Frank and Judy took a long walk after breakfast. They walked arm in arm, talking about the changing seasons. They wondered how many more autumns they would see. After fifty you don’t assume you’ll see tomorrow, the way you did when you were a kid. They kept the conversation light. They were both exhausted. The family had already been talked to death. Neither of them wanted to dissect Mom’s kinks or Cindy’s neuroses, or dwell on anyone else’s flaws. It was enough to be moving slowly down the street, leaning against each other in the sunshine, pausing to catch their breaths going up a hill, stopping to look at a house that was being renovated.
* * *
Rick and Alice weren’t speaking to each other. Rick for punishment, Alice because her vocal chords were damaged. Dark bruises colored her neck and shoulders. She had an indentation on her forehead where his wedding ring landed during the fight last night. She had dared to stand up to him over the kids.
He was being abusive to the children, trying to force them overnight to be perfect children, because he couldn’t face the fact that his kids were so badly behaved. He’d picked them up from school and taken them out for an ice cream, and they ran around like wild indians. So he was in the kitchen hectoring those poor children into being the perfect examples of his perfect fathering. And they were sobbing and crying their little hearts out. It echoed in the kitchen. It echoed in her head. She couldn’t ignore it.
So she broke the lock, came out of her room, marched down to the kitchen, and yelled at him for mistreating the children. He ordered her back to her room. She glowered at him, and Rick saw that she was serious. He tried the usual silent treatment, sneering at her like she was a cockroach, showing her all the contempt he felt for her failure as a human. Usually it was enough to cow her, send her scuttling under cover.
He never expected a different response. She stood there, in front of the children, and refused to go back to her room. She raised her voice to him, called him abusive and mean spirited, told him he was ruining the children, and promised to call a lawyer in the morning.
So he taught her some manners. In front of the children. He left her there when she passed out, and went and spanked the kids and put them to bed, unplugging the night lights for extra punishment.
* * *
Tzingdii woke up next to Bill in the middle of the night and found a Tiffany box. It was wrapped like Christmas, blue with a white ribbon. It was a magic box. She opened it up, and it was full of fish food, so she gave some to the fishies in the tank. She opened it again, and it contained doggie biscuits, so she took a walk and gave them to her friends. She left some nuts for the squirrels even tho they were sleeping. Finally, as she began to get tired again, she left one for the dragon in the basement, and went back to bed.
When Cindy woke up, it was to find a chocolate on her pillow. Smeared all over it. Sticky sweet, with the metallic taste of sleeping pills: she’d know that taste anywhere. She felt nauseated. The attacks had just gotten too close for comfort.
She still had no idea how someone was getting in to mess up the place like that. And her pillow was only the beginning. Bill’s wardrobe had been cut to pieces with scissors. His suitcase, half full of shredded clothes, had been peed in. His wallet had been emptied into the sink and set on fire. His private den was untouched except for fatal scratches on every CD and DVD he owned. His car – locked in the garage – had been coated with paint stripper, the tires were punctured, the windows were smashed in with his own golf clubs, the leather seats had multiple stab wounds, and the seatbelts were cut to pieces.
The scissors ended up less than an inch from Bill’s comatose head. He’d gotten home at 4 a.m. and fell into bed, and didn’t move once until he opened his eyes on a ruined pair of shears stained dark with something sticky.
The police dusted this time. There were no prints. But Cindy noticed that her white opera gloves were lying on top of her silk scarves instead of under them. They were folded differently, as well. And they were slightly damp. She almost said something, but a tiny voice persuaded her not to.
* * *
Gordon had this elaborate plan that depended on timing, the kind of plan that would make a great thriller. Using everyone’s expertise, knowledge, skill, natural talent, intelligence. He couldn’t fail. In his fantasy.
In reality, he had Allen as a sidekick, more like comic relief. He had Sam and Dave as heavies, but they were like the two Stooges. Several of the bouncers and bartenders were tentatively on his side, waiting to hear the details before committing themselves. And there were a few guys he used for other things that he could bring in at the last minute, for whatever they ended up doing.
He could use Rick on the operation, and Bill, and were still hoping to get them in on it before the shit went down. Bill’s trucks, Rick’s cameras. They would add a lot.
He had all the information he needed. There was that tunnel he found weeks before, and had not gone near since, once he noticed a camera watching. A tunnel, a trap door, a safe, a scheduled dumpster pickup.
Gordon’s plans, altho mostly complete, were still incredibly flexible. It may turn out that they only robbed the place once, and never tried it again. It might turn out that they actually pulled a coup on the owner and ended up robbing it every night. Or it might lead to something even bigger, something with the guys who owned the owner. He had to have a contingency plan for every little wrinkle. He’d been working on it for months. He was very confident.
He was also coked out. He slept little, rattled on in conversation, was irritated when disturbed, easily distracted, and inclined to sudden fits of depression, when he thought about killing himself. He was obsessed with his plans, and thought of nothing else except sex and drugs. There was an intensity about him that made people nervous. His hair was lanky, his eyes were hollow, and his sweat stank. He itched all over. He was always pausing for the snort that refreshes.
In the cavernous pit that was his brain, Gordon had mislaid a prime piece of information. The owner was into some deep shit that wouldn’t just sit there when the place was hit. The moment the regular system was upset, they would send someone to un-upset it. Gordon and his little operation were like flies in the window, annoying dirty little no-brains that were just there to give somebody’s fly-swatting wrist some exercise. If he weren’t so obsessed, he would have noticed this detail. If he weren’t so drugged all the time, so full of the little games that made up his personality.
He was so caught up in the fantasy that he never noticed the trap. He had a meeting with the owner later that morning, during which he intended to offer his services as manager of the club – aim high. He was going to say that he felt ready for responsibility (as in the safe’s combination), and that it was only right that he give something back to the place that was like a second home.
This was his big first step, after which all the little details of his plan would suddenly fall into place.
He never noticed that the owner was more than happy to hire him right into the top management spot, with no references, no trial period. It was more than just, “Can you start now?” It was like being on Queen for the Day. The owner stuffed a bundle of cash into his jacket pocket, handed him a big bag of coke, and made him sit in the big office chair he always used. He asked Gordon to sign a bunch of papers he said were just ways of avoiding taxes, but which were really complex legal deals, the nature of which wasn’t apparent on the cover page or where he had to sign.
The owner hustled Gordon out before he had time to ask any real questions. All his concerns would be addressed at Orientation, he was told, as the owner bundled him out of the office to make room for another meeting. He didn’t tell Gordon that the meeting was with his mercenary army bosses. He didn’t tell Gordon that the meeting wasn’t going to turn out in the club’s favor. He didn’t tell Gordon that a whole lot of shit was going to be coming down. Gordon would have merely filed it in his cavernous brain and continued walking right into the trap.
* * *
Frank felt better after lunch. He went downstairs to tinker in his shop for an hour, and then declared his intention to drive to the store for a part, and wouldn’t listen to Judy’s protests, and wouldn’t let her come with him. He got a little testy insisting that he could do it by himself.
He drove to Mom’s. In his pocket was a device he had made. It was an electric necklace. It lit up. It provided a healing tingle. It was beautiful. Mom loved it.
In no time, she had him in the bedroom closet, a belt around his neck, the buckle around a sturdy coat hook on the back of the door. He was naked, desperately trying to activate the remote control. But Mom discovered it. He’d hidden it where the sun don’t shine, and it worked by compression. She pulled it out, and turned it on.
Five minutes later, the necklace was wrapped around Frank’s genitals, and Mom was exploring the power settings.
* * *
Rick noticed Cindy’s car headed to the mall, and followed her. She was going to lunch with the girls, as usual, and was running late. As usual. She never noticed him behind her. She parked her car out in the stratosphere because it was lunchtime, and saw the girls gathered on the sidewalk, waiting for her, as she hiked to the mall entrance. She never noticed Rick parked at the curb in front of the restaurant.
She greeted the girls, who were full of news, and they were just turning to go in when Rick sprang out of his Porsche – somebody of that build shouldn’t go around in tiny cars – and oh my god shot Amanda with a Taser.
Cindy yelled at him; she wondered why he was attacking Amanda; she called 911. On her own brother. And it felt good. She enjoyed telling the police about his awful behavior toward his wife and kids. She told them that he’d been a bully all his life, always ready to beat down the slightest opposition. But they didn’t want to go back to Rick’s childhood. They wanted to know if he’d said anything. They wanted to know if he appeared intoxicated. They wanted to know if he had a gun.
* * *
Laurie waited a day, and when Cindy didn’t die from eating her stolen chocolates, she felt it was time to escalate. She drove by Cindy’s house after dark, and left another attractively wrapped gift on her front porch. From an admirer. Laurie got back in her car to go to work, and thought no more about it.
That night in the club, Allen brought in Mom’s chocolates in their presentation box, and offered them around. Gordon ate one. He liked it. Jake said he was on a diet but took one anyway.
Sam had a bite and spat it out. “I hate liquor centers,” he said, spewing peppermint schnapps all over the table.
Dave wiped himself off fastidiously. “None for me, thanks. What else have you got for us?”
Allen didn’t know whether he meant money or information. He ended up giving them both. Most of his ready cash; everything he knew about Rick.
“Hey,” he started. “I want you to know what Rick’s like at home.”
Sam grunted. “We know.”
“No, I mean this guy who works for Rick, he’s got a lot of security footage that show everything he’s up to.”
“We know. He came.” Sam spat. “Useless.”
“Yeah, nothing,” Dave said. “No motion. Twenty cameras and no movement at all. For hours.”
“You watched?” Sam asked, raising an eyebrow.
Dave nodded. “Everything.”
“Strange,” Allen remarked. “He said he had proof of all sorts of shit Rick was up to.”
Ten minutes later, Bill came in with a further down payment for killing Cindy. He brought it into the club inside a briefcase. Sam put on his best foreign accent. Dave tried to act nonchalant as he covered the case with his feet.
“Is it safe?” Bill wanted to know.
“We’ll take exactly the same care as we did for hit on Mother-in-Law,” Sam assured him. That worried him. They clarified. “Down payment goes straight to hit man. He’s waiting in car.”
Bill looked curiously at the cars as he left, but didn’t see anyone. Maybe there was someone lying on the seat, out of sight. He was afraid to check, in case he got shot.
Laurie came by Gordon’s table while he was in the bathroom, and found the presentation box of death that she’d given to Mom. Like bad pennies. She took it and tossed it into the dressing room, in roughly the direction of the trash can.
* * *
Cindy had developed an instant disgust for chocolate. Since waking up covered with it, she gagged whenever she thought about chocolate. And of course it was everywhere, so she went about constantly nauseated. She had to run out of Starbucks. She felt like barfing on the display in the grocery checkout line. She almost lost it at lunch when one of the girls ordered the chocolate souffle.
Cindy found the gift when she got home. She opened the package carefully. Chocolates. Her stomach heaved. She walked to the garbage can with them, but looked at them again carefully. They looked very familiar. She tasted the goo that oozed out of one corner. Just like what stained her pillow. Then she threw up lunch.
Was Judy behind all this stalking? Furious, Cindy swallowed a couple of Xanax to calm her down, and then called Judy and cussed her out. Twenty years of stupid, useless, insulting home-made crappy presents to wash away the guilt of a sin she can never be forgiven for. Twenty years of the pain of betrayal, constantly thrown in her face with cheap junk that can never make up for it. Twenty years of being a stupid waste of a time sister. Cindy yelled at Judy like she was still eight years old. Dull-witted, slow, peaceable, easy to outwit. Judy was stunned, and had no reply. Cindy took it as an invitation, and out poured forty years of resentment and hatred.
Well, Judy wasn’t eight. She was 53. She was the mother of two grown children. She was a qualified homeopath, a licensed massage professional, a Reiki master, and a certified floral designer. She wrote an award winning blog, she raised prize winning tomatoes, she treated homeless people with respect. She was a well-adjusted, mature, middle-aged woman, being treated like she was a teenager living at home. Something was drastically wrong.
She’d show Cindy and the others to respect her, simply for who she had become.
Judy retrieved all her craft tools from their cabinet, proud of herself for finally having put them all in one place. She spotted the chocolate she’d brought home for Frank, still on the kitchen table. She wondered how to do it. Something simple and elegant. She looked at her straw broom, something she hardly ever used. She got busy.
It was a work of art. A lake of nasty tasting peppermint around a chocolate mountain, iced broomstraw trees and rosemary tops for the pines, and a gentle dusting of powdered sugar. It was beautiful, meticulous. Sure proof, if anyone ever stopped to examine it, that Judy was an artist.
She sat and cried for awhile, sad for all the injuries she received in childhood, angry about how mean her sisters and brothers had been, how there was no real love in their family. None of her siblings respected or admired any of her achievements, none of them were willing to treat her as the adult she had become. And nobody but her family would ever dare to treat her that way. After a single fortifying drink, she got in her car and drove over to Cindy’s house, where she left her present, as usual, on the front steps.
Judy sat in her car, parked in the street, waiting for Cindy to come out and find her greatest gift. She got more angry and much less sad, and finally decided on a special finish for her present. She got out, snuck back up to the front steps, got out her lighter, and set the bag on fire. As it began to catch, she rang the doorbell and ducked behind a nearby tree.
Cindy never answered her front door. But she saw the flames thru the sidelights, and came bursting thru the door to see what was wrong. The bag was flaming higher, burning brightly because of the glue and the sticks. Cindy pictured her house going up in flames, and kicked out at the burning bag, stomping it with her Bruno Maglis. The bag squished as she put out the fire, her foot slipped, and Cindy fell and bruised her hip on the bricks. Judy giggled in the shadows. Cindy realized what it was all over her shoes, and threw up on top of them.
Cindy was freaked out by the molotov cocktail some stalker had left on her porch. She was sure it was Judy. She had her hand on the phone to call the police, but remembered how many times they’d been out lately, and how insinuating and rude they were the last time.
That night Cindy had trouble sleeping. So she took extra of all her usual medications, and had Oxycontin with a wine chaser for a nightcap. Later that night, Sindi would be patrolling with her gun and her magic box of chocolates. The dragons would send her messages. Bill would make it thru the night by the skin of his teeth.
Her last conscious thought was that she really ought to be killing Bill. He was the one who really deserved it. Never mind killing Mom, she couldn’t help it. Or Judy, she was her own worst enemy. But Bill had a choice, every single girl, every single dollar. He really deserved to die. Any court in the country would acquit her.
* * *
Frank came home with burns and bruises, and as pale as a glass of milk. After bathing and dressing his wounds and putting him to bed, Judy did some thinking. He was Mom’s victim, but he kept going back for more. So it must be something inside of him. He’d confessed to a fascination for pain. Spanking. Strangulation. Past the edge of sexual politeness and right into kinkiness and perversion.
They talked about it. Frank’s color was good; he sat up in bed and they discussed the roots of his sexuality. His earliest sexual memories were of his mother, how she reacted when he got a hardon while she was changing him. He noticed her big eyes. She laughed at him. He had felt love for his mom, and also shame, because he was small and helpless and her laughter hurt. They talked about how what he’d felt then translated into his feelings now. He was powerless to keep from revisiting it whenever he could. But he hated every minute.
They wondered if role-playing would help them to understand what he was going thru. They decided to try an experiment, and so Judy spanked him a little. She popped his butt, and he flinched. The spot got red, in the shape of her hand. She rubbed it. The rubbing helped. Neither of them were comfortable spanking.
He asked her to tie him to the bed, so she got out some silk scarves. But she didn’t know what to do with him if he just wanted to lie there. He asked her to tighten a scarf around his neck, and she thought about it and said no. Finally she lay down, and he kneeled and straddled her leg, holding the bedboard. Looking into each other’s eyes, she slowly jerked him off. Not very kinky at all, but they loved each other.
After a rousing finish, Frank collapsed on the bed, breathing heavily, his heart pounding. He’d moaned, he’d quivered, he’d shaken. The loose skin of his arms and neck waved like linen on a line, his belly heaved and rolled, the tendons pulled away from his bones like ship’s rigging.
He lay there comatose for some time. She dozed off next to him for a few moments, but then thought of something she wanted to look up before she went to sleep. So she propped him up on his pillows, kissed his forehead, and turned out the light.
Judy sat in front of her computer for an hour or so, smoking weed and looking things up – one thing leading to another on the internet. She started yawning, and figured it was time for bed. Brushing her teeth, she went to inspect her husband. He was exactly where she’d left him. She couldn’t be sure, but in the dark it looked like his eyes were open.
She got into bed and resisted the temptation to wake him up to tell him how funny he looked. But when she woke up later to pee, she noticed that he’d never moved, never turned over. She touched him. He was cold.
She leaped up and stood dithering at the foot of the bed. Then she called 911. Then she ran around and cleared away all the evidence of illegal drugs. There were roaches and rolling papers and used baggies everywhere. Then she ran around picking things off the floor, clearing a path from the front door for the ambulance crew. She would have been proud of her work if there hadn’t been more serious things to think about.
They came in fast. They went back out more slowly. There was nothing to be done. They took Frank away, and left Judy sobbing in a corner, waiting for them to leave so she could drown her sorrows. But she didn’t. She was out of booze. But thank God for marijuana. She wandered thru the house, wailing and thinking, for the rest of the night and into the bleak daylight.
She decided that Mom had to die.
* * *