Crime Diary-Chapter Five

When Plum cut off contact with me, the silence in my apartment was deafening.  Sitting there all night praying that my cellphone would ring was pure torture.  Whenever it became unbearable, I forced myself to leave my cell phone behind and take long walks or window shop just to get out of the apartment.

Of course the entire time I, silently prayed that a voicemail message would be waiting for me when I returned.  I loathed myself for being so weak.  Plum had given me a little attention and I’d become her slave.  I resented her for igniting such need and then standing back and allowing it to consume me.

I could feel myself sliding into a bottomless depression.  Had I done something wrong?  That thought kept buzzing around inside my head.  I spent every free moment replaying each exchange between the two of us, searching for the reasoning behind Plum’s sudden change of heart.

It took every remaining ounce of restraint not to pick up my cell phone and call her or go and knock on her front door.  I didn’t want Plum to know how much I needed her.  It wouldn’t have been prudent to let her know how hollow I felt when she wasn’t around.

Nothing was more pathetic than someone who leeched onto you.  Instinct told me that latching onto someone like Plum would only cause her to permanently cut me loose.  I needed to allow her to initiate contact with me.  It was torturous but my gut told me that she would respect me more in the end.

Another agonizing week came and went.  I felt as though I were losing my mind.  The worst thing about allowing someone into your heart is the pain it causes when they aren’t around.  You develop an ache like festering wound that nothing but attention from that person can soothe.

Against my better judgment, I finally broke down and left her a voicemail message.  No response came.  Sleep continued to elude me.  My old insecurities crept back and made me think that Plum’s rejection was simply the universe reordering itself.  My having a friend went against the laws of nature.

Now, the natural order had reasserted itself.  I forced myself to make peace with that realization so that I could get on with my so-called life.  Just when I settled back into my rut, she called me.  My cell phone rang at midnight and instantly, I knew who it was.  No one else would call me that late.

I started to answer my phone and then yanked my hand back.  Hadn’t she caused me enough pain already?  My routine of sleep-work-sleep was comforting in its own pathetic way.  So what if I was walking around like a zombie?  My feelings were safe that way.  No one could hurt me if I was numb.

My cell phone rang again and I jumped as though someone had jammed a hot poker in my side.  After it stopped ringing, I picked it up and felt a pitiful thrill of anticipation when I saw that I had a voicemail message.

I probably should have just turned over and went back to sleep but I couldn’t resist.  I held the phone to my ear with both hands and listened to the message.  Plum apologized for being neglectful and then begged me to come and see her.

I might have forced myself to lay down and go back to sleep if her voice hadn’t sounded funny.  Instead of the usual brash confidence, it had that shaky, halting quality that sends your heart leaping into your throat when it comes in the still of the night.

I was up and getting dressed in record time without a single thought about the fact that I was due at work in a few hours.  My friend needed me.  Never mind the fact that she had completely ignored me for weeks on end.  I suppose in some deluded way, I was flattered.  Plum had hundreds of friends but she called upon me for help.  She had obviously forgiven me.  Or maybe, she had been as miserable without me as I had been without her.

A window of opportunity had opened again and I was going to slide through before it slammed shut.  It didn’t even matter that the taxi cab ride to her house took my last big bill.  I finally had a chance to help Plum out, to show my appreciation for all she had done for me.  At least, that’s what I told myself.  It was much easier to make excuses than to acknowledge the sickening sense of relief washing over me.

I spent the entire taxi ride rehearsing what I’d say.  Spontaneity is not my strong suit.  The taxi pulled up to the enormous wrought iron gates at the end of Plum’s driveway and the intercom outside the driver’s side window crackled.  The driver announced my arrival and a few seconds later, the gates swung inward.

The taxi stopped at the security checkpoint before climbing up the long circular driveway.  My heart began beating double time.  I got out, rang the doorbell and waited, taking in the shadowy acreage around me.  The lights were all off in Plum’s house.  It took several rings to bring her to the door.

My relief turned into irritation.  Did she want to see me or not?  If Plum was playing some sort of game with me, I was going to do an about face, head home and fall back into bed.  Wordlessly, she opened the door and walked back into the house.  It was so dark, I could hardly tell the door was open.  Something in the atmosphere made me hesitate on the threshold before plunging inside and locking the door behind me.

I followed the bouncing glow of her cigarette into the living room.  Vanilla scented candles sat burning on every available surface on the fireplace and furniture against the walls, suffusing them with a soft glow and forcing the darkness to the middle of the room.  Their cloying scent mingled with clouds of cigarette smoke was oppressive.  The ashtray was overflowing with cigarette butts.

How long has she been sitting in the dark?  My eyes watered and it felt as though ciders lodged in my throat.  Plum bent over to pour herself a drink at the coffee table.  She filled a second glass with the amber liquid.  I was about to protest.  Plum knew that I didn’t drink.  However, something in the way she pushed it into my hands and closed my fingers around the glass made me accept it.

Her eyes were hidden by shadows but I could feel the weight of them on my hand.  She was waiting for me to take a drink.  The whole thing felt ceremonial; her silence coupled with the shrine of candles.  I lifted the heavy crystal glass to my lips and drank.  Whatever was in that glass felt as though it were corroding my insides.  I tried to suppress my gag reflexes but the alcohol was too strong.

My coughing had scarcely subsided when Plum pushed the glass back up to my lips.  I drank the mean liquid again.  This time, it went down a little easier.  Her hand urged mine again and again until the glass was empty.  The fire in my belly died down into a not unpleasant heat that permeated my limbs.

This time when I moved to set down the glass Plum didn’t intervene.  She just sat back in an armchair draped in shadows and took long drags off of her cigarette.  Plum had sounded distressed on the phone but now, I didn’t know what to make of her mood.

Any of my rehearsed words would sound flat and insincere floating in the cavern of silence between us.  I decided to wait until she let me know what was needed.  I didn’t have to wait very long.  When the doorbell rang three short times, I nearly jumped out of my skin.  Plum’s voice was soft that it took a moment for my ears to register what she said.

“Go open the door.”

I hustled to the front door and hesitated with my hand on the knob.  Who would be visiting her at two o’clock in the morning?  Something told me that Plum knew who it was so, I opened the door.  Two men and a young woman were at the door dressed as a chauffeur, butler and maid.  Was it Halloween?  No, I reasoned that they were obviously employees from Plum’s temp service.

The woman glared at me and brushed past with the men at her heels.  I followed them into the living room.  The armchair closest to the door was no illuminated by a single floor lamp.  The rest of the room was still lit by candlelight.  I sat on the opposite end of the couch, near Plum’s armchair.

The telltale glow of her cigarette appeared to hover in midair as she stood outside the circle of light.  The chauffeur and butler pushed the maid down into the illuminated armchair and took their leave of us.  I listened to the clack of their heels against the marble floor as they retreated into the bowels of the house.  A door closed somewhere off in the darkness and everything fell silent once more.

I still had no idea what exactly was going on.  My heart began beating faster.  Something told me that this wasn’t going to be your typical performance review meeting.  The maid was beautiful.  Long glossy blond hair, framed a heart-shaped face dominated by big, bluish-green eyes above a button nose and cupid lips.  She had clear skin and a lithe body.

I watched in fascination as the seriousness of her predicament slowly dawned on her.  Plum seemed to be waiting for realization to fully sink in.  Candlelight flashed off of her glass as she took a sip and set it down on the coffee table.  The girl tossed her hair with an impatient flip of her proud head.

The tough act slowly evaporated in the unrelenting silence.  The maid bit her lip in a vain attempt to hold back the tears stinging her turquoise eyes.  I was afraid to move, not wishing to make a sound and draw attention to myself.  Just being in the room with them felt intrusive.  I sat puzzling over my friend’s decision to ask me to visit on this night of all nights.

Plum made her move.  The sound of stiletto heels clicking across the floor seemed to echo in the stillness.  She had been barefoot when she opened the door for me.  Their eyes met and the girl turned her face away.  Plum smacked the woman so hard that I flinched.  Tears sprang to the woman’s eyes once more but she was defiant.

She spit at Plum and earned a punch in the chest.  Things were not going the way I expected them to go.  What happened to the interrogation, frantic lies and plea-bargaining?  Why was the woman being punished?  Plum started shouting about betrayal and I assumed she was speaking as an employer.

The kiss caught me completely off guard.  Plum leaned over and pressed her lips to the young woman’s lips and a meaningful moment passed between them.  The jealousy that leapt up inside of me came as a complete surprise.  I had to choke back my feelings when the woman began to respond.

The thought of another woman having such an intimate relationship with Plum upset me greatly.  It seemed to take a great deal of effort for her to pull away from Plum.  My jaw felt as though it had become unhinged.  I was still struggling to comprehend what I had seen when Plum spoke again.

“So, it all comes down to this huh Amanda?  He waves a few dollars under your nose, whispers a few empty promises  and you throw away everything we have together?”

I waited on the edge of my seat for an impassioned response from Amanda but she did not respond.  Plum had to settle for a slight lift of Amanda’s eyebrows.

“I suppose you thought he was going to leave his wife and then the two of you would ride off into the sunset.  How naïve of you,” snapped Plum.

The room fell silent once more.  Amanda had evidently decided ahead of time that the best response was none at all.  Out of frustration, I considered smacking her around a bit myself.  Of course that was probably due to the liquor swimming around in my empty stomach.  Plum grabbed Amanda’s hair and yanked her head back.  She leaned down and examined something in Amanda’s eyes before releasing the hold.

“You’re using again aren’t you?  That’s why you betrayed me?  I ought to do you a favor and kill you now!  It would be much faster than taking drugs.  Well, if it’s suffering you want then that’s what you’re gonna get.”

Valley of Shadows-Chapter Five

“Momma?”

Reverend Mother opened her eyes and looked up at Joshua.  For a second, she thought that he was her deceased husband Gabriel.  Lord, he looks so much like his daddy!  A melancholy smile momentarily touched her pursed lips.

“Were you asleep?”

“No, I was just resting my eyes.  You all sit down and stop gawking at me.”

Reverend Mother’s glare took them each in, her shrewd eyes quickly assessing them.  They braced, wondering which of them would be first on the hot seat.  Rachel tried her best to conceal feelings of nausea and the insistent throb at her temples.

“Well, don’t all speak at once.  Why do you all look like the cat that swallowed the canary?”

“I don’t know what you mean mamma,” Rachel chirped.

“Oh please child, you think I can’t tell when you’re hung over?  Where is the rest of your family?”

“I uh, thought it was best that I come alone.  No need for my daughter to miss school.”

Reverend Mother’s snort of derision was followed by a bark of rude laughter.  Rachel squirmed in her seat feeling foolish for attempting to mislead her.  How did she always know what was going on in Rachel’s personal life?  The throbbing at her temples intensified.  She hadn’t planned on discussing the state of her marriage in front of her siblings but it looked like she had no choice.

Well, she was dammed if she was going to volunteer any information.  Rachel steeled herself and got ready to dodge sensitive questions.  Reverend Mother gave Rachel a thorough dressing-down leaving her sullen and shame-faced.

Rachel held her anger in check by focusing on the folded hands in her lap and avoiding the gleeful expressions of her brothers.  At one point, Rachel’s gaze unintentionally met that of her sister and the pitying look Harriet gave her was somehow worse than the taunting grins of her brothers.  How dare that little gremlin feel sorry for me!  If anyone was pathetic it was Harriet with her flat chest and spindly legs!

Rachel gritted her teeth and willed herself not to blow up at her mother.  She knew that if she stayed calm and acted contrite then her mother would get bored and move on to fresh prey.  Sure enough, Joshua sniggered and Reverend Mother glared at him.

“What’s so funny Joshua?  At least your sister got married and blessed me with a grandchild.  You can’t seem to hold on to any of your women.  Did you call that plumber like I asked you to?”

Rachel almost went limp with relief.  It was finally someone else’s turn.  Ordinarily, she would egg her mother on but today, talking seemed to jar her aching head.  Rachel concentrated on sitting as still as possible.  She took little notice as each sibling was blasted in turn.

Rachel waited until Reverend Mother was occupied with grilling Richard to slip into the bathroom and splash cold water on her face.  The last thing she wanted to do was doze off.  When Reverend Mother announced that she was tired, her brood fairly tripped over their own feet beating a hasty retreat out to the parking lot.

They rode back to the house in silence, feeling raw and exposed.  Rachel went to her room and lay down.  Richard and Harriet borrowed Joshua’s car intending to take in a movie and dinner.  Joshua sat down in front of his laptop.  He had a deadline to meet but he just couldn’t seem to get motivated.  His mind replayed the cringe-worthy events of the day.

When they had gotten back home and Rachel toddled off to bed, his sister and brother had asked for the thousandth time how he could stand living with Reverend Mother all of his life.  He knew their mother could be abrasive but he also knew that her bluntness came from a place of genuine love and concern for them.  Like most mothers, she believed she knew what was best for her children.

She saw his brother and sisters so rarely, Joshua guessed that when they did come home she felt compelled to make up for lost time.  Reverend Mother wasn’t always berating.  She could be downright kind and considerate.  They had passed many pleasant evenings on the porch sipping iced tea, putting together puzzles or watching television.  She had a great sense of humor that very few people got to see.

Sure, she could be bossy but he didn’t mind.  At least with her around, he could keep his loneliness at bay.  Thomas was his best friend but Thomas had always had a lot of friends.  Joshua counted himself lucky when Thomas put in an appearance.

There were long stretches of days and even weeks when he wouldn’t see hide nor hair of his friend.  It had always been that way.  Thomas’ friends were not Joshua’s friends.  Joshua suddenly remembered the sprinklers that were still on.  He was in the back yard winding up the hose when Thomas came creeping up and tackled him from behind.

“What the…?  Thomas you scared the shit outta me!”

“That’s the idea.”

The two of them wrestled until Joshua managed to get Thomas into a headlock.  He tightened his grip and held on until his squirming captive surrendered.

“Ouch! Damn, alright man.  You got me.  Now lemme go.”

Joshua released him and jumped up, doing a victory dance until Thomas started chasing him.  They fell into an easy boxing match, alternately yelping and guffawing as they got the best of one another.

“Where are you on your way to?  I know you didn’t get all dressed up just to return my lawn mower,” said Joshua.

“Oh damn, I knew I was forgetting something.  I’ll bring your mower back tomorrow Josh.”

“What?  If you didn’t come by for that then why are you here?  What’s with the monkey suit?”

“This isn’t a tuxedo.”

“Listen, any suit you wear is a monkey suit.”

Thomas stopped boxing and crossed his arms over his chest, grinning mischievously.  Joshua’s curiosity was sparked but he continued to jab and duck.  If he acted too interested, Thomas would make him wait even longer.

“I wanna run something by you.”

“What?”

Thomas impatiently swatted at Joshua’s jabbing fists.  Joshua danced away to avoid the swats and continued to bob and weave, swinging at Thomas with mock ferocity.  Thomas pushed Joshua away.

“Stop dude, I’ve got something important to tell you.  C’mon Josh!  Can you be serious for half a second Gilligan?”

“Alright, alright so what’s up professor?”

“I’m gonna ask her tonight.”

“You’re gonna ask who what tonight?”

“I’m gonna ask Nicole to marry me tonight.”

Joshua stared blankly at Thomas for a moment and then the weight of his words hit Joshua all at once, almost knocking him over.  Did I hear him right?  No, I couldn’t have just heard what I think I just heard!  Joshua started to ask Thomas to repeat himself but hastily decided that he didn’t want to hear it again.

So, it had finally happened.  Thomas had taken complete leave of his sanity.  Joshua took in the goofy grin and couldn’t stop shaking his head or close his gaping mouth.  Thomas misread his friends astonishment, positive that congratulations would commence.

“You’re really gonna do it huh?”

Thomas laughed, “I knew you would…what time is it?  I’ve gotta go Josh.  Listen, I’ll call you later and let you know how it goes.”

Thomas sprinted out of the yard.  Joshua was glad to be off of the spot.  He stood in the yard, hearing Thomas’ car door slam, the motor roar into life and the sound of tires crunching across gravel as Thomas departed.  Joshua closed his eyes and felt the ground slip away from underneath his feet.

He was still standing but felt like he was falling.  Their relationship was about to change.  It was inevitable because that was what Nicole wanted.  There was no way that Thomas would refuse.  If Nicole got things her way, and she always did, Joshua’s friendship with Thomas would soon be at an end.  Joshua was the only blind spot  in her influence over Thomas.

The Doorkeepers-Chapter Five

Ethan saw Janet’s eyes snap shut and smirked.  He’d have a little fun with that one in a minute.  Nothing rankled him more than some git who thought she was better than him.  Her and just about everybody he met.  They all took one look at him with his tattoos and piercings and judged him.

Everyone always underestimated Ethan.  Most of the time, he didn’t care.  It was easier to get over on marks if they dismissed you.  Something about Janet rankled him.  He had only just met the stupid slag and he hated her already.  After all those years of friendship with Andrea, Janet steps in and in the space of minutes turns Andrea against him.

Ethan would have to teach her a lesson about shooting her mouth off.  He leaned down and pushed Andrea’s head and shoulders up off of the table.  Her head dropped limply forward.  Ethan straightened and smiled down at her.

He cupped her chin in his hand, lifted her head and ran his thumb over her soft lips.  Maybe after he searched her pockets he’d play a bit of hide the weasel with her.  She was a tasty little piece.  Ethan had always thought so.  Pity she wasn’t the least bit attracted to him.

Drugging her was a once in a lifetime opportunity to have his way and she’d be none the wiser when she awoke.  But he would know.  Yes, he would always have the intimate, tantalizing memory of exploring her tight little body.  Ethan stood gazing down at her, his lips slowly spreading into a lustful grin.

He realized belatedly that her eyes had opened a fraction.  A moment later, Andrea’s extended right arm flew up towards his face.  His startled eyes slowly registered the piece of jagged glass gripped in her sleeve covered hand.

Belatedly, Ethan’s hands flew up to shield his face as Andrea gouged his forehead and blood poured into his eyes.  Ethan screamed and reflexively stepped backwards.  His feet blundered onto the remaining broken shards of her beer bottle as he swiped at the blood stinging his eyes.

Ethan’s foot slipped as Andrea launched herself up out of her chair and shoved him.  He fell straight back into a broken down island in the middle of the kitchen.  Andrea flinched as Ethan’s head connected with the edge of the counter with a loud crack before he tumbled limply to the floor.  She waited a moment but he didn’t move.

Knowing that she had only minutes before he awoke, she scurried around the kitchen looking for something with which to secure his hands and legs.  Andrea underestimated him once.  She wasn’t about to make the same mistake again.

Andrea was searching the few cabinets which still had doors on them when she came across a gym bag.  Inside the bag were towels, zip ties, rags and an unmarked bottle of some murky liquid.  That sonovabitch was going to bind and gag us!  She shook her head to clear away thoughts of what might have happened if he had succeeded in drugging them both.

Andrea used the zip ties to bind Ethan’s hands and feet before pausing to catch her breath.  She checked his pockets and relieved him of his wallet, car keys, a switchblade and three rohypnol tablets in a baggie.  Tucked into the waistband at the small of his back was a 44 magnum.

Andrea turned it over in her hands and instantly recognized the scratches on the barrel.  How the hell did this bastard get his hands on my gun?  She was checking on her sister when she heard him begin to stir.  Andrea rose and stood in front of him with her arms crossed over her chest.

“Good afternoon sleepyhead.  I’m glad you’re awake.  Now we can have a nice little chat.”

Ethan’s eyes were still closed.  He moaned, attempted to rub the back of his head and realized that his hands and legs were bound together.  Ethan opened his eyes and glared up at Andrea.  She smiled sweetly at him and retrieved a chair from the kitchen table, placing it at his feet.

She sat down and waited patiently.  Ethan used the hands bound in front of him to push himself up until his back was against the wall of the kitchen next to the back door.  He longed to wipe away the blood dripping down into his face.  Andrea took pity on him and used the rag from the table to wipe his eyes before tying it around his head like a bandage.

“There we go.  That’s better.  Now we can chat,” she said brightly.

“I’ve got nothing to say to you.”

“You had damn well better have something to say to me you ass hole!  Maybe this will get you in the mood.”

Andrea pulled the revolver from her waistband and leveled it at Ethan’s chest.  His eyes widened slightly and subconsciously, he pressed his back against the wall.

“You can start by telling me how you got my revolver.”

“Why do you ask questions to which you already know the answers?  Obviously, I found it where you dropped it.”

“What were you doing at my house?”

“I was with Steve.  He was just supposed to run in and get something from you and come right back out.  I heard gunshots and saw you run out with your sister.  Naturally, I went in and found Steve dead as a doornail.”

“If you’re going to lie to me then things are going to get unpleasant.  You and I both know that Steve couldn’t stand you.  At best, he tolerated you.  Try again Ethan.”

“Okay, so maybe I followed Steve to your apartment.  I knew he had a big score in the offing and I wanted in.”

“He never would have cut you in on anything.”

“Who says I was gonna ask?”

“That still makes no sense Ethan.  Steve would not discuss his plans with the likes of you.  The more I think about it, nothing that has happened here makes any sense.  You my dear are a moron.  In order for you to have inside information, someone would have to feed it to you and then put the fear of God into you  to keep you from going to the nearest tavern shooting your mouth off about it. ”

Andrea sat staring at him as if she could read his thoughts if she looked closely enough.  She slowly said, ” You know what else doesn’t make sense?  You dosing us.  That’s not something that would occur to you.  Any drugs you get either go down your greedy gullet or get snorted up your nose.  No dearest, someone is pulling your strings.  Who are you working for?”

The ever-present smirk on Ethan’s face slid off, exposing the fear in his eyes.  He made a lame attempt to play it off but she could see that he was frightened.  She spoke without thinking.

“You know about the talisman don’t you?”

Andrea shook her head in dismay.  Ever since she helped Steve steal the talisman, her life had been turned upside down and inside out.  Why did everybody want it so badly?  Was it that valuable?  She found that hard to believe.  It certainly wasn’t much to look at.  It was just a flat piece of amethyst on a gold chain.

Andrea suddenly felt exhausted.  It would take forever to get any useful information out of Ethan.  He was clearly scared shitless.  Consequently, the lies were just rolling off of his tongue.  He was almost relieved when she asked him where he had hidden his car.  It was the one piece of information with which he readily parted.

She needed to get some rest.  Andrea placed one of the rohypnol tablets in his mouth and forced him to wash it down with the last of Janet’s ginger ale.  She made him open his mouth and lift his tongue before waiting until his eyes slid shut and his breathing slowed before returning to her sister’s side.

Janet was still slumbering soundly.  Andrea dragged her into the empty walk in pantry on the other side of the room and pulled the door shut behind them.  She had a hunch that Ethan’s boss might send someone to find out why he hadn’t returned with the two of them trussed up in his trunk.

Andrea would have rather left there and then but Janet was still unconscious and she wasn’t strong enough to carry her.  Ethan had seen fit conceal his car in a separate location.  They were going to have to walk a little ways to get to it.  Andrea took one last look at Ethan through a small hole in the wall beside the pantry door before lying down beside her sister.  Within moments, Andrea was asleep.

Early afternoon passed into evening.  Janet awoke and sat up groggily, took in the close confines of the pantry and shook her sister awake, fearful that they were captives.  Andrea reassured her sister, catching her up on everything she missed.  Janet shook her head in wonderment.

“Wait a minute, how did you know not to drink the beer?”

“I was about to drink it when you said your ginger ale was salty.  I’ve been around enough sleazebags to know that roofies taste salty when you put too much in a drink.”

“Roofies?”

“Really Janet?  You’ve never heard of roofies?  You know, Rohypnol the date rape drug?  You need to get out more girl.”

“Oh shut up, slutella.  Anyway, something else is bugging me.  I could swear you drank the beer.”

“I stuck my tongue over the opening when I tipped my head back.  That’s why I knocked it over.  Even an idiot like Ethan would notice sooner or later that the level of beer in the bottle wasn’t going down.  Enough talking.  Try to rest up.  You never know when we’re gonna have to run for it again.”

Andrea lay back down.  Janet also laid down but could not get comfortable.  It was hot inside the pantry and she felt a little claustrophobic.  Janet sat up and peered through the hole at Ethan.  He lay so still that she feared him dead until she saw the slight rise and fall of his chest.

The sun was going down outside and she watched the shadows gradually lengthen across the floor of the kitchen.  Her eyelids grew heavy once more and she was about to turn away and lay back down when she caught movement in her peripheral vision.

Janet sat straight up and carefully scanned the kitchen but there was no one else out there.  She was just about to turn away when the movement came again.  Two shadows lengthened and separated themselves from the gathering gloom around Ethan.

Janet’s hand flew up to stifle her gasp as the shadows resolved themselves into male silhouettes.  At least she assumed they were male.  They appeared to be wearing hoods.  Maybe I fell asleep and I’m dreaming all of this.  Yes, that’s it.  I’m sound asleep and having a  vivid dream.  No man stood in the kitchen yet two shadows leaned over Ethan.

A dark arm extended down into his head and he snapped awake panting as though awakened from a nightmare.  He looked up at the figures above him and Janet could see dismay stamped on his features.  She heard a low rumble and assumed that they were speaking to Ethan.  He listened and shook his head.

“I wasn’t able to get the talisman.  They drugged me.  Help me get out of these binds and I will go and get it from them. ”

He broke off as the rumble of voices resumed.  His eyes widened and he shook his head violently.  One shadow began reaching towards him with a hand that widened into a claw with sharp talons.  Ethan closed his eyes and screamed so loud that Andrea was jolted awake.  Janet put a restraining hand on her sister’s chest.  Holding a finger to her own lips to silence her before turning back to watch the scene unfolding in the kitchen.

“Nooo, please don’t.  I can find them.  I know where they’re going.  I won’t fail this time.  I won’t, I swear it!”

The shadow reached down and the hand passed into Ethan’s neck.  Janet winced as he began audibly choking.  His body began bucking as the figure straightened, pulling and tugging on something.  It slowly emerged from Ethan’s chest seeming to glow in the dimness of the kitchen.

Janet’s mouth opened in disbelief as the luminous form of a man struggled and kicked in the grasp of the shadow.  She looked down at Ethan’s still form.  Ethan?  Is that his…his…soul?  Her eyes returned to the shadow in time to see it drop through the floor and disappear dragging the struggling form with it.

The second shadow began following suit when it appeared to catch the scent of something.  Janet’s heart skipped a beat as the head swiveled slowly in her direction.  All at once, it began racing towards the pantry.  She shook her head in disbelief, wanting to scoot backwards but riveted to the spot.

One arm extended towards the door and she could feel a scream forming in her throat.  Just then, headlights flashed outside piercing the darkness inside the kitchen and dissolving the shadow.  Andrea grabbed her arm.

“What’s going on Janet?”

“Ssh, someone’s coming.”

Andrea shoved her sister aside and peered through the hole in the wall, cursing under her breath.  Two young couples came striding into the kitchen.  The second couple was locked in a passionate embrace.  The girl was walking backwards with lips clamped on her lover’s.    She tripped over Ethan and the two of them landed on top of him.

“What the….oh gawd Bobby, it’s a dead body.  I told you coming here was a bad idea.”

“Calm down Sandra.  He might just be sleeping one off.  Give me some light.  There, see he’s just passed out.”

“Are you sure?  He doesn’t look so good.”

“He’s breathing ain’t he?”

“Just barely and look at his color.  He’s too pale.  Bobby, I think we should call an ambulance.”

The others strongly disagreed.  The police might show up with the ambulance and ask them a bunch of questions.   One of them had a packet of weed on him and they all had alcohol.  Their parents thought they were studying.  Ethan began convulsing and they all jumped.

“Bobby, if you let that guy die in here I’m never coming back to this creepy place.  I mean it!”

“Fine, let’s just go.  We’ll call from the car.”

Andrea and Janet were out of the pantry and streaking towards the front door in a heartbeat.  They paused long enough for the tail lights to retreat before running out into the night.

Crime Diary-Chapter Four

Plum was treating me to a lavish lunch for the hundredth time when I finally worked up the nerve to ask how she supported herself.  Curiosity overcame any qualms I felt about asking such a personal question.  I half expected Plum to get angry.

She just laughed and gave me a sly look.  Plum motioned for me to come closer.  I leaned forward eagerly.  She looked around with exaggerated care before leaning across the table.  My mind raced ahead, trying to predict what type of illicit activity she would describe.  Plum smiled wryly.

“I trade in information darling.  You might say I’m an information broker,” she murmured.

The answer caught me off guard.  I sat back, trying to wrap my brain around it while Plum’s almond-shaped eyes searched my bewildered face.  The blank, uncomprehending look sent her into gales of laughter.  Plum’s glossy mane fell forward and she flicked it back over her shoulder, shaking her head in wonderment.  I had been given the can-anyone-be-that-naïve look a thousand times and refused to let it put me off.

“What kind of information do you deal in?  Are you talking about blackmail-worthy secrets,” I asked.

“Sometimes but not always.  There are many different kinds of information.  Knowledge of any sort is power.”

I was more confused than ever but her shrewd expression excited my interest.  Plum had me in the palm of her hand and knew it.  She just smiled and dug into her salad.  I knew what that meant.  I’d have to wheedle it out of her.  Sometime between the main course and dessert she gave in to my relentless cross-examination.

I’m sure we made quite a picture; me staring with silver dollar eyes while Plum broke it down like a weary parent explaining why the sky was blue.  She was an entrepreneur of sorts, running a private temp agency that supplied secretaries, clerks, maids and chauffeurs for the wealthy and well-to-do.  At least, that’s what she reported to the IRS.

Plum had a veritable cornucopia of secret enterprises that never made it onto the books.  I’m getting ahead of myself though.  All of her temp employees were quietly efficient and blended into the background of their contracted employers’ homes and businesses.  It’s amazing how many tidbits of information a well placed employee could pick up.

Plum knew more about business dealings that most Wall Street insiders.  She also knew more about what really went on in most households than the inhabitants themselves.  A bit of insider trading here a little blackmail there and viola, Plum was a very wealthy young woman.

What information couldn’t be gleaned from her circle of employees could be purchased from a network of contacts ranging from beauticians to owners of restaurants.  Plum often bartered information for favors.  You’d be surprised at the number of business owners who would have gotten their permits revoked after an honest inspection.

I know she sounds like a cold, calculating person.  However, that’s not the way Plum came across in person.  She could charm the skin off of a snake.  She’ll favor you with one of her mischievous little grins and pepper sentences with girlish laughter that made everything seem like a private joke.

Maybe that’s why I accepted her story so readily.  On the other hand, I wanted to be like Plum so badly that I could taste it.  I wanted what she had.  At that point, she could have claimed to make a living scamming retirement homes and I would have seriously considered joining her.

Hey, I’m not proud of it, but the life of decent, law-abiding piousness is part of what got me saddled in debt.  I was sick of eating beans and lunch meat sandwiches for dinner.  Do you know what it’s like to bump into old acquaintances who seem to have the world at their feet, knowing that you’ll be lucky to keep your head above water for another week?

How about when you go home and overhear your mother struggling to find something noteworthy about your life to share with her braggart friends?  Every mom has at least one snooty friend who simply insists on chronically every moment of their prodigy child’s life.  I always feel like such a failure listening to my mother come back with some feeble response when people ask about my career.

After all her high hopes and sacrifices, I hadn’t done anything notable with my life.  Four years of college and I could barely pay the rent on my rundown apartment.  The student loan sharks were circling ever closer, devouring each extra dollar I earned.  I had gotten a real estate license to supplement my income.  Somehow, it became my only source of income.

The college degree that I had worked so hard to earn did not seem to be worth the paper on which it was printed.  It wouldn’t make any difference if I could somehow keep my failure a secret.  I’ve known people who seem content to lie about being successful.

I’m sure you’ve known a few phonies; the people who put on airs, driving a new car that they can barely make payments on, getting fancy clothes and the latest smart phone on credit.  It works for them because  people seem to measure success by the number of things a person owns.  That lifestyle wouldn’t work for me.  Other people might be impressed, but every time I looked in the mirror the truth would stare back at me.

My mood had swung low and Plum must have sensed that I was ripe for the picking.  When I’m depressed, my irrational side takes center stage.  The curtain closes on my common sense and I’m like a different person.  Things were destined to spin out of control this time because I was tired of playing it safe.

For once in my life I was going to take a chance.  How much worse could things get?  My job was stressing me out.  None of the dozens of resumes that I sent out had garnered a single interview.  Most companies weren’t even bothering to send me rejection letters.  Those who did regretted to inform me that they were looking for someone with a higher degree or several years more experience than I could claim.

I felt trapped and time was passing.  My biggest fear was that one day I would wake up and it would be too late to salvage my life.  Every lackluster year that flew by after college seemed to mean three steps further away from the possibility of achieving my dreams.  It felt like being backed into a corner.  I was constantly re-assessing goals, adjusting and settling until self-sufficiency seemed to be an impossible dream.

Opportunity knocked and the idea that it might not come again pushed me over the brink of desperation.  Selling those properties to Kenji had been a blessing and a curse.  Now, Mr. Canfield expected me to unload more of his rundown properties.

If I didn’t sell something else soon, I was in danger of sliding back down to the bottom of the office pecking order.  Real estate brokers who did not produce didn’t last long.  Selling those properties only seemed to underscore my poor selling record up until that point.

Over lunch, Plum casually informed me that Kenji was pleased with his properties and wanted to know if I would be interested in making similar sales.  I could scarcely contain my jubilation.  Closing a couple more deals might be just the thing to get Mr. Canfield off of my back.  Besides, nothing would please me more than to be able to wipe the smirks off of my co-workers’ faces.  I’d show them that I wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

The waiter’s arrival put an end to the conversation.  I practically had to stick a napkin in my mouth to stop myself from whimpering.  Begging was not an option.  Plum would only make me wait longer.  Besides, I had a little bit of pride left.  Not much but a few kernels.

After lunch, we stopped by Plum’s bank and she let me enter the vault with her to retrieve her safe deposit box.  She wanted to get some jewelry out for a party she would be attending that night.  My mouth dropped open at the sight of all the gorgeous pieces set with precious stones.  There were rings and broaches, bracelets, necklaces and matching earrings.  She even let me try on a couple of things.

That evening, remembered the way I looked in that jewelry.  People would certainly treat me differently if I were adorned with bling like that.  I fantasized about living a jet-set lifestyle.  Plum appeared to have the magic key that I had been searching for all of my life.  If she would help me then I knew I could achieve my dreams.

Of course, it was not going to be easy.  Nothing worth having in life is ever easy.  Once Plum had the hook in my mouth, she decided to let me twist in the wind a bit before reeling me in.  She abruptly broke off all contact with me the next day.

She was waiting for me to come crawling to her.  I hated her for trying to break what was left of my spirit.  It wasn’t enough that I adored her and longed to be just like her.  She wanted to underscore how empty and hardscrabble my life was without her.

With my anger to sustain me, it was relatively easy to resist calling her the first few days.  I held out for several weeks, but it grew increasingly difficult with each passing day.  Every time I got frustrated at work, the urge to pick up the phone was overwhelming.

People would look at my properties and pass or their credit would be so bad that no one would loan them enough money.  Kenji called just when I thought Plum had completely abandoned me.  He arranged to bring some of his friends by the office.  At least she was serious about his interest, even if she wouldn’t give me the time of day.  It wasn’t much but it made me hopeful that Plum would eventually call.

Kenji’s friends always came when the office was practically empty.  I didn’t savor the thought of being alone with these men.  Even Kenji with his jokes and laid back attitude sometimes gave me pause.  They were all very polite but something about their eyes made me nervous.  These were men whom you did not want to cross.  Their versions of smiles never reached their cold, dead eyes.

I told myself that it was a figment of my overactive imagination.  More than once, disquiet stole over me.  My nerves jangled when they were around but I carried on with one transaction after another.  It was easy to justify everything because there was no tangible evidence to support my suspicions about the source of all that cash.

Mr. Canfield had no problem with it.  So my conscience allowed me to sleep.  For all I knew, they were using the buildings for legitimate businesses.  Kenji owned a gold shop.  It stood to reason they had similar enterprises.  Fate had finally thrown me a bone and I wasn’t about to screw things up by getting curious.  It was none of my business.

They didn’t volunteer any information and I didn’t ask any questions.  Besides, I told myself that this was how the real world operated.  That must be the way to get ahead in life.  Nothing else I attempted all those years had worked.  Kenji’s friends were a little rough around the edges but they had all the trappings of success.  I was determined to carve off a few pieces for myself before the windfall was over.

Mr. Canfield was ecstatic with my progress.  He had begun treating me like the daughter he never had.  More than once, I caught co-workers shooting me sour looks.  It was nice to be in the winner’s circle for once.  A few more sales and Mr. Canfield might give me something decent to work with.  Then I wouldn’t have to deal with Kenji and his crowd.  That became my mantra.

You would think that I would be busy basking in the glow of my sudden success.  After all, I could finally write home with true stories about closing a record number of deals.  I even managed to open a checking account.  I bought a television set and laptop to replace the things I pawned.

Imagining my sister dizzy with jealousy when my family opened the gifts I shipped them was icing on the cake.  Yet something was still missing.  I would come home in the evening and vegetate in front of the television all evening or surf the Internet until my eyes ached.

Most nights, I didn’t even bother to eat.  Heating up a frozen dinner in my new microwave just seemed to require too much energy.  Forget about using the stove.  I felt empty inside.  Success on any level is not very enjoyable when you have no one with whom to celebrate.  Oh sure, my mom was proud but she was miles away.

Valley of Shadows- Chapter Four

Joshua awoke with a start, then sighed and turned off his alarm clock.  He was glad to be back in the realm of consciousness.  His nightmare had been so real that it frightened him.  In the dream, he and Thomas were children again, walking along a dirt road.  An early morning sun was shining and their spirits were high.  The boys joked and tussled as they walked, stirring up the warm dirt.

Morning passed and noon came.  Now they were teenagers and the conversation was a bit more serious.  Tiny stones littered the path before them, cutting their bare feet from time to time.  By dusk, Joshua and Thomas were men.  There was no longer a clear path.  Uprooted trees lay in the way, forcing both to clamber up and down their massive sides.  Thomas was the first to reach the last tree.  He disappeared down the other side.

“C’mon slow poke, get the lead out,” Thomas called.

Joshua laughed and sprinted towards the last tree.  Suddenly, he heard Thomas gasp.

“What?  Thomas what’s wrong?  Hey fat head, I’m talking to you.  Will you quit playing and answer me?  Thomas?”

Fear struck Joshua, pounding at his chest as he clambered over the last trunk.  He frantically searched about for Thomas.  All at once, he came upon a pool of quicksand.  There in the center was his friend’s hand clawing at the air.

“Oh my God!”

Joshua got as close to the quicksand as he dared and reached for his friend’s hand.  Try as he might, he could not reach him.  There were no branches sturdy enough to use as a lifeline.  Joshua watched helplessly as his best friend’s hand slowly sank beneath the surface.

Joshua immediately woke up, gasping for air as his heart galloped painfully in his chest.  He sat blinking against the blinding sunlight for a few moments before dragging himself out of bed and trudging down the hall to Rachel’s room.  Joshua banged on her door.

“Rise and shine,” he called.

Joshua knocked on Harriet’s door next and then went downstairs to find Richard already awake.  Joshua went back upstairs to the bathroom to shower and shave.  Harriet had already been awake for an hour before Joshua’s knock sounded at her door.  She awoke after a restless night and tried unsuccessfully to go back to sleep.  Harriet lay in bed staring at the ceiling, dreading the impending hospital visit.

Mama always made visits confrontational.  Her domineering personality and tyrannical ways wore Harriet to a frazzle.  The woman never let anything go either.  Once she figured out what you were sensitive about, she was like a dog with a bone.  Well, there was no use in brooding about it.  Harriet may as well get moving.  At least she could exercise, now that everyone was up.  Halfway through her squat thrusts, Rachel burst into the room.

“Turn off that noise,” growled Rachel.

“It is not noise, it’s Mozart.”

“I don’t care what it is.  Turn it off right now.”

“Who it is.  You don’t care who it is.”

“Look Harriet, I don’t feel like playing with you this morning.  Just turn it off!  My head is killing me.”

Rachel stalked out of the room.  An evening of drinking and dancing had left Rachel sore inside and out.  She hadn’t had that much fun in a long time.  Rachel crossed into the bathroom, seeking a couple of aspirin and a hot bath.  Joshua was standing in front of the mirror shaving with the door open to allow the steam from his shower dissipate faster.

“Why the hell did you wake me up if you aren’t done using the bathroom?  I can’t even run my bath water with you getting hair everywhere!”

“Wait until I finish Attila!”

Downstairs at the kitchen table, Richard sat listening to the commotion in the bathroom.  He was glad that he had already showered and shaved.  Richard was sipping coffee in his slacks and undershirt.  Richard saw his brother’s cigarettes lying on the table.  On a whim, he took one and lit it.  Sometimes, it was pleasant just to relax and think of nothing in particular.  His mind was enjoying the rest.

Something about getting away from home and staying someplace different made him feel as though his troubles had been left behind.  He savored the sensation, knowing that soon enough, his mother would remind him of his problems and the weight of them would return to rest on his shoulders.

Richard thought of Harriet.  She always seemed to suffer the most when their mother was on the attack.  He wondered what she was doing upstairs.  Richard thought about the previous night, picturing her sweet face as she needlessly thanked him.  A smile broke out on his solemn face.

“Better finish getting dressed.”

Richard snuffed out the cigarette, drained his cup and then moved to his tiny room off of the kitchen.  He had to look presentable for their audience with their mother at the hospital.

Twenty miles away at St. Mary’s Hospital, Reverend Mother crossed herself and closed the bible with an earnest “amen.”  She enjoyed worshipping in the early morning hours.  It helped her put the rest of the day in proper perspective.  This morning though, she had scarce time to think about the hours that lay before her.  Something was troubling her, crowding out thoughts of her children.

Here in this place of beginnings and endings, thoughts of Gabriel invaded her mind.  Unbidden memories always came to her when death was around her.  In his youth he was intelligent, ambitious and hopelessly in love with her.  Those were the days before she was “saved” and proclaimed Reverend Mother of Sermon on the Mount Baptist Church.  Back then, she went by Hester.

Hester was the only daughter of older parents and quite accustomed to getting her way.  As a beautiful young woman, Hester was also habituated to having who she desired.  Unfortunately for Gabriel, this desire did not include him.  She craved excitement and found it in another.  His name was Derrick.  He was Hester’s first taste of love.

During those days, her only mission was to escape from beneath her parent’s thumbs.  So intent was she that her naïve eyes mistook his immaturity for spontaneity, insensitivity for confidence and idleness for free spiritednesss.  Hester’s obsession kept her wholly unfazed by his sporadic behavior; it was a welcome change from the safe, predictable actions of her friends and family which bored her immensely.

Derrick brought a much desired change to her uneventful, puritanistic world.  Soon his life became Hester’s.  When he was happy she was ecstatic.  Likewise, Derrick’s bouts of depression plunged her into the depths of despair.  If his mood swung cruel, Hester was patient.  She had to be.  Without Derrick, Hester had no motivation, hopes, or dreams.

A year later, Rachel began growing in her belly.  As soon as Hester found out, she beelined for Derrick’s house and rapturously delivered the news.  There sat the new mother on the edge of his bed.  Her eyes were riveted to Derrick’s face.  Three silent minutes passed.  She pacified her nerves by chewing on a hangnail.

Hester was almost certain that her doubts about how the news would be received were silly.  She couldn’t even count the number of nights that they had lain in each other’s arms and dreamt of this day.  It had happened sooner than expected, but that couldn’t be helped.

Sure things would be tight at first but they would be fine.  Oh, she just knew that at any moment that sour expression on Derrick’s face would be sweetened by the smile she had come to love so much.  Joy would fill those empty eyes and overflow.  Then he would throw his arms about her and they would celebrate.

“Why are you telling me,” the sharpness of his tone was hurt her ears.

Derrick got up and moved to the window, turning his back on her.

“What do you mean?  I thought you might like to know that you’re going to be a father.”

“How do I know that?”

“What?”

“How do In know you’re carrying my baby?”

“Derrick…”

“Just because you say it’s mine doesn’t make it so.  For all I know, that could be some other dude’s baby.”

Hester could not see his face but the anger in his voice was palpable.  She took in the defensiveness in his stance and knew that at any moment, his hand might sting her face.  This could not be happening!  She had imagined exactly how things would be so many times that she had it memorized.  Her vision had been nothing like this.  Hester closed her eyes and tried again.

“Derrick, you know I haven’t been with any other man.  You were my first.  I haven’t slept with anybody else.”

“I don’t know what you do when I’m not around.”

“Derrick, please don’t do this to me!”

“Shouldn’t I be the one saying that huh?  Just what the hell am I doing to you?  I’m not the one who was careless and got pregnant!”

“B-but what about our dreams?  You said you wanted me to have your child.”

“Someday!  Don’t you know the difference between dreams and reality?  Dammit girl, even I know we’re not ready for any children!”

“Well here’s a dose of reality for you, our baby is coming now not someday!  What am I supposed to do, tell the child to wait until it’s convenient for you?  Well, I’m sorry.  That isn’t an option.”

“Yes it is.”

“What are you talking about?”

Derrick spun around and his glare burned the answer into her horrified eyes.  Hester’s hands flew to her stomach, as though the cruel look might kill her baby.  No, she could never do away with their child!  How could Derrick even think she might even entertain such a vile thought?  The baby was as much a part of him as it was a part of her.

Hester closed her eyes against a flood of tears and tried to awaken from what was surely a nightmare.  Derrick’s protests grew deafening but she was too stunned to decipher his words.  She had to get out of there.  Hester’s feet carried her unsteadily towards the door but Derrick’s vice-like grip cut her escape short.

“Where do you think you’re going?  We haven’t settled this!”

“I…I’m finished.  Goodbye Derrick.”

Somehow, she found the strength to yank her trembling arm free.  Pride gave Hester the courage to leave, never to return.  In her mind it was simple; their relationship was over.  Derrick’s wish to abort his child made that abundantly clear.  He obviously wasn’t the man she thought he was.

So why wouldn’t her heart allow her to believe it?  In the back of Hester’s mind, she continued to believe that somehow, their dreams and plans would come to pass.  Derrick would miss her so much that he would come to her on bended knee and propose.

Even as Hester told her mother about her predicament, the dreams danced in her mind’s eye.  Only after she listened to the disappointment in her mother’s voice did the delusion begin to waver.  Later that evening, papa came home from work.  Hester listened at the top of the stairs as her mama quietly repeated the story.  He never said a word.  That was his way.

At the dinner table, papa’s eyes carefully avoided the space Hester occupied.  She looked in his face and saw the funeral going on in his brain.  As far as he was concerned, his baby girl was dead.  The daughter that papa loved would never even consider brining such disgrace upon his family.

No, he didn’t know the whore sitting across from him at the table.  Papa stole one last look at Hester.  The gaze lingered, seemingly searching for traces of the little girl that he adored.  Hester saw all of this and was contrite.  She realized that she had snuffed out the light in his life.

The Doorkeepers-Chapter Four

The door opened and Andrea threw herself into the man’s arms before Janet could catch so much as a glimpse of him.  Two tattoo sleeved arms snaked around Andrea’s waist and Janet’s heart sank.  He looked like trouble.  Ethan’s husky voice sounded gin soaked to her suspicious ears.

“Sorry I’m late love.  I got busy with a run last night and you know how Nate and them can be.”

Janet broke off from her critical appraisal of Ethan, “Excuse me?  I’d say you’re more than a little late!  We’ve been here fleeing for our lives while you were off on some stupid run.  Whatever the hell that means!  What the hell kind of run was so damn important that you left us high and dry?  A beer run?  A drug run?  Judging from the looks of you, I’d say it was a drug run.  See Andrea, that’s what you get for calling on one of your boy toys to help us!”

“Whose this grandma Andrea?”

“Ethan, this is my sister.  Please ignore her rude comments.  She can’t help herself, she’s had a stick lodged up her ass all her life.  Look Janet, Ethan knows this area like the back of his hand.  If anyone can get us out of here in one piece he can.”

“Oh really?  Einstein here walks right in the front door seconds after a band of murders leave, in plain view of anyone who might have this place staked out.  I’m surprised he didn’t bump into them.  Maybe he’s working with them.  Did you ever think of that?  Whose side is he on? It’s mighty funny that he finally shows up seconds after they leave.”

Ethan fumed, “I made sure they were all gone.  But that’s not to say they won’t double back.  We’d better get going.”

The trio walked out through the rear of the building and Janet was dismayed to see that there was no car waiting to whisk them away.  They headed for the overgrown tangle of woods behind the building, wading into weeds up to their thighs.

It was slow going and Janet had to concentrate to avoid twisting her ankle on the uneven, stone littered ground.  She looked behind her and was pleased to see the wild foliage closing behind them.  If nothing else, it would be a little harder to track them without a clear trail.  Then again, those maniacs had dogs.  That thought made Janet walk a little faster.

Before long, the mosquitos arrived and begin feasting upon her in earnest.  Janet didn’t know what was making her more miserable, being forced to suckle a horde of mosquitos or the heat and humidity which slowly enveloped her like a hot, damp blanket.

Her breath began coming in huffs and puffs.  Andrea and Ethan walked ahead of her seemingly oblivious to the stifling heat.  They walked in silence and Janet allowed her mind to go blank.  She was too tired to think about anything except putting one foot in front of the other.

Just when she thought she was going to pass out, the foliage thinned and she could see what looked like an abandoned farm-house in the distance.  Every horror movie she had ever seen bloomed in her mind.  Surely they weren’t going to be staying in that house of horrors.

It looked like the house that time forgot with its broken windows and faded, peeling paint.  Ethan and Andrea walked in without a backward glance at Janet who stood in the weed-choked front yard sulking until an obscenely large bumblebee began harassing her.

Janet walked into the kitchen to find Andrea seated a battered wooden table with the words “eat me” crudely carved into the top of it.  Ethan was placing a plate of pitiful looking bologna sandwiches in the middle of the table.  The house was a wreck inside.

Judging from the graffiti, empty beer bottles, broken hypodermic needles and used condoms strewn across the floor, the house was probably a popular hangout.  Janet spied a place set for her at the table and suddenly realized that she was ravenous.  She sat down and helped herself to one of the sandwiches.  Baloney never tasted so good.  Ethan crossed his arms looking from one sister to the other.

“We didn’t get a chance to discuss anything when you called me last night.  So tell me love, what’s all the fuss about”

“What do you mean Ethan,” asked Andrea.

“Why are folks trying to kill you?  Who’d you piss off?”

“To be fair, we don’t know that those people mean to kill us.   They could just want to talk.”

“So why didn’t you sit down and have a nice little chat with them?”

“Maybe I have nothing to say to them.  You know what?  I think I will have a sandwich.”

“Don’t try to change to subject.  You’ve got something they want and I wanna know what it is.”

“What’s with the third degree?  Do I put you on the rack when you show up at my place in the middle of the night looking for someplace to hole up for a few days?  Have I ever tried to pry into your business when you ask me to lie for you?  We are friends but that doesn’t mean I’m obligated to tell you a damn thing!”

“Don’t be so touchy Andrea.  I was curious that’s all.  You’ve never asked me for help before.  You girls want something to wash those sandwiches down with?”

Andrea accepted a beer and Janet a ginger ale.  Janet sat back to watch things develop, interested to see if Ethan knew Andrea well enough to recognize what the hard edge to her tone meant.  She knew that if he kept going he would step out onto thin ice.  Andrea’s anger was going to flare up if he kept pressing her.

When anyone ignited Andrea’s ire she lashed out without a moment’s thought for the consequences.  Janet never could see any rhyme or reason for the forms that Andrea’s vengeance took.  Sometimes, it was a punch or a stab, a shove or choke.  Other times, Andrea would bide her time as she plotted some vicious retaliation.

Janet chuckled to herself, maybe she wouldn’t even have to try to convince Andrea to ditch that creep.  It looked like he was going to do all the convincing for her.  She watched him struggling to come up with a different tactic to make Andrea tell him what he wanted to know.

Wasn’t that just like a man?  That’s right moron, go ahead and push your luck, Janet thought.  His features settled into a mournful frown.  This ought to be good.

“I didn’t mean to pry.  It’s just that I’ve been having a run of bad luck lately.  I owe a lot of money to some very scary dudes.  I thought you might be able to help me out with a few duckets.  Just enough to get ’em off my back.”

“How much are we talking about Ethan,” Andrea asked cautiously.

“Oh, fifty thou ought to do it.”

“Fifty thousand dollars?  Janet can you believe this joker?  I love the way he just causally tosses it out there like it’s chump change.  Fifty thousand dollars!  Really?  Are you shitting me?  After everything I’ve done for you over the years without ever asking or expecting any return, the one time I ask you for something you try to jam both hands into my pockets!”

Janet wanted so badly to blurt out that she had warned her sister not to trust him but she kept her mouth shut.  One “I told you so,” no matter how satisfying it might be, was not worth derailing her anger.  Janet wanted things to run their course.  She shook her head and arranged her features into a shocked expression that mirrored her sister’s, hoping that it would egg her on.

“That really hurts Andrea.  You know I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t desperate.”

“You’re always desperate Ethan!  The only time you come around is when your ass is in a bind and you want me to pry it loose!  Why do I get the feeling that you won’t help us unless I come across with the money?  I’m beginning to think my sister was right about you.  Maybe you’re working both sides and you’ll turn us over to them whether or not you get what you want.”

“Now you’re talking crazy!  You’ve known me how many years?  You know good and damn well that there were plenty of times that I could have sold you out for a tidy little profit.  I’ve been in a bind before and managed to wiggle out of it.  I’m just so used to you bailing me out of trouble that I didn’t stop to consider that you might be feeling a little cornered right now.  But I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t intend to help.  Finish your lunch love.”

Andrea remained pitched forward in her seat a few moments more, glaring at Ethan as though she might reach across the scarred table and throttle him.  Janet was disappointed when Andrea wordlessly picked up the sandwich and bit into it.

She could tell by the way that Andrea tore bites from her sandwich that the insult wasn’t forgiven but there wouldn’t be any knock down drag out fighting during lunch.  Ethan would be wise to watch his back.  Janet looked down at her own lunch and took a swig of her ginger ale.  She wrinkled her nose.

“This ginger ale is salty.”

Andrea rolled her eyes to the ceiling, “Oh lord, don’t you get started again.  Give it a rest Janet.  We get it.  You’re not happy.  Your displeasure is duly noted, now shut the hell up for two seconds will ya?”

Janet was about to argue back and suddenly felt too tired to care.  She ate the rest of her sandwich in stony silence.  Janet took another sip of her ginger ale and almost dropped the bottle.  Ale splashed onto the table.  She started to apologize and everything momentarily swam out of focus.

That’s strange.  The heat must have affected me more than I realized.  Maybe I’m a little dehydrated.  She suddenly felt dizzy.  The sensation intensified until the table seemed to be tilting at a crazy angle.  Janet felt as though she might slide out of her chair.  She grasped the edge of the table to steady herself. and looked over at her sister.  Janet was startled to see that Andrea appeared to be having the same issue.

Andrea clumsily knocked her bottle  of beer over.  It splashed beer in Ethan’s direction before tumbling off the table and shattering on the wooden floor.  He jumped up cursing and stalked over to the sink, searching for something with which to try himself.

While his back was turned, Andrea quickly bent down, grabbed a piece of broken glass and concealed it in her sleeve.  Janet intended to ask Andrea what she was up to but her lips wouldn’t cooperate.  Ethan returned to the table with a rag and mopped up most of the beer.  Surprisingly, he didn’t look angry.  A smile slowly spread across his face as he addressed Janet.

“You were partially right you know.  I did go on a drug run last night.  I had to get a few party favors for you ladies,” he said slyly.

Andrea’s eyes slid shut and her head fell forward onto the table.  Janet’s drug addled brain finally put two and two together and she suddenly realized that he had drugged them.  She could feel her strength beginning to leach away.

Her eyes were getting heavy.  She forced herself to sit up straight in the chair, determined to stay awake, knowing that in a few short moments she would be unconscious.  She looked at him, struggling to ask the question.  He smirked, looking at her as though he could read her thoughts.

“Why did I drug you?  When Andrea called me, I had every intention of helping you two.  I really did.  I care about your sister and I don’t want to see her hurt.”

Janet angrily shook her head and the jerky motion made her nauseous.

“I’m serious.  I love her.  I really do.  It’s just that I’ve got to come up with some fast cash.  I’ve been trying to come up with the dosh but I just can’t raise it fast enough.  Every day that goes by, they raise the interest.  I tried to work a job last night and it all went to hell.”

My clumsy swing wasn’t even close.  Ethan continued,” I nearly got caught and I’ve got nothing to show for it.  So you see, I’ve got no choice.  I love your sister but I love being alive more.  I’m going to have to take what she’s got.  She didn’t tell me what it was but judging from the crew I saw descending on that warehouse, it’s gotta be pretty damn valuable.  I knew Andrea would fight to the death rather than hand it over so, I took the liberty of dosing you two.”

Janet wanted to scream.  She tried to reach over and shake her sister but succeeded only in pitching headfirst onto the floor.  I’ve gotta do something!  This bastard is going to kill us  even if he doesn’t those people will kill us the moment they realize Andrea no longer has the talisman.  Janet rolled onto her back in time to see Ethan looming over her sister.  Her eyes fluttered shut.  She forced them open once and then everything went black.

Crime Diary-Chapter Three

After work, I took the bus to the address that Kenji had given me.  It turned out to be a gold shop.  I was bewildered.  Plum said that I wouldn’t have to sell the locket.  I hadn’t even brought it with me.  It was too late to try to catch a bus all the way home just go get the necklace.  I decided to keep the appointment.  If nothing else, I’d just have to go back the next day.

The inside of the gold shop didn’t look much better than the outside.  It was an antiquated storefront space with scratched glass cases running from one wall to the other in front of three walls.  The hardwood floors were stained and worn uneven by years of foot traffic.  I was beginning to have doubts about Kenji.  It didn’t look as though he had the finances to buy any of the buildings on my books.

I told myself not to get my hopes up or get too bent out of shape if things didn’t pan out.  Push come to shove, I could still pawn the locket.  An elderly Japanese woman in a flowered dress was standing behind the left counter holding up a gold bracelet for a customer to admire.

I approached them and waited for a pause in the conversation.  The customer was a tall, emaciated looking guy with big, showy rings on four fingers of his right hand.  I could probably pay my rent with just one ring and have plenty left over for groceries.

When he laughed, gold teeth flashed in the front of his mouth.  My eyes drifted down to the thick fourteen carat rope bracelet around his bony wrist, then over to the smart phone strapped to his belt.  He was leaning on an alligator skin briefcase.  Definitely a drug dealer.

The woman eventually glanced in my direction and I told her I had an appointment with Kenji.  She gave me the once over and turned towards the sheet covering the doorway to the rear of the store and yelled something in her native tongue.  I shifted uneasily as her eyes raked across my face once more.

My nervous smile had no effect on her.  She dismissively turned back to her customer.  A moment later, Kenji emerged from behind the dusty sheet.  I was surprised at how young he looked.  He was skinny but otherwise resembled the woman so closely that she had to be his mother.

When Kenji smiled, he looked even younger.  He offered his hand and I shook it.  Tattoos peeked out from underneath his short-sleeved shirt when he extended his hand.  I remember thinking how they contradicted his overall appearance.  Kenji looked very much like a college student.  Wire-rimmed glasses perched on the bridge of his flat nose enhanced the impression.

“I-I have some pictures of the properties that I felt would best suit your needs,” I stammered handing over the printouts.  A few tense moments passed while he inspected the photographs.  The man with the gold teeth began looking at an assortment of gold rings.

“Can you show me these properties tomorrow,” Kenji asked.

“Huh, oh sure I can.  What time works best for you?”

The appointment was set for the following afternoon.  I left feeling elated.  Not only would the commission on the property pay my rent for a sevral of months, it would help me regain some of my boss David Canfield’s confidence in me.  Unloading one of my rundown properties might even raise me a few notches in his estimation.

Maybe I could even get enough of an advance to cover my current rent and utilities.  I hastily reminded myself not to get too excited.  Kenji hadn’t seen the actual building yet.  There was a big difference between a grainy snapshot and the real thing.

I went home and took the fire escape up to my apartment, not wishing to bump into my landlord until I had cash in hand.  He knew that payday had come and gone.  Needless to say, I didn’t get any sleep that night.  By morning, I was a bundle of nerves.

Kenji arrived at the appointed time and drove us to the buildings in his gold sport utility vehicle.  I held my breath when he leaned forward and looked through the windshield at the first old house.  Kenji explained that he was looking to purchase a few homes to rehab and turn into section eight rental properties.  He didn’t say much during the tours.  His face was expressionless but I could see his eyes taking note of everything.

I trailed behind him as he moved from room to room.  We went to my office and Kenji retrieved a briefcase from the trunk of his car.  He wanted to buy all three of the houses we toured!  It took every ounce of willpower not to leap from my seat and dance around my cubicle.

He wanted to start the transaction immediately and I was only too happy to oblige him.  It would be nice to look my landlord in the eye when I paid him.  I decided to spend my entire commission on rent and utilities.  A couple of months to breathe without worrying about those bills would seem like a vacation.  I drew up the paperwork and began filling in the necessary information.

“How would you like to pay for the property,” I asked.

“I’m paying with cash,” came the cool reply.

My hand froze over the keyboard.  Perhaps I hadn’t heard him correctly.  Altogether the houses cost over two hundred thousand dollars.  My confused mind scrabbled for an explanation.  I decided that he must have meant that he wanted to make the down payment in cash.

“You mean you’re making a cash down payment?”

“No, I want to pay for the properties today in cash.  Is that going to be a problem?”

“Well, I…it’s just that I’ve never had anyone offer to pay such a large amount in cash before.  Let me clear it with my boss.”

I rose, trying to ignore the sinking sensation dampening my mood.  Mr. Canfield’s door was closed so I knocked softly.  He bellowed permission for me to enter.  I opened the door on an office that hadn’t seen a new piece of furniture since the seventies.  Everything was orange and avocado green.

He was in his shirt sleeves pouring over ledgers.  I hated talking to the man while he was working on the books.  It always made him surly.  Not that he was ever really in a good mood when I talked to him.  I got right to the point and to my astonishment, not only did he grant permission for the transaction, he praised me.

His bulldog features actually softened into something that closely resembled a smile.  He followed me back to my cubicle and introduced himself to Kenji.  Mr. Canfield accepted the payment and I finished the paperwork.  Kenji walked out with the bill of sale and I got my commission in cash.

Being able to pay my bills felt nice.  So why did I still feel so empty?  I climbed into bed Friday evening and slept until Saturday afternoon.  That’s when my phone rang.  It was Plum with an invitation to lunch.  She knew it was short notice but could I join her?  Plum’s relief sounded genuine when I accepted the invitation.

My apartment looked like a tornado hit it by the time I settled on an outfit.  Rather than let Plum see how I lived, I waited for her downstairs.  My nosy neighbor Mrs. Phelps just happened to be leaning out of her first floor window.  She was always riveted to that spot.  The woman must have slept standing up with her nose pressed against the glass.

I had the pleasure of informing her that I was waiting for a friend.  Naturally, the suspicious old bat didn’t believe me.  Plum did not arrive at the appointed time and I felt myself beginning to panic.  What if she had been toying with me?

The thought of her hanging up the phone and laughing made me cringe.  In that instant, I became a miserable, friendless child once more.  Maybe telling my neighbor that Plum was coming had been a mistake.  She would never let me live it down.  I looked over at her creased face and those greedy little eyes crawled all over my face.

“When did you say your uh…friend was coming dear?”

“She should be here any minute now.”

Just then, Plum’s purple Mercedes pulled up to the curb.  I threw Ms. Phelps a triumphant smile and took my leave of her.  I took my time walking to the car, my back getting straighter with every step.  By that same time the next day, Mrs. Phelps would have notified the entire neighborhood about Plum.

I realized then that I would do anything to hold onto my new friend.  It was a reckless thought that quickly got pushed to the back of my mind.  I don’t know which was more disturbing, the thought that I would sacrifice everything to stay friends with her or the knowledge that I couldn’t stop myself from doing it if I tried.  After all, Plum probably had hundreds of rich, influential friends.

What did I have to offer her with no money and no power?  I had only the same deep, abiding devotion that my mother offered up to my father.  Of course, that’s no less than what a woman like Plum demands.  Looking back on our relationship, I realize that is what made it work; I worshipped Plum and she graciously accepted my adoration.

The rest of the month was blissful.  Plum called me every day and we hung out together when her busy schedule permitted.  To someone who never had a friend before, the feeling was indescribable.  She eclipsed my life.  I was willing to go to absurd lengths just to make her laugh.  If I said something that displeased her in any way, I couldn’t sleep until I made things right.

I know what  you’re thinking but, you’re wrong.  It was not physical attraction that made longing well up in me until it caught in my throat.  I’m not sure I can make you understand.  To a certain extent, everyone longs to possess  a thing of beauty whether it’s a person, a work of art, a precious jewel or something else.  It is gratifying to feast your eyes upon it.  For those moments, your troubles seem far away.

That’s what it’s like to be around Plum.  She was beautiful and intelligent with a killer sense of humor.  Plum had a way of looking directly at you and seeing you for who you are underneath your public persona.  She also had a way of tilting her elegant head to the side while you talked to her and nodding with the sweetest smile slowly spreading across her face.  You feel important because she’s drinking in every word.

I won’t even attempt to describe her laugh except to say that it assures you that you are the wittiest person on earth.  The combination of so many pleasing elements is quite bewitching.  I was torn between never wanting to let Plum out of my sight and wanting to trade places with her.  Adoration and jealousy were constantly at war inside of me.

My life now had a purpose.  Instead of dreading lonely evenings, I looked forward to nightly contact with her.  She was my passport to a world that had previously been off-limits.  I’m almost ashamed to admit literally sitting by the phone.  Waiting for it to ring was agonizing.  Imagine offering a cool drink to someone dying of thirst.  What can I say?  I was extremely thirsty.

Things weren’t all sweetness and light though.  My relief at feeling vital after walking around numb was tempered by frustration.  The more I saw of her life, the more jealousy chipped away at me.  Why did Plum get to be beautiful, popular and successful?

I was a good person, at least I tried to be.  Didn’t I deserve some modicum of success?  The unfairness of it all caught in my throat.  I felt guilty all of the time because my feelings for Plum were deepening.  It was undeniable though, I wanted power with the naked desire that only the downtrodden can feel.