Monday, April 30, 2018

Leave the World a Better Place, by Tom Barlow

The first one went better than she could have expected. The right rifle, a .260 Remington with a Zeiss Conquest scope, which she had demanded when they divvied up her father's estate years before because she knew it had the least recoil. A comfortable place to sprawl on the floor of her van. The sun down, the parking lot of the Walmart nicely lit by halogen spotlights, her van parked in the dark beyond. A six-pack of hard lemonade in the cooler at her elbow.

Katie waited an hour for a deserving target, watching through the hole she'd bored for the scope in the back door of the van. He turned out to be a young, heavy-set man with thick black hair, most of his face obscured by the bushy beard extending well up onto his cheeks and a Red Sox baseball cap pulled down to rest on the top of his glasses. He caught her attention by scanning the parking area before reaching down between his seats, coming up with a handicapped parking pass, and clipping it onto his rear-view mirror as he pulled into a handicap spot.

She removed the plug from the lower of the two holes, the one for the barrel. Through the top opening, she located the driver's door of the car in her scope. The young man opened the door, jumped to his feet effortlessly, and shoved it shut with his hip as he took his first long strides towards the store.

She squeezed the trigger. When the rifle fired, the clap left her ears ringing. "Wear your ear protection, moron," she reminded herself, irritated.

She put the caps back in the holes in the hatch door and raised up to look through the rear window. The man lay face-down on the asphalt, blood splattered beneath him in a long arc reaching an abandoned electric cart near the curb. An elderly couple who had just exited the store had dropped to the ground with their arms over their heads. An SUV swerved around the body to grab a parking spot near the door.

Katie wrapped the rifle up in the quilt, crawled awkwardly between the seats to the front of her van and pulled away from the scene, slowly, cautiously. Her heart was beating a drum roll, and the air inside the van tasted of gunpowder.


She finished the six-pack before she could fall asleep that evening. Her bladder woke her long before she'd rested enough though, and after the trip to the bathroom she accepted that further sleep was not possible.

She made a pot of coffee, took her blood pressure, cholesterol and pain meds, choked down a large tablespoon of peanut butter for protein, and turned on the television for some company. Deborah had always watched the news in the morning, and Katie found it a habit she didn't want to break.

A young black reporter in a sports coat too heavy for the humid summer weather stood at the edge of the Walmart parking lot, breathlessly laying out the timing and sequence of events. The actual crime scene seemed overwhelmed by the comings and goings of police, fire, Homeland Security, news cameramen, city officials, and finally, the FBI. It looked to her like a couple of acres of parking had been cordoned off with yellow tape which sagged between light poles and billowed in the breeze. Nothing he said suggested she had been seen.

Katie examined her emotions as the reporter conjectured about the origin of the fatal bullet. Guilt? Very little. The man had been able-bodied, taking up a handicap space, the kind of selfish prick that had forced her mom to walk from remote parking even when her emphysema was at its worst. Excitement? That seemed to have dissipated quickly the previous evening. Satisfaction? More like an itch that had been thoroughly scratched but would most likely return as she continued on with the plan. Pain? Still there, mostly in her ribs. She took another Percocet, wondering when her oncologist would permit her to move up to harder drugs. He seemed to be holding that out as a reward for applying for hospice.


She didn't try to pull herself together until after lunch, in preparation for her appointment with her shrink, Eric. The mirror disappointed again. She had hair once more, but it had grown back coarse, like corn shocks after a month in the Thanksgiving display she used to hang on the front door of the urban two-story she and Deborah had shared. Her skin, once creamy, was growing increasingly transparent, so that late in the day she could track the network of veins and arteries underneath. Even the blue in her eyes seemed muddied. The only part she found pleasing was her cheekbones, much sharper after the weight loss, high enough that she looked faintly Native American.

She picked the cheeriest blouse in her closet, a polyester thant felt like silk in her hands, a fuchsia and sky-blue pattern. It momentarily improved her mood, but the adult diaper she donned brought her back down.


"Tell me about your week," Eric said, seated beside her on his long leather couch.

Katie fixed her gaze on the fat white candle he always lit at the start of their sessions, leaned back in the couch and threw one arm on top to take pressure off her ribs. "I'm trying to do what you said–work on acceptance. Still not sleeping worth a damn. I haven't seen Deborah or Glory Beth for a month."

"How do you feel about your daughter now? Last time, you were furious about the things she said to the judge."

"I keep reminding myself she's only 15. That helps."

"You were also angry at your partner. Have you come to terms with her behavior too?"

Katie thought the word 'terms' gave her a great deal of latitude. "I'm working on that."

"Hmm," he said. "Are you still working?" He wrote something, but kept the folder tilted away from her so she couldn't see it. She figured it was something like "Agitated, fatigued."

"I had three days of temp work at a call center downtown. They didn't want me back. Evidently, I don't have a warm voice."

"How do you feel about working menial jobs? With your background in management?"

She rubbed both eyes with a pinch of her right hand. "Acceptance, right? Nobody hires cancer patients. I understand that. So I work on appreciating whatever comes along. It beats sitting at home waiting to die."

Eric wrote some more. "You've had a great deal to accept recently," he said. "Anger is normal. It might show up in ways you don't expect. Try to identify those impulses that derive from that anger and stop yourself from acting on them. In times of personal crisis, misplaced anger can drive a wedge between you and your loved ones."

Katie held back from saying the first thing that came to mind; it was already too late.


Deborah had made her a cup of chai the afternoon of the emancipation hearing a month earlier, after their daughter Glory Beth had been finally pried away from them by Deborah's born-again bitch sister Elaine and her brother-in-law Stuart.

"You're going to stroke out if you don't watch it," Deb said, stroking Katie's neck lightly. The fingers felt like steel wool.

Katie had expected to come away from the hearing in tears, not with the seed of anger that now burned within her. But their daughter had adopted a pernicious attitude over the past two years thanks to the harping of Elaine about the ungodly relationship between Katie and Deborah. It had surfaced again that morning when Glory Beth's testimony dwelt on Deborah's licentious lifestyle. And the judge had forbidden them from even approaching their daughter for the time being, so she couldn't challenge Glory Beth's behavior.

"I told you Elaine was going to bring up that article," Katie said bitterly. She was unsure what angered her more; Deborah's repeated infidelity or the fact she had blogged it, claiming that her sexual freedom was an important example to set for their daughter, encouraging her to transcend the repressive mores of her parents' generation.

"The judge was a troglodyte," Deb replied. "Sometimes you just have to make a stand, even if it causes you pain in the short run." When she tried to put her arm around Katie she slapped it away.

"I can't stand to have this argument ever again. I'm moving out."

"We've been together almost twenty years. You can't just throw that away."

"As far as I can tell, you throw it away every time you walk out of here to meet your lovers."


Katie still read the newspaper, curious about the future despite her prognosis. Daily delivery was one of the first things she'd arranged when she moved into the tiny efficiency apartment in a neighborhood quickly on its way to becoming a barrio for immigrants from Central America. She circled an article in the Metro section about a Tom Abalo, a forty-year-old brick mason who had just been arrested for driving drunk for the tenth time. This time he'd clipped a boy on a bicycle who ended up losing a leg. Appallingly, Abalo was free on bail, even though he'd been forbidden from driving since his fourth conviction.

He still had a land line, so she was able to bring up his address from the White Pages. Googling his name provided a photo of him with a couple of proud homeowners posed in front of their new brick patio.

Luckily, her beat up van, which she and Deb had kept only because it was handy for hauling Deb's pottery to weekend shows, did not look out of place in Abalo's neighborhood, where virtually every driveway sported a panel van advertising a construction or repair service. She parked down the street where she had a clear view of his house from the floor of the van. The sun had set, and despite the heat, she was cold at her core, so she snuggled into the sleeping bag they had bought for the women's retreat where Deb's infidelity had found its first legs.

She put a stick of gum in her mouth and waited; although she had zero appetite, the chewing gave her the illusion of eating, and she was content with illusion at the moment. With all the opiates, food lost velocity in her colon and could be coaxed into passing through with only the greatest difficulty.

While there were no streetlights in this development, many of the houses had gas lights shining on their sidewalks, and the soft glow gave just enough illumination to frame anyone coming out of a house. She waited, and waited, until at just after 10:00 p.m. when Abalo walked out of his house, jumped in the truck in the driveway, and backed out. Katie started the van. When the truck passed her, she followed from a distance. As she expected, he drove less than a mile to a bar in a strip mall on Westerville Road, Jack's Lounge.

She figured he was there for quite a spell, so she took the opportunity to hit the McDonald's down the road to change diapers and was back on post, parked in the lot of a closed window repair shop across the road, when he came out of the bar at 1:00 a.m. He was in the company of two other drunks, but fortunately they peeled off, got in another pickup and left before Abalo, walking unsteadily, reached his. The shot was a piece of cake, although the sound echoed for a couple of seconds from the glass storefronts of the strip mall.

She wove her way home via back roads to avoid any traffic cams and arrived by 1:30 a.m. Her ribs were aching brutally thanks to the hours spent on the hard floor of the van, but the sense of retribution made the pain endurable.


She had fallen into a restless sleep on her futon late that morning when the doorbell rang. She'd told no one except her ex-boss Bev Crosley where she was living, so she was expecting her when she opened the door. Only at the last moment did she think to wonder if it could be a cop, a bit of obliviousness that surprised her.

However, it was neither. Instead, there stood Deborah holding a fruit bouquet of chocolate-dipped prunes. There was no contrition on the woman's face, but Katie couldn't remember ever seeing her ex-wife contrite. Or embarrassed, for that matter. She wore the faint smile she always did, like she saw something everyone else didn't.

She stepped aside so Deb could enter. She'd forgotten already how much taller her ex was than her, willowy, all the way to hair which moved like sea grass in the lightest of breezes. She had always loved running her fingers through Deb's hair.

Deb placed the bouquet on the counter that divided the living room from the kitchen. "These still work on your constipation?"

"There's such a thing as knowing one another too well," Katie said, taking a seat on one of her bar stools. "What are you doing here? And how did you find me?"

Deb took a seat on the other bar stool, so that their knees almost touched. Katie scooted back.

"I called Bev. She's worried about you, and so am I. I'm hoping to convince you to move back home. It's like a house full of ghosts back there, and I miss you like crazy."

"Too late," Katie said. "I've moved on. You should too."

"Moved on to what? An apartment the size of a closet? More painkillers? Kid, we've been through too much together to watch you die alone. To hell with Glory Beth; give her another month with the God Squad and she'll come begging us to let her return."

"It's not that, and you know it," Katie said, shoving the bouquet further away; the smell was nauseating her. "I only stayed with you for the last two years for Glory Beth's sake. Since you starting cheating."

"I told you right up front what I was doing, as you'll remember. I thought maybe now, when you're close to, you know, you'd see how silly it is to let other people stand in the way of living life on your terms. But I'll tell you what; you come back, I'll remain faithful. If that's what it takes."

"Which will make me just what you despise, right? The person who takes away your freedom? No thanks."

"So what are you going to do?" Deb's cheeks were flushed, a sign Katie had long recognized as a precursor to an angry outburst. "Hole up here until you die? For Christ's sake, there's not even anyone to find the body. You could lay here until you rot before someone knows you've passed."

"I'm working on a project," Katie said. "Believe me, there will be plenty of people know when I die."

"I don't like the sound of that."

"Meditate on this. I don't want you. I don't need you. Go and sleep with anybody you want. Be free." She waved her hand toward the door.

Deb stood, frowned, shook her head. "You poor girl. Don't be afraid to call me when you need me. And you will." She left without a backward glance.


On the news that evening the murder was the lead story; given the history of the victim, there was a hint of schadenfreude in the reporter's voice. Fortunately, there was still no mention of a witness, although the reporter conjectured that the shots might have come from a van or SUV. They did suggest a possible link with the Walmart shooting.

She had expected a race between her mortality and discovery, so she wasn't all that worried that they might have pieced together a bit of the plan. The day of her death was still in her control.

The next morning, though, she woke exhausted, only then realizing she had forgotten to eat the day before. With disgust, she ate a few of the prunes from the bouquet and rinsed them down with a bottle of Ensure. It was mid-afternoon before she had the energy to browse for her next victim.

It didn't take long. Scott Van Driesen, once a wide receiver for the local university, had been caught eleven years earlier raping a coed at knife point. Since his release from prison two months before, two women had been raped by a man matching his description and method. However, the Columbus Dispatch reported that the woman Van Driesen was living with, Polly Bender, who had been one of his guards in prison, insisted he'd been home with her both nights. Caught by the photographer, Van Driesen had given the most appallingly smug smile when asked if he did it.


Bender had a house in the country twenty miles west of Columbus, which magnified the difficulty. Katie assumed the sheriff's department was going to keep an eye on him, although she doubted they had the manpower to watch him around the clock. The night was once again going to be her friend.

She studied the layout on Google Earth. The house was surrounded by cornfields, the nearest neighbor a quarter-mile away. There was a lane a hundred yards to the west of the house to allow tractor access to the corn fields. Since the August heat had baked the ground dry, she presumed she could park there.

She had never made a Molotov cocktail before, but she remembered the olive oil vases that had been Deb's obsession for a while, until she discovered they were too brittle. Waiting until Deb was at work, she returned to the two-story long enough to snatch one that would hold a quart of gasoline. It was shaped like an acorn squash, easy for her to throw.

The lane through the corn was indeed bone dry; she was able to back well away from the road at 3:00 a.m. the next morning. She made her way on foot down a row of corn toward the house, the rifle over her shoulder, the gas bomb in her left hand. She nicked her earlobe on a corn leaf and it began to drip blood, but the pain disappeared into that of her ribs.

She stopped at the border between corn and lawn, laid the rifle down, and pulled out the lighter she'd brought from home, the one she used to fire up the medical marijuana that had proven so useless. She played out the steps in her mind, took a deep breath and walked quickly to the house. There she lit the fuse and, with all her remaining strength, threw it through the picture window of the living room.

As flames lit the interior of the house, she dashed back to the corn, dropped to the ground, picked up the rifle and sighted on the front door.

She was almost too slow when the two of them exited instead through the kitchen door on her side of the building. She quickly sighted on Van Driesen as he turned on the outside faucet and fumbled with the hose curled at his foot. She aimed for his back, but hit him in the head instead.

To her surprise, Bender, an older, obese woman, didn't run; instead, unthinkably, she ran in Katie's direction, shrieking. She waited as long as she could for the woman to come to her senses before dropping her with a shot to the chest only ten yards from her sniper's nest.
The fire department responded so rapidly she had to wait for them to pass by before pulling her car out of the corn and speeding away.


Every time she started to drift into sleep, Van Driesen's face, at the moment of impact, came back to her. She had thought her heart adamantine, but apparently she had a bit of work yet to do to purge herself of sentiment. And she felt repentant about Bender. The woman had been a liar and a fool but didn't deserve to die for such scum.

To her surprise, the sheriff of Sheridan County was quite open on TV that morning about what the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation had found on the scene. They had recovered a shoe print from where she had approached the house, a tire print from where she parked, and a blood sample from the corn leaf on which she had cut her ear. Luckily, she was sure her DNA was not in any police database. They had matched the bullets in all three killings, though, and the television people were barely able to disguise their delight at having a serial killer to draw viewership. Even more so as the BCI had concluded from the footprint that the perp was a woman.

Katie walked into the bedroom and grabbed her father's Glock, tucked it into her waistband.


"Tell me about Glory Beth," Eric had asked during her first visit six months earlier.

"She's precocious," Katie said. "She should be, given the amount we spent on sperm."

"And your partner? Is she smart too?"

"Very much so. It's gotten so sometimes I have trouble following their conversations."

"That must be annoying, since you were the birth mother."

"I guess so. Sometimes I get the sense that Glory Beth sees Deborah as her mother, or maybe her father, or both, while I'm something else. I can't put my finger on what. A wicked aunt, maybe?"

"From what you've told me about your partner, she sounds like a person who makes people earn her respect."

"Oh, that's true. She can be downright rude to people. But not to Glory Beth. She can do no wrong in Deb's eyes."

"But not in yours."

"I can tell the girl is going to break my heart. I just don't know how."

"Did you ever consider that your ambivalent feelings about your daughter might be in part transference of your feelings about Deb?"

Katie had sat quietly mulling this over for several minutes, until the silence grew too oppressive. "How much am I paying you for this bullshit?"


She had intended to complete the plot in the morning, before the lawyers trickled off to court, but her ribs kept her up late, until she took an extra couple of Percocet. They left her drowsy until 11 a.m., and by the time she showered, dressed, and wrote out her confession, it was early afternoon.

The traffic was one thing she was not going to miss, she thought as she fought her way downtown. Luckily, the parking garage across from the firm where Deb worked had several open handicapped slots on the ground floor. Ironically, it had been Deb who convinced her to get a script for a handicapped mirror hanger.

She laid the rifle on the passenger seat, where the police were sure to find it, and used her phone to email her confession to them. She adjusted the Glock in the small of her back.

As she rode the elevator to the fourth floor of the building across the street, she realized that the outfit she was wearing, the mint-green taffeta blouse, the tailored slacks, the melon blazer, the Blahnik flats, had been bought for her by Deb. That was a mistake, but she was too far into it to return home and change.

She had never cared for the firm's receptionist, Astana Poole, a woman who had a way of looking at her that she found demeaning, unsure it if was personal or simply a strategy to put clients in their proper place, subordinate to their attorneys. Therefore, she wasn't afraid to pull the pistol as she walked up to her. The waiting area was otherwise unoccupied.

"What in the world?" Poole said, finger poised above her phone.

"Before you call 9-1-1, call Deb. Tell her I'm waiting for her. Don't tell her any more than that."

Poole, hands shaking, pressed Deborah's extension. Katie couldn't hear her answer, since Poole was wearing a headset, but was content that the woman did just as she instructed.

"Now call the cops."

Poole, puzzlement on her face, punched the number. When the police answered, she identified herself, gave the address, and said, "We have a woman in the lobby named Katie Frank holding me at gunpoint. I think she means to kill Deborah Kline, one of our attorneys."

When Poole began nodding, and Katie said, "That's enough. Hang up."

She did so. "Please don't kill me."

"You do what I tell you, you'll walk away from this. Understand?"

Poole nodded. Katie could smell the odor of urine wafting across the room, and was pretty sure her diaper was dry.

Just then, Deb came around the corner, saw the setup, and stopped. "What the hell are you doing?"

"You and I have some unfinished business." She swung the gun around to point at her ex.

"What? You're going to kill me now? Are you really that angry?"

"You cost me my daughter. Shouldn't I be?"

Deb wrapped her arms across her chest. "Elaine took Glory Beth from us. You know that."

Katie's arm was trembling. "But you provided the ammunition. It's you that deserves the punishment."

"So that's why you're going to kill me. To punish me for losing Glory Beth."

"Who said I was going to kill you? I've done far worse. I hope you enjoy going through the rest of your life known as the wife of a serial killer."

Deb was silent for a long moment. "It was you? That shot those people? That was your project?"

Katie heard Poole gasp. In the distance, she could also hear a siren. "The guidance counselor in my high school asked me once what I was going to do to leave the world a better place. I figure I've done my bit."

"I never knew you had such cruelty in you," Deb said. Katie could see the tears coursing down her cheeks.

"Cruel? You haven't seen anything yet. When you think of me, I don't want you dredging up sweet memories, so here's my last gift. I want you to remember me just like this."

And with that, she raised the gun to her temple and fired.

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