Slow and Easy, Then Sudden: Part One

kitchen cooking baked oven
Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com

 

“Anything else I can get you, honey?” Annie asked. She was a plump, little waitress, and Howie Stuggs was enjoying her pleasant southern drawl. She was cheeky and conversational. Howie was conversational, too.

“Well I’ll tell you what,” Howie said in his gravelly, deliberate baritone, “that meatloaf and potatoes has done filled me right up, and really I ought to be done.” He smiled and gave a wink. “But I am a creature of habit, and I ain’t never had a dinner without dessert in nearly fifteen years now!”

“Well I cannot allow that Del’s Diner would be the place you broke such a longstanding tradition!” Annie grinned. “Did you need to look at the menu again? We do recommend our Apple Pie to everyone that comes through here.”

“I think I remember it from the menu,” he closed his eye to recall the image. “Was $2.50 for a slice?” he asked in surprise. “Is that right?”

“And worth every penny!”

Howie chuckled. “I’m not surprised at how little, not how much! But then, I just got back from New York. A slice of that Apple Pie would do quite nicely, thank you.”

She made a mark on her notepad and walked away. Howie smiled contentedly to himself as he leaned back in his chair and placed fork and knife on his finished dinner plate. In truth it wasn’t the prices in New York that alarmed him most, it had been the lack of this hospitality. Hospitality, he had learned, was the result of having enough time. If people were always in a rush, then they couldn’t stop to give any of themselves. Here in a small town like Davey’s Fall you could sit down and really get to know a person. They were more real here. They had a sort of aura about them, and when one of them walked into a room the others knew who it was without even having to turn around and see.

Howie’s phone buzzed. He pulled it out of his pocket and squinted at it as his fingers hunted for the right buttons to press. He didn’t care for this new technology. If the world wanted to have it, fine, but he wished his employers didn’t require him to as well. Eventually he worked out how to open the message and read its confirmation. Tonight then.

Annie was coming back and Howie shoved the phone back into his pocket. He smiled as she set down the plate, upon which sat a massive sector of apple pie. A slice of cheddar cheese was draped over half of it, softened by the heat until it molded to the shape of the dessert. Howie took hold of fork and knife again, and let the steam waft up to his nose as he gave a long, deep snuff.

“Seems a pity to break it,” he winked to Annie.

“More the pity not to.”

He plunged the fork through its flaky crust and carved the knife through slices of apple that had turned soft as jelly. He tucked the bite into the corner of his mouth and chewed it in a slow, circling motion.

“Oh my,” he breathed softly. “Oh that is wonderful. That is truly wonderful.”

Annie smiled in approval.

“But how can it be so fresh? You’ve only been gone a minute.”

“Hmm, trade secret,” Annie shrugged knowingly.

“Please, corporate nonsense doesn’t fit a place like this.”

“Well this is a business, you know?”

“No, this is dinner at family,” Howie averred solemnly. “Go on. It’s not as if an old gruff like me, who can’t tell a pot from a pan, is going to put your place out of business!”

Annie glanced over her shoulder, then lowered her voice confidentially. “Well…if you must know…what the cook does is he puts a whole pie in the oven, but sets the heat just as low as he can. It cooks, but it takes it a full three hours. Any time someone orders the pie he cuts out a single slice, transfers it over to his ‘hot’ oven, and finishes it in just a minute or two. Going slow you get all the flavor steeped through, all the texture turned soft, but finishing fast you seal it all up and give it that nice caramelization.”

Howie laughed and clapped his hands in admiration, then set to taking his next bite. Annie brought him the check, and ten minutes later he was on his way out the door, though not without a hefty amount of lingering chit-chat with everyone he passed along the way.

At last he settled down in his old ford, turned the engine over, and sat still while the radio came on. It was an old western ballad, and he hummed along to the familiar tune as he popped open the glove box and pulled out his notebook. Propping it against the steering wheel he transferred all of the information from his phone message to this more comfortable medium. Then he flicked back and forth through the most recent pages of the notebook, the ones detailing his latest job.

“Bay View Motel,” he muttered to himself, then looked out of his car window. In a town as small as this, there was a decent chance you could find whatever your next destination was just by peering around.

Behind him was the highway, less than a tenth of a mile distant. Traffic was so infrequent that the noise didn’t present a nuisance to the shops and businesses that the turn-off led to. Among them was Del’s Diner, a gas station, a small grocery, and a cozy motel that was not Bay View. At the end of the diner’s parking lot was a junction onto another street, down which Howie could see the sign of the local lawyer, an auto repair, and a two-floor building with a sign that was mostly obscured by a scrubby tree. What little bit he could make out, though, looked like a wave crashing on a beach.

“Bay View,” he guessed, and turned on the ignition. Thirty seconds later his suspicion was affirmed and he pulled into the parking lot, his wheels crunching over the unpaved gravel.

No wonder it was the other motel that faced the highway. This one was a low and mean looking place, with large brown stains baked into its peeling siding, and boarded windows on rooms that were in a state of constant disrepair.

Howie took a moment to fully take in his surroundings. He noted the rickety staircase that went from the first floor of the motel to the upper, the way that some of the doors inexplicably opened outwards into the narrow path instead of inwards to their rooms, and the way that the only camera present was pointed at the main office’s front doors. That office, he observed, was being manned by a teenage boy, clearly not the manager of the place.

He reached into the glove box and took out a piece of hard candy, popped it into his mouth and slowly sucked it down. Once he would have lit a cigarette, but ten years ago he knew he had to quit. What mattered was to have something to occupy him long enough to really take a good, hard, second look. Rushing things was never the right way.

So he scanned everything again, this time rehearsing his future steps in his mind. Door 27 was four rooms from the west staircase. A car parked at the bottom of that staircase–front pointed out of the parking lot–would be able to make the highway in less than three minutes. Maybe less than two.

Four rooms from the west staircase meant four opportunities for someone to come bolting out into the walkway and becoming an obstruction. A firm shove with his left arm would be enough to quell the curious, and his right hand would grip a more imperative persuasion for anyone who wanted to play the hero.

The west staircase meant he would be on the opposite end from the office, far from the lone security camera. He had already verified that there was no local sheriff’s office, so no one in an official capacity would be on the scene for at least fifteen minutes. And fifteen minutes was enough to make it down to Hogswell, a town large enough to lay low, but small enough that no one should be out to see him rolling in at two in the morning.

Satisfied, Howie stepped out of his car, went to the trunk, and pulled out his bag of tools. He clipped a nametag to his shirt, put on workman’s gloves, a baseball hat, and thick-rimmed glasses. His razor was in the front of the car, so he’d shave off his mustache when he got to Hogswell.

Now he strode up to the front office, the bell on the door ringing dully as he came to the teenage boy at the front desk.

“Hey, how can I help you?” the boy rehearsed.

“Call for a bathroom leak?” Howie pointed to his nametag.

“What?”

“Call this morning. Came from a Jerry,” he read the name of the manager off a plaque hanging from the wall, “said there was a leak in one of the bathrooms. Asked if I’d be able to make it in the morning and I said I’d try,” he shrugged abashedly, “but I never know when the previous appointment is going to be ten minutes or two hours. Today it was the two hours, for Miss Maislee down the street. I could swear she tried to flush a cat down her pipes!”

“Who?”

“Deidre Maislee?”

“Oh, the lady from the diner?”

“Sure kid, I dunno where she works. Course you never know if a client is a yapper or a go-brooding-in-their-corner-while-you-work sort of person. Deidre is a go-off-to-her-corner. Suits me, I don’t need to know the secret life of a cat-homicide-maniac.”

“What, it can’t have really been a cat!”

“Well the way things run in pipes, half the time you can’t really tell what they originally were. So that means either you’re devoid of imagination and tell yourself its just a clump of hair, or you start anticipating the more colorful side of people. And let me tell you, it doesn’t take that much imagination to start seeing crimes everywhere in people’s pipes. Most people think their plumbing is a private place where no one will find the worst of their secrets,” he raised an eyebrow solemnly.

“Huh, like what?” the boy grinned.

Good. The kid was bored. After five minutes of Howie satiating him with horror stories and the boy finally got around to asking which room it was that needed plumbing.

Howie was led to the room, and then left to do his “work.” He rummaged about in the bathroom for a minute, until he was sure that the kid was truly gone, then he went over to the front door of the motel room, pulled out his screwdriver, and removed the plate around the doorknob. Now came the process of extracting the door-lock mechanism. He would take out the deadbolt, then put everything back the same as it was before.

It was a fortunate thing that the man currently renting this room wasn’t here right now. If he had been Howie would have had to ask him about the leak in the bathroom, and when he denied it Howie would have had to feign frustration at having been given the wrong information. Then he would have left, and things would have been much louder this night.

It was delicate work on the door, but Howie was practiced at it. He got the deadbolt out and also the tumbler in the doorknob, so that neither lock could work. He replaced the deadbolt with a custom-made one. It had been sawed short so that it wouldn’t actually extend into the door frame, but it would provide a similar weighty “click” when you tried to lock the door. He also put a pin in the doorknob so that it would stop when you twisted that lock, rather than spin freely. If someone looked closely, they would notice that neither lock was actually catching, but most people never would.

His work done, Howie grabbed his bag and left the room. He didn’t take the gloves off until he was settled back in the car. Now he just had one more errand to run, and then he would make himself scarce until the middle of the night.

Part Two
Part Three

 

As I said on Monday, this piece was inspired by my work in Washed Down the River. In that story I featured two inspectors following a more grounded approach to detective work than is usually seen in a murder mystery. It felt fitting that this more down-to-earth story have a somewhat mundane ending, in which the exact reason for the victim’s death remain somewhat uncertain, though foul play is finally ruled out.

As such, there really wasn’t a real villain in the story, and I found myself wondering what one would have looked like. I certainly wouldn’t want some caricature, mustache-twirling, rogue. As with all of the other characters in Washed Down the River, it would have to be someone that felt grounded and believable.

I had come to mind a man in his late fifties, with a pot-belly, and a genial, southern manner. Someone that had been weathered by life, but someone who also knows how to entertain and influence people. Suddenly I wanted to write a story about this easygoing assassin, and detail how he moseys about a sleepy town, enjoying the local hospitality, before then committing the most unspeakable of crimes in its borders.

Detectives Price and Daley will not show up in any part of this story. If ever their paths did cross with Howie Stuggs, it would have to be in an all-new chapter. And yet the story of those detective directly paved the way for this tale of a criminal who might exist in their world. It is the fruit of their tree, just as they were the fruit of the many other murder mysteries I’ve consumed over the years.

Now in this story I wanted things to go very easy and slow. I even opened it up by detailing a meal in a diner for quite a while, which meal has absolutely nothing to do with the real plot of the story. Yet I felt that that scene was completely essential in how it established tone and character. At the same time, I’ve read more than enough stories that were over-indulgent in unnecessary “character-development” scenes. I’d like to take a closer look at what it is that makes a scene actually add depth to a story, and what it is that makes it useless fluff. Come back on Monday where we explore that, and then on Thursday we’ll see the next chapter of Howie’s tale.

Network Down: Part Two

abstract aluminum architectural architecture
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“Dani, are there any nearby buildings open right now?!”

Checking…The Barrows Banking and Loan seems to have left its doors open.

Really? Maybe the rumors about that place were true then. He’d had his own reasons to suspect so after all. Still he’d never make it there with that truck coming after him.

“Dani, can you establish which network that truck is connected to?” Kevyn wheezed out as he felt a stitch growing in his side.

It’s a public service. Voracia Systems.

“Dani, buy a hack from the black market. Get me control of that truck!”

Sir, even performing that query is a misdemeanor and actually implementing it is–

“Do it!” he screamed as he felt the rumble of the truck’s nearing mass. It wasn’t slowing down to let one of the passengers out to grab him, it was going to run him over! Not even daring to look, Kevyn tried to judge its distance from him until the last possible moment.

“Not yet… not yet…” he muttered to himself through clenched teeth. “Now!” He threw himself to the side just as the truck tore through the space he had just been standing in. It wasn’t able to swerve to follow his lunge in time, and so he fell to the pavement untouched. There came another squeal as the truck spun back around to face him.

Sir, I have access to the truck’s internal functions.

“Alright, on my word I want you to accelerate it down the street, lock the doors, and…”

Kevyn stopped speaking as the truck’s wheels whined from the strain of being turned too quickly. In his anxiousness to run Kevyn over the driver had overestimated his vehicle’s capabilities, and now the entire thing lifted onto its two side wheels, teetered there for a moment, and then thudded down on its side.

Sir?

Kevyn snapped himself out of his disbelief, turned away from the truck, and began sprinting the other direction.

“Never mind, Dani,” he panted. “I guess it’s just a misdemeanor…for now.”

He could hear the looters clambering out of their sideways vehicle, and a quick glance over his shoulder showed that they were still intent on running him down. At this point their persistence seemed to be fueled more by rage than anything else.

“Dani, direct me to the Barrows Banking and Loan.”

Certainly. Just take your next right and it’s two blocks down on the left.

“Alright, and keep track of those guys chasing us. I want to know if–”

Kevyn was interrupted as all of the ad-boards crackled back to life. He didn’t slow in his pace, but listened intently, hoping to hear that the security network had been restored already. From the very first words was disappointed.

“This is CLNN, the Chicago Local News Network” blared down the deserted streets. “Hello Chicago, my name is Cindy Trulick. As the city continues to be blackened by a security network failure, we are now receiving additional word that Governor Haley has just been assassinated in his office. We started seeing reports on social media three minutes ago, and the details are consistent enough to conclude that heavily armed assailants broke into the City Office Building, subdued local security, and then shot and killed the Governor. We cannot yet verify that this attack was the intention behind the citywide security network failure, nor which organization might be behind this atrocity. It has been posited on many social media forums though that the mob has had reason to–”

Kevyn stopped listening. To all the rest of the city this news might be significant. To him, in this moment, he couldn’t care less. His legs were beginning to get wobbly, entirely unaccustomed to such vigorous exercise, and with every glance over his shoulder he could see that his pursuants were growing ever nearer. He made those glances after every twenty paces, and then looked forward to the looming figure of the Barrows Banking and Loan, trying to gauge whether he was going to make it there or not.

Kevyn glanced backwards once more, just in time to see that one of the looters had fallen behind his fellows and moved into a shooting stance with the gun raised to his cheek. The man was aiming with what appeared to be a practiced confidence. Kevyn tried to lunge sideways, but too late. The high staccato of the gun being fired echoed down the street and Kevyn felt a sudden, searing pain in his arm. He instinctively clapped his other hand over the spot, about halfway up from his elbow, and found his fingers moistened by blood.

He felt shock at the realization of having been shot, yet Kevyn managed to stumble back into his run and the aiming looter followed suit. The man would wait until he was a little closer before trying again.

“Just keep going,” Kevyn muttered to himself. He was now nearing the doors to the Barrows Banking and Loan. He would make it inside, he would find help, he would survive this…no matter the cost.

The building had a distinct and old-fashioned style to it. The architecture was Roman in design, complete with supporting external pillars, white marble, and an unnecessarily long flight of stairs to its entrance. Kevyn instinctively tried to swing his arms as he dashed up the steps, but his wounded arm gave protesting spikes of pain at the slightest of movements, compelling him to hold it stiffly at his side.

He mounted the last of the steps and moved into the shadow cast by its overhanging roof. For a moment he was blinded by the sudden transition from light to dark, but he continued groping forward until the heavy oak doors swam into his view.

Kevyn crossed the threshold into the massive lobby within, his quick steps echoing loudly off the marble floor as the upper-class people lounging around on the plush seats gave him dirty looks. Even in his haste Kevyn couldn’t help but realize how bizarre it was that these people were gathered so calmly behind un-shuttered doors while the rest of the city was gripped in complete terror. It seemed to add further credence to the all of those rumors. Rumors that this business was nothing more than a front.

The receptionist at the desk frowned deeply at Kevyn as he came wheezing up to her station. He was sure he looked a mess, covered in sweat, panting heavily, and bleeding down the arm. Before the woman could call for security he took a deep breath and blurted out his request.

“I want to apply for a position with the Inner City Mob.”

Her eyebrows raised clear into her hairline and her nostrils flared. “What did you just say?!” she exclaimed with a bitter hostility.

Undeterred Kevyn continued. “I have considerable services to offer as a top-of-the-line accountant. If you pull up my profile you’ll see that I have extensive experience with a number of distinguished firms, currently at Johnson & Webber.”

She still looked enraged at his insinuations and was about to spit out a retort when the front doors slammed open again. Kevyn took a hasty glance over his shoulder and saw the looters awkwardly file into the place. They quickly spotted him up at the counter and then divided into two group, each slowly strolling up a different side of the room towards him.

“Friends of yours?” the woman said, now with a slight tinge of amusement in her voice.

“No, and I would need…protection from them.”

“Sir, I’m not sure who told you that this place was being run by the mob,” she said curtly, “but they were making a fool of you.”

“No one told me,” he said shortly. “People talk, yes, but I figured it out myself. Last year a man named Barney James transferred 110 million dollars from one of our agencies to this one. I handled the case.”

Out of the corners of his eyes he could see the looters nearly halfway to him. He continued speaking in a hushed but rapid tone.

“And when I did so the FBI came to me and instructed me to install a trace on those funds. It’s an entirely new currency tracking technology, one that not only contaminates the funds it is installed on, but the entire ledger that they sit with. Now I’ve been hearing all this year on the news about how they’re finding all of your side businesses and shutting them down…I’m confident it’s because you’re funding them with that contaminated money. But I know how to help you find which of your funds are tainted and clean them. Just ask your ‘managers,’ they must know something is up–”

A heavy hand fell on Kevyn’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry about our friend here,” the looter said gruffly while digging his fingers into Kevyn’s shoulder. It was the arm that had been shot and Kevyn winced at the fresh waves of pain that came over him. “We’ll just be taking him and going.”

Kevyn looked his silent plea to the receptionist, but he only saw cold indifference in her face. She merely nodded and two more sets of hands grabbed Kevyn, pulling him away from the desk.

“But wait–I–” Kevyn wriggled around but couldn’t free himself from their grasps. They were dragging him back across the lobby, towards the exit, into the streets. All of the patrons seated on the plush seats still seemed strangely disinterested in his plight. Most of them refused to even make eye contact with him, their faces buried in their various digital devices.

Kevyn spun his head back around to look at the receptionist over his shoulder. “Please, just give me a chance to–” his eyes grew wide. He had just been dragged past a group of four patrons, all of which were now silently rising to their feet behind the looters, reaching into their coats, pulling out black-metal guns.

Kevyn cried out and flung himself to the floor so suddenly that he managed to break the grips on him. One of the looters cursed, and it was the last sound he ever made. The high-pitched whistle of silenced weapons rushed over Kevyn’s head, followed by the thuds of the looters’ bodies on the clean marble.

Kevyn’s hands were up around his head, trembling, waiting for one of those bullets to find him. Waiting, waiting, but the shot never came. Slowly he looked up and saw the receptionist marching down the floor towards him, waving the assassins to the side and motioning them towards the entrance doors. They moved away and began locking the place down. She reached him and stooped down to look him in the eyes.

“My…managers wish to speak with you. Please follow me.”

He awkwardly clambered to his feet, his face still washed in dumb disbelief. He started to instinctively turn, to look at the fallen forms of the men at his feet. He caught a glimpse of one of their boots before he stopped and turned back. He didn’t need to see. Just knowing was harrowing enough.

“You understand what this means, don’t you?” the receptionist squinted at him.

He nodded. Just like that, he had sold his soul. His home, his job, his loved ones… his entire life up until this morning. They were all gone. But–he was alive. That was all that mattered wasn’t it?

The receptionist turned and walked back the other way and Kevyn followed after her. She led him to an elevator. It’s glass doors slid apart and they stepped inside. They stood there in almost complete silence, the only noise was the occasional drip of blood from his arm echoing off the floor.

“We’ll need a clean-up crew, and he’ll need a doctor to look after his arm” she said into an unseen microphone. “…yes, of course I shut down the entry.”

There was a screen in one of the upper corners of the elevator and it suddenly came to life with another public alert. Kevyn knew what the text was going to say before it even showed up.

“The Chicago Central Police Department has just regained control of its security networks. All monitoring and robotic police units are fully functioning again. Even so, citizens are still encouraged to remain indoors until the streets have been cleared of debris.”

It didn’t matter, Kevyn thought. It was too late. Fifteen minutes and his entire life had been lost, replaced by something else. That new life was looking pretty bleak perhaps…but at least he had something.

 

On Monday I said it was my intention to write a story where the main character loses what he has to gain something new. In this case it was his entire way of life. Kevyn has made a choice that he will never be able to walk back from. Even if he tries to undo it, there will be permanent ramifications that follow him wherever he goes.

But, of course, that was his choice. The only reason why he would make a choice to lose the life he knew for something so much worse, was that it was preferential to losing his life entirely. Many times you see this in stories. Tragedy strikes, takes all that the heroes had defined themselves by, and forces them to face the new. Usually that change isn’t what they wanted, but it ends up bringing them to their ultimate calling. This is Luke in Star Wars, Edmond in the Count of Monte Cristo, and Hansel and Gretel. Who knows, maybe there is a way through to a happy ending even for Kevyn.

We’ll just have to use our imaginations there, though, because this marks the end of Network Down, and also the entire story. Come back next week when we’ll be off to something new. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!

Phisherman: Part Three

photo of house during daytime
Photo by Sarah Eaton on Pexels.com

Part One

Part Two

The trick is going to be maintaining an attitude of complete nonchalance. It will be the middle of the day and that means any neighbor or passerby might see me at any moment. If they see me sneaking glances to each side and wearing a dark hoodie over my head they’ll be tipped off immediately that something is wrong. If, on the other hand, I am seen striding up to the door like I owned the place they will just think I am some out-of-town uncle that has come for a visit. Hopefully they will think that anyway. There’s no denying that there is a very real danger in all of this. But then again, if there wasn’t real danger it wouldn’t be so appealing in the first place, now would it?

And so here I am, driving up to 17462 Oak Lane right at noon. It’s such a quiet, ideal sunny day and I park smack in the middle of their driveway like I don’t have a care in the world. I allow myself one more glance down either side of the street and take a steeling breath. It’s now or never.

I don’t remember deciding to pull the trigger, but suddenly I’m hearing the sound of my door opening and the feel of my feet strolling down the cement. I fish in my pocket for my make-shift key, scraping my finger along its teeth to vent my anxiety. Though I’ve forced a mask of calmness over my face my heart is racing as though I’ve just run ten miles. My hand is trembling as I lift the key out and slowly insert it into the lock.

Please work.

Please don’t.

Click! The lock opens with perfect ease. I exhale a deep sigh as I push my way through the front door and bolt the door behind me. I close my eyes and strain my ears, listening for any sound of movement within, though I already know that I’m alone. I remind myself that I’ve been far too thorough in my research to be caught by surprise by anything, and so the key goes back into my pocket and the latex gloves come out. I suit up each hand and scan the house again, taking in the scene.

It’s a small, one-story affair. Several decades old, and you can see it in the dated wallpaper and siding. Even so, it’s been well-cleaned and well-cared for. There’s pictures along the wall, faces I’m already well-familiar with. I stroll casually past the entrance area and into the living room. There’s a light on the blu-ray player beneath the tv and I walk over and press the eject button, curious to see what the last movie they watched last night was.

Way of the Dragon.

An involuntary memory forces its way into my mind.

“But why would Chuck Norris choose a role where he gets beat?” I’m asking.

“Well, you gotta remember this was before Walker, Texas Ranger,” Dad is explaining. “He wasn’t such a big star yet, so he was gonna do whatever role he could.”

I shake my head. “It’s weird.”

“I do like how he looks in this one,” Dad grinned. “Without his beard on he’s pretty similar to me, don’t you think?”

“But he’s the badguy here!”

“So?”

“Naw, Dad, you’re Bruce Lee!”

Dad laughs. It isn’t particularly mirthful. “And how can you tell me who I am, kid, when you can’t even tell me who you are or what you want to do?”

He’s jabbing his thumb at the summer camp brochures on the table. He brought them home for me to choose where I want to head out to this weekend.

“I just–none of them sound like the sort of things I want to do,” I say slowly, not wanting to retread this argument.

“Oh yeah? And what does sound like the sort of thing you want to do?”

“I’d rather just be with you this summer!” I suggest brightly. “We could just watch movies like this all day.”

“I told you, I have to go on a trip of my own this summer.”

“I could come with you,” I say quietly.

His face turns cold. He doesn’t try to explain, he just speaks with a grim finality in his voice. “No. You couldn’t.”

My throat is tight and the blood is pumping in my ears. I’m spinning on the spot, looking for something. I hadn’t though of what, exactly, but I know it when I see it. One of those family pictures is on the mantle, a small piece of them smiling out on a grassy hill in a dark wooden frame. I don’t look at it so much as through it. I grip it with my hands and hold it a little lower than my chest, staring dead ahead as my arms twist. Long, slow, but powerful. The wood creaks, the glass cracks, and at last the whole thing gives way and bursts apart with a snap. I let go and the various pieces clatter to the floor.

Believe it or not, never in all my planning did I ask myself what I was going to be doing once I got in here. I don’t need their money or valuables, I don’t particularly care to trash the place any more than the one picture I’ve broken. Whenever I hack people I don’t ever drain their bank accounts or sell their information. I just enjoy the sense of knowing them.

I guess that was my general intention here, too, but now I want to do a little bit more. I want to take a memento, and also I want to scare these people. I want them to know I was here and have them fear what I might have done, though I won’t have done anything at all. I’ve already broken their picture, but I scour the surroundings for something else. Something big, something prominent, something personal. Something that has been placed very deliberately, something that couldn’t have just fallen down and rolled under the sofa. Something that the absence of will immediately stand out like a sore thumb.

And then I see it. There’s a nanny cam staring directly at me from the mantle.

How did I miss it when I came in here? How did I not prepare for this? I really didn’t think that they would have one.

Why not?

I don’t know…I guess I just wanted them not to. So much so that I felt they couldn’t possibly. Stupid as it sounds, I’m completely frozen in space for a moment. The only movement is my hand slowly raising to touch my open, exposed face. I didn’t want anyone to suspect me as I entered the place, but why not keep a mask in my pocket to wear once I had closed the front door?!

My instinct is to seize the camera and smash it to pieces, as well as any computer or tablet in this home it might be streaming data to. But with it’s sleek, angular, gray-and-white design I can tell this is a modern device, one that no doubt supports motion-tracking and automated alerts pushed to a user’s phone.

They already know that I’m here.

I manage to break the spell I’m under and scramble for the front door. As I wrench the doorknob and swing the door open I see the policeman stepping out of his car. He hadn’t had his sirens on, evidently intending to catch me unawares. The man is startled by my sudden appearance, and I instinctively slam the door back shut.

I pelt to the back of the house, roving my eyes in search of a door out the back. There, in the kitchen. I lunge for it, twisting the knob before realizing that the bolt is still holding it fast.

Stupid!

I fumble with the lock, hearing myself crying as my chest heaves with fear. I finally jerk the door open just as I hear the front door being flung open with a smash.

“Stop. Now!”

Needless to say I ignore the commanding voice calling from behind as I sprint out of the house and across the small yard to the six-foot chainlink fence separating their property from the neighbors’ place. I don’t try to fit my toes in the narrow gaps, instead just kicking forwards and upwards as I half-pull half-roll myself over the fence, getting a few scrapes in the process.

They’ve already seen your face! And you’ve left your car back there!

None of that matters. I’ll figure it out later. Somehow.

I hear the heavy footsteps behind me but refuse to look over my shoulder. The more I see the officer more real he’ll be. I hear the clatter of him scrambling over the fence as I sprint around the neighbor’s house to their front-yard, exiting onto the next street and peeling off to the right.

It’s still an ideal, sunny day in modern suburbia and I feel myself cowering like a wild animal at being so exposed out in the open. My legs are shaking, threatening to turn into molten jelly at any moment.

“Please!” I wheeze out between sobs. “Pleeeease!”

I just have to get past this. I just have to get clear. If it takes everything I’ve got, I just have to escape. I’ll be able to work it all out after that, I’ll tackle each problem systematically and one-at-a-time. But I just have to lose this cop.

The click of a clasp being unbuttoned.

“Stop or I’ll shoot!”

It honestly never even occurs to me whether he might be lying. I just feel a pure and violent terror seize my chest, gripping my heart like I’ve never experienced before. I throw my hands up in the air and spin on the spot, my voice breaking and warbling as I splutter out my pleas.

“I’ll stop, I’ll stop! Just please don’t–”

He doesn’t slow one bit in his run. Officer Daley’s name badge fills my vision as he goes horizontal and t-bone’s me right in the chest. The top of his head catches my jaw and I see a stream of blood curving through the air in slow motion as I become weightless in space. He’s knocked more wind out of my lungs than I ever knew could fit in there, and so there is no noise to the crying my throat is trying to make. I spin backwards, hurtling towards the pavement, anticipating the impact that cannot be denied.

“Alright then, Dad” I say slowly, trying to keep the trembling out of my voice. “You tell me. Where should I go this summer?”

“Naw kid, that’s not for me to choose.”

“Sure it is. You want me to go, so you can decide where.”

“You gotta decide what you want for yourself.”

“But only from what you decide I can choose from?”

Both our voices have been getting louder and faster. Half in anger, half in exasperation. The tension of unspoken truths mounting. Finally Dad stops to knead his brow heavily.

“This summer is going to be hard on all of us, Terry. I’m sorry. Really I am. But I’ve got to figure stuff out, and I need to do that alone. I need to…well…find out who I am.”

I’m quiet, staring blankly through the floor. “You know Dad, you were right earlier. I don’t know who I’m supposed to be either.”

“Hey, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that–“

“No, it’s alright. It’s true…. Dad, can you do me one thing before you go?”

“Sure kid.”

“Who am I?”

“C’mon, that’s not fair. I just said, I’m still trying to figure out who I am, I’m not the person to tell you about yourself.”

“But you’re my dad. Just tell me what you think even if you don’t know. You don’t have to be right. I just need to know what you think.”

The tears were streaming from my eyes then, too. Dad was frowning, shaking his head at the responsibility.

“I will. Okay? Let me get myself sorted out and then when I come back I’ll tell you. It’ll be something you can look forward to when I return.”

“You promise?”

“Yeah.”

I rub the tears away with my grubby hand. “Daddy… I love you, y’know?”

“Sure, kid. I know you do.”

You may crush me as hard as you wish, Officer Daley.

***

 

As I suggested on Monday, unreliable narrators have the power to divulge as much from what they aren’t saying as what they are. I tried to craft Phisherman so that observant readers would be able to realize that not everything was adding up with our narrator. My hope then was that they would start reading between the lines to extract the missing pieces, and picking up on little clues.

There were things like his obsession with consuming other peoples’ identities, his unwillingness to define his own, and his negative perspective of men. All of these were supposed to tease that he bore some wound related to a father figure and his own role in life. Although the full details of that wounding would have been impossible to predict exactly, hopefully when finally witnessed it felt consistent with what had been suggested before. The ways his father left him will hopefully match up with the personality we see in him now.

Also, a week before Monday, I posted about how characters can be portrayed as one-dimensional villains at the outset, and then given a sympathetic backstory to evolve them later on. Obviously Jake (or should we call him Terry?) is doing something horrible when fate finally catches up to him, and he is deserving of all the legal action that is sure to follow.

And yet I do hope he also comes across as pitiable. I hope that the readers feel that the way he has become makes sense, even if it cannot be justified. This is actually an essential groundwork for any time a villain in a story is meant to become a hero. Once a character is understood, they are also redeemable.

It was in reaching this point of inflection that I ultimately decided the story was ready to close. I knew that Terry was stuck in an unhealthy rut at the outset of this story, and I wanted to get him to where he finally had a choice again. In this story we see him hitting rock bottom and what will follow could be either a spiraling demise or the beginnings of turning over a new leaf. Either way, that would be another story in and of itself, the story of the hacker “Jake” has reached its end.

Even so, I’m sure there are those that would rather have had the story go further into what happens next for Terry. This brings up a common question in writing a story: when exactly should it end? I’ll explore this question in my post on Monday. Come back then to chime in with your own takes on the matter, I’ll see you there.

Free Cleaning Service: Part One

silhouette of a man in window
Photo by Donald Tong on Pexels.com

Jim Morgan ducked under the police tape and pulled his coat tighter against the wind. He moved with hurried steps, little splashes of muddy rainwater billowing around his ankles. He gave a final glance upwards to the dark, cloudy sky, then pushed through the creaky wooden door to the cozy diner within. The layout of the place was extremely basic. A dozen circular tables crowded around the floor, with a cashier’s counter fronting a kitchen along the left wall. Across the back wall was the occasional window offering a view of the neighboring Main Street, or at least they would have been under fairer weather. On a stormy night such as this, the interior lights overpowered the external darkness and the windows became large black mirrors. Jim was drawn to the image of his duplicate in the glass, watching him come in from the cold, cup his hands to his mouth, and blow into them for warmth.

“Sir?” a police deputy stood up from his chair and approached him. The officer couldn’t have been older than twenty-two, and the way he nervously loitered around made it clear he had no idea what one was supposed to do at a crime scene.

“Detective Morgan,” Jim gestured to himself, but didn’t trouble to pull out his badge to prove it. “Let Barry know I’m here, if you will.”

“Barry?” the young man repeated, confusion wrinkling his brow.

“Detective Barton,” Jim clarified and comprehension dawned on the deputy’s face. “He phoned that he wanted to see me here.”

“Yes, sir, of course,” the officer said, yet he remained on the spot, shifting his weight around uncomfortably. “It’s just that—well, he’s occupied with the crime scene presently.” The young man started to turn his face in the direction of the kitchen doors, but he halted halfway through the motion and instead jerked his thumb over the shoulder instead. Now it was Jim’s face that broke in comprehension.

“You haven’t been in there yet, have you son?” he asked bluntly. The deputy dropped his gaze to the floor and shook his head. For the first time Jim paused to look at the man’s badge and read his name. “There’s no shame in not wanting to see, Ellis,” he said compassionately. “And I’ll tell you right now there’s no special trick to stomaching that sort of stuff, it’s just hard. Always is.” Ellis looked back up and Jim held eye contact for a few moments, trying to remember a time when his own face had been that innocent. Still, if the man was expecting to be let off the hook, he was about to be disappointed. “But that’s the job,” Jim said flatly. “Go tell Detective Barton that I’m here.”

There was a firm finality in Jim’s tone and Ellis didn’t try to argue the point, instead exhaling slowly and dejectedly shuffling off towards the kitchen door. Meanwhile, Jim turned and walked deeper into the diner, making his way to the dark mirror of a window where he could peered closely at his own reflection. To be sure, there wasn’t any of that old innocence left in him now, and not even the miles of tracks under his eyes did justice to the distances he had traveled for this job. He was tired. Tired in ways he couldn’t begin to explain. His blinked, then so did his reflection.

“Jim?” A voice called him out of his reverie and he spun around to see Barry emerging out of the kitchen. Barry had barely cleared the door before Ellis followed behind him, much paler in the face now and moving with nervous, rapid footfalls. Barry strode the rest of the way to Jim with a few giant paces, and the two shook hands with a well-practiced familiarity.

“Hello, Barry,” Jim said, thus concluding the formalities of their greeting. Now they could get to the heart of the matter. “You said you wanted to see me?”

“Right. And you brought the file I asked for?”

Jim nodded, pulling the manila folder out from the dryer confines of his overcoat and handing it to Barry who began thumbing through its contents. The folder was aged, but the case was not. In fact it was so recent that Jim’s thumb still bore a black mark where he had smudged it against the freshly-typed details of the case, details that were similarly smudged across his mind.

Harold and Ava Harrison, both in their late sixties.
Both retired.
Found dead in their apartment, by the landlord who had responded to a neighbor’s report of loud shouting.
No sign of forced entry.
Little sign of struggle.
All in broad daylight, yet with no one having seen the perpetrator.

Those last details were a bit uncommon, but not enough to make the case particularly stand out. Thus far Jim had made little progress on the investigation, but that was how many of these went.

Barry had gone directly to the section for evidence. Jim knew there wasn’t much there. A couple statements, the phone records, and some stray pieces of mail taken from the home. Barry selected one of these and held it up in its plastic bag. Jim squinted at the paper. Free Cleaning Service.

“The new carpet cleaning business?Jim asked, remembering the advertisement.

Barry nodded.

“Yeah…come to think of it, that was one of the bits you helped me follow up on, wasn’t it?”

Barry nodded again. “That’s why I remember it.”

“Sure…what was it they said to you?”

“Not much. Was just a one-man operation, said he didn’t keep track of names or addresses, just went to people when they called. Asked if he had been to the Harrisons, he said no, said sometimes he had to turn people down because of conflicting schedules.”

Jim nodded, memories of Barry’s report trickling back. At the time it had been buried like one drop of data within a stream but now, when it stood on its own, it did seem a bit odd. “Strange for a one-man operation to be sending out free services. Seems like he’d never be able to keep up with all the calls.”

“That’s true. Of course, you didn’t know that when you sent me there. Was there something else that made this flier stand out to you.”

Jim closed his eyes and called back the remembrance of that day. “Yeah,” he said finally. “I was trying to piece together why it would’ve happened in the middle of the day and with no forced entry. A service-man just made sense for it.”

“Good thinking,” Barry agreed. “It would also explain an owner found dead in his diner, again with no forced entry but this time in the evening… after closing hours.”

At last Jim was seeing the connection, and the reason why Barry had called him down here. “You found another flier.” It wasn’t a question.

Now it was Barry’s turn to reach a hand into his overcoat, pulling out a plastic bag with an identical Free Cleaning Service flier in it. “The owner was holding it.”

Jim closed his eyelids and exhaled slowly. As if things hadn’t been bad enough already… A part of him wanted to resist agreeing with Barry, simply because he didn’t want to face the conclusion that stood at the end of this this line of reasoning. But that was the job. He opened his eyes and blinked them back into focus. “Alright, we’ll work it together from here on. I can go back to the office and fill out for a warrant on the cleaner’s place. If we get it before end-of-day tomorrow then maybe we can wrap it up in a hurry.”

“Works for me. Tell you what, though, I’ll go back to the office for the warrant. You can head home, or else have a look around here if you want to see.”

Jim scoffed derisively. “No one wants to see, Barry,” his eyes glanced briefly back to Ellis who had sunk back into his chair from before. “But yeah, I’d better go check it out. See you tomorrow.”

Barry nodded, handed Jim the casefile he’d been putting together, then left out the front door. Ellis looked up as he left, then back to Jim, evidently uncertain of which detective he was supposed to remain with.

“Go call the morgue to come for the body, I won’t be long,” Jim told him. “Then go ahead and get home, I’ll wait here for them.” As the young man enthusiastically left his perch for the phone, Jim swallowed something back that had been rising in his throat and strode towards the diner’s kitchen.

*

Jim held the kitchen door open for the morgue workers as they shuffled out, each carrying an end of the black bag. When they were through he hurried ahead to do the same for them at the diner’s main entrance. They thanked him as they progressed to their hearse and he grunted in response. He stepped back into the empty diner and gave it one last sweeping glance, then strode to each of the room’s chandeliers to turn them off. The thought occurred that it was a strange thing to do, seeing as there was no living owner to thank him for the gesture. Still, courtesy even to the dead, wasn’t that right? Courtesy especially to the dead.

He approached the last table, the one set underneath dark window he had used for a mirror before. He peered back at his reflection and asked himself what he saw there. Was he imagining things, or had a new line appeared under his eyes that very night? His reflection blinked, then so did he.

Jim turned back to the last chandelier, reached up, and turned it off. With the last light doused, darkness swept through the room and the light within the diner no longer overpowered the blackness without. Now visible for the first time was a man outside, staring in through the same window. The man was tall and thin, his hair a motley mess of dark strands, framing a shockingly pale face. His eyes were open in a wide stare, glistening as though they bore unshed tears. His lips were curling back and opening, exposing his teeth in a broad grin. Jim’s back was already turned though, and he remained oblivious to the watcher as he walked to the opposite wall, out the front door, and into the night.

***

As I said in my post on Monday, a good horror story should take residence in the core, fundamental fears inherent to the human condition. My purpose in this story was to focus on a few, such as the fear of innocence lost, the fear of being watched, the fear of being our safe places being made unsafe, and the fear of being powerless. The first two of these you can see in the first half already, and the other two will crop up in the conclusion next week.

One thing that I debated when writing this story was the portrayal of Jim Morgan as the gruff and jaded police detective. I felt that that was such a tired trope, and I didn’t want to be going that route just to follow some trend. As I thought about it, though, I felt that within the context of this story it was essential for his character be this way. At his core, Jim fears that he has been tainted, that he has walked through a dark mist and now wherever he goes a part of it might be following him. It is a fear we all have experienced in our moments of guilt, and I could think of no better way to establish it than to write him gruff and tired.

This question of whether your story decisions are being motivated by its needs versus just shoehorning it to match a certain trope or genre deserves further examination, though, and next Monday I will discuss the point further. I’ll see you then.