The Day before the Custody Hearing
had to understand I was in control. At Camp Delta 1,
where the non-compliant prisoners in orange jumpsuits were held, it always worked that
way. You bark the order, even in pigeon Arabic, and they do it. All hajjis learned
that sooner or later. Few of us are made for torture, physical or mental. Psychological
terror is worse. I’ve seen brutal men handle enormous pain with defiance, but get
a worm of fear into their heads, you own them.
LeeLee’s husband into a chair, pointed the Taurus
at him seconds after he walked inside the house. I’d been there for an hour already,
preparing my props, drugging his mother’s wine. The ported barrel is for target re-acquisition,
but it makes a big impression leveled at your nose. Monica, his mother, bought my story
without hesitation that I was from Brian’s office, a gofer sent on an underling’s
errand; my one and only suit, polished shoes, and attaché case from the local Goodwill
convinced her as much as my syrupy flattery about her son, “my boss,” whom
I despised more than anyone on Earth, the exact inverse proportion of my love for LeeLee,
lying in her Caribbean grave in Charlotte Amalie.
had been looking over amuse-bouche recipes in a gourmet
magazine and sipping her expensive Bordeaux when I knocked. She went down fast, thanks
to the Zolpidem I slipped into her glass when I sent her off in search of spreadsheets
I was there to collect for Brian. I undressed and positioned her body on Brian’s
bed where my other props were strategically placed among the swirl of bedsheets.
at the breakfast nook in the kitchen, I parted the sheers,
watching for Brian’s Spyder convertible to pull up the long, horseshoe driveway.
“Where’s my mother? If you hurt
“I ought to hurt her for
shitting out a weasel like you.”
He cut his eyes from side
to side, jumpy.
“Fight me, you’ll
get one in the stomach. I have nothing to lose.”
threatening and cursing me, and began babbling about money. People like Brian believe money
will buy anyone.
“Keep it. You’ll need it for
I lit my Chef’s torch for
browning meringues and crème brulét. His pupils dilated as the flame came close enough
to the skin of his face to hurt.
“I’m not going to use this to
melt cheese. I’m going to make you beg to be put out of your misery. You just entered
the portals of hell. Abandon hope.”
Cornpone lines borrowed
from contractors back at the base in those special interrogation rooms.
I torched a small sirloin positioned
beneath his mother’s arm. The hissing, like a basket of snakes, filled the room with
the smell of burning meat. Reaching under the sheets for the gauze, I wrapped her limp
arm. His imagination convinced him I was the monster I said I was.
always knew LeeLee was a low-class, cum-swapping slut,
but how did she hook up with someone like you?”
Tied by wrists to the posts
beside her, he begged for me to spare his mother.
“People say it burns
like ice at first. Let’s see.”
I ripped away his shirt.
I lit the torch but did nothing for a few seconds, letting his mind work on the
incredible pain he was about to experience. Putting on a glove, I touched his bare back
with a chunk of dry ice I’d palmed, another prop in the charade.
His scream could have shattered
glass. I did it again—and again. His body writhed and jerked away from me. I added
threats—how long I could do this, where I could burn him, and when I’d charbroiled
every inch of his flesh, including his genitals, I said I was going to start on his mother’s
A sadist’s work but no fun for
me. We were taught to make it convincing. Destroy them mentally and you own them, according
to our psych ops specialist.
I jerked him upright while he
sobbed, peeling away the rest of his clothing, and cutting his bonds. He didn’t resist.
“Take your cock in your hand and
place it on her lips.”
“Do it now.”
pointed the torch at his crotch.
Without another threat,
he walked around the bed to her, holding his flaccid penis. Botoxed, lipoed, enhanced by
several cosmetic surgeries, she was an aging beauty fighting time with her husband’s
money. I pulled the sheet away from her augmented breasts.
“Make yourself hard.”
“I . . . I can’t!”
Before she died, LeeLee
told me his mother would allow Brian to crawl into bed with her and nuzzle her breasts.
Her own words to me: It didn’t stop until high school, how sick is that?
realized it at that moment, but when LeeLee killed herself, that germ of my revenge for
how he destroyed her emotionally and mentally, the forced incest, burrowed into my
skull like a worm.
Holding my cell close for detail, I videotaped
his penis rubbing his mother’s lips—her half-lidded eyes could pass for erotic
bliss by any viewer. The drug wouldn’t last much longer. As if to assist me, she
moaned. I zoomed on a spider strand of gossamer cum connecting his cockhead to the philtrum
above her upper lip. With luck, she’d never know what happened after she passed out.
I doubt that Brian would confess what I put him through. I’m past the point of redemption.
Too much violence has numbed me.
try to do anything about this, I’ll upload it
to YouTube faster than rats can fuck. Show me you understand what I just said.”
“Only the judge will see this.
He’ll award your daughter to LeeLee’s parents, those low-class people you despise.
If you contest it, I’ll upload the video to every name in your mother’s address
The mother made gurgling
noises as I closed the door on them.
Gets Her Divorce
by Robb T. White
“Don’t leave me . . . begging you . . .”
“You thought I’d go along with the crappy settlement you
offered. Bill, dear, I’m not the kind of girl to weep and moan. I thought of adding
antifreeze to your morning Bloody Mary. Then I thought of something better.”
“Choke you . . . bare hands . . . snap your
windpipe . . . like a twig.”
“Well, here I am. Come get me.”
Bill writhed on his haunches in the dirt, his movements no more effective
than a marionette’s, with its strings cut. His center of gravity shifted, and he
toppled over, did a face plant in the foul black muck.
He lifted his head, sputtering,
cursing. “Kill . . . you, bitch—”
checked her watch. “Ten more seconds, I’m going to undress you.”
She tugged his clothing off, ripped whatever she could reach. His arms
were stone clubs too heavy to lift; his fingers no longer grasped. She moved like a
matador out of reach of a bull’s horns. The cocktail of drugs she’d researched
on the web and watched him ingest in his whiskey flask made him limp and immobile. Off went shoes, socks, underwear. His frightened
penis hid, in its pubic nest.
“Not cocky, are you now, so to speak.”
He made gargling sounds; spittle flew from his mouth, making tiny wet
circles in the dirt.
“Goo-goo baby talk, honey. See if it works
“. . . Them . . .” Thick-tongued,
it sounded like Thum.
do you think I made you take me on this Jakarta trip, demanded this excursion to the Lesser
Sunda Islands? Do you think it was to look at sea turtles? When you came home smelling
of pussy and demanding a divorce—on Valentine’s Day of all days, you prick!—that
was when I began planning . . . this.”
“They’re ferocious, run faster than a dog. They can kill
I leave, one more thing to do—”
a perfume bottle out of her belly pack and sprinkled him, in his
hair, on his back, and the genitals.
His face transformed from hatred to fear.
“Deer scent, a doe in estrus. Too bad they don’t sell water
buffalo scent back home. You won’t be making fun of them as fat and lazy once they
come charging through the brush when the scent reaches the river.”
Bill gargled sounds at her, ropy spit drooled
over his chin.
“What? I can’t hear you. Just so you
know, I’m going to spend your money on that silver Lamborghini Aventador with the
gull-wing doors you were eyeing in the Hamptons last summer.
Bill made more goo-goo sounds. He
stopped trying to get up.
Bobbie stretched out on the couch, flipping through the pages of the inquest report
sent from East Nusa Tenggara. The papers came in a small, neatly wrapped box cluttered
with colorful stamps and the official letterhead of the POLRI, which she assumed was the
office of the national police in Jakarta. Bill’s Rolex was included with the papers.
Thank God, he didn’t take the Cosmograph Daytona, worth a quarter-million. The facing
was cracked and there were claw marks on the band. The hands had stopped at 6:02. She’d
left him there at exactly 2:52 and had to rush to make it to the boat dock in time. Three
hours alone in the baking heat, naked, too drugged to move, listening to every sound
and movement in the undergrowth.
Knowing they’re coming . . .
Remembering what the guide said about the contaminated mouths of Komodo
Dragons, she picked it up with tongs and tossed it into the wastebasket. The Day-Date with
Champagne Dial a mere $35,000. The money had cleared probate two weeks earlier. Home free.
Someone, fluent in English, had translated. Bill’s clothes were
found where the attack occurred. “If the Bu kartini wishes, she may claim
these items by writing to the address at the bottom of the letter . . .”
of those keepsakes shipped from Indonesia made her smile. That—and
the twenty million she had inherited.
The Girl from the Sweater Factory
Robb T. White
it the “Sweater Factory.” No one remembered
which of us gave it the name. A hulking, derelict of a monstrosity looming at the end of
our block and taking up half of Hulbert Avenue, the last place in the harbor to hold on
to its brick street, wobbly and buckled as it was.
Our parents forbade us to go anywhere near it, which of course was a guarantee we
would go as often as we wanted.
textile factory had been quietly rotting for decades. The faded masonry lettering at
the top of the third floor preserved its owner’s legacy, whoever Hosea S. Johnson
was but his name preserved in Railroad Gothic style seemed both pathetic, given the decay,
and enduring, still defying time’s passage even as the entire structure caved in
None of our parents could remember relatives
working there. We kids from the neighborhood weren’t the only visitors, however.
All the broken glass, rotted floorboards, and Norwegian rats the size of housecats darting
in and out among the debris hadn’t deterred generations of post-Depression homeless
men and alcoholics from using it as a place to share a bottle of Thunderbird or Mogen David
wine. This was a time before junkies and discarded needles, a time before the contemporary
political correctness demanded that every shifty-eyed panhandler be declared “a
transient” or “homeless” person. To us, the few we encountered lurking in the
weeds were called bums and avoided.
Cigarette butts and broken
bottles littered the ground beneath the camel humps of creeper vines we had to push through
to get to the back of the building out of sight of traffic. A graffiti-scrawled plywood
door out front not being the preferred mode of entry. Evidence of nature’s relentless
attack on the premises increased yearly as the sumac that sprouted right next to the foundation
had, over the years, pushed branches through the empty panes of the upstairs floors—very
few were left unbroken for our own missiles to vandalize. In the summer, the foliage gave
the upper floors a lurid green cast as the sun moved around the building.
In August, the stultifying heat stuck our tee-shirts to our backs and soaked the
brims of our baseball caps. The squalid interior of the upper floors with a row of black
mechanical looms for spinning and tufting made an ominous impression at first sight. We
always gathered on the second floor to plan whatever games or adventures we had in mind.
The tall, skinny girl who showed
up one day in summer said her name was Mallory. She gave no last name. None of us knew
her. Johnny O’Kurran, the youngest of our gang, hadn’t reached that stage of
puberty that makes boys both obnoxious and curious around girls; he didn’t hesitate
to challenge her on her right to be there.
“This is our fort,”
Johnny told her. “No girls allowed.”
led to the challenge.
We had all performed it once,
a rite of passage—with the exception of Johnny, who compensated for his size by
daring—would show off by creating his own twists on the challenge, which was to enter
the factory’s upper floor from a window. The means of access were the sumac trees
growing close to the building; you had to pick one, shimmy up it, grab a branch and swing
hand-over-hand to a ledge. Position yourself on any ledge, all of which were sloped for
runoff—all this while dangling or perched twenty-five feet above the mounds of rubble
below: cement blocks, bottles, rusted cans, and other sorts of debris too slimy or jagged
The trick was the “the leap”;
you had to swing your body toward the building at an upward angle to catch the
ledge with your heels and hope you had enough momentum in your swing as you let go of the
branch. Even then, you had to be careful how you crawled through to jump about eight feet
to the floor. All the windows on that side were busted out, most with shards of glass that
could cut your hands or your flesh if you slipped on the ledge and grabbed the metal frame.
Some panes were better than
others. Most resembled the jagged teeth of an old man’s mouth. The slender trunks
of the sumac were not the best for climbing and their branches, sodden with gummy sap,
not as thick as typical trees like the ash, cottonwood, and maple surrounding the factory.
Ironically, the best trees for scaling also had the most dangerous windows opposite them
with shards of broken glass that made me think of jack-o’-lantern fangs. Because
I was older and heavier than most, I had little choice but to take the biggest tree and
the worst window for my challenge. A livid tapeworm of white scar loops my shoulder and
stretches across my back to remind me of that day. Washing the blood out of the shirt didn’t
fool my mother but I lied and said I slid into second base over a piece of half-buried
Mallory didn’t hesitate to
accept her challenge. While she surveyed the sumacs, Johnny picked one out for himself;
we knew he planned to embarrass her.
“This’ll be great,”
someone said, using a common word that described everything from snow days canceling
school to a new episode of Johnny Yuma, the Rebel or The Rifleman.
was definitely a tomboy, not like our sisters who grew up with Barbie dolls and liked to
play house before graduating to make-up and nicer clothes. She was taller than all but
my cousin Mike and I. She looked older but she was scrawny, absent the telltale
bumps and curves of puberty. My vantage gave me a good view of her long, thin arms taut
with ropy muscle encircling a slender sumac too far from the building, one never used before,
and before a word was spoken, she was ascending faster than Johnny on his.
She’ll fail at the leap, I thought. I watched her
hanging from a branch midway down, swaying, pretending to be a monkey making eee-eee-eee
noises and scratching her armpit with one arm while we watched below, our mouths opened
in awe. I’ll admit that I secretly
wanted her to fall. This was a deep humiliation for all. We stared while she hung there
goofing off, kicking her legs out in midair as if she were in no danger at all, shrieking
cries of fake distress. A minefield of accumulated glass, shards glittering in the sunlight,
chunks of cement, and bricks waited for gravity’s final tug and that slender branch—no
thicker than her bicep—to snap.
of performing, not hearing any encouragement, she made her entrance through a window with
more panache and daring than we’d ever seen. She tucked her body at the height of
her swing and flew through a window without touching the ledge. All this time, Johnny was
panting to catch up, still negotiating the last few feet toward a ledge. We all heard
the thud of her landing. As if our heads were joined on twin pairs of swivels, we looked
at one another in pure amazement.
After that, Mallory didn’t ask to be accepted;
she assumed it. We had years of running as a pack and we knew one another’s strengths
and weaknesses regardless of age or size. Johnny’s
older brother Joe, a lower-ranking hyena in the pack, didn’t possess Johnny’s
status when it came to determining sides. Mallory, however, had the physical traits and
daring that put her up front in everything going on. Even more impressive to us, she didn’t
try to boss anyone. She was accepted without any formal recognition we were “voting”
Each floor held different kinds
of machinery: the offices of the first floor
were mostly trashed and reeked of urine from the winos who used to congregate there while
the massive looms and spinning machines were on the second floor. The third floor was empty
except for the broken glass. Depending on what we felt like doing that day, we’d
pick a floor to occupy ourselves. Often, no matter where we spent most of our time, we’d
head up through a fire escape to the roof where we had a panoramic view of the harbor from
the breakwall to the east to the old Finnish section of the harbor in the west. Sometimes
my cousin Jimmy brought along his Super 8 camera to film our fantasy or war games.
The first floor was the dirtiest
and smelled the worst. Water damage had rotted
huge chunks of floorboard we dropped down to crawl through like soldiers tunneling out
of our prison camp or commandos sneaking up on an enemy fortress. Oblivious of rats and snakes, we’d crawl along bellowing out names
of friends and enemies, obscenities too risky to utter in anywhere else in public, or call
out whatever we’d been watching on TV. In those days, Twilight Zone and Outer Limits were
favorites. We watched shows like Leave It to Beaver
and I Love Lucy with our parents, but no one
brought them up unless it was to mock the show’s two brothers.
Mischief was easy to find in the upper floors,
such as a five-gallon buckets of some petrified chemical at the bottom to give it weight
for rolling down the fire escape or tossing off the roof onto the canopy of sumac trees
that surrounded the foundation and had taken over portions of the building where rain and
snow had rotted the roof.
thing, to all of us, was that none of us had a parental prohibition to stay away from the
place, even though my cousins’ house and my house was at the end of the block and
my other cousin Tommy’s and Danny’s houses were right across the street at
the top of Hulbert Avenue. Our other friends, like brothers Joe and Johnny, were midway
down the block. In those days, kids left the house in the morning after breakfast and didn’t “check in” like today’s
kids; we roamed, went fishing, swimming at Walnut Beach, or dove off the Pyramids down
by the Norfolk & Southern Railroad yards by the coal docks.
the summer days shortened into that familiar autumn feeling, Mallory began proposing more
of our activities. She was a good enough first baseman we didn’t mind her joining
in. She always quarterbacked one of the teams.
After one pickup game, she gave my cousin Tom a bloody nose with a stiff arm and
Mike wore a black eye home from her churning knees when he tried to wrap his arms around
her hips. Mike later told me she had a strong body odor, which I took to mean from her
clothing. She always wore the same cut-off jeans, bobby socks, gray tennis shoes with holes.
Her baggy sweatshirts often had the names of taverns on the front or back. Only once did
she wear a girly blouse—a red-checked kind I associated with Lawrence Welk’s
dancers. After a Sunday of drinking at the kitchen table, my parents sat down to watch
The Lawrence Welk Show, and I hated it because The Rebel came on at the same time.
Mike whispered she was “white-trash”
and said she was older than the 14 she claimed.
mesmerized by her. I knew her secret. Her real last name was Boone and her father was a
cop killer. It was a day stuck in my head forever: blood pooled and dripped off the end
of a front porch of a house on Third Street. A cop had been shot in the head when he
arrived at the Boone house for a domestic violence call. The Boones were a noisy clan notorious
for fights and criminal activity. My father said the words from the Herald-Tribune—“no
stranger to the police”—were invented for the Boones. The fight between spouses
was over cigarettes. Ray Boone dropped his deer rifle and ran, but he was captured and
executed in the state pen in Lucasville a few years later. His mugshot tripped me to Mallory’s
real identity; she had those same piercing eyes and razor-lipped scowl. Raymond Boone
murdered in a time before death-penalty lawyers grew wealthy filing appeals. His execution
was announced in the paper the same day the memorial stone was dedicated to the slain officer
in front of the county court house.
But three years ago, on my paper route on Third Street, I had stood in the street
along with dozens of other rubberneckers. I saw a small figure looking out an upstairs
window when the cops were driving up, sirens blaring—a young girl my age, I thought.
I didn’t connect her to Mallory for weeks after she showed up but it was her. She
was that little girl in the window.
I kept it to myself. Mike was
right: she was getting bossier. And she did smell. Her fingernails were always black. A
goatish odor wafted from her skin, not just her clothing. Her stringy blonde hair was always
unkempt; in the dog days of August, her head smelled rancid like butter left out too long.
Hanks of it were steam-pressed to her neck. Her legs beneath her cutoff Levi’s were
scabby, crisscrossed with dirt-streaked cuts. If it weren’t for the mad violence
of her energy in everything she did like her reckless dives off the Pyramids into the slip,
sailing like an osprey diving for a perch, and just missing the rusted spike of a bolt
sticking out from the wooden dockside, she likely would never have confronted water that
Mallory’s vocabulary, never
genteel, was laced with profanity. She surpassed any of us in cursing and went way beyond
our limited vocabularies, all of which were inherited from our parents, a World War II
generation that did not embrace the casual obscenities of today. Mallory, I suspected,
was privy to some things the rest of us were only aware of in our dreams and nightmares.
When Billy LaForge mocked her for mispronouncing a common word, she knocked him to the
ground with a leg sweep, blew her nose into her hand and rubbed it into his face until
he cried for her to stop.
“Here’s some jism
for you, knucklehead!”
I went to my older friend Jerry
and got a crash course on the facts of life—insofar as he knew them. No one after
that wanted to take her on in a verbal or physical fight.
As August drew down and school
became more real to us, Mallory grew more urgent in her demands for our collective
obedience. The rough-and-tumble democracy we once enjoyed had devolved into a ruthless
matriarchy. More worrisome to us, she upped the risk factor of pour outings. But knowing our time together was also coming to a close, with the
prospect of new classmates, teachers, sports, and “important” subjects on the
horizon, we weren’t willing to foment a palace revolt with time so short.
When we arrived at the sweater factory that last day in twos and threes, we followed
our routine of slinking to the back among the sumac trees. Mallory was there alone—until
three others came out from hiding. My heart sank when I realized who they were: Sammy Boone, a boy around sixteen who had
spent months in juvenile facilities and was known as one of the worst of the Boone clan.
His neighbor Dale Sweeney, who adopted the “hood” look with his duck’s-tail
hair, the white tee-shirt, the pack of Winston cigarettes rolled into the sleeve to the
shoulder. Worst of all, for me, was Ante Ente, my private nightmare stepping out from behind
a thick tree draped in Tarzan vines.
To this day, I don’t know
his real name. That’s how Danny said it and he was closer to the public school
crowd than the rest of us Catholic boys. I’d seen him once, a few feet away, and
he terrified me: a blond-white Finnish boy in a flattop, not that big but crazy in the
eyes. If my dog Buster hadn’t been with me, I think Ente would have chucked me into
the slip or worse. He carried a knife and cherry bombs that day, which he shoved into the
mouths of dead carp and sheepshead rotting on the banks of the slip where I was fishing. Danny told me how Ente would challenge boys in
high school to fight after school. Then Danny would act out being Ente, swooping low and
springing up with an uppercut. Even the tough Joikiniemi twins from Tivision Avenue,
Arnie and Mikko, didn’t mess with Ante Ente.
I was already having a bad week
at home. My father had been arrested for hitting a neighbor’s teenaged son because
he’d shouted something obscene to my mother. My oldest sister, a high-school senior,
had announced her pregnancy. My parents despised her boyfriend. They drank and argued more
loudly than ever after drinking a case of Stroh’s beer. The only good thing was that
I was ignored and could come and go all day long without being questioned.
I was trying to grapple with the appearance of
this trio when I heard a rush of noise behind me, feet clambering through rubble, and then
Mallory spoke: “Let ‘em go,
Dale, the chickenshits.”
Danny and I remained alone. The
others, my cousins and friends, had abandoned us. I saw Mallory for the first time as something
different, something dangerous, not a skinny girl I used to trust in our games.
She saw me glancing behind, guessed I was about to bolt too. I barely saw her move
before I felt her hands pinning me where I stood, her fingers digging into my shoulder
“He ain’t afraid, he ain’t
no rabbit like them others, are you?”
I wasn’t a rabbit, but feeling very much like
one trapped in its hop.
“Better not fuckin’
be,” Ante Ente said. He moved closer to me, approaching sideways like a predator.
“Youse rabbits try to run,
I’ll fuckin’ gut you both with this,” Dale said.
flashed a long-bladed knife in his hand and made a roundhouse, neck-slashing movement in
“Shut up, Dale,” Sammy
told him. “They ain’t going nowhere.”
answered for us both: “Hell no, man.”
my eyes shut. Danny’s bravado posed its own risks.
Dale and Sammy walking behind us, Ente in front, we were escorted to the third floor from
the rickety fire escape. The place seemed different—no longer mine, safe, but a filthy
sty of mold and dirt littered with glass and smashed machinery. Mallory, however,
was firmly in control.
She explained the plan. Her deep-set
ferret eyes glittered in a column of light pouring through the broken windows and buzzing
It was all about robbing a
family-owned variety store on Bridge Street below Hulbert. We bought our orange and cherry
sodas from that place. A surly, acne-scarred teenaged son ran the cashier and drilled us
with his eyes every time we entered. He watched us as we moved about, giggling at men’s
magazine covers, scowled as we fingered the cheap household goods. Danny went out of his
way to mock the boy and draw his ire.
and Sammy would commit the robbery using Dale’s knife to hold the cashier in place
while Sammy looted the register. Mallory and Ante Ente would ransack the place for whatever
they could scoop up. Danny and I were to be posted outside as lookouts.
“Any adults try to come in, you get in their
way, hear me?” Sammy ordered.
“Whistle, you see cops,”
Dale added. “You punks know how to whistle.”
put three fingers in his mouth and blew a shrill single note. His father was a dockworker
who whistled Danny home the same way from his sloping backyard overlooking the railroad
yards. You could barely see him on the hillside but you could hear that whistle all the
way to Flat Rocks past the Pyramids.
“We meet back here. You
two hang around in the street, act like you’re not with us,” Mallory said.
“Come back and let us know what’s going on.”
ain’t with us,” Dale mumbled.
I stood with my back to the store, my heart knocking in my chest. Danny seemed to
enjoy his role in the heist. He pranced back and forth in front of the store as soon as
the others entered, Sam and Dale together, followed a few seconds later by Ante Ente and
Mallory. Nobody in disguise, no one except Ente attempting to hide his identity with a
Chief Wahoo baseball cap jammed low on his forehead and a red bandanna. He had drawn clumsy
tattoos of Navy anchors on his biceps in a ballpoint pen.
Traffic on Bridge Street was
heavy. Whenever someone walked past, I held my breath. Time slowed to a molasses crawl.
Danny maintained his agitated gait back and forth, speaking nonsense and doing anything
but keeping inconspicuous.
thick voice. A long minute passed before I heard the sounds of things crashing to the floor,
Danny stopped in his tracks. I
couldn’t make myself look. I thought of the pimply-faced boy inside with Dale’s
filleting knife against his throat. I imagined gouts of blood spouting from his neck.
Ente was out the door first. I couldn’t
see what he held in his hands but sacks of potato chips flew out. Mallory raced out on
his heels. She was a blur running past. Dale and Sammy, like two clowns tumbling out of
a circus Volkswagen, hit the doorway at the same time—and stuck. Most of what they
held scattered to the sidewalk. I remember the grunts, the curses—and they too were
racing up the sidewalk toward Hulbert.
and I exchanged a look—and we both took off in the same direction as if we had sparks
flying from our shoes.
The cops knew everything in
minutes, of course. Even where Danny and
I both lived. When the police officers pounded on the door, I was sitting on my bed sobbing.
I gave up everyone including Mallory.
that followed were ghastly. I was pointed out at school as one of “the robbery kids.” I was punched on the playground by some older
boys, ignored by most of my peers. Being new to high school as it was, I felt sick to my
stomach every morning getting up to go to school. I had destroyed what little happiness
my family had after all that had happened that miserable summer.
in a dark suit with greasy hair plastered across the top of his head told me I wouldn’t
have to go to jail or even a juvenile detention center. My family’s reputation might
not have been sterling but there were many of us in the harbor all related and that was
enough to prevent worse consequences. My grades and altar boy past helped, he said, although
the parish priest refused to write a letter attesting to my character for the judge. My
father was bitter about that. “They take the goddamned money every Sunday fast enough!”
he exclaimed to my mother.
and Dale were rounded up and sent off to an adult prison in Chillicothe, a place I’d
never heard of.
Just as things began to settle
down, Mallory contacted me at school. A boy in a class ahead of me tossed me a note in
the cafeteria. It was written in pencil; some words were misspelled:
You betrayed me. I trusted you!
I liked you a lot. I thought you likked me!!!
I saw her outside the school
yard near the bus stop behind the cyclone fence a week later. Her fingers gripped the chain
links like talons, and I thought immediately of their strength when she dug them into my
I ignored her, knowing she was watching
me with her deep-set eyes—a rodent feeling the owl’s eyes measuring its back.
“Leave me alone, damn you!”
I shouted. I broke into a run.
She could have run me down if
she wanted. For all her personal ungainliness, she was a gazelle on the savanna when it
came to speed.
When she wasn’t at the
fence the next day or the day after, I began to breathe more easily. I felt a glimmer of
hope that life would get better. The odd thing is, however, I can remember the sirens wailing
down Bridge Street, not an uncommon occurrence considering the number of bars and late-night
brawls that occurred there. Instead of a diminishing warble, the sound shifted a decibel
higher, and then I knew something had happened on Hulbert. I’d just gotten home from
school and was debating whether to do math homework or turn on the TV.
The next day’s paper explained the sirens: Mallory May Boone, aged seventeen,
had committed suicide. Her body was found
lying on the first floor of the sweater factory, which the paper referred to as “the
site of the former Hosea Johnson textile plant midway on Hulbert Avenue.”
I was at that peculiar age where recrimination was difficult but sentimentality came
easily. I waited until Thanksgiving week
vacation before going there alone. Shreds of yellow crime scene tape still fluttered
like Christmas ribbon on the overgrown pricker bushes where we had crawled through.
My intention was to lay wild flowers and cattails gathered from the wetlands near
the breakwall on the floor where Mallory had chosen to die. Gossip at school said she committed
hara kiri with a knife like Dale’s. I knew she’d hanged herself. The
Northtown Trib account said it, for one thing, and included a description of the
rope tied off to a ceiling bolt. My flashlight beam lingered on the section of rope where
a paramedic or a police officer had sliced through to cut her down. I imagined Mallory’s
weasel-slim body dangling from the taut rope, her tongue lolling out of her mouth, just
as Danny said happened in hangings.
She’d chosen a spot beside
the gaping hole in the floorboards. I shone my light down there and saw a rusted
5-gallon bucket that she might have used before stepping off. I’d gone down into
that hole many times on our forays, once with Mallory when we were teamed up. Unafraid of rats, we sat together quietly breathing the rank dust—escaped
prisoners, we were—while German soldiers composed of my cousins and Danny searched
for us with pellet guns.
I thought it would be the right
place to lay my bouquet. I jumped into the hole and got on hands and knees, flowers gripped
in one hand, flashlight in the other. I crawled along the tunnel as I had done so often
and found what I thought was the place where we had sat together.
had just placed the flowers on the dirt and was considering
a prayer for her soul. Owing to some freakish yearning for forgiveness, I clicked the light
off thinking my prayer would rise through the ether all that much faster in pitch dark.
I heard the word as distinctly as any word ever spoken to me in my life. One word:
Traitor! Said with a husky malice—
I lost my grip on the flashlight and swept my hands about in the gritty soil to locate
Traitor . . . I trusted you . .
Crying out, bumping my head on the floor
above me, I reversed position and scrambled back to the hole, my heart pumping all the
blood in my body as every foot of progress in that horrible darkness seemed to be going
nowhere at all.
A milky light ahead exposed the hole.
I didn’t climb out of it so much as leaped upwards like a fish breaching. I skidded
across the floor, kicked out the plywood over the front entrance and ran home. Unseen by
my siblings or parents, I made my way upstairs. I looked at my reflection in the bathroom
mirror, staring at my shocked, white face. The burning sensation of my inner thighs I was
only then aware of had come from the urine stream released in my terror.
For days, I never thought of it. I convinced myself
I had created Mallory’s voice in my head out of sheer guilt. The only cure, I thought,
was to go back—never again in that hole—but stand there and face my fears,
listen to what the dark had to say. Just a need to prove to myself I had only imagined
her voice. I chose a time close to supper and slipped out of the house.
Making my way to the back of the sweater factory,
I looked above through the dappled canopy where fern-like fronds had already turned a crimson
red. Smaller bushes of sumac grew among the taller trees with their rust-red, furry branches
covered in hairs.
The image I had suppressed so long since
I’d heard of her death, one that cored me, came flooding back. Mallory had leaned
over to kiss me in that darkened tunnel. I had never kissed a girl until then. When I reached
for her to kiss her back, she giggled and shoved me away. We never spoke of it.
I saw nothing, heard nothing other than the gentle rustle of the sumac fronds overhead.
Returning to the front of the building, I scooped up
a handful of dandelions growing in a crevice of broken cement blocks. I was going to redeem
my cowardice, if not my betrayal. I stood above the hole looking down into the darkness,
smelling that unmistakable odor. I threw the dandelions in and turned to go. When a scuttling
behind me sent a ripple of fear up my back. Rodents. I headed toward the plywood covering
over the entrance.
Footsteps, slow footsteps. A
dragging, not the clicking of rodents this time. A sharp intake of breath—then a
measured cadence of footfall, one after the other, a slow gliding across the floorboards
from the darkened portion of the building. Coming my way . . .
Once more, I fled home as fast as I
That winter I caught the flu; it
turned into pneumonia. In my fever dreams, I saw Mallory beckoning. I ran, as ever, but
she followed and appeared everywhere I went in the crazy logic of my dreams. Her footsteps
were a steady smack-drip like the silent saline bag attached to my arm.
I never went back to the sweater factory. By that year, we had outgrown it. No one
mentioned the place when we got together to play basketball in Tommy’s backyard.
If I happened to be in the car with my parents, I turned my head away as we drove down
Hulbert past the factory. I feared seeing Mallory’s shadow moving among the broken
windows. The sound of her gliding across the floorboards filled me with an exquisite terror
I slept with a light on until I
went off to college. Footsteps on the creaking stairs of our house at night would send
an icy ripple of fear up my spine. My mother heard me whimpering under the covers once,
delirious and soaked in sweat. I went to the college’s health center to get medication
for night terrors. The drug left me dopey but it kept Mallory at bay even if my grades
and social life suffered.
a grown man now with a wife and kids of my own. My job
as a CPA for an international company has involved
two out-of-state moves, once to California. Last week, I called my cousin Bill on New Year’s
Eve. He told me the city tore down the sweater factory years ago. We never spoke of Mallory
I’m still waiting for her to
call my name again. I listen at night for her footfall wherever I am. Traveling and staying
in motels is worse. She sometimes appears before dawn. Like some mythical creature who
disappears the moment you try to look at it, she hovers at the edge of my waking and sleeping.
It’ll happen in an unfamiliar place when I’m alone and away from my family.
I’ll turn around and she’ll be there wearing the severed rope around her neck
the way she was when they carted her out of the sweater factory. Those glittering, feral
eyes sunk deep in her face will bore through me. I don’t know what I’ll do.
I might fall to my knees and ask her forgiveness even while I watch her raise that filleting
knife to strike home.
“The Girl from the Sweater Factory”
was a finalist in The Dark Sire Magazine’s 2020 awards.
Lying in Wait
much longer now, sweetcakes. Promise.”
Laughing in the background. Sharing
four days,” she said. “It’s been six.”
It rained all day, two days
straight, he told her. You can’t shingle an A-frame church the size of a coliseum
in a downpour—
the weather, George.”
Chattanooga’s dry as driftwood—that’s what.”
“Rained cats and dogs three days
straight. Dries out, ain’t gonna be no more’n two, three days tops.”
Now it’s three days . . .
“Better not be no girls in that
room with you.”
Uh-oh, old Georgie’s
gettin’ the silent treatment! More yuks around the room.
She imagined them slouching against
the headboard, work boots on the bedspread, holding beers by the necks. Younger men now,
muscled, whip-slender, strong as bamboo; they’d skip like goats over rooftops. He
wouldn’t admit he was getting too old to go high, carrying a beer gut, too. Too proud
to cut plywood with a table saw. Said he’d quit first.
honeygirl ain’t pouting on me, is she?”
Playing to his friends. She
remembered him on the beach that first day, tanned from roofing but his ankles pasty white
from his socks. The rest of him nut-brown, glistening with sweat and tanning oil.
“You don’t miss me, maybe you
miss Betty Sue. She didn’t eat that last batch of mice from three days ago.”
but she’s following me around the trailer all day. Probably lookin’ for you
like you’re hiding in the closet on her. Dumbass snake.”
The first time she saw Betty
Sue, she took a stutter-step backwards. Lying in her rabbit pen, coiled up like a giant
custard. Betty Sue stared at her, flicked her tongue, tasted air. Tastin’ you,
babe. That’s cuz you’re so goshdarn sweet . . .
never seen a Burmese python up close. Twenty-two feet
back then, bigger now. George said she weighed about four-hundred pounds. He couldn’t lift her now. She talked to Betty Sue, complained
about George to her when he went on his out-of-state jobs with his crew.
“She stopped eating?”
“She misses you. She crawled up
in bed next to me last night. Damn air-conditioner’s on the fritz again.”
“Hon, listen to me. Baby . . .”
“So hot, I laid there sweatin’
until dawn. Just me and your big-ass python.”
an image of herself, nude and sweating. Maybe raise
the trouser snake, git him on home faster.
you at right now?”
she purred. “Betty Sue’s stretched out beside me like last night. Just the
two of us girls all alone.”
get out of there.”
just us girls, all alone. Marcie’s been beggin’ me to go to the Rooster Tail
get out of there! Right now!”
. . . to go line dancing—what?”
“Get out now!”
“What the hell you talkin’
Sue,” he replied.
His deep voice
quavered, rising a notch. It alarmed her.
The experts argued
over whether Rexford Tallmadge III was an idiot savant or
afflicted with Asperger syndrome. He told his ninth-grade teacher the Book of Revelations
would make an excellent French farce and showed him a sample libretto he had penned for
a comic opera version.
“I’d cast Sumi Jo for Jezebel,”
he told the teacher with a straight face. “I like Jim Carrey for the Apostle John
and the director can have his choice for God. That’s just a voiceover anyway.”
He told his literature teacher that Joyce’s
Finnegan’s Wake made more sense if you started it backwards. They finally
settled it in favor of Asperger’s, more or less a coin-toss because he was brilliant
in both math, languages, and music, although a difficult passage in Beethoven’s Fur
Elise at his expensive prep school recital made him stumble; he abandoned piano from
that day on. He mastered Danish during his first summer break in college and told
the department chair of languages that glottal stops in Danish were overrated in difficulty.
His aloof interactions with fellow students and professors in and out of classrooms kept
them at bay. A common response from anyone who did approach him was similar: “He
gives me the shivers” or “I felt he was looking right through me—and
didn’t like what he saw.”
When he demanded his parents cease bringing him
to “their therapy sessions, not his,” they were relieved but said nothing.
For years, their son’s reputation had socially embarrassed them in their exclusive
Connecticut enclave. Moreover, these neuropsychology clinics they’d been bringing
him to since he was five were the equivalent of an extra college tuition. By the time puberty
rolled around, even these experts in psychopathy and aberrant psychology failed to fully
comprehend the depths of his character. His last session involved hypnotherapy at an Upper
East Side clinic recommended by some woman in his mother’s reading circle. When he
came up from the depths of his pleasant sojourn in what he called his “Red Chamber,”
where Rexford’s deepest secret life and most abhorrent fantasies mingled happily,
he saw the look of sheer horror on the female psychiatrist’s face and realized he’d
given her too long of a peek into his private room and decided, for his future safety’s
sake, to force an end to these sessions.
His sister loathed and feared him. At fourteen,
she caught him peeking at her masturbating in the shower. She slapped him across the face,
knocking him to the floor. “Rex, you sick little perv!”
A veteran surfer of porn sites at eleven, Rex picked himself up and
smiled at her. He walked away without saying a word. A month later, she twisted her
ankle going down the stairs. Rex removed the invisible fishing line with a set of weights
and pulleys he’d designed and hidden behind The Complete Works of Guy de Maupassant
on his bookshelf.
He deserved his own chapter in the Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. One of his reading pleasures was to watch
how these witch doctors updated their thinking over the decades. Like hogs that come running
because somebody banged a stick against the swill bucket. One year, everyone is proposing
new theories of multiple personality disorder; the next year they’re all disavowing
its existence. Someday, time permitting, he promised himself he’d pick one out at
random and kill him or her.
planning to kill his parents and older sister by the time he was
twelve. Not because he hated them, but because they were obstacles to his freedom. Confident
he could outwit any forensic investigator of car crashes or house fires, he had to give
up plans to get them all at once because parents and sibling were like rogue comets orbiting
the sun at different angles. He could never count on having them all in one place at one
time to get it done properly.
So, he did them one by one. First
to go was his brainless slut of a sister. He was a sophomore
at MIT by then, having transferred from NYU. Although computer work bored him, he chose
IT as a major, having decided that cryptocurrency’s infancy as a largely unregulated
industry allowed the quickest route to accessing money without having to produce anything.
She’d picked up some lunk of a weightlifter at the beach and was banging him steadily
on weekdays while her fiancé from the family social circle was off at Stanford finishing
When he scoped the apartment loverboy shared with
two other roommates, he wondered why nature hadn’t stepped in to save him the trouble.
The apartment was a jerry-rigged, three-level dump with a history of code violations. Rex
figured the landlord made them go away with a fat bribe to the housing inspector.
He’d hacked her computer and knew
she was meeting Musclehead that evening. He had plenty of time because his preparations
were already made and waiting for the go signal from her laptop. He drove to the concrete-block
apartment in Bridgeport n a rental van with his homemade HVAC logo on the side. Accessing
the outside HVAC and furnace room took seconds with his lockpick and jimmy. One look at
the VRF system’s refrigerant piping and communication wiring told him what he needed
to know—except for one possible glitch: the apartment unit’s VRF’s users
might have app-based access to the system, which meant he’d only be involving the
bachelor pad he was targeting, not the entire unit. From the looks of the jerry-built complex,
he doubted the owner went for a device-based mode, which would be costly. His spatial sense
was phenomenal. From that outdoor unit, he
could fix the set points for the on/off, fan speed, temperature, and cooling/heating. With
a wrench, needle-nose pliers, and wire cutters, he’d done the job in less than
returned to his van and removed the three cases of beer and four liquor bottles with a
note from the landlord “thanking them for being good tenants.” The liquor was
modestly spiked with an exotic tasteless, odorless neuromuscular blocker he ordered from
the dark web and had sent to a post office box in Bridgeport with a phony name he used
for some of his more exotic purchases. He left the beer and liquor on the front stoop.
The landlord herself would not be able to distinguish his masterful forgery of her signature.
The booze was what folks in New Orleans called “lagniappe,” a little bonus,
but not in this case a gift of thanks to these three worthless dopers but to further his
deception. Having the tenants drunk and passed out increased the odds to 90 percent, he
figured, as opposed to relying solely on his adjustments to the furnace.
“Goodbye, Sis, nice knowing you,”
he muttered to his reflection in the rearview mirror as he drove off. Padding on his tools
hid the tool marks. The odds were against this second-rate beach town having anyone in
law enforcement who would remain suspicious once the pink-hued corpses from carbon monoxide
poisoning came rolling out on their gurneys. Imagining her dullard of a fiancé rushing
back for the funeral only to be stymied by any reasonable explanation from her parents
how she came to be in that fuck-pad in the first place brought a smile to his face. Rexford
Tallmadge was not known to smile often.
His father, six months later, was easier. He stayed in
Manhattan during the week and visited his family on weekends, an arrangement that satisfied
his wife. A workaholic who liked his dirty martini after toiling all day in his skyscraper
office moving amounts of money large enough to crash a third-world economy, he resorted
to his favorite club for a couple dirty martinis. Every third Thursday, his father availed
himself of the services of a very exclusive escort service and a certain, discreet hotel
a copy of his father’s key fob for his father’s Benz was child’s play.
While his father was inside frolicking with his Asian tart, as his mother called her, although
she never said whether his father’s escort was Chinese, Vietnamese, or some other
used a scalpel to shave the skin from a potato to exactly the right dimensions needed.
He jammed the peeled potato inside the tailpipe and took his post for surveillance. If
his father were consistent, he’d be leaving the room sixty-five minutes later. His
longest dalliance was seventy-two minutes. He knew the exact mileage the car would travel
before the jammed exhaust system would cause the Benz to stall out. He’d tested his
father’s car three times while he was home enduring his family on weekends to ensure
the distance was accurate.
knew the old man’s route on his return trip to his hotel in the Upper East Side.
It never varied. The twenty-two miles would see him to Lenox hill before the engine started
sputtering. Then it was a matter of five or six blocks between East 59th and
East 61st before it would stall out.
“This is the price to be paid for
strict routines and habits, Dad,” Rex said to his image in the rearview. Traffic
was light and he had no trouble keeping his father’s Benz in sight.
When he saw the coils of black smoke from
the tailpipe thicken, he watched the car ahead the way a cheetah on the savanna watches
a gazelle with a limp. Instead of pulling over, his father continued up Madison
Avenue, the Benz chugging like an exhausted marathon runner.
over, Dad,” Rex said, eyes fixed on the increased traffic of Manhattan’s night
life kicking in. Yellow cabs flowed around his vehicle and the Benz ahead like water flowing
around a rock in a streambed.
The Benz pulled over, finally.
“Change of plans, Dad,” Rex
said, getting out.
father’s furrowed brow held the tension of his frustration—a familiar sign
Rex understood from his youth. First consternation, then the explosive temper. Rex tapped
on the driver’s window.
Streetlight glare prevented Rex from seeing inside. A hiss,
then the window rolled halfway down. “My God, Rex, what the hell are you doing here?
My car stalled. Why are you wearing latex—”
of plans, Dad.” His father didn’t get to finish the sentence, although his
exasperation was already at full tilt, which sign Rex recognized from the high color in
his cheeks and his squinted eyes. The phone dock was empty, but he relaxed when he saw
the cell phone in his father’s other hand. He hadn’t called for help yet.
Rex put the four-shot Derringer to his father’s
temple through the window and pulled the trigger.
The interior of the vehicle and his father’s head
absorbed most of the noise. The .22 short, low-velocity bullet wasn’t meant to exit
or even penetrate the hard skull bone; instead, it slid along the skull cap, flattened
out at a shallow angle and formed a thin, oval lead disk before settling in the occipital
area. Had the car stopped short in the first block after crossing the East River, where
it was supposed to die and where lights and traffic were minimal for the planned kill shot,
Rex’s weapon would have been the .357 with the metal-jacketed slugs that would have
converted his father’s brain matter to mush before exiting. Ho-hum, another crime
victim in dangerous New York.
into his father’s suitcoat jacket, he pulled out the billfold and pinched off a wad
of bills. He scattered some fifties around his father’s lap with the empty wallet
and tossed a few more onto the passenger side floor.
“So long, fucker,” Rex said, heading back
to his car, an unobtrusive beige Honda he’d bought for this one occasion.
That left one. He was impatient to get it
going but wisely understood that three family members’ deaths in the space of months
would pique the curiosity of even the dullest-witted cop.
Nature did step in to lend a helping hand in her case.
Four months after his father’s funeral, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
Two weeks later, Rex served her a cocktail of drugs from her own medicine cabinet,
a mini-pharmacy for the modern, anxiety-prone middle-aged suburban woman. He chose a combination
of Lorazepam and Xanax for the heavy lifting and added dollops of crushed Gabapentin and
Meloxicam, her nerve-pain meds, for the finishing touch. He wasn’t even remotely
concerned about autopsy findings in her case. His acting skills were up to the task of
playing the anguished son whose mother’s severe depression over her diagnosis and
the recent death of her husband caused her to commit suicide.
Within weeks of the final obstacle removed from his
life, Rex was in full swing with his newfound wealth. He used his math skills to add
to the bounty through day trading in futures and options on the Chicago Merc.
He met her at a sex party on the UES, after a night out clubbing. She
wore a gold metallic, split-neck dress. She resisted all the male advances to talk to
him. Watching her rebuff another male, Rex recognized the epicanthal fold of skin of her
upper eyelid and knew she was of Asian descent. When he heard the whisper of her accent
as she introduced herself to him, he knew at once she was South Korean.
She was extraordinarily eclectic in her knowledge. A graduate of Columbia
and Cardozo Law, she spoke five languages and could talk about everything from Hoplite
military tactics to General Giáp’s “steady fight and advance” strategy that won
the Vietnam War.
By the end of the night, she had gradually moved
closer to him on the sofa until their thighs touched. Naked, copulating bodies were taking
over the living room. A wheat-blonde woman lay writhing on the floor in a loud ménage
à trois involving double penetration and fellatio.
“Tantric sex is wasted on
her,” he said casually.
“It wouldn’t be on
me,” she replied.
Rex invited her to his hotel in
Midtown for a drink. She understood what he meant and
agreed. They did more than have sex. Rex hated paid sex because it tasted like ashes, he
said, but he had never met a woman that he desired a relationship with until he met her.
Before dawn, he knew he’d found a soul mate. She was every bit as amoral as he was.
His chest was covered in love bites. She used filthy English slang and Korean slang while
they made love.
“I don’t believe in
wasting time,” he said to Ha-eun Sum in the shower. “I
want you to prove we should be together.”
“How do I do that, Rex-ford
Tall-madge?” she asked teasingly, grinding her
pubis against his thigh and making red circles around his nipples with her fingernail.
“Kill someone,” he said.
She stopped circling and looked
up, her deep brown eyes glittering like a feral cat’s.
“The Bowery,” he replied.
“The place is full of transients sleeping
in alleys under cardboard. Let’s find one
and kill him together.”
They dressed in silence and left the apartment
“Take me home,” she said suddenly.
lip curled, his automatic reaction to discovering a failure or a human
“You change your mind so soon?”
no,” Ha-eun replied. “This dress is an Oscar de la Renta. The
sandals are Gianvito Rossi from Saks. They’ll get soiled.”
He drove. “There’s a good prospect,”
he said, pointing through the windshield. The morning sun shot spears of light between
the grimy buildings.
“I see it,” she said.
across the street from the alley and they got out. She’d changed
into black yoga pants, sneakers, and a gray hoodie. From behind she looked like an adolescent;
her agility and speed were from years of power yoga. He had to trot to keep up with her.
At the mouth of the alley, he stopped her from entering. “You
haven’t asked me how yet,” he said.
assume you brought the weapon.”
He flipped his dark jacket aside to show her a
beavertail sap and a black Ka-Bar combat knife.
Halfway down the alley, they watched rats scuttle
ahead of them, crisscrossing and squeaking in a frenzy. “Have you ever seen a rat
king?” he asked her. “Rats in a burrow with their sticky tails ensnarled—quite
She held a hand to his chest to stop him from
“There,” she said in her whispery
voice from the party, “see them?”
Two shoes extended from a cardboard lean-to against
the alley wall ten yards ahead. She has eyes like a cat, too, he thought, admiring her
even more. The garbage-filled stench of the alley with its overlay of urine and excrement
didn’t faze her.
Her one character flaw—forgivable, Rex thought—was
her enthusiasm for cosplay, one of their many subjects the previous night. He told her
he considered it more infantilizing than decadent. Her eyes grew brighter and she explained
the subset of psychological pleasures one achieved from the costumed role-playing.
He wasn’t convinced intellectually but he was so sexually drawn to her at that point,
he didn’t want to torpedo any chance of sex at the end of the night.
Approaching closer, they
heard sounds from within the cardboard. The man’s feet shifted, and he scraped one
heel against the ground back-and-forth as though rubbing an itch.
“He’s dreaming,” Ha-eun said in her girlish whisper.
“He might be high or sleeping off a drunk,” Rex replied.
He spoke too loudly, charged with the adrenalin of the hunt.
do you want to do this?”
Instead of a reply, Rex stepped around her and
kicked the cardboard off the sleeping man.
I’ve got something for you,” he growled to the prostrate man, who
was coming around but not in a threatening way, more like the twitches of an addict who
doesn’t know or care who’s talking to him. Rex had once driven to Kensington
Avenue in North Philadelphia to scout for potential victims. So many to choose from, it
was a cornucopia of potential victims. He finally settled on one raggedy-assed woman carrying
a frilly purse over her crotch area, a streetwalker’s code the female prostitutes
used in the neighborhood. He enticed her
into an alley with a ten-dollar bill folded between his fingers. The punch dagger he slammed
under her jaw snapped her head back. He had a hard time shaking her head and limp
body free of the stuck blade.
The man on the ground made moaning sounds, growled
curses, and scooted against the wall. Rex stepped forward and slammed the sap on the crown
of his head.
“Let me,” Ha-eun said,
grabbing the sap from him.
She beat the man on the head and
face in a frenzy that made Rex tumescent despite the
hours of sex back at his place.
“Let’s go,” she said, wiping
blood spatter from her face.
“Not yet,” he said and gave the man
the coup de grâce with the knife by ramming it through his left eye into his brain.
For good measure, he twisted the knife before withdrawing it. They both stood there watching
the last of the muscle spasms before the man slumped, his battered head lolling on his
chest in the final death throes.
can go,” Rex said.
Two weeks after their first “bum hunt,”
as he called it, he begged her for more.
have to do one thing for me first,” she said.
times, she could drop that diamond-sharp, icy brilliance and degenerate
into a schoolgirl.
group is having a fondue party, and I want you to go with me
as my plus-one.”
“When hell freezes over.”
she was iron to his steel and wore him down as the day of the party
approached. He agreed.
Apparently, it was more than a party. One of the
group owned an island off the coast of Maine and they held their annual retreats there—a
mix of play and meditation involving yoga and whichever member of the group was most
thunderstruck by whatever celebrity healer or mystic happened to be in vogue.
all going as Borderlands Three characters,” she told him while they
dressed for lunch downtown. “I’m Tyreen Calypso and you’re my brother Troy.”
“Fine, whatever,” Rex replied. “What’s he like
so I know how to act?”
“You already have his two main qualities,”
she said. “Cocky and sadistic.”
Over dinner at Sans Souci, she tried explaining
the rules and characters of the popular video game. He considered the whole idea depressingly
trite. This place, Pandora, a hellhole with its mix of flesh-eating bandits, sirens,
robots, and mercenaries. Names like Mad Moxxi, Sir Alistair Hammerlock, and Butcher Rose.
He mocked her gently. His genius applied to all the hard sciences, but he disdained those
disciplines that involved any so-called science of “people,” like psychology
or sociology. How her voracious sexual appetite and intelligence managed to coexist with
this infantile obsession over role-playing actually astonished him.
He was annoyed the wine was off, too corky, and he planned to give the
sommelier a tip about storage when they left. At the moment, she was enthusiastically explaining
some of the bizarre features of the moronic game like trees that posed as double agents.
The hors d’oeuvres arrived. “Have
some,” he said, hoping to cut off her insipid eloquence.
call these ‘angels on horseback’ in England,” she said. She’d
done a summer at Oxford as an undergraduate.
wouldn’t want to live anywhere you can’t have these morsels,” he
replied, and deftly removed one of the hot bacon-wrapped mussels to his plate.
the tender meat out of its shell with her prong fork. “You
know, Tyreen sometimes eats the diminutive Tinks like popcorn shrimp.”
to the island in a private jet he sometimes rented. She kept her
ear buds on the entire way and studied her cell phone. He read Wittgenstein, a philosopher
to his taste. The dour philosopher had once done a short, brutal stint as an elementary
school teacher and killed a slow-witted boy with a blow to the head for failing to learn
his lesson. Wittgenstein’s wealthy family made the crime disappear.
When they landed, she spoke for
the first time since the jet took off: “We’re
having fondue tonight. Everyone’s dressing up.”
he replied. “Are we getting matching tattoos since we’re
She gave him that smile she showed when she didn’t
intend to answer, as mysterious as Mona Lisa’s.
slept in their assigned cabin while she ran around meeting and greeting
“Are you sure you don’t want to come,
“I’ll come later,” he said and
gave her his own familiar smile, a randy one.
Rex,” she said. “You mock me for my cosplay but what’s your silly
double-entendre if not juvenile?”
With all the garb they were expected to wear and
the fake tattoos she insisted they slather on, no one would see her bruises. He planned
to mark her up before the fondue party with some role-playing of his own. He even remembered
to bring the special salve for wound care afterward.
They all had a festive drink in
the communal dining hall the witless owner bult just
for this foolishness. They toasted and drank. He tried to be convivial for her sake, but
he was afflicted with a logy feeling and a dullness. The freshness of Maine’s ocean
breeze was overrated like everything else in life. She hugged and kissed her way down the
line with air kisses and European cheek pecks toward him.
to go,” she said. Her Mona Lisa smile was back.
Halfway to this hexagonal, domed
structure in a procession of costumed revelers where
the fondue party was being held, he stumbled.
“Rex, are you alright?”
“Fine,” he said. In fact, he wasn’t fine. He was nauseated.
His vision was blurry and he couldn’t distinguish the shapes of trees, cabins, people’s
faces along the way.
Inside the small building, the
gatherers formed a tight circle. Dimly, he realized
that he and Ha-eun were isolated.
“Tyreen Calypso, Tyreek Calypso, step forward
and take your places on the throne.”
Goodie gum drops, Rex inwardly fumed.
We’re royalty now.
Before he realized
what was happening, two pairs of arms grabbed him hard
by the triceps and pulled him backwards. He tried resisting but he was too weak.
“Succinyl chloride,” Ha-eun whispered in her silky voice.
Rex’s mind was on a trip of its own. He could barely move or speak.
“What’s he saying?” Someone close to them asked.
Ha-eun responded: “He said ‘C Four, H Four, CL Two, O Two.’”
His mind burped out the chemical formula for the drug just nanoseconds
before he realized what he must have ingested
the white, odorless crystals in the “welcome drink” they gave him at the hall.
He would be aware of everything but unable to move a muscle. A line from Eliot’s
“Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” rippled across his neocortex: “Like
a patient etherized upon a table.”
He heard tittering laughter like the young schoolgirls
in his prep academy he wanted to have violent sex with. He was unable to concentrate on
a face or a voice. He seemed to be floating in a colorful vortex of comic-book characters
with halos over their heads.
“Like . . . angels,” he mumbled, slurring
“Ha-eun, what did he say?” Some giggler
close to him; he couldn’t tell. “Oh dear, I hope they didn’t give him
Someone in the back in a basso-profundo
voice called out: “He’s ready. Light the fondue pot.”
blurred all around him. He was carried by several men to a stone
table that made his back itch. He was lathered and shaved with a scalpel by someone over
his chest, arms, legs, and groin, although he didn’t feel the blade. It made a whispering
sound like Ha-eun’s voice.
Pain came later, especially when the filleting
of his skin began. He felt the tanner’s knife, however, when it re-scraped his flesh
and scudded out excess liquids before the actual cutting commenced.
His other senses were keen: an animal in a kill chute knew its fate
even if it could not reason. The sights and smells, the sizzling of the massive
fondue pot, the excited jabbering of the guests.
Pieces of him went from everywhere.
They were like greedy children pressing close for presents.
He tried to flail his limbs when bone was scraped.
seemed to go on for hours, days; his mind finally went numb.
appeared once or twice by his side to whisper in his ear. Once she
said only a single word: “Yum.”
The last thing she said to him that his functioning
brain was able to record was this: “Your father despised
you. He called you a sick, disgusting pervert. He promised me one-hundred-thousand as a
parting gift when he couldn’t perform. I never got the money thanks to you.”
Rexford Tallmadge III tried to shape his lips into the form of a mocking
smile but nothing was functioning by then, the citadel all but abandoned except
for a faithful retinue of soldiers like the funeral ceremony of the privileged,
where an elite guard stands with backs to their fallen leader on a catafalque.
He heard the words “wonderful fondue”
coming from someone far away and then he closed his eyes for the last time.
Robb White has published several
crime, horror, and mainstream stories in various magazines and anthologies. A forthcoming
private-eye novel featuring Raimo Jarvi will be published this summer. “The Girl
from the Sweater Factory,” a horror tale, was a finalist in The Dark Sire
Magazine’s 2020 awards. Two more recent horror stories are “The Backyard Digger”
in The Yard and “The Tick Bite” in Black Petals.