Author Adam Decker

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Chapter 18

The good, the bad, and the ugly

I

      Despite her heart pounding in her chest, Heather fought the urge to run and

finished with Max Sheehan’s arm. Even if she escaped, what then? As much as

her mother interfered in her life she was still her mother. Despite all her mother’s

aggravating ways, her obtuse view of the world and how things were, Heather still

loved her. And she wouldn’t take the chance of leaving her with this killer, even if

it were for a quick run to get help. Several thoughts raced through Heather’s

mind. An unfortunate number of coincidences must have come into play to bring

the man that had killed Roman’s parents into her own home six years later. How

many nights while her father was away at work had her mother stay in the house

alone with this evil man? Chills ran up her spine at the thought. Why hadn’t he

tried anything? Or was it just a matter of when? How bad would it hurt Roman to

relive that night again at the sight of his parents’ killer? The most important thing

though was getting her mother and herself out alive.

      During their brief combat session several weeks earlier, Roman had told

her there were only two choices when faced with a mortal conflict—fight or run.

Running was out of the question at this particular juncture. And even though

Roman had taught her the basics of self-defense, Heather was not thrilled at the

idea of testing them against this John Smith or whatever his name was. Heather

opted for a more subtle choice.

     “We should call an ambulance for you now, Mr. Smith,” Heather said

trying to hide the fear in her voice.

     Why is she nervous all of the sudden, John? Does she know the tattoo on

your arm really belongs to me somehow? “No, that won’t be necessary. You did a

good job fixing me up and I think it’ll be fine.”

     “Well,” Heather said clapping her hands together and stepping away. “I

guess I should go up and get my backpack so I can study. Hope you feel better,

John.” Heather tried to keep a slow pace as she walked over and ascended the

winding staircase.

     Why is she in such a hurry? What is she running from? “I better get

going. Sorry for the mess,” John said to Gina as he walked toward the double

doors, ignoring Max’s voice.

     “Don’t worry John, the staff will get it. I’m so sorry you had an accident.

Won’t you go to the hospital? Heather is going to be a doctor someday you know?

She wouldn’t tell you to go unless she really thought you needed medical

attention.”

      “I’m sure I’ll be fine. Thank you for worrying.” John Smith put his hand

on the doorknob, but something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye.

Under the coat rack, on the floor, lay Heather’s backpack. John closed his eyes

and took a deep breath. She knows who you are, John. Why would she lie about

something so trivial if it weren’t to escape your presence? As we speak, she is

probably pressing the numbers into a phone that will finally craft our doom. It’s

time to let me out, John. John grabbed the medallion hanging around his neck.

     “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” I can make them pay for this

John. I can make it right. “Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the

fruit of thy womb.” I can bring them pain. I can show them what real power is.

     “John, are you all right?” Gina asked.

     “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our

death.” What do you say John? Time’s a’wasting. If we’re going to go out, let’s

at least go out with a bang. Let’s have some fun, shall we? John grabbed his head

with both hands and pressed, like his head was in a vice. He shook it back and

forth violently. A moment later the thrashing stopped. He stood looking at the

door, calm and still, and instead of turning the doorknob he locked it.

    “Mr. Smith what is wrong?”

     Max Sheehan turned around and faced her, smiling and tilting his head to

one side. “There is no Mr. Smith, Mrs. Hawthorne; there never was.”

    “What? What are you talking about?”

    John walked around her slowly, circling his prey and devouring it from

head to toe with his eyes.

    “I demand you stop this behavior. You’re scaring me.”

    John grabbed her by the back of the neck and pulled her into his chest. The

more she wriggled to get free the tighter his grip became. He whispered into her

ear. “Scared? You don’t know the meaning of the word.”

    John released her. Gina ran two steps until the back of his hand smashed

into her face. She lay horizontal in the air like a wrestler that just got clothes-lined,

and then she dropped, her head bouncing off the marble tile, knocking her

unconscious.

II

     The security system had been installed in the Hawthorne mansion at the

same time the house was built—twenty-three years ago. The idea of updating the

system had never even come up. The Hawthornes had never had so much as a

peeping tom on the premises, and there was already security a mile down the road

at the guard shack in front of the entrance to their subdivision. The private security

guards made routine drive-bys throughout the rich neighborhood several times

around the clock. The only problem of course was that John Smith’s truck was on

the list of authorized vehicles because of his work at the mansion.

     Heather stood in front of the keypad looking at the different buttons. There

was a red bell that she took to mean “alarm”. Even if the security system was not

wired to the local police via phone line a blaring siren might get the attention of the

houses nearby or even the guard shack. Heather pushed it.

    When nothing happened after several seconds she pressed it again. And

when there was no sign of life she pressed the other two buttons. One was a

musical note with a line through it, which Heather assumed was for a silent alarm.

    The other was a flame for the fire department. Neither one of them produced a

response from the plastic keypad on the wall.

     Heather scampered down the hallway to her room, shutting and locking

the door behind her. She pulled out her cell phone from her jeans’ pocket, flipping

it open and pressing 9-1-1. The display read “low battery” and there were no bars

left on the power meter. The call dialed but never connected. Again she pressed

the green button and the numbers dialed but did not connect. She scrolled through

her phone book on the display and hit the name “Tony.” The call connected and

began to ring but there wasn’t an answer, not even a voice mail. Back and forth

she went from Tony’s cell to 9-1-1 until eventually the light from her display went

dark and the phone was completely dead. She jumped across her bed, and found

the cordless phone missing from her nightstand. She dropped down to the floor

and looked under the bed. She ripped through the pillows and stuffed animals

propped up against the headboard. She scanned her dresser, her makeup chair,

bookshelves—all in vain. She ran to her bathroom, rummaged through the sink,

tore open the doors, looked in the shower, the closet, the hamper—no phone. At

that moment the lights in the house went out. Only the light from the moon came

in through the drapes. John Smith had found the circuit breaker.

     Heather slid back across her bed, stopped at the door in front of her, and

unlocked it. Slowly, trying to avoid the softest creak of its hinges, she opened it

and peeked her head out. Down the long now dark hallway at the top of the stairs

was the gray shadowy outline of John Smith. She could see the bulkiness of his

bandaged left arm. Even with the absence of light his eyes seemed to sparkle like a

cat. And they saw her at once.

    Her only chance was to get the phone in her parents’ room. It was caddy-corner

from hers, a mere forty feet to the left. John was at least a hundred feet

away but he was already sprinting down the hallway. Heather took a deep breath

and bolted diagonally across the hall, too scared to look at her pursuer’s location

and too full of adrenaline to veer off course.

    She jumped through the doorway, feeling John’s fingertips swipe at the

ends of her blonde locks and landed on her knees. She turned and grabbed the

doorknob, hoping to slam the door and lock it at the same time. It wouldn’t shut;

the bandaged hand of John Smith was grasping the doorjamb.

    Heather jumped to her feet, pulled open the door slightly and with all her

weight and might slammed it on the hand of her attacker. John let out an agonizing

bellow but still held to the frame of the doorway. Heather repeated the maneuver

again and again, this time in shorter strokes. Open and slam. Open and slam.

    Finally, the hand receded, and the door closed. Heather tried to turn the doorknob

for good measure. It did not move.

    The phone sat in the corner of the room on a nightstand. It was white with

gold trim around the base, mouth, and earpieces. Her body was trembling and

when she ordered her legs to run, but they only staggered. She could feel her heart

pounding against her rib cage. Her fingers pressed the three emergency digits once

more as she put the receiver to her ear. No ring. No dial tone. Only silence. She

pressed down the holder and let go, only to hear the automated voice of a woman.

    “If you would like to make a call, please hang up and try again.” Then it dawned

on her. John had taken one of the receivers off the hook downstairs.

     Heather slid down the nightstand as if she were melting, still holding the

phone, and now crying. There was a pounding sound from the middle of the door

and Heather could see it jarring violently with each blow. It was not if John’s

shoulder could bust down the door, but when. Roman was right, there were only

two choices, and now she was down to the last of them. Through her tears she

could see her mother’s purse lying on the bed. She could either sit there and die, or

do something and have a chance to live. Struggling to regain control of herself,

Heather walked over to the bed.

III

    Roman didn’t lie. He drank only one beer. Me and Carl had no problem

guzzling down the other eleven. With each beer the conversation slowed and by

the end of the twelve pack, the stadium crew shut down the lights of the stadium.

It was our cue to go home I guess.

    The Pinto fired on the first try. Carl sat in the front seat because the Tavern

was the first stop. Roman sat in the back seat looking out the window at the night

sky, probably reciting names of stars and constellations in that restless brain of his.

    Halfway to Carl’s watering hole—as he called it—our odd but astute friend

noticed my cell phone under the console. “Say guy, I think your phone is trying to

tell ya something.”

    I picked it up, noticing the blinking display—4 missed calls. Secretly I

wished at least one of those calls were from Sally, even if it was just to tell me

good game. But they were all from Heather’s cell phone. I clicked on her number

but it went right to her voice mail. “Huh, that’s odd. Four missed calls all from

Heather.”

    “Did she leave a message?” Roman asked.

     “No message.” I scrolled to the call time and noticed that all four calls

occurred in the same minute. “She called four times in a row, but didn’t leave a

message.”

    “Do you mind if I take a look?” Roman asked.

    I handed the phone back as we pulled up in front of The Tavern.

    “Many thanks fella. Carl owes ya.”

    “You don’t owe me anything Carl, that’s what partners are for, right?”

     Roman got out of the back and sat in the passenger seat. Carl shut the door

but leaned in through the window. “Aye partners, and I’d just like to say how

lucky Carl is in having you fellas as such. Probably wouldn’t been around this

long if it weren’t for the two of ya.”

    Roman stuck his hand out to shake. “You’re all right yourself Carl.”

    “You fellas take good care of yourselves now. Stay away from the crack

whores.”

     Any other night Carl would be hopping out of the car in a beeline for the

Tavern door. But tonight, as I drove off, I could see him in the rear mirror view

standing on the sidewalk with his hand up, as if he were saying one final goodbye.

     “Heather’s house line is busy,” Roman said. “Why would she call four

times in a row unless it was important?”

     “Maybe she didn’t call. Maybe the phone was just in her pocket and she

bumped it or something. You know how those cell phones are.”

    “The Hawthorne’s have call waiting. The only way the line would be busy

is if there was trouble with the phone lines or the phone was off the hook.

Something is wrong. I just have a feeling.”

     “You want me to take you up there?”

     “If you don’t mind.”

IV

    The fifth ram of John’s shoulder broke the lock and the door burst open,

throwing splinters through the air. A glance in front of him, then to his left. He

looked behind what remained of the door hanging on its hinges. He didn’t have

time to react. The mace hit his eyes at point-blank range and stung immediately.

This was probably the first time Heather was thankful for Gina’s disregard

for the feelings of her fellow human beings. On her mother’s key chain was

always a tiny bottle of the eye irritant, and while Gina always talked of using it on

the would-be thugs and thieves of lower class society, Heather was grateful to be

using it on John Smith. She sprayed the contents of the small can into the killer’s

face until it blew nothing but air.

     John lunged at her with closed eyes and managed to grab hold of her.

Without one thought, Heather kneed him in the testicles. And when he grabbed his

crotch she planted her knuckles in an upper cut directly to the bottom of his nose.

Blood sprayed through the air. John’s groan was the only sound until the dull thud

of his knees hit the floor.

    Heather stood with her fists clinched, ready to go to war with him. But

when he made no effort to get up, the voice of reason crept back into her head. It

was that voice she listened to as she ran down the hallway to the staircase, yelling

for her mother. There was no response.

    After scouring the entire first floor eventually she found her mother on the

sofa in her relaxation room with mouth, wrists, and ankles duct taped. Heather

ripped the tape from Gina’s mouth. Her mother’s eyes were filled with tears but

she was conscious.

    “Oh dear, are you all right?” Gina whispered.

     “We’ve got to get out of here mother. He’s still up stairs.”

     “I can’t move.”

     Heather tried to rip the tape from her mother’s ankles but it was wound

around tight several times. “I’ll be right back.”

     “No don’t leave me, I beg you, Heather!”

Heather left without arguing, bypassing the staircase and running for the

kitchen. She found her way in the dark by feeling for the refrigerator, then the

counter top, stove, and finally the rack of knives. She felt for the thickest handle

and pulled the butcher knife from its sheath. She heard water run upstairs, no

doubt Mr. Smith washing the mace from his eyes in one of the bathrooms.

Heather sprinted back to the relaxation room with knife in hand. She could

hear the voice of her kindergarten teacher telling her to never ever run with

scissors in your hand. Miss Joyce would have to forgive her.

     She sawed first through the tape on her mother’s ankles and then on her

wrists. She pulled her mother up and caught her around the waist when Gina’s

knees buckled beneath her. “I’m so dizzy. I hit my head on the floor earlier.”

    “Just hold on to my waist and I’ll lead us out.”

     There was a loud thump at the top of the stairs and then several smaller

ones, like the low roll of a bowling ball. Heather proceeded anyway, holding the

knife out away from her body. And though it shook with the tremors in her hand,

there was no doubt she would cut John Smith’s throat if it came to it.

    As they passed through the doorway to the stairs, John jumped from the

seventh step and knocked them to the floor. Heather lost her grip and the knife slid

across the marble tile into the room from which they had just come. All three of

them wallowed on the floor for a moment, dazed from the crash.

    John was first to his feet and went for the knife. Heather helped her mother

up and dragged her to the door. Heather went for the lock but John charged, knife

in hand. Having no choice she veered away from the door.

    John took several swipes but missed. Realizing he had easier prey, John

pulled Gina up from the floor and stood behind her holding the steel blade to her

throat. “Move into the room.” John nodded toward the relaxation room.

    “Don’t do it Heather,” Gina said as she gasped for air. “If you go in, he’ll

kill us both. If you run, you’ll live. Leave me.”

     Heather saw the tears in her mother’s eyes and they started to flow once

again in her own. It would be easy enough to open the double doors next to her for

freedom. But there was no way she could get to the guard shack or anywhere else

for that matter in time to save her mother. John would kill her before he fled, out

of spite if for nothing else.

     Heather walked into the room in front of John and her mother. She now

knew what fear was, what people thought moments before they were to be tortured

or killed, what Roman’s mother must have felt six years ago in her basement.

    Numbness went through Heather’s body—some sort of defense mechanism the

brain produced when it couldn’t accept the atrocity of a situation.

     John pushed Gina down on the sofa. He stood behind the couch with the

knife still at her throat. “Take the tape and tie her wrists, ankles, and mouth,” John

instructed.

    Heather obliged. Her motions were slow and deliberate, emotionless from

shock, thinking all the while that every second she obeyed bought more time to

keep her and her mother alive. Maybe her father would come home from his

business trip. Maybe the security system did send out a silent distress and the

police would come crashing in. Maybe Roman would somehow know she was in

trouble and save her once again.

    John cut the cord of a lamp next to the window and fashioned it around the

duct tape surrounding Gina’s wrist. He pulled it tight, strung it over the back of

the sofa, and tied the other end to one of the sofa legs. Now, Gina could only

watch.

    “Take off your jeans,” John said.

     Heather unbuttoned them, and slid them down to the floor. “You don’t

have to do this. You could turn and leave and nobody would follow you. Nobody

would stop you. You could drive off and disappear and start somewhere new like

none of this ever happened.”

    “Get down on the floor.”

    “And then I could be a normal teenager. I could go to the Prom and

graduate with my friends, go to college and become a doctor and help people.”

    “Shut up!” John walked up to her, stopped only a few feet away and

gestured with the knife. “Get on the floor.”

    Heather lay down on the floor. “I could marry some day and have kids of

my own. I could take them for bike rides to the park. I would hug them, kiss

them, and love them. I would make them feel warm and safe, like my parents did

for me. I would tell them everyday how much they meant to me, how special they

were. How I would never let anything happen to them.”

    John wiped his swollen eyes with his bandaged hand, trying not to listen.

He looked at the half-naked body at his feet. Her eyes were unafraid.

    “You can rape me and kill me. But you can never take my heart. You can

never feel who I am. You can’t take my memories. You’ll never erase my father

taking me for ice cream, my dance lessons when I was three, the games I cheered

at, the songs on the piano, the hugs and kisses, shooting basketball in the driveway,

lunch with my friends, running in the morning with the sun along side me,

laughter.” Heather had gotten to her feet now and was face to face with the

monster. “You can kill me but you’ll never take my life.”

    John stood there staring at her. Never had he encountered one such as her.

The rest of them had begged and pleaded for their lives at one point or another. He

could see the fear shiver through their skin and echo in their eyes. It was the fear

that fueled him, that fed the black hole in his empty soul and satisfied it at least for

a short while. But not this one. She stood in front of him and spoke the wishes of

a child, wishes like he too once had. And now he could hear John Smith in his

head, praying and crying to let her go.

    Heather could see the battle going on behind his teary eyes. The knife was

no longer pointed at her. It hung down to the side and shook as it had when she’d

held it. At that moment there was pounding on the front door.

    “Heather!” Roman’s voice called.

    Max’s head snapped toward the noise and then came back to her. He

walked briskly toward the door, hobbled by the staircase, and disappeared toward

the back of the mansion.

   “Roman!” Heather cried she ran for the front door.

The door opened and immediately she was holding onto him, sobbing on

his shoulder, telling him between gasping breaths of her awful encounter with the

monster that six years ago had killed his mother.

V

    Roman passed off the part about the man being his parents’ killer as the

hysterical talk of someone who had just been through a traumatic event.

    Eventually we got Heather and her mother calmed down to a point where the tears

had stopped and we could understand what they were saying. Max had left the

butcher knife on one of the steps as he escaped, and Roman used it to free Gina

from her bonds. Heather put her jeans back on and found a quilt to throw over her

shoulders even though it seemed to be a hundred degrees in the house. Sometimes

being cold had nothing to do with the temperature. I found my way through the

dark and turned the circuit breaker back on. Now the four of us sat in the living

room.

    “I’m calling the police,” I said and flipped out my phone.

    “This is all my fault,” Gina began as she sipped from her water glass. “I

should have never worried about those steps. The dining room was beautiful the

way it was.”

     “You could have never have known, mom, that the guy you hired just

happened to be a serial killer.”

    “I know better than to deal with Mr. Flowers though. His employees are

often far from the salt of the earth.”

    “Mr. Flowers?” Roman asked surprised.

    “He’s the one that recommended that horrible man. John is rebuilding Mr.

Flowers’s warehouse that burned down.”

    Roman shot me a glance.

    Heather stood up from her chair and walked over to Roman. She put her

hand in his trying to dull the blow she was about to drop on him. “Roman, this

John Smith had the brightest blue eyes I’ve ever seen and…” She hesitated.

    “And what?”

    “And…on his right forearm there was a tattoo of a woman in a spider web.”

    “It can’t be.” Roman paled, falling into the chair next to him, deflating like

someone had ripped his soul out of his chest. He put his hands on his knees and

looked at the floor, trying to put a mental rope around the rock that had just

crushed his mind.

    Gina began to sob. “I’m afraid I’ve made a terrible mistake, Heather. A

few months ago I tried to persuade Roman to leave town. Here I was plotting to

break the two of you up and thinking of ways to ruin him. I even had him

suspended from school. If it weren’t for him showing up and knocking on the door

when he did, we wouldn’t be alive right now.” Gina walked over to Roman and

hugged him as she continued to cry. “I was wrong about you, Roman. Please

forgive me.”

    Roman said nothing, only continued to stare into nowhere.

    Heather ignored her mother as well; she worried only for Roman now, and

what he might do.

   “The police are on their way,” I said.

    “I’ve got to find him,” Roman said. “I have to face him.”

    “For what?” Heather objected.

    “I’m not sure.” Roman got up and walked into the foyer, his mind already

entrenched in the business of finding this so-called John Smith. He noticed three

little droplets of blood on the marble and then every few feet more splatters. He

followed the trail through the to the lower level and then out onto the stone patio.

    A few minutes later Roman was on the other side of the Hawthorne property,

standing at the tree line and staring into the woods. I caught up to him there.

    “There’s only one place north of here for him to run to, Tony,” Roman said.

    I knew exactly what Roman was thinking. Besides the Hollow and more

forest, the only thing that lay in the direction John Smith was heading was The

Flower’s property about five miles away through the woods. “Look, the cops’ll be

here any minute. They’ll catch him in no time.”

   “That’s why I have to catch him first. Give me your keys.”

    “Man, I don’t think this such a good idea. I mean, so what if you catch up

to him, then what?”

    “I want answers. Just answers.”

    “No matter what you do to him Roman, or what he tells you, it’s not going

to bring your parents back.”

    “Either you give me your keys, or I’ll run there through the woods.”

     My granddad always said that if you leave a loaded gun laying around long

enough, eventually someone is going to fire it. Roman’s anger was no different.

Calm was an understatement in describing the way he’d handled the last six years.

All the bullshit that he’d put up with, Ed Pentoch, the NN—all because a man

decided to walk into an Iowa farmhouse and kill his mother. Roman was a loaded

a gun—and John Smith had just picked it up.

    Roman was going no matter what I said or did so I decided to drive him to

the warehouse that housed Extravaganza. Or at least I thought I was going to drive

him. At the Pinto Roman took my keys but didn’t stop me from entering the

passenger side. It was only the second time I’d ever seen him drive. Roman had

his foot to the floorboard and the Pinto was wound out at a depressing seventy-five

miles an hour. Roman did not speak on our short journey. He didn’t seem to be

nervous or angry. His eyes were on the road almost nonchalantly, as if we were

going to school or Scotty’s house for a party. I thought about how differently I

looked at my life now: how many strange twists and turns had come my way since

meeting my talented friend, how in a million years I never thought I’d be in a car

traveling to confront a serial killer. And as we pulled up in front of the warehouse,

secretly I hoped that the man we sought would not be there.

    The warehouse was dark gray—primer I’m sure for the upcoming pink

coating that the Flower would insist on. Part of the roof was still not complete, and

it stood out like an open wound to the sky. The front door was wide open—not a

good sign depending on your point of view.

    We made our way up the steps to the walkway in front of the grandstand.

There was no electrical lighting; only the pale blue light of the moon shone in

through the missing part of the roof. In the middle of the arena floor was a new

addition to The Flower’s circus: silver chains hung from ceiling to floor, sparkling

like diamonds. It was dark in the grandstands, but I could hear John Smith. He sat

near the top, talking to himself and laughing like a mad man.

    Roman followed the cackle, walking up the aisle one step at a time, as if he

were going to talk to an old friend. John Smith made no attempt to run and never

even acknowledged our presence. I went further down the walkway until I could

see the man’s blue eyes and part of his face. And then I froze—unsure of what

was to happen next.

   John Smith sat on the top row smiling and crying at the same time. Roman

stood a row in front of him.

   “Are you the angel of death?” John Smith asked.

    “Sure.” Roman hit the man, knocking him into the aisle that ran down to

my walkway. Roman grabbed the bandaged hand of Heather’s attacker at the same

time kicking him in the stomach. John toppled down the stairs of the aisle head

first, his bandage unraveling like a streamer in the wind and his hairpiece

shredding itself against the aisle. He came to a stop halfway down, but Roman

kicked him again. This time he tumbled all the way to the walkway, ending just

shy of my feet. I moved back in a panic.

    There were no grunts or groans, only thick mucous-filled laughter of a

sociopath. Roman came down the stairs to the walkway as well and stood waiting

for his parents’ killer to make the next move.

    John struggled to his feet, holding his side, wheezing as if one of his lungs

was punctured. “You’re not the angel of death,” he managed to say. “You’re just

a boy.”

    Roman answered by clotheslining him over the railing to the arena floor.

John hit the dirt, knocking his wind out. Roman jumped over the rail and landed

on his feet. I climbed underneath it and hoisted myself down. Roman waited

patiently for the man to regain his breath and get to his feet.

    “What do want with me?” John asked, hunched over in pain.

Roman kicked him in the face, snapping him back to an upright position.

    The moonlight turned the blood spray from his nose into black mist. Another kick

to the stomach planted John in the dirt again. Roman waited for his enemy to get

slowly to his feet.

    “Who are you?” John asked.

    “I’m the angel of death, remember?”

     John took a swing at Roman, only to have his face elbowed, his scrotum

kneed, and his body tripped back to the dirt. He got up more quickly this time

though and charged. Roman grabbed him by the arm and smashed him into the

arena wall.

   “Who the fuck are you?” John cried.

   Roman grabbed John’s right ear and yanked. It tore from his head with a

soft popping sound like rubber tearing. Roman shoved the severed ear into the

serial killer’s mouth. John grabbed the new hole in the side of his head and began

to laugh again, spitting out his own ear onto the dirt. Roman hit him in the neck,

using the angled space on his hand between his thumb and index finger.

    They worked their way across the arena floor until they were under the

chains of The Flower’s crude new circus device. Roman watched as the broken

John Smith gasped for air. The right side of his face was covered in blood and his

left eye was swollen shut. John had given up with the questions and now stood

there waiting for Roman to attack him again. Instead Roman grabbed one wrist

and locked it into the chain, and then the other. John did not try to test the chain’s

endurance.

    “What is your name? I know it is not John Smith.”

    John just stood there.

    Roman kicked him as hard as he could, snapping the monster’s leg between

the knee and ankle. It sounded like a branch of a tree breaking under its own

weight. The bone poked through John’s skin and his jeans. He let out a scream of

pain that echoed throughout the arena—a noise close to that of the people who’d

been eaten alive by the starving dogs four months before. Roman waited for his

wailing to end.

   “Max Sheehan,” he answered, breathing hard.

    “Let me try and help you remember who I am. We met briefly six years

ago in an Iowa farmhouse. You raped and killed my mother. I shot at you only to

hit and kill my father instead.”

   Max hung his head. “I remember. I am sorry.”

   “Sorry? Sorry is not going to get it done. I want to know why.”

   Max shook his head back and forth slowly. “I don’t know. I don’t know

why.”

    Roman reared back and punched him in the face. He repeated the action

until there was no energy left in the muscles of his arm. He grabbed Max by the

shirt collar and brought him eye level.

    “You took my life from me!” Roman screamed into his face. “You tortured

and killed my mother! Because of you I see myself blowing off my father’s head

every time I close my eyes. I don’t sleep. You’ve altered my existence forever

and you don’t know why? Because of you I endured nightly beatings from the

man who replaced my father. Because of you I know only loss, only pain. You

took everything from me.” Roman ended his tirade by spitting in the blood-soaked

face in front of him.

   “There’s something inside of me that’s different from normal people,” Max

began. “It’s been there since I was a boy, a void in the middle of me where my

heart should be. And no matter who I kill it only satisfies the void temporarily.

With every rape it grows larger and wants more. It’s like the hunger you feel in

your stomach. Only I can never make it full. I can never make it stop. I pray

every night for Jesus to take the darkness out of me.”

   “Isn’t that ironic?” I’ve prayed every night that He would deliver you to

me. That He would just give me fifteen minutes alone with you in the dark. Who

says He doesn’t answer prayers?”

    Roman could see the medallion around Max’s neck reflecting the

moonlight from above. He grabbed the gold piece and thumbed off the blood. “St.

Jude.”

   “The patron saint of lost causes,” Max mumbled.

   “Indeed, but do you know why he is the saint of lost causes?”

    “No,” Max said.

    “Jude sounds very much like another prominent name in the Bible doesn’t

it? Early Christians were scared to pray to Jude and used him only as a last resort

because they were afraid Judas might be on the receiving end instead. Maybe all

along your prayers have realized their greatest fear.”

   “It matters not, I am saved by the risen Jesus.”

    “Really. I wonder what all the women you’ve killed are telling Jesus.”

    Roman stepped up and put his lips to Max’s good ear. “Do you think they’re

whispering into His ear on your behalf? Do you think my mother wants to spend

the rest of eternity with you? Do you think she is praying for your immunity?”

   Max only hung his head.

   Roman walked away from him and out of the moon’s spotlight. In the

darkness of the arena’s north wall Roman rummaged through the toolboxes and

equipment of Max Sheehan’s workers. He returned with a knife—something that

would’ve been held in a holster on a carpenter’s belt.

    Roman fanned the blade out, running it gently along Max’s throat and then

down to just above his belt line. “After you raped my mother, while she was still

alive, you slit her from the waist to the neck. I want you to know how that feels. I

want you to feel the life empty out of you.”

    “Hey, uh Roman? Maybe this is isn’t such a good idea,” I said.

    Max raised his head and looked into Roman’s eyes. “End it all then.”

Roman pressed the blade to Max’s stomach and held it there without

breaking the skin. After a moment he hurdled the knife end over end through the

air. It stuck in the arena wall and vibrated like a javelin. “It’s too easy an end for

you. I can’t do your death justice.”

   From the shadows in the front of the arena came a rustling—the soft

padding of shoes walking on the dirt of the arena floor. It startled all three of us.

As the man walked toward the light and the darkness receded from his face,

although I had never met him, I knew exactly who it was. He stood at least six and

a half feet tall, had enormous shoulder width, and wore a suit.

    As he passed by he pulled a gun from his suit coat, placed it against the

head of Max Sheehan, and pulled the trigger. I could hear Max’s brains drip out and

hit the dirt long after the silenced bullet exploded the back of his head.

   “You think too much Roman. Just let God sort them out,” the man said.

   Agent Johnson stood in front of the limp and now lifeless body that hung

from the chains of Extravaganza. He re-holstered his weapon and turned toward

us.

   “I’ve been watching you for about a week now. Quite a life you’ve made

here for yourself Roman. Nice cozy little house. I especially liked the baseball

card wallpaper. You’ve got good friends like Tony here. And then there’s

Heather, what a knockout, maybe a little out of your league but very impressive.

   You pitched a hell of a game today, except for the two hit batsmen of course.”

   “I wasn’t done talking to him yet,” Roman nodded over at Max’s body.

   “Talking is overrated. You of all people know that. Besides I heard the

entire conversation and I think you handled it quite eloquently.”

   Every man has his breaking point they say. And Roman’s wasn’t far off I

imagined. His whole life had just come to a climax in the last two hours. And

now he just stood there shaking his head and smiling. It was not a good smile.

   “You’ve caught me on a bad day, so to speak.”

    “You’re never short on wit, are you?

    Roman charged the Agent with a flurry of kicks and punches, moving his

pursuer across the arena floor. Agent Johnson blocked or ducked everyone of

them. It was only when Roman backed him into the arena wall that Johnson

showed any offense. His punches and kicks moved Roman back to the middle of

the floor. For as big as he was and the strength he possessed, Johnson was every

bit as quick as Roman. But like his former mentor, Roman avoided the attack

flawlessly.

    “My orders are to bring you back or eliminate you, plain and simple. It’s

up to you which one takes place,” Johnson said.

    “Eliminate me? I don’t think you’ve got in you.” Roman started his

onslaught again. Johnson countered as before, but every time he blocked, Roman’s

attack only quickened. The amount and velocity of Roman’s fight began to wear

the agent down, and now fists and feet were landing on him unabated.

    I tried to think of what Roman would do if he were me. The word

“insurance” popped into my head, and I ran over to the construction equipment,

knocking over a gas can as I went. I fumbled through the dark, running into tables

and feeling carefully for anything that would help Roman. I returned with a mop

handle, a two-by-four, a hammer, and a knife. I ran my finger down the blade,

feeling in the darkness for a way to shut it. I closed it and stuck the weapon down

in my belt.

    Even though Roman looked to be winning, I knew this was no time to take

chances. I was witnessing something that most people would never see and could

never imagine. The fighting was so fast and ferocious that the tide could shift in an

instant. I opted for the two-by-four and set the other potential weapons on the

ground. I guess in my imagination I could see myself sneaking up behind Agent

Johnson and smashing the board over his head. It felt like a good plan.

    It was not.

    When the agent turned his back to me I swung. While blocking a punch

from Roman—as if he had eyes in the back of his head—Johnson caught the wood

under his armpit. He swung it to the left as I held on. Seconds later I smashed into

Roman, and we both flew to the dirt.

    Without using his hands, Roman jumped to his feet, dodging the swings of

lumber from Agent Johnson’s hands. I crawled out of the way and ran back to my

pile of makeshift weapons, grabbing the mop handle and the hammer.

    Roman was too quick and Johnson failed to hit him with the board. But

every swing backed Roman up. It would only be seconds until Roman was against

the arena wall with nowhere to go. Johnson held the board horizontally between

both hands now and charged in an attempt to bulldoze Roman into the wall. With

one quick swipe of Roman’s foot the board broke in half, sending the agent back a

couple of steps. Johnson stood there for a second in shock. I tossed the mop

handle to Roman. He snatched it out of the air and broke it over his knee in one

motion, creating two weapons to combat the two pieces of board now in Johnson’s

hands.

    Have you ever heard a drum line tap their sticks together in the middle of a

routine? That’s what this fight sounded like, only faster. And there was a rhythm

to it—some unexplainable poetry of sound between offense and defense, between

lumber and mop-handle sticks. Johnson’s two boards packed more of a punch, but

    Roman’s sticks were quicker and easier to handle. Roman simply ducked or

jumped over Johnson’s swings, while the NN Agent used his blunt wooden swords

to block the never-ending taps from Roman’s sticks. They were dancing in a way,

like tennis players volleying the ball back and forth in a never-ending duel. And

like those graceful athletes of the court, the warrior that made the first mistake

would lose this contest

   Tat-a-tat. Tat-a-tat. Thump. Tat-a-tat. Tat-a-tat. Thump.

    Eventually Johnson missed one of his thumps and Roman capitalized. His

stick caught the Agent the wrist sending Johnson’s club spiraling through the air.

    There was a second of hesitation from Johnson and Roman seized it, kicking the

agent in the chest and sending him crashing into the wall. Johnson bounced off

only to have his leg buckled by a kick from one of Roman’s quick feet. Johnson

was so tall that even with one of his knees on the ground he was still nearly eye

level with his former protégé. Roman beat the giant down, landing punch after

punch to his face. Roman alternated swings of his arms and as each fist connected

    Johnson’s head snapped from one side to the other.

    Johnson fell back to the dirt. Roman jumped on his torso and straddled

him immediately. Like a magician whose secret was known only to the artists of

combat, Johnson produced his gun from its holster and stuck it against Roman’s

forehead with hand-is-quicker-than-the-eye speed.

    Roman dropped his sticks, and as I ran to help my friend he held up his

hand telling me to stop. Both warriors’ chests pumped hard from exhaustion.

    How badly I wanted to throw the hammer in my hand at the gun being held against

Roman’s head! Who was I kidding though? I’d probably miss and hit Roman.

    Johnson spoke first. “While we’re here destroying each other, the people

that we should be fighting are hard at work plotting our demise. Every government

agency from every country in the world, rogue or sovereign, is looking for Dr.

Sebastian Jesup. The world is a big place to hide in but not when the entire world

is looking for you. It’s not a matter of when he’s found, but by whom. If it’s

someone other than us, it’s checkmate for America. Everything you know and

love will cease to exist. None of this frivolous fighting and bickering will mean a

damn thing.”

    “I take no pleasure in fighting you or anybody else,” Roman said. “I just

want to be left alone. I want to play baseball and help my team. I want to go to the

Prom with Heather. And I want to graduate from high school like a normal

person. I don’t want to be mixed up in the fate of the world. Let God sort it out as

you say.”

    “I told you at the beginning of this fiasco that you were coming with me or

you were going nowhere,” Johnson said.

    “Fine.” Roman took the end of Johnson’s gun and put it in his mouth, his

voice muffled as he shouted at the Agent. “Do it. Pull the trigger. I’m not going

to spend my life running from the NN and I’m never going to work for them. You

may as well kill me. Do it!”

    Johnson’s hand was unwavering as held the pistol with a firm grip. Less

than a pound of pressure was all that was standing between life and death for

Roman. There was no doubt in my mind that Johnson had no problem killing if it

was a means to an end. Take poor Max Sheehan for instance. But the Agent was

hesitating—the bullet fired this time wouldn’t just kill some scumbag terrorist or

demented serial killer. It might be the most expensive bullet the NN ever used.

    After several moments, Agent Johnson pulled the weapon away.

    “Damn it,” Johnson said.

    Roman jumped off the horizontal agent and immediately helped him to his

feet.

    “I can’t kill you, you’re too valuable.”

    “If that’s what you have to keep telling yourself,” Roman said.

    “Make no mistake young Roman, if it weren’t for your extraordinary

abilities and potential you would be nothing more than crimson splatter on my

suit.”

    “Maybe.”

    The door to the warehouse slammed, and up the east walkway opposite us

walked six men—five of them dressed in varying degrees and shades of black

leather, and one in a fluorescent orange suit. One of the thugs lit a cigarette as if it

were business as usual. Boochie Anderson stood next to the Flower, jewelry-less,

with ten or so scars decorating his face where the metal rings used to be. I walked

slowly backwards, trying to be discreet in my attempt to find cover in the darkness

that covered the construction equipment on the north side of the arena. Roman

backed up as well, a couple of paces in front of me.

    “Who’s the dude in the orange?” Agent Johnson whispered to Roman.

    “Long story. In a nut shell he’s bad news,” Roman responded.

    “This night just gets better and better doesn’t it?” I said.

     “Are they carrying?” Johnson asked Roman.

    “Most certainly,” Roman answered.

    “Hey Roman,” I whispered. “I’ve got a hammer and a knife on me.”

     He did not respond, his mind busy with better solutions.

    The Flower slithered up to the railing above the arena wall with his

arrogant strut. His black hair was slicked back in his trademark ponytail and he

stood with his hands on his hips, surveying the odd scene in front of him. Most of

his attention focused on the dead man hanging from the shackles in the middle of

the floor.

    “Hey boss,” Boochie Anderson started . “I think that’s the janitor down

there.”

   “All right,” The Flower shouted. “Who thinks they can come on my

property and kill somebody in my arena without my permission? Nobody dies in

this town without my order.”

    None of us responded.

   “Is the one that calls himself the janitor down there?” The Flower shouted

again from the walkway.

    “Uh, boss, I think that there dead guy hangin’ in the chains is Mr. John

Smith,” Boochie Anderson said, pointing.

    The Flower pulled out a pair of bifocals, placed them on the end of his

nose, and tilted his head down. After a quick glance at Max Sheehan, he took them

off and put them back in his suit jacket. “The goddamn janitor killed my

carpenter,” he whispered to himself.

    The Flower grabbed a hold of the railing in front of him and jumped up and

down like a kid throwing a tantrum. A few seconds later he stopped, adjusted his

tie, and slicked back his hair with both of his hands. “I thought our paths were

never going to cross again janitor. I thought we had a deal.”

    “You broke the deal when you hired a serial killer.” Roman yelled back.

    “What’s he talking about?” The Flower asked his men.

    Boochie shrugged his shoulders.

    “You have a nasty habit of killing my employees, janitor.”

    “Actually, I killed your carpenter,” Johnson said.

    “And who are you?” The Flower asked.

    Agent Johnson hesitated for a minute. “I’m an old friend of the janitor’s.”

   “Kill them. Kill them now,” The Flower ordered.

    The five soldiers next to The Flower began to pull out their guns.

    But Johnson was quicker. He crossed his arms under his suit coat,

unsheathing two guns from their respective holsters.

   Me and Roman ran for cover behind the lifeless Max Sheehan and the

construction equipment. The hail of gunfire was simultaneous, and while their

guns outnumbered Johnson’s five to two, they were still the underdog. Johnson

walked sideways, his fingers working their magic against the triggers, his guns

moving only inches to find their next target.

    The man smoking the cigarette caught the first of Johnson’s pointed

projectiles, and he fell over the railing to the arena floor. A second later the dirt

and excess lumber were ablaze next to us, no doubt from the man’s cigarette

coming in contact with the gasoline I’d spilled earlier.

    Johnson’s last bullet ended in the forehead of Boochie Anderson. The fat

man teetered and wobbled with a surprised look on his face. The Flower tried to

move out from behind him, but it was too late: Boochie fell backwards, ass first,

eclipsing any sight of Freddy The Flower. The impact splintered the first two rows

of bleachers. There was a low wheeze of his Boochie’s last breath, like air brakes

on a semi-trailer decompressing. There were no gasps or calls for help from The

Flower beneath. He may very well have spent his last minutes on earth as a

pancake.

    Roman walked out from our cover against the arena wall, and I followed.

    As I passed by, Max’s body began to smolder from the heat of the blaze. I

imagined his soul was doing the same thing right about now. Flames had found

their way to the north wall as well.

    Johnson walked a couple of steps toward Roman and then sprinted; the

agent was on him in a second, throwing roundhouse rights at high repetition.

    Roman blocked and ducked, but his back was to the wall. One of Johnson’s big

rights caught Roman on the cheek and knocked him to the ground. The Agent

picked him up and slammed him into the arena wall. I heard Roman’s shoulder

pop. He grabbed it as his back slid down to the dirt.

    Johnson stepped away and produced a pair of handcuffs, locking one of

them around his own wrist and letting the other dangle, then stepped back and

grabbed Roman by the arm. I charged with the last of my weapons—the

hammer—held high over my head. Johnson kicked me in the chest and the

hammer flew out of my hands. He grabbed it out of mid-air and threw it into the

wall of flames on the north side of the arena.

    With his free arm, Roman grasped from behind him the knife he had

thrown earlier at the arena wall and jabbed it into the thigh of the giant. Johnson

let out a cry of pain and released Roman’s arm. Roman got to his feet, grabbed the

handcuff dangling from Johnson’s wrist, and snapped it around the railing above

the arena wall. Roman hit him with a left for good measure.

    “You owe me at least until graduation. You owe me,” Roman said.

     As we walked toward the exit, I saw Max Sheehan’s body burst into flames.

Smoke filled the arena and I could hear what remained of the roof start to snap and

buckle under its own weight. The once-dark confines were now bright from the

fire. Johnson pulled the knife out of his leg and let out a deep roar.

    As we reached the door, his voice came again. “Roman, the next agent

that comes for you will have no problem pulling the trigger.”

    Roman did not reply.

 VII

    Roman sat down in the passenger seat as I started the Pinto. He held his

shoulder and winced in pain. The slam into the wall may have done more than just

popped Roman’s shoulder. I noticed it was his right arm, and although I knew I

shouldn’t be thinking such thoughts at a time like this, the selfish part of me

wondered if the Silver Streak title run had just come to an end.

    The Pinto shot rocks from under its tires as I floored it out of the crude

parking lot. Eventually we reached a paved road. “Where to?”

   “Take me to Carl,” Roman said with the pain still on his face.

   Déjà vu came over me as I looked in the rearview mirror. Once again the

Flower’s warehouse turned the night sky orange. I kept looking for someone

following us—the headlights of Agent Johnson’s vehicle—and I knew now how

Roman felt every time he left his home to go somewhere.

 

 

           


 

 

 

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