning away. In spite of the coffee she was drinking, I could smell her cock-breath and it was making me crazy.

Later, Joey got up and wandered out, scratching his nuts through his skivvies. He looked around some, but didn’t ask. Guess he was just gonna brazen it out. Asked me, “Hey, is it okay if I grab a shower?”

“Sure. Use the one in the south bathroom. North one’s not working right.”

He grabbed his shower, then snagged a beer outta my fridge and left. Hair of the dog, I suppose. It’s okay, though. I don’t blame Joey. Joey is mostly a dick leading a man around. He most likely won’t be making any of my parties in the future, though. Damn, I’d better hurry up.

Did I mention I’m a retired cop? Oh, yeah. Twenty years and eleven months on the city P.D. You get to know a lotta people in that amount of time. Judges. Attorneys. Hospital folks. Other cops, of course.

Janey’s hanging out in the north bathroom. When I was in there earlier, I’d grabbed her pantyhose off the bar thing over the tub. Put them in my pocket. Didn’t really even know why I did that at the time. Then, when she pushed my buttons one time too many, I realized why they were in my pocket.

She’s in there now with the door closed, hanging from the curtain rod. This suicide note’s coming along nicely. But I need to get this wrapped up. I’ve gotta tee time at Rolling Hills Country Club at one o’clock with Bill Kravitz. Doctor William Kravitz. He’s the county medical examiner…known him for fifteen years. Bill’s a good guy to know.

And if I hurry, Dr. Bill will make a good alibi…


Moving South

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

Morning dawned cold and sharp, the last winds of winter not that far away. John Cook carried a tin cup of steaming coffee as he moved across the main street of McCook, Nebraska from the miserable little hotel where he’d spent the night, to the equally crude livery stable.

He had earned a grudging respect from the liveryman the evening before and on this morning, he retrieved his good old mare, Persephone, and for twenty-six dollars, he purchased a small gelding for his companion, Madeline, to ride. The deal done and the horses readied, he tied them at the hotel and went to collect his gear and his woman.

John Cook was a man who made up his own name and his own rules. He had no memory of a childhood, and he might have in fact been created as an adult. A traveler not only through the American west, but through time and sometimes parallel dimensions, his life’s experience was like none other. He carried a matched pair of Colt Dragoons; older, clumsier weapons than what were currently available, but he liked the smoke and noise of black powder weapons, and they suited his persona. In a saddle scabbard he carried a Henry lever-action rifle, “for when things got serious.”

Inside the meager hotel was a dining room and Madeline was there, waiting on him. In short order, their breakfast was served, and the food was unusually good, considering the roughness of the surroundings. The eggs were fresh, the biscuits hot and light, the gravy thick and hot and peppery. Cook was in a good mood by the time they made ready to leave.

As they mounted their horses, she asked Cook, “Where are we heading today, John?”

“South,” was all he said.

Actually, southwest was their direction into eastern Colorado, which had been admitted to the Union in 1867. They were staying away from the high altitudes of the Rockies, where spring had not made much of an inroad yet. The mountain passes would still be impassable and might remain that way until June or July. They would be riding across land that had once been the territory of the Cheyenne, until the Indian wars were finally over. They would also cross the Apache Indian reservation, but most of them had been “pacified” with the final surrender of Geronimo a few years before. They would be in more danger from white settlers and trail riders.

Madeline was a woman who had been ill-used by society. She had been a prostitute in Dodge City, Kansas, when John Cook had come to spend the night. He had awakened passions within her that she had forced dormant for several years. She had allowed men to use her, but there was no pleasure in that, only a source of income in a frontier setting where one did what was necessary to survive. On the same night, John had blinded her and later restored her vision. She didn’t quite understand how he was able to do these things, but she did know one thing. She was falling in love with John Cook.

They ambled southwest, taking their time, and encountering no one. Late of the fifth day on the trail, they came to an area that John Cook knew well, because due to his work and future technology, he’d been there.

He stopped Persephone and his sad, grey eyes took in the terrain.

“Why are we stopped here, John?” Madeline was curious because they seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.

“This is where the Sand Creek Massacre happened.”

“I heard something about that a few years back. . . ”

“The U. S. Army cavalry, under the command of a Colonel named Chivington claimed a great victory in the Indian wars. They claimed to have killed 500 to 600 warriors, but in truth, they had really murdered about 150 Cheyenne and Arapahoe people, over half women and children.”

“Oh, God, no,” Maddie breathed.

“Yeah, a few months ago, I went there to see it firsthand. You know how I can travel. I know you’ve seen the blue beam. . . .”

“Yes. . . .”

“I went to 1864 and watched the whole thing. This whole area was a bloodbath. I saw the unarmed cut down by gunfire, their bodies mutilated. I saw their children shot without mercy, and even the dogs were killed. Nothing was left alive. I tried to get my handlers to let me make it right, but they refused. Something about messing up the timeline.”

“God, that’s horrible.”

“Yes, it was. We need firewood.”

He thought about these things as he and Madeline gathered firewood and made ready their camp for the night. They had hobbled their horses and unsaddled them. They would use the horse blankets as additional covers for their sleep. They made a fire and as it got going, they began readying their food and utensils. John noticed Maddie wiping tears from her face. He was pretty sure it wasn’t from the smoke.

Having the luxury of two horses meant they could carry more food and utensils. Together they cut some bacon and made biscuits in a small cast iron skillet. As they were halfway through their meal, John’s horse nickered nervously and he reached quietly for his rifle.

“What is it?” Madeline asked, looking about apprehensively.

“Keep calm. We’re about to have visitors. . . .”

Into the firelight came two visitors, an Indian man and a boy. The man carried an old rifle and was careful to keep the muzzle pointed at the ground.

“Ah-ho, white man . . . may we come to your fire?”

“Come ahead, friend. Have you eaten?” John Cook laid his rifle aside, but his brace of Colts were near at hand.

“Not in several days. The hunting has been poor, I’m afraid.”

“Then come and sit and let us cook for you.”

“You know this is sacred ground, do you not?” The warrior seemed friendly, but there was still an edge to his voice.

“Because my people committed horrible acts against your people, yes, I know.”

“We cannot change the past, John Cook, only the future.”

“You know my name? Why is it you know me?”

“You are the one who travels with the blue light . . . you are well known to most of us. You too have killed many of our people, but only to defend yourself. That is honorable. What happened here was not.”

Madeline had sliced more bacon into a pan, and it was sizzling. There would be just enough biscuits to go around. She found two more coffee cups and poured coffee for the warrior and his boy.

“You have a good woman, here, John Cook. Would you sell her to me?”

Cook smiled and said, “It is good that you appreciate the fine things in life, friend, but she is her own woman and will not be sold.”

“Too bad,” the warrior said, “she would fetch many horses. . . .” His white grin flashed in the firelight. He turned and said something in his own tongue to the boy, who jumped up and scurried away into the night. Cook covered the butt of a Colt until he heard the boy coming back, leading their horses.

“We can stay here by your fire tonight, then?”

“Yes, you can stay, but don’t try to steal my woman.” It was John Cook’s turn to flash a grin.

“If I wanted your woman badly enough to steal her, you would already be dead, John Cook.”

 

In the morning, Cook and Madeline awoke to find a small, cheerful fire crackling and their guests of the night before gone. They carefully checked all their gear and found nothing missing. Before they folded their blankets, they returned to them and made love. Madeline had learned to allow her feelings for John to come forth during their lovemaking, a thing she could never permit when she had spent her time whoring. She marveled every day at the lovely turn her life had taken since she had met him. He had caused her to be blind, but then allowed her to see a better life.

They moved on steadily southwest, stopping in the pueblo at Taos, New Mexico and eventually arriving in Tombstone, Arizona. The town was settling down since its wilder days and the “Gunfight at O. K. Corral,” which had taken place almost eight years earlier and had taken all of thirty seconds from start to finish. The gunfight between the Cowboys and the Earp clan, along with Doc Holliday, and subsequent pursuit by Wyatt Earp had put an end to the Cowboys’ reign as the top outlaws of the territory.

Wyatt had fallen in love with an actress and was rumored to be living in San Francisco, racing horses and operating saloons.

John and Madeline took a suite of rooms at the Excelsior, the largest and finest hotel in Tombstone and after both had bathed, together, as it turned out, they went down to supper in the hotel’s excellent dining room. The town of Tombstone had suffered several devastating fires in 1881, ’82 and ’83, and many of the businesses never recovered; others taking their place as time and fortunes moved on.

After supper, Madeline retired to their rooms and John took a stroll along the main streets looking for action at several gambling halls.

Upon his return, he found their rooms empty and he went back out to look for Maddie.

Twenty minutes later, he found her, near the back door of the hotel. No one was around and she was lying on her side in the alley. It was apparent she had been shot. She had bled out alone in the alley.

John Cook sprinted into the hotel and up to their rooms, where he retrieved a small device from his saddle bags. He ran back out to the alley and pressed a button on the device.

An instant later, a blue shaft of light beamed down from a clear sky and into the alley. Cook stepped into the beam and vanished.

 

After a consultation with his handlers, Cook arrived back in the alley, but he was forty minutes ahead of when he left. He stepped back into the shadows and waited. It took almost ten minutes and then Madeline stepped out the back door of the hotel. She took a cigarette from inside the bodice of her dress and scratched a match against a wooden post and lit up.

Smoking was a habit she’d picked up when she was working in the brothel in Dodge City. She knew John didn’t like her to smoke, but she hadn’t been able to completely quit tobacco.

As she smoked, two men entered the alley from the next street to the south. Both appeared to be pretty drunk, and as they approached Maddie, they stopped a few feet away and one of the men, a small guy with a huge handlebar mustache, called out to her.

“You stayin’ busy there, Maddie?”

She chose not to answer the question, and she tossed the butt of her cigarette away and turned to go back inside.

“Hey, ya fuckin’ cunt! I’m talkin’ to you!” The man’s friend had hold of his arm, trying to get him to move on, but the man would have none of that.

“Yeah, well, I’m not talkin’ to you,” Maddie called back over her shoulder, “I don’t know you, Sir.”

The man stepped up behind her and grabbed her arm, spinning her around and causing her to momentarily lose her balance. The three-inch heels on her button shoes didn’t help. “The fuck you don’t know me,” the man roared, “I fucked your brains out in Dodge and I’ll do it again, stupid bitch! How much for a good poke, woman?”

“I don’t do that anymore,” Madeline said, “please leave me alone.” She pulled her arm away and suddenly, there was the gun. A small revolver was in the man’s fist and murder was on his drunken face.

“Drop it, friend.” The voice was quiet but menacing and came from the darkest part of the alley.

The man spun around and squinted into the dark, then brought the revolver around and pointed it into the dark. “Who the hell is that? Marshall?”

“No. It’s not the Marshall. Go on about your business, friend.” John Cook’s Colt Dragoon was steady as the man reeled drunkenly, taking several side steps just to stay on his feet.

The man cocked the small gun and yelled, “No sumbitch tells me what to do about no fuckin’ whore—”

He fired blindly into the dark, missing everything except a clapboard wall. In answer to his gunshot, there was a flash and a roar as John Cook’s Dragoon fired a single shot, splitting the man’s skull and killing him instantly.

The other man suddenly remembered urgent business elsewhere and took off running back to the side street.

When he was gone, Cook stepped out of the dark and gathered the sobbing Madeline into his arms. He walked her quickly into the building and they went upstairs. Soon there was a commotion in the back of the hotel as the town Marshall arrived.

“Stay away from the windows, Maddie,” John Cook said, “If we appear too interested, they may want to ask us about this . . . problem, and we don’t need that.”

“How . . . how did you come to be back there in the dark? Were you . . . spying on me?”

“No. I was just walking back from the casino and heard the commotion. I waited to see what would happen. Good thing I was there, I guess.”

“I could have handled him. I’ve handled worse.” Madeline stepped away from John, clearly agitated and having no idea that on another timeline, she was already dead. John decided she would most likely not believe him if he told her of her own death.

“It could have gone really wrong, though. I told you smoking was dangerous, Maddie.”

Her head whipped around, and she stared at him for a moment and saw the slight, sardonic smile. Next thing she knew, she was wrapped in his arms, and they were frolicking on the big feather bed. . . .



Level 4

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

Working in the sewers was definitely the shits. No pun intended.

Anthony McGill had been here six weeks. He wondered if he would ever get used to the smell. Probably not.

Beneath the city was a system of subterranean levels most people never even dreamed of, let alone saw.

He had come to New York City to study acting, never dreaming it would be so damned expensive. He'd found himself with a choice: get work or become a street person. Midwestern pride and work ethic had done the rest. So, even though he hated his job, he'd be here until something better came along.

Everyone told him there was no way he could ever get a city job. That the families and the unions controlled who got in and he wouldn't have a prayer. Then he walked into the city's human resources department and went to work the same day. Funny world. But then, maybe he looked the part. He was big and husky, dark and intense—with a beard that needed shaving twice a day and unruly black hair and blue eyes. He was "Tony" to his friends, of which, in New York he had exactly one so far. Norton. What a joke.

Norton was a sewer worker, the same as Tony. Norton was also the name of Art Carney's character in The Honeymooners, played opposite Jackie Gleason in the old sitcom, and a legendary sewer worker in his own right. So Norton took a lot of ribbing from his coworkers. Fortunately, he was too dumb to understand most of it.

Tony had taken his own share of bullshit too, of course. The other guys had told him all the normal sewer stories, trying to spook him. Most were already urban legends and he'd heard them before.

First, there was the alligator story.

Supposedly, people brought back baby alligators from Florida vacations all the time and when they found out just how unlovable the little bastards really were, they invariably flushed them down the can. Then, of course, they wound up in the sewer, where they supposedly thrived by feeding on all the food people routinely put down their garbage disposals, growing to tremendous size and becoming a deadly hazard to sewer workers. Yeah, right.

In addition to the 'gators, there were the rats. Now, it was different with the rats. At least they really existed. In a city the size of New York, there were quite literally millions of rats. So far, Tony had found them to be shy and prone to run and disappear at the first sign of a human.

The rat stories almost always depended on size for their punch. But then sewer workers were notorious bullshitters. He was sure there really weren't any rats as big as Cocker Spaniels down here. Pretty sure, anyway.

He had even heard a really disturbing spider story just the day before. This guy, (it was always someone's cousin's brother's father-in-law) was a foreman, so the story went, and he had come up one day and just quit, refusing to ever go down below again.

Seemed he had found an enormous web stretched across a tunnel, with strands of spider silk as thick as kite string and he'd seen several puppies and kittens hanging in it, paralyzed but aware of their surroundings. He had never seen the spider. He fled before that final revelation, to seek employment elsewhere—preferably above ground.

Tony wasn't lending any credence to that one at all. A spider that size was clearly impossible.

But, in spite of his disbelief in all the stories, he was still nervous. He had broken the cardinal rule of sewer workers just a few minutes ago and now he was trying to undo the damage. The cardinal rule was: don't get separated from your partner or your team.

There were very sound reasons for the cardinal rule, and they had nothing to do with alligators, rats, or giant spiders.

First, there was the fact of gas. Sewer gas is nothing more than methane, the same as swamp gas, but if it accumulates in a closed area, it is not only explosive, but it will replace the oxygen needed for human survival, so asphyxia can be a real danger. Then, there was the very real possibility of becoming lost in the labyrinth of tunnels. The city didn't want to pay overtime while you wandered about in the dark, so the joke went. And they didn't want the lawsuit when you freakin' died, either.

Norton had been there with him and they were doing inspections, examining drains and water levels, looking for blockages and debris. He had turned a corner and suddenly he was alone. He called out and received no reply. At first he did exactly what you were supposed to do in that situation. He had remained right where he was, waiting for the older, more experienced man to come back for him. But after fifteen minutes, he began to doubt that Norton was coming back. He was not yet in a state of panic—he had too much common sense for that, but he was nervous. Deodorant failure was imminent, not that it would matter down here.

They were on the fourth level, far enough below the teeming city streets that there was no traffic noise or even sound from the subway trains. There were only the sounds of flowing and dripping water and the hiss of steam. Sometimes the harsh clanking of pipes contracting or expanding, but nothing more.

At least that had been the case for the first half hour or so. Then he had started hearing other things. He wondered how much of what he was hearing was generated by his own active imagination. He hoped all of it was his imagination. He also hoped that what he was hearing was his coworkers messing with him. Some kind of ribald sewer initiation, maybe. Because, if it wasn't…

First he had noticed mewling sounds, not unlike what he would imagine that unfortunate kitten-in-the-web might make, but also not entirely unlike the cries of a newborn infant. Impossible of course, down here. But that was what it sounded like.

Then there was another sound that drifted to his suddenly over-sensitive ears, coming and going randomly. That one sounded like growling. Just vibrations from steam pipes, probably. But, what if it wasn't? What if it really was growling? What could it be? Dogs? There were a lot of strays in a city like New York, but how would dogs, even feral dogs, get down here? And how dangerous might they be? How hungry? Hungry enough to take on a single, unarmed man?

At first he had called out repeatedly, until it became apparent that he was alone and that he would remain that way until the initiation was over. If it was an initiation. Then he realized how plaintive and pitiful he sounded and he shut up. If there was something dangerous down here, there was no point in drawing it to him by crying like a bitch. Besides, the less noise he made the less his coworkers would have to snicker about later, at his expense. And the better he could hear.

And by now, he was hearing very well, indeed. He had moved away from where he and Norton had become separated and he'd come almost immediately to a five-point intersection. There were supposed to be signs posted here, but they had long since been torn down. His sense of direction was totally screwed and he really had no idea where he was.

From a tunnel to his left, a long, echoing whining cry issued and he felt his skin actually crawl. From his right, a low, almost continuous growl rumbled, like a tiger might make just before it pounced on something helpless and tasty. Tony bore to the left. Around a turn. Then another. Still another. He wasn't running. Not yet. But he was hustling right along. His heart was up for a run, though. It kept telling him, "look, Dude, le's ju's boogie!" He waded on in fetid water that contained unknowable and unthinkable things. His battery lantern was still holding up pretty well, but it wouldn't last forever and he knew one thing above all else. He didn't want to be down here in total darkness.

Then, as he shined his light ahead, he caught a glimpse of something moving and he instinctively hit it with the light. He stopped completely still then, trying to digest the enormity of what he was sure he'd just seen. What he didn't care to believe at all. He supposed it might have been a rat as big as a Cocker Spaniel, but no…

He was certain he'd seen a small, naked baby, crawling around the corner ahead. It was filthy and it appeared to be of Negroid extraction, and it had looked at him, glaring balefully into the light, then scooted on all fours out of sight.

Tony found himself breathing deeply of the stench of his prison and recalling another of those stupid stories…

Of all the dumb sewer tales he'd heard, the one about the aborted babies was the most far-fetched and therefore the one he'd paid the least attention to. The alligators and the giant rats were a bit of a stretch and the spider story was ridiculous. The abortion stories went even beyond that, to the point of being so outrageous that Tony found them to be deserving only of his contempt and a derisive snort of disbelief.

That poor mothers were having illegal and even self-induced abortions in a city this size was without a doubt true. That the unborn fetuses were being routinely flushed down toilets was also no doubt true. But the stories of those unwanted and discarded babies somehow survivinggrowing down here…turning perhaps into something less than human…or more than human…Tony shuddered as cool sewer air blew lightly across the back of his neck. But…what was that? Well, whatever it was, it had fled. And that was fine with Tony. He continued on, convinced that he would soon find a way out and he and his partner and coworkers would later have some laughs over a few beers as he recounted his adventures.

In minutes, however, he began to realize that most likely he was merely whistling past the graveyard. He came to another collection point—a large room steeped in utter darkness with several tunnels leading in and out. Here, his flashlight showed him what he was really up against and he began to know the meaning of true terror. He realized, as he felt his own urine soak the leg of his jeans, that even in the most far-fetched of tales, there may yet linger the smallest grain of truth, and that sometimes the reality is much worse than anything the imagination might provide.

In the weakening glow of the light he saw that he had stumbled across the place of orphaned survival, the nursery of the damned, where misshapen infants suckled at the deformed breasts of beings more demonic than human, beings who were the detritus of other, long-dead generations. Here, in the muck of human refuse and discarded food, survived the twisted unlikely, the deformed, malnourished freaks, long of fang and claw, immersed in filth and unknowable loneliness and at the same time swaddled in scathing hatred.

Tony had quite an imagination, but he could not fathom how anything, how anyone could survive down here in the inky blackness, survive and most likely reproduce themselves…he saw open, running sores, missing limbs, blinded eyes—whether from fighting amongst themselves or from the actual fact of forcible, late-term abortion, he could not know.

And there were hundreds…As Tony felt his mind begin to slip off over the edge and into the roaring abyss of madness, he was snapped back to reality by a firm hand upon his shoulder.

Next to his ear, Norton whispered, "Don't stare, Tony. Don't make eye contact. And don't turn around. Don't show 'em your back, or you're dead meat. Back toward the tunnel and keep your light on 'em."

Somehow, they made the tunnel and as they began to run away from that most miserable of places, Norton spoke again.

"One more thing, Tony."

"What's that?" He gasped, picking up speed, seeking light ahead.

"Mind the alligators!"

Tony could hear Norton cackling and wheezing along behind him, braying out great whoops of laughter and stumbling along in the darkness, right up until the stupid son-of-a-bitch began screaming.

 

 

 

“Level 4” was originally published in a chapbook, “The Gazing Ball” from Fossil Publications in 2006.



The Big Well

Kenneth James Crist

 

For Clinton LaRue the nightmare began in Greensburg, Kansas, on a sunny day in March 2014. Clint was traveling from his home in Pennsylvania to Colorado for a job interview. He would have preferred to fly, but money was tight. He hadn’t worked in almost six months and funds were running out, surely but not so slowly. As he came into the small town, he noticed a lot of new construction and then he wondered if this was the town he’d heard or read about that got wiped out by a tornado. Seemed like it was back in about 2007, or maybe 2006. Supposedly, they were rebuilding everything, but with a twist—Greensburg would now be the “greenest” town in America, with everything built to the latest, high-tech clean energy standards.

As he cruised slowly through the town, he noticed their single tourist attraction had apparently come through the tornado unscathed. There was the sign, “World’s Largest Hand-dug Well & Pallasite Meteorite, Left two blocks.”

Well, why the hell not? He found himself making the turn almost without thinking about it. He’d been sitting for hours and he needed a stretch and a restroom visit anyway. Might as well look at the big hole in the ground, too. Nobody can say I’m not a sport, he thought, as he parked and got out at the gift shop.

Inside, he walked around and looked at the tourist junk and found the restroom, then he paid his admission to see the big rock from space and the big hole. The meteorite was a thousand pounds of metallic iron ore, pocked and partially melted by its trip through the atmosphere and interesting in its own right, if one liked that type of thing.

The well was 109 feet deep and 32 feet in diameter, lined with concrete that was poured on the surface and lowered into place as the digging progressed. This task began in 1884. For its day, it was an engineering marvel. Clint decided he’d do the climb. He’d paid his money and he might as well get some exercise along with his history lesson.

At the bottom, there wasn’t all that much to see. A pool of water and a man-made cavern of sorts, and that was about it. He was alone at the bottom and he read the plaques and decided he might as well start back up. It would be a bit tougher than coming down.

Then, suddenly, he was no longer alone. There was a little brown-skinned guy in a turban standing there looking at him. He stood about four-foot-nothing and besides the turban, he wore baggy pants and those goofy shoes with the toes that turned up.

Clint hadn’t heard him come down the steps, which were iron, and they had made considerable noise as he came down. There was a peculiar smell in the air, too. As soon as he thought about it, Clint realized what it was. Ozone. The smell you get around electric motors and transformers, where high magnetic fields and sparks have changed ordinary oxygen, adding a third electron.

“What language, please?” the little man had his palms pressed together, fingers outward, and was bowing to Clint.

“Ahh . . . English, I guess . . .”

“Ahh, thank you, that is good. I am fluent in nearly all languages, but English is one of my favorites. So many nuances, so many homonyms and antonyms. It is a fun language. Now, how may I be of service, Sir?”

“Okay, ah . . . wait, what?”

“How may I serve you, Sir?” The little guy bowed again and then looked up, expectantly. Clint was reminded of his Jack Russell terrier, Bennie, when he was seeking a treat. The bright-eyed expectancy was spot-on.

“Serve me? Why would you . . . wait, who are you?”

“I am The Genie, Sir. At your service.”

“You’re a Genie. Riiight. Okay, nice meeting you, Gotta go. . . .”

“No, Sir. Not A Genie, Sir. The Genie. You see, I am me and there is only me. There are no others. . . .”

“Right. So, where’s your lamp, or bottle, or whatever? Aren’t you supposed to be freed from a lamp or bottle and grant wishes?”

“Oh, yes, Sir. That was in the olden days. It was actually a means of travel for me, you see . . . a type of portability. Now I get around in a Prius, like everyone else.”

Clint was starting to like this little guy, whoever he was. He sounded sort of like Rajesh Koothrappali, from The Big Bang Theory, or maybe Apu, the owner of Kwik-E-Mart from The Simpsons. Might as well have a little fun. . . .

“So, does that mean I get three wishes, then?”

“Oh, no, Sir. I only get to grant one wish and then only once every hundred years. Like everywhere else, we’ve had cutbacks, you see.”

“Oh, right, right. Cutbacks, yeah. The economy, I suppose.”

“Oh, no, Sir. Not the economy. It’s the lack of belief in magic and all that it entails. People today do not believe properly in magical things, spells, hexes, curses, and the like. They think it is all clever illusion, merely put on by charlatans to entertain and make money.”

Clint had decided to play along with this little charade for a while. “Okay, so what are you going to do for me, then?”

“Anything you wish, Sir. You may have wealth, you may have women, you may have any pleasures you like, but you must be careful, Sir. All things granted have their price, you see.”

“Going to capture my soul, or something? Steal it away?”

“Oh, no, Sir! I am not the devil. There is no black magic here. Only karma. But karma is very powerful. Choose wisely and think always of the outcome of your actions.”

Clint didn’t have to think very long. He remembered a book he’d read once, or maybe it was a short story, about a guy who asked for only one thing, but it was cleverly done. He looked at the little Genie and said, “I’d like to have a magic wallet that would always provide exactly the amount of money I need to cover the cost of anything I want to buy. You see, I’m not greedy, and I don’t need to be necessarily rich. But it would be nice to never have to worry about money, or holding a job.”

“It shall be yours, then,” The Genie said, “and thank you, Sir.”

“Why are you thanking me?”

“You have allowed me to continue my journey for another hundred years.”

There was that ozone smell again and then a blinding blue crackle and flash and Clint was once more alone. At his feet, lying on the concrete floor was a reddish-brown wallet of thin leather. He picked it up and opened it and found it empty. He almost tossed it in the well, but then he decided, what the hell?

“Okay, that was fuckin’ weird,” he said as he headed back up the stairs, “I’m gonna have to find out how they did that shit.” He shoved the wallet in his back pocket.

~~~~~

When Clint got ready to hit the road, he realized he needed gas and he pulled in at the Farm-Rite station on the main drag. He filled the tank on his old Ford Crown Vic, a car that had been a police car and had seen better days. He knew his Visa card was almost maxed out and he was very low on cash, but when he reached for his wallet, his hand found the other, new wallet instead. On impulse, he peeked inside and found $26.50 in cash. The exact amount showing on the pump. He leaned against the side of the Crown Vic and did some deep-breathing exercises for a minute, then went inside to pay. The wallet was now empty.

After paying for his gas, he had another thought and he went and got a sandwich, a bag of chips and a Coke from the cooler. The clerk rang them up and Clint opened the mysterious wallet. There was five dollars and seven cents—the exact amount on the register. Clint felt a grin starting to spread across his face. He paid for the snack and ran for the car.

Seventy miles down the road, Clint had another thought. Why was he rushing to a job interview, when he had in his pocket a wallet with an unlimited supply of money? Why did people work in the first place? To promote their livelihood, put food on the table, be able to buy the necessities of life in a modern society. He took the next exit, turned around and headed for home. Fuck the job, this was just too cool.

~~~~~

Clint arrived back in Pennsylvania in a new, gunmetal-gray Lexus with all the bells and whistles. The back seat and trunk were packed full of toys and gifts and he was giddy with his new-found wallet, the source of everything and anything he’d ever wanted.

Within a few weeks, he’d moved his wife and kids to a nicer house and paid it off in cash. The wallet had swollen to the size of a small briefcase to hold all the money required for that transaction, and the real estate company had three salesmen with counterfeit pens going over the hundred-dollar bills for hours.

Life became very idyllic in their little corner of the world. His wife Katie would later remember those days with fondness as some of the best times of their marriage. With two kids, Dawn and Michael, two dogs, one cat, and no mortgage, it seemed they were set for life.

~   ~   ~

The first visit from the IRS came seven months to the day after Clint’s visit to the World’s Largest Hand-dug well. Two Federal agents rang the bell of the $418,000 suburban ranch and quietly demanded to see all tax returns, pay stubs, payment receipts, and bank statements for the last seven years. Katie was all ready to spill the beans about the wallet, but Clint would have none of it. He knew that if the Federal government ever got their hands on a source of unlimited cash . . . well, look how far in debt the country already was. Politicians with a magic wallet? That could not be allowed. He’d go to jail first.

By the time the agents left, promising indictments soon to come for fraud, money laundering and God only knew what other charges, Clint and Katie were poised between a shit and a sweat, their fight-or-flight mechanisms in high gear. They opted for flight.

While Katie started packing stuff into Clint’s new Ram four-wheel drive pickup, he took the Lexus and went to pull the kids out of school. Upon his return, they packed kids, dogs, cat, and themselves into the truck and lit a shuck for Tennessee. The magic wallet was still working fine, covering all the bills, including the cost of the AR-15 rifle and ammo they bought just before they crossed out of Pennsylvania.

Within a few days, they were settled into a modest cabin on a small lake buried back in the hills and, at about the same time, they officially went on fugitive status with the feds. They carefully avoided going into town together. They always paid cash for everything. They kept to themselves, and hunted, and fished, and life went on.

Then Katie made a mistake and called her sister in Maryland from her cell phone while she was in town, shopping.

An operator at the NSA flagged and recorded the call and emailed it to an agent at the IRS. The exact cell tower that the call went through was pinpointed and the hunt was narrowed. Twelve million illegal immigrants went about their daily grind, unmolested by the federal government, while the La Rue family was mercilessly hunted down.

The agents camped in the town where the cell phone call was made, set up surveillance, and waited. By the time Katie came to town and did it again, almost a million dollars of taxpayer money had been wasted trying to prosecute people who had yet to break any laws.

As the IRS agents took Katie into custody in front of the hardware store, a small man in a blue Prius drove by, observing the action. This was getting good, he thought, but it was about to get better.

Katie gave up the location of the cabin in about five minutes. No torture required. Katie had always been a good girl, and she had been taught to obey authority figures. Did Clint have any weapons? Yes, he had a new rifle. What kind of rifle? It was an AR-something. Aha. An assault rifle. The agents parked her in the county jail to await further developments.

That was why she never got to see the FBI SWAT team move in on the cabin, and her husband heroically defend his right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, not to mention his right to protection from unreasonable search and his right to keep and bear arms.

At least the SWAT team didn’t set the cabin afire or kill the kids.

When it was all said and done, Katie only told one small lie. She had to admit she didn’t have any idea where Clint got his money. When the FBI handed over his personal effects, the wallet was in there.

Katie’s spending habits were much more modest than Clint’s had been. But it was nice that she was able to cover his final expenses so handily.

~~ END ~~



The Causeway

 

by

                                                                 

Kenneth James Crist

 

Peering down into the waters of Lake Ponchartrain, I saw the eyes, looking back at me. It hadn't really dawned on me that we were in trouble, until that point, but I was starting to get a glimmer.

We had been enroute from a family reunion in Findlay, Ohio, to our home in New Orleans. It had been a typical ordeal, full of sniper warfare, drunken accusations, and tears. Why do we always go? I have no good answer. I guess this year it was to show off the big, black Pontiac Bonneville that we could scarce afford, with all of the bills for our son's therapy . We bought it anyway, putting ourselves further in debt than I really care to be.

At the reunion, my mom had gotten into that old rap about how I had married beneath my station in life, and how Jody's family was trailer trash, and no wonder our son was retarded, etc. Our son really isn't retarded. He is autistic—highly intelligent, but locked into a world of his own creation, and unable—or unwilling—to deal with what we perceive to be the real world.

We had left the reunion exhausted and in an ugly mood and I had decided to drive straight through. At three-thirty in the morning, we came at last to the twenty-nine mile Causeway across Lake Ponchartrain, and at about the same time fog was settling in. I reduced my speed, as the wooly, thick gray mass enclosed the car in a cocoon of near-zero visibility.

It was three forty-six by the dashboard clock when the strangeness began. I had become sleepy as we droned along and I was catching myself dozing at the wheel. I kept checking the clock, as it and the odometer were the only references I had as to how much farther we had to go.

First, the clock stopped. It still displayed the time, but it didn't change. It continued to be three forty-six for several minutes, and I thought, "Just what I need. Another repair bill." After several miles, I turned on the dome light just long enough to see my wristwatch: Three forty-six. Well, even a busted clock is right twice a day.

I looked at the odometer, and saw 6049.4 miles. I kept glancing at it, waiting for it to roll up the next tenth, but soon  realized it wasn't working, either. When the car quit, it was almost funny. I mean, hell, it was practically a brand-new car. It shouldn't be breaking down. I coasted into a safety turnout and as I started to reach for the key, the lights faded and we were in total, thick darkness.

Jody stirred and asked, "We home yet?"

"Almost, babe. I'm just gettin' sleepy. I'm gonna stretch my legs and have a smoke." No sense in alarming her.

"Okay." She mumbled and laid her head back, and drifted off.

I opened the car door and stepped out, listening... listening for the sound of traffic coming, the sound of frogs, the slap of water, anything. The loudest thing I could hear was my own breathing. My life passing. I stepped around to the passenger side, dug out my smokes and lit up. There should be an emergency phone close, I thought, and I stepped over to the bridge rail and started walking and looking.

In thirty seconds or less, I found one, but the lamp was out and I had to fumble in the darkness to use it. At first, I merely heard silence. I lit my lighter, looking in the little phone cabinet to see if there was a dial or if it was a direct line. No dial, so somebody should pick up immediately. I jiggled the phone cradle a few times and still got no answer. Great. I'd picked the only non-working phone on the whole damn causeway to break down next to. Then I thought I heard something, very faintly, and I pressed the receiver more tightly to my ear.

"Hello? Hello? Hey, we need help out here!"

There was a return echo of my own voice, but it didn't sound quite right. It was like an imperfect recording, a bad tape. I realized that the other sound I had been hearing was a similar echo of my own breathing. I decided I'd walk a ways and try the next phone back, behind the car.

A quarter mile had never seemed like much distance at all. But alone, wrapped in near-perfect silence, it seemed like quite a hike. In the gloom, I nearly passed right by the next phone. It was suddenly there and I quickly yanked the box open and pulled out the receiver. As I put it to my ear, I heard the echo of my voice, saying, "Hello? Hello? Hey, we need help out here!" The quality had improved, though, since I had heard it a few minutes ago, on the other phone, a quarter mile away. It really sounded like me, now. Almost.

 

I stood in the fog for a few minutes, thinking about what I should do next. The total lack of any other traffic was very disturbing. The causeway connected Interstate 10 and Interstate 12, and it should have been busy with truck rigs, even at this hour. I struck my lighter, to look and see how long we'd been stranded here. With a shock, I realized that my watch still read the same as it did just before the car stalled: 3:46 A.M. This simply could not be, I thought, and I examined it more closely. The colon that separated hours from minutes was still. It should have been blinking on and off, once each second. Something had put my watch in stasis, and the dashboard clock in the Bonneville, as well. Was that same phenomenon affecting the phones? Did it also cause the car to quit?

I started hoofing it back to the car, where the two most important people in my life were still asleep. As I got in, I could just make out the shape of my wife in the right seat.

"Were you calling for help?" she asked quietly.

"I tried two of the emergency phones. They don't work."

"Did you try the cell phone?"

Christ! I'd forgotten the cell phone! I'd only had it a few days, a little perk given to me by my office. Since we were going out of town and I didn't want it stolen, I'd put it in the trunk. Grinning sheepishly in the darkness, I said, "Actually, I forgot all about it."

For once, Jody didn't have anything shrill or nasty to say. Maybe her supply had exhausted itself at the reunion. I slipped out of the car, fumbled with the keys, opened the trunk and groped around for a minute, finally finding the cell phone. Hit the switch and was rewarded with a lighted keypad. Dialed 911 and put it to my ear. Then incredibly, I heard my own voice saying, "Hello? Hello? Hey, we need help out here!"

I jerked the offending instrument away from my ear, and my mouth was hanging open, breathing in acres of thick, fishy-smelling fog as I stared at it in disbelief. From it came my own voice again, as it repeated, "Hello? Hello? Hey, we need help out here!" Then the lighted keypad faded and went out.

I got myself under control after a few minutes. How could my own voice be captured by a cell phone minutes after I had talked on the emergency phone? It had scared the shit out of me, pure and simple. I walked back around to the driver's door, opened up and slid inside.

"Are they coming?" Jody asked.

"Most definitely." I answered, although at the time I had no idea who they were.

 

I sat in the car for a few moments, gathering my wits and thinking about our situation. Sooner or later, someone would have to come along and I would hear them well before they came out of the fog. I should be able to flag someone down. Then I remembered the flares.

I had road flares, three of them, in a kit in the trunk. Once again, I slid out of the car and went around to the trunk. I hauled out my lighter and quickly found the kit and extracted the flares. Now, I would just need to stay outside the car, listen for the vehicle that was bound to come soon, and lay a flare path on the road to indicate trouble. I stepped over to the railing, listening to the slap of water from below, stuck a cigarette in my mouth and snapped my lighter. When I had it going, I leaned on the rail, looking out into the night.

As I smoked, my gaze wandered downward and I saw something move directly below me. I focused on the water, dimly realizing that there was little or no fog under the bridge, and that was when I saw the eyes. At first, I did not recognize them as eyes. They looked like thousands of tiny red points of light and I thought perhaps they were some type of phosphorescent creatures, glowing to attract mates, or food. Then they blinked. It was as though they were "doing the wave", that is, their eyes closed, then reopened, in a solid movement, sweeping from my left to my right, taking a few seconds to cross the massed thousands that were directly below me, under the causeway.

I stepped back from the rail in confusion, then turned and walked about fifty feet from the car and looked over again. The water was at first perfectly black, but then I saw a pair of red eyes, then another, then thirty, then hundreds and thousands. They assembled beneath my position, a rapt audience waiting for me to perform.

I reached a shaking hand to my back pocket and withdrew one of the road flares, briskly pulling the tab and squinting against the glare as it burst into pinkish, reddish fire. If Hell really burns, it is probably the color of road flares.

I held the flare aloft, out over the bridge rail and I leaned out to better examine the creatures below. Now I saw no eyes, but on the piling directly below me, I saw a slick, black mass oozing back into the water and even as I watched, the gray concrete began to reappear. They had been halfway up the bridge pier. They had been coming up to the deck, to the roadway!

I stood rooted to the spot, watching the calm surface of the lake, until the flare burned too far down for me to hold it any longer. I laid it on the rail, and retreated to the car. When I got in, I locked the doors and Jody asked from the darkness, "What is it? What did you see?"

"I'm not sure. Something in the lake, watching me."

"Oh, yeah. Right." she said, sarcasm making her sound tired.

"I think we may be in trouble." I said.

"Well, hell, yes, we're in trouble," she said, "I'd like very much to get home. Is there any reason why we seem to have no traffic at all, here?"

"I've been trying to figure that out," I said, "and I think it has something to do with time flow."

"Time flow."

"Yeah."

"You lost me."

"Well, the clock on the dash was on the same time for several minutes before the car died, and my watch has read 3:46 for all the time we've been here."

"Something's stopping time?"

"It would appear so."

"Bullshit! You just do something to get us out of here, mister!" she was beginning to get shrill.

"Ease off a little, hon. Let's not wake up Seth, okay?"

"Why? Don't want to deal with your son?"

"Jody..."

"Don't Jody me, goddamn it! You know you resent the hell out of him for screwing up your life and causing you the inconvenience-"

I reached over and placed my hand gently over her mouth to still her and she started to push my hand away, then she looked where I was looking, at the tiny red eyes pouring over the bridge rail, right next to the car.

"What...what is that? Tim?"

"Shhh! Be quiet. I don't know what it is. It's what I saw in the lake."

"Are those eyes?"

"Yes."

"Is it like crabs or something?"

"No."

"Well, what is it?"

"I don't know."

"You didn't see them?"

"Yeah, I did. But I don't know what they are."

"What did it look like?"

"Just those eyes, in a black shiny mass, slick looking, like soft jelly..."

"Stop."

"Well, you asked..."

Just then, the right front tire went flat with a hiss, and Jody screamed, waking Seth.

I listened to her as she took in breath for another scream, and I said, "Stop it! Jody, that won't help! You're only going to scare Seth!"

"It's coming for us! We're gonna die!"

I could find no fault with her reasoning as I frantically twisted the ignition key one more time. I knew that it wouldn't start, but I was scared beyond rational thought and was thinking only of escape. I turned the ignition switch again and again, as though I could wish the car to start.

Glancing to my right, past my wife, I could still see the blackness, speckled with red eyes, sliding over the bridge rail, moving more quickly now, almost eagerly, to surround the car.

The left front tire let go with a bang, the car settled on my side. Jody screamed again and then did something I had never heard her do before: she lapsed into praying.

I looked out at the ground on my side of the car and realized it was slick and black and moving. The car was completely surrounded and the red eyes were sparkling almost gleefully, as the attack began to build momentum.

From the corner of my eye, I saw movement and my vision snapped back to the end of the hood, where a thin layer of black was flowing up over the metal. Steam or smoke appeared to be rising from the mass. As I watched it move closer to the windshield, I realized that it was dissolving the paint on the car's finish. Jody interrupted her Rosary long enough to open her eyes, take one look around, and begin screaming again.

From the back seat came an accompanying wail of anguish. Now Seth was wide awake and scared, too. He was yelling in response to Jody's screams as she became more frantic.

As the mass of black nastiness approached the windshield, I remembered the lighter gripped tightly in my hand. I flipped it open and struck the spark wheel and I was rewarded with a good, steady flame.

I waved the lighter at the inside of the windshield glass and watched as the mass retreated from the light. I now could clearly see bare, shiny steel where only moments ago there had been glossy black baked-on paint. If they could do that to auto paint, I thought, they'd make short work of us.

I had no sooner completed the thought than the right rear tire deflated with a hooting sound like a New Year's noisemaker.

"God, Tim, do something!"

"What? What can I do? I'm open here. Give me some suggestions!"

"I don't know, but they're gonna get us!"

The lighter was growing hot in my hand and I knew it wouldn't be long before I would have to close it and let it cool, or find a way to hold it until it ran out of fuel.

"Where are the rest of the flares?"

They were in my back pocket. "Here! Right here. But I can't light one in here. Hell, it'll set the car on fire."

"Can you light one quick, and toss it out on the ground?"

"I can maybe do better than that," I said, "I can try to land it on the hood or the top."

I started to light one of the flares and suddenly froze. "Shit!"

"What?" she asked, her voice rising again.

"I won't be able to get the window down. They're power windows."

"You'll have to open the door."

I lit the flare and sparks started cascading onto the seats and my clothing. In seconds I was able to quickly crack the door and wave the flare down toward the pavement, driving the mass back until I could reach up over the top of the car. I laid the flare as far out into the center of the roof as I could reach and pulled my arm back in and slammed the door.

Now there was bright hell-light all around the car and the mass had retreated far enough into the fog that it was invisible. I listened to the hiss of the burning flare, knowing I could do this trick only one more time and then we were history.

When the flare began to sputter and its light started to die, I reluctantly lit the last one.

I pulled the tab, and opened the car door again and set it on the top. Now we had just the amount of time it would take for the flare to burn, then we were meat for these things, whatever they were.

As we waited out our time I began thinking back over my life and I realized that my years with Jody and Seth, in spite of all our problems, were the best years of my life. I mused on my life and our relationship until the last flare went out.

Soon, the red eyes were back, staring in greedily at us. Jody had started screaming again, only now I held her and told her to keep her eyes closed. I continued to watch, though, and soon the windows of the car were completely covered.  

Seth was becoming more agitated and he was yelling long streams of meaningless gibberish. It just went on and on and it truly got on my nerves until, after he'd been doing this for several minutes, I realized that the mass outside wasn't making any more progress. It had stopped. I got the distinct impression that it was listening.

Seth kept babbling away, now with his volume up, yelling his nonsense words, and I realized that it all sounded different. I had never heard these particular sounds before from Seth and the more I listened, the more I began to notice that it was one phrase repeated over and over. Soon, the mass began to ease back down the glass, as if in retreat, and then the car suddenly filled with pulsing red and blue light. Jody started to freak again, but I hushed her and told her it was all right. It was the Highway Patrol.

 

The Pontiac had to be towed. The two Troopers were amazed at the condition of the Bonneville. They had never seen anything like it and neither had I. They had seen the blackness rapidly retreating from our car as they pulled up.

Why they had even been allowed that close was something I could not understand. After our rescue, I looked at my watch and it was running right on time. The time we had spent trapped there on the Causeway was time that we just lost, somehow. I couldn't understand why the Trooper's car would run, and what had broken the spell of the time-suspension thing, if that term is not too inaccurate.

Now I believe it was Seth. I think that on some level that we can't understand, Seth was able to communicate with them and that he drove them back.

It's been almost two months since the Causeway, but it is far from over. The insurance company replaced the car. They said it was not salvageable and with no argument bought me a new one. I think someone wanted it. Maybe it's being held as evidence. I don't know.

One night last week I started thinking about possible ways the black mass could get to my house. The Department of Public Works assures me that there are no direct sewage runs out to Lake Ponchartrain, that don't go through a treatment plant. But there are the storm sewers.

Three nights ago, the telephone rang and when I answered it, I heard my own voice, very clearly, saying, "Hello? Hello? Hey, we need help out here!" I haven't mentioned that to Jody.

We came home from an evening out tonight and sent the babysitter home. As I got ready for bed, I went into the bathroom and I smelled that close, cloying, fishy smell. When I picked up the lid of the stool, there was a black scum in the water. I flushed it, and I haven't said anything to Jody about that, either.

Seth has been sleeping in our room, ever since the Causeway, and I think that's a good idea.

 

Published on Skin and Bones website, 1999



Girl of My Dreams

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

 

For a silly old bastard like me to have a wet dream was automatically two things: ridiculous and fascinating.

Ridiculous because up until it happened the first time, I’d thought I was past that sort of thing. Nocturnal emissions, that is. That’s the proper term. Nocturnal, like an animal. A predator or scavenger, perhaps. Emissions like something to be hidden from and lied about to an all-powerful agency, like God or the EPA.

Fascinating, though, not because of the fact that, in the night, or more correctly, the false dawn, I became erect and shot a fair-sized load of the ol’ jism onto my sheets, but because of the manner in which it started. Or the manner in which it was accomplished.

I suppose every adolescent boy has his “dream girl”. In his horny, pimply, itchy young body, crammed with raging hormones, unless he’s extremely lucky and regularly “scores with chicks,” he invents one. She’ll have all the attributes he thinks he’d want in the perfect girl. And of course she’ll pledge her undying love and devotion to him and only him. This is way before reality sets in.

Mine was probably not much different than most. Her made-up name was Angie. She didn’t need a last name. That would have made her too complicated. First rule of imaginary friends and lovers: Keep it simple.

She had what I always thought of as smoky blonde hair. A color rarely if ever seen, outside the pretty extensive confines of my own mind. Dark eyes, darker than brown. A pug nose and perfect teeth. A willowy body and smooth, supple skin that glowed in moonlight. Perfect, round breasts with darkly prominent nipples. Yeah, well, I was a teenaged pervert. Or maybe not. I was probably disgustingly normal.

Angie stayed with me all through high school and even into the military. Then I met some real women and I lost her. As my actual life’s experiences accumulated, Angie dwindled until she was just gone.

Then, one morning, she came back, more real than ever to me, and I found myself at the age of 55, showering semen off my belly at 5:30 AM. Had I not by this time been living entirely alone, it might have been quite embarrassing.

As hot water coursed down my hairy old legs and I scrubbed my own spunk from my body, I thought about the passing of my wife, the untimely death of my only child and the number of friends who had also died in the last few years. I also thought about what had happened there in the semi-dark bed.

I had smelled her first. A spicy, exotic scent that seemed to contain many smells that were readily identifiable. Coffee and cinnamon, mint and jasmine. Hot sweat and damp hair. And some others I couldn’t even guess at. This was odd, because I could never remember dreaming of smells before.

Then, her weight moved the bed as she slid in beside me and I felt the slickness of her gown, like satin or silk and the whispered sweetness of her breath on my ear. In the darkness I could not see her clearly, but I could feel her body as she came out of her wrap. I tasted her skin as she straddled me and leaned forward, allowing my face into the smoothness between her breasts. My hands felt and cupped her there, felt the hardness of nipples, the tautness of belly and thighs. I heard her breath catch as I slid deep into her hotness and the growling engine of her hips began to pound me into the mattress, into submission. Still half asleep and wallowing in the dream, I heard her moans and gasping pleasure and soon I fired that embarrassing mess into my bedding.

I reached to hold her close to me, but my hands were filled only with clammy, cum-stained sheets. That was the first time. Of course, it was damn sure not the last.

Over a few weeks it became clear that somehow, Angie had come back. Somehow, she had found me. And she was more real than she had ever been to me when I was a kid. When she was just a figment of my imagination.

Gradually, it became clear that when Angie came to me, it was never really a dream. True, the first time or two I was half asleep, but soon I began to need her visits, to look forward to the fleeting time we spent together. I was making sure I was awake for her. And the sex was becoming more real, more frantic, more intense.

Sometimes I was able to pin her down and drive her to ecstasy for most of an hour before she would somehow slip away into the darkness. As our coupling became more intense, she also became more substantial, more real in the sense of being flesh and blood. And I no longer found embarrassing emissions in my bed.

But soon, I found other things. A few weeks into the experiences, I was changing the bedding one morning after a particularly wild early-morning romp with my sweet succubus, when I found a long, smoky-blonde hair. I think my jaw hung open for some time and I imagined, as from another room, tinkling laughter. Frantically, I searched the bed, the covers, the surrounding floor, but there was nothing else. Just one hair. One hair of a particular color I had never seen outside my dreams.

A week later it was a broken-off fingernail, nail polish still clinging to it. By that time, the nighttime encounters were reaching a frantic pace. We never had conversation. Our intercourse was strictly sexual, not social. But Angie was showing up most every night for a bout of passionate love-making, and she seemed not to care what I did to her. I could kiss, hold, fondle, touch, screw and practically batter her raw and never hear a complaint.

Then she left dirt in my bed. I found several clods of moist earth, not large ones, but they had apparently been clinging to her feet, as they were in that area toward the foot of the bed. Mildly disgusted, I set about stripping the bed again, when my attention was caught by something else that flipped out onto the carpet. I knelt and examined it, then with a somewhat shaking hand, I picked up a white, shiny tooth, a well-cared-for bicuspid, by the look of it. On close examination, it showed no remaining portion of a live root or any blood. In fact, it looked suspiciously as though it might have rotted from a jawbone.

I had saved the hair and the fingernail in a small box in my top dresser drawer, as something tangible that I could go and look at whenever things got too freaky. Some parts of her to dispel the idea of madness that kept wanting to creep in around the edges of my psyche.

To the box, I added the tooth. As I closed the dresser drawer that day, I felt a tear start down my cheek and I quickly wiped it away. I was too old for this shit. Too old for love and what I sensed was coming. And definitely too old for wet dreams.

I was glad when Angie began to talk to me at last. It made things easier to understand and easier to deal with. One morning after our typical frantic, rolling, mutual fuck-fest, as I lay beside her, waiting for her to disappear, and wishing I could just hold her for a while, she spoke.

“You were my dream, too, you know.” Her voice was a husky whisper, with a ringing echoey quality to it that chilled my bone marrow. It was a voice that traveled across an abyss of cold darkness on a narrow, swaying, dangerous footbridge of need.

Startled, I merely said, “What?”

“The man of my dreams. When I was a young girl. I finally found you.”

“But how…?”

“I’ll be back. It’s getting light out.”

She was gone, but now communication had opened up. My anticipation of her next visit heightened. I would learn more about how this was all possible and I would keep Angie forever…

 

That was two weeks ago. This morning, I again arose after our typical bout of lusty pleasure. There was quite a lot of her hair in my bed this morning. Along with more of her teeth and some sloughed-off skin. The bedding required very hot water because there were other things there, things that squirmed. Things I’d rather not think about. Along with more dirt. Quite a lot of dirt. It’s getting bad and I’m not sure what I’ll do, but I’ve got an idea. I’m in the shower right now and it’s the first time I’ve ever brought a gun into the bathroom with me.

Angie wants me. Angie needs me. That footbridge is out there, swaying in the darkness, above the roaring abyss, the fraying ropes threatening to let it drop at any time. I feel I must hurry, or all will be lost. You see, it never occurred to me that I might outlive the girl of my dreams…

 

Girl of My Dreams first appeared in the chapbook, Dreaming of Mirages, in 2000, by Fossil Publications, Wichita, KS.


Milepost 44

 

                                                                  

Kenneth James Crist

 

 

In front of the crackling fire, Angela snuggled more closely to Martin. Around the old cabin they had refurbished together, the winter wind moaned and they pulled each other still closer. Soon, they would make love, probably in front of the fireplace, but for now, they sipped wine and held each other, so completely in love that time was not a factor, as long as they were together.

Moaning and thrashing, Martin came awake just before the bad part of the dream started. That was good, because he wasn't certain he could live through it even one more time. The midnight call. Rushing down Bluebell Lane. The icy curve, the cop cars with their lights spinning, turning everything into blood-red stop-action. The paramedics, their breath steaming in the biting cold, shaking their heads and moving away from the still form, under the orange plastic tarp.

She had looked so much smaller in death than in life and she was so brutally smashed....he sat on the edge of his bed, their bed, and remembered the blood and broken glass in her hair. The broken feel of her bones moving inside her as he had held her in a last, desperate attempt to feel her alive. Curiously, one of his most vivid memories of that horrid night was of how her feet had looked, minus their shoes. Somehow her feet had looked vulnerable, pathetic. She had been hit so hard that she had been knocked right out of her loafers and into eternity. Finally, they had forced him to let Angela go so they could take her away.

He had managed to live through the funeral in a state of numbness. He found if he could keep wrenching his thoughts away from Angela, he was able to function on a level of consciousness that made him seem almost normal. It was as though he was a marionette, with someone off-stage pulling the strings. He was somehow able to say the right things at the right times and he got through it. Everybody said it would get better, with time. They were wrong. Actually, they were all full of shit. It wasn't getting any better at all.

They had been married just three months at the time of the accident and there wasn't even a drunk driver to blame. The lady who lost control of her Lexus was going the speed limit or less and just lost it on the ice. She was in a state of shock and had to be hospitalized for two days, herself.

Martin never knew why Angela was out walking on Bluebell Lane after midnight. He had been asleep for hours when the call came and when he first got the call, he had searched the house for her, knowing there had to be some mistake. She was with him, so how could she be two miles down the road toward town? But the truth was evident soon enough. Angela had taken a walk after midnight on a bitterly cold night in December and gotten herself killed.

Martin got up and went to the bathroom to get a sleeping pill. He had early court in the morning and if he didn't get some sleep, he'd be wasted.

 

 

"Hey there, Little Lady! Where ya headed?"

Over the clatter of the idling diesel, the trucker heard her say, "Just into town. Gotta get a last minute gift for my hubby."

She climbed up into the warmth of the huge cab of the Kenworth Conventional and the trucker looked her over by the lights of the instrument panel. She was young and pretty, he thought, and just about the same age as his daughter, Maggie.

"Not a good idea, out walkin' by yerself at night." he commented, as he released the air brake and snatched the rig into gear.

"Yeah, I know," she said, "I've always been told that, but I've never had a minute's trouble with anyone that's given me a ride. My hubby's old Volvo wouldn't start for me, so I decided to hike."

"Yeah, well, ya just can't be too careful, is all I'm sayin', ya know?"

"Yeah, that's for sure."

The trucker shifted his way up through five gears and split the axle and started over.

"Ya say ya gotta go get a present? Don't know if you'll find anythin' open, this time a night..." He looked to his right and found he was riding alone. He hit the air brakes and pulled to the side, stopping the rig and locking it down, then he got out a flashlight and checked the inside of the sleeper and the complete underside of the rig. He even walked back a hundred yards, finding nothing. Then he continued on into town and did something he absolutely never did. He parked the rig and went into the nearest tavern and had four beers.

 

Christmas had been a complete horror for Martin. The worst, and at the same time the best, had been Christmas morning, when he had sat by himself and opened the presents she had bought for him. He had laughed at some and been puzzled by others and then he had wept bitterly over the whole mess. It was an exhausting day, with visitors coming and going, all meaning well and unwilling to give him the one gift he craved most: solitude. It was the first day he contemplated suicide, and it was not to be the last.

 

Even though he was sleeping poorly, it seemed to Martin that he slept through springtime, at least he didn't remember much of it. Summer came upon him suddenly and like Rip Van Winkle, he found it confusing. Could it really have been six months? Where had the time gone? And why didn't the pain go with it?

On the sixth of June he found himself in town, sitting in a tavern. It wasn't the kind of place anyone from his law practice would expect to find him, and that was precisely why he was there. He didn't want company. He wanted a sandwich and some beer. Maybe a lot of beer. He'd been doing this quite a bit, lately. Drinking as much of his meals as he was eating. He knew alcohol didn't solve problems, but he didn't consider his problem solvable anyway. All he wanted was to numb his mind and spirit a little, so the pain and loneliness would let up.

Three beers later, his wandering mind started catching phrases of conversation from other tables. Most of it was meaningless babble, until he heard a big, older guy in a plaid shirt say, "Yeah, she was in my truck, man. Swear to God. Picked her up on Bluebell Lane and talked to her. I mean, we had conversation, ya know? Then, poof! She's gone! I'm freaked out, man! Never had anythin' like that happen to me before. Don't care to have it happen again, neither."

Martin turned and looked at the guy, staring, thinking maybe this guy knows about Angela....maybe it's some kind of cruel joke, but the guy looks straight, like a good, family man.

Picked her up on Bluebell Lane. Martin refused to believe it. A story like that was pure bullshit. He got up and tossed some bills on the bar and left, a little angry at the guy in the plaid shirt, and at himself for even entertaining the thought that she might somehow be out there...but his mind desperately, deeply wanted to believe it.

 

 

By mid-July Martin had heard the story twice more, once in the same bar, but from a different driver and once as water-cooler gossip at his own office, gossip that faded into silence at his approach.

There was this girl, who hitchhiked on Bluebell Lane, and when she got into the car, she disappeared. She was apparently young and pretty, and those who picked her up got quite a shock when she just suddenly wasn't there anymore.

Martin still thought it was bullshit, but he wasn't sleeping any better than before. Soon, he found himself getting dressed whenever he couldn't sleep and cruising his old Volvo up and down the four-mile stretch of state highway that was called Bluebell Lane, sometimes far into the small hours of the morning. His work at the law firm was going to shit and he always looked like he was strung out or doing drugs. A lot of the water cooler gossip was becoming gossip about him.

Martin didn't care. At some point, he had decided that he had to know if she was somehow out there, somehow seeking him, somehow still loving him.

Yes, he knew she was dead. At least she was dead from the standpoint of this dimension or astral plane or whatever they called it. But what if she really walked the roads at night, looking for him? She might do that for eternity, without ever finding him. The only thing that was harder for him to bear than his own pain was thinking about Angela being in as much pain as he was.

On the seventeenth of August, a few minutes after midnight, Martin was parked on Bluebell Lane, a hundred yards from the spot where she'd died. He was so exhausted that he'd been falling asleep at the wheel. He had pulled to the shoulder and parked, engine idling, air conditioner clicking on and off, keeping the car's interior cool. Then there was a tapping on the glass of the passenger side window and his head came up with a jerk. His mind was half-asleep, muddled and confused. He had been dreaming of Angela and now she was here. Was this still the dream? He stared at her for a moment, red-eyed and stupid from lack of sleep, then he reached across and unlocked the door on her side. The door opened and closed and she slid in next to him.

Her perfume filled his nostrils, her hair filled his hands and her cool lips found his. He felt his heart completely stop in his chest and he didn't care, then it reluctantly began ticking along again. They broke apart and he looked into her face. She was just as she had always been and there was no blood or glass in her hair.

Red and blue lights came on behind the car and Martin looked back. Sheriff's deputy. When he turned back to Angela, she was gone.

The deputy came up to the window and found Martin St. James, 31, white male, crying for no apparent reason. His logsheet would show that it was near Milepost 44, where subject's wife was killed nine months prior. Subject agreed it was not a good place to park. Subject appeared sober, but distraught. Subject agreed to move on.

 

Every day Martin went to the office and went through the motions of being a lawyer. Once he had handled high-powered clients and they had been grooming him for possible partnership. Now he was handling DUI's and traffic tickets, small claims court and uncontested divorces. His powers of concentration were shot, his mind filled with those moments with Angela. Was it real, or the fading remnants of a dream? If it had merely been a dream, why had he been able to smell her perfume, still lingering in the car the next morning?

He was consumed now with the need to find her again, to repeat the experience, to talk with her. On their first encounter, if it was real, he reminded himself, they had spoken not a word. But if he could make it happen again, if he could have more time, if he could somehow communicate with her, he was convinced that he would then know what to do.

Each night, without fail, he cruised the Volvo up and down Bluebell Lane in a search that at times seemed hopeless and at other times seemed only moments from fulfilling his deepest desire, to find and be with Angela.

On September thirteenth, she was there. He rounded the curve, and she was just standing there, waiting on him. In the headlights, in the pouring rain, she was as substantial as any person he'd ever seen. He stopped and unlocked the door and she slid into the seat. The lump in his throat was huge, trying to keep him silent, but she spoke first.

"Don't drive anywhere, Martin. I can't go too far from my spot. I get weak when I get too far from my spot and then I have to find my way back."

He looked at her and realized with some dim part of his mind that even though she had just gotten in out of a driving rainstorm, she was perfectly dry. Not a drop of water stained her clothing or clung in her hair. He reached for her and she came into his arms and he said, "God, Angela, I've missed you so much."

"I know, Martin, but you can't go on this way. I can't either. We've got to put it to rest. I've got to move on and so do you. You have to get on with your life."

"Then there's no way we can be together?"

"We'll be together again someday. You have to live your life first."

"I can't do that without you, Angela. I'd sooner die."

"You need to think about all you'll miss if you choose not to live any more. Is it worth it, just to be with me?"

"I think so."

"Don't be too hasty, Martin." she said, then she leaned forward and kissed him briefly on the lips. "Don't worry, we'll talk again."

He tried to hold on to her, to keep her with him, but her seemingly real flesh became as insubstantial as smoke and she was gone. Grimly, he set his jaw and drove home.

 

 

As October set in and the trees began to turn, Martin's work began to improve. He was sleeping more soundly, when he did sleep, and he didn't seem as dazed as he had been for so many months. It seemed he had finally turned the corner on his grief and gotten a handle on his life, that he would be able to go on. The senior partners began looking at him again, thinking perhaps someday...

 

On October thirty-first, Halloween, she was there for him again. He pulled to the side and let her into the car. They embraced and he could once again hold her and touch her and speak with her.

"You've made your decision, haven't you?" she asked.

"Yes."

"Are you sure?"

"Absolutely," he said, "if you'll be with me."

"I'll always be with you, Martin."

"Can I drive up the road a ways? I want it to happen close to your spot."

"Sure. I've been saving my strength for this night. Just don't go too far."

Martin cruised the Volvo slowly up Bluebell Lane until he reached his driveway, then he turned the car around. Angela was still with him, though she had started becoming harder to see. As they started back down the hill, Martin unhooked his safety harness. The car was too old to have air bags. A half-mile from her spot, Angela snuggled against him and he put his arm around her.

"I love you, Martin." he heard her say, as he aimed at the tree that stood sixty feet from Angela's spot near Milepost 44, and he stood on the accelerator. He closed his eyes and inhaled the smell of her perfume and thought what a lucky guy he was to be with Angela.

 

“Milepost 44” was previously published in Black Petals-Anniversary issue, 1999 and in Skin and Bones E-zine, also in 1999






















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