Wednesday, December 4, 2013


If it hadn’t been for Thomas, Gary never would have made it to that Christmas.  Thomas was always there, always had a smile, a shoulder, a hand to extend, and Gary truly believed that no matter what he did, that hand never would be retracted.  That’s why he worked so hard to get the house ready, even though he wanted nothing to do with the Yule this year. Sharon bitched constantly about the all the trees he bought, but he wanted the house to smell like a forest when Thomas came back from Canada; to feel at home. Maybe then he wouldn’t go back and they could start the whole thing over again from the beginning. Of course, he refused to even consider the alternative, which was what Sharon kept harping on.

“He’ll surely think you’ve lost your mind,” she told him over and over again, as he dragged one after another of the trees through the double French doors leading from the back porch. The dining room looked like Sherwood Forest, with wind chimes and stuffed birds adorning the branches. Sharon packed her bags and moved out on the twenty-third. As soon as she was gone, Gary drained her waterbed and filled it with dirt, then planted dozens of seedlings in it, draping them with miniature lights and wooden figurines.

With the house to himself, Gary listened to the clocks ticking down the minutes to Christmas. Soon. Soon they would both be here in this house, both under the sky-blue ceiling and the glow-in-the-dark stars sprayed across the plaster heaven. Here among the pines and the spruces and the firs that scented the air. He boiled apples on the hearth and cinnamon sticks on the stove, and delighted in the effect on his psyche. It was wonderful; a true Christmas.

And he waited.

On Christmas Eve, a package arrived, wrapped in plain brown paper and tied with a cord, the address scrawled in black marker. He found a knife and cut through the bindings, tearing away the paper. Inside, hidden among shredded newspapers from Vancouver, was a framed picture of Thomas in a three-piece suit standing outside a condo. The note explained that this was his new house; he had found a good job as an accountant with a prestigious firm and was too busy to leave right now. Have a nice Christmas. Love, Thomas. Nothing else.

Gary stared at the picture for hours, holding it up before him as he wandered through his forest, a forest that seemed suddenly stupid. After awhile, he found a nice clearing and sat down and piled up some logs and started a fire.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

No, this isn't replacing Nytwriter, just a new playground. Take away all the fancy graphics, colors, etc., and all we have left are words. And that's what a writer should be working with, right?

I'm moving all my short stories and excerpts to here to keep them all in one place. Plus, I find it easier to read with black on white, don't you?

So welcome. All you'll find here are words. And some book covers. And links to buy the books inside them. And some writing. Hopefully lots of it.

Thursday, October 31, 2013


The killer stares back at me with ice blue eyes. Eyes spiked with a hunger that demands to be fed. Eyes that gleam at the lush gore of severed flesh, savoring the tortured intimacy of slow death. That dull with the cold bloom of the mangled corpse as the rage slowly seeps away, flowing pure and red.

Eyes that keep their promise.

These are the eyes I meet as I prepare to leave my house, the darkness having wrapped its whorish arms around the city like an empty, pulsing womb. A womb the eyes need to see cut.  Cut and bleeding and raw. A womb that no longer could birth the monster where madness held its ravenous roost.

These are the eyes that check once more for the soothing presence of the machete, tucked lovingly inside the oversized coat, before turning away from the mirror and heading for the door.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


This story was inspired by the Golden Earring song, Twilight Zone. What if you woke up in a strange place with a gun in your hand and no recollection of who you were or how you got there?

Somewhere within the barren house a clock counts a muted chime: one, two. I stare past the hot silver weight in my hand at the woman on the floor, her blood shimmering like cherry-colored oil on the slick white tile, framing a ragged hole between vacant eyes.

Green eyes.

I have no memory of who she is or why I'm here among these stark walls. My brain is numb. I know myself only from scent, and a name that flashes like a neon sign from oblivion...Mike. Mike Salino.

The thought is somehow calming, a buffer against the madness. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, willing myself to relax, and gradually other images begin to filter through. A business trip; I came home a day early, phoning from the hotel, leaving a message on the machine telling Beverly to pick me up at the airport at 8:30. Waiting an hour; finally grabbing a cab, figuring she's working late. It's raining--that miserable, bone-numbing February rain. Soaking me as I run up the driveway, calling out to her. The house is dark but for the light under our bedroom door. Someone is in there talking; laughing. The kind of laugh we used to share just after...

Tony?

February 3rd, 2008. The date is tattooed on my memory.

My wife and my own brother.

The blood from the woman's ruptured skull is beginning to congeal, turning dark and dull, and before I can stop it, the bile rises in my throat, my knees jarring on the stark white tile, my body convulsing, its bitter soup lacing the soured carnage on the floor.

I drag myself to the kitchen. Rinse out my mouth. Splash cold water on my face. Look around; purged and newborn.

There's no evidence of who might live here. No mail on the counter, no notes stuck to the refrigerator. Not a stray hair or a wisp of lint or a water spot on the glazed perfection. Just a calendar on the wall, Xs crossing off the first three days of February...2013.

2013?

God, are those my screams? Anguish careening off unfamiliar walls, chasing me through the house, past the black empty windows and the white tiled bathroom until my flight is arrested by a flawless, floor-length mirror.

I stare back at the face reflected there, a rim of mottled gray, eyes as dead as the woman’s. I forget I'm still holding the gun until I smash my hand against the glass.

There's a clean towel in the kitchen, and I'm careful to set the gun down on the counter before wrapping the wound.

The gun; I should leave it there. Should wipe it clean and walk away, but it calls to me; a molten god.
I pick it up. Cradle it in my palm with cold intimacy. No cop in the world will believe I'm not the one who pulled that trigger. Who watched with calculated composure as hot metal seared through vital flesh.

I have to get out of this house.

I retrace my steps, back through the foyer, past the cooling corpse, down the glaring corridor that opens into a lush bedroom suite. A wall of glass frames a bed smothered in satin. Black-framed abstracts splash across white walls. Polished chests stuffed with silk and lace. It reeks of excess.

Twin dressing rooms lead to separate bathrooms, a woman's with dresses cocooned in filmy plastic, a man's lined with drawers on one side, suits and shirts on the other. Shoes aligned precisely on the carpeted floor.

I strip and select one of the suits, a gray pinstripe. Perfect fit. A pair of black wingtips slip on like they're made for me. Better.

I scour my old pants for a wallet; nothing. Ball up the blood-spattered clothes and stuff them in a pillowcase. Move to the night stand on the left side of the bed; the side I’ve always preferred. Beverly used to call it protective instinct. Anyone would have to go through me to get to her.

Anyone but…

The drawer reveals some photos, several sets of car keys, a small box of shells. Forty-four magnum. I glance at the gun, pocket the shells, pick up the top photo. A woman posed on a beach in a red string bikini. A handwritten caption: Sara in Bimini, April 7, 2012. Our honeymoon.

The room starts to spin, the nausea returning. I sift through the keys, grab a set with a BMW fob, notice a business card. Sara Barnes-Salino, Attorney at Law.

I drop the card and slam the drawer shut, heading back to the man’s closet. Moving with purpose now. There's a jewelry box in one of the drawers--tie tacks and cufflinks; a Rolex watch. I need cash; I’ll settle for value. I slip it over my wrist.

Sliding the box back into the drawer, I spot a manilla envelope tucked against the back of the chest. I pull it out; the front is stamped EVIDENCE--DEFENSE COPY. Half a dozen black and white eight-by-ten glossies inside. Pictures of a crime scene; graphic detail.

The first is a wide shot of two bodies on the floor; a man and a woman. The bed in the background is rumpled, abused. Splattered with gray.

I flip to the next picture, unable to stop myself.

The man’s chest is laid open, the outline of shattered bone glaring white against the gray pulp. His head hangs to the side at a crazy angle; the neck broken. Something about the jaw, the line of his nose...

The tangle of dark hair hiding his face.

The woman looks worse. Half her face is gone; a mangled puddle of gore with a single, vacant eye.
Green eyes—you can never tell what they're hiding.

…my own brother?

The eye in the photo is staring at me with Poe-ish accusation. Even in death, green eyes don’t change.

I slip the pictures back into the envelope and tuck it into my jacket, calm now as I walk back to the kitchen, the judge’s thunder still crackling through my head.

Temporary insanity.

Pity…you would have thought she was smarter than that.

Now that you’re all here, I would like to ask you to sit down and make yourselves comfortable. I have a feeling this is going to be a long night for you, and I certainly don’t want you jumping up and trying to run out of here mid-tale. Truth be known, I’ve satisfied my needs for the night and I’m in no mood for that sort of scene. Besides, the doors are all locked, so where would you go?

I’ve allowed you to enter my world because I felt you were of an open mind and might have something to offer besides that maddening essence I smell pumping through your veins, so don’t make me regret my decision. Trust is a hard thing to come by with my kind, and once it’s broken, we are a nasty sort to deal with.

And just exactly what is my kind, you ask? I think you know by now. Did you really think it was fiction I was laying down? Please, give me some credit. If it was art I was seeking, I’ve been known to be quite literate with a knife.

That was meant to be a joke, though I suppose I can’t blame you for not laughing. My sense of humor tends to be a bit…depraved. I should warn you, there are others of my kind here, and some not nearly so agreeable as myself. For instance, that toothsome fellow lurking in the corner over there would sooner devour you than give you the time of night. Normally his tastes run more to younger flesh, though judging by the way he’s eyeing the lot of you, I’m sure he would forego that preference tonight. However, we won’t concern ourselves with that at the moment. I assure you, you’re quite safe…for now. Even he wouldn’t violate the sanctity of my lair.

Ah yes, that is what we call it—a lair. No white picket fences or two-car garages for us. We tend to like things a bit on the murky side, and we’re sticklers for our privacy. It suits our lifestyle far better than picture windows and prying neighbors.

Where was I? Oh yes…I have a tale to tell you, though I’m not sure what I’ll do with you once I’m done. You see, revealing myself to you is a direct violation of the code we live by. Hopefully, none of my brethren will rat me out on this one, though I may have to promise them something special to buy their silence.

But I’m stalling, and you’ve been so patient. Or is it fear that has sealed your lips? Either way, I won’t bore you with all the superstitious nonsense you hear and read about us. Let’s just cut to the meat of it, those philosophical issues that separate our species, the first of which would be guilt.

Despite what you might have heard, it’s not an issue with us. To experience guilt would imply a sense of morality, and I’m afraid that’s a purely human attribute, a tool used to keep you from indulging your bestial instincts. What use is that to creatures such as ourselves? We ARE the beast. We kill because it is our nature, and because, like all creatures, we want to go on.

To bring the concept closer to the bone, do you feel guilty when you bite into that steak on your plate? After all, it was once a cow. See, not so different after all. The thing that separates us from the other predators is that we are the most vicious and indiscriminate of all, and you, unfortunately, are our prey.

Oh, and there is one other thing. A pretty big thing, actually. Immortality. Yes, we can live forever, if that is our choice. And why wouldn’t it be, you ask? Well, I would have to agree with you there–why wouldn’t anyone want to live forever? But there are others–elders of our kind and some unbalanced fledglings—who’ve either lost or never had the stamina for immortality. And stamina is a requirement. It can sometimes get pretty lonely, watching all that you know whither and die, but after a few mortal life spans you learn to adjust. You either become a sponge, soaking up the latest trends and tempo of the mortal world, or you involve yourself in the nightly intrigues of your brethren. The key is to stay busy.

Naturally, there are ways we can meet our end, prolonged exposure to the sun being the biggie. We’re not exactly great worshipers of that fireball in the sky. Our skin isn’t configured to soak up rays, and so far, there isn’t a sunblock with a high enough SPF rating to change that. Not that we immediately turn to ash when caught out after dawn. That’s another misconception. It’s more like a slow burn…imagine popping yourself into a microwave on a power level of, say five. Yeah, you get the picture. Not very pleasant, to say the least, though one can survive it—if the damage isn’t too severe.

I could go into other, less appealing methods of thwarting immortality, but it’s probably best I save those for another time. After all, there is a point to this gathering, and I promised myself I would stay on topic tonight.

Why am I telling you this? Hmm…good question. Maybe it’s your silence, who knows? It’s fascinating, actually…mortals who can keep their mouths shut. I’m quite sure you’d be singing like a canary if you knew half the stuff that goes on around you while you sleep. That is, until I ripped your throat out. Can’t have you talking to the wrong people, can we?

You there, sit down. I already told you, I’ve satisfied that need for the night. But you’ve distracted me again. As I said, I have a reason for revealing myself to you, which will become more obvious when I’ve finished my tale. But first, you deserve to know what you’re getting into.

There’s a whole world out there you never see, and that’s just the way we like it. Birth, love, hate, ambition, death…much like your own world, but one of greater beauty, darkness, and savagery. And it all starts with a simple act of passion we call the Change. That’s what happens when a mortal is made one of us.

Naturally, it’s not all sweetness and light. In fact, it’s completely hellish, when you get down to it. Just ask any of my kind. The Change can be a beautiful experience, or it can be a trip straight out of a page from Dante. Regardless, dying isn’t fun, and unfortunately, that is a requirement to become one of us. It’s pretty traumatic stuff; certainly not for the feint of heart. That’s why a lot of potential fledglings never make it. They haven’t the stomach for it.

That first kill is, well…a killer. There are no words to describe the compulsion that drives you toward it. You simply have to experience it to know, and for those of us who have, it’s something you never forget. It haunts us every night, especially if we go too long without feeding. Believe me, that’s not a pretty sight. No, dieting is definitely not a wise decision for us.

Other than that, unless you look closely, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell we’re any different than you. It’s only when we step into bright light or begin to move that the guise becomes obvious. Yes, we move differently than you. See, like this. No, I’m over here now. You didn’t even see that, did you? I walked slowly…for us. And yet, when we want, our movements can be languid, almost hypnotic, but then, you knew that, didn’t you? That part of the legend is true. We are sensual creatures…creatures of dark passion and darker desires. I could make you scream with the most intense pleasure with just a touch. Would you like to see?

No, I thought not. Besides, I’m sure than would make short work of the evening’s intent. Even I don’t have that much self-control.

But you look like you could use a drink. A little wine, perhaps? Please, feel free to help yourselves to a glass. I’m a bit thirsty myself from all this talking. Shall we take a break? No? All right then, I’ll get started.

My tale begins in the coldest winter anyone could ever remember in the high passes of the northern Italian Alps. The year was 1784. I was seventeen; the only daughter of an errant thaumaturgist. That’s what you might call a sorcerer today. Actually, sorcerer might be a little overdoing it. While a direct descendent of a Druid priest, my father really wasn’t much of a conjuror. My mother was the one with the power—a witch who passed her gift on to me—but she’d had the good sense to die in childbirth. I say good sense, because it saved her from meeting my father’s fate. But I get ahead of myself.

Superstition was the national past time in the mountain villages in those times, and with good reason. There was a cabal of bloodthirsty warlocks in the vicinity who made traveling at night more adventurous than hailing a cab on a Friday afternoon in Harlem. Yes, we all knew about them, but back then there was such a thing as respect for beings like that. There were no assault rifles and flame throwers, the likes of which have been used to take out entire clans of our brethren while they slept in recent times.

Anyway, these warlocks, who went by the pretentious moniker of The Order of the Black Star, developed a personal interest in my father. They were recruiting, you see; sort of like corporate head-hunters, scouting the best talent for their cause. They approached him several times, on the sly, of course, though he recognized them for what they were and would have none of whatever it was they were selling.

As you can imagine, that didn’t sit too well with the haunchos of the Black Star hierarchy. No one refused them and lived to brag about it. So they decided a little taste of revenge was on the menu for my father.

Now if you think they merely killed him to satisfy their iniquitous sense of justice, you don’t know anything about Thelemic orders, which is really not surprising, since that’s just the way they like it. And The Black Star, being the poster child for covert operations, took that one step further. The Cosa Nostra have nothing on this bunch. They especially prided themselves on the originality of their retribution. Scorn, in particular, seemed to bring out their perverse streak.

So my father had no idea what he let himself—or me—in for. I would imagine straws were drawn up in the Black Star homestead to see who would be the one to exact the punishment. As it happened, the lucky winner was a man known only as Invictis, a former magician from Vienna—which happened to be Black Star Central, as geography goes. He was dispatched to my father’s house to do whatever it took to defend the cabal’s good name.

In those days, I slept in the garret above the little cottage that housed not only our living quarters, but those of a small and varied menagerie of animals that kept my father and I from starving during the frigid days and nights of winter. Three stories from the ground would seem a safe, albeit cold, place to spend one’s nights, but that wasn’t the case when it came to these supernatural jackals. The walls were easily scaled, the tiny window offering no barrier to the larger creature’s passage. He slipped in and crept into my bed without a sound. The only evidence of his presence was the unnerving chill that accompanied his advance under my gown.

I awoke with his cold breath on my face, his black eyes holding mine in thrall as he slid his icy hands around my neck. Part of me was terrified, but at the same time, I had to admit to a growing sense of excitement. After all, life was pretty boring in our village, and winters were especially tedious. I was lost in a twisted adolescent fantasy that maybe he wasn’t as scary as he looked when his lips brushed across my neck and his teeth entered me. I became aware of the most exquisite pain in my throat as his mouth began its deadly work, sucking my blood from the wound. I was growing weaker, a feeling akin to floating overtaking my limbs, my own heartbeat pounding in my ears, and then gradually even that grew silent. It was the last time I ever heard it.

When his mouth finally pulled away, I remember in some dim portion of consciousness wanting to cry out. I was painfully aware of everything around me—every sound and scent, regardless of how insignificant—though I could not process the information in any known form. It was as if I merely existed as a sponge for these stimuli.

I heard something tear, like flesh being punctured, and then he was pressing his wrist to my lips, and the first searing drops of his blood trickled into my mouth. At that moment, every desire I’d ever entertained was answered. I clutched at the offered limb, attacking the wound with eager abandon. More, my body screamed, but my cold-hearted sire had already pulled away.

I was starving. Not the kind of hunger you’re familiar with—the unspecific growling of an empty stomach. No, this was a hundred times worse, and it radiated throughout my body. I was certain it would consume me if I did not feed it as soon as possible.

As I mentioned before, the Black Star were a treacherous lot, and they lived up to their reputation that night. My sire, knowing how I would awaken to his world, called down to my father, who was asleep on the floor below my own. By that time, I was ravenous and ready to devour the first thing that came within reach. Unfortunately for my father, that meant him.

My existence after that night became a blur of blood and suffering. I’m not proud to say I was little more than a rabid animal, killing anyone and everyone who crossed my path. For my actions, my new captors punished me, locking me away without blood for weeks at a time, hoping by their cruelty to force me to control my bloodlust long enough to develop my magical abilities. All their efforts accomplished was make me hate them even more. While part of me was as anxious as they were to get my deadly appetites under control, I had no intention of playing good little soldier for their twisted agenda.

Eventually Invictis, growing tired of babysitting what he called a mindless, rabid dog, washed his hands of me and turned me over to the Council. They unanimously voted to end what they called a pointless experiment by having my Sire put me to death. I will add here that it is the accepted protocol among our kind that the Sire be the one to destroy an errant child. In this case, however, my sentence was postponed by an unknown benefactor who left the door to my cell unlocked the night before my execution. Needless to say, I wasted no time taking advantage of the reprieve.

I likely would have ended up finding death regardless had I not stumbled into the territory of a clan of vampires who, it turns out, were sworn enemies of The Black Star. I agreed to provide them with information about the cabal’s operation in exchange for protection. In the end, we all got what we wanted. The Black Star’s ranks were all but decimated and I received the long-overdue training to control my bloodlust.

Yes, I agree this is all ancient history, but there is a point to my tale. You see, while The Black Star’s power was indeed crippled by the efforts of my adopted clan, a few of them managed to escape their brethren’s fate. They went into hiding, no doubt hoping to out-wait our campaign against their order. Over the years, we have managed to weed out many of the survivors, but there are still a few stragglers left.

Ordinarily, we would be content to simply live and let live—after all, we’re in no position to throw stones–but warlocks are a tenacious lot. Once they latch on to an ideal, nothing short of death will change their minds, which means every time another one surfaces, he starts recruiting new neophytes to rebuild the cabal. And trust me when I say that is something you do not want to see happen. The Black Star makes the Third Reich look like a boy scout troop.

And that brings me to the point of tonight’s gathering. You see, you are all in danger of being recruited to the cabal’s cause. That priest your congregation holds in such high regard–the one who enthralls the women and elicits such admiration among the men? Well, let’s just say he isn’t from Omaha, nor is his name Father Raymond. And those changes he’s recommending? A slippery slope, my friends. It all seems to reasonable now, but then, it always does—at first. By the time you realize everything isn’t as innocent or reasonable as you thought it was, it’s too late.

I know, coming from me, that statement seems a bit innocuous. And yes, it very well could be me who is lying right now, though I challenge you to come up with a reason. After all, the only thing I could possibly want from you is your blood, and I could take that whenever I chose. I have no need to spin fantastical tales to win your trust. If you don’t believe that, I’ll be more than happy to provide a demonstration.

So what is the danger, and why am I risking my very existence by revealing all of this to you? Well, consider this. Since we wiped out their hierarchy, The Black Star has had to adapt, become more subtle in their approach. People don’t fear magic or warlocks any more. The new magic is logic, and they have become masters of manipulating it. Manipulation that can take the form of a priest who inspires unwavering trust and devotion among his flock. After all, Jim Jones’ followers didn’t believe the warnings about him either.

What’s that? Who is Father Raymond? Finally! I was beginning to think you would never ask. The truth is, the man you know as Father Raymond is, in fact, my old Sire, Invictis. Which brings me to the reason why I’ve risked telling you.

You see, you're going to help us rid the world of him, once and for all. And please note—that was not a request.


“You’re going to use a knife?”

Rene paused, his eyes shifting from the glimmering dagger to the nude woman stretched before him on the bed. He’d picked her up at The Cave, one of those goth hangouts where the death groupies, as he liked to call them, came to roost. This one was a little young--probably just barely legal--but she’d practically fallen into his lap when he told her what he was.

“You’d prefer something else” he asked, flipping through his mental Rolodex to recall her name. Something with an A; Andy, Angela, Angeline. Yeah, that was it. Angeline.

“Well,” she pouted, “I just thought you’d, you know…use your teeth.”

Rene smiled, showing her what she wanted to see. “I didn’t want to hurt you,” he lied. “The knife is so much cleaner.”

She reached for him, wrapping her arms around his neck, her breath hot against his ear. “I don’t care about that. I want to be like you. You will make me like you, won’t you?”

“Of course I will,” he murmured, nuzzling her neck. “I promised you immortality, and I never lie.”

“Will it…hurt?”

“Not at all. In fact, you won’t even know it’s happening. Now lay back and relax.”

He crawled on top of her, his hands caressing those secret places she sought to protect, and within moments she was writhing beneath him like a cat in heat, pressing her body against his, as though she could merge with him. Feeling herself special because she had what he said he wanted.

“Angeline,” he whispered, his tongue tracing hot circles on her neck, prolonging her agony. “I need your blood.”

“Take it,” she urged breathlessly, turning to offer her neck. “Do it now.”

He smiled to himself. Oh yeah, I’ll do it. He pulled back, eyeing his target, his mouth opening wide to accommodate the awkward length of the teeth before biting down and plunging them deep into her neck. She gasped, her back arching off the bed, her nails digging into him as his mouth closed over the leeching wound.

“Oh, that feels so…weird.”

Rene grunted, unable to speak as the blood filled his mouth. After a moment, he opened one eye and, satisfied that the girl was lost in her fantasized ecstasy, stretched a hand under the pillow next to him, feeling for the ingenious little contraption he’d rigged for just this occasion; a length of clear medical tubing with a soft rubber suction cup on the end. He slid the cup under his mouth and reached for the switch that operated the small, nearly silent pump beneath the bed. Within seconds, the tubing pulsed with the girl’s blood.

She moaned again, her eyelids fluttering, and Rene made a pretense of ravaging her, rubbing his bare flesh against her own until she retreated into that dream world she’d created in her young, deluded mind. So easy.

It usually took about fifteen minutes to drain them. He could have done it faster with a more powerful pump, but the noise might have aroused suspicion. Besides, he kind of liked watching the life fade from their cheeks, their skin growing first pale, then almost blue, imagining what must be going through their minds as they died. Occasionally one would open her eyes, staring up at him in dumb comprehension, but by then, most were too weak to put up much of a fight, and those who tried were easily subdued with a whiff of the chloroform-soaked rag he kept next to the bed.

Angeline wasn’t one of these. She died quickly, silently, and he liked to think, gratified. After all, she’d gotten what she wanted. Well, almost.

He was still contemplating this when Joel’s brusque voice brought him back to reality.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were starting to enjoy this.”

Rene turned, strands of dark hair falling across his face, his pale, slender body appearing almost ethereal in the dim light, and sneered. “You really think I like this stupid charade?”

Joel moved from the doorway, his brawny presence overwhelming the room as he closed the gap between them. Rene backed away from the bed and into the heat of his arms.

“I don’t know, I think you look kind of cute,” Joel teased, kissing him roughly on the lips, his big hands sliding down to cup Rene’s balls. Rene moaned, suddenly giddy with lust.

“I need you,” Rene murmured into Joel’s chest, his hands returning the ever more insistent caresses. “All I ever see anymore is the studio and those damn bars.”

“It won’t be long now,” Joel promised. “Another show like the last one, and we’ll be sitting pretty.” He glanced beyond Rene to the body on the bed. “Guess we should take care of her so you can get back to work.”

Rene followed his eyes and nodded reluctantly, wishing for once he could just forget the studio and fall asleep in Joel’s arms. It had been so long since they’d made love, and he knew it would be well past dawn before he finished in the studio and crawled upstairs. By that time, Joel already would be up and gone.

“Can’t we just skip it tonight?”

“Come on, Rene, you know the blood isn’t the same once it’s cooled. It’s just one more show, a few more pieces. Now take out those silly fangs and help me get this body out of here.”

* * *

“These pieces are beautiful, Rene. You truly are a genius, isn’t he, Joel”

Joel nodded at Morgan Wills, who was still holding the latest creation from Rene’s wheel. Morgan had been Rene’s agent for the past year, ever since he’d started selling the line of pottery he called Du Sang. Morgan turned the piece in her hands, moving it closer to the light.

“Sure you won’t tell me the secret of this patina?”

Rene glanced furtively across the room at Joel. “We’ve been over this before, Morgan. An artist never reveals his secrets.”

Morgan sighed, setting the piece back on the shelf. “Oh well, I tried. So what are you calling this one?”

“Angeline.”

“Yes, of course; always after a woman.” She turned to Joel. “Don’t you get jealous? After all, he’s never named one after you.”

Joel shrugged. “Rene claims it’s for his mother. This way he gives her immortality through them.”

“Them?”

“You know, the women…in the pottery.”

Morgan glanced back at her client, who looked away, avoiding her gaze. Wondering what the hell Joel was trying to do. It was bad enough he had invited Morgan over so early in the day. Rene had barely gotten the studio aired out before she’d arrived.

It was Joel’s idea to use the kiln to burn the bodies. Rene had balked at first, afraid the scent of roasting flesh might pervade his clay, but if it had, it only had added to the mystique of the Du Sang name. The seductive lines of the pottery with the unique, reddish hue had become an instant success. People who once had ignored his work now couldn’t get enough of him. He was the hottest property in town, and he owed it all to Joel, who never let him forget it.

“You just keep making your little pots and vases and I’ll take care of the money,” Joel had told him the morning after their first night together.

Joel had approached him first, claiming he’d seen the raw genius in Rene’s work. That Rene just needed the right marketing scheme to jump start his career. They had talked about it all night in a coffee shop after the art show where they’d met, then Joel had accompanied him home and seduced him in his own bed, not that Rene had put up much of a fight. The fact that a man like Joel could find him attractive was both a thrill and a curse. Sometimes Rene couldn’t decide which.

Yeah, they were bleeding ’em dry at the cash register. It should have been everything Rene had ever wanted. Artistic success, a man who loved him. True, he still had problems with the whole vampire thing. It was just a bit too contrived for his tastes. He had no qualms about luring the women to their deaths, he just would have preferred doing it without all the subterfuge.

“Believe me, this will work,” Joel had assured him the first time he’d seen him in his disguise. “Besides, what woman is going to let a guy like you take her home, much less steal her blood?”

Rene resented him for that, though in fact, he had never had any inclination to care about what women thought one way or another. They were to him like alien beings. Before this little gambit of Joel’s, the closest he had been to that nether region of womanhood was his own birth, and that suited him just fine.

No, Rene cared nothing for the women he seduced and even less for Joel’s ridiculous method of getting them, and yet, sometimes, when he was crouched over their bodies, the taste of their blood ripe in his mouth, he couldn’t help feeling an undeniable sense of power. A feeling that he was the master, instead of just another victim. Just thinking about it got him hard.

“Perhaps someday you’ll name a piece for me.”

Rene blinked; Morgan was still prattling on about the pottery. “You’re already immortal to me,” he said quietly. “You were the first to believe in my work…besides Joel.”

“Nonsense, Rene. You’re an enormous talent.”

“Watch out, Morgan, we don’t want it going to his head,” Joel quipped. Rene managed a smile, choking back his retort.

“I’ll bet I have these pieces sold before Friday’s show,” Morgan continued. “Will you have any more by then?”

Joel spoke before Rene could protest. “He’s got a couple in the works right now, don’t you, darling?”

* * *

“I would have preferred that you let me decide when and how much I work,” Rene snapped after Morgan had left. “After all, I’m the artist here.”

“Don’t get bitchy with me,” Joel shot back. “You’d still be begging for scraps if I hadn’t pulled you out of the heap. Do you know I was offered eight thousand dollars for the Melissa piece?”

“Yes, I have so much to thank you for.” Rene’s dark eyes glistening with unshed tears.

“Oh, please, save the tortured artist routine for your victims. I’ve got to go to work.”

He stormed out of the studio, slamming the door behind him. Leaving Rene alone with his pain and his doubts. Certain it wasn’t work that Joel had run out to. That he likely was meeting another lover. After all, unlike Rene, Joel was a stud; tanned, blond, and buff, the kind of man you saw on magazine covers.

Just thinking about him in the arms of someone else caused Rene’s stomach to clench. It was stupid and unreasonable, but he couldn’t help himself. No matter how much Joel lied or how badly he treated him, Rene still loved him. And he hated himself for that.

When Joel still hadn’t returned by nightfall, Rene swallowed his pain and donned his disguise, setting out for the evening’s hunt in a reckless mood. Looking for answers to questions he didn’t dare ask.

He skirted his usual haunts, wandering down dark, unfamiliar streets until he found himself standing outside the door to an obscure little bar near the waterfront. Without knowing why, he opened the door and walked inside.

The place looked like a dirty womb. The sporadic lighting emitted from candles nesting in outcroppings on the wall was the only source of illumination. Everything else was dark--the walls, the floor, the ceiling, the furnishings. There were few tables, and those were huddled against the wall, leaving a narrow pathway to the bar.

Rene threaded his way towards it, noting the near absence of customers; a threesome at one table deep in conversation and a couple of women who looked like they were ready to pass out. A strange, toneless music played in the background, reminding him of the murmur of disembodied voices. He sat down at the bar and ordered a double bourbon, intent on numbing the ache that was clawing at his gut.

That’s when he noticed her.

She was watching him from the opposite end of the bar. A face more pale than his own and eyes that seemed to devour the muted light. He looked away, turning his attention back to his glass, but he could feel her watching him.

“You’re like me, aren’t you?”

He looked up; she was sitting right beside him. “What do you mean”

She smiled, and even in the murky light, he caught the silvery glimmer of her teeth resting against her lower lip. “I could tell as soon as you walked in. You have the hunger.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he started to protest, but she cut him off, clamping her hand around his wrist and yanking him towards her with a force that caught him off guard. He stared into her eyes and saw something that reminded him of himself.

“You wouldn’t have found this place if you hadn’t been looking.”

Rene was aware that his heart had started to beat faster. What did she mean?

“I just came in for a drink.”

She snorted, shaking her head. “Sure you did.”

They sat like that for awhile, silent, while that weird music wound through his head, until gradually he felt himself being transported away from the bar and everything else that constituted his world as it had come to be. Like he was looking at his life from outside himself. Seeing the things he had, and the things he felt he couldn’t. The things that gave him strength. He glanced at the woman, saw that she was smiling. Like she knew.

“I want to show you something,” she whispered, pulling his hand off the bar and guiding it up her leg. Under her dress. Pressing it against the warm bulge hidden there. He gasped, his eyes growing wide.

“You’re--”

“Not what I seem. Nor are you. Pity, that we have to hide behind a mask to get what we want. What we need.” The woman who was not a woman smiled again, her eyes telling Rene that they shared a kinship. “I can show you how to use what you have to get what you need.”

“And what is that”

She leaned closer, her eyes narrowing. “Revenge.” She smiled at his reaction. “Yes, you know what I mean. And don’t let anyone tell you it’s best served cold. Nothing is better cold.” Her tongued flicked out, licking her lips. “It should be hot…and pulsing.”

Rene suddenly felt dizzy, like he’d been drugged with possibilities. She stood and took his hand in hers, pulling him to his feet.

“Come. You have so much to learn.”

* * *

It was late when Joel finally got home. He stole up the stairs, expecting to find Rene bent over a lifeless body. Instead, he was greeted by a woman whose pale, ethereal face and dark eyes seemed at once exotic and strangely familiar.

“Where’s Rene?” he asked, glancing around.

The woman stepped away from the bed, approaching him with the swagger of a streetwalker, her tight skirt riding just below her crotch, a crocheted sweater barely grazing her smooth midriff.

“Oh, you mean your friend?” She draped a slender arm around Joel’s neck. “I think he had a little too much to drink. He said something about going down to the studio, then I heard a thump.” She shrugged, moving closer. “He might have fallen.”

Joel turned and started towards the door, but the woman grabbed his arm, spinning him around.

“Nothing you can do for him now. On the other hand,” she purred, tracing a perfect blood red nail down the front of his shirt, “I could use some help, if you don’t mind.”

Joel’s lips curled in a smile. “I don’t mind at all.”

She kissed him and pushed him towards the bed. Joel’s hands cupped the cheeks of her ass, pressing her closer, but she pulled back.

“Not so fast, darling. Lay down.”

Joel happily obliged as the woman proceeded to undress him, then climbed onto the bed, straddling him.

“Aren’t you getting undressed?” he asked.

“Not yet. I want to do something else first.”

She leaned over him, her tongue circling his nipples, tracing up his chest to his neck. Joel relaxed, his arms wrapping around the woman’s waist, his hands trying to work their way inside the tight panties. She pushed them away and lapped at his neck, her hands teasing his cock to erection.

“Your friend told me you were into blood,” she breathed.

“Hmm?” Joel mumbled, distracted by the sensations he was feeling.

“He said you liked to play vampire. Would you like to play with me?” She nipped playfully at his neck. “Like that?”

Joel moaned, nodding, and turned his head to give her better access.

“How about this?”

In one swift move, she pinned Joel to the bed and clamped her jaws onto his neck. He began to buck, trying to push her away, but she reached across the bed and grabbed a rag from the night stand, pressing it against his face until his world went dark.

The blood from the bite on his neck was flowing cherry red across the crisp white pillowcase beneath Joel’s head. The woman stretched out beside his prone body, her arms wrapped lovingly around him, her face nuzzled against his neck, her mouth working the wound with the rhythm of his dying heart.

“You’re mine,” she whispered. “Forever.”

* * *

The gallery sparkled with the finest jewels of the city’s art crowd, all fawning over the latest Du Sang exhibit. Rene stood near the entrance, greeting guests, Morgan bent to his ear.

“Just look at them. They love you. I think we’ll sell everything before the night is out.”

Rene nodded, his eyes drifting around the room. Morgan glanced at him, misinterpreting his silence.

“Stop pouting, Rene. I’m sorry about you and Joel, but honestly, I never could see you two together. You’ve got to put it behind you and move on.”

“I loved him, you know,” he said without looking at her.

“You still have your work. Take that new piece of yours. So bold, so powerful. It’s like nothing you’ve done before.”

Rene smiled to himself. “You like it, then?”

“I love it. I’ve had three offers on it already. What did you name it?”

He pulled his hand from his pocket, brushing a stray hair from his dark eyes, his nails gleaming blood red in the flickering light.

“Joel. It’s the first of my new all-male line.”


Wendy stepped off the ladder and turned, looking around the shop with a satisfied sigh. Finished. She’d dusted every last nook and cranny, just like old Mr. Custos had instructed, though she didn’t know why. It’s not like they were rolling in business. Other than the occasional browser who wandered into the Curiosity Shoppe, she’d only seen one customer actually buy anything during her first week as Mr. C’s assistant.

“There is a buyer for everything here,” the old shopkeeper told her daily. “The art of it is matching them up.”

She couldn’t complain; after a youth spent jumping from one foster family to another, the shop was the closest thing to a home she had ever found. And while he may have been a little eccentric, she found she liked working for Mr. Custos. He reminded her of a kindly old grandfather, and his shop was crammed with the most unusual assortment of treasures she’d ever seen. Snow globes with real diamond dust perched next to jars floating with strange items like baby pig’s ears and eye of newt. Antique drum-playing monkeys nestled on shelves next to handwritten books in every language imaginable. Exquisite, jewel-encrusted hat pins protruded from a black velvet head with real turquoise eyes, and a full-sized carousel horse leaned in a corner next to a tall futuristic clock chronicling the time left to the end of the world. That one gave her the creeps.

While some of the items she could understand–who wouldn’t want a solid gold desk lamp or a miniature scaled replica of the Taj Mahal adorning their office?–others were just plain odd. Like the pocketwatch that kept perfect time–backwards–and a collection of carved Inuit jewelry boxes with dancing grizzly bears in tutus. And perhaps the oddest thing of all was that none of the items sported a price tag. When she asked Mr. C about that, he told her it was because each item was only worth what the prospective buyer could pay. She thought he was kidding until she witnessed him selling a silver compact with a charmed mirror that showed the viewer’s dreams, rather than their reflection, to a sweet old lady for $20.00.

“That was all she could afford,” he told her when she asked about it later.

The entire shop was a wonder for the eyes and ears, but it was the shelf behind the main counter that piqued her interest more than anything else. That’s where Mr. C kept the special items, the rare, one of a kind pieces. One in particular especially seemed to preoccupy the old shopkeeper. Every morning after he’d opened the shop and made his tea, he would take it down from the shelf and polish it, his fingers moving wistfully over the time-burnished rosewood. A treasure box of some kind, it was carved with figures from ancient mythology. Gods and goddesses in ceremonial dress danced across the intricate panels.

“It’s a puzzle box,” he told her when she finally got up the nerve to ask. “Handmade by wizards for an ancient Persian prince. He commissioned it to safeguard his most prized possession–his daughter.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, leaning closer.

“See this?” He slid a small panel aside, revealing a tiny etched glass window. She closed one eye and placed the other against the opening, peering inside the box.

“It looks like a room.”

The box couldn’t have been more than ten inches wide by six inches high and deep, and yet, looking through the window, it seemed at least three times that size inside. The sides were lined with an elegant floral pattern, and the bottom with what looked like a thick Persian carpet. There was even furniture inside; a small tufted stool, a delicate writing desk, and a brass bed with satin covers.

“It’s adorable,” Wendy laughed. “But I don’t understand how a box could safeguard the prince’s daughter.”

“Because he loved his daughter so much, the prince was willing to indulge her every whim. However, when she asked if she could marry for love rather than accept the match he choose for her, he found himself in a conundrum. He couldn’t refuse her, and yet he wasn’t willing to let her make a mistake. Instead, he created a challenge. He had her placed inside the box and made it known that only the man cunning enough to free her could win her hand in marriage.”

“So who freed her?” Wendy asked, allowing herself to be drawn into the tale.

“No one. Because the box was magically sealed, the princess was sentenced to spend eternity inside, waiting for her prospective husband to rescue her.”

Wendy looked inside again, shaking her head. “Well, there’s certainly no one in there now.”

“No, there isn’t,” Mr. Custos sighed sadly, turning and placing the box back on the shelf. “And that’s a shame, because I have a feeling the new owner will be coming in tomorrow to buy the box and he’ll be expecting to find a princess inside.”

With story time over, Wendy went back about her work, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the poor princess trapped inside the box. When it came time to close the shop for the day, she said her goodbyes and ducked around the corner to wait for Mr. Custos to head to the diner across the street for his blue plate special like he did every night. She watched him go inside, then let herself back into the shop with her key and tiptoed around the counter.

The box was heavier than she would have thought, causing her to almost drop it as she lowered it from the shelf. “Now to find out how to open it,” she murmured as she started poking and prying at the various panels along the top and sides. She’d been at it for close to fifteen minutes when her fingers brushed across an uneven spot on the bottom. She pushed and heard a soft click, then the lid popped open with a dusty hiss.

“Oh my!” was all she had time to say.

The next morning, the shopkeeper arrived at nine o’clock sharp, as he always did. He unlocked the door, lifted the shades, and stocked the till from the safe in the back before making his tea. If he thought it odd that he had to move the puzzle box aside to place his cup on the counter, he didn’t mention it. Nor did he think to wonder what had happened to his absent assistant. You see, he didn’t have time.

At nine-fifteen, on that sunny Friday morning, the bell over the door chimed and a man walked into the shop, wearing the somber look of someone who has lost something dear to him.

“May I help you?” Mr. Custos asked.

“I’m not sure,” the man replied, looking around as though surprised at finding himself there. “Do you have anything that can turn back time?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Too bad,” the man said. “Perhaps something for an old fool, then? My daughter was dating a man I disapproved of, and when I forbade her to see him, she ran away with him. She was my pride and joy, and now she’s gone.”

The shopkeeper nodded knowingly. “I can’t bring your daughter back, but I might have something that will ease the pain of her loss.” He pushed the puzzle box across the counter. “Let me tell you about another man who tried to control his daughter’s life.”

When he finished the tale about the Persian prince, he slid aside the window panel in the front of the box and bade the man look inside.

“See, she’s still in there. A daughter who can never run away.”


One

LIKE most great ideas, it all started in a bar.

This particular bar was Charlie’s. Most of the time there was just the five of us–Randy, Alan, Sandra, Kenny, and myself. The Misfits, as Randy called us, but he had an annoying habit of sticking a title on everything. Despite the fact that he was the closest thing I had to a best friend, I pretty much thought he was full of shit.

We’d gather every Friday night, and after an hour or so of bitching about our bosses and wives and significant others, we'd wax philosophic about our banal world and life in general. There were a few intelligent thoughts bantered about during these drunken soirees, but mostly it was just the alcohol talking. Blowing off steam.

Every now and then, though, someone would actually stumble upon a topic that stirred our blood, and we'd all pounce on it like a pack of ravening wolves. That's how we got to talking about crime, and more particularly, The Perfect Crime. It was a subject that mixed well with discontent and beer.

“There's no such thing.”

It was Randy who tossed that gauntlet into the ring, and the rest of us wasted no time on premeditation.

“Why do you say that? People get away with murder every day.” This from Sandra, a person nearly as ungratified as myself. We often commiserated over the sad state of having a mind in a mindless world.

“Remember what Mickey Rourke said in Body Heat: ‘If you commit a crime, you got fifty ways you can fuck it up. You think of twenty-five of them, you’re a genius, and you ain’t no genius.’”

Randy was always quoting movies; they were his Bible. He even got close with the voices, which at times was entertainment in itself, if you were into that sort of thing. The invention of the VCR must have been a milestone in his childhood development.

“That’s just a movie,” Alan countered, unimpressed with the Mickey Rourke imitation. Alan was our pseudo-intellect. He prided himself on being morally and politically liberal about everything. Never mind that half the time he took the unpopular point of view just to stir up trouble. Sandra had once confided to me she thought Alan was really a closet Republican. At times I was inclined to agree, though I kind of liked having him around. At least he kept things interesting. On this particular evening, he was probably the least inebriated of us all, not knowing whether his wife Karen would show up to drive him home.

Randy shrugged. “Life imitates art.”

“You know there are thousands of unsolved crimes committed every year.”

Randy looked at Sandra. “Yes, but the perpetrators of those crimes eventually get caught, and do you know why?”

“Because they can't stop,” I answered quietly. I reached for my beer, not wanting anyone to see how excited I was. They had hit upon my theory, the motivation that had driven me for the past six months. I was torn between joy and terror.

“Exactly,” Randy continued. “Know why?”

“Because it feels so good!”

That was Kenny. Everyone laughed as he rolled his eyes and hugged himself. Kenny was as perverse a fellow as I had ever known, a truly warped mind in a sinister body. He should have been born a girl and he was determined to make up for the slight Nature had dealt him. I think we kept Kenny around to justify our own homophobic fears.

Randy glared at him. “No, because they're compulsive.”

“Yes, but what if someone committed a crime just once for the hell of it; a random act of violence, say…a murder?” I wondered aloud.

“It never works that way,” Randy countered.

“So what, now you’re a criminal psychologist?” Alan shot back.

Now that they had opened the subject that had been so close to my heart these many months, I was not to be so easily deterred. “Say for instance, you, as an average person, go out and pick a victim completely at random. No motive, no connection to him or her whatsoever. You kill them then leave the body in some obscure place. No one would ever know.”

“You are truly sick!” Kenny pretended to be horrified. “I can admire that in a person.”

“Hell, stuff like that happens every day,” Sandra agreed. “Look at all those babies they find in dumpsters.”

Randy was watching me with a look that bordered on indignation—I had stolen his stage–though I wasn’t really worried about pissing him off. Pissed off was Randy’s natural state. I would have been worried if he wasn’t mad, like maybe he was sick or something.

“Why the hell would you want to kill someone you didn't know?” he demanded.

“That’s not what you said about that guy who cut you off on the way over here,” Alan replied.

Randy ignored him, still focused on me. I smiled at him with what I hoped was the right amount of enigmatic innocence.

“As Nietzsche would say, to prove you could do it.”

There was a momentary silence around the table during which I wondered if I’d overstepped my bounds. Alan was the first to break the spell.

“Here, drink up, Johnny boy. You’re obviously too lucid.”

That, as you have no doubt guessed, was me. John Bland—could it get any worse than that? And yes, I suppose I was aiming over their collective heads, but then, I prided myself on staying ahead of the pack. While most people were satisfied with the status quo, I knew there was always a better, more productive way of accomplishing things. I also knew that as soon as I started to slide down the path of least resistance and get comfortable with life the way it was, I’d become just like everyone else, stagnating in the same cesspool of mediocrity from which I was fighting so hard to rise.

Right now, however, I felt my most pressing need was a good dose of self-defense. I hoped I wasn't blushing. To cover up, I took a long swallow of beer and shrugged. Nobody ever believed the truth anyway. “It'd make a great story.”

“Why, are you thinking of moonlighting for The National Enquirer?”

“Lighten up, Randy,” Alan quipped. “Maybe you need another drink, too.”

I smiled at Alan, whose face was beginning to take on a Rudolphian glow. Karen better hurry if she was going to salvage any of her evening with the man.

Randy waved off the pitcher and made an unsteady attempt to stand, nearly falling over his chair before threading his way through the tables to the bathroom amid a chorus of jeers. I joined in to cover my own unease, though my palms below the table were sweating.

I suppose I should probably explain the process that had birthed this theory. To put it bluntly, I was bored. I don’t know when or how it had happened, but my life had become a tired cliché. I got up every morning at the same time, took the same drive to work in the same nondescript car, did the same pointless job, answered to the same dull-witted people, came home to the same cookie-cutter house, watched the same boring shows on television…blah, blah, blah. You get the picture.

Even the occasional bump in the road never provided enough of a distraction to alter the course, and sometimes I found myself almost wishing for a disaster, anything to inject a little variety into my otherwise vanilla existence. But like most closet visionaries, I wasn't strong enough or imaginative enough or, well, courageous enough to actually do anything about it. And that's where my Master Plan came in.

It was simple, actually. Nietzsche really did say it; in fact, he wrote entire volumes about it–the will to power—but I'd be willing to bet he stole it from Dostoevsky, that brilliant, unsavory Russian. I’d been introduced to him by a literature professor in my sophomore year of college and had fallen hopelessly in love. Well, not with him, per se; as I have stated, I am terrifyingly heterosexual. But the man spoke to me. He toed the line between sanity and madness like no one before or since.

Raskolnikov was his vehicle, but anyone with half a brain knew it was Dostoevsky himself who wondered, just as I wondered, if a man had the strength to overcome his own mediocrity to prove he was not a nobody. Raskolnikov failed; he allowed his own conscience to destroy him, but that's because he didn't plan his crime with enough care. Besides, didn't he know he'd be racked with guilt? That has to be planned as well.

No, my Master Plan held much more merit, not that I'm taking anything away from the Russian master. Believe me, he has my utmost respect. But you just can’t leave important details to chance and expect to succeed. For one thing, the victim had to be selected at random–there could be nothing to tie him to his killer. And there could be no motive–not one thing should be taken from the victim. One quick strike, the body cut into pieces, stuffed into so many plastic garbage bags to be thrown away in a dozen anonymous dumpsters scattered throughout the city. It was brilliant. Mad, but brilliant, just like my mentor.

Now, you're probably asking yourself why I would waste so much energy on such a pointless mental diversion. Well, that was the beauty of it—it wouldn't be just a diversion. I intended to test it fully. Every detail, every nuance of feeling, of emotion, of sight, touch, and smell would be experienced firsthand. It was the stuff of the six o'clock news.

It was so perfect, and as I have said, so easy. No one believes the truth anymore. After all, who would believe that someone as dull and average as me could pull off the perfect crime? Could murder in cold blood and get away with it? All those clowns at work would hear about it on the news without ever knowing it was me. That I had actually done it and gotten away with it.

The conversation at the table began to drift to more mundane matters, and as my adrenalin level returned to normal, I found myself losing interest in the evening. The others must have felt the same because, after chugging down the remnants of the last pitcher, they started making going-home noises. Karen showed up to claim a now thoroughly-drunken Alan, and after trying unsuccessfully to convince us to accompany him to a local gay bar, Kenny disappeared, followed shortly by the still-pissed-off Randy. I said my own good nights and followed Sandra outside to her car.

“So, you’re going home alone?”

She flashed a saccharin smile. “Gee, John, where's Krystal tonight?”

Krystal was my on-again, off-again, mostly neurotic and totally unnecessary girlfriend. I usually tried to stay away from her until I was either too drunk to care or could no longer stand the pleasure of my own company. I truly believe in her feeble brain she thought my hot and cold attitude had something to do with the fact that I might not be ready to marry her, so she didn't push; afraid to push me away. Hard to lose what you don't have.

“Why, you in the mood for a threesome?”

Sandra slugged me. “You’re such a shit, you know that?”

I grinned, knowing she wouldn't be saying that if she knew. But she wouldn't know, and that was in itself worth the abuse.

“So does that mean you won't go home with me?”

I knew I'd get slugged again, even though we both knew I didn't mean it. That I was just saying what any normal guy was supposed to say in these situations. I was right. She even managed to find the same spot on my arm.

“You're drunk.”

“That was original.”

“Fuck you.”

“That's what I'm talking about,” I shouted as she slammed her car door and screeched out of the parking lot.

I knew she was trying not to smile as she pulled away.

Two

AS I have stated, details were essential to the success of my Master Plan, though the acquisition of some required more effort than others. Take the dumpsters, for instance.

It took three hair-pulling encounters with a voice mail labyrinth to get a human being at the Department of Solid Waste who knew what was going on in his own company. Fortunately, I finally found one who didn’t speak English like he’d just floated in on a raft; another of the joys of living in Florida. I explained to this paragon of administrative intelligence with straight-faced sincerity that I was a college student doing a paper on refuse disposal and recycling. I should add here that it is very important to include facial expressions when lying, even on the phone, because it makes you feel more convincing.

At any rate, after listening to five minutes of this Mr. Alberto's babbling about his daughter Maria who was also attending the university and did I know her—Maria Alberto?—because she had something or other to do with the student government (obviously to follow in her father's footsteps), I finally managed to steer him back to the subject at hand. After all, I was doing this on company time.

“I would like to know what happens to the trash after it's picked up, particularly trash from commercial dumpsters.”

“You are a science major, no?”

“Environmental biology.” I’d looked it up—it was a genuine field of study.

He laughed—I don't know why—and began to recite what was obviously the company line. “All the trucks come back and dump their refuse in large bins which then are transferred to the incinerator to be burned as fuel for electricity and other important needs. We pride ourselves on the fact that our incinerator offers no adverse effects to the environment.”

“How long does this take?” Spare me the propaganda; I once paid for a one-year membership to Greenpeace.

“About two days.”

“From the time it's picked up until it's burned?”

“Yes. Two days…or three, depending on what time of day the trucks return. We do not allow the garbage to sit around polluting our ground water.”

I wondered how many years it had taken to erase Mr. Alberto’s social conscience, and if, after all this, his daughter Maria even had one. Ah yes, the future leaders of the world.

“Thank you, Mr. Alberto. You sound like quite an expert. You must have worked there a long time.”

“Nineteen years I have worked for the county,” he assured me with pride.

Poor schmuck, I thought as I hung up the phone. He’d probably go to his grave thinking he’d done a great service to mankind.

But back to the business at hand. Two to three days, which meant my bags would risk exposure for that amount of time; no problem providing I made sure they were closed tight. I decided I'd better use the heavy duty lawn and garden bags, just in case of bloating. I'd read somewhere that the body swelled up with gases after death, and while I didn't know if that applied to body parts as well, I figured it’d be safer to take no chances. I made a note of that, to be entered into the locked file on my home computer where I kept all my research.

I glanced up and caught sight of my boss, Dickhead Baxter, as he was fondly known, approaching just in time to pretend to be engrossed in my latest assigned mind-fuck until I was sure he had passed. I had just resumed some form of continuity in my thinking when Sandra popped her head over the wall of my cubicle.

“Did you hear about Angela down in Accounting?” Without waiting for an answer, she dipped around the corner and slid into the spare chair in my cubicle. I set down my pen and prepared for the dumping of the latest corporate dirt.

“Angie Cha-Cha-Boombahs?”

Not much of a face, even fewer brains, but her frontal endowments mercifully erased any consideration of these minor flaws. I’d never spoken more than a few words to her myself, although whenever I passed her in the hall she was quick to flash that blank smile she saved for all her loyal subjects. Funny the things that can give one fame.

“What about her?”

“You’ll never believe who she caught her husband coming out of El Toro with on Saturday night.” Again she didn’t wait for me to guess. “Joe Townsend!”

I knew that El Toro was an upscale gay bar popular with the Young and Restless professional crowd. I also knew that Joe Townsend was one of the new managers installed by the latest regime of suits in the front office; a favor to somebody-or-other's wife or nephew or cousin. I’d sooner explain quantum physics to a three-year old than try to decipher the intricacies of corporate nepotism. I’d seen Townsend around a few times, perpetually on his way out to lunch.

“Did they know each other?”

“I guess they do now. Kenny says he's seen Joe in there at least three other times, though you didn't hear that from me. Joe didn't know Kenny worked here, and Kenny didn't want his business getting around.”

“Why, is Kenny interested in Joe?”

I found myself becoming fascinated with the conversation despite an unwillingness to be pulled into this sordid rumor-mongering. I hate gossip, though it never failed to amaze me how fast the company grapevine could move. It made Twitter look like the Pony Express. Still, I figured I owed it to myself to delve into any matters connected with the perversions of the human psyche as research for my work.

Sandra pooh-poohed my last question. “They all stick together.” They, as I understood it, meaning gays. I found this comment interesting in light of Sandra's vaunted open-mindedness. “Besides, you know he's seeing Carlos.”

“So what is Cha-Cha-Boombahs going to do?”

“I hear she moved out—took the kids and went to her sister's house to stay. She's a wreck. She didn't want anyone to know, but Lily Ramirez lives next door to her, and you know what a big mouth she has. She told everyone in Accounting, and now it's all over the building. I swear, you can't keep a secret in this place.”

I thought about that and reminded myself to be more careful with what I said to people from now on, even if they were drunk.

“So, is she here today?”

I suddenly wanted to see her, to witness what effect such a revelation could have on that blank smile. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more obsessed I became with the notion. I even considered trying to talk to her, say something like, “Sorry to hear about your husband,” just to see what she might do. Would she still offer that mindless smile and thank me, or would she just slap me in the face and burst into tears?

Interesting.

“Yes, believe it or not,” Sandra was saying. “I'd be too embarrassed to come to work after that, especially knowing that everyone knows. It's a shame, too, because her husband is gorgeous.”

“Obviously Joe Townsend thought so.”

Didn't Angie usually eat downstairs in the company cafeteria? I wondered if she would be brave enough to show her face in there today. After all, she had come to work.

“What are you doing for lunch today?”

One thing I liked about Sandra was the ease with which she shifted gears. I preferred to think it was because her mind worked very similarly to my own—perpetual motion. “I don't know—probably just grab a bite in the cafeteria. Why?” She skewered me with a narrow-eyed glance as the lightbulb went on in her head. “You really are a shit.”

* * *

I never got a chance to confront Angie Cha-Cha-Boombahs at lunch; her courage had deserted her about the same time Sandra was illuminating me to her predicament. Of course, that just left everyone more free to talk about her, which we did as if it was our sworn duty. After all, such subjects don't often avail themselves to our insightful scrutiny.

Inevitably, the whole thing turned into a dirty joke; it was the only way most of us guys could respond to it. I noticed Kenny was conspicuously absent from the gathering.

I can assure you my interest was purely clinical. I felt no need to pass judgement on the unsavory implications of the act, only to be present while those around me did so. I’d like to say their reactions were enlightening, when in fact they were, at best, tolerable. Human nature being what it is, I suppose I could really hope for little more.

It took us just over half an hour to exhaust the subject, and we would have been done with it entirely had new people not kept dropping by the table to stir the pot. Mark Daniels was the most prosaic of these. Personally, I had no use for the man; one of those holier-than-thou types who thinks he knows everything. Add to that politics that ran to right-wing extremism—I wouldn't be surprised to find a white hood in the back of his closet–and you had the makings of a first-class asshole. But as he and Alan were a volatile combination, I found a certain entertainment value in the match-up.

“What do you think, Mark?” I ventured. “If they were actually in love—not Joe Townsend and Angie's husband, but gays in general—do you think they should be allowed to marry?”

Sandra kicked me under the table. It was like setting the cocks loose in the ring. Mark didn't disappoint me.

“People like that are sick. They belong in an institution, or worse.”

“Give me a break,” Alan shot back. “They’re human beings, just like you and me. Of course, maybe not like you.”

“I'm more of a human being than you are if you support that kind of deviant behavior. The Bible says—”

“Don't start preaching to us, Mark. And, in case you've forgotten, there were whores and homosexuals and murderers and thieves in the Bible, too.”

“Yes, as examples of how not to behave. The moral fiber of this country is being destroyed by sex.”

“A little frustration talking there?” Sandra needled. “The wife out of town again?”

“There–you see? That's exactly what I'm talking about. Everything is a dirty joke with you people. Not one of you has a shred of moral fiber.”

“I suppose we should all emulate you as our moral compass,” Randy pressed.

I loved to watch them in action. They would pick away mercilessly at a quarry until they had him on the ropes, then gang up for the kill. Those who survived were welcomed back; the rest stayed away until the memory had faded. Obviously, Mark had forgotten his last encounter; his self-respect was in imminent jeopardy. I couldn’t resist prolonging the ordeal.

“So what would you offer as an alternative? Say you’re president for the day, how would you restore the moral fiber of society?”

Alan snickered at me from across the table. “You're an evil son of a bitch,” he muttered under his breath. If he only knew.

“Well, since you asked.” As if we actually cared, but he forged ahead anyway. “I'd ban all this sex and violence on our televisions and at the movies. Then I would outlaw homosexuality and—”

Here it comes—I could feel it. Sandra's trigger. Everyone has one–that pet peeve that sets their teeth on edge. Those of us who knew Sandra knew better than to even broach the subject, and now Mark was stumbling into it headlong. It couldn't have been planned any better.

“—abortion.”

Yes! Target acquired. I could have sworn I saw the hair on the back of her neck rise. Mark had sealed his fate.

“You fucking pig!” she snarled, slamming her fist on the table. “What right have you to say anything about abortion? You're not a woman! You make me sick! You call yourselves humanists, and yet you bomb abortion clinics and kill innocent people to save a fetus that doesn't even have a soul yet!”

Oh, this was even better than I had hoped. Now she had brought religion into it too, and as everyone knew, Mark was a diehard Southern Baptist.

“How do you know the fetus has no soul?”

“How do you know it does?” she shot back.

They both had raised their voices so everyone in the cafeteria had stopped their own conversations to listen to ours. I glanced at Alan and Randy; their eyes had glazed over like two kids on Christmas morning.

“You're just like them–a heathen.”

“Heathen? I'll have you know I'm a better Catholic than you'll ever be a Baptist, you hypocritical son of a bitch! Don't you dare accuse me of being a heathen!”

“Well, you’re certainly no Catholic if you believe in that!”

She shoved her finger in Mark’s chest, nearly pushing him back over his chair. “Don’t you preach morals to me, you little worm!”

Somewhere in the hallway the factory bell had rung to signal the end of the lunch hour, but no one in the cafeteria seemed to have heard it. The two adversaries stood across from each other at the table, teeth barred, ready to pounce on the other's jugular. The tension was ecstatic; I could barely breathe. We were all salivating for the inevitable final blow.

Mark glanced around the table; everyone was watching him, and I could see in his eyes the moment he realized he was in over his head. His only hope was to save face and live to fight another day, preferably with a more merciful, or at least, sympathetic crowd.

"Well, I have a meeting to go to.” And like that he was gone. Impactus interruptous. Randy sighed, crestfallen.

“Chickenshit.”

“Well, time to get back to work,” Alan announced. We had forgotten all about little Angie Cha-Cha-Boombahs.


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