By Steve Bass
No. Not. Possible. Eight thirty, pouring rain, brand new suit and tie, forty-five minutes to get there, and his car has a flat tire. Perfect. Anthony resisted the urge to empty the little six shot revolver that was strapped to his leg into the car’s sagging tire. Breathe in, breathe out. His doctor kept reminding him to relax. Though his arms still rippled with cords of muscle, his heart was not what it had been in years past. Breathe in, breathe out. Retrieving his keys from his pocket, he unlocked the passenger door, gently laid the roses that he had been carrying onto the seat, and reached across the console to pop the trunk. It was really ok. He could do this. A flat was nothing. He used to switch entire engine blocks out of dune buggies in under twenty minutes, this was nothing. Anthony had the sporty blue Subaru jacked off the ground in no time, his experienced hands moved without hesitation, the muscles of his back and chest handling the tire with ease. The flat practically flew off the mount, and the spare was installed with similar efficiency. Everything was stowed back in the tiny trunk in less than fifteen minutes. Folding himself into the tight car, he surveyed his clothes. Even his white shirt was still clean, if nearly transparent with rain and a little sweat. But that would be almost dry by the time he got there if he ran the heaters the whole way. Damn he was good. He looked at the flowers in the passenger seat. They had been picked that morning; he’d expertly trimmed and wrapped them after breakfast. A smug smile spread over his face. It would be perfect. It would be classy. She would get the surprise of her life, right before he ended it. The refrain rolled pleasantly off his tongue as he whispered it to himself. He turned the key and pulled out of the motel parking lot onto a country road bordered with pines; the tires hissed on the wet pavement as Anthony downshifted around a corner and into the night.
If it weren’t for the rain Anthony would have been able to see the most radiant moon that had ever risen. This particular evening, from above the thundering carpet of clouds that hugged the earth, the moon shone nearly as bright as the sun did during the day; for once the moon nearly equaled the grandeur of the star whose light it had reflected since the dawn of time.
However, even if Anthony had been able to see this spectacular display, it was unlikely that he would have paid any more attention to it than he did to the flitting shape that darted in between the trees to his left. It was a deer, and it was running for its life from a pack of wolves that were running for their dinner.
The chaperone told him to sit still and his impatience told him to get moving. Justin glanced at his program; according to it, this was the play’s last scene. Only a few more minutes were left and his tapping foot ticked down them down to the millisecond. Part of him wished his mom hadn’t made him sign up for the field trip, but he had actually enjoyed himself. The play had been witty and he felt ‘culturally stimulated,’ a very new feeling to the seventh grader who had just shaved for the first time, if scraping the soft peach fuzz from his upper lip could be called shaving. His mom had told him that one should try to culture oneself, lest one should be too easily enchanted by simple charms. She’d said this in a strangely detached voice that made Justin think that all the ‘one’s might actually more significant a pronoun.
He peeked at his cell phone. Three minutes. Three minutes until he could sprint to his mom’s waiting Saab, which would
carry him forty miles to the bus station. After the mandatory hugs-n-kisses, he would grab his luggage, which was in the trunk, and dash for a window seat. Five hours later he would step off the bus. He would be cool. He would be crisp. He would greet his dad, who he hadn’t seen in nearly a year, with a firm handshake. They would then explore all the joys of bachelorhood in the bustling city of New York. His heart beat a tattoo of excitement. He would begin his journey as soon as the curtain rose. Two minutes.
Justin’s mom sat with the heater running, staring impatiently at the SUV in front of her. She’d managed to maneuver her little roadster between the American-made behemoths and almost to the front of the line of anxious parents, all waiting for their children to come streaming out of the theatre doors and through the fluorescently lit parking lot and into their cars. She hoped Justin had enjoyed the play. He was bright and got good grades, but was often bored with the creeping pace of school. She herself had barely made it through high school with her sanity intact. A ‘C’ average had gotten her a diploma and a good-enough paying job to put a roof over her head and a pillow under it. She met Justin’s dad three years after graduating and moved from her modest apartment to his townhouse. From day one she knew he was the one. It was something about his name: Jacob. Jacob and Elaine Watson. She dreamed of filling it out on return addresses, magazine subscriptions, registration papers… Once they were living together, the result was inevitable. They had an elaborate, white rose wedding. Memories of the ceremony lasted long after the honeymoon. Justin was born. Then the revealing effects of Time exposed everything that Elaine had been trying to ignore. She no longer fit into her wedding dress, laundry became insufferable, and she realized that she was no longer using make-up to enhance her features, but rather to cover up bruises. When she become aware of the last, she made her decision. One night, she took Justin from his bed, crammed him and a backpack into a much less luxurious sedan than the one she was sitting in now, and sped away under a shining moon. Jacob had a well-paying job as a mid-level manager, one that frustrated him to no ends; Elaine not only heard, but also felt his anger. After she and Justin had left, Justin’s dad quit his job for a lower stress one. He quit drinking and even quit cussing. He lowered his blood pressure, decreased his work hours, and lost weight, all because he had lost them. He wrote and called and emailed Justin’s mom, pleading for a second chance, saying he was a changed man. But Justin’s mom knew that things would never work out, even with a third or fourth chance.
She had, however, gotten a job with Justin’s dad’s company, an indirect bonus of the divorce deal. It was probably due to the fact that she had represented herself in court, and had done so with such poise that the company’s lawyer took notice. They gave her a position in a completely different branch than Justin’s dad, the legal department. The hours were long and the contracts at times involved shady characters. She’d never even considered being a lawyer before, but she found that she was a natural. Justin, like his mom, was a natural arguer (or ‘Perspective Adjuster,’ as he liked to call it). He was a hard worker as well, and fiercely passionate about his grades. He was emotional as well; something that meant that he yearned for the week he spent with his dad every nine months. It was why she knew she would be the first one out of the parking lot, and if the car was not rolling by the time Justin’s door slammed shut he might tell her to, “Get us the heck outta’ dodge.” She wouldn’t mind so much except that that’s exactly what his dad used to tell her whenever they were running late. And they were usually late whenever they had gone out, whether it was dancing, or to dinner, or just going to the movies. They’d always made the most out of outings, because Jacob had never had that much free time. She remembered one afternoon that he’d managed to get off. It was before Justin came, when they still lived in the townhouse. He showed up on the doorstep with roses and a picnic basket and… A sharp tapping on the tinted window snapped her out her daydream.
“Unlock the door, mom!” Justin’s muffled voice pleaded. Sighing, she hit the unlock button and turned the key. Justin was in and buckled before the well tuned engine kicked to idle, his bag between his knees.
“C’mon mom, let’s go!” She obliged by cranking the wheel and pulling out of the school parking lot and navigating onto the expressway. Trying to make small talk, she attempted to disguise her disappointment at losing Justin for a whole week. He might have noticed how poor of a job she was doing if he could have torn his eyes from the road ahead, his mind already at the station and in the bus.
What the hell was that? One second Anthony was driving between the yellow lines and the next second this. He was upside down, held in place by his seatbelt. The dash lights flickered, then winked out, leaving him in complete darkness. He wiped a rivulet of blood off the side of his neck. Staring at a hand he could not see in the dark, he laughed. Had the blood been running down his neck, because it was trickling in the direction of the ground, or up it, because it was going toward his head? What a silly predicament to be in. How could he even figure out what had happened if he couldn’t even decide if his blood ran up or down? Then he smelled gas. The sharp, sweet smell of an impending disaster snapped him back to reality. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs of confusion and nearly vomited from the swirling pain that washed over his brain. Ok. Slowly. Move slowly. Easy. Bracing himself against the roof with one hand, he pressed his knees against the steering wheel and unclicked his seatbelt with his other hand. He had to shift his weight to release the pressure on the buckle, and when it did let go, his single arm wasn’t enough to support him. He crumpled against the roof of the car, again nearly losing his dinner to the rushing torrent of agony that whirled through his head. His revolver painfully dug into his calf with the pressure of nearly his whole body. Deciding this was currently the most pressing issue, he rolled over. In the process he knocked his head on something that gave with a mechanical click. The door handle. Anthony reached for it, and tried to open the door. It, however, was not designed to open when the door frame was crushed against it. Anthony silently cursed the engineers at Subaru for their shortsightedness, then started kicking out the windshield. As the engineers had designed it to resist shattering, this was a more difficult task than it at first seemed. Anthony sent another mental note to the design department at Subaru as he struggled against the safety glass. All the time, the smell of gasoline was getting stronger. It nearly choked him with its thickness. So long as nothing sparked, he should be alright. And because of all the safety features on the car, that shouldn’t be a problem.
The pack of wolves stands on the edge of the road. They smell a bad smell: human. But they also smell a salivating-ly good one: dead deer. They cautiously pick their way around the ruined car and sniff at the deer carcass. They are hungry. The human in the car makes a noise. They look at each other; they look at the carcass. Each one takes hold of the carcass with their mouths and they drag it away. Hide and hair scrape over the dirt. Very little blood stains the ground.
Elaine merged onto the empty freeway and sped away from the bus station. The car was painfully quiet and the silence all but drowned out the radio. She tried to comfort herself by thinking about all the things she had planned to do. She was putting herself under house arrest; she was under no circumstances allowed to leave the house, answer the phone, or check e-mail until she had completed her tax returns. Elaine had let it slide last year and lost nearly a thousand dollars. She’d called everyone she knew and cautioned them not to try to reach her, that she would be a little computing machine for the next two days, and as such, would be totally unreachable. But the empty passenger seat kept drawing her eyes off the road. She knew he’d be back in a week. She knew he’d be safe. It was just… She’d always felt a cold resentment from Justin’s dad after the split, as if by declaring him an unfit husband she’d made him eternally guilty of something. She was not worried for Justin’s sake; his father loved him and would never harm him. But something had seemed awry when she’d called Jacob when Justin got on the bus. She always called to check in and make sure Jacob would be there when Justin arrived. Jacob was civil enough, as always, but she detected something else in his tone. It bordered on relief, the kind that was the product of long months of planning and anxiety. But relief from what? Well, he was going to see his son after not seeing him for months, so that was probably it. She goaded herself for blowing the situation out of proportion. They had told her to look out, but… Naw. He wouldn’t dare go through with it, not so soon.
The wolves stop a short distance from the crashed car, thirty feet away from a fallen tree. They tear into the carcass, ripping the skin and muscle from bone with an efficiency that has kept them alive for millennia. When the adults have crammed their stomachs and throats with raw meat, they sluggishly flop down a short distance from the carcass. A pup warily approaches the deer. He wriggles under branches, feeling secure under their protection. He is not old enough to eat meat; his fur is still soft and gray. He scratches at a protruding bone.
Safety glass. Sure. The damn stuff had nearly shredded the skin off his leg. And it scratched his ribs and shoulders as Anthony tried to slide through the hole he’d made; his new slacks and jacket resembled camouflage netting more than formal dinner attire. So much for getting this job done with style. What had hit him? He did a complete three sixty, turning to look for another car or a deer, or something. He saw nothing on the road, but there was a path of lightly plowed earth leading away from the road at a right angle. He checked his watch. Nine-fifteen. Splendid. Weeks of planning, hours of meticulously picking through garbage to find the ideal time and place where she wouldn’t be missed, and now this. And Anthony’s particular brand of services did not cater well to failure. The man who had called him had been very clear that it had to happen tonight. The man’s son would be visiting him and the mom would be alone. The man wanted to be there to comfort his son when the news arrived in order to reinforce the parental bond. Anthony did not care for the man’s morals, but he did care for the man’s money. Money that he would now not be paid. The bellows of anger began to stoke a fire inside him, a fire of hate he had not felt for decades. His body, which had been pushed through the rigors of an unusually demanding life, responded to the rage as it had when he was twenty years younger: it pumped adrenaline by the pint into his system. The explosive liquid shot through his system; it tightened his muscles and sent jolts of electricity crackling over his skin. His eyes sharpened and his ears twitched with alertness. He heard a soft scratching. His eyes swiveled predatorily to the source of the sound and he leapt over the plowed soil, sprinting from cover point to cover point. He stopped a several yards short of the base of an upturned tree, which was out of sight of the road. The scratching again. The source of the noise was only thirty feet ahead of him, but the absolute black of the night kept him from seeing what was making it. He reached down and unstrapped the revolver from his leg. His skin, slightly slick with anticipation, prickled at the sharp chill. The path of worried earth and devastated plant life ended at the now horizontal tree. There was a thick branch that was dancing irregularly, lifted by a small mass underneath it. Following it closer to the trunk with his eyes, he saw a hoof that was attached to a leg that was attached to the body of the thing that had made him miss his “appointment.” Next to the still carcass was something fuzzier, and it was alive. He raised the gun. Irrational? Sure. Satisfying? Yes.
The headlights of Elaine’s car painted the unusual wreck with an impersonal intensity. Her mouth opened in wonder at the scene. There was, or rather, what was left of a blue imported sports car. Upside down. In the middle of the road. It looked as if it had been dropped from the heavens. She reached for her cell phone to call an ambulance, but no service.
“So much for convenience.” Elaine began to get out of the car, but she hesitated. Something wasn’t right about this. But she was concerned for whoever had been driving the car, so she left her lights on and opened the door. She left it open, and the sharp warning chimes that reminded her that her keys were still in the ignition were activated. Ignoring the way they ripped through the quiet night like a knife through cloth, she warily approached the upturned car.
His finger microns away from exerting enough pressure to send two ounces of lead screaming into the scratcher, Anthony froze. The forest was not supposed to go, “bing bong bing bong bing bong…” His finger relaxed and he swiveled. Anthony raced for the cover of a tree, then another, approaching the road. He saw the headlights first, bathing what had been his beautiful car in a harsh, revealing light. Seeing the full extent of the wreckage for the first time, he began to wonder how he had managed to walk away from the wreck. As he worked his way closer, he saw a shadow dancing over the pavement, its spindly arms and legs fluttering from tree to ground to rock. Growing from the shadows’ feet were two real feet, clad in conservative blue heels. A pair of legs, a navy business skirt to match a navy business jacket. A graceful neck topped by a face. Anthony nearly shouted with disbelief. It was the face he had been hired to erase. And it was right here. The burning rage was doused by cool waves of relief, which also drowned out any objections to the impossibility of the coincidence. He almost let out a laugh, and almost raised his gun and shot her. But sharp rationalizations, the hero of almost-accidents, stopped him. His car lay unquestionably in the middle of the road. He had bought it legitimately, and while the plates could be removed, the Vehicle Identification Number was cut into the engine block; there was no way he could deny the car was his. This would be a problem when some aspiring CSI officer found trace evidence of Elaine Formerly Jacobson on the ground in his car’s immediate vicinity. He restrapped the gun to his leg, carefully arranged the remains of his pant leg over it, put on his best victim face, and approached the woman.
“Howdy ma’am. Sure glad you showed up. It’s kind of a long walk to town, ain’t it?” Anthony smiled to himself. He was going to pull off a murder of awesome coincidence; he figured that he might as well put a little show into it. Justin’s mom smiled inwardly too. She’d always said that anyone who said ‘howdy’ or ‘ain’t’ anywhere north of Arkansas should be shot. Speaking of which, what was that bulge on the man’s calf? Some of Justin’s mom’s confidence melted away.
“It’s actually less than five miles. But, uh… I guess I could give you a ride. There’s no reception out here, so you’ll have to wait until town to get a tow truck. Are you all right? Your car looks… totaled.”
“Yeah, I don’t think I’ll be driving it anywhere soon. Can we get going? I don’t think I’m hurt too bad, but… Internal bleeding, you know?” If he was bleeding internally he wouldn’t be walking, Elaine thought to herself. She wanted to stall a little bit, to make sure he wasn’t carrying more than one gun.
“Yeah sure.” Not moving, she added, “What did you hit? A bear?” She quickly walked past the man towards the plowed earth, watching him out of the corner of her eye as he circled to follow. His clothes were damp and clung to him; it was obvious there no weapons other than the one on his calf.
“I don’t know what I hit, but, I’m starting to feel a little light headed. Can I sit in your car?” Sure he was, thought Justin’s mom.
“Go ahead. Here, sit in the driver’s seat, it has a heater in it. I have a first aid kit in the trunk.” She led him to the car and made sure he was adjusted. “Here, the steering wheel is heated too. Your hands must be freezing.” She then walked to trunk. She tried to unlock it with her keys, but the hole kept moving. No, that wasn’t it. It was her hands that were shaking and trembling with the delayed reaction to the knowledge that there was a man with a gun in the driver’s seat of her car who wanted to kill her and her keys were jingling and jangling so hard she couldn’t hold onto them and she dropped them and she nearly screamed as they bounced harmlessly off her foot. She looked through the rear window to the back of the man’s head and she thought of Justin. She took a deep breath. All the way in; all the way out. Elaine bent down and picked up her keys. She unlocked the trunk on only the second try. She looked to the first aid kit, then up through the rear windshield at the back of the man’s head. Instead of the red bag with the cross on it, she reached for a special black bag, out of which she pulled out a set of handcuffs and a satellite phone. Clicking on the phone, she thanked the technology gods and put it in her pocket. She took a second to smooth her skirt and brush a stray wisp of hair from her face. Heels clicking on the pavement, she strode to the open door. Anthony looked up and gave her his winningest smile. She returned it, and expertly slapped the handcuffs onto the stunned man’s right hand and steering wheel. Anthony’s smile evaporated. His mouth still agape, she deftly took his gun and zipped it into a waiting plastic baggie. Removing a picture of him from her jacket that Surveillance had taken, she compared the two faces. Well, the one in the picture was smiling about something and the one handcuffed to her steering wheel had its mouth open in disbelief, but they were the same. This was the guy her husband had hired to kill her. The company that had given her a job had found out about the planned hit through some its shadier connections and warned her to watch her back. They’d told her he was a careful operator, but she guessed that went out the window along with the rest of his car.