The Prodigal Cowboy

         Detective Ringwood studies the gruesome photograph in his hand. He has seen tens of thousands of these mutilated body shots since his first murder case way back when. It does not really matter how the asshole uses his fine edge, or his chainsaw, or in one notable case his teeth, for the dead eyes are always the same. They are wide open, blank, as still as the eyes that are carved into a doll or a mannequin; and yet they are also so expressive of the intense fear that the victim endures the moment he or she knows that death is unavoidable. The last moment is in those eyes, and so carried into eternity, notwithstanding how the flesh disintegrates in due time.

         There is another quality to those eyes, though, one that the experienced homicide detective will start to notice when he is no longer fazed by the sheer terror of a victim’s last living moment. It is hard to describe this quality to the civilian who sees death only a few times in his lifetime, and who usually will be spared the worst details by an army of doctors and morticians. Maybe, the best word to describe this quality is ‘lost,’ as in the eyes seem ‘lost’ in the personal contemplation of an eternity opening up to them at the very moment of death. This eternity very well may be godless. Indeed, notwithstanding how he goes to church regularly with his wife, his career has taught him that this is most likely the case. Even if godless, though, this eternity is vast, like darkness that breaks out from a lifeless heart and extends in every direction endlessly. This eternity is sown in the despair of the last living moment and harvested in the mutilated corpse left behind for the cops to discover. This eternity is dark, clammy, cold.

         Long ago, Detective Ringwood set aside whatever conscience gave him a shudder when he thought about the terror of that last living moment. In his old age, and especially as he came to master the task of political self-preservation, he learned how not to be fazed by the ‘lost’ look in those dead eyes. The dead are lost, because they failed to take enough precautions to secure their spot in the cosmic flowchart. If he keeps his ugly, old nose to the ground, and files the paperwork that the boss man wants to see, then he can expect never to be lost in this or the next lifetime. Even if the next lifetime indeed has no ‘god’ at the top of the flowchart, that does not mean there is no flowchart. It simply means that the buck stops with no one, which as a practical matter is how most public bureaucracies operate anyway. Ringwood intends to keep his cubbyhole here in this lifetime and to find one for himself in the next one. 

         Except that fate does not always fit into the parameters of even the best conceived life strategies. There is chance, of course; though Ringwood believes that what most persons call ‘chance’ is just a lack of preparedness and insight. It is easier to blame misfortune on the sudden and inexplicable appearance of a Joker card than to acknowledge one’s own laziness or stupidity. 

         No, ‘chance’ does not cut it as an explanation; but that does not discard the possibility that something else twists and turns fate into a kind of untamed, bucking bronco. Unlike chance, this something else seems to have a mind and a will of its own. This could be a devil of sorts; and, indeed, for a man who gives no real credence to the possibility of a ‘god,’ Ringwood is pretty sure about the existence of the devil. On the other hand, it need not be a devil, so much as an accumulation of horrors in a particular place or time, or one or two ghosts that for whatever reason cling to a man or a house, or just one man’s madness. That dark and forbidden energy takes on a life of its own, in a way, perhaps so as to preserve itself (Is not the first sign of consciousness a will for self-preservation in our hard and cruel world?), or perhaps to right a perceived wrong. It tosses a variable into the mix that more often than not degenerates into a creep hiding from the cops and a victim turning blue beside a rushing river. There is no man alive who is immune completely from the possibility of committing a murder or of being murdered, notwithstanding how he feels he holds his fate in his hands.

         Ringwood tries not to think about this dark variable in fate. Why connive to secure one’s place in the celestial flowchart, after all, if this variable is able at any moment to turn one’s well-conceived life strategy into sand? Why bother with playing life as if an elaborate game of chess, if at any moment a mad fuck like Mark David Chapman can come out of nowhere and unload a revolver into a man’s back? It is better to downplay this dark variable in fate, or even at times to pretend that it too can be mastered. So the man who presumes to master his own life must lie to himself about the extent of his mastery. The con man must con himself before he can con others. Okay, even if so, does that make the con any less compelling? Are we not able to believe what we know to be fabricated?

         The problem is that sometimes the very reality of that dark variable is so intense with respect to a house, a man, a crime scene, or just something out of the blue that Ringwood cannot downplay it. That reality crowds out everything else in his mind, like a malignant tumor that eats away at the brain and cannot be surgically removed. He keeps to his game plan, but at the same time he now entertains that self-doubt that he chastises in others.

         The last time Ringwood came face to face with that dark variable in fate was when he had visited Walter Whipple at his foreboding Victorian home along the banks of the Manchester River. That something else had been there in full, dark, menacing display, though he could neither then nor now point to any one attribute about the house or the man as indicative of that dark variable in fate. Oh, sure, a lot of things had been weird; but no one thing that he noticed then had been particularly dark. Even that Latino working on the vintage automobile had not been so dark and menacing as to suggest that he could undermine fate.

         So, no, it was not any one thing, so much as the totality of his brief, but impactful, visit there that reminded him that even his life plan can be upended at any moment. Madness, debauchery, ghosts clamoring for justice, foreboding memories washing up from beneath the river; Walter Whipple and his Victorian had seemed emblematic of all of these. Is it any wonder that Ringwood had felt he was being watched? Is it any wonder that Ringwood had sensed that, indeed, his soul would be laid bare before those prying eyes, and his lot would be cast among the lost, if he did not finish his police business there as soon as possible?

         Remain close to that strange person and place for too long, and one will start to see ones own best-laid plans unravel. Ringwood thought that indeed he had left before being too exposed to the darkness there; but right now, as he is staring at the gruesome photograph in his hand, he is not so certain. Maybe, he had taken a bit of Walter Whipple and his creepy Victorian back with him, even after kicking the dirt off of his shoes. Maybe, that is why he looks at the face of this dead whore in the photograph, but he sees the sweet face of Alice Werner.

         The whore is unremarkable on the surface. Though not yet identified, he can tell that she is likely mixed race, early twenties, diseased, and tattooed, a twenty dollar ‘Betty Jo’ from somewhere else. That is the thing with the cheap whores found dead on the docks two or three times a year. The details may be different, but invariably they are ‘from somewhere else,’ and trying to save up enough cash to go ‘somewhere else.’ Beverly is the biggest city in this redneck county by far, but it is still little more than a truck stop café on the way to hell and back. Only the most desperate bother to stop here, probably because they are out of dough, or they determine that the pimps in this small city cannot be as bad as the big city slave masters along the coast. The vast majority move on without fanfare within a few years; but, every year, two or three come back up from the depths of the Manchester River to the surprise of a pier fisherman or a riverboat maintenance man. Ringwood cannot remember the last time someone in the Beverly PD caught the killer, probably, because they too are in transit to a better hunting ground. For the most part, these homicides take up several big folders in the outdated file cabinets in the basement, before an intern takes up the evidence and the reports, boxes them, and sends them to those Beverly PD ‘morticians,’ who work the ‘cold cases.’ ‘No fanfare in, no fanfare out,’ just as these whores had lived their lives before an asshole came a knocking one night.

         There are two details that stand out here. First, ‘Betty Jo’ is the second whore to be cut up in as many weeks. Usually, the two or three girls, who wash up on the docks each year, are spaced apart by a few months or the better part of a year. Secondly, in both cases, the asshole uses an axe blade. He appears to have held her down. Likely, he tells her that he only wants to rape her, though there is no sign that he ever penetrates. At some point, he clenches her mouth shut with his gloved hand. With his other gloved hand, he whips out an axe and proceeds to chop repeatedly at her joints. She struggles, for death never comes fast enough; but the asshole is so bulky she hardly can breathe, let alone shove him off of her. He waits until she is dead, or at least too weak to move, before he moves his torso off of hers. This gives him free reign then to chop manically at her face, neck, breasts, stomach, and vagina. He focuses on the pussy (don’t they all?), so that by the time he is done the space in between her thighs looks more like a half a pound of ground chuck meat than an erogenous zone. Finally, the asshole is bored. Or, perhaps, he realizes that it is passed his bedtime (not literally, but not too far off the mark either, for Ringwood senses that a strong, young man, maybe even a teenager, inflicts the wounds). He shoves the victim into the Manchester River, where she is found further downstream a day or two later. Perhaps, he masturbates afterward; but if so, then he does a damn good job of washing up after himself, for there is absolutely no semen residue found.

         Actually, there is a third detail, but this one Ringwood keeps close to his vest. Indeed, he has yet to include it in any of his preliminary status reports on file; and the cop who first told him this detail is smart enough not to make any waves. The information only concerns ‘Betty Jo;’ but Ringwood believes that if he were to dig further, then he would find a similar eyewitness account for the first victim (known among the homicide cops as ‘Clara Clap’ on account of how riddled her body had been by venereal diseases already before she met up with her Judge, Jury, and Executioner). Apparently, according to a derelict that has made the docks his home for the better part of a half-century, a Latino male in a starched, white shirt and dark trousers had been sweet-talking the whore the same night. The derelict could not tell the age of the Latino male when asked, except to say that he is a ‘tenderfoot.’

         In fact, that is not as good a lead as may appear. After all, Beverly is the only sanctuary city in the county; and so it attracts more than its share of poor migrants and gangbangers. The honest, hardworking, illegal aliens, and the sick and twisted scumbag criminals who leech off of them, congregate along the old and creepy docks. The whores service them primarily, since the white folks are able to afford the classier whores down in Manchester. A Latino male talking up a whore along the docks is not much of a clue, therefore, given what he knows at this early stage of the investigation. It may be an important factor later; but at this point, he cannot presume anything of the sort. 

         And yet he keeps thinking about that mysterious Latino. What if he does not exist? What if the derelict had been paid handsomely to peddle that tale so as to insinuate a racial motivation (although admittedly that angle would work a whole lot better if the victims were lily white blonds straight off the farm)? It is not inconceivable when one considers that Jim Trent and his private cabal of Neo-Nazi goons have been talking among themselves about ‘Helter Skelter’ for years. The two victims thus far have not generated much attention, even inside the pages of the Beverly Times; but what is going to happen when there are six or eight dead in as many weeks? How will white and black folks in town react as soon as they see that the police sketch artist has drawn a greasy Mexican? What if there is civil unrest, as the whites and the blacks gang up on the hated Latino minority? Could that be the spark for which Jim Trent has been waiting so many years? Hard to say for sure, except that ever since going out to that creepy, old Whipple house, Ringwood has sensed most everything unraveling. No doubt Jim Trent has sensed the same, which means he may consider now rather than later as the ideal time to strike. Old and new conspiracies may be afoot already; and if that is the case, then Ringwood needs to keep one detail of this investigation under wraps. That one detail may prove handy for his own survival in the melee yet to come, for information is gold when all else goes to hell in a hand basket.

         Yes, it is a bit of a stretch to go from two dead whores in as many weeks to Helter Skelter. Nevertheless, as everything unravels, if not in reality, then in Ringwood’s imagination, Ringwood senses that he will need to be more creative in his logical conclusions in order to keep pace with events. He will need to act on faith, where normally he consigns faith to that foolishness proper to women and children. After all, reason and logic alone ill serve the man confronted by a host of devils, or a touch of madness. They betray him, as he is most imperiled.

         Thunder rumbles overhead. The dim light hanging from the office ceiling swings back and forth, like this office in fact is the deck of a ship bobbing upon a turbulent sea. The rain that splatters sideways against the back window gives credence to this trick of the mind; and, indeed, it takes considerable focus now and then for Ringwood to recall that he is in his Beverly PD office and not on an old and ragtag pirate ship destined for an underwater grave. 

         You know who the asshole is, Ringwood thinks. You’ve met him already…

         Oh, you mean the spic doing chores for the fat man? Ringwood continues with his internal stream of consciousness. Didn’t I just think a moment ago that he is a weird fellow, but not so dark as to undermine fate? Yes, you gave him a pass. How politically correct of you! But you know that that is bullshit. The spic fits the profile: young, bulky, well dressed, demented eyes. Moreover, you felt his energy. It was dark, very dark, a homicidal urge just about to express itself. You even hoped you’d be the man snapping the handcuffs on his wrists. Taking him down like a beast in the wild, that is what you hoped to do, for you sensed already that he was a son of a bitch with a taste for murder…

         Fuck that, Ringwood mutters, while swiveling in his chair to face straight on the rain-smeared window behind him. I’ve got nothing but a hunch. That old fucker could not give enough of a description for the sketch artist even to pick up his pencil. So the asshole is big, brown, and strong. So what? So is every shit stained day laborer that hangs out at the Albertson’s parking lot all fucking day looking for work. So is every taco muncher I’ve ever hauled downtown on some sort of vague suspicion, because I just knew that they’d been up to something…

         You know who the asshole is, Ringwood thinks. You just don’t want to go back to Walter Whipple’s House of Horrors to get a confession out of that slave boy. You’re afraid. That is the truth of it. Frightened that life will unravel even faster, if you dig into the secrets buried out there; yes, maybe a little scared of the boy, but much more so of that fat man. Know some of the secrets, and you can keep your place in the flowchart. Know too many, and you are too damned dangerous to be stashed anywhere else but the inside of a coffin six feet under.

         Ringwood hears his door open without a knock. He swivels on his chair to face his guest. He still absently holds that gruesome photograph, but as soon as he sees his guest the particulars of this case fall away. The whore can wait. She is not going anywhere until he releases her from the city morgue, and okays the expense of the trip from the morgue to the crematorium (assuming there is not one relative that can be found who will take on the expense, which is normally the case). Justice can move as slowly as he wants when it comes to the whores.

         Hammerschmidt folds his big arms in front of his chest. His stocky, Kraut face is even redder than normal, and there is the undeniable stench of whiskey in the air. Ringwood has bet on the Vice Chief’s survival, because he is so smart and brutal when it comes to bureaucratic infighting; but looking at him now, he half expects him to blow up like a pressure cooker. The Vice Chief will make an enormous mess inside this office if he does, and Ringwood winces at the image.

         I know about David Trent, Hammerschmidt remarks with a hint of a grin.

         Oh, really? Ringwood replies irritably. What do you know?

         I know that a man never signs his name exactly the same, even if he has a distinctive style, Hammerschmidt continues. Now, a forger will. He is focused so much on making sure that he gets it right every time that he is too neat. See a forger write the same name a half a dozen times, and you will see what looks like signatures photocopied from an original. See a man write his own signature the same number of times, and you will see subtle differences between each of them. Fascinating, truly, what you can see when you know what to look for. Of course, you know all about that, since you’re the oldest gumshoe on the force…

         Knock on wood, Ringwood says, while knocking his desk with his left fist, and placing the gruesome photograph on the top of his pile with his other hand.

         You’re not here because you’re lucky, Hammerschmidt replies. You play the game, and you play it damned smart. Not as smart as me, but smart enough that I need to keep an eye on you. I’ve seen how you signed ‘David Trent’ to all those prison worksheets and affidavits. Because of your expert penmanship the early release folks were led to believe that David Trent all of a sudden ‘learned algebra,’ ‘offered up a kidney,’ and ‘found Jesus’ in the same month. You held back from making him walk on water. Knew that wouldn’t pass the laugh test, I suppose. So do you think I was surprised when I saw the very same signatureon his parole officer’s roll call? Well, answer me now, do you think I was surprised?

         I don’t think much surprises you, Ringwood remarks caustically.

         Hammerschmidt unfolds his arms. He places his hands on the edge of the desk, and he leans forward, like he is interrogating Ringwood. His smile widens.

         You’re close, Hammerschmidt continues. Actually, nothing surprises me.

         The two men stare at each other a moment. Ringwood looks down first.

         Naturally, I wanted to talk to his parole officer, Hammerschmidt states. I can assure you I was not at all surprised to learn that he had taken a leave of absence. Damned spook went so far as to get a doctor’s note about acute stress attacks and night sweats. PTSD from having to fill out those parole evaluations, I reckon. Damned shame, since he is our ‘affirmative action boy’ for the media.

         Monkey see, Monkey do, Ringwood remarks. Charlie’s seen how even the most senior officers will take a leave when the going gets tough. Now’s his turn for a nondescript motel room and a beer, until the last of that shit hits the fan.

         I don’t give a damn about the spook, Hammerschmidt continues. Spook’s a tool, nothing more, shuckin’ and jivin’ at the end of a leash. What matters to me is why you’re still covering up for David Trent? So I drive out to his house. It does not look like it’s been inhabited for weeks, maybe months; and one of the neighbors comes up to me. You remember him, don’t you? The old fart with the walker? Anyway, he comes up to me, and tells me that you and Charlie Boy had been there not too long ago. Snooping around the place, asking questions, what a cop does when he’s at the scene of a crime…

         Parole officers check up on parolees all the time, Ringwood interrupts.

         Sure they do, Hammerschmidt says. They do not normally bring homicide detectives along with them, though. 

         Maybe, I wanted to ask him what he knows about some open cases I have been trying to close, Ringwood says. Maybe, he heard something in prison that I would want to know. Snooping around, asking questions, that’s my job until the Chief hands me my gold watch. 

         Snooping around, asking questions, Hammerschmidt mutters. Like when you ventured out to that Old Whipple place?

         He knows! Ringwood thinks. No, he doesn’t. I had taken precautions. He is just probing to see how I respond; if I have guilt written all over my face; the old interrogator’s trick, but this time used against me, like I am the criminal! It is imperative that I keep calm. Turn the tables on him. Make this big guy flinch.

         Are you concerned about David Trent? Ringwood inquires in a calm voice.

         Is there a reason why I should be? Hammerschmidt asks. 

         I don’t know, Ringwood says. All the required paperwork has been signed and dated. As far as our files are concerned, David Trent always shows up at his designated time to meet with his parole officer. He’s never been late for work. He even donated that kidney that he had promised. Officially, the man’s like a Swiss watch, always on time, never in need. But you do not seem to believe the official story. You smell a rat; maybe, a whole police department full of rats. If I may be so bold as to offer advice to my superior officer, then I think that you ought to go straight to the top with your suspicions…

         The Chief knows everything; Hammerschmidt interrupts with a big smile.

         No, sir, I don’t mean the Chief, Ringwood says. I mean Jim Trent.

         Hammerschmidt flinches. He steps back from the desk. He folds his arms in front of his chest. 

         After all, the Beverly Police Department has an obligation to keep Jim’s little brother safe and sound, Ringwood continues. We owe the same duty to all the folks who live in our city, but I think you’d agree that Jim’s little brother is a ‘special case.’ If you have reason to believe that your fellow cops have failed David Trent, then you ought to tell Jim directly as soon as possible. Leave early tomorrow morning, ring for him at his gate, and wait several minutes for one of his fair-haired boys to escort you into his home. I would decline the offer of the breakfast cocktail, for I understand Jim’s idea of an ‘Eye Opener’ is very toxic…

         I don’t drink on duty, Hammerschmidt remarks incredulously. 

         Of course not, Ringwood says. If you want, then I shall be most happy to call Jim tonight to let him know you’ll be stopping by his estate in the morning.

         No need to do that, Hammerschmidt insists, while waving him off. I think we can resolve this in house. 

         I see nothing to resolve, Ringwood says.

         Don’t bullshit me, Hammerschmidt snaps. Just do what you need to do. I don’t care about the details, so long as all the loose ends are tied up very soon.

         Ringwood says nothing.

         Hammerschmidt glares at Ringwood a while; then, shuffles out the door.

         Ringwood pretends to return to the crime scene photographs; but inside, his nerves are getting the better of him. He is afraid that Hammerschmidt most likely is right. There is little time to tie up the loose ends. Everything is indeed unraveling. Heck, even that deadbeat actor with the long hair has fallen off the radar screen, notwithstanding how extensively his cops have searched the area.

         Thunder rolls overhead. Again, the solitary light hanging from the ceiling swings back and forth. It casts gruesome shadows against the walls, while hard, relentless rain beats against the window. Indeed, the office feels like a deck on an old ship lost in a storm; and the one man on that ship knows not what to do.

*   *   *

         Claire knows what to do, though there are times she wishes she had that ignorance about the underbelly of life that allows so many other ladies her age to be happy. Actually, she is not so sure that ignorance is bliss; but it does lead for sure to a certain infantilism. If the doltish, old woman has a man in her life, then she can rest easily at night knowing that he can operate a gun and square the checkbook. If not, then she will stay up all night whenever the wind snaps a branch against her window. 

         Anyway, Claire has neither the luxury of ignorance nor men. This is just as well, for her careful observation over the years has been that both ignorance and men fail women more so than otherwise. If a lady really wants to survive a world that is quickly receding back to the Goths, then she is advised to become well acquainted with the arts of war and, as a last resort, the upward thrust of her knee. If she can do as such while retaining the charm of her sex, then she is a couple of steps ahead of the competition.

         Claire is not so sure about her charm. She can be funny as hell, when she retreats to a backroom to refill her flask. Finish the flask a second time and she is downright bawdy. Of course at her age (no one knows for sure what age that is, and she is not telling) no one can be offended when her speech degenerates from the mind to the genitals. To that extent, perhaps, she is indeed charming.

         Right now, though, as the wind snaps the scarf wrapped about her neck, and the rain digs into her three or four (she loses count) formless sweaters, she could care less about charm. She supposes in the back of her mind that if what follows turns out much worse for her than for the other guy, she will be able to turn on the charm soon enough in that great ballroom in the sky. Nevertheless, in the forefront of her mind, she is confident that she will not be taking a spin on that dance floor before the night is done. 

         Claire stands by the side of her idling Volkswagen Bug. She smells the old engine exhaust that meanders into the oncoming rain to form a toxic cloud just a few feet above her head. She welcomes the diesel cocktail as the hard slap in the face she needs to keep her focus sharp. At the very least, the diesel pushes aside her fear, perhaps, like the cloud left behind after a mortar blast actually, strangely, invigorates the men to press onward. 

         Claire had driven about an eighth of a mile onto her driveway, when she caught those distinctive, old-fashioned headlights turning onto her driveway. As soon as she had pushed on the brakes, the vintage car that had been tailing her for miles did the same. 

         Now, those headlights stare down at her from her mailbox. They are two round, unblinking, penetrating eyes. They are far too old to cast forward much in the way of illumination; and so from an eighth of a mile away, they look like two greying ghost eyes whispering in and out of the sheets of rain. Those ghost eyes penetrate, not because they are particularly brilliant, but on the contrary because they are soft enough to play on her subconscious mind. Like ghosts in a dream, they can float through the great distance between them and her and do a number on the darkest recesses of her mind. God alone knows what they see, and, even more so, what paralyzing fear they may inspire, if she does not right now do what she knows she must do.

         Claire steps forward, slowly, methodically, trying not to scare whomever is watching her into doing something rash. She doubts that the driver (probably one of Jim Trent’s goon, she presumes) can see her very well, given the sheets of rain and the weakness of his old-fashioned headlights. Still, senses are much more acute in battle. She certainly knows that much from her previous brushes with death, and so it is possible anyway that the driver sees her better than he would under normal circumstances. 

         There is no change with the headlights, and so she takes another smaller step. From here, she can reach into the miniscule space behind her seat, if she squats low enough. Actually, squatting is much more of a concern for her, since it will be far easier for the driver to see that she is half the size she used to be.

         What else can she do, though? She needs to send a powerful message, so that Jim Trent’s goon thinks twice about ever again getting this close to her. In her experience, bullies soon turn into murderers if not pushed back. 

         She will need to move fast, though, not just because he may notice how she moves otherwise, but because surprise will increase manifold the impact of what she intends to do. Very seldom does a man respond well, when indeed he has been well surprised, no matter if he has far superior firepower in his hands. 

         Claire stares long and hard at those headlights one last time. 

         Then, she squats down, reaches to her left, and retrieves an old shotgun from behind her seat. She holds her firearm by her right side, tilts the muzzle a few inches upward, braces herself for the recoil, and fires one deafening blast. The world seems convulsed by that explosion for a prolonged moment; but then the moment passes, and she realizes with relief that indeed she is standing still in her own alligator boots. There is ringing her in ears. Also, she smells the old, savory gunpowder that calls to mind civilized gentlemen on the hunt in darkest Africa. Otherwise, the rain swallows up within seconds any other indications of a shotgun blast, so that she only can hope that the message had been received.

         The shotgun blast knocks a branch from a tree only several feet from the automobile in the driveway. The branch hits the mailbox on the way down, but it does not touch the hood of the car. That is just as well, since God only knows how irate that driver may have been if his hood had been scratched. 

         Rather than be pissed, though, the driver loses his nerve. He puts his old idling car into reverse, pulls back into the two-lane highway, and exits into the stormy night. Very soon, it is as if he and his automobile never had been there, for a storm can swallow up incidents as much as it can augment them. It is not uncommon, therefore, for those who had been engaged in battle in the howling cauldron of a storm to wonder afterward how much had been imagined.

         Claire stands a while longer in the rain, so as to make sure that the goon in the vintage car is not going to return. She decides that the goon is not going to come back tonight. After all, did not Christ Jesus Himself contrast a hireling with a shepherd? Did He not make it clear that a man for hire will only go so far or do so much for the small bag of coins tossed at him every other week?

         Claire returns the shotgun to that space behind her seat. She sits before her steering wheel, closes her door, looks into her rearview mirror just to make sure one more time, and then releases all her pent up stress in one big scream. It is a horrified scream; not the kind of sound that normally passes through her lips; and yet she could not have done anything else. 

         The only silver lining is that Billy Ray Blaise most likely is alive. Disposing of a corpse is relatively easy to do, especially when the murderer pulls the long strings at the police department. Holding a man hostage, though, is not so easy a task. The man may try to escape. Someone from the outside may see or hear something. The victim’s friend may snoop around; and if she is not scared away sooner rather than later, then she may discover that one clue that knocks down the whole house of cards. 

         Why would Jim Trent keep Billy Ray alive? Claire knows all too well that there is a sadistic streak in the retired cop, and yet she does not sense that this is about a pervert getting his jollies. No, there is something else going on here. She cannot put her finger on it, but she senses that this is about a past sin now coming forward to reassert itself, like a ghost insisting that indeed it is still just as alive as when it had been a pain in the ass in the living world.

         After all, David Trent had not been nearly as reckless as he had seemed. There had been nothing random about his victims. They had been ‘problems’ or ‘embarrassments’ from the past that needed to be silenced, so that Big Brother Jim could focus on the ‘big picture.’ In a way, David’s one purpose had been to tie up the loose ends so that Jim never need be bothered by his dark memories.    

         So was David Trent settling his own score when he brutally attacked, and nearly killed, his ex-wife, Miss Donna Goody? Or was he really doing Jim’s work even then? Claire does not know; but she will not be surprised, if it turns out to be that David had been doing Jim’s work that horrid night. After all, Miss Donna Goody is a whore; and whores hear confessions even more so than priests. Miss Donna Goody may have known all sorts of terrible secrets about the Trent Boys.

         If indeed David had been doing Jim’s work that horrid night, then maybe Jim is keeping Billy Ray Blaise alive for now to figure out with whom Miss Donna Goody may have shared her knowledge. Maybe, Jim Trent is our own local ‘Dick Cheney’ in that he thinks that waterboarding a bastard to find more bastards is smarter than just taking him out with a drone. Yes, this is a real stretch; but in the end, Claire has known Jim Trent too long to put anything passed him, even in retirement. She knows all too well just how deep is the blackness in his eyes.

         Claire drives up to her cabin. She sits in her idling car a while, while she collects her thoughts. She observes the trees behind her cabin. They sway from side to side in the howling wind, and she imagines the waves of a turbulent sea carrying her cabin upon their shoulders. Her cabin is infinitely far from any and all other shorelines, for the sea is endless in every direction. Even if the waves push her back and forth, she should be safe this far away from everything else…

         Except she is not, of course, as evidenced by the man tailing her tonight all the way up to her remote driveway. She and her cabin may be ‘lost’ on that turbulent sea, but they can be ‘found,’ if and when the man pulling the strings is of a mind to do so. In a way, this is the reverse of the Prodigal Son; living off the grid to escape the horrors that we had known in the past, or back home, or where we were supposed to be safe, until those unburied memories happen one night to find us. We are dragged back into that grid, not to be saved, but to be made sick and wretched. For the past condemns the future to settle old scores.

         Claire steps out of her car. She braves the rain, which is now hitting her horizontally on account of the wind. She hears the thunder roll above, and that is where her bravery falters. She drops her chin into her chest, and practically runs from her car to her front door, as if a girl trying to escape the boogeyman.

         There is no immediate relief inside. Lightning flashes through the spaces in between her window blinds, and the broken lines of light reflected off of her walls call to mind the eyes of a Peeping Tom. First, you see them; then, you do not, as the Peeping Tom sifts in and out of the blackness. You can see him only sporadically, but he is there always, observing, judging; waiting for his moment to pounce through glass. When he pounces his teeth are long and bloodstained; the teeth of the beast that is veiled beneath the thinnest veneer of civilization.

         Claire runs through the cabin, tightening the window blinds, and drawing sheets over them. She knows that this is irrational behavior. Perhaps, she used up all her reason and her courage when she fired her shotgun. Regardless, until the sun rises, she suspects she will be a frightened girl wrapped in her formless woolen scarves and sweaters. She feels childlike tears dribbling down her worn, wrinkled cheeks. Even worse, she senses her mind skipping away from her, like a phonograph needle jumping over a portion of a record. She loses her mind for only seconds at a time; and yet those seconds seem eternal; an eternity where she is alone in her own cramped shell and where her cries will never be heard…

         Claire awakens from one of those momentary spells. She discovers she is sitting on the floor beside her coffee table. It is pitch black; but she knows very well the inside of her cabin, including where she had stashed a flask of whiskey sometime ago beneath her couch. Indeed, she has flasks stashed in tight spaces throughout the cabin; but since she has no intention of getting up off the floor, let alone wandering in the dark, only the flask beneath the couch interests her.

         She reaches under the couch behind her. A slight, trembling smile forms on her lips the moment she feels it. Her smile does not last, though, for creepy lightning yet again tries to break into her space. It does not penetrate very far, because she had tightened the window blinds; but the sheets drawn over those blinds momentarily radiate like orange blue banners in hell. Every one of those sheets is an illuminated, rectangular, blank face of death seared into her mind.

         She gulps half of her flask in one swallow. The cabin would be spinning if she could view the walls or the furnishings. Instead, her stomach bloats to take in all that whiskey poison, and then twists into a tight knot that coughs up bile.

         God, what do I do? Claire mutters. 

         She leans her back against the front of the couch, and she holds the cold side of the flask against her throbbing head. She is very much afraid that she is going to space out again and that this time she will not return from her private hell. It is as if she is teetering on the edge with no consolation but her whiskey; and even that good friend will abandon her, when she spaces out one last time.

         Oh, God, please, what do I do? Claire cries.

         She looks towards the floor on her left side. There is a light blinking. It is her answering machine. She cannot remember the last time someone called her on that line, let alone left her a message. She almost thinks it is a mental trick.

         She reaches down and feels for the ‘Play’ button. Of course, shitfaced as she is, she just as easily might push the ‘Erase’ button; but the fates are on her side this time. The fates are also on the side of the man who left that message.

*   *   *

         Walter Whipple backs his restored, all black, 1931 Marmon Model 16 into his parking space. Because of his enormous girth, it is almost impossible for him to look over his right shoulder. Therefore, he relies on his rearview mirror, and a bit of luck, to back into his space without scratching his automobile. The rain does not help, especially as it is now beating horizontally into his back window.

         His nerves do not help him, either. He is still anxious from his close call a little while ago. People can be so ornery and unpredictable at times, and that is especially true of what he likes to think of as the ‘female species.’ Grandma Eunice taught him long ago that there is a vicious streak inside every lady. They simply cannot help themselves. It has something to do with all those hormones. Add an addled brain and a noisemaker, and ladies can be downright dangerous, especially on nights like this one. He is lucky to get back home without any real scratches, except perhaps to his ego. Nevertheless, his nerves will be shot until he soaks his concerns in a hot bath and dangles a treat beyond Whiskers’ reach.

         Walter is exhausted by the time he squeezes out from behind the wheel.

         He has to lean against the side of his automobile a moment, even though he is being bombarded from all sides by horizontal rain and screaming winds. In the time it takes him to catch his breath, he is drenched to his soiled and holey underwear. There is no need any longer for his umbrella, which is probably for the better, since he is too tired now to squat down and to retrieve his umbrella from behind his seat. He therefore closes his driver’s side door with a sigh, and he waddles toward the shed that is behind his parking space. 

         He scrambles through his trench coat pocket for his shed key. 

         Lightning flashes overhead, and he sees that the door remains unlocked. Indeed, it is swinging on its hinges. He would have heard how the rusted hinges scream like banshees, but for the deafening guttural moan of wind sweeping up dirt and leaves from the ground. His face contorts into a snarl, not just because the old shed is unlocked, but because as a rule he does not like to be surprised.

         Damn taco boy, Walter huffs. Thinks he can come and go, as he pleases…

         Thunder snaps overhead. It is closer and louder than anticipated; and for a moment, he looks up and quivers, like a caveman unable to make sense of all those mercurial gods. Man is never far enough from primordial sludge, it seems.

         Walter steps into the shed, and he pulls out his vintage, red, Radio Flyer wagon. He hates exposing his wagon to the harsh elements, but he tells himself that ‘the Mexican’ can clean it up tomorrow as well as he cleans his automobile every other day. It will look as new before the sun sets again on his Little Eden.

         True, if left to their own devices, then those Mexicans would not be able to invent a hot air balloon, let alone send a man to the Moon, Walter thinks, as he fumbles for his automobile trunk key. But they can chisel away dirt for hours on end. I can grant the little, brown, jumping beans that much. 

         It takes the longest time for Walter to distinguish the trunk key from the others. His fingers are useless. Indeed, he does not feel capable at all unless he has his axe in hand; and even then, he feels more like a blunt instrument in the service of some other man’s brooding, but excitable, madness, than a powerful man in his own right. Maybe, rainstorms like this one occur for no other reason than to remind Walter that he cannot but bend over before the mad night gods.

         That seems about right in Walter’s mind. Out here, everything conspires to tear him down and to push his face into the pillow. His only refuge is a dark, small attic, a place haunted by so many sorrows, but also the stage where he is trying to make up for that time that he choked so miserably. Inside every actor is an unforgiving critic, who remembers every failure on stage as if it is his first one. Every glitch in the music, every misstep in the dance, every solitary act of insubordination is the same as when he dropped the axe and ran to his bed. His rational mind now and then still tries to tell him that this is not so, but terrible nights like this one remind him that rational minds stand small before the gods.

         Walter heaves a bucket of Rocky Road ice cream onto his wagon. He has to move a lot faster than he wants, since it is only a matter of time before rain seeps into his version of breakfast cereal. 

         He slams the trunk door, pulls his trench coat collar up (not that it really matters at this point given how wet he is already), and yanks the wagon up the driveway. He almost slips twice on the rainwater gurgling down the many deep crevices in his driveway, but the fear of mushy Rocky Read keeps his huge head low and his feet forward. ‘No rest for the wicked,’ his Grandma Eunice used to say; and he supposes that he is wicked enough now in exposing his gourmet ice cream to Mother Nature’s latest in a long series of temper tantrums going back to the Great Flood. He knew that a storm had been a brewing from the farthest corners. He could have waited until tomorrow or even the next day to stock up.

         But something had urged him to leave home this afternoon. He had seen a certain look in Marcos’ eye. He had seen the same look the very night Marcos had pulled a loaded firearm on Chuckles, and he had seen it many times since…

         But today, that look had been much deadlier. Marcos wanted to feed the beast this time without any oversight by his ostensible master. He wanted to be left alone. There is no actual sin, if God neither sees nor hears it, now is there?

         Walter senses cold dread slithering down his spine. Notwithstanding how exhausted he is, he picks up his pace even more so. He is practically running as he pulls his wagon wheels up the steps to the porch one slippery step at a time.

         Walter leans upon the front door. He opens his mouth, like he is choking.

         Yes, he is tired; but there is something else going on here. 

         He is afraid. That is what he is. He is literally choking on his fear.

         Walter fumbles for his door key. He cannot remember what is looks like; and for a few horrible seconds, his mind spaces out to such an extent that he is unable even to comprehend what a key is. He feels the shaped iron, the ragged edges opposite the smooth edges, and he has no idea what he is feeling. For all intents and purposes, he is a brute who has awakened suddenly in a time and a place that are not his own. He is an illegal alien. He speaks gibberish. His tired, remote eyes are the eyes of the hunted; and just to make certain he knows his lowly estate, the howling wind snaps up the tail of his trench coat and kicks his ankles. The wind is the sniveling maître d shooing him out of the living, robust, temperamental world of the night and into a quiet mausoleum of long shadows.

         Indeed, when finally he reclaims enough of his reason to unlock the door and to pull his Radio Flyer wagon into the foyer, he senses before anything else just how dead quiet it is inside. Oh, sure, he still hears the torrential rainstorm beating against the exterior walls and the window; but the noise seems remote and in the process of disappearing altogether. The world out there is so distant as to be otherworldly, more akin to a childhood nightmare remembered later in bits and pieces than a real place. 

         Walter shuts the door behind him. He removes his trench coat and hangs it on his coat hook. It is too dark for him to see that the candlestick telephone beneath his coat hook is lying on its side. The earpiece is dangling over the side of the small table on which the telephone rests. He is oblivious to the unending beep-beep-beep of an earpiece off its hook. 

         If indeed it is as dead quiet as he presumes, then he should be able now to hear that pulsing dial tone, no? Perhaps, it is not dead quiet inside his home, so much as he is impervious to anything and everything beyond his own anxiety.

         For, indeed, something is wrong…

         Walter saw the look in Marcos’ eyes; the look that said, ‘go away, fatso, and leave me alone this afternoon with the beast.’ ‘Go away, fatso, or perhaps I’ll turn my Latin eyes towards you. Maybe, sneak up on your ass from behind…’

         There is flickering light from the ‘family room.’ It catches his right eye, while he is looking downward and wringing his useless hands together like some sort of Nervous Nellie. He does not snap out of his doldrums, so much as he hits the floor of the ocean and starts to ascend slowly through the seaweed and the sand towards an undefined surface. 

         He steps into the ‘family room,’ leans upon the back of his Lazy Boy, and stares blankly at the flat screen. It is mute. It illuminates the old (and, in some cases, already yellowed) newspapers that he had stacked so neatly on the floor a while ago. Even more so, it lights up Clover Fist, so that he is a smiling, white god boy bathed in a starlight radiance. That is as it should be. The hunky sift in and out of dreams, so it makes sense that they should reside on the edge of the sun. Get too close, and your wings will burn, Daedalus; and then you must fall…

         Pulled back down to the earth…

         Like chains wrapped around your neck from behind…

         For, indeed, something is wrong…

         Walter shivers erratically in response to the whispering voices in his sick, old mind. The fear slaps him around just enough that he makes sense of what is on the flat screen: Another blond anchor-ette. Oh, what a sham, even worse by all accounts than that Kraut Beauty Pageant Girl that has the midday show; for this prime time blond bitch claims to be a lawyer. Can you imagine that faggot, commie nonsense? Oh, I can picture it now: ‘Your honor, I cannot continue with my cross examination of the witness, because I’m about to have my period. You see my cunt is about to explode like a balloon, and I do not want to shed blood all over your fine, masculine, hardwood floor.’ Also, you ever notice that she is always front and center when on camera? Like what she says actually matters…

         Normally, Walter feels better after one of these stream of consciousness rants; but this time he cannot shake his cold dread. He is the rat in the cage. It does not matter where he scampers because the cat can claw at him anywhere.

         For, indeed, something is wrong…

         Walter feels his heart about to burst through his chest, as his disoriented mind suddenly latches onto a singular, horrible thought. He is sure now why he first envisioned a mausoleum, when he stepped into his dark foyer. He despises where his mind is going right now, but he cannot deny what follows inescapably from the logic of the situation. Marcos had been given free reign with the beast today, like a cat given free reign to claw rapaciously at the rat in the cage. The temptation had been too great. The eyes turned black with homicidal madness; and then the pupils rolled back to reveal albino whiteness, as the axe blade hit its mark. That axe blade clawed at the skin, before sinking into the blood flesh.

         Oh, God, no, Walter mutters, as he grabs his heart, and leaves the room.

         He bangs his left shin against the side of the Radio Flyer wagon. He cries out in agony, but he does not slow down. He must get up to that attic as fast as he can, even though he is sure already that the beast upstairs is beyond rescue.

         He lunges up the steps, even though he is much too tired to do so. 

         For an agonizing minute or so, he is forced about midway up the steps to fall to one knee. He feels nausea squirting up his throat. He is prepared then to vomit, but that sick bile instead slides down his windpipe. He cannot remember a more anxious and disorienting coughing fit; for at one time he is sure that his lungs will kick through his chest, and then at another time he is just as sure his lungs will shoulder through his upper back. Indeed, at one point, it is as if all of his organs are crazed beasts trying to blast their way out from beneath his skin.

         Somehow, he catches his breath; and the coughing fit subsides. He waits a moment longer to collect his thoughts, for at first he is not quite sure why he is kneeling on a step midway up his staircase. Perhaps, this is just a nightmare. Perhaps, he had been sleepwalking, which he does often enough as a means of fleeing the squealing, cold, senseless fear that gnaws at his subconscious brain.

         Gnawing at his old brain like a rat chewing a hole through Swiss cheese…

         Walter scrambles back to his feet. He reaches the top of the staircase.

         In spite of his near delirium, he hears Whiskers yowling from inside of his bedroom. He opens his bedroom door, and he gestures for his Dragon Li to stay close to him. He has no expectation that his Dragon Li will do as requested, for Whiskers is not known for his obedience; but Whiskers surprises him.

         Apparently, Whiskers too realizes just how long the shadows run tonight.

         I don’t blame you for being scared, Walter mutters, while staring down a moment at those oversized, yellowish, feline eyes between his drenched shoes.

         Walter starts up the spiral staircase toward the attic. Whiskers hesitates a moment, and then follows his master into that dead quiet hell at the very top of the steps. Whatever awaits them up there they are going to face it together.

         Several of the old light bulbs hanging over the staircase flicker unevenly. They call to mind a defeated man on his death bed. The man had fought earlier for every breath, but now he does not try at all. He will be happy enough when the last bit of air escapes his cracked lips, and he can stare eternally into that dark world that has been opening up before his eyes for some time. Death turns out to be all too familiar by the time we relinquish our ghosts. The several light bulbs above may provide some illumination still, but the tired electrical buzz in the air suggests that already they are dead cold to the touch. There is sulfur in the air also, but like the light bulbs it calls to mind something already in decay.

         Walter plods unevenly up the steps. He can feel death weighing down his shoulders. He glances at Whiskers’ upturned eyes now and then. Otherwise, he would be totally alone on this death walk, and he is not so certain he would be able to make it. Without Whiskers by his side he again might escape to his bed, as defeated in his advanced years as he had been way back when. That is really the truth of the matter, and so his head hangs low and ashamed as he advances to the top of the spiral staircase one slow and unsure step at a time.

         The attic door is wide open. Walter is not surprised, and yet once again that familiar dread coils down his spine. His body trembles erratically, when he stops a while at the top of the spiral staircase and stares blankly into complete existential darkness. The darkness seems like a sentient creature, a spirit flesh composed of shadows and nightmares, and yet also a terribly dark and brooding intelligence that aims to work on the mind deeper than where nightmares ever tread. Walter cannot imagine anyone surviving in this place, and he determines that only the most diabolical of sadists could find any pleasure in how a man or a beast endeavors to cope in here. Yes, the man who traps his beast inside this nightmare room is evil, indeed, no matter the justifications checked off his list.

         Damned Mexican, Walter mutters. He made me do this.

         But Walter does not really believe that. Oh, sure, ‘the Mexican’ plays all too well in the darker contours of Walter’s consciousness; but Walter had had a desire to capture the son of a bitch that went AWOL on him long before the big burrito boy showed up at his gate. Walter had wanted this moment, as much as he dreads this moment. ‘Be careful what you wish for’ had never been so true, even if the axiom rings as too quaint given the unsettling darkness everywhere.

         Walter picks up the flashlight that is on the top step beside the doorway. Interestingly, whatever had happened in this nightmare room had not involved the flashlight, since it seems not to have been moved at all. He only can sense, deep down and more intuited than visualized, the sheer horror of dark shadows grappling with one another unto death. 

         Walter points the weak flashlight into the dark room. It provides so little illumination that he must rely on his imagination to fill in most of the details in this place. Normally, his imagination does well enough; but tonight, it is far too tired and worn. The most that he can do is to imagine himself lost in heavy fog.

         Walter steps into the attic. He searches through the fog for something to excite his mind away from its pervading sense of dread. Indeed, stumbling upon the corpse of that wild beast in cowboy shirt and jeans will be an improvement over this dead quiet darkness. Anything will be better than his sick, cold stress.

         Someone moans not too far from him. He believes that it comes from his right, but he is not certain. Direction makes no sense in fog thick enough to cut in two. As always, even in this dead place, reason stands as small and hideous, like a little piggy boy with a bleeding pussy and an unlimited reservoir of tears.

         Though unsure, Walter turns to his right, and proceeds toward where he thinks the moan originated. He sees nothing, until he nearly trips on old, greasy chains wrapped tightly around a motionless leg. 

         His flashlight reveals the rest: Billy Ray, unconscious, but clinging to life, wrapped tightly from toes to neck in the chains attached to his neck collar. His face is just ghastly. It seems to have been cut by a sharp edge every which way for no other reason than to veil his facial features with straight, bloodied lines. There is no need for the ski mask anymore, for the cut lines make it impossible to see the distinct features of the man who once had donned the theater stage. The rest of the body has been mummified by chains. It is motionless, but for an erratic, quivering breath; and the subtle smell of urine and flatulence in the air suggests a body already resigned to the stomach churning smell of decay. Death presses down on the body even more so than the chains; and yet, his mutilated face twitches erratically in response to what seems to be a horrible nightmare. Walter senses that this poor beast would have given up his ghost already except for his overriding will to see this nightmare through to the end. Perhaps, he has to wrestle with one last devil, before he can take his place among the shadows. Perhaps, he has to lose what he loves, before he can lose his own life. Surely, a nightmare is as good a venue as any other to fight a devil or to bury one’s love.

         A note has been transfixed to the front of the neck collar. The words are written in red crayon scrawl. They practically shout at Walter through the dead quiet of this place, and so Walter feels compelled to squat down and to read it:

Roses are Red

Violets are Blue

I left him for dead

But the last chop’s on you

         Walter squeals in horror. He falls onto his butt and scoots away from the moaning, twitching, mutilated man. He clutches at his heart for fear it is going to stop. God forbid that he should be found dead later beside this poor beast in chains; civilized man blue and clammy, while the beast even then clings to life.

         That is not why I am afraid, Walter thinks. I am afraid that, in the end, I really am going to be responsible for that last murderous thrust of the axe. The axe will be handed to me, and yet I cannot say for sure what I shall do with it. I can make this beast dance for me, but can I dance when it is my time on stage?

         Moreover, what does this note say about the young man who wrote it? In Marcos’ eyes, there is murder, no doubt; but there is also a dawning realization that I may not be up to the task, when it is my turn. Like Lucius, so many years ago, he is sensing where I am weak, where my defenses are down; so that when the night is endless, he can open my bedroom door, and stare at my nakedness.

         And thrust himself into my body and my soul, and abandon me in sorrow.

         Walter feels Whiskers rubbing against his right side. This frees him from his nightmarish vision. He points the flashlight towards his friend, and observes how those alien feline eyes sparkle hypnotically in the illumination. Walter thus far has avoided Whiskers’ hypnotic spells, if only to make it clear enough in his own mind who controls whom in this relationship. Right now, though, there is a strange appeal in the prospect of being hypnotized that Walter embraces. Hard to say why for sure, except that being mentally far away from here seems to be a blessing in its own right. Anything will be better than his endless self-loathing and fear, for in all that wretchedness there is nothing sown but hellish despair.

         The moment passes. The alien feline eyes no longer sparkle. Perhaps, he had been hypnotized already. Regardless, he feels calmer than prior, though he still wants to get out of this dark room and away from that note. Yes, he knows that he must deal with this poor beast in chains; but, for now, he needs a warm bath with his rubber ducky, a scented candle by his tub, and a smile on his lips.

*   *   *

         Walter slides down the bathtub, until his nose just hovers over the warm soapsuds. He stares at those alien feline eyes, which are poking up from behind the opposite end of the bathtub. 

         You know it is only a matter of time; those eyes remark in a tone that is, frankly, more condescending than usual even for his uppity feline. 

         Walter opens his mouth to respond. He swallows soapsuds, coughs sickly, and lifts his face above the waterline. He watches those eyes the whole time. He practically hears them laughing at him, like he is a mongrel so dimwitted as to be oblivious to where his mouth is at any given time. 

         Oh, shut up, Walter barks back when he finally catches his breath again.

         School’s out; those eyes continue. 

         I am not listening, Walter growls, after covering his ears with his hands.

         And the kiddies are coming home; those eyes continue.

         Walter petulantly drops his hands into the soapy water, for try as he may he cannot block out what those eyes are saying to him. He suspects that even if he ripped off his ears he would hear every one of those taunting words. It does not matter how hard he tries. He cannot escape them, because in the end they are not words, so much as they are the links of a long chain that ties him to the dark and sordid past. Even now, he feels this chain wrapped as if a noose about his neck. The noose pulls him in and out of the water at the whim of a madman (actually, a mad woman feels much closer to the truth) up in the rafters.

         No, Walter insists. 

         Yes, those eyes retort. And you know why…

         I know nothing, Walter insists.

         The eyes laugh. They love to see him squirm.

         The old man’s kicking at the pricks again; the eyes say. Remember what Grandma Eunice used to say: ‘Give a man an inch, and he’ll take a mile.’ True, so true, as that sky is blue, especially if he’s got Aussie, mongrel blood in him…

         Grandpa’s not a mongrel, Walter grumbles. 

         Every Aussie’s descended from a crook or a colored, the eyes snicker. Do not fool yourself. They’ve all got the ‘outback’ in their blood, a wandering eye, a heart for swashbuckling tales. The old man ‘won’ the day he insisted he could keep the grandfather clock; so he’s got the silly nerve to think he can ‘win’ one more time, before he kicks his liver into the grave for good.

         Grandpa knows his place; Walter insists without conviction.

         Oh sure, he just thinks his place is out there, the eyes respond. Why the old fool tried to escape. Thought it would be a good idea to squander his name and his money with those ‘free niggers’ chuckin’ and jivin’ on the other side of the fence. Like a Prodigal Cowboy, he’d a made a fool of himself, if someone a bit stronger than him didn’t wrap a chain around his neck, and pull him back to his bed. It only takes one chop for a beaten man to find Jesus, let me tell you…

         That’s not quite how the parable goes, Walter interrupts.

         Maybe, maybe not, the eyes laugh. But you know better than anyone the ‘Prodigal Cowboy’ is ‘Gospel’ in this old house. Go ahead. Try to deny what you know to be true, and eventually you’ll get chopped down, too. Cut into a pussy boy; an obnoxious, obese, squealing cunt paraded before the press like a freak.

         Stop it, Walter yells.

         You can stop it any time you wish, the eyes respond. Of course, if you’re not going to act, then the college boy can come home, and do it for you. That’s the alternative, when school’s out, and the kiddies are homesick. So is the last chop on you, or is it on the college boy? Odds favor the college boy, I gotta say.

         I can handle the axe, Walter mutters. 

         What? The eyes laugh. I didn’t hear you.

         Buck off, Walter snaps. You hear me as well as I hear you. 

         I’m not so sure, the eyes respond. You could’ve hit the Restless Wrangler with the sharp edge. Cut his lungs from his chest instead of tickling a few ribs…

         Buck! Buck! Buck! Walter snaps back at the eyes in turmoil.

         Oh, then there was the failure back at the train depot, the eyes chuckle.

         Enough! Enough! Enough! Walter screams, while slapping his hands like a bratty toddler into the soapsuds. 

         Whiskers jumps back from the bathtub. He manages to avoid most of the soapy water. He looks back at his master from the bathroom door. His eyes are wide, but scared, like those of a skittish kitty that has no clue what to do next.

         That’s okay, my feline friend, Walter says, when he settles down. I know what to do next. It’s going to be a nasty business, but that’s the price if we are going to keep granddaddy home with his kinfolk. One chop, and a bit of blood…

*   *   *

         Walter finishes assembling the hospital bed. 

         It had taken him several hours to bring all the pieces up to the attic, and it had taken him just as many hours to assemble it. Sometime during all of that activity, the rainstorm had stopped, though he had discarded it from his mind a long time before that. Therefore, for the most part, he had worked on this bed in silence, but for an occasional moan from that man in chains across the room.

         Now, with the work done, he extends his arms, and leans on the thin and stiff mattress. The exhaustion catches up with him, and he finds it very hard to breathe. Sweat drips off his double chins and down the inside of his red robe. If he had not been repulsed then by the prospect of losing consciousness only feet away from that man in chains, he likely would have fainted. His bigoted pride, so much the source of his weariness, in this case keeps him on his feet, though at what cost he cannot know. The devil that holds up a man can be counted on in due time to knock him down at the knees. 

         On some level, Walter senses this very fact, for he is not refreshed when he catches his breath finally. On the contrary, he is even more tired then prior, except that this is more like spiritual resignation and physical malaise than real exhaustion. His heart beats normally, and his sweat is nothing more than beads glistening on the top of his forehead, but he is tired to the point of real despair with the world he has carved out for himself. He must do what he must do; but he sees no light at the end of the tunnel, no defeat of the old ghosts that have plagued him all his life, no end to the memories that pounce out from the dark shadows at every turn. He has been rendered guilty; and although he does what he must do in this life, his soul already is hanging from the gallows. 

         And so it is with a heavy heart that he drops to his knees (groaning about as loudly as the Restless Wrangler) and removes the chains from the man under his care. He glances back now and then at the only friend he has left in this sad world, but he receives little comfort from those alien feline eyes. The eyes are no longer taunting him, but neither are they putting his mind at ease. He could not say why, if asked, except that there seems to be too much inchoate fear in those eyes; a vague connotation that the two of them are about to pass a point of no return. Yes, the storm has stopped for now, those eyes seem to state; but we are about to sail where the lookout sees neither beaches at day nor beacons at night. There will be no release from this endless sea, but an undersea grave.

         Walter grabs the Restless Wrangler’s right foot, and he drags him over to the hospital bed. He looks down at the mutilated face. He observes his grandpa down there for a split second. The illusion passes as soon as it imprints upon his mind. Nevertheless, that is long enough for Walter to react simultaneously with disgust and with sadness in equal measures. The conflict tears at his heart; and as a result, he drops the Restless Wrangler’s right foot a moment so as to grasp at his own chest. He looks like he is suffering from a heart attack, when in fact he is transfixed by the moral and intellectual confusion inherent in his decision.

         What is his decision? To do as he must do. One chop, and a bit of blood…

         But not tonight, Walter mutters, when he lets go of his chest. Tomorrow is another day, as Miss Scarlet said. 

         But do I really have until tomorrow? Walter thinks. The college boy could be on the train right now. He could be looking out his little window. If so, then he sees how dark it is out there, but for those flickering railroad crossing lights that he passes now and then. His mind penetrates this darkness, though, and so he imagines the task he has set out to do. The task he must do; for his younger, pudgier brother simply refuses to take an axe to the infirm man up in the attic.

         By the way, why the silly ‘college boy’ reference? Walter continues with his stream of consciousness. It is not as if I do not know his name. His name is…

         No, Walter mutters. No. No. Not now, not tonight, tomorrow is another…

         He cannot finish his sentence. Tara’s gates have been closed to him, and ‘Miss Scarlet’ is just another shadow hanging from the rafters. She twists at the end of a hangman’s rope as much as he does, so why should he bother with her trite words? Why should he bother with anything? Why not just wait here beside this mutilated beast, until the ‘college boy’ returns with murder upon his mind?

         And yet Walter does not give up. He grabs the man’s handcuffs, and lifts him to a standing position. This turns out not to be as hard as he had thought it would be; for the man’s subconscious mind seems to recognize that he is about to stand up, and so adds some strength and balance to his legs. Walter senses if he lets the man go, then the man will sleepwalk a while, before falling down to the wood floor. For all intents and purposes, that man is the walking dead now.

         Walter does not let him go. Instead, he turns him around, and lowers his back onto the hospital bed mattress. He picks up the man’s legs, and he places them on that mattress as well. He does all of this with the caution and the care of a conscientious nurse; and, indeed, the thought is not lost on him that, right now, he is the one and only reason why this man will be able to survive tonight.

         Walter glances at the man’s crotch. It is a tent pole pushing up his jeans zipper. Notwithstanding all that has happened, that ‘Viagra on Steroids’ Walter had purchased from Chuckles continues to work its black magic. Everything else about the original plan has fallen to hell in a hand basket, except for the erect cock. Like cockroaches, erect cocks will survive Nuclear Armageddon, it seems.

         Walter removes a key from his robe’s pocket. He unlocks the handcuffs a moment, so that he can cuff the man’s right wrist to the hospital bed railing on that side. The left hand will be free, but he doubts it can get into any mischief.

         You’re home, grandpa, Walter whispers. But I have to make it, so you do not try to run off again, okay? I love you, and that is the least I can do for you…

         And the best I can do for myself, Walter thinks, as a cold shiver trembles down his spine. For the ‘college boy’ will come home otherwise; and this time, he will come after me with an axe, as surely as he will come after our grandpa.

         He tries to shake that thought out of his head. He has saved this beaten, scarred man from certain death. Surely, he deserves to think better of his own motivation; for who else would have taken the time to build this bed and to lift this man out of chains? Does this not render him a modern day Good Samaritan?

         Walter feels Whiskers sliding in between his feet. Indeed, the hour is too late as it is; and the gourmet ice cream in the foyer must be lukewarm slush by now. Oh, that horrible price to be paid for doing what is right in a fallen world!

*   *   *

         I’m coming, the dark, guttural voice says from the other side of the shut bedroom door. I’m coming for you; and this time, I’m going to stick you so hard and deep you’ll shit into your lungs. So much shit up your neck you can’t squeal like the pig you are. My shit stick is going to tickle the back of your mouth; and no matter how much you squirm, deep down you’ll like it, you little piggy boy…

         Walter forces his eyes to open. He gasps for breathable air from the dust filled bedroom; and he grasps at his old, deranged ticker. For a moment (likely only a few seconds, but feels as if an eternity), both the breathable air and the deranged ticker seem beyond his reach. It is almost as if he sees his last exhale of carbon dioxide taunting him from above his nose. As for the ticker, it is gone altogether, as his chest feels like an empty shell clothed by gnarled chest hairs. He is an aggrieved corpse, it seems; already passed the point of no return, and yet taunted by that final bit of life he had exhaled before falling into his grave.

         Imagine Adam looking back after leaving the Garden of Eden. He sees his life back there one last time. He sees the beauty of innocence untouched by an old and vicious hand. Like the carbon dioxide air above Walter’s face, this view of the past serves no other purpose now than to taunt him. Now, life is no more than a hard memory, the reason he despairs; for everything ahead is grey, dead sand. Adam turns away, consumed with regret and anger, his life from this day unto eternity no more than a ghostly semblance of his former life in that lovely dream. Awakened from that dream, he sees good and evil; but he walks onward with a dead man’s gait. He waddles, breathless, fat in his sin, starving for final peace and justice on his own terms; the peace and the justice that forever will elude him, no matter the sharpened axe he holds to reap blood from the earth.

         I’m coming, the dark, guttural voice says again.

         Except this time, that voice comes not from the other side of a door, but from beneath the earth. In a way, it is coming from everywhere at once; for in all directions, the earth has cracks through which the voice whispers. In a way, it is coming also from deep inside Walter’s mind; a psychic premonition of sure death for the man who waddles, breathless, fat in his sin, and starving for final peace and justice on his own terms. 

         How can this be? Walter mutters. I am awake…

         True, he is awake; but do all nightmares stop the moment eyes open and lungs breathe in morning dust? Walter knows the answer; for, indeed, there are nightmares that linger even in the glare of the sun. The little boogeyman in the closet may retreat; but there are plenty of other monsters sitting on trains, or hitchhiking on roads; each second of daylight bringing them closer to the small, weak, fat pigs, who have no choice but to take it in the rear when the sun sets.

         Walter sits up, and slides over to the side of his bed. He turns his face to look out his window, which is what he has been doing every morning all his life.

         His window is boarded up, like all the other windows in this old house of horrors. Several thin sunlight beams break through cracks in the wood. There is just enough light to illuminate the dust mites, which flow out from the shadows to dance spastically in the otherwise cool, still, bedroom air. The sunlight does not penetrate passed the dresser mirror, so the rest of the room remains a veil of creepy shadows. Only the lovely, masculine, albino face of Rexford Muldoon stands out from all those shadows, like it is illuminated from within its artificial flesh. Walter is not so sure of himself, but he is quite sure that Rexford is alive.

         Doesn’t matter how many boards I put up, Walter mutters. I see him. He is getting closer. He may be in the taxi cab right now finishing off the last miles of his trip. He may be looking out the window, as familiar countryside passes by him; but he thinks not about how close home is. He thinks only of what he must do. Stop the ‘Prodigal Cowboy’ from leaving his kinfolk behind, and then stick…

         But Walter cannot finish his sentence. The words are stuck in the back of his throat, and he does not have enough wind to force them out. Just as well in the end, he thinks; for there are ideas better left unsaid in polite company. For now, ‘polite company’ consists of Rexford and Whiskers, the latter curled up on the foot of his bed and looking back at him with his unsettling, inquisitive eyes.

         If you were a monkey, then you could cover your ears, Walter says to his groggy Dragon Li. ‘See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil. Have no fun,’ so say Barack, Michelle, Malia, and Natasha.

         Walter wants to chuckle at his caustic wit, but he does not have a heart even for his own brand of humor this morning. He has to prepare for what must be done, even while knowing that his efforts will be futile. Like a beaten down puppet on a string, he must kick up his heels for one more kiddie show, even as he knows that he will be tossed into an old incinerator and replaced by another puppet just minutes after the curtain drops. The last thing he will hear is a big and boisterous chorus singing ‘It’s Walter Whipple Time’ to the childish melody of The Howdy Doody Show, while the crackling incinerator flames burn his body back to the industrialized dust from which he had been born on a conveyor belt once upon a time. The irony will not be lost on him, but neither will he receive any pleasure in knowing as such. The ironies in hell do not inspire playful grins.

         He waddles over to his pile of unwashed shirts and trousers. Every one of his shirts is white, collared, and well starched. Every one of his trousers calls to mind President Gerald Ford swinging a golf club circa 1975. It should not take a long time to pick his outfit, and yet he takes his time to decide which shirt and which trousers best go together. He imagines the Jeopardy theme all this time.

         Nevertheless, try as he may, even the Jeopardy theme does not brighten up his soul. The world is too overcast. The ‘college boy’ is too near. He tires of his indecision, grabs the next shirt and trousers he sees, and dresses by the soft and ghostly light cast by the dresser mirror candle. He slicks his hair to the left side, leans a moment on his dresser to collect his confused thoughts, and exits.

         He is a man on a mission, and yet he remembers to feed and to water his cat in the kitchen. Whiskers lifts his tail appreciably while eating up the kibble.

         Walter steps into the foyer, and puts on his trench coat, even though the fabric is still wet from the previous night. He sees that his antique telephone is leaning on its side. He figures that it had been knocked over when the ‘Prodigal Cowboy’ had tried to escape his home. He stands up his phone like nothing ever had happened. Oh, if it could be that easy to straighten the mess he has made; but in the end, there is never any salvation without first the shedding of blood.

         Walter wraps a woolen scarf about his neck. He grabs a Bowler hat and a walking stick. He taps his stick on the floor thrice, and Whiskers runs up to him like a private eager to please his sergeant. 

         I must prepare for tonight; Walter says to his cat. Until I return later you are the male guarding the fort. Keep the Injun scouts at bay. We cannot afford outsiders poking into our business. 

         Walter opens the door. He steps onto the porch. The wood boards creak irritably under his weight, for the rainstorm the night before had weakened the joints considerably. It is only a matter of time before the house crashes on him.

         The sky is overcast. The clouds are swallowing up the morning sun, while a bone chilling breeze kicks up the wet twigs and leaves. The day promises now to be damp and dark; the kind that muffles screams when the wind slides under the eaves and that renders trees and flowers the same ghostly grey. Horrid pain goes unheard, and treacherous ghosts go unheeded, until it is too late to return the hands of time to when everything had been safe. Today, every life is futile.

         Or so Walter thinks, when he takes one last look at his dutiful cat staring back at him from inside the foyer. He closes the front door, and he locks it. He waddles down the porch steps, eyes the foreboding sky once more, and sets out to do what he must do. His heart hangs low in his chest, but he presses onward.

*   *   *

         Ringwood tips over his long-stemmed plastic flute, when he gestures for the bartender. ‘No foul, no fine,’ for he had finished every last bit of that toxic ‘Bottoms Up’ concoction served in that flute. Moreover, the bartender switches from glass to plastic flutes, when he sees his customers turn wild-eyed from all that poison rushing through their veins; so there is no shattered glass to pick up either. For all the hijinks and the thrown fists in the Kingfish Saloon most every night, the staff does a pretty good job of keeping down the cost to the shadowy owner upstairs. Indeed, given the reduced liquor content with each subsequent drink ordered, ‘keeping down the cost’ seems to be the foremost concern here.

         Ringwood does not mind. The art of survival is to butter your bread with someone else’s fat. This is how public bureaucracies like the Beverly PD survive in an era of reduced budgets. Why should it be any different for a popular hole in the wall? The key is to know that you are being screwed, so that in a strange way you are ‘in’ on the joke and thus not pissed off when your sixth or seventh ‘Bottoms Up’ has the potency and taste of a ‘Shirley Temple’ with Cajun sauce.

         Another ‘Bottoms Up’ for my friend, Ringwood slurs. 

         The bartender eyes the old detective down the other end of the bar, but then he continues flirting with the big blond wearing the ‘Kiss my Grits’ T-shirt. Ringwood thinks that big blond is a German cow; but they say that ‘fat girls try harder,’ so who is he to begrudge a man his choice on the menu? Still, it is just goddamned wrong that that bartender is taking his time in rounding up another ‘Bottoms Up’ for his friend. After all, Ringwood and his friend have badges and firearms. They are ‘officers of the law,’ or something like that, and so deserve a bit of respect. R-E-S-P-E-C-T, like the Negress what’s her name sang long ago.

         Ringwood grabs a handful of peanuts and tosses them toward the fucking bartender. That serves him right. Flirting with this Kraut Rind on a time clock…

         I said another ‘Bottoms Up,’ dick for brains, Ringwood hollers. 

         Actually, that’s okay, sir, Ringwood’s friend insists under his breath.

         Fuck that, Ringwood grumbles. I brought you out here to teach you a bit about what it’s like to be a man. You’ve not even finished your first one. 

         Actually, Ringwood brought him out here, because no one else had been available when his shift had ended. Moreover, he surely does not view his ‘good cop’ interrogation partner to be a ‘friend,’ and he could care less if his ‘coffee fetcher’ ever learns how to hold his liquor. Ringwood is mildly amused when he reminds his squeaky clean interrogation partner that frankly he will never have the gonads to keep up with the boys at the bar. Nevertheless, after a couple of drinks, even that amusement turns stale; for no matter how hard he may push, in time even the worst bully grows tired of his own bravado and wishes secretly that he could pick on someone his own size for a change. 

         Leave the boy alone, Woody, a woman’s voice orders from behind them.

         Both men look over their shoulders. The younger detective is startled on account of his unfamiliarity with the strange, old woman in the three or four or five formless sweaters, knitted scarf, wool cap, and galoshes. Ringwood smiles sheepishly, for he has known Miss Claire Bruner off and on since before ‘Officer Boy Scout’ here had been a sparkle in his parents’ eyes. 

         Good evening, Miss Claire, Ringwood says. 

         Woody, we’ve got to talk, Claire insists.

         ‘Officer Boy Scout’ tries to hold back a nervous laugh. As a result, when invariably he fails, his laughter is that much more obnoxious than it would have been otherwise. He clamps his mouth shut, but his boyish cheeks turn beet red.

         Ringwood stares him down like he is an Obama voter from San Francisco. 

         Woody, ‘Officer Boy Scout’ explains. It’s just that, well, I’ve never heard anyone call you that before…

         What’s it to you, Hooper or Hopper or whatever the fuck your real name is? Ringwood barks back. I think you’re done for the night. Take a hike, asshole.

         ‘Officer Boy Scout’ steps away from his stool. He looks over the strange, old woman one more time, and then slinks out of the bar like a pervert leaving a filthy porno magazine store with a stash of goodies in his trench coat pockets.

         Ringwood and Claire retreat to a private booth. A waitress with a wad of gum in her mouth and a Dolly Parton blond wig on her head approaches them at once. She wiggles her tight ass, while speaking to them. Either she is too damn sexy for her jeans, or she is trying to squeeze one last turd out of her tiny hole.

         So what’s it gonna be? The waitress asks after popping a big gum bubble.

         ‘Bottoms Up,’ Ringwood states without removing his bloodshot eyes from Miss Claire’s. The dipstick doesn’t hurt so much when you’re fucking plastered.

         Nothing for me, thanks, Claire says kindly to the waitress. I’m prepared…

         ‘I’m prepared’ hangs over the three of them like an unsettling omen, so that for a few awkward seconds no one says anything. Exactly how is this quirky lady prepared? Prepared to thrust a dipstick? The look on this quirky lady’s face suggests that that very well might be the case, but neither the drunk detective nor the flirty waitress wants to pursue that very distinct possibility any further.

         The waitress glances at the old lady. Claire smiles back, like she is in the first stages of dementia and cannot quite figure out what this blond waitress is.

         The waitress rolls her eyes finally. After all, oldsters will say the oddest things sometimes. Better to wait on the old man as if that old lady is not there.

         The waitress leaves. Claire waits until she is gone, and then she removes a silver flask from beneath her sweaters. She sniffs her poison, and then drinks.

         So you think I’m coming after you with a dipstick, huh? Claire blurts out, after the interior of the Kingfish Saloon stops spinning on a tilted axis. 

         Wouldn’t put it passed you, Ringwood snarls. The last time you had that damned cleaver in your hand and said something about eating my balls before a cock crows thrice. You always could interject the Bible into things. 

         A preacher’s wife never gets an ounce of salvation; Claire insists with an annoyed look on her face. But she learns the score. You can bet on that.

         You haven’t been in a church since you buried your first husband about a half century ago, Ringwood reflects. 

         That’s true, Claire comments. Since then, I’ve had the occasion to learn for real what’s right and what’s wrong. I can tell you that it’s got nothing to do with memorizing Bible verses in Sunday school. It’s what you feel in your gut as soon as the liquor wears off. It’s your last thought, before you shut your eyes at night. ‘Right and wrong’ is never pretty, seldom fits in the lines, which is why a lot of us rely instead on dogmas, and laws, and confessions twisted out from all those ‘little people’ who happen to stumble into a police interrogation room. If we all abide by the same dogmas and laws, cutting our long hair, tucking in our collared shirts, well, then, there’s no reason for alarm. Stumble upon an actual principled man, though, and all hell breaks loose. We’ve got to watch that man closely; and if the opportunity arises, then we’ve got to frame him for the kind of crime that’s going to put him in the ‘Big House’ for the remainder of his life.

         What’s this shit? Ringwood yells. You sound like a lesbian lawyer on NPR.

         A few heads turn in his direction. Ringwood slowly notices, gives each of them the bird, and folds his arms in front of his chest. He stares glassy eyed at a woman he loves and he hates in almost equal measures. He never has figured out if he loves or hates her more. She just does not fit into the lines, no matter how hard he and other gentlemen (and, perhaps, a lady or two) have tried over the years to get her to conform. She’ll die untamed, that bitch; one moment, a slightly addled research librarian teaching the little kiddies the Dewey Decimal System; the next moment, a recluse firing rounds from her shotgun at actual or phantom trespassers. Hell, even the IRS cannot keep up with her, he has heard.

         Nope, not a lawyer, Claire says. Lawyers defeat their enemies with legal motions and pleadings. In essence, they talk them to death. I simply go straight for the cock. Sexy at first, but even the hardened masochist can’t take the raw pain after so long. Sooner or later, like Chuck Colson said, when you’ve got ‘em by the balls, they’re hearts and minds will follow. 

         Ringwood feels a blunt point poking into his crotch. He stares downward in sheer horror. Is that the end of a dipstick? What else does she hide under her sweaters? Right now, she is just tapping him awake; but this can change for the worse at any moment. The mercurial look in her eyes makes that clear enough; and like so many other men who have faced the same distinct possibility at one time or another, he cannot tell if this is the sexiest or the scariest of moments.

         So what do you want? Ringwood asks. 

         What I want is to stick this dipstick up your ass, Claire says. You deserve it, too, for trying to frame Billy Ray Blaise. But, preacher’s wife and all, I’ll put the stick back in my Volkswagen, and leave your ass nice and tidy for the queer folk, if you’ll do me a favor.

         Ringwood looks up the moment he hears ‘Billy Ray Blaise.’ Though drunk still, his mind clears considerably from the adrenaline rushing through his veins just then. He had all but given up on finding the hippie son of a bitch, until this very moment. Obviously, Claire knows something, and he intends to find out as much as he can, notwithstanding the dipstick poking into his crotch. ‘Time is of the essence,’ as the lawyers say, for Hammerschmidt wants him to tie up loose ends ASAP. Framing that asshole, not only for the brutal attack of his girlfriend and his landlady, but also for David Trent’s disappearance, will be the best way to tie up loose ends sooner rather than later. 

         Tell me about Billy Ray Blaise, and I’ll consider your request for a favor, Ringwood says in his hard ass detective voice.

         Claire is taken aback a moment. She thought she had the upper hand for good; but the old man has some strength left in him, apparently.

         Good with the Dewey Decimal System, Claire wisecracks with the intent of regaining the upper hand. 

         I bet he is, Ringwood growls. Have you been harboring a known fugitive?

         What kind of a lady do you think I am? Claire asks with false indignation.

         Answer the question, Ringwood insists.

         I admit that I’ve been around the block a few times, Claire answers. But I’ve got my standards. You recognize that. Otherwise, we’d have been an item.

         Answer the question, Ringwood insists.

         No, Claire responds coldly. But I know who has…

         Who? Ringwood asks, while leaning forward and glaring into her old eyes.       

         Claire leans forward, and returns his stare with her own. 

         The man whose been harboring Billy Ray Blaise from the law, is the man who kidnapped him, Claire says.

         Ringwood flinches. This is not the answer he had expected. His eyes look around the room for something else on which to fasten; anything, but her cold, defiant eyes. He leans back, unsure of where he is for a brief moment, then as mad as can be that he allowed this old cunt to overpower him. Sure, this is not the first time she has beaten him in a test of wills; but this one stings a heck of a lot worse, if only because there is no prospect of balancing the scales later in her bed. Old age means she can sting like a wasp; but try as he may, he cannot hang like a horse. As Robert Hays’s character says in Airplane!: ‘What a pisser!’

         The waitress returns with Ringwood’s ‘Bottoms Up.’ She places it on the table without looking at the old lady, who obviously suffers from dementia. She waits a moment to see if Ringwood has another order; but when he ignores her completely, she takes his hint, and wiggles her tight, little ass somewhere else.

         Ringwood drinks half of his ‘Bottoms Up’ in one gulp. He desires the kind of liquor shot that spins the room, drops his eyelids, and makes him feel either sick or calm. Anything will be a welcomed diversion from Miss Claire’s surprise. After all, surely Jim Trent is behind this kidnapping. Assuming that is the case, then Jim Trent has decided to tie up loose ends himself, rather than to rely on his ‘buddies’ in the Beverly PD. If that is the case, then Ringwood is completely expendable. One of Jim’s goons may put a bullet through his head, but murder is messy. More likely, the FBI will get a tip about Ringwood’s false signatures on behalf of a protected prisoner. Then, there are the false police reports, abuses of privilege, coerced confessions, investigations ‘off the books.’ Ringwood may get his gold watch, but he’ll be escorted from his retirement party to a federal prison complex. Jim Trent cleans house, and Ringwood cleans latrines; not bad, really, for a police union thug pulling the strings from inside his haunted house out of town. In a way, Ringwood can admire the son of a bitch, except that his fear that, indeed, he is at the end of his rope trumps his feelings of admiration.

         Do you know who kidnapped him? Ringwood asks, after he settles down.

         No, Claire responds, after she also leans back into her booth. But I have a clue. Billy Ray left a cryptic message on my answering machine last night. He was under obvious duress, but I could hear him say ‘critic’ and ‘get the axe.’ As soon as he said what he said, I heard a fight in the background, so I am sure the kidnapper managed to detain him. Anyway, as soon as I got to the public library this morning, I did a keyword search on the Internet. I typed in ‘critic’ and ‘get the axe.’ I came upon the theater critic for the Beverly Times. He writes under the pseudonym ‘Whiskers.’ I wanted to go to the newspaper myself, talk to the owner, force him to give me the name of the man behind that pseudonym. Give him the ‘dipstick treatment,’ if he did not cooperate. I almost did just that, for how can I trust you, when you’ve been trying to frame him…

         What makes you think I tried to frame him? Ringwood asks irritably. I am a detective asking questions and taking notes. That is a far cry from framing an innocent man… 

         I know you, Claire interrupts. I know what you are capable of doing.

         Oh, sure, I had my suspicions, Ringwood continues, as if he did not hear the interruption. I am paid to have suspicions. There is a gruesome attack in his apartment. He is known to have had words in the past with his landlady. For all I know, the girlfriend is at the wrong place at the wrong time. Possible scenario is that he goes ape shit on the McNutt lady, and the whore gets caught up in his anger. Did it happen this way? I don’t know, but I ask questions and take notes. Then, he fingers David Trent; and, lo and behold, I find out from one of David’s neighbors that a man fitting Billy Ray’s description is poking around there. Is he looking to buy property, or is he looking to frame a parolee for his crime? Once again, I don’t know, but I ask questions and take notes. David skips parole, and Billy Ray skips town, so I ask more questions and take more notes. That’s what I fucking do. 

         You don’t need to convince me, Claire says. You just need to do me one more favor. I am too old to rescue him.

         Everyone knows you’re a fucking eagle eye with your shotgun, Ringwood interrupts. Pretend you’re Carrie Nation, and show up with your guns a blazing. The booze hounds will be running away in no time, and you’ll rescue your buck.

         Goddamn you, this is serious, Claire insists. I cannot save him by myself. 

         You’re barking up the wrong tree, Ringwood says as he finishes his drink.

         Claire shoves that dipstick hard and fast into Ringwood’s crotch. The old man yelps like a beaten dog, and knocks over his plastic flute. He looks back at the old lady with tearful, bloodshot, defeated eyes. He decides finally, after so many years, that he hates her more than he loves her; but with this horrid pain and humiliation down there, what good is it now that he has made up his mind?

         Let me be clear, Claire says. I cannot save Billy Ray Blaise, but I can talk to the press.

         About an old detective doing his fucking job? Ringwood responds.

         No, about a young detective having an affair with Miss Alice Werner, and then later persuading his superiors to dump her case prematurely into the ‘cold case’ file, so that his indiscretions would never see the light of day, Claire says with absolute disdain.

         Not believable, Ringwood mutters, while looking back into his memories.

         I know, Claire says. Too much of a plot twist, even for pulp fiction; but I have learned over the years that real life really is stranger than pulp fiction, so I believe the story will have some legs. Enough to unearth some old secrets, no?

         So you want me to find this theater critic, Ringwood mutters.

         And then I want you to rescue an innocent man, Claire concludes.

         Ringwood looks off in the distance. He does not need to question the guy at the Beverly Times. He knows all too well where he’ll find Billy Ray Blaise. In truth, had he not suspected all along that, somehow, the fates would drag him back to that house of horrors? Moreover, while Claire had been making her case in her typical, straightforward manner, had he not remembered clearly enough a particular point in the conversation that he had had with the fat weirdo then?

What do you know about actors? Ringwood asks.

I know how to judge them, Walter says tensely.

         Critics judge. They write editorials that are analogous to legal opinions. Like legal opinions, they finish off their diatribes with a thumbs up or a thumbs down. The actors get to perform another day, or they get the hangman’s noose at dawn. That weirdo knows how to judge. He has his opinions about everything from racial minorities to black swans; and like every critic under the sun, he is at ease only when he is delivering one of those opinions.

         Oh, and let us not forget his goddamn cat. He called him ‘Whiskers.’ The pseudonym for the theater critic is ‘Whiskers.’ Is that a coincidence? Though he hates the implication, Ringwood knows that it is not a coincidence. The weirdo kidnapped the hippie at Jim Trent’s behest. Why is that weirdo working for Jim Trent? God only knows. Nevertheless, Ringwood had sensed that the weirdo had lied when he claimed not to have had any interaction with his arresting officer since 1981. The fact that he has Billy Ray Blaise only confirms Ringwood’s prior suspicion. Ringwood is paid to be suspicious, after all.

         So why should he return to that house of horrors to rescue the hippie? He admits to himself that he does not want Miss Claire to go to the press about the Alice Werner case. Yes, it is a cold case; and yes, Miss Claire does not know the circumstances as much as she thinks she knows. Nevertheless, as his Vice Chief had told him, there are some corpses no one wants to observe come out of the grave. Hammerschmidt had been talking about Walter Whipple, but he could’ve said the same about the Alice Werner case. 

         There is another reason, though. Right now, with Billy Ray in chains, he is expendable; but what if he rescues Billy Ray? Does that not compel Jim Trent to recalculate who’s necessary and who’s expendable? Does that not mean that more likely than not the fat fuck gets the bullet in the head, instead of the old detective? Maybe, maybe not, but this is the gamble that Ringwood must make; for certainly he will be the loser, if he does nothing with this break in the case.

         I’ll find him, Ringwood says after a while. 

         That’ll be the last favor I ask of you, Claire says. 

         Claire pulls the dipstick back from his crotch. 

         Ringwood picks up the plastic flute. There is no more liquor, for the rest of his drink had fallen over the side of the table. That is just as well. He needs another drink, like he needs a bullet in his head. He is going to take care of the Billy Ray Blaise case, as soon as he leaves this joint; and it will be best if he has recovered somewhat by the time he hops the fence and walks up to that house.

         So that’s it for us, isn’t it? Ringwood remarks.

         Claire looks down. For the first time in this conversation, she is actually, emotionally, vulnerable. Ringwood could go for the jugular just then. He could remind her about this or that sadness she suffered. He can push her buttons, as well as she can push his. Ringwood, nonetheless, decides not to push any damn buttons. He has spent a lifetime ‘pushing buttons.’ This time, he stops himself. Does this make him a saint? No. It means simply that he is tired and wants to go soon. Sometimes, that old detective does what is right for no real reason at all.

*   *   *

         Ringwood walks along the side of the road. The evening wind snaps wet leaves against the bottom half of his trousers. He can taste the humidity in the turbulent air that is swirling his hair every which way. The rainstorm will begin within the hour; and yet, strangely, Ringwood senses that he will not be getting wet this evening. Maybe, he will rescue that hippie bum, and return to his car, before the first few raindrops splatter into the mud. He’ll be driving the hippie bum back to the interrogation room, while rain splatters against his windshield.

         Or, maybe, he will be dead before the first few raindrops…

         Ringwood cannot deny this possibility. Death shrieks out from every one of the looming shadows on that property. The shrieks combine in the mind into a kind of hellish chorus. First, that chorus plays upon the conscious mind; a sick and seedy plethora of ‘weird sounds,’ deviant sexual moans, guttural whispers, even the occasional cat’s yowl. Then, when the guest (or in this case the police detective trespasser) has been reduced to a blithering idiot, that chorus slimes into the subconscious mind. Down there, it is sound hardened into a kind of sick molasses, a cold death that gurgles out from fear and self-loathing to suffocate the life out of everything else. In the end, the hellish chorus falls silent, like all that quiet despair tossed irreverently into eternal blackness.

         Stay long enough at the Whipple residence, and you’ll succumb, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Ringwood imagines that Miss Alice Werner gave up her ghost here with little resistance. She looked into the face of her killer, and she heard her throat crack; such a small, innocuous sound to mark the end of a young life. Oh, sure, there had been plenty of violence beforehand. That is the case always with a house of horrors; but the last moment, the seconds before a final fade to black, there is mostly silence, followed by a crack or a sigh. This is a whimper, but it is also a demonic similitude of peace. Oh, she went out quite peacefully, the survivors will think. Did you see the tranquil look on her face as we covered her with the shroud? Of course, that is a lie. There is no peace with death. There is wretchedness, pain, and ultimately loss; the cry of mad ghosts.

         If indeed death is so prevalent here, then why not call in reinforcements for this rescue effort? The short answer is that this rescue must be done as soon as possible. The hippie’s life is in danger. Hammerschmidt wants the loose ends tied up yesterday. Jim Trent is moving his pieces even now across a chessboard in anticipation of commencing his overarching diabolical plot. There is not now enough time to get the ‘probable cause’ evidence that he will need to obtain a search warrant. A second hand description of a cryptic message supposedly left on an answering machine, and an addled, old lady’s interpretation of the same, will not suffice as ‘probable cause.’ This rescue must remain ‘off the books.’ In a way, there is poetic justice in finishing off the Billy Ray Blaise case with more ‘off the books’ behavior on his part. What starts as sin, ends as sin, no matter a sad lifetime of excuses and justifications thrown into the mix for consideration.

         There is another reason for not calling in backup. Ringwood wants to put the cuffs on that hippie derelict asshole. He senses few opportunities remaining in his career for him to be the arresting officer. If he calls in the troops, then a young buck fresh out of the Academy will get the honors, while protocol forces the old man to remain back with the police cars and the press vans. 

         Bullshit, Ringwood thinks. Go down in a blaze of glory, or go down on an obese broad in a seedy motel. Ringwood chooses the former option, while most men settle for the second. Yes, for the most part, Ringwood hides his ass in the elaborate flowcharts, the careful police procedures (except when he flagrantly breaks those procedures just beyond where the video cameras can record), the mind numbing paper work; but notwithstanding his advanced age, there are the rare occasions where he embraces the thrill of police work. Okay, maybe it is a death thrill; but is that so wrong, when the alternative is the frog boiled slowly and painlessly into a frog’s version of an afterlife? Ringwood could be drowning his liver at the Kingfish Saloon right now, or he could be ignoring his yappy wife at home. A few more years of that shit; and all of a sudden, he is dead. So why not hop a fence, lurk in the shadows, and sniff out that imprisoned hippie bum?

         Ringwood walks up to the gate. He beholds the house of horrors atop the driveway. He also sees that the vintage car is gone. The fat fuck is not home at this time; likely out for an ice cream run with cookie dough dancing in his eyes.

         He looks back down the road. He cannot see his car, even though it is no more than an eighth of a mile away. He had parked it back there behind a bush so as not to be seen by the fat fuck. Now, he wishes he had parked it closer, as the hippie bum may not be in any condition for a spirited walk. 

         Well, if that is the case, then he will dump the hippie bum on the side of the road, retrieve his car, and return for him. This rescue is not going to work, unless Lady Luck is on his side, anyway; so he may as well assume that she will be on his side still at that time. 

         He returns his gaze to the house of horrors. He leans upon the gateposts.

         The clouds above the house are ominous, indeed. They gurgle and moan, like a plugged up toilet. Eventually, those gods on high will clean out the gunk; and the clouds will release all that refuse at once. The downpour will drown an untold number of cries. It will shield the worst crimes from view. Ringwood has a sense of urgency for the first time; since now he is certain the hippie will die, if he does not get to him before then. He once more toys with the idea of going back to his car and calling for backup, regardless of the fact he does not have a search warrant. There is precious little time to waste.

         Nope, Ringwood mutters. This one’s ‘off the books.’

         He climbs over the gate. He is surprisingly agile for his age. He jumps to the other side just like they had trained him to do so many decades ago. For an adrenaline punched second or two, he imagines himself back at the Academy in an obstacle course. His mates call him ‘Woody Woodpecker,’ because he is fast in pecking through each and every obstacle the trainers throw his way. Usually, he is at the finish line, while his mates still are slogging through muddy tires or climbing up poles. Privately, he likes to think that he is ‘Woody Woodpecker’ in virtue of how fast he can wrap up a session with a hooker. He frequents motels where he is charged by the minute, so fast release turns out to be a good thing.

         Ringwood stands up from a crouching position. His lower back screams a bit; so much for the young cadet fantasy. Still, on the whole, he is doing pretty well physically, as he walks up the driveway towards a house draped in its dark and sordid memories. His physical prowess gives him some confidence, which is why he downplays the persistent shrieks of fear in the back of his mind. 

         At least, he thinks he is downplaying that fear. In fact, it is eating away at his conscious mind already. Soon, it will be an inchoate terror in his deeper, intuitive mind. He will be paralyzed by fear then, or he will do something quite erratic and self-defeating. Either way, the darkness drops the ‘winning card’ on his soul; and that ‘winning card’ turns out to be a fat fuck Joker with a devilish penchant for ice cream and cats. 

         He passes the overgrown garden to his right. Now, his fear rises to a near fever pitch. He stops in his tracks. Is there something in there? Something with a pair of dead, blank, menacing eyes? Did not the fat fuck say that black swans are like raccoons with feathers? Vicious predators veiled behind their delicate, svelte features, like every woman that Ringwood has known save his own mom.

         No more boogeyman shit, Ringwood mutters. 

         He moves on, but he feels still those dead, blank, menacing eyes follow him. He tells himself this is just his imagination on overdrive, but his fear stays as palpable as if he were a six-year-old boy trying to avoid the beast crouched in his closet. He senses that reason will fail him here. He will just need to push forward, regardless of the watchful eyes he sees looking back at him from each and every dark place. He will need to say those eyes are unreal; insist upon the point, if necessary; tear out his own eyes, if he refuses to believe his own take on this phenomenon. Yes, tear out his own eyes, if it gets to that horrible point in time; for it is better to suffer blindness than madness when this near to hell.

         Did not Jesus say something along those lines? Ringwood is not sure; but, right now, and for the first time, he wishes he had paid attention to those silly sermons he sits through every Sunday. It is not that he suddenly makes sense of all that Jesus hocus pocus. Rather, death seems unavoidable; no longer really a bureaucratic roadblock that he can outmaneuver. It is waiting for him; and it is going to grab a hold of him, probably by inducing a stroke, maybe by harvesting a field of cancerous cells. Then again, maybe it is a lot closer in time and space than that. Maybe, death is a hand that is going to reach out from a shadow just a few feet ahead. If so, then he may as well start to tear out his eyes now, lest he views death face to face. As with Jesus, the cup does not pass over; and this means that, if he does not tear out his eyes, he is going to realize that death in fact has the face of that fat fuck Joker. Fat Boy Face smeared with ice cream…

         That’s enough, Ringwood mutters. 

         But it is not enough. Ever wonder what it feels like to tear out your own eyes? Slip a knife into the edge, and then pull back at an angle, until the warm blood squirts out from the sides? Keep pulling, and a thin stream of blood, soon enough, will squirt out from the center of the pupil. There is intense pain since so many small nerves rupture free from the lenses. The nerves are like electric wires sizzling about in search of something else to illuminate. As for the lenses, and that gelatinous something or other in which the lenses soak, well, all those eye parts will drool this or that direction, like runny egg yolks dropped onto an oily surface. The eye will not pop out, so much as slide over the socket edge. It all sounds pretty gross. Is that why you are trying to shake this image from your mind? Are you scared, Ringwood? Afraid, maybe, of reaping what you’ve sowed?

         Goddamn, that’s enough, Ringwood mutters.

         No, you don’t really think that’s enough. Certainly, all those eyes staring at you now don’t think that’s enough. Keep walking up towards that house, and you’ll really learn what fear is. Think the fat fuck’s a weirdo? Well, you’ll be an insane, mongrel, Democrat by the time this house is done with you. You realize that, don’t you? Yes, you do. That’s why your heart is beating outside your old, white haired chest just now. It is beating so far in front of you that you are not able to catch it anymore. All you can do is to watch your frightened heart leave you behind. Leave you with nothing else, but the shell of what you used to be…

         Ringwood reaches the front porch steps. Something screeches, and so he pulls out his firearm from his holster. He looks every which way for the monster that screamed at him from behind his peripheral vision. 

         He steps back, and looks up. Several shingles snap off the roof. They are caught at once in a whirlwind, and fly back towards the river. It is as if, slowly, meticulously, the river is gnawing at the old house, tearing off a beaten shingle here, scraping off exterior wall paint there. Sure, on one level, the river simply is reclaiming what is hers. Did not civilization crawl out from the waters? In due time, do not the waters submerge the last traces of propriety and tradition? All of this is true; but on a deeper level, the river is cleaning away the scene of an old crime. Ringwood is getting too close. He must not be able to discover what really happened here long ago, let alone stop what is happening this very night.

         Something screeches again. This time, it is louder, more belligerent, like a final warning to get the hell out of here. 

         Ringwood steps back again. He almost runs from the scene, but then his years of careful, rational deliberation overtake his superstitious response to the melancholic scream. Surely, there is a logical explanation; and the way the old gutter overhead shakes suggests that that scream is simply wind blowing under the eaves. The wind is a buccaneer sweeping in from nowhere, screeching fear into its intended victim, and flying off with a booty of paint scrapes and broken shingles. Nevertheless, for all that, it is still just the wind; and so Ringwood has enough sanity left that he can calm down, return his firearm to his holster, and step up to the front door. 

         Ringwood does not bother to knock. After all, everything about this dark and sordid rescue attempt is ‘off the books.’ He is way beyond a sanctimonious adherence to Fourth Amendment protocol, which in a way reminds him how far he has fallen, but which also insinuates that there is a real freedom in being so far off the reservation. The man about to commit a terrible crime has no social or legal responsibilities. He has dispensed with them. He is off the grid and just roaming wild. The fact that all that turns out to be a dark illusion when the law catches up to him does not distract from how free he had felt then. Deep down in his tortured and confused soul, Ringwood senses one idea clearly enough: He would have been drawn to a life of crime, if instead he had not opted for a life in law enforcement; for that line between a crook and a cop does fade in time.

         Ringwood retrieves a straightedge from inside his jacket. He uses it very carefully to break open the lock. He half expects an alarm to sound. Nothing of the sort happens, and yet the chills quivering up and down his spine very nearly paralyze his heart. He takes in several deep breaths, before he opens the tired, squeaky door and steps into the foyer darkness. 

         Is that the wind again screeching behind him? Or is it instead something with a conscious mind that is there for no other reason than to do him harm? In the end, Ringwood cannot think enough to try to answer the questions. Instead, his old survival instinct kicks into gear; and he slams that door shut behind him.

         Now, he is shrouded in darkness, but for the flickering light he catches in his peripheral vision. He recalls the flat screen in the ‘family room’ to his right. He pokes his head into that room.

         Geraldo Rivera is on FOX News. It is mute, but Ringwood is able to read Geraldo’s lips well enough to know that the ‘Al Capone’s Vault’ star is as angry as a wasp. Before long, his bushy mustache will call to mind Salvador Dali on an alcoholic binge; and not just any old binge, but rather the kind where perfectly good and reasonable men start to tear out their own eyes. Geraldo’s eyes seem to confirm that very fact, for they appear to roll in his sockets. No doubt, when Geraldo’s eyes slide down his cheeks like runny eggs, and his sockets squirt out blood, Roger Ailes will keep the cameras rolling. 

         For we all love to chuckle at how gruesome people look at the very end…

         And, indeed, someone is chuckling at me right now, Ringwood mutters. I can feel his eyes undressing me. Eyes cutting into my soul, like an axe chopping corpses. That someone goofing like a teenager. Goddamn him! Like a teenager!

         Ringwood sees that grinning, adolescent face. It is inhumanly white, like the face of a corpse; but the illumination from that flat screen reflects off of it in such a way as to suggest a face in motion. It is grinning the whole time, but its eyes flash from mercurial goodwill to malevolence. It cannot determine if it wants to kiss or to murder that old man. Either way, it intends to get a heck of a lot closer; and for that reason, Ringwood draws his firearm to compel it back.

         Stay where you are, Ringwood barks.

         He then sees that it is the face of an albino mannequin. Someone earlier had painted the face, so that the hunky adolescent looks like a queer left loose in the boudoir of an eccentric grand dame. 

         Ringwood lowers his firearm, and yet he still hears the sophomoric laugh that had put him on edge. Perhaps, FOX News is not on mute after all. Perhaps, Roger Ailes added a laugh track to his nightly news programming. Surely, there is a reason for laughter, since it turns out that Geraldo Rivera is going back and forth with Bill O’Reilly about illegal immigration. Both men look like their eyes are about to drool out from their sockets.

         Or maybe Roger Ailes is cutting back on the make up department…

         Fuck, Ringwood mutters. Where is my brain?

         Slip that knife in far enough, angle it just so, and you can hook your old brain. After your eye slides down your face, you can pull your brain through the open eye socket. It is too tight of a fit, of course; sort of like when a big, black cock tickles an old man’s prostate; but are you not a seasoned hand at ‘making possible the impossible’ with whatever you set out to do? Do you not live by the motto that says that death is someone else’s business, if you are savvy enough? If so, then this should apply as well to taking in a BBC as to pulling out a bit too much brain matter. It may be too painful; but goddamn it, just ‘make it work.’

         Ringwood almost returns his firearm to his holster. He decides at the last second not to do so. Very often, from his experience, ‘making it work’ involves putting a bullet into someone’s head.  

         Ringwood returns to the foyer. He sees the staircase ascending into total darkness. He sees a living room space to his left. It is difficult to make out very many details, for the evening outside is sliding into nightfall. The scant sunlight still penetrating the cracks in the boarded up windows is purplish and cold. It is enough to cast a desultory hue over the antique furnishings, so that the various dust coated chairs and tables call to mind decomposing corpses dumped into an old, dark room. Ringwood allows this image to settle into his mind; and for that reason, he senses even more so than prior that he is inside a crypt, rather than a creepy, Victorian house. Death really is everywhere here; and the intellectual ease with which Ringwood observes death in every corner suggests that, even if he finds the hippie bum, it may be too late already for him to return to his old, routine, workaday life among the living. It may be too late for life.

         Still, Ringwood starts up the staircase. Every step creaks beneath his old and unsteady feet. So much for all that agility outside. Now, he feels every bit his age; and as if to confirm that very point he stoops his shoulders forward and down. He may as well be a Jacob Marley pulling his long chains into a blackness for which even the hardened life of a homicide detective does not prepare him.

         He stops at the top of the staircase. Did he just hear someone moan? Or, maybe, it was something,like a beast writhing away the last of its life clutched inside of a deathtrap. Or, maybe, it had been the wind sliding under the eaves.

         He tightens the grip on his firearm. He feels one line of sweat break free from his forehead and slide down his right cheek. It is cold and clammy; smelly, unctuous sweat more proper to the walking dead than to a living man. Is this an omen? Or is this a sign that, indeed, he is dead already; his corpse collapsed on that driveway outside, or perhaps back at the Kingfish Saloon, or even inside of his wife’s arms? If dead, then how long has he been stuck in this old nightmare?

         All your life, Ringwood mutters. Dead in my mother’s womb, and playing out the last of my cards in this old nightmare ever since. 

         Ringwood does not literally think that that is the case. He has not lost all his sanity, but the larger truth of his assertion holds. He has been dead since he had been born. He outmaneuvered his political enemies; he filed his CYA police reports; he forged those signatures; and notwithstanding all this effort, here he is in this dark crypt with nothing but a standard issue revolver between himself and his demise. It turns out life itself is a Faustian bargain. We sacrifice so very much for so little when we need it. We outsmart the best only to die suddenly, viciously, at the hand of the brute who watches us even now from the shadows.

         It happens fast. It always does.

         Ringwood sees the door that leads to the spiral staircase. He hears again what sounds like a moan. This time, he is sure it is coming down to him from up there. He is about to step onto that spiral staircase, when he hears the hallway floorboard creak just several feet behind him. That sound could not have been much; but in his imagination, it is as loud as a bullwhip crack of thunder above.

         He turns fast to face his attacker, but he is not fast enough. His attacker is on crutches. He realizes as such, because there is a single beam of sunlight in this second floor hallway; and that sunlight, though weak and timid this near to sunset, strikes the metallic polish upon those crutches. Otherwise, his attacker is a nondescript, black, hulking form hobbling out from an even darker shadow.

         Under normal circumstances, Ringwood would have been able to defend himself against a huge man in crutches; but this one time, he hesitates with his trigger finger. Maybe, Ringwood had been undone by his own wayward thoughts the past few minutes. Maybe, deep down, Ringwood wants to be snuffed out of his misery, finally, irrevocably. True, he never gets his gold watch; but neither does he have to think about Hammerschmidt, or Jim Trent, or his yappy wife. If the killer is free before he commits his deed, then his victim is free afterwards.

         There is a moment of excruciating pain, as the axe blade chops an aorta free from his heart. The nerve endings go wild, as his heart proceeds to pump a lot of blood over his organs and bones. His flesh feels as if immersed in flames; and then, as suddenly, it is over. There is nothing, but a black, brooding peace.

*   *   *

         Thunder burns the sky so near the old, creepy, boarded up Victorian that several shingles snap off the roof, tumble into a radiated gust of hot air, and go up in flames. The fires burn themselves out within seconds. Otherwise, red and blue embers would have set the roof ablaze. Everything inside would have gone up in flames in short order, and the firefighters combing the wreckage the next day would have found the remains of a man handcuffed to a hospital bed. They also would have found a pair of discarded crutches and a burnt, but still feisty, Dragon Li. The cat would have yowled incessantly, until one of the firefighters, probably a younger man not yet hardened to the charred wreckage, finally saw fit to give him a bowl of water. The cat would have remained long after all the wreckage had been cleared, intimidating the other wildlife with its scarred and scrawny flesh, and waiting for the day his obese owner came back to fetch him.

         But that does not happen. There is a malicious streak in fate. That sickly man handcuffed to the hospital bed will not be dispensed so easily. To be sure, death by immolation is hardly easy. Nevertheless, fate has in store something a lot worse for that man; and it is not about to let up on him as the darkest hour, finally, draws near. If anything, then fate will go the extra mile to protect that house of horrors and those men determined to do mischief before the sun rises.

         Walter drives passed his parking place. He continues up the driveway, as the first rainfall of the night splatters discordantly across his windshield. There is nothing to see in his headlights, but the menacing façade of his Victorian. All those boarded up windows suggest a multi-eyed monster blinded by patches. As shingles tumble through the air, and the gathering storm shakes the porch at its feet, the blind monster looks as if caught in the clutches of a nightmare. Maybe it will awaken. More likely, it will grumble in its sleep, while unspeakable, mad horrors take place inside its walls. It will be the stage for those horrors; the old and creaky floorboards upon which the good and the damned will play out their peculiar drama. Even more so, like what a critic writes in his column, it will be a haughty and, sometimes, downright mean interpreter of those horrors. Horrid cries, long silenced, will be preserved in how the night wind blows beneath the eaves. Throbbing back pain, long forgotten, will be remembered in how a worn staircase step quivers beneath a man’s heel. Splattered blood, long dried away, will be sensed in how warm water leaks from an overhead pipe. Even as cruel a house as this one preserves over time only a ghost of the original horror. A gust of wind beneath the eaves, a quivering staircase step, a leaking overhead pipe, none of these can measure the horror of what had happened for real once upon a time. Still, the horrible moment stops, perhaps because the attacker is bored by his mischief, or perhaps because the victim is dead. But the screaming wind, the quivering step, the leaking pipe, these continue without cease, until a man forced to heed such ghosts day in and day out turns mad. That horrible moment stops; but the horror remains, until even the house itself is a crazed, old beast.

         Walter senses the madness before him. He fears it; but, right now, even more so, he is at home in it. He is meant for the darkness, it seems; and so this boarded up façade, eerily illuminated in the lightning flashes from on high, is a spiritual and intellectual destination point for him, more so than the dark place where he lays his head. Whatever happens tonight, the largest part of his life is going to remain in these walls; dark, brooding, sifting in and out of old shadows even after the Victorian returns to the depths of the Manchester River.

         Crazy, old woman, Walter whispers, while he idles his automobile before the front steps, and wipes his red cheeks with his stained handkerchief. 

         What? The hooded man in the passenger seat asks.

         Hurry, Walter snarls, ignoring the question. I am paying you by the hour.

         The hooded man grunts, gets out of the automobile, and opens the trunk with Walter’s trunk key. He works fast, as he sets his mind so to do. The rain is an added motivator just now, for the boxes are not sealed. The more expensive the equipment, the more susceptible to inclement weather. There are just too many intricate parts that can go wrong. 

         Walter watches the hooded man through his rearview mirror. He dabs at his forehead incessantly. It is futile, for the sweat pours like old water through new cracks in a dam. In due course, the handkerchief is nothing, but mildewed, cottony film, like something a cat hacks up before settling in for the long night.

         Still, punctilious as ever, Walter folds what remains of his handkerchief. He slides it into his white shirt pocket. He considers himself now in his rearview mirror. He has seen better nights, to be sure; but when he squares his collar he sees that, even now, he is more the gentleman than anyone else he has met. In that spirit, he blows himself a dainty kiss; and then, squeezes out from the car.

         Walter stands in the rain, as he recovers from his exertion in getting out of the car. He sees that the engine is idling still. Flustered, he reaches into the car, turns off the engine, grabs his key, and slams the door. He normally treats his vintage wheels with much more respect, but his shame in forgetting to turn off the engine quickly turns into anger. He is on the edge. His emotions flare as if electrical sparks at the end of cut wires. His mind cannot focus on much, and he blames this on his fear that, yet again, he will fail to do what he is tasked to do. He will drop that axe, when it is time; and he will retreat into his bedroom.

         You can end this now, before it is too late; someone whispers in his mind just then. Return the boxes to the trunk. Get your friend here to help you drag that cowboy dancer out to the side of the road. Make an anonymous call to the hospital. Otherwise, the Injuns will scalp his pretty cowboy soul before sunrise. What a pity this will be! Surely, his ghost will haunt you the rest of your years…

         Nonsense, Walter mutters. For Christ’s sake, he went AWOL on me! 

         Among all the ghosts, his will be the headless one, since the Injuns have scalped his soul; the internal voice continues. 

         And then there is Lucius, Walter mutters. He will return, if I chicken out.

         How do you know? The internal voice asks. Many years have passed. How can you be so sure your brother gives a rat’s derriere what you do with the axe?

         Not enough time has passed, Walter mutters. Never enough time…

         What did you say? The hooded man asks from the porch.

         Walter looks back, confused, exhausted. It takes a moment for him then to remember where he is and with whom he is speaking. He grins, but his facial expression suggests indigestion more than confidence or happiness. He is a sick cat standing outside in the rain. His face is an unvoiced yowl of old discontents.

         Running out of time, Walter finally says. 

         At your service then, the hooded man remarks with just a bit of sarcasm.

         Walter hears the sarcasm. He feels anger welling up from deep inside his bowels. It is a sickening sensation, but it is also the motivation he needs now to walk up the porch steps and out of the gathering storm. He pushes that hooded man aside, as he approaches the front door with his key already in his hand. He does not even flinch when thunder snaps overhead and shakes the whole porch.

         The front door opens with a piercing screech. The air inside is stuffy and old, like what would be expected inside of a crypt that has not been opened in years. Flat screen television light flashes into the foyer from the ‘family room’ to the right. It is cold, bluish, lifeless illumination, like a flashing neon one may see on the marquee of a Las Vegas mortuary. 

         Walter pokes his head into the ‘family room,’ as the hooded man carries inside the boxes from the porch. Reverend Franklin Graham is on the screen. It is mute. Walter is too tired to lip read, but the stock footage accompanying the Preacher Man suggests that he is talking about the threat of Islamic Extremists, or Radicals, or Butchers, or whatever may be the media catch phrase for today.

         At least, there is not a ‘know it all’ blondie on the screen, Walter thinks.

         Walter leans wearily on the back of his Lazy Boy, while the hooded man carries boxes up the stairs. He feels something familiar lean against the back of his left leg. This calms him down a bit, though not enough for him to feel good, or even neutral, about what he must do.

         It is a nasty business, Walter mutters.

         Whiskers meows. He purrs like a motor, while rubbing his side against his owner’s lower left leg. He seems intent on communicating with his owner thus; or at least, that is what Walter surmises, as Whiskers persists with his behavior.

         You feel that something good can come out of this, huh? Walter reflects.

         Whiskers does not respond. Perhaps, he has said enough. Regardless, his owner decides then and there that nothing is going to stop him. 

         Come, my feline friend, Walter urges. Let us go upstairs and wash. There is nothing worse than unclean hands.

         Walter starts to climb the staircase. His forward progress is unsteady and slow, and yet he seems unfazed. He thinks about his favorite Bible verse, which brings a genuine smile unto his lips just then: ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness.’

         Thunder snaps overhead. The house shakes. Walter pays no mind to that storm. He and his feline friend simply press forward like there is no alternative.  

         And indeed there is no alternative, for his genuine smile cannot hide the dead stones dragged by his soul. He is beaten, and so he does what he must do.

*   *   *

         The hooded man moves the overhead light to the hospital bed. Over the past half hour or so, he has worked very capably in setting up equipment in the dark. So far as Walter knows, he never has been in his attic before, let alone in the dark; and yet the hooded man seems as familiar now with the room as if he had been born there. Perhaps, in a way, every lost soul finds a temporary home in memory haunted places like this one. After all, the one condition that every lost soul has in common is an extraordinary knack for doing the devil’s work out of view. Sinners thrive in dark rooms, back alleys, and shadows, until of course they are eaten alive by their sins; and then, they cannot be said to thrive truly in anything at all. Nevertheless, the consequence of sin is in the future; and so, this particular dark and stormy night, the hooded man maneuvers about the old attic stealthily, as the fat man stays in contemplative silence by the open door.

         The hooded man switches on the overhead light. 

         The mutilated man on the hospital bed squirms a bit. Maybe, he sees the intense light bleeding through his closed eyelids. More likely, he responds to an ugly critter or a devilish smile he observes in his unending nightmare. The long, torturous nightmare is actually a blessing in disguise; for it keeps a man’s mind from the horrors taking place around his sleeping flesh. Good dreams are much more pleasant, of course; but the nasty ones are much more compelling; and as the monsters converge about his body, he will require a particularly compelling play in his mind to keep him from opening his eyes and seeing the actual beasts staring back down at him.

         Walter waddles forward as if on cue. Indeed, everything about this scene is liturgical. Walter steps over here; the hooded man steps over there; the two men walking in the slow and deliberate manner of priests inside a sanctuary. If the overhead light had been a bit stronger, then each man could have glimpsed in the other the mad eyes and the smarmy lips of a small time demon in service to his prince. The surface impression is of two lobotomized men moved across a chessboard by unseen masters. There is some truth to that impression, because in the end the fight will be waged between powers and principalities; and small time demons will be reduced to freak show players on the arena sidelines. It is a self-serving lie for the most part, though; because if lobotomized, then those men escape moral culpability for their actions. Better to be mad than to suffer the stings of a guilty conscience, especially when the deed is about to be done.

         Walter looks down at the mutilated man. He never observed the face of the Restless Wrangler. Neither does he see it now. Instead, he sees bloody lines that had been cut into the man’s face with the edge of an axe. The wounds are swelling; and by tomorrow morning, assuming the mutilated man survives what is about to happen, his face will resemble that of an enlarged, rotten pumpkin. He will be hideous, despised, and lost. Such is the fate reserved for men, which in one way or another kick at the pricks. Such is the sentence deserved by men, which have gone AWOL once and which have had the nerve to try to escape yet again. The hated man deserves his lot, or so Walter insists in his troubled mind.

         Walter observes the squishy, old bandage on the back of the man’s head.

         Damn Taco Bravo couldn’t even strap the bandage properly; Walter says to himself with a temperamental huff. Golly, must I do everything around here?

         He lifts the mutilated man’s head, readjusts the bandage, and wipes off some of the lubricant that had squished out from beneath the bandage when he had moved it. He is surprised to see how well his fingers work; and yet, is it not the case that all of his mental and physical faculties have improved, some to a small extent, others considerably, since he had decided downstairs that indeed he would be going forward with his plan? Sin is ruinous in the long run; but just before the thrust of the knife, or the pull of the trigger, that would be attacker feels his mental fog abate and his physical ability strengthen. He can explain it away as just another temporary adrenaline rush; but more often than not, he is going to indulge it without question. This rush is the lure of a despicable crime, after all. It is the orgasm born from the decision to do violence; sometimes felt as a single cataclysmic surge of confidence and power; sometimes felt as a slow and gradual awakening to the fact that moral conflicts and physical limitations, finally, have been set aside. Walter is in the second category; and so he cannot find joy in any of this still, but he can grin slightly when he sees how his fingers work on an oily bandage. He can and will indulge his moment for all it is worth.

         He affixes the bandage straps. He lowers the man’s head to the pillow. A bit of foul smelling lubricant again squishes out from beneath that old bandage.

         Octopus, the mutilated man whispers.

         Walter looks quizzically at the mutilated man. He does not know what to make of this ‘octopus’ reference. He decides the man is falling off of his rocker just now. As such, he is able to drop the ‘octopus’ reference from his own mind easily enough and to replace his quizzical expression with a contemptuous grin.

         ‘And when we were all fallen to the earth I heard a voice speak unto me and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? For it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks,’ Walter says. 

         Walter waits a moment to see if the mutilated man understands. He sees nothing, but quivering, closed eyelids and puffy wounds. This is the façade of a beast; and what can a beast know of the awful affairs of men, let alone of God?

         So you think there is refuge in ignorance, huh? Walter whispers, when he leans forward to take a closer look at those axe cuts. Well, that is true, most of the time; but when the pain is great enough even the beast knows that he is an ugly thing trapped in an iron cage. Helplessness, that is the worst pain, believe me. Never able to rise to the occasion, Tsk! Tsk! What a pity is man at the end.

         Walter stands upright. He gestures for the hooded man.

         The hooded man hands him one ‘Viagra on Steroids’ pill.

         Walter gently inserts that pill into the mutilated man’s mouth. He closes the man’s mouth, and massages the man’s throat, until finally the pill has been swallowed. He stands upright again, puts his hands on his big hips, and marvels at just how gracefully he had been able to massage that throat. Oh, how God in our time works His wonders through the lame and the halt. Walter almost feels Biblical, but then rejects the idea that he be counted among ‘the lame and the halt.’ This is his moment. He will not ruin it by seeing himself as the ‘fat man,’ let alone among ‘the lame and the halt.’ After all, he is a gentleman, a man so dapper, even if by his admission the task to be done tonight is a nasty business.

         Walter cups the mutilated man’s crotch. The erection is long gone. 

         There’s one more big cock left in you, Walter remarks with a smile. 

         The hooded man steps forward, and turns off the overhead light.

*   *   *

         Walter climbs the spiral staircase. He is naked, but for a butcher’s apron and a pair of slippers. His huge butt sticks out the other side of that apron; and under normal circumstances, he would be ashamed to think that that Dragon Li following closely behind his heels can look up and observe his manhole. Tonight is different, though. Walter had taken the time downstairs to shave off his butt hairs with a razor, and he had smoothed his butt cheeks with gooey handfuls of Aloe Vera gel. He thinks his butt is as soft and as lovely as what would be found on the backside of a newborn; and for that reason alone, a queer smile appears on his lips. Any outsider would presume that he is stark, raving mad; but in this dark context, the sparkle in his eyes and the smile on his lips appear very much par for the course. Indeed, something would be wrong if he did not plaster that crazed look upon his face. 

         For what he is about to do truly is mad. The work of devils after sunset…

         You do not have to do this; an anxious voice whispers somewhere inside his mind. Just drop what is in your right hand, turn around, and go to bed. Pull your sheet over your face, if you are ashamed; but by all means, do not do this!

         Walter snarls. He had thought that this voice had been silenced for good.

         You do not have to do this; that same anxious voice repeats…

         Buck Off! Walter whispers back. 

         The voice retreats. Walter senses that he will not be interrupted the rest of the night. He is relieved, but he is also disheartened a bit. Although he does not want to admit it the unassailable fact is that losing that voice is a real loss.

         Walter rounds the last curve in the spiral staircase. The light bulb above flickers erratically, like the death rattle in a man’s throat just moments before he dies. Nevertheless, it provides enough light for him to observe the attic door at the top of the spiral staircase. 

         The attic door is ajar. He hears classical music coming from inside there. He responds by clutching even more forcefully the handle in his right hand. His right palm bleeds slightly as a result, and he briefly imagines a stigmata wound on one hand. Oh, how man delights when awash in the blood of his own purity…

         And, indeed, I am innocent of this, Walter thinks. He went AWOL on me. He tried to escape. He told me to grab a hold of the black swan. Hold tight, he had said. Do not let go, whatever you do. You’ll never catch it again, if you do.

         Walter sees his grandpa lounging on the garden chair. Grandpa has had a few cocktails already; so he sways side to side, as he drinks this one. Still, even if out of his addled mind, grandpa never lets his eyes stray from his grandson’s. There is so much love in grandpa’s eyes; protective love, playful long, but also deep, unquenched longing.

         Walter stops. He leans against the wall to his right. He clutches his heart like he is having a heart attack. 

         The moment passes. Grandpa fades along with that moment. 

         Walter opens his eyes and sees that, yes, he is standing on his own spiral staircase. Moreover, he is breathing normally; and his heart does not feel like it is going to explode out from his chest in a few seconds. 

         He feels Whiskers beside his feet. He looks down and sees his cat looking back up at him. The cat’s eyes sparkle green in the flickering illumination from the light bulb overhead. Those eyes are so alien; and yet they know him better than he knows himself. For the communion of the damned is a liturgical coming together of people who may as well be aliens to one another; people so crazed, and then lost, in their sins as to be light years’ remote from the persons beside them. People with sparkling green eyes, before those eyes turn blood red, then albino white; people more willing to die for their sins than to save themselves…

         Let us continue, Walter says abruptly to his cat. The hour is late already.

         Walter takes another step up that staircase, and stops. He identifies the music that the hooded man plays upon his portable stereo. It is Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, 2nd Movement (Allegretto), A Major, Opus 92; and like anything that that man ever composed, it strikes the right chord in Walter’s soul before he is even aware which Opus it is. Walter is damned; but at this moment, he glories in nothing else, but how his own damnation stands in such stark contrast to this heaven sent music. He creeps in the darkness; but he is closer then to God than anyone else has been or will be, save Beelzebub himself when in God’s shadow.

         Walter reaches the top of the staircase. He takes in a deep breath, while the orchestral score ascends to its crescendo. Indeed, the music is so powerful at that moment that Walter imagines literally wading into a turbulent ocean of melodious sounds, like somehow Beethoven’s 7th has taken on a distinctive, and undeniable, shape, volume, and texture. Surely, he imagines this musical ocean on the other side of the attic door; and yet this ocean feels more real to him at that moment than anything he has experienced ever before. Is this the glorious power invested in the damned? May we define hell as the place, or the state of mind, where finally we believe our illusions without reservation? In hell, do we believe our illusions so completely that they take on actual shape, volume, and texture, thus forever erasing the line between imagination and reality? Must we dread this possibility? Rather than dread how the line between imagination and reality has been lost, may we not indulge this madness, this power to form new worlds from our own illusions? For indeed when we create new worlds from our own illusions, are we not then most like God? 

         The esoteric questions scream through Walter’s mind. Blended together, they howl like when the wind blows beneath the eaves; academic inquiries and rational discourse reduced to the thoughtless power of nature. Yes, madness is powerful; but it is also subhuman, uncivilized, everything Walter has hated, but now embraces. Walter stands upright in his butcher’s apron, as he pushes open the attic door; but the look on his face calls to mind a predator beast stalking a weak and defenseless prey in a marsh. There is keen intelligence in the eyes of the predator beast; but there is no empathy, let alone reason.

         Walter steps into the attic. Whiskers follows him.

         Walter closes the door behind him, slowly, but also firmly. 

         There is an audible click, as the door returns to the doorframe. 

*   *   *

         Walter observes the scene before him, like a man squatting down to look into a fishbowl. Indeed, everything in front of him appears wavy and colorless, as they would be if seen underwater. Perhaps, this is a trick of the mind, since he had been imagining a ‘musical ocean’ only seconds earlier. Perhaps, this is a result of that overhead light beside the hospital bed; for that light really seems to disorient more than it illuminates. Stare at anything under that light for too long, and you will sense a dreamlike quality to your observation. So where does the nightmare stop and the real world begin, when you see how the light folds, and straightens, and folds? So are you inside that dream, or observing from the outside, when you hear how the light bulb buzzes like a trapped bumble bee? Is that a scream in your imagination, which you hear since you have stumbled into your own dream? Or is that just the buzz of an old electrical charge, which you know originates outside of your own mind? The questions dance just beyond the reach of sane explanations. Thus, as when Job questioned God, those questions serve no other purpose than to remind the questioner of his own inadequacy in this situation. The humbler man faced with his own inadequacy steps back from the precipice. The proud man faced with his own inadequacy steps forward and grins, for he determines to make someone else pay for his own weakness.

         What he sees is expected. Every last detail of the ‘operation’ indeed had been planned earlier this afternoon. That hooded man is uncouth, and probably a mongrel; but he has followed the plan meticulously thus far.

         Before turning on the portable stereo, the hooded man had walked up to the hospital bed with rusted handcuffs. He had cuffed the mutilated man’s one free wrist to the left side of the hospital bed, thus restraining the man on both sides. Then, with a deranged smile on his lips, he had unbuckled the Wranglers, pulled them off, and beheld the tall, erect, slightly curved cock in all its glory. He had watched how the cock swayed gently side to side, like the minute hand of a vintage grandfather clock that has been wound too tightly, or like the nock of an arrow when the tip of that same arrow has punctured a thick wall. If that hooded man had watched too long, then he very well might have been lured by that gentle sway into a kind of hypnotic spell. 

         Nevertheless, cognizant of his duty, that hooded man had stepped away. He had returned a moment later with a handful of shaving cream, lathered the scrotum, and started to shave off the prickly hairs there. He had been partially done, when he had remembered to turn on his portable stereo. He had stepped away to switch on Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, when the mutilated man had had the wherewithal finally to open his eyes midway and to writhe his beaten flesh every which way. 

         Now, as Walter continues to take in the scene, the mutilated man twists his flesh erratically. He moans as much from pain as from fear, for his flesh has not recovered enough for him to be writhing in this way. He even attempts now and then to kick up his legs, but his hips are too beaten down. The most he can do is to shake them internally, so that they appear as if in the grip of a seizure.

         The hooded man holds up the cock with one hand, so that the scrotum is not touching the hospital bed. He carefully shaves off the remainder of the Old Spice shaving cream with an old fashioned straight edge razor. Given how much the mutilated man squirms and moans, once even flapping his upper body like a fish out of water, it is remarkable how the hooded man never cuts that scrotum with the straight edge. 

         The hooded man finishes his task. He admires the hairless, pink scrotum, like an artist first beholding his completed canvas. He then lets out an insidious laugh, sets his straight edge aside, and pulls the black hood back from his face.

         The mutilated man stops his twisting and turning, so that he can see the face of the man who has been shaving his balls. He clenches his fists, and bites his lower lip, when he recognizes the mercurial eyes glaring down at him.

         Chuckles, the mutilated man whispers.

         How nice of you to remember, Chuckles responds with a deranged grin. I remember you, too, though I would not read too much into that. It is simply my business to recall the specifics of each and every one of my ‘dancing puppets,’ after all, especially when they go fucking AWOL on me. You cost me money and goodwill. The least I can do is to recall your fucking name, ‘Restless Wrangler.’ Your name and your ass could have made so much dough for me. All you had to do was to stay put and to keep your head down. Not so hard; people do that all the time; but, no, you had to skip out on the opportunity I had provided to you.

         The mutilated man moans. He writhes every which way. He tries in vain to pull his wrists out from his handcuffs. All he manages to do is to cut open his wrists, so that thick blood slides down his arms and onto his hospital bed sheet.

         Don’t worry, Chuckles says with a laugh. If it were up to me, you’d be at the bottom of the Manchester River already; but I am just a bit player upon this stage. My role in this sick melodrama is to save your fucking life, after you have been cut down a size. I am the ‘Florence Nightingale’ in the cast of characters; maybe, not as pretty as the historical one; but who cares this far off Broadway?

         Orderly, the mutilated man whispers.

         Chuckles’ cheeks turn poison red. If looks could kill, he’d be a murderer.

         You’re right, Chuckles snarls. I spent much of my life replacing bed pans. Still, I picked up my share of old tricks from the nurses and the docs; enough to keep you alive, anyway, you ungrateful fuck. 

         That’s enough with the potty words, Walter snaps, when he waddles out from the darkness and takes his place beside the hospital bed.

         Walter hands Chuckles what he is holding in his right hand. Neither takes his eyes off of the pathetic man twisting and moaning beneath them.

         Needs batteries, Walter remarks to Chuckles after some time.

         Chuckles steps back into the darkness. Realizing that he is alone, finally, Walter bends forward, so that his sweaty, red, cherubic face is just inches from the mutilated man’s hideous scars. Walter licks his unctuous lips, and grins like a mischievous boy with his fingers in a cookie jar. Nonetheless, notwithstanding his outward mirth, that smile seems forced, like something Hillary Clinton just plasters on her face when compelled to shake hands with an Average Joe voter.

         The eyes are worse than the smile, though. Walter’s are vacant; lost in a sadness that even this moment cannot alleviate for him; and for that reason, as homicidal as the blank eyes of a shark just before he goes for the jugular. Dark, senseless eyes, they manifest despair as much as rage; the two emotions falling into one another, as the last trace of sanity vanishes under that overhead light.

         All I ever wanted was to dance with you, Walter whispers. Turns out I am the last man on your dance card. 

         Walter stands upright. He grins boyishly, wiggles his fingers an inch or so beneath his nose, and proclaims ever so coquettishly: So shall we dance? Ta-Ta!

         No! No! No! The mutilated man whines.

         Chuckles returns from the other side of the attic. He hands back the old-fashioned, battery-operated, electric knife. 

         No! No! No! The mutilated man sways his head side to side, while trying in vain to pull his bloodied wrists out of the handcuffs. 

         Somehow, the mutilated man manages to sit upright. He pulls so hard on his handcuffs that the hospital bed moves side to side upon its wheels. Hot and slimy tears stream down his scarred cheeks.

         Chuckles walks to the head of the bed. He reaches forward, grabs a hold of the mutilated man’s shoulders from behind, and yanks him back to his sweat stained pillow. He stuffs a dirty bath towel deep inside the mutilated man’s big mouth. The mutilated man clenches that towel with his teeth, notwithstanding the horrid taste and smell of the fabric.

         Moving very fast now, Chuckles clamps an elastic band to the left side of the hospital bed. He pulls it over the mutilated man’s upper throat, so that it is digging into the flabby skin just beneath the chin. He clamps it to the right side of the bed. The mutilated man can squirm all he wants. Remarkably, he is able to moan as well, though that sound is much weaker on account of the pressure applied to his windpipe. At most, he sounds as if a man with laryngitis trying to gurgle up phlegm, before the slime sinks down to his lungs. 

         But the mutilated man cannot go AWOL anymore. This choice forever has been taken off of the table, and the desperate way that that man tries to move even now suggests that he is well aware of that fact. 

         Walter releases a lever that is poking out from beneath the mattress. As a result, the bottom half of the bed collapses, so that the mutilated man’s legs now are perpendicular to the floor.

         Walter stands inches before the naked, erect, throbbing cock. He stands in between the mutilated man’s twitching knees. He can feel the legs slamming against his thighs now and then; but for the most part, the legs are not going to be an obstacle to him.

         For a brief moment, Walter studies the erect cock beneath the overhead light. It calls to mind an enormous joystick. The joystick is throbbing erratically because of an electrical short somewhere.

         In the meantime, Chuckles walks to his portable stereo. Beethoven’s 7th Symphony just finished a moment ago. Turns out that the timing is perfect. The actual operation may be a bloody mess, but no one can say afterwards that the actors had missed any one of their cues.

         Chuckles switches over to another track. There is deafening silence then as everyone waits for the orchestra to start. The tension overwhelms everyone.

         Rolling thunder outside fills the void. The attic shakes like the deck of a ship tossed and turned upon a turbulent sea. One of the three men yelps as if a frightened dog, but no one can tell who is the culprit. Indeed, no one can think much of anything, as the rudiments of conscious mind seem to have been swept away with the retreating thunder. Only instinct remains, the intense focus of a predator and the equally intense fear of a prey; and for that reason, every one of them feels as if caught up in something much bigger than themselves. There is no humanity left in that room, and so there is no free will; only inchoate fear and rage playing themselves out inside a macabre drama ordained by the fates.

         The music begins. It is Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre

         The violin scratches long nails across a blackboard…

         That’s my cue, honey boy, Walter says with an insane smile.

         Walter clicks on the electric knife. It is a screeching, menopausal woman in his right hand; and he has to grip the handle hard to keep the alley cat from pouncing out of his hand. He lifts the screaming knife to the space just beyond his right ear, like he is listening now for tangible words within all that bombast.

         Apparently, he hears whatever makes sense to him just then; for within a few seconds, his insane smile brightens into something sincere. He has heard, softly, clearly, like hearing the voice of an old lady when standing beside her in her boudoir, what darker joys really may be found in this gruesome blood work.

         Remember, this is your last dance, Walter says loud enough to be heard over the screech of the electric knife. So be sure to put your best foot forward.

         Walter grabs the mutilated man’s shaft with his left hand. He yanks it up with more vicious intensity than needed to get the scrotum off of the bed. This may be attributed to Walter’s nervous energy. He is calm outside, but inside he is a cauldron of explosive nerve endings and hot, syrupy nausea. He cannot tell, if he is about to explode outward or if is going to vomit all over the erect cock. Regardless, he senses he must finish this act sooner than later for his own sake.

         Walter eyes the testicles. They are a pair of balls in low hanging sacks. If he applies the knife just so, then he can cut both sacks at their thinnest points. There will be blood, of course. Those goddamned capillaries are everywhere, it seems. But the less cut, the less damage, or so Walter surmises. After all, when all is said and done, this is about removing a man’s balls, so that he remains on the reservation. This is not about making such a huge mess that he has to hire a couple of Mexicans at Albertson’s tomorrow morning to wipe up the blood.

         Walter decides where to set the serrated blade. He grins, licks his frothy lips, and slices into the scrotum flesh. 

         Notwithstanding the dirty towel stuffed in his mouth, the mutilated man screams from the back of his throat. It comes out as a muffled, gargled yowl. It cannot be heard over the loud screech of the electric knife.

         What Walter does notice is how the mutilated man shakes with the awful intensity of a convict in an electric chair. His legs kick up repeatedly. His blood geysers out the tip of his cock.

         The geyser splatters blood onto Walter’s face and apron. Within seconds of slicing into the scrotum, Walter is a speckled blood ghoul with an inane grin. He licks his lips compulsively, so as to taste the coppery, warm blood on his big tongue. His own cock thrusts forward with an intensity it never has had before; and in the back of his mind, he frets that he may ejaculate inside his old apron.

         He hits a particularly nasty vein, and blood squirts into his eyes. He does not want to drop the erect cock. He imagines it is a joystick that will get away from him, if he does so. Nevertheless, the blood in his eyes stings like onions. If he does not use his left hand now to wipe that blood away, then this is going to come to an end anyway. 

         He wipes the blood away. He opens his eyes, and he sees a gurgling pool of blood dripping down the collapsed bed. One ball has been removed. It clings to the edge of the hospital bed. It looks like a greasy meatball. He cannot view the other ball, for it appears to have shriveled back into the flesh from which it came. Everything else is just shredded gore and charred, ruptured, snaky veins.

         One nut will do, Walters mutters, as he switches off his electric knife. 

         He handles the one ball contemplatively, while the mutilated man below him continues to writhe and to yowl in his own hell. Interestingly, the ball may look like a greasy meatball; but it feels like a hard walnut, or a cat’s chew toy.  

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Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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