Monday, April 1, 2024

Home to Roost, fiction by Zakariah Johnson

So, where’s Morrie keep his money?” I asked his new wife, casual-like, as I rolled off her sweaty, post-coital body to grab the cigarettes on the motel night-stand. It was late summer, the AC barely worked, and the sheets hadn’t been fresh to start with.

I dunno. He doesn’t, like, share that stuff with me?” McKenzie said, then added, “But I know he doesn’t pay taxes on most of it. I think he told me that to make himself look smart?”

McKenzie seemed like she’d have to concentrate to remember her middle name, but she’d paid enough attention to know Morrie’s first wife got two million dollars when he traded her in on a younger model. She had to know something useful.

Does he keep offshore accounts?” I asked.

How should I know?” she said. She plucked the burning cigarette from my lips with a moist hand and dragged deep.

Could you find out?”

I guess? I don’t know how hedgerow managers get, like, paid and all. I just like spending it!” She giggled, crinkling her nose in a way that was less attractive each time you saw it.

Ask him,” I said and reclaimed my cigarette. “How hard could it be?”

Ooh! I don’t know, Peter.” She giggled at the double-entendre of my name and crinkled her damn nose again. “How hard could it be?”

The afternoon turned into a long slog, but a man’s gotta do who a man’s gotta do.

###

Truth is, it felt good fucking Morrie’s wife. It felt like getting my due.

Morrie and I had been inseparable in elementary school, played Little League together and all that. Weekends, we’d trot through the woods to find owl pellets or red efts, the baby salamanders said to be the most common animals in the state but that no one ever sees. I wanted to be an ornithologist; Morrie wanted to save the whales. They were good dreams while they lasted, but class—economic class, not the kind in school—got in the way.

Sophomore year in high school we were lab partners in honors biology, our last real time together. I pulled an A but Morrie got an A-, not that anyone but him kept score. He made me pay a hundred times for outdoing him. The day we got our grades back he asked me in front of the other rich kids why I hadn’t signed up for a summer program he knew damn well I couldn’t afford. He spent that summer on a UNH research vessel in the Gulf of Maine, but something changed after that. When he got back, it was goodbye whales, hello finance and statistics. And goodbye to me. At graduation, the only thing that made his valedictorian speech tolerable was knowing he’d leave forever the next day. Or so we’d thought.

So, it was a topic of interest when JoAnne Gilder, our local real-estate queen, spilled the beans about her latest client over pitchers of Miller Lite at Baron’s.

It’s the golden boy,” she sneered. “Morrie bleeping DeRoche. He calls me out of the blue like we’re still on yearbook committee. Says I’m the first one he thought of, too. Soooo flattering.”

What’s that shrimp doing back here?” her husband, Tom, asked, gently rubbing her neck to calm her down. “He getting a summer place?”

No,” JoAnne said, “He says he’s ‘retiring’ here. Says he ‘Came back, to give back,’ whatever that means.” She picked up her ten-ounce mug and drained it. When she banged it down, her face had a hard look “The little shit came back to rub our noses in it is what.”

He’s retiring at thirty-eight?” I snapped.

She shrugged. “I guess he did good out there. His wife’s hot enough. Tightest clothes I ever seen. Don’t know how she moves in them.”

Morrie married a babe?” Tom snorted. “Now we know he struck it rich.”

JoAnne punched him in the arm, but he wasn’t wrong.

###

Back to the wife.

I’d heard the name “McKenzie” shouted at little girls on playgrounds, but before Morrie’s wife, I’d never met a grown-up called that, if grown-up she was. I assumed she was of legal age for marriage, but she could’ve sat in any high-school classroom and not raised suspicion.

Morrie had been back in town a month when he left a voice message on my cell. He said he just knew I had to be the best landscaper in town and he had a few little projects to throw my way if I needed work. I knew any job from Morrie would be his attempt to turn me into his houseboy, but work had, in fact, been a little slow. Work’s always slow in Ossipee, New Hampshire. A few days later, I texted him that I’d stop by when I had time. I had no other work lined up, but I still waited a week before I drove to the address he’d given.

When I pulled into their circular driveway, McKenzie was out front, bent over at the waist to pour water from a sprinkling-can over a dried-up patch of Canadian bunchberry. JoAnne hadn’t been wrong: the trophy wife’s yoga pants looked painted on, and their abstract pattern obscured neither curve nor cranny. I let my truck rumble at idle, but she pretended not to hear it. She didn’t turn around or straighten up, just kept bobbing up and down with her ass pointed my direction as she dabbed water over the dead groundcover. When I’d seen enough, I got out of the cab and slammed the door hard.

Hey,” I said.

She cocked her head over her shoulder to smile at me without straightening up, and then she slowly unbent at the hips. She stretched all the way up and practically touched her elbows behind her back while looking me in the eye.

You must be Morrie’s wife?”

Yeah. I’m McKenzie. You’re Peter?”

That’s what the truck says. You’ve got good balance.”

Yoga does that for you.”

So, is Morrie around?”

No, he left early. For Boston? He probably won’t be back until late.”

He told me you’ve got a bush that needs trimming. Want to show it to me?”

Yeah, I was being an asshole and trying to piss her off, but, as with all things Morrie, I couldn’t help myself. I expected her to tell me off, but instead, she did a little laugh and crinkled her nose (it was cute the first time I saw it).

He told you that, huh? Yeah, come have a look out back...”

Given my history with Morrie, I didn’t feel a single twinge of guilt over what happened next. Later that afternoon, I did some actual yardwork and double-billed him for my time.

###

The thing about guys like Morrie is that when they start banging hot women half their age, they get so high on their own testosterone they forget she’s only after their money. And unlike a set of perfect abs (like mine), money can flow from man to man with remarkable speed. Morrie should have looked in the mirror more, but he was too enamored to look at anything but McKenzie’s ass. Sliding into her twisted body from angles I could never have invented (she was right about yoga—great for balance), I understood how even a smart guy like Morrie could get distracted by a partner with such limited conversation.

In the privacy of their home, McKenzie proved even less inhibited than in the motels. I was surprised their bed’s giant headboard hadn’t already knocked a hole in the bedroom wall, but I guess her sessions with Morrie were more subdued.

A week after the motel meet-up, we clutched hands and gasped breathlessly with our heads on opposite ends of their marital bed as she panted out the magic phrase: “I found the account numbers.”

I tried to hide it, but when she squeezed my hand, I knew she’d felt the twinge of excitement shoot through me at her words. “And the passwords?” I asked.

Yeah,” she said. “I got them all. We’re almost free, Peter.” When she spoke again, there was a note of concern in her voice that worried me. “You will go through with it, right?”

I’ll stick to the plan.” Silence reigned in the bed. “McKenzie?”

Yeah?”

Why are you doing this? Robbing Morrie? You’ve already got everything.”

A low and husky laugh escaped from deep in her throat. It was a sound she hadn’t made before, and it put the hairs on my neck on end. I raised up on my elbows to see her, but her tone switched back to baby talk: “Morrie was married when I met him, but he screwed me on the couch in the office only two months after I’d come to work for him. He’d have fucked me sooner if I’d let him. He left his wife for me, but only because I was first in line. So, yeah, I’ve got all this,” she whirled an arm to indicate the bedroom, “but only on loan until his next lay turns up and takes it away.”

After that, I finally believed in our partnership. Never trust a wolf that tells you she isn’t hungry. And never turn your back on one that is.

###

The only flaw in my plan was that I had no idea how to pull it off.

I’m not a complete fool about money—I run a small business after all—but the intricacies of international finance might as well be astrophysics. McKenzie had the account numbers and passwords, I had the muscle, but we still needed somebody with banking bona fides to do the transfers. Our third partner was McKenzie’s pick.

Charis? Morrie’s ex? That’s crazy,” I said, laughing at her naiveté.

We worked together at my old firm,” McKenzie said. “She’s good.”

You mean at Morrie’s old firm. Won’t she know who you are?”

Of course, she knows—that’s why she’ll help us. Think about it. You told me how Morrie treated you in high school. Do you know anybody who wouldn’t want to get back at him? Especially her?”

Doesn’t she hate you for taking her husband?”

Hardly. Charis got two million bucks, the house, and no-ass Morrie out of her life. She’s probably grateful.”

I had my doubts, but the yoga-inspired sex helped bring me around. I agreed to drive into Boston to sell Charis on the deal.

It’s got to happen by the first of next month,” McKenzie added. “He’s moving all his money into a single account to prep for some deal. The bank in Panama won’t expect the cash to sit there for more than a day, and they won’t care where it’s going.”

You seem to have learned a lot about finance.”

I’m not as dumb as you think.”

Correction—you’re not as dumb as Morrie thinks. I never called you dumb.” Which was technically true; I’d never actually said it. Besides, she had me wondering.

Come here, Big Peter!” she cooed. My wondering ceased.

###

McKenzie made the call, and her intuition proved correct. The ex-wife agreed to at least listen to our pitch. I drove down alone to Newton, a wealthy suburb west of Boston, to work out the details. I didn’t want any neighborhood busybodies to remember my truck, which has my company name on the side, so I rode down on my motorcycle and showed up at Charis’s mansion in black leather chaps. I caught my reflection in the glass door when I rang the bell, and I knew no male on that street would dare challenge me.

She answered the door wearing white slacks and a matching sweater. No darkened roots betrayed her blond hair, which had to be dyed but could pass for natural.

Peter?” she asked. “I’m Charis. Come in.” A hint of perfume lingered in her wake as I followed her into the house. She was twice McKenzie’s age, but she wore it better and always would. McKenzie’s ample bloom would be a spent force by thirty; Charis’s type was built to last.

She led me into an all-white living room where she picked up a glass of golden wine she’d already been drinking. A large glass.

Can I get you a beer?”

Sure,” I said. “You’re not what I expected.”

Neither are you,” she said. I followed her into the all-white kitchen that mirrored her outfit. The house’s whole interior seemed white, as cold and sterile as a walk-in freezer. Frigid. “What did McKenzie tell you about me?” she asked.

Only that Morrie dumped you for her, so you’re mad enough to help us bankrupt him.”

She laughed. “That little bitch. What gall.” She saw the look on my face. “Don’t worry. She’s not wrong. I’m just surprised—impressed, I guess—she had the guts to call me. Or maybe the stupidity?”

She’s not the brightest,” I said. She handed me cold beer from the fridge—some canned domestic crap she must have figured a landscaper would like. “How about we look at the files?”

After she’d looked at the paperwork I’d brought, Charis agreed the money wouldn’t be hard to siphon away once Morrie had it in the new account—especially not with the information McKenzie had filched.

But if he gets loose before we’re done, he’ll not only take back the money, he’ll be able to prove we stole it. There’s no way around that. You’ll need to handle him permanently.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said. “I just wanted…what are you suggesting?”

If we get caught, it means prison. You hate him, right?”

Yeah, but…Jesus. I just want him to know it was me that took his money. I don’t want to kill him.”

Peter, do you trust McKenzie?” she asked. She raised the goblet to her lips and fixed me with her gray eyes over the rim as she drank. My silence answered her question. I hadn’t worried about trust until then. McKenzie seemed too dumb to have a plan. But then again, McKenzie had bested the woman in front me, both in love and money.

No,” I said. “Of course I don’t trust her.”

Then is there any reason to split Morrie’s money three ways instead of two?” She held out her goblet toward me and I clinked it with my can. “Why don’t you take those leathers off?” What happened next seemed inevitable.

I’d heard about rich women like her—ivory tower ice queens on the make for blue-collar guys. They think working men have more frustrations to work out in bed or something. Maybe we do, but if so, Charis had some deep frustrations of her own to work out (she wasn’t so icy after all.) Beyond that though, it felt good running up the score on Morrie: first McKenzie, then Charis. Who knew who’d be next?

The next time, when I drove down to see her, I didn’t tell McKenzie. Charis had convinced me, and with similar methods, but thankfully without any nose crinkling.

You will kill him?” Charis asked as I lay sweaty and spent in another bed Morrie had once called his own.

That’s the plan.”

Really? McKenzie seems to think you’re a big softie,” she said. “You’re screwing her, too, right?”

What—”

She gave a crisp laugh, pinned my shoulders to the mattress and nipped my ear. “Relax. I don’t give the slightest, solitary little shit. Just do your part, OK?”

Yeah, sure. I will.”

Good…Have you ever been to Rio?”

###

The first of October drew near, and then it was showtime. McKenzie would fly home to see her parents for the weekend to establish her alibi. Then I’d snatch Morrie, force him to sign the paperwork, do what needed to be done, and then rush to Boston so Charis could transfer his funds into a shell company she’d set up in the Cayman Islands. She was convinced Morrie had hidden millions from her when they divorced, and, judging by what I could understand from the documents, she was right. Even if Charis didn’t give me a fair split (and why would she?), I’d be on a plane to South America before McKenzie discovered her share was missing. Moving to Rio with both Morrie’s millions and his ex-wife meant leaving Ossipee, New Hampshire, behind forever but I’d dry my tears. From the brochures Charis had shown me, Brazil seemed like a great place to take up birdwatching again.

###

Morrie’s house stood alone at the end of his private road. The side door was unlocked like McKenzie had promised, and I slipped in without a sound. She’d assured me they didn’t own any guns, but I still brought my own—a long-barreled .44 Magnum my dad had left me. I decided to keep it holstered under my arm until it was time for…to be honest, I wasn’t sure for what. Charis and McKenzie both expected me to leave Morrie at the bottom of a nearby pond, but I had other plans: plans to let him know I’d kicked his ass, screwed both his wives, and taken his last dime. I wasn’t going to waste a revenge like that by killing him. At least not right away.

Morrie was alone in the basement playing with his gigantic model train-set when I found him. He was even wearing an engineer’s cap that made him look like a faded version of the kid I’d played baseball with three decades earlier.

Whoa!” he blurted out as I stepped into view, but then he smiled. “Holy crap, Pete. You scared me to death. How’s it going?”

We’re going to take a little ride, Morrie.”

What?”

Come on.” I gripped his spindly arm in my calloused hand. I didn’t even have to hit him, just turn him around, duct-tape his hands, and lead him outside to my truck. I’d suggested that we make him sign the papers then and there, but Charis had insisted he’d crack faster in an unfamiliar setting. In line with her plan, I drove him to my family’s old hunting cabin near the border with Maine and tied him to a chair. I got the woodstove going, then threw the transfer papers down in front of him.

I guess you aren’t so smart after all, are you, Morrie? Sign these.”

How can I?”

Oh. Right.” I un-taped his right arm and ordered him again. He leafed through the pages, signing and initialing as he went.

Pete, this is nonsense. I could undo all of these signatures with a phone call. You want me to sign, I’ll sign, but it won’t do you any good.”

You know what, Morrie?”

What?”

I hate it when people call me Pete.”

But I’ve always called you Pete.”

Exactly.” I grinned as he stared at me. “I guess you didn’t think it would turn out like this when you called me to be your yard boy? Didn’t see this happening when you decided to rub my nose in your money one more time?”

What? No, you’ve got it all wrong. JoAnne Gilder asked me to call you. When I bought my house, she told me you’d been hard up and needed work. You and I are friends, man! We’ve always been friends, right? That’s what friends do!”

Friends? Like the time you tried to get me to sign up for the SATs? Bringing it up in front of the whole class? Got a good chuckle out of that, didn’t you?”

But you’d have aced it! I was looking out for you. You could have gone to any college you wanted. You know more about biology than—”

Shut up!” I said and tuned out his lies. It was my turn now. “You know what the best part was? Every time I visited your house when you were out of town, I got to charge you extra for my services!”

What do you mean?”

You’ve been paying me to split your wife, you stupid cuck!” His face drained of color. “I guess that makes up for Jeana in junior year, huh? Huh?”

Jeana? Who’s…you liked Jeana?” he said. He looked at his feet and sagged his shoulders. “You’ve hated me this whole time, haven’t you?”

Hell yes, I hate you! Everyone hates you, Morrie! McKenzie. Charis. Tom. JoAnne. Probably everyone you’ve ever met.”

How do you know about Charis?”

Hey, dummy, who do you think drew up the papers for you to sign?”

He made to grab for the stack, probably to rip it in two, but I snatched them out of his reach. That’s when he broke. He sat there taped to the chair and poured out his heart. I collapsed into the other chair in laughter as he told me how he’d had too much to drink at an office party and ended up sleeping with McKenzie while his wife was at a conference. Told me how he’d hoped it was a one-time mistake but then thought he had to marry her when McKenzie said she was pregnant.

By the time she miscarried, it was too late to back out,” he said.

Oh my God!” I heard myself cackle but couldn’t stop. “You fell for that? A smart guy like you?” I banged the table and held my sides in laughter until I heard his sobs. I looked up and saw tears streaking his face. With his hair poking out from under his engineer’s cap, he looked like the little boy I’d climbed trees with back in elementary school. That was when I realized I couldn’t kill him—to win was enough. To hell with crinkle-nosed McKenzie, ice-queen Charis, and the money as well. Whatever happened, I’d already gotten what I needed: to hear Morrie beg, to see him cry, to know he knew I was the better man.

Morrie was catatonic as I re-taped his right arm to the chair. “Don’t worry. You’ll just have to stay here a couple days until—”

The door behind me creaked and I spun around to see McKenzie walk in.

How’d you find this place?”

I followed you,” she said. “Did he sign? Let me see.”

I handed her the documents and she flipped through them as Morrie pleaded with her. “McKenzie, I was just trying to do right by you; can’t we—”

Paperwork seems in order,” she said.

You understand those?” I asked.

Well, duh, I was his secretary. What did you think I did?” She turned toward the pitiful man in the chair and said, “Goodbye, Morrie.” She pulled a chromed-up little semi-automatic from her coat pocket and shot him twice before I could move.

No!” I shouted and lunged for her, my revolver too big and long to draw in time to stop anything. She pivoted and shot me in the arm, then the chest. I staggered against the counter and slid to the floor. I saw Morrie’s head was tilted back and blood covered his shirt.

McKenzie tossed the papers onto the table and stood over me with her pistol leveled at my face. She crinkled her nose once more as she spoke. “Well, Peter, it’s been fun, but not that fun. Charis and I both knew you wouldn’t have the guts to follow through.” I started to beg, not to make her stop but to cover the sound of Charis’s feet as she stepped through the open doorway.

I flinched at the gunshot. Blood splattered my face and I wasn’t sure who’d fired until I saw the dark wet spreading over McKenzie’s chest. Her arm lowered and dropped the gun as she stumbled around to face Charis, who shot her twice more. Blood splattered out McKenzie’s back as the bullets exited and then she fell across my legs.

I’d finally gotten the big gun out and Charis smirked as I struggled to raise it. We fired at the same time. Her 9 mm struck me in the stomach but I canoed her forehead with a single round from the .44 and her body hit the floor like ice off a roof.

The smells of shit, blood, and gun smoke mingled in the silent air. McKenzie lay face-up over my lap. In death, she no longer looked even pretty, her youthful vitality gone. I couldn’t feel my legs, but my stomach burned like a hot poker was stuck through it. I dropped my gun arm and leaned back. Each breath came harder than the last. I watched through the open door for what might have been minutes or hours as the setting sun cast its streaks of gold over the pond outside. As dusk fell, a long-eared owl called from somewhere among the flame-colored trees. Autumn is beautiful in the north country, and I realized my friend had come home because he loved it, as he loved us all.

Morrie, listen,” I said. “Listen to the owl.”


Zakariah Johnson plucks banjos and pens horror, thrillers, and crime fiction on the banks of the Piscataqua. He’s the author of the collection Egg on Her Face: Stories of Crime, Horror, and the Space in Between (2022) and the ’90s-nostalgia-driven, eco-horror mystery Mink: Skinning Time in Wisconsin (2023).


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