The Final Stroke

‘When?’ they had asked him. ‘When shall we do the deed? Upon his arrival or as he leaves?’

Pulling the dusty curtain to one side, William looked down into the dark alley below.  They were down there now, in the shadows of the doorway. Out of sight, they were efficient. At least that is what he had been told by Percy. He had said that they did this thing often. They never questioned the motive. Three questions; Who? Where? and When? The who and where was easy enough. The when needed more thought.  He heard the clip clip of a ladies heels on the cobblestones and watched as the love of his life stepped into the alley. With her husband, the General.  His benefactor.

He let the curtain drop back into place and glanced around his studio. The cheap tallow candles smelled like stale beef and the smoke stung his eyes. The room was sparse and squalid but what it lacked in luxurious furniture it more than made for with the wonderful art that hung from the walls. A finer collection than any palace in France, or any museum in Italy. All of it painted by him. The centre of the room was dominated by his latest masterpiece. It was draped in an old, paint spattered drop cloth. That irked him somewhat but it was of little consequence, soon he would be able to afford the finest of silks. He was tempted to take another look at the painting but stopped himself. There was no need. He simply closed his eyes and could picture every detail of the beauty beneath.

He would admit that the commission for the General had not been his idea. In fact when Percy had brought the offer to him he had had turned it down at first. He was an artist and did not want to sell out like those painters who cow-towed to any patron willing to part with a few coins, a few more to make them look handsome. Percy had insisted the commission was a worthy endeavour and William had agreed. His rent was two months overdue and he was yet to sell a single piece of his art, the money would come in useful. So he agreed. And then he saw her.

He recalled the long sessions in the lavish sitting room, she would look up at him with eyes as blue as the Aegean, and he told her how to sit, how to arrange her hair, her gown; when to move, when to breathe. She was beautiful and followed his every command without question. Before the painting was completed they were both in love. There had been a temptation to tarry with the completion but he was eager to show off.

An impatient knock at the door reminded him of the job at hand. He flung open his door and bowed deeply. The General burst into the room like a tornado, his entrance upsetting the papers on the desk and the dust on the shelves.

‘Well? I’m here, man. Let me see what my money has bought me and then let us away to civilized company.’

William had prepared a speech for the great unveiling but the General grabbed the drop cloth and pulled it away revealing the painting of his wife underneath.

The General stood before it silently. William sneaked a look at the beautiful woman who would soon be his. She smiled at him and his resolve hardened. He opened his mouth to address the General but was interrupted.

‘What the hell is this?’ The older man boomed.

William was confused. This painting was the best thing that he had ever produced, looking upon the beautiful face he could see the love shining in her eyes, her stance, her expression. Then he realised that was his mistake. The General must have saw something in that expression that he had never saw in his wife.

‘Slattern.’ The General backhanded his wife; a spray of blood fanned across the painting.

William let out a shriek and grabbed for the older man but the General had soldiered through the ranks in Egypt and Afghanistan. In a blur of steel and candlelight the blade was in his hand. Then in Williams chest.

William collapsed to the floor and watched the General push past his wife and charge down the steps. Sounds of a scuffle drifted up from the alley.

‘When?’ they had asked.

‘As he leaves,’ he had told them. ‘It would be unfair for him to die without seeing such a beautiful work as I have created for him.’

The Side of the Road – Short Story

 

The Side of the Road.

His voice was high pitched and overly friendly, like an excited beagle,

‘Hey buddy, where ya heading?’

I bent to look into the rusty, grey sedan and my eyes took a second to adjust to the interior light. His face was round and flabby with red cheeks as if he had decided at some point to become a jolly fat man and had spent years perfecting the look. I had to decide whether or not to accept his offer of a ride or just punch him in the face and go back to hitch hiking. It had been a quiet night, and the road was starting to sparkle with frost in the moonlight.

‘Tucson,’ I answered, I didn’t wait for a response but tossed my bag on top of a briefcase on the backseat and climbed in.

The car smelled of watermelon flavoured air-freshener and coffee. The radio was turned down low enough that I couldn’t make out what the DJ was saying but loud enough that it was an annoying buzz.

‘The name is Al, by the way,’ he said, ‘ Big Al from Albuquerque. That’s the best way to remember it. Al –buquerque.’

I nodded and pulled the door closed. I knew he would be a talker. He looked at me expectedly. He wanted my name; it would be easy to give it to him or make something up, but I didn’t say anything. Maybe he would get the hint.

He didn’t.

‘Comes in handy, in my line of work. When people can remember your name.’ He slipped the car into drive and pulled back out onto the interstate., ‘When people need a new photocopier the first thing they think is I’ll call that guy Al from Albuquerque..’

I reached under the seat and found the lever that let me push it back so that I could stretch out my legs.

‘And then when I’m leaving I always look at them in the eyes and say ‘Al be back.’ You know? Like the Terminator? Al be back. It helps to embed the memory. I learned that on a course. Embedding is important.’

‘Yup,’ I answered and crossed my arms. I had a knife in my back pocket, and Al was very close to having it embedded in his skull.

‘Go ahead and make yourself comfortable. There’s hot coffee there if you want it.

That may have just saved Al’s life. I hadn’t had a cup of coffee in almost six hours, a new personal record. I poured the coffee from a flask into a cardboard cup.

‘Thanks,’ I muttered. And actually meant it.

The coffee was fairly hot and not too bad. I sighed as the hot liquid coursed down my throat and through my veins to my fingertips. The combination of caffeine and heat made me feel alive again. ‘That’s the good stuff right there. Best coffee west of the Rio Grande.’ Al ruined it by speaking.

The only thing to be seen through the windscreen was the road ahead. A cold grey slab running through the barren desert in the dead of night. A photograph of a young woman was clipped to the heater vent and flickered slightly in the warm air. I reached for it and sensed Al stiffen beside me. I touched it but didn’t remove it from the clip.

‘That’s Wilma.’

I hadn’t asked but nodded and leaned back. She looked familiar, but I couldn’t place her. Maybe it was an old photo. Or a newer one. I didn’t want to start a conversation, but the girl in the photo buzzed at the edge of my memories like a horsefly.

‘Your wife?’

Al smiled as if he had finally got the reaction that he wanted,

‘Yes indeed. Married for twenty years. That’s an old photo, though. Taken back in ninety-two down at the beach in Galveston. That’s how I’ll always remember her. My Wilma.’

‘I’ve never been.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Galveston, I’ve never been there.’ I lied.

‘You should go there. It’s a beautiful place. Lovely beaches. Warm too, better than hitchhiking at in the freezing cold. You hitchhike much?’

‘Nah. First time.’ I led again, ‘And last.’ I added for effect.

‘Probably for the best with the Billboard Killer around. Aren’t you afraid.’

‘Never heard of him.’ I could feel the presence of the switchblade in my back pocket. I had been hiking these roads for the last two weeks just hoping to run into this Billboard Killer.

‘It’s been all over the radio for months. TV too probably.’ Al almost bounced with excitement; I wondered how much of that coffee ha had drank himself.  I shrugged.

‘He picks up guys like you. Hitchhikers, I mean. Murders them and buries them in a shallow grave beside a billboard. Different billboard every time, of course.’

‘Of course,’ I muttered. I wondered if there was any way to shut this guy up.

‘You’re probably thinking that the cops should just stake out all billboards and wait for him to show up. But this guys too smart for that. He spreads his victims throughout three states. Forty counties. He’s a smart one alright.’

Yes, one victim a month for the first three months then two and now three already this month and it was only half way through the month. He was escalating, he had a taste for it now. It wasn’t unusual for serial killers, and it was the reason that most of them got caught. Escalate to the point of madness. Like blowing up an evil balloon; you can only inflate it so much before it explodes.

‘The radio says he’s escalating.’

‘What are you some kind of serial killer fan? ‘ I said.

‘No. I hate those guys. If I ever got my hands on one I would…’ He stopped and looked away, into the darkness.

I was impressed; Al looked like he meant it. There was a brief flicker of madness in his eyes. I recognised it from some of the guys back home. Bad men. Hell, I probably had that look in my own eyes sometimes.

He composed himself and looked at me; the madness had been replaced by tears.

‘Wilma was killed by a serial killer.’

Shit.

‘He set off from Albuquerque one day heading west to see her parents, but no one ever saw her again. We found her car in the desert a week later.’

‘Maybe she ran off.’

He touched the brake slightly as if considering pulling over. Maybe he was going to kick me out the car. Maybe that would be for the best.

‘No, she would never do that. It was a serial killer.’

‘Or, maybe just a regular killer.’

 

He looked over at the black briefcase sitting on the back seat.

‘See that. That’s my evidence. Years of work. There’s a serial killer out there. Nobody even knows he exists.’

I was starting to think that Al from Albuquerque had a little crazy in him when the car engine stuttered and stalled. Al guided the car over onto the side of the road as it ground to a halt with one last death rattle.

‘Dagnammit.  Stupid car. I don’t believe. Again.’

‘Again? You mean this heap does this a lot?’

Al pushed open the door and wheezed as he squeezed himself out.,

‘No. Well, you know, now and again. She covers a lot of miles, and she’s no spring chicken.’

‘No, she’s a rusty old heap of a car.’ I kicked the door open and grabbed my bag on the way out. I started walking down the road. Hopefully, the sun would be up soon, and I could catch some poor soul heading for work.

‘Where are you going buddy?’

‘Nowhere in that heap. Thanks for the coffee’ I said over my shoulder.

The dark road stretched out before me, and I saw a reflection of dawn in purple clouds to the east. A heavy weight knocked me from my feet, and I rolled over to see Al looming over me. He held a baseball bat in his hands, pulled back like he was ready for a home run.

‘You crazy bastard.’ I reached back for my switchblade.

‘Was it you?’ He asked.

‘What?’

‘Did you kill Wilma?’

‘No dude. It wasn’t me.’

‘That’s what they all say.’ He swung wildly.

He missed, and I rolled to the side. I jumped to my feet and stepped back as he swung again. I drew the blade and stepped in, pushing the knife deep into his stomach. He gasped. I stabbed him again and again until my hand was slippery with blood and the knife handle slid in my grip.  The sight and smell of the blood made me dizzy; that was unusual.

He grabbed my blood covered shirt, ‘It was you. You killed her.’

‘Not sure, dude, it’s possible, she did look familiar but, there’s been so many.’

He smiled up at me, ‘I finally got you. I knew that I would.’

I tried to pull his hand away but felt weak. I broke free and staggered away.  Blood was bubbled from his mouth. Was he laughing? He really was crazy. How did a stupid, fat slob like that manage to take out so many people with just a baseball bat? I felt a pain burn in my stomach and before I could stop myself, I vomited onto the sand. What the hell?

I staggered over to him.

‘What did you do? What did you do to me?’

I dropped to my knees and held my stomach against them pain. I rolled onto the ground.

I watched as the sun slid over the horizon, I could feel the heat on my face, and my nose was filled with the sour smell of bile and coffee.

It’s a boy – 100 Words

The oversized ceiling fans did nothing to cool the humid, hotel lobby. My brother-in-law burst into the lobby and yelled, “It’s a boy.” He ran to the bar, ignoring the bemused patrons who paused to watch him. I had anticipated his arrival and had a whisky sour waiting for him. He grabbed it and downed it in one gulp.

“I can’t believe it, a boy…”

I nodded and tried to hide a smile. This was his first. I hope he hadn’t fainted like I had.

I sipped from own drink then put it down on the counter, “Welcome to Thailand.”