Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Mark of Ken




So lived the clansmen in cheer and revel
a winsome life, till one began
to fashion evils, that field of hell.
Grendel this monster grim was called,
march-riever mighty, in moorland living,
in fen and fastness; fief of the giants
the hapless wight a while had kept
since the Creator his exile doomed.
-- Beowulf


I think there is something in the water. On my way out of the hotel this morning I took the complimentary bottle with me and left it in the rental car. After the presentation I come out of that office, pumped up with excitement, and I need a drink, and even though it's warm by now I crack it open and down it almost all in one gulp. Then I'm sitting in the car, wondering if I should call Kate and tell her how well everything went, and suddenly I notice that an hour has gone by. I feel strange and a little bit dizzy, and I think I actually passed out. I sniff the bottle, but there's no smell. So I figure my blood sugar must be low and that what I really need is a good meal somewhere. By now it's late in the day, and the sun is setting. I keep thinking of Kate, but I keep pushing that thought out of my head, because I want to keep this good feeling going. Kate can wait. Ha.

I drive out of Hampton and over the bridge tunnel toward Norfolk, and just to get off my regular path I take the first exit onto Ocean View, a strange mix of freshly painted beach cottages and cheap motels with broken signs. Then dizziness comes back in waves. I am just about to pull off into a 7-11 parking lot and wait for it to pass when I realize I am flying towards a stopped car, way too fast, and I am about to hit it. I am practically standing on the brakes, and already I know it's not enough. I crumple the back end of the car in front of me, hard enough to fishtail it to one side. For a long moment I sit in my seat, wondering if I'm okay. Then I notice the driver of the other car has gray-white curly hair. She seems to be an old woman, and I feel terrible.

I get out of my car and run towards hers. She is staring straight ahead, gripping the wheel, but I can't see blood anywhere. I tap on her window.

"Are you alright?"
When she turns to me, her eyes are vague with shock at first. But she looks at me, and suddenly she's afraid. Terrified.
"Are you okay?"
She's shaking her head slowly, backing away from me and tangling herself in the seat belt. Maybe she's having some kind of breakdown, I think, and open the door. I don't notice her far hand reach into her purse. The pepper spray hits me off to one side, completely blinding my left eye and making my throat nearly close up. It's excruciating. I step back into the street hacking and shaking my head like a dog that tangled with a skunk. With my good eye I can see her exit the car from the passenger's side and run off, abandoning her car, her keys, and her purse. She's scared witless of me.
"Just... just lay down on the ground. Hands in the air!" I hear the cop shouting. He's got his handgun trained on me, and his hands are shaking. The radio on his shoulder crackles, and he's screaming for backup like he's facing an army. I ask him what's happening, and the hesitation is enough to make him fire three shots at me. The woman's car window shatters, and I feel one of the bullets clip past my shoulder with a sharp, tiny puff of blood. He will kill me if I don't run.
I run.
I pass a man walking with a package who scuttles out of my way and screams for the police. I pass a teenage couple walking with hands in each other's pockets -- the boy leaps into the air, and tries to take me down with a flying tackle, but somehow I slip away.
Within 30 seconds after that I am several blocks away, and I can hear sirens coming from all around. Within fifteen minutes I am hiding in a trash dumpster, and a helicopter spotlight is prowling through the dark corners of the city. A SWAT vehicle roars by. As the sounds of the search party fade into the distance I can hear a strange electronic beeping. Cautiously I examine it. It's coming from beneath a parked car. Down there in the gutter there is a walkie-talkie with a headset. A tinny voice is repeating itself like an incantation:
"Put me on. Put me on. Put me on."
When I comply the radio clicks, as if someone stopped a program and started another.
"Listen to me very carefully," the man on the other end says. "Run to the fire hydrant at the end, and cut through the alley. Then turn right, run four blocks, and wait behind the garbage cans until I tell you what to do."
"Who are you?" I ask.
"A friend," he says. "Your only friend. Listen, you've become a monster. People will hunt you, attack you on sight. You must follow my instructions if you want to live through the next twelve hours."

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Reckoning (Part 3)

“I haven’t kept track,” said Julie. We were sitting close together, and it was late at night in the college graveyard. Alumni were buried here – the neat white stones had little university insignias, and many of the families had whole buildings and departments named after them. It was a beautiful place – not creepy at all at night. It was a good place to talk. Julie was telling me about her headaches.


“It might have started a few months ago,” she said, and she wouldn’t look at me. I was holding one of her hands. There was something about the way she smelled – it wasn’t perfume she used; it was a kind of soap or shampoo. I’ve looked for it everywhere, even now. I couldn’t describe it. I’d know it in a second if I smelled it again, and that night it was all around us, filtered through the sweet newly cut grass and the pine.


“Go ahead.”
“A sharp pain started.”
“Go ahead.”
“Really bad headaches. I’ve had migraines – these were worse. But the doctors I have back at home won’t listen to me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I want a full examination. I’m not making this up,” she said. “I know people make this sort of thing up all the time, but the pain I feel is not – I’m not making it up.”
“But what if…”
“Psychosomatic?”
“I’m not saying…”
“I know, I know. I know what you’re saying.”
“It’s not like you’re making it up if…”
“I know – you can have those kinds of symptoms, and you might not even know it,” she said, and she was getting a little impatient. Like there was some big matter she was going to come to, and now she was getting farther and farther away from it.
“It’s not the same as making something up. But with the pains, I was having terrible bleeding. Nosebleeds would just happen to me, and with the blurry vision, I was thinking it was something they ought to check out. Some real neurological event. Something you ought to get a CAT scan for because…”
“Because we could be talking about…”
“A tumor,” she said, and flinched when she said it. And neither of us said anything for a long time. I heard noises nearby – kids making their way through the graveyard, jostling each other, laughing and having fun. We both sat there looking at each other, listening to the laughing recede.


“So why didn’t you get it checked out?”
“The doctors were friends with my dad. They didn’t see anything wrong, and they didn’t want other people to check me out.”
“Why were they friends with your dad? I mean, why does that have anything to do with it?”
And then she pulled up her shirt, and showed me something about the size of a golf ball below her breast. It was oddly shaped. I couldn’t figure out what it was – it was too dark to be a bruise. Even in the night I could see how black it was.
“My dad did this with the base of a candlestick holder when I was 13. The edge hit me, and broke a lot of blood vessels under the skin. The bleeding was so bad that it permanently dyed my skin like a tattoo needle. I have one on my leg, and I have this…” Here’s where she showed me the fracture mark just under her hairline. She took my hand in hers and brought it to her scalp. I followed it all the way to the top of her head where it met the part in her hair, and I felt a thrill that still makes me ashamed.


“He stopped at some point,” she said. “I got too old, and he got too old, and I think I could kick his ass now.” She snorted. “But my mom said if I ever went to a doctor they’d both disown me, and I wouldn’t be able to pay for college.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” she said, and the wind was colder, so she shivered, and without thinking, I put my arms around her. But it was okay. We both fell asleep, and at some point the morning came up gray over the headstones, and when I woke she’d been up for some time. Her eyes were red. I didn’t say anything, but we went back to the dorm and didn’t speak for the next week.


---


“You’re not listening to a word I’m saying,” my boss tells me. He’s right, and I smile, but it’s not okay. He goes back to talking about all these leases in our file I have to check. While he talks, he keeps glancing up at me, so I have to keep focused on him. But I can barely manage it, because right over his shoulder is the window, and out the window and across the street is a window washer with a belt harness that won’t work properly. He adjusts it and readjusts it. He goes back to his work and then suddenly looks down at the clasps – there’s something wrong. He goes back to work again and suddenly looks down once more. And once I catch him stumbling. I’m looking carefully at my boss describing papers in a file I have to retrieve of a property I’m never going to see, and suddenly the figure off to the side – as small as an insect from where I’m sitting – makes quick flailing movements, and then catches himself. He opens his window and leans inside – taking a break. And all that goes through my head is the cool possibility that I might watch him quickly fly below my line of sight, and I’d be certain that he was dead without hearing anything more. There’s a thrill that goes through me, and that also makes me ashamed.

But my boss goes on and on, and I know everything he’s going to say, because I’ve done this sort of thing before. I will leave his office and assemble some papers, copy them, note little numbers on a spreadsheet, and I almost saw someone die and that’s just one more fact. And I feel very little, except when I search the web at night alone in my cubicle, and I browse through the jumbled details of people’s lives and see what the times have done to them.

I was important to Julie back then. She needed to tell someone her problems, and I was there, and now I’m not important to anyone. All these years have passed, and one day I realize how angry that makes me.

That night, I check the web for information on how to tap someone’s phone line. I find a company that sells books about it. There’s a blurb about the difference between cell phone traffic and landlines. There are two separate procedures, and I send for the book and look for more information. It’s not that hard. I wonder about a gun – I have a friend in Virginia who knows people who sell guns with the serial numbers filed off. But that might create more problems than it would solve. He could go to the police, and if there were an investigation, the details could come together.

No, if I bought a gun – especially if I bought it in another state besides Maryland – it wouldn’t come up unless I was specifically targeted. And why would I be targeted? I worry about all the web surfing, but then I realize I’m not going to be on anyone’s list unless they know I’ve done something illegal. No one’s going to search records from more than a decade back just on the off-chance that the man’s killer is an old college acquaintance. (An acquaintance once removed, remember. Remember Julie.) No, I’m safe as long as I don’t do anything stupid. And knowing that, knowing that I’m thinking this way, makes me realize that I’m really going to do it.

A week later I ask my boss for a Monday off.
“Where you going?”
“Jersey shore. If you’d like, I’ll leave a number.”
“Don’t do that,” he says. “What, you want us to call you?” We laugh. I like my boss.

And later the same day I get a package with two books – Surveillance A to Z, and Wiretap! I tuck the books away in my desk. Over the next few nights I visit a couple of hardware stores. That weekend I search the Virginia state website for information on how to get a driver’s license. I don’t want to give up my New York ID, so I’m going to claim it was lost. I check gun laws in the state. I might have to wait. But I’m going to have to wait anyway. I have to be sure.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Searching of Noth House


Lionel Shiflett smiled too much and talked constantly the whole time while they completed the closing. The buyer sat at the other end of the table and said nothing. Even the realtor and the lawyers barely looked at her, just pushed stacks of papers to her and let her sign without discussion. Two weeks ago Shiflett had resigned himself to having the entire house razed and sold to the paper mill down the road for an addition to their tree farm. He would have lost at least $20,000 paying off the mortgage, and by then he didn't mind. He knew no one wanted to live in a house where those terrible things had happened. And then suddenly, unaccountably this buyer had appeared. But she wouldn't say why she wanted the place.


She met his price without bargaining, without more than a cursory building inspection. She agreed to close on the property within the week. And when Shiflett heard the buyer's name, Elizabeth Knowles, he knew who she was immediately, remembered the picture of her coming out of the police station red-eyed, refusing all comment and disappearing from public view after the case closed. He thought his realtor might be playing some terrible joke on him. He wasn't completely sure it was true until he saw her across the conference room table. But still she wasn't saying anything.


The silence was irritating him, and he was determined to do something, anything, to get a word out of her. For two hours he cracked stupid jokes and made banal small talk with everyone in the room. But Elizabeth Knowles stayed very quiet and still. She was a middle-aged woman with an attractive if drawn face, dark red hair, and beautiful, emotionless green eyes. She wanted nothing to do with him, and it was driving him to distraction.

Finally, as both parties signed the last of the documents and passed them to the lawyers there was a moment when buyer and seller had nothing to do. And that's when Shiflett took the opportunity.


"I have to ask," he said. "Why this place?"

Elizabeth Knowles did not quite look at him. She looked slightly to one side of his face and was silent.

"I've read about you, you know," he added. "I am very sorry about your daughter. I'm sorry she was one of the girls... But I just don't know what you want."


The lawyers were finished and sat expectantly. Elizabeth stood up, collected her new keys, and went to get her coat. Lionel Shiflett, cocky and nervous at the same time, wiped a small bit of spittle from his mouth. A thought flashed through his head, the idea that maybe Knowles was buying the place, because she thought he'd hidden something from the cops. And she might be the one to uncover it.


"I don't know what you want to find there, but cops have searched that place. There was a whole task force. They interviewed me three times. You better not make trouble for me, because I had nothing to do with it."


Elizabeth didn't turn around when she replied.

"If I ever thought you had something to do with it," she said flatly and quietly, "I wouldn't make trouble for you. I'd kill you."

The others in the room looked uncomfortable, but Shiflett snorted.

"That's a stupid thing to say in a roomful of lawyers."

"I know. I don't care."

Elizabeth Knowles walked out of room and got into her car. She began the long drive to the house where her daughter had been found in the basement with 12 other victims, all of them packed in plastic drums filled with vinegar and perfume. She would live there now.
(Illustration is The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch by Paul Gauguin from Wikimedia.)
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