So Easy

It was so easy to pick the briefcase up. Easier, in fact, than it would have been to explain why he was behind the bar at midnight. He couldn’t turn it into the cops. If the cops got involved, then his wife would know. And if his wife knew, she’d wonder why he was in town instead of at the conference he’d gone so far as to check in to his flight for.

If she found out he was in town, she’d find out about Ashley, and there’d be little solace in the fact that he was behind the bar only because he’d gotten shitfaced after Ashley dumped him, and the bathroom was locked when the alcohol decided to come back up.

That was when he saw the briefcase-one fist against the sticky brick wall, one hand holding his tie back while he vomited half-digested steak between his black leather wingtips.

He didn’t have to take the briefcase, except it seemed a shame not to. It was a nice briefcase, hidden behind the dumpster. Like as not he’d be sleeping in his car, hiding from his wife, dumped by his girlfriend, and it was a really nice briefcase. Tomorrow morning would be horrible regardless; maybe seeing it when he woke would ease his suffering some.

That moment came, too. He couldn’t have been asleep more than three hours but the sun was being a bit of a dick about letting him drift back off. It was the worst hangover he’d had since claiming he could handle his alcohol in high school and learning from the bush he woke up in that he really couldn’t. Barely getting the car door open in time, he hurled, not even surprised at the pile already outside his door. But when he rolled back into the car and groaned, there was the briefcase.

Mottled brown leather, gold accents so bright they hurt his eyes. Granted, everything hurt his eyes. All of him hurt. The memory of finding the briefcase, of getting it back to the car, was a bit blurry.

But if he was going to be awake, he might as well look inside. It sat heavy in his lap, the action of the latches smooth. Slowly, he lifted the lid.

Again he puked out the door, desperate to avoid the thick, messy piles of hundred dollar bills inside.

It was a lot of money. Maybe not fly-to-another-country-and-buy-a-villa kind of money, but enough to play secretly on for a while.

On a whim, once he felt steady enough to walk, he put the briefcase in his trunk and started back towards the bar. He looked like shit and smelled just as bad, and that was okay. It was early, the streets empty.


As he came around the corner he froze, guts churning worse than ever. Cop cars lined the streets, officers everywhere, and a white van was pulling up. Every instinct screamed to turn around yet with cops watching him, he had to keep walking.

The alley he’d found the briefcase in had been bisected by police tape. After a nod to the officers, he stole a glance. Though a white screen hid most of the body, errant locks of long, red hair stuck out around one edge. Mere feet away was the dumpster, and beside that, a pile of his vomit.

He stared, gap jawed, even as a cop approached him.

A car screeched around the corner, and the officer froze. The tires locked feet from a cruiser. Leaving the door wide open, the driver rushed towards the alley, officers running to intercept him. His suit was disheveled, undershirt pulled free, jacket missing.

“I paid them!” he screamed, straining against the hands holding him back. “I left the money! I paid them! Valerie? Valerie!”

When the sobs started was when he left, officers occupied holding the other man back, and slipped around the corner.

He could tell the cops but if the cops knew, then his wife would know, and it was so easy to just walk away.

Maybe he should rethink this.

Maybe it was enough money to leave the country.


Nobody’s Fool

The relief he’d felt when he finally gave himself permission was so incomparably great that he wondered why it had taken him so long. He’d dreamed about this from the first crack in his voice those 16 years ago, and here he was now, preparing. And tonight, it was finally going to happen.

Finding everything was harder than in his fantasies but there was excitement even in the work. Pleasure in thinking it through. More than once he had to rush home after buying something–the rope, the tape, the plastic sheeting–and relieve himself.

He went to a different store for each purchase, of course. He was nobody’s fool.

Finding the shop had been surprisingly easy, easier than he’d imagined. For under a Benjamin a month it was all his, miles away from anyone who would hear anything. A shop big enough for a semi, advertised as ‘perfect winter RV storage.’ The owner didn’t even come around.

“Less I have to deal with that fuckin’ place, the better,” he’d said when he they’d traded cash for the keys.

The van, however, had taken some work. It couldn’t come from a dealership–too much paperwork. Had to pay in cash. Couldn’t put his real name down on the registration. Couldn’t keep the plates that came on it, but he solved that in the long-term airport parking lot. Swap the plates once a month and he was good to go again. And other than a couple test runs past her house, he’d kept it inside anyway. Wouldn’t do to have it on too many cameras.

Just in case.

He was being smart about this.

It had a metal cage already installed between the cab and the cargo area, to prevent tools from flying forward in an accident. The limo tint on the windows hid the metal plates he’d installed behind the glass. More plates were welded over the holes where the door handles used to be.

He could keep her in there as long as he wanted.

He could keep her in there until she died. She couldn’t get out, and nobody would hear them.

The checklist was all in his head. Only an idiot would write something like that down. All the supplies were laid out on the bench in neat rows and he ran a finger over each, ticking it off in his mind and feeling a shudder deep inside himself. It was all here.

And later, she would be, too.

Everything he’d need once she arrived was in place, ready for him. For them.

On to the van. The side door, welded shut, had no give at all when he pulled. There were no gaps in the plates to pry at. Not that prying would work, but he wouldn’t want her to bloody her fingers.

He checked his watch. 6:35. Twenty-five minutes before she got off work, between thirty-two and forty minutes until she was in front of her house and he could grab her.

The only things left to double check were the melted bolt tops holding the cargo cage in place. Prying just a bolt or two free wouldn’t help her much, but why give her the chance?

It was easier to check them through the back of the van, so he swung a door wide and crawled in. Most were right on the cage’s edge, though each side had one hidden far back. He sat on the floor and slid an arm between the cage and van body, fingered the mound of tacked metal obscuring the bolt top.

Now the driver’s side. He sat down heavier than he intended, and the van gave a small bounce. A creak cut through the silence of the shop.

He looked up in time to see the cargo door swing close.

There were no door handles back here. The windows had metal plates welded over them. The shop was in the country, with no one for miles around to hear his panicked screams. The rent wasn’t due for another seventeen days.

He could have kept her in here until she died.


MRI

Tommy woke to voices arguing outside his room. He didn’t care about his “just this once” or her “you fucking owe me,” he just wanted them to shut up so he could finally get some sleep in this damn hospital. Instead, the woman walked in and over to his bed.

“Sorry to wake you. We managed to…”

“Lover’s quarrel?” he asked. The nurse’s brow furrowed until Tommy gestured at the door.

She grimaced, shaking her head. “No, another nurse. Fighting over who has to clean up what.” Raising the bed until he was sitting, she handed him three pills with solid blue casing.

“What’re these?” he asked, popping them in his mouth and swallowing with the water she offered.

“We fit you in early to get your stomach scanned. Those will let us track how things are moving through you. And this,” she said, slotting a syringe into his IV port, “will help you relax.” Turning to the door she called, “He’s all yours.”

The next nurse was giant of a man, well over six foot and thick as a rodeo bull. Tommy had trouble caring how out of place the guy looked as whatever the lady nurse had given him hit. He was suddenly jelly, and being jelly felt damn good.

“You remember how to get there?” she asked the other nurse.

“Ayup.”

“Good. And if anybody catches you, I don’t fucking know you. Got it?”

“Yes, dear,” the man said. Tommy didn’t notice him smacking the first nurse’s ass as he drifted through his euphoria. Whatever they’d given him was nice.

“Do you recognize me?” the man asked after rolling Tommy through the first few hallways.

He opened his mouth to answer but the guy quickly covered it with a hand.

“Shh, Tommy, just enjoy the ride. Becky said you’d be pretty high so I’ll fill you in. See, my name is Sean Carr.”

A puzzle piece slid into Tommy’s mind but without more, he was left with merely a vague I know you feeling.

The nurse pushed them into an elevator, but didn’t start it after the doors closed. “I work for a man named Patrick Steele.”

One more puzzle piece, but he still couldn’t see the picture it was supposed to make.

Sean moved beside the Tommy’s bed and grinned. “You owe Mr. Steele a lot of money, Tommy, and I’ve been looking for you. Nice of you to show up where my girlfriend works, though.”

There it was, the final piece. Understanding made him want to get up and run, but the drugs he’d been enjoying before now felt like a trap

Sean must have seen the change on Tommy’s face. He pulled his scrub top up to flash the pistol in his waistband. “Don’t try anything. Shall we?” he asked, punching the elevator button.

Tommy’s legs weren’t responding. His arms wouldn’t budge. He could hardly get his tongue moving to ask, “What did you give me?”

“A paralytic. Those pills, though–they’re the real surprise.”

From the elevator, Sean wheeled him through deserted hallways. There wasn’t even anyone to beg for help.

“Here we are,” he announced as he turned the bed towards a room. Through a viewing window, Tommy could see a looming white machine. “You ready for the surprise?”

“Please,” Tommy croaked.

Sean laughed and cuffed him on the shoulder. “Little late for that, Tommy.”

“What…” he said, and his mouth stopped working entirely.

“My girlfriend says MRIs are just giant, powerful magnets. Said if you have any metal in you, they’re not safe. I can’t go in that room myself since I might still have shrapnel in me.”

“Mmm,” Tommy said. He tried to thrash but only managed to shake his head.

“I wanted to see it for myself, though, so I filled those pills you swallowed with iron shavings. She said even if they don’t come through your skin, they’ll probably turn your guts into a spaghetti strainer.”

Tommy felt a tear roll down his cheek. Sean loomed over the bed.

“Guess you should have paid Mr. Steele,” he said, and gave Tommy’s bed one final push into the room with the giant magnet.


Only Arson

It’s only arson. Arson ain’t that bad of a charge. I mean, sure, it’s a felony and all, but the sentence could be a lot worse. Here in sunny old California, I’ll do a year and a half to three years, not even max sec. In and out again before the kid gets old enough to start school, easy-peasy.

They look at you a little funny when they know you burned down a house, though. Everybody’s worrying all the time that I’m off my rocker, that I’m gonna light my bed on fire and rub one out while it burns, but ain’t like that. If they saw how smart I’d been about it, they wouldn’t ever think that again.

See, the trick is to make it look either like an accident, or like you acted on impulse. Not that it matters which is which in my case. Sure, I tipped a lit barbeque over in the tall grass against the siding, but nothing requires me to say why I was trying to cook steaks behind a condemned house, no matter how many of these assholes tell me it would “help my case.” Me and my lawyer, we know there ain’t no excuse in the world that’ll hold water better than my silence.

That’s an important part, though. If you use any fuel to make the fire, any accelerants, or they can prove you planned it, it’s gonna look much worse, and so’s the sentence.

Showing proper remorse is also really important. You gotta look like you made one bad mistake and you really regret it. You gotta play the ‘I just got my life together and I’m sad I messed it all up again’ card, a real tug at the old heart strings. That’ll help keep your sentence short because after all, you’ve been keeping your nose clean since the last charges. Everybody loves the redemption story, the classic of an ex-con finding fatherhood and it settling him out of the life.

If you’re going to try it, though, maybe have a better record than mine. That’s the only hold up. They don’t like those possession charges and that bullshit I got into with my crazy ex, but I never got no felonies and the lawyer says that’s good. And I never started anything on fire before, least not anything they know about.

But that’s all the easy stuff. The real trick is making sure they never know you’ve been in the house. Nobody can see you coming or going. Anybody knows you were in there before, can tell the pigs they saw it, you’re pretty fucked, brother, and you better start praying if that’s your bag. But if you’re careful enough, if you’re smart enough, you can get in and out all you need before you burn it up.

And what’s the old joke about buying a house? Location, location, location? It’s true here, too. You gotta make sure enough of the house can burn down before the fire crew shows up. When you’re looking, check out old houses near empty warehouses or abandoned industrial areas. There ain’t nobody in those parts of town to call it in too soon, and it takes the fire department a long time to answer out there anyway.

My house? It was perfect. Damn thing burnt to the foundation. The only problem was I stuck around to watch.

Also, don’t do that. Don’t stay to watch, or you’ll end up like my ass, busted and waving at your little boy as best you can around the handcuffs while they walk you through the courtroom.

All in all, it’s not hard. Make it look like an accident. No accelerants. Look like you regret it. Have a clean record, and don’t get caught going in the house. Pick a good fucking house, and get the fuck out of there once you start it burning.

Because unless they can prove you knew that dead body was in the attic before you lit the fire, it’s only arson.