Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Useful Skill

he's watching, originally uploaded by Jenn Platt.
This guy with the giant fan went up a few weeks ago. I didn't notice until today that no matter where I stand he looks like he's looking right at me. I think there might be a story in there.

But it isn't this week's story. This week's story is about a quiet guy with an unexpected skill. Besides cooking.

Fair warning, there's pasta, scotch, boats, and a very bloody ax ahead.

With a carefully arched thumb and forefinger, he sprinkled a spray of cilantro over the top of the dish. He stepped back and smiled at the perfect arrangement of pasta on his plate. The darker green of the pesto sauce was accented by the bright yellowy green of the fresh cilantro on top. He cocked his head to one side and added a trail of the fresh grape tomatoes he’d sliced to the edge of the pasta in a neat semicircle. “Well, hell.” His eyes narrowed briefly. Too much effect. The red overpowered the fresh cilantro. He reached in carefully with his fork and pulled the tomatoes off the plate. He ate them absently and wiped away the smear of tomato juice left on the white china with a damp cloth. The colors were better and he nodded, picking up the plate and taking it to the table on the deck.

Once he stepped outside he could hear the light music he’d set to play on the outdoor speakers. He’d been inside longer than he thought; the playlist was all the way to the tango. He did a little spin in place where he imagined twirling someone and expertly slipped the plate onto the white on white place setting. He sat with the same sort of flourish and took a sip of the chardonnay already on the table to cleanse the tomatoes from his palate. He rolled it over his tongue and through his cheeks, eyes out on the lake, past the raised deck. There weren’t many lights on the water, school was back in session and the middle of the week didn’t yield many night sailors. If it hadn’t been for the moon peeking out between light clouds the water might have been invisible.

His mouth tingled slightly and he turned his attention from the water to his plate. The fork was cool against his palm as he dug it into the pasta, managing two pieces of farfalle and a good portion of the fresh cilantro. He leaned slightly over his plate so the warm scent of the pesto reached him as he put the fork in his mouth. His eyes closed briefly as he chewed. There was the fresh almost menthol taste of the cilantro, the slight crunch of walnuts, the bite of cayenne pepper, all smoothed over by the olive oil and the starch of the pasta. He opened his eyes and swallowed, nodding. It would need more pepper next time, but it was passable.

He felt a dab of olive oil at the corner of his mouth and reached for his napkin. His hand met empty tablecloth. He frowned and got up, moving quickly into the kitchen on his long legs. He was rummaging through the napkin drawer to find a white one when the doorbell rang.

“Hell,” he cursed, napkin in his fist. He could see the rest of the fresh cilantro wilting from the heat of the pasta by the time he got rid of whoever was at the door.

The doorbell rang again followed by loud knocking. He bit off another curse and strode into the living room and past it to the lit foyer. “Should have killed the light,” he muttered, bending down slightly to look through the peephole.

He dropped his napkin in his haste to undo the chain and the deadbolt. It felt like an hour before the door would open. When it did give way there was a pause in his breathing so brief no one would notice, but long enough that he could drink in every detail. Huge waif eyes, a long chin and narrow shoulders, wet brown hair plastered to her skull, and finally, bringing him out of his admiration, the blood on her neck and chest.

“Haley, what happened?” he asked, sweeping her inside with one long arm. He shut the door behind them and she stumbled a little, gripping his arm with surprising strength.

“I had an accident, Reg,” she answered almost absently, following him to the living room.

She was clearly soaked but he didn’t hesitate to steer her to the leather sofa or pull the cashmere throw around her shoulders. He crouched down in front of her so their eyes were on a level and pressed her cold hands between his. His mind sped ahead, making rapid calculations. It didn’t look like a lot of blood and what there was looked a little washed out. Still, she could have internal injuries. There was a hospital twenty miles away and it would only take fifteen minutes in the Mercedes. “If you’re hurt we have to get you to a doctor.”

She shook her head and sighed pulled her hands away and running them through her wet hair. “Blood’s not mine.” She blew out a long breath and met his eyes; at this distance hers were bloodshot but still beautiful. “It’s Dan’s.”

Reg stood up and turned away from her. He kept his eyes on the mantle, on the small bronze to the right of the ticking clock. “Is he dead?”

There was a long pause but he didn’t turn. Finally, so quietly the words were nearly drowned out by the clock and his own breathing, she said, “Yes.”

“Did anyone see you?” His eyes fixed down to the details of the little sculpture, the hooves of the horse, the way the light curled around them and gave them depth.

Her voice was closer and he knew she was standing only feet behind him, within arm’s reach if he turned. “He was threatening me, I didn’t have a choice. It was-”

His jaw unclenched allowing him to cut her off. “That’s not what I asked you,” his voice was suddenly hard, harsh though he didn’t raise it.

He could feel her take a step back. “No one saw, it was at the cabin.”

Reg squeezed his eyes shut at the thought of them at the cabin. Alone in the woods for a weekend so Dan could put his hands all over her. He forced himself to open his eyes and breathe evenly. There were more important things to consider. “Where’s the body?”

He could hear her throat working as she swallowed. “In the trunk.”

His entire back went tense, or tenser and he walked to the other side of the room. The anger in his head was like lava trying waiting to erupt. His arm flew out and knocked an ornamental table over with a crash of wood and porcelain. It wasn’t enough of an impact on his body, enough release from the fury that made him want to run across the room, pick Haley up by her perfect shoulders and shake her. He hit the wall and put a hole in it. He shook his hand out, accepting the throbbing and resting his head against the plaster. She brought him the body. That was the only reason she was at his house covered in blood. Because he would know how to clean it up. He straightened and turned, ready to tell her to get out, ready to tell her to drive her car into the lake and cross her fingers, ready to tell her to never come back.

But she was standing in the middle of his living room with the red blanket over her shoulders and tears streaming down her face and he felt his anger drain away. He sighed and rubbed his throbbing hand over his forehead, pushing his hair out of his eyes. “Did anyone see you drive up? Was anyone on the street?”

Her lower lip trembled but she shook her head firmly.

He nodded. “We need to go quickly but carefully.” He moved past her to the hall closet and pulled out a sweater. He held it out to her. “Get out of that shirt and put this on. I’m going to need your help.”

She took it and he turned his back so she could change. He spoke to keep his concentration. “What kind of shape is the cabin in?”


“The cabin. Is it covered in blood? If anyone knows you went there the cops will search it,” he said impatiently. It was Tuesday, by Thursday at the latest, she would have to report Dan missing and the cops would want to look at the cabin.

There was a long pause and Reg turned to ask again.

Haley held the dark sweater up over her bra with a faint sound of surprise.

Reg turned back toward the door. He could feel the back of his neck glowing red. “Come on, get it on. We have to move.”

“Ok. What do we do?” she asked quietly.

He didn’t quite dare turn to face her again. “You’re going to pull your car into the garage. Close the door after you and I’ll meet you in there.”

He waited until he saw her move around him and into the kitchen to open the door to the garage. There were certain patterns of behavior, that once set, became a part of the reaction process. He didn’t have to think about it, he just moved automatically to the cupboard next to the sink and pulled out a box of black trash bags. His hands had their own programming, finding the duct tape and twine and vinyl gloves as though he’d planned his new kitchen this way, with these things in neat and easy reach. Maybe he had, it might have been as automatic as the way he was moving, to make his very house a perfect contingency plan.

He laid everything out on the counter, adding his boat keys to the pile, and opened the cupboard next to the refrigerator. The bottle of single malt scotch seemed to float down to him. He took a tumbler out of the drying rack and set it on the counter. He poured two fingers of scotch into it and tipped it back. The bloom of heat in his stomach was a poor substitute for the energy a situation like this used to bring him, but it was close enough. “I’m too sober for this,” he said almost absently, setting the tumbler in the sink and the scotch back in the cupboard.

With the bags, tape, twine, gloves and keys he stopped short of the door to the garage and looked down at himself critically. The dark cords were dark enough. He plucked at his rugby shirt. The green was dark but the medium yellow stripes were brighter than he would have liked. He frowned slightly and decided it was negligible. There wasn’t time to waste changing.

The garage door was closing as he stepped down onto the concrete floor. Haley was standing next to the button on the wall that worked the door, staring at the car. He touched her shoulder carefully, not surprised that she jumped. “Give me the keys.”

She dropped them into his hand with a look of relief.

He moved to the back of the car and unlocked the trunk. He held the lid up slightly but not open and looked at her over the top of the car. “Get the wheelbarrow next to the washing machine and bring it over here.” He held her gaze firmly until she looked away and walked toward the washing machine. He dropped his eyes to the lid of the trunk and opened it.

The coppery smell of blood hit him first confirming that whatever had happened, it had just happened. There was enough blood pooled around the body that Reg didn’t bother to double check the pulse. Dan’s face held no obvious sign of a struggle, only a bit of smeared blood and what could have been a bruise on his jaw.

Reg set the bags and tape and twine on the floor near the back tire and pulled on a pair of gloves. He reached in and tested Dan’s weight by the shoulders. He’d always guessed somewhere around 180lbs and he’d been right. He let Dan’s shoulders go, twisting them slightly so he’d be in a better position to lift out. That was when he saw the axe. Or the handle of the axe. It protruded from the back of Dan’s head, just the wood and the very back of the blade visible. He blinked down at it. The angle was downward, as though the axe had come at Dan from above. Cocking his head slightly, Reg tried to picture the blow. It would have had to come from above, Dan with his head bent somehow. And with enough force to bury the blade. If it was a standard axe the bruise on his jaw might have been from the blade trying to break through. Reg’s mouth turned into a strained smile. He had never used an axe on anyone, but he could imagine it would feel like swinging a baseball bat that wouldn’t rebound when it hit skull. It would just sink right in.

The scrape of the wheelbarrow rolling toward him made the smile from his face. His expression was serious when he looked at Haley. “Go ahead and leave it next to the work bench. I need you to help me tape these bags together.” There would have been a time when he always had plastic sheeting in the garage, but garbage bags and duct tape would do in a pinch.

Haley paused at the edge of the trunk, looking in at Dan.

“Tape these together,” Reg said sharply, motioning her down.

She nodded and dropped to her knees next to him, helping tape together a sheet about ten feet long and eight feet wide. When they were done he waved her back and picked it up. “Bring the wheelbarrow right here,” he said, gesturing to a spot next to the open trunk. He moved over to the workbench and pulled down a pair of heavy scissors. He centered several lengths of twine in the barrow and let the long ends hang over the sides. The plastic went over the twine. He nudged the box of gloves with his foot. “Put a pair on.”

He bent over Dan’s shoulders, turned and lifted so his torso tipped over the edge of the trunk. “I’m going to pull and you’re going to get his feet.”

She looked stricken, standing there by the trunk in his sweater, doe eyes pleading with him.

He was sure she couldn’t possibly more lovely. “You got him in here, so grab his damned feet,” he barked.

She swallowed hard and moved up to the trunk with a strange grimace twisting her lips.

Reg gave a tug, ignoring the throb in his hand, and shifted his grip so he wouldn’t drop the body. “Okay, on three. I’m going to pull and you’re going to swing his legs out so we can get him into the wheelbarrow. Got it?”

She swallowed again and nodded.

With his face too close to Dan’s greasy hair he tensed his legs, getting a good stance. “One, two, three!” He heaved and the body came out of the trunk heavy and awkward. It was only by some miracle that it actually landed dead center in the wheelbarrow.

Reg took Dan’s booted feet carefully out of Haley’s hands and tucked them against into the wheelbarrow. He tucked the arms in too and folded the plastic over Dan until he was just a big black lump. The twine went around the middle to hold the plastic down. Reg used it at the neck and knees and ankles too. Around the neck and ankles he also used short lengths of rope to make grips. He stripped his gloves off and tossed them in the trunk. “Put yours in there too and grab two more pairs, one for each of us. Stick them in your pocket.”

Haley was moving like a sleepwalker, but as long as she was moving, it would have to do. When she had the gloves he closed the trunk and moved around the wheelbarrow, lifting it up on its wheel and feeling the strain in his back. “Get the door for me,” he said, gesturing with his head.

She moved, probably glad to get away from the body. She opened the door and closed it behind him when Reg had gone through. They went through the side yard and past the deck. “I didn’t mean for this to happen. It was just-”

“Don’t. This isn’t the time or place,” he whispered harshly. They were lucky enough that it was a weekday and just past popular boating weather. They might not be as lucky in avoiding the neighbors who liked their decks as much as he liked his.

The wheel made an obscene amount of noise rattling over the dock but Reg knew that was just his ears keen from adrenaline. His boat sat low in the covered slip, about even with the planking. He turned to look at Haley who looked down at the wood under her feet. “We have to work together to get him in. Hand me a pair of gloves and put yours on,” he told her in a low tone. Dan was heavier than him, there was no way he could just carry him onto the bobbing boat.

He waited until she handed him the gloves to continue. “I’m going to lift his shoulders again and get in the boat, I need you to hold the rope at his feet to get him clear of the wheelbarrow, ok?”

She nodded again, putting her gloves on.

“Ok, then,” he said, slipping his gloves on and taking a deep breath before he hefted Dan out by the handle around his neck. There was a shaky moment where Reg was sure that he and Dan were going to end up in the lake together, but he made it over the edge and pulled Dan onto the deck.

Reg offered Haley a hand getting in. She only hesitated for a second before taking it and stepping onto the boat.

Reg started the engine and stepped back onto the dock, untying the ropes and stepping back onto the boat before it had a chance to drift. He motioned for Haley to follow him. She trailed him to the raised bridge, sitting on a bench next to where he stood as he raised the anchor and moved them quietly onto the lake.

It was a cool, crisp fall evening and when Reg let himself look, he saw that the moonlight made Haley’s pale skin glow. They were both quiet on the half hour ride to the cove. Haley didn’t say anything until he slowed them to a full stop and dropped the anchor.

“Why are you doing this, Reg?”

He had been about to go down to the deck and finish with Dan. He paused, facing her at his full height, towering over her where she sat. She was looking up at him with her luminous eyes. He said the only thing that came to mind. “You asked me to.”

When she just blinked at him he left her on the bench and went down, finding the spare anchor and retying the rope at Dan’s feet to attach it. His hands were shaking but he barely noticed. His heart was hammering too hard. He’d never said anything to Haley about how he felt, and in the middle of dumping her boyfriend’s body into the lake, he suddenly felt exposed. “Great bloody timing,” he muttered, carefully scanning the area around the boat before getting Dan’s shoulders over the rail. The rest of the body followed easily and he managed to get the anchor over without scraping the side of the boat. There wasn’t even blood on the deck. He stared into the dark water for a moment and took a deep breath knowing all he’d finished was the easy part. He still had to find out what condition the cabin was in, get rid of the car, get rid of the bloody clothes, and work out what Haley would tell the police.

He heard her crying before he started up the steps to the bridge. It was a soft animal sound and he stomped a little on the steps so she could wipe her eyes before he appeared. She sniffed and cleared her throat when he pulled up the anchor and started the engines.

He pulled away from the cove and waited for her to say something but other than another low sniff he could barely hear over the engines, she was silent. He didn’t let himself look at her on the way back, keeping his attention on handling the boat with as little sound as possible. He backed expertly into the slip and anchored, moving off the bridge to tie them off. He secured the boat and was surprised to see that Haley was still on her bench. He could just make her out from the dock.

Hopping back on the boat he crossed his fingers in his pockets and hoped she’d stay quiet. For a moment, the way she had slumped to the side sent a bolt of panic through him. It wasn’t until he was kneeling in front of her, reaching to feel her pulse, that he saw her chest move. “Just asleep,” he whispered, swallowing down his fear and touching her shoulder, shaking it slightly. She just slumped further to the right.

His arms already felt strained and his hand was throbbing across the bruised knuckles from lugging Dan but he still slipped one arm carefully around her shoulders and another under her knees, lifting her smoothly from the bench. He went carefully down the stairs, feeling the muscles in his back twitch. The walk to the house had never seemed longer with his back and shoulders going hot where he had stressed them. He didn’t put her down, not when he had to open the patio doors, not when he carefully kicked his shoes off. He walked her straight back to his bedroom and settled her onto the duvet. Careful not to wake her, he slipped her boots off and momentarily regarded her still wet pants. He shook his head, leaving them on and covering her with a thick blanket from the foot of the bed to ward off any chill. He stood back and watched her, curled up on her side in his bed, hair stuck to her cheek from crying, deep shadows under her eyes.

Reg closed his eyes and turned away. He opened them facing his door and squared his shoulders. There was still the cabin and the car and the clothes.

He closed the bedroom door carefully behind him and went down the hall with the image of Haley in his bed burned into the backs of his eyes.

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