It was those hands, one folded in front of the other on the table’s edge, I couldn’t take my eyes off when I entered the room. Lily white and slender, a woman’s hands with long fingers as delicate as flower stems, the handcuffs could almost pass for jewelry if they weren’t attached to a thick belly chain, slack around a narrow waist. Even if you dipped them in blood, they’d look more artistic than the brutish hairy hands you’d expect a killer would need to mangle his victims into such unrecognizable states even seasoned forensic pathologists, according to Phoebe’s scrapbook, had turned green.
“I think you’d need a PhD in astrology to make that one look like she’s dreaming something nice,” I had muttered over Phoebe’s shoulder, an obscene crime scene photo she’d downloaded from the dark web splashed across the screen of her laptop.
“Cosmetology,” she said, looking up and raising an I-know-you-know-that eyebrow.
“I knew that.”
“I could have done something with her,” she sighed, shaking her head like a mother wondering where she’d gone wrong.
As I mulled again the unlikelihood of that claim, he cleared his throat and I finally gathered the wits to look up at the rest of him. Small build to match his hands. Oily brown hair combed back off a broad forehead. Tired, colorless eyes set a touch too far apart in a bland face unobstructed by the Hannibal Lecter bite mask I had half anticipated and free of the psycho tics I now searched it for. So at odds with the grimacing monster pics in the press, it crossed my mind I might have been put in the wrong room and was sitting opposite some white-collar stiff dinged for securities fraud. That impression was augmented when he tapped his thumbs together, interview-style, and said in a reedy, clerical voice, “So Paul Manson, what can I do for you today?” as if I was the one who had requested the meeting. As if I had come to renegotiate my mortgage.
“What’d he say? What’d he say? What’d he say?” chanted Phoebe, bobbing up and down on the balls of her feet, slapping her sides to the beat of her insistence. Only late afternoon and the light in the chilly motel room was already failing while an uncertain rain stuttered at the window. Closing the door behind me, I shivered and side-punched the light switch on the wall only for the unshaded incandescent bulb dangling from the ceiling to flare, pop loudly, and die.
“Great,” I said, realizing I had so gotten used to the warm fires cheerfully crackling away in the afternoons in my cabin and through the evenings at Milkwood’s, I was physically craving one now. I wanted to go home. Home? My self-imposed exile back to Hillsborough, the long days of emotional self-flagellation, yearning for my family, my job, New York, now felt like a beach holiday. “I suppose we can still huddle around the end of your cigarette.”
Crushing out that notion at the bottom of a glass ashtray large enough to substitute for a murder weapon, Phoebe stuck out her neck, eyes wide and incredulous. “Well?”
“At least we have these,” I said, dumping the paper bag clinking with bottles on the bed. I had gotten the cab to drop me off at Big Dan’s, a liquor store tucked away a half mile back from the motel on an overgrown strip of road so quiet and empty it belonged in a dystopian movie. But there were two cars in the parking lot and an ‘OPEN’ sign hung askew in the glass door which, rigged with sleigh bell chimes, jangled noisily when it flew open under the force of my relief. A tall slinky blond in the vodka section swung round and peered at me over black shades, long fake eyelashes fluttering while the extraordinary mass of denim-clad humanity behind the counter, presumably Big Dan himself, remained undistracted from ogling her bare legs. She put a finger to her lips to silently hush me but, when I opened my mouth to inform her she wasn’t exactly in a library, she winked coquettishly and turned away again. Then I noticed it, the subtle clue Max Fischer had taught me just in time one night in Bangkok: her legs – they kept on going when they disappeared up her skirt, straight unbroken lines with indeterminate endpoints.
“That everything, darlin’?” boomed Big Dan, neckless through an avalanche of fat, his head looked like something squeezed from a tube. The blond set a bottle in front of him and hushed him with another finger to the lips as a miserable little black-and-white TV with coat hanger rabbit ears crackled behind him:
…all of his appeals exhausted, barring an eleventh hour stay by the governor, Carrick Mayweather will be executed tomorrow at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at…
“Good riddance, right darlin’?!”
“He’s not even scared of death,” said the blond in the deep, rich bass-baritone of important men.
While the color flooded Big Dan’s face, carefully constructed fantasy scenarios kicked over and set ablaze, I set down my bottles and asked the blond nonchalantly, “how do you figure?”
“He asked for death by torture.”
“That’s all talk, talk,” I said, giving the blond a light pat on the side just to fuck with Big Dan’s head a little more, “trust me, he’s absolutely shitting himself.”
“How do you know that?” said Phoebe as I unscrewed a 40 of jack, put it straight to my lips, and looked out the window where the arms of the motel’s windsock, a grinning tube man with blue rapper braids made from plastic streamers, were flailing around under a rising wind.
“That’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it?” he asked broodily, the question reflecting a shift to a new unprefaced line of thought uncannily similar, minus the charm, to Phoebe’s out-of-the-blueness.
“Define ‘that’,” I said, wearily. The stuffy room, painted a blaring fire engine red, was filled with the cloying odors of his emotions and I winced as the dull opening chords of a headache resounded through my frontal lobe.
“That this time tomorrow I’ll be dead,” he said, cracking his knuckles and cocking his ear to the sound. “Put down with a needle like a fucking dog and burned in an oven,” he growled, his eyes switching in a flurry of blinks to a dark pigment, one not found in nature. It was the same ocular transformation that had occurred when he had described his plans for Dylan if the C-section he was performing on Phoebe had not been interrupted by “the creature in the trees.”
“Didn’t you ask the jury to recommend the death penalty? And then request death by torture?”
“C’mon, Paul, you know that was just for Wiki,” he said, shaking his chains for emphasis as if I wasn’t paying attention, nodding off to sleep. He had done this before after swapping out his eye color: saying “you know” as if I really did or really should “know” something unique to his life, especially his childhood:
…you know how he taunted her about black musicians…
…you know the way he’d rip off his belt…
…you know she would dress me up like a fucking girl just to piss him off…
…you know her bags were all packed the day the mine collapsed…
…you know that’s when I dropped the block from The Tightrope…
“Right,” I sighed. Him and his damn Wikipedia page. One he’d never even seen; he’d been locked up for so long now. Totally unmoved by the distinction between fame and notoriety, the fact that his exploits, each murder a fresh masterpiece in savagery he freely admitted were designed to out-outrage the last, had been chronicled and “immortalized with FIVE HUNDRED AND EIGHT footnotes!” on the internet (which he still called the Information Superhighway) convinced him he had secured an enduring place in history. “If you’re in Wikipedia, you’re a somebody,” he had snorted after I pointed out ‘Toilet paper orientation’ also has its own page, something I only knew from Melanie, a committed ‘under orientation’ advocate on the spurious grounds of paper conservation (“if the paper comes down behind the roll, it reduces the risk a toddler or cat will unroll all the paper batting at it,” she had claimed straight-faced despite our house being uncontaminated by either.) “Good or bad doesn’t matter,” he said, smacking his thin bloodless lips, “you’re still a somebody”. Ever brooding on my own nobodyness these days, it rankled that this somehow resonated. What if I had actually killed everyone on the plane? Hundreds more than Carrick Mayweather’s measly 11? It still wouldn’t have earned me a spot in the pantheon of assholes in Wikipedia, only a mention of my un-hyperlinked name in the American Airlines Flight 321 article. Afterall, getting drunk and crashing a plane only qualifies you as a douchebag. Hanging a homecoming queen in a tree with angel wings constructed from her own lungs qualifies you as a fascinating monster, one warranting FIVE HUNDRED AND EIGHT footnotes.
“But before they incinerate me, they’re going to cut open my head and take my brain,” he muttered, his perspiring skin excreting another sickly whiff of fear. “To ‘study for abnormalities,’” he air-quoted over his crotch, the veins in his white arms standing up as he strained at the belly chain. It was a hell of a thing, I had to admit. Your last full day and night on earth. Knowing that tomorrow, as the second hand of your watch steadily sweeps away the last precious minutes and hours, by the time most people east of the Mississippi are sitting down for dinner, there will be nothing left of you except your brain floating in a jar labeled ‘ABNORMAL’.
“Warranting posthumous study, no less,” I said, whether to myself or a man too agitated to hear anything beyond the boundary of his own voice I couldn’t say.
“They’ll probably just toss my ashes in the garbage. Or down the fucking toilet,” he spat, hot indignation scalding his face the same crimson hue I could imagine it turned at the onset of his ordeal in the boiler room the night prior.
“Take heart,” I said glibly even as I felt my skin tingling in terror on his behalf, “your Wikipedia page will live on with the rest of us.”
“From dozens of women, if he’s to be believed.”
“I looked it up on my phone. It’s called, wait a minute, let me find it again… Hybristophilia. According to Wikipedia– ”
“Don’t mention Wikipedia again or I’ll scream!”
“You’re screaming right now.”
“I’ll scream louder.”
“Some believe they can change a man as cruel and powerful as a serial killer.”
“Others ‘see’ the little boy that the killer once was and seek to nurture him.”
“He says he’s received an offer to have them published.”
“They could call it ‘Tender Kisses for a Reformed Face-Eater’.”
Phoebe glared at me. The end of her cigarette flared and crackled in the neon bathed darkness, her neck muscles rising in sharp ridges as if straining against an invisible choke collar. “I’m ashamed of my sex,” she said in a clogged voice through missiles of smoke, furiously grinding out the cigarette like it was the eraser end of a pencil and there was an obscene word (‘female’?) written on the bottom of the ashtray. She held up the accordioned butt, regarded it coldly, and dropped it atop its less violently treated predecessors. Briskly slapping her hands together, mission accomplished, she turned back to me sighing through her nose.
“You should teach Dylan how cigarettes work,” I said, admiring the last inverted V-shaped contrails streak from her nostrils. “You’re a pro.”
“Don’t change the subject, Paul. You’re always doing that.”
“You have complete mastery over them. With him, the tail wags the dog,” I persevered.
“I don’t get any love letters from anyone. Do you get love letters?”
“Hate mail more like.”
“Not even from Ally?”
“Especially from Ally!” I coughed through a mouthful of Jack. “And now look who’s changing the subject.”
“I mean before, dummy!” she cried as a cold hand clutched at my heart and squeezed. All of Ally’s notes. Every time I flew, without exception she slipped a note, written in sweeping calligraphic handwriting, in the blazer pocket of the uniform she had fastidiously ironed the creases from (under Melanie’s scornful gaze once she had married feminism to her climate activism). Sitting on the tarmac with Gary, firing the engines and waiting for the tower to clear us, I would fish them out and read them. Beautiful and exhilarating, they invariably ended with her signature signoff:
Fly safe. Come home soon. I could never live without you, my captain. Ally Cat– xoxoxo
I had kept them all but on that last slushy day at the house we had lived in together for over 20 years, my suitcases sitting in gloomy light at the front door, Ally and Melanie gone to the movies, the cab honking impatiently outside, I had rushed back to my desk and rummaged through them only to fetch the .38.
“How could I have left them behind?”
“I knew it,” said Phoebe quietly, the flesh around her half open mouth soft and sad as she reached for her Marlboros. “Probably publishable.”
“I only ever had one fan, but I was the most famous person in the world to her.”
“Two minutes and it’s a wrap, okay Hoss?” boomed the guard, his massive head tilted horizontally through the door as though he were standing on the wall outside instead of the floor. I punched two grateful thumbs up in his direction as he sniffed at the air disdainfully. “Jesus Christ, Mayweather, you smell like boiled eggs.”
“Blow me, you fucking cocksucker.”
“Pot kettle, from all I hear. Two minutes, Hoss.”
Mayweather slumped forward, head bowed, and let out a long high-pitched sound somewhere between a sigh and a whistle, his body seeming to deflate like a balloon along with it. As his jumpsuit crinkled inwards, I was struck afresh by how slight and harmless looking he was. I imagined if he were to suddenly break free from his restraints and come at me, the exhale from my yawn would be enough to repulse him.
He lifted his head laboriously, as though it were made of iron, and said, “So, you believe in God, eh?”
“Then what’s with that big golden Christsicle around your neck? Just in case?”
“Just something from my past.”
“What from your past?”
“I don’t really remember.”
“Really? It matches that tooth of yours perfectly. Like they’re made from the same gold.”
“I don’t think so.
“Like they’re connected.
“I don’t think so.”
“Like they’re…” he paused and blinked his eyes darker and darker “…trophies,” came a strange croaking voice that sent enough of a shiver up my spine for him to notice me shake it out through my shoulders. He nodded sagely and as he did the already cramped room seemed to get smaller while he got larger, dilated pupils flashing and vulturine, suddenly just the sort of man who could snap free of his chains and disembowel me with his bare hands.
But then the guard’s key rasped in the door behind me, all went back to normal, nothing but a pathetic frightened creature sitting in front of me. Freshly emboldened, I shrilled: “What? You mean like the fucking scalps you kept in your refrigerator?!”
He rearranged his crotch as if to dislodge an uncomfortable downward pointing erection, shrugged, and said, “There’s nothing wrong for men of action like us to take souvenirs of our achievements.”
“Achievements!” cried Phoebe, timbering backwards onto the bed where she made sweeping snow angel movements, the cheap linen bunching up in drifts around her head. “Death by torture! Give him what he asked for!”
I was about to make a crack about how that might jazz up his Wikipedia page even more when, looking over from our makeshift bar by the window, I saw her face was slick with tears. Sitting next to her on the bed, her thrashing had tugged her blouse up over her midriff exposing a length of angry scar. So thick and wormlike, I half expected its bunched-up segments to move when I touched them. “This is your trophy of his failure,” I said, my fingers arriving where the wound arced and wriggled under the waistband of her pants, “and his downfall. Branded right on your body. How perfect is that?”
“Paul,” she said breathlessly, a bright smile clashing with her wet face. “You can say the dopiest things but sometimes, just sometimes…” She gently pushed her pelvis up, my hand resting on her belly just above the first button of her fly, and murmured, “Do you think we should?”
“I want to,” I said, and I really did since my testicles were contracting in anticipation, but–
“But you’d pretend I was Ally,” she said matter-of-factly in a fluent demonstration of mindreading. I looked up at her, desperate to blunt the truth of it when she lifted my hand to her lips, kissed my knuckles lightly, and said, “It’s okay. Really. I’m just happy you’re here with me. It’s all I need.”
“I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” I white lied.
“I love you for saying it. Let’s have a drink now, huh?”
She didn’t have to ask twice but, as I was putting the finishing touches on her G & T, my phone binged.
DANI: Definitely NOT gay 😊
DANI: He had a panic attack halfway through.
ME: Of course he did.
DANI: Had to go outside for a smoke and pace around but when he came back – holy shit!
DANI: I’m walking sideways now 😛
ME: TMI damn it, Dani!
DANI: 😛 😛 😛
“What is it?” said Phoebe, now at my side by the window.
“Seems Dylan’s a rock star once he’s gotten over the stage fright,” I said, holding up my phone and watching her eyeballs race side-to-side.
“Son of a bitch,” she mumbled through the lipstick-bloodied filter of an unlit Marlboro, apparently oblivious to the boomerang nature of the insult I elected not to point out.
“Cheers,” I said, and the moment I did the bedsprings in the adjacent room began groaning at a breakneck tempo and, if it weren’t for all the squealed “yeah babys” coming though the wall, you’d think the young girl in there was having boiled water poured on her.
“Jesus Christ,” said Phoebe, coldly eyeing the watercolor print of Mount Vernon dancing on the wall. “Is she fucking a jackhammer, or what?”
“That or a lonely trucker. Same difference I imagine,” I said and then, with a great rattling bellow, it was abruptly over.
We clinked glasses and turned to look out the window where an ambulance whooshed by, flashing lights activated but siren-less in the empty darkness of the highway. Phoebe rested her head on my shoulder and sighed. Below, car doors slammed and an enormous cylinder of flesh penguin-walked towards the reception, one balloon hand dragging a shiny new-looking suitcase on wheels, the other around the waist of a tall slinky blond with no hips. “What do you think their story is?” said Phoebe, tracking my gaze.
I put my arm around her shoulder, the pleasing rise and fall of her ribcage against mine, and said, “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”
To be continued…
*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available at: http://bit.ly/2u7rqcL
© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 16), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.