Tommy wasn’t sure what irritated him more, the old guy’s oily confidence, or the direction their conversation was taking.
"I’m talking about the joy of killing," said Marv with the hairy eyebrows and expensive black jacket. “Surely you’ve imagined it more than once.”
Tommy tried to laugh, glanced around the coffee shop to see if anybody had overheard.
"It’s the ultimate rush," said Marv. "Taking another person's life away from them."
Marv snapped his fingers.
Tommy tried to laugh it off.
"Look, you said on the phone this was a business opportunity. A way to make some good money. Like one of them pyramid deals.”
“Multi-level marketing.” Marv corrected him. V
“Yeah, well. I’m not interested in anything that’s illegal.”
"Nothing I'm telling you about today is against the law."
"Dude,” said Tommy. “Killing people is against the law."
"Not if they don't remember it later,” Marv said, all sorta snotty-like.
"Here’s the thing,” said Tommy. “I been. . . away for a while. Now that I’m back, starting over again, I need something legit."
He thought about the friends he’d left behind.
Louie the Snake. Big Dale. Sammy Lamb. Somewhere, they were all snickering at him.
Tommy Barrows, going legit.
It was to laugh.
Tommy swallowed hard.
"We all got needs,” said Marv. “Me? I need another cup of coffee," Marv picked up his empty paper cup, careful to keep hold of the knobby cardboard sleeve.
“Maybe this job ain’t for me.”
"Run up to the counter and get me a refill,” said Marv. “You do, and I promise you won’t regret it.”
“I don’t know.” Tommy hesitated.
Marv’s dead gray eyes didn't move.
“I thought you were a winner, son,” said Marv. “Thought you were the kind of guy who knew what he wanted in life and went after it.”
“Don’t talk down to me, man.”
Marv held out the cup. “I take it black.”
Tommy stood up, awkwardly pushing the chair back from the table as his knees straightened, making a loud scraping sound against the coffee shop floor.
“Okay. Okay, I’ll listen. But I’m not promising anything.”
A lady at the corner table, earbuds in and typing on a portable, looked up with annoyance. She wrinkled her nose.
Tommy shot her his best hard look and moved to the polished walnut and chrome counter, pushing past a skinny geek wearing a bike helmet.
Man, he wanted to explode.
He'd been on a dozen job interviews in less than a month.
Now this prick, Marv, with the expensive jacket and gorilla eyebrows was promising big money, but all it was going to do was lead Tommy right back to the slam.
He could feel it. Something about the guy wasn’t right.
Tommy knew when shit was going south.
He closed his eyes, felt sweat roll from under his arms, down his sides. His short sleeve cotton shirt, doing its job to conceal the 9mm he carried inside his waistband, wasn't tucked in. His khaki shorts hung loose at his knees.
He asked for Marv’s refill, took in the smell of warm bagels, the sweet scents of Italian syrups.
Maybe he should tell the old guy where to get off and apply for a job here?
He tried to imagine himself wearing the goofy, milk-stained apron, sucking up to pretty boys who dressed in ties and tasseled loafers and liked whipped cream on their drinks.
Tommy’s stomach turned over.
He glanced over his shoulder at the back of Marv's balding head, just visible over the half-wall between them.
On the phone.
Two laughing girls walked through the shop's door: hair, teeth, jewelry all sparkling in the sun.
Tommy sighed and carried the coffee back to Marv's table.
Then Marv surprised him.
Crazy old Marv with the gorilla eyebrows reached out—like he'd done it a hundred times before—brushed aside Tommy's shirt and pulled the Nine from Tommy’s waistband.
"Hey, what the--"
Before Tommy could move, Marv stood up, casually turned around, and blasted the lady in the corner right through the earbuds. A side step, and Marv's next shot cracked apart the geeky biker's helmet, sending gooey shards of skull across the serving counter.
Each of the girls, laughing-no-more, managed a single scream before Marv emptied the clip into them.
With the shop's patrons twitching at his feet, Marv smiled and sat back down.
For a split-second, Tommy felt like puking. Then he realized he still held Marv’s cup.
He let it go and watched the steaming contents splatter across the floor.
Marv tossed the gun to the table where it landed with a metallic thud.
Then everything melted into a green haze and there was a rushing sound, like water through Tommy’s ears, washing away the ringing echo of gunfire.
He closed his eyes.
When he opened them, everything was the way it had been before the shooting.
The lady in the corner adjusted an earbud as she typed on her portable computer.
At the counter the geek paid for his drink, then nodded at the two laughing girls.
The gun was back in Tommy’s waistband.
Marv’s coffee cup was full and steaming on the table.
"Let's start again, Mr. Barrows," said Marv.
Tommy caught the back of his own chair as his knees gave out.
"What just happened?"
"Here you go."
Tommy opened the folded sheet of slick paper Marv offered.
One side of the colorful ad showed stock photos of smiling people. Bold fonts posed a series of questions.
Sick of your boss?
Had enough of your spouse?
Looking for justice? Looking for RETRIBUTION?
Bold fonts offered an answer: You’re looking for PayBak
"This is the job? Your company? I mean it’s a great looking brochure. . . "
Tommy kept talking about the print job, but his attention was on the ephemeral square of lightly glowing, nearly transparent film hovering over the surface of the paper.
"What's this?" he said.
"Hold it between your fingers," said Marv, and Tommy peeled the square up, away from the brochure.
"Squeeze it once," Marv said, “and you open an alternate future timeline around yourself. Like a bubble between the seconds. While you're there, you can do anything you want. Without anyone knowing. Without any consequences."
"An alternate future?"
"I opened an alternate timeline just now. You saw it. In that future, now past, I enjoyed killing everyone in this shop. Then I gave the film a second squeeze and it closed that future down in favor of the prime reality."
"So it never happened?"
"Oh it happened. But then I closed the switch and it didn't happen."
"And nobody remembers it?"
"Nobody but you and me. I made a call while you were up getting coffee and our techs made an allowance just for the sake of demonstration. Normally it's a solo experience."
Tommy sat back in his chair, trying to take everything in at once.
"I honestly can't believe it's possible."
"Possible," nodded Marv. "And profitable."
"So you sell these? These switches? So that people can live out their fantasies?"
"Violent fantasies," said Marv. "Something about the matrix responds best to the most violent emotions."
"So you can kill somebody. . . "
"And nobody's the wiser. Best of all, the victim doesn't remember. Unless of course, you want them to."
"And there’s no way to get caught. No way to end up. . ."
“Back inside?” Marv shook his head. “There’s no punishment for something that never happened.”
“Tell me more,” said Tommy.
Marv's left hand covered his mouth, moved down red cheeks to stroke his fleshy chin. "You understand the basics of an MLM?"
"Multi-level marketing. Yeah, like Shopway or that cosmetics company."
Marv nodded. "Imagine the market for what we’re talking about. In this day and age? With all the anger and rage fomented by social media? I’ll bet you have a few friends that would jump at a chance like this?"
Tommy thought about Louie the Snake. Big Dale. Sammy Lamb.
“Some righteous anger fermenting there,” he said aloud.
Tommy looked over his shoulder at the lady in the corner.
This time she met his gaze with an outright sneer.
“A guy could make a killing,” he said.
Then he pulled the gun back out of his waistband.
He put his finger on the trigger.
"Before we talk business, you mind if I give it a try?"
Marv held up the green film and gave it a squeeze.
"Be my guest," he said.
Monday, March 25, 2019
Monday, February 12, 2018
Lavina was short, with a peaked face and a wild mane of salt and pepper hair best described as frizzy. The kind of woman Danny Parks never would’ve noticed even though she lived two doors down, sharing his townhouse building.
The place had four two-story units. Danny and his girlfriend Tammy lived on one end, Lavina and her whatever-he-was on the other.
Lavina’s live-in was too young to be her husband, said Tammy, picking at her cranberry salad, twirling the lettuce around on her fork.
“I ‘m still not sure who you’re talking about,” said Danny, pouring another glass of Vignoles.
“The woman in the end apartment. The one looks like Rhea Perlman.”
“Rhea Perlman on Taxi.” Tammy giggled. “She sorta looks like Ronnie James Dio. You know, the heavy metal guy?”
“Oh yeah,” Danny got the Dio reference. “I saw her at the mailboxes the other day.” He emptied half his glass. “Are you eating that salad or making and origami duck?”
“So do you think the big guy is her son, or boyfriend, or what?
Danny threw back the rest of the wine and didn’t bother to wipe his lips. “Who cares?”
“I think she’s a spook,” said Tammy.
Two days later Danny came home to one less neighbor. Before he’d even put his Ford Escort into park, he saw the open door on the unit next to Lavina’s.
Bob, the apartment manager, greeted him on the sidewalk. “Looks like you’re losing a neighbor,” he said.
“Elderly couple wasn’t it? What’s going on?”
“Mr. and Mrs. Peterson. Apparently she up and walked away a couple nights back.”
“I didn’t know she was having trouble. Dementia?”
“Not that I knew about.”
Danny’s stomach tightened with the look on Bob’s face.
Bob nodded as if he could read Danny’s mind. “They found her this morning up in the woods. Been dead a while too. Looks like some stray dogs got to her.”
“I guess I could’ve gone without hearing that.”
“Just saying.” Bob snuffed hard and spit into the parking lot. “The old man’s gone to stay with his kids. Wanted me to water the plants, keep an eye on things until they could make arrangements to move.”
By the time supper rolled around, Danny was starved, but Tammy wouldn’t eat.
“I just keep thinking about that poor old woman. Laying up there. Dogs.”
“It happens. Pass the ketchup, please?”
“You know what? I wonder if that Lavina had anything to do with it.”
“How could she?”
“Bob told me that the Peterson’s had complained about her. About her arguing with her boyfriend. Or whoever he is.”
“I saw the guy you mean. Big, bearded skinhead guy out polishing the wheels on his car.” Danny described the big man and his tattoo sleeve arms.
“That’s him,” said Tammy.
“If you’re worried about anybody,” said Danny, “worry about him. He’s a hell of a lot more scary than Lavina.”
“I think they’re both scary.”
“Have a glass of wine.”
Two weeks later, another neighbor was gone. Dan and Tammy had been on a weekend outing to the mountains. When they returned, Bob was sweeping the sidewalk outside of a yellow tape barrier. The tape read CRIME SCENE in big black letters.
“Damnedest thing,” said Bob when Danny asked him about it. “Nobody heard a thing. I didn’t even know Jerry was home.”
Jerry drove a truck on long hauls up the coast. He was often gone for weeks at a time. Sharing the apartment wall with quiet, absent Jerry was one of the things Danny appreciated about his apartment.
Now Jerry was absent for good.
Bob jerked his thumb toward the sealed apartment. “Lot of blood in there.”
That night neither Danny nor Tammy ate supper.
A month later, after they’d answered a few routine questions for the cops and most of the excitement was over, Tammy mentioned seeing Lavina at the mailbox. “She was really shook up about something. Real jittery.” She could’ve been talking about herself. “Danny, I think her arms were bruised.”
An image of the skinhead in all his inked glory popped into Danny’s mind. “You think that bastard’s hitting her?”
“Remember the Peterson’s complained about their arguing?”
“That sonuvabitch,” said Danny. Compared to an unsolved murder next door, old-fashioned domestic violence seemed fairly routine. It seemed like something a neighbor could do something about.
“Next time you see Lavina,” said Danny. “Invite her in for coffee.”
It happened sooner than Danny would’ve predicted.
Two nights later, when the knock came at the door, they both jumped.
Danny cracked open the door, keeping the security chain firmly in place. In the darkness outside, by the glow of the parking lot lights, Lavina stood, shrunken, sullen, blood on her sweatshirt. Blood on her face.
“Can I use your phone?” Meek. Crying.
If the sight of blood trickling out of Lavin’s nose didn’t immediately jerk Danny’s insides into a knot, the shadow of the skinhead did. He stood back a ways, behind Lavina, close to Dan’s car. His legs shoulder-width apart, his arms loose by his sides.
Then Tammy was there at the door, unhooking the chain, swinging the door wide to let Lavina in.
The woman’s eyes were wide, begging for help. “Come in,” said Tammy. “I’ll get my phone.”
As Danny turned to close the door, the skinhead spoke to him.
“What was that?” said Danny. He had to strain his ears to hear.
“Send the bitch back out.”
Oh, yeah. Right.
“So she can take another beating? Is that it? You haven’t had enough fun?”
Seeing Lavina the way she was had fired up something inside Danny. Two deaths in the same building. Now this creep working over a helpless woman.
Danny threw caution to the wind and stepped outside, closing the apartment door behind him.
By now, Tammy would be getting Lavina some help. Cleaning her up. Making some calls.
“This has to stop, man,” said Danny, walking forward. “You can’t just—“
The skinhead staggered forward. There was blood on him too.
“Send her out,” he said. “Or she’ll…she’ll hurt you too.”
The big guy fell over in a pile on the sidewalk.
Danny spun, rushed back to the door.
It was locked from inside.