Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Dead Man's Phone by A A Garrison

When Mark and Shelley acquire a second hand phone, they find themselves pursued by a mysterious and sinister force in A A Garrison's slow-burning thriller
"There are more things in heaven and earth... than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
- William Shakespeare
As it so happened, Mark Conkrin was on the phone when it was hit by lightning.

He was ordering a pizza, amidst the rote explanation for spelling his uncommon surname: "It's Conklin, but with an r." Mark gave it so often, he'd considered a tattoo over his forehead, to save time (he'd done a speed-dating thing once, and it had been hell, though he had come away with Shelly, his presiding girlfriend). Before the pizza man could reply, Mark's world had exploded in a white strobe, the sound like a tin factory going up. The phone, a faithful corded job he'd had forever, had literally jumped from his hand and sailed across the room, meeting the limits of its cable before slingshotting back like a thing possessed.

Amazingly, the phone had still worked. As Mark had inched his way out of shock, he'd heard a teeny voice from below, as though the floor had learned to talk. He'd scooped up the phone, and the Keanu-sounding pizza guy was still on the line, asking if Mr. Conklin was there, was he okay? After an awestruck second, Mark had ordered a white pie and hung up, neglecting to correct the man on the name.

The lightning strike wasn't without consequence, however. While the phone did, technically, still function, it was never quite right. You could talk on it all day long, but the ring was hit or miss: sometimes it would ring okay, others it would go crazy, with a disjointed beep punctuated by noises that weren't quite words - BEEEE-MEE-MEE-BEE-BEEEEEEP! One of those Honker Muppets in orgasm, according to Shelly.

Mark had initially tolerated the shell-shocked appliance, since it wasn't just any old phone. He'd bought it with his lawn-cutting money when he was thirteen, to accompany his own phone line. He'd used it to make his first date; set his first job interview; call his first 900 number. He'd taken it to college and back, then put it to work in his crummy first apartment (in which he still lived, eight years later). So it was hard to just chuck it and get a new one, as he'd explained to Shelly and his parents, and anyone else unfortunate enough to hear the wonky ring.

However, Mark changed his mind when the phone's mental state degraded further, its profaned ring becoming one big solid BEEEEEE!, droning on until picked up. It worked wonders for Mark's response time, but the noise was intolerable. A replacement was in order.

And that was how he came into the dead man's phone.



With Mark being a hardscrabble computer repair man, money wasn't precisely in abundance, which saw him to Helping Hand.

It was Ford, North Carolina's version of Goodwill, a Mecca for deal-seekers and cheapskates. The dilapidated brick building sat downtown, sandwiched between a pawnshop and a Laundromat that attracted drunks in the winter. The interior was a riot of depressed goods and homemade signs, the floor partitioned into three sections: clothing; electronics, dominated by a pyramid of junked TVs; and "general," where the gist of the store's stock was sent to pasture. There was also a basement, where you'd find your stoves and refrigerators and furniture - those consignments too worthless to sell but too big for a trashcan.

Mark was familiar with the store, having patronized it for various odds and ends he was too cheap to buy new, so he went right to the electronics wedge, where the resident TVs regarded him with dead gray screens. Two phones awaited him there, stashed beside a herd of dot-matrix printers. One was an enormous, Formica-green monstrosity that could've served Nixon; the other, a clamshell model much like Old Faithful back home. Mark selected the second, and the masking-tape price tag placed it at two dollars. He paid cash.

As it turned out, though, Old Faithful got a reprieve: its successor was worse. The "new" phone seemed okay at first, yielding a healthy dial tone, ringing an appropriate stanza of electronic notes. But when Mark picked it up and said hello, his only response had been a staticky belch of gibberish, maybe Darth Vader speaking in tongues. Helping Hand had a two-day lemon policy, so back it went, that very afternoon.

Mark got his refund without fanfare, but when he returned to the electronics graveyard, there was still only that pea-green relic, which would probably make a better bludgeon than a telecommunications device. Not giving up, he went up front and asked if there were any others lurking around the place. The cashier, a wiry old man, said there weren't any that he knew of, but Mark was free to go through the unprocessed donations down in the basement. So downstairs Mark went.

After passing a forest of appliances, he found the store's donation bay, where mounds of received goods sat continentally over the floor, awaiting attention. Mark thought it interesting to witness the donations in their unprocessed capacity, like seeing someone asleep or naked. You could deduce a lot from each mound: there was an attic-cleanout here, with unstylish drapes and dusty old toys; a college-student-move-out there, with a dorm-sized refrigerator, an old skateboard and a microwave sporting a pot-leaf sticker; and then a kid-grew-up extravaganza, a rainbow alp of stuffed animals and Fisher-Price. Mark nibbed through each of the piles, and though there was about everything imaginable - right down to a Tickle Me Elmo and a BEER O'CLOCK drinking hat - he found no phones. There was a department store across town, Carter's, and he started plotting the best route there.

Then, just as he mounted the stairs, he heard a door open, followed by heavy footsteps and the ruckus of things meeting the floor. Curious, he backtracked to the donations room and found two men hauling in a new load. One man was in a blue vest, an employee, while the other wore white BibAlls and a matching hat reading REMOVE-ALL MAN.

The employee dropped a flap-sealed cardboard box, then acknowledged Mark. "Help you?" he said, sounding winded.

"Yeah, you, um, got more stuff there?" Mark asked, and felt magnificently stupid, like he'd asked if the guy had a pulse.

"Umm-hmm," the employee said patiently. Remove-All Man continued his work, going outside and then reappearing with a box of his own.

"Guy upstairs sent me down here," Mark explained. "I'm looking for a phone."

"You don't say," the man said, his brow cocking. "Hey, Maury!" he called over his shoulder, toward the open door. "Wudn't there a phone in this mess?"

"Yeah, thought so," Maury the Remove-All Man said, when he came back in. He carried a rack of hung clothing now, all of a prehistoric vintage - madras pants, a hideous shantung vest, a glen-plaid blazer.

"Gimme a minute," the employee said, and resumed bringing things in. Mark watched the two trade off armloads into the corner, and before long, he ascertained the nature of this latest influx: it was an old-man-died-alone donation. The outdated clothes supported this, as well as each new addition: picture frames with deckle-edged snapshots still inside, a Victrola and an accompaniment of vinyl, a whole mess of brogues and penny loafers. And, last but not least, a box of assorted fixtures that nobody would discard unless they were checking out: clocks still ticking; dishes and silverware; a small army of knickknacks. And, on top, a beautiful AT&T telephone. The case was a pleasant, modern white, contrasting the rest.

The employee plucked the phone from its nest and presented it to Mark, trailing a long white cord. "One phone, as requested," he said, with some satisfaction. He might've built the thing.

Mark accepted it despite a nag of guilt, picturing its owner's ghost overseeing from the hereafter. It felt like robbing a grave... but he didn't give it back. He thanked the helping hand and Maury the Remove-All Man, and returned to the doddering cashier, who priced the phone at a very reasonable two dollars. Mark paid using his refund from earlier, and quit the building, whistling.



He eyeballed the phone all the way home, passing furtive glances to his passenger's seat. It was even better than he'd thought: speed-dial, built-in answering machine, speakerphone, flash, all in a sexy little package not much bigger than the handset. It was a Cadillac compared to the plain-jane thing it would replace, and all for two bucks. Welcome to last decade, he thought, in Shelly's voice.

Shelly. Mark figured he would take the money he'd saved and treat her to a dinner out. It was only Wednesday, but that was okay; Shelly liked to eat, especially out. It was a thing of hers, eating, but he found himself pandering to it anyway. With her, a good meal usually translated directly to bed, and so her vice had indirectly become his own. Life is strange.

Mark's apartment was the bottom unit in a duplex just outside town, commanding some trees and a lawn which would be pleasant come summer. There were two mailboxes terminating the driveway, a respective garbage can beside each: one for him, and one for his upstairs neighbor, a Little Old Lady named Ms. Marshall. Passing the bank of mailboxes and trashcans, Mark thought morbidly of how Ms. Marshall would probably end up like the unknown gentleman from whom he'd inherited the phone. Dying with fly-buzz anticlimax, no next of kin, a Remove-All Man hauling off her worldly possessions. Sad, but it was a sad world. He parked and went inside, intent on testing his new phone by making his dinner date with Shelly.

He unlocked the door and went the short distance to his kitchen nook, at once relieving the incumbent phone from its peg by the fridge. After hanging the dead man's phone in its place, Mark stepped back and gave an appraising look: perfect. The white phone and its teal buttons jibed nicely with his teeny kitchen. He reached for the handset, but it rang before he could grab it.

He froze, listening, afraid the ring might be queered like Old Faithful's... but it was fine, a crisp, high-A stutter. However, as he raised the handset for the first time, a latent flaw presented itself: the phone stunk. And not with spilt beer, or other people's cooking, or some fecal variant, but with the dreaded Hospital Smell, that death-stench of disinfectant and old person. Mark's nostrils flared.

A voice on the other end said hello - none other than Shelly, ironically - but Mark, blindsided by the stink, didn't answer. She said hello several more times, growing perturbed in the way she was expert, before Mark found it to speak.

"Hey," he said distractedly, holding the phone at length. "Was just about to call you."

"Marky-Mark!" Shelly said, lightening. She was on her cellphone, her voice subtly distorted. "You sound different. What's up?"

"I got a new phone." He tried to breathe through his mouth and talk at the same time. It was hard.

"Awww man, no more Honker orgasms?" She giggled.

"Well, I don't know about that," Mark said darkly. He started to explain the phone's problem, but was choked by the smell. The thing reeked. "Listen," he said, holding the phone even further away. "Let's go out tonight, dinner." He turned the handset so it was only over his ear, the mouthpiece at his neck.

"Sounds good," she said. "Pick you up at eight?" Shelly, ever the feminist, insisted on chauffeuring Mark whenever they went out. He never protested; there was no winning arguments with Shelly, and her car was nicer, anyway.

"Yeah, eight," Mark said, his inward speech making him sound tired. "Love you."

Shelly returned the sentiment, and hung up.

Grimacing, Mark replaced the handset and immediately jerked the base from its peg, holding it away from his person. He then jogged to the end of the driveway and deposited the phone in the trashcan beside his mailbox, complete with its original cord. The can was already filled and so the phone crowned the mound of trash, resembling the bulb of a weird flower. It was too full to put the lid back on, so he left it off.

Once back inside, he returned Old Faithful to its veteran spot on the wall. He picked it up and smelled it. Its screaming ring no longer seemed so bad.



At five till eight, when Shelly's late-model sedan came within earshot of the house, Mark heard it stop briefly before coming up the driveway. Soon after, Shelly opened his door, a short brunette in black from head to toe. She carried the dead man's phone in both hands.

"Hey, look what the old bag upstairs threw away!" she said, and extended the phone proudly to Mark, like a cat with a mouse.

Mark shied backwards. "No," he said decisively, "I threw that away. That was my trashcan." The two trashcans were regularly confused; he made a mental note to get some labels, or something.

Shelly puzzled, and the phone flagged in her hands.

"That was my new phone," Mark explained. "It works good but it came from a dead guy and it stinks so I tossed it."

Shelly went from puzzled to nonplussed; then burst into laughter. Mark joined her. They kissed.

Still snickering, he put the phone on a table by the door, then sat her down and explained the rest. Shelly's eyes lit as he mentioned the hospital smell, and he at once knew he'd made a mistake: the girl got off on all things death, as reflected by her black dress and her apartment's gloomy decor. Every time Mark visited her little uptown cave, it was lit exclusively by guttering black candles; she probably spent a fortune on them. She and Mark were an interesting pair, "opposites attract" made flesh.

Shelly bee-lined for the phone and brought it to her nose, drawing deep as though finding a flower. Mark winced. "Yep, that's the death-stink, alright," she said, and set it on the dining table. She took its cable and started pacing the wall.

It was Mark's turn to be puzzled. He asked what she was doing.

"Looking for a phone jack," she said petulantly, as if he should know this.

She found one and clicked in the plug, and Mark only watched - this was entertaining. She then sat back down, put the handset to her ear, and, using a finger ringed with sterling skulls, hit the first of ten speed-dial buttons.

Mark laughed and said, "What the hell is this?" Shelly had always been a touch eccentric, but she was outdoing herself.

"Finding out who the stiff is," she said matter-of-factly. Mark could hear a ring from the handset; the speaker was good and loud.

"What're you gonna say?"

"I 'unno," Shelly said, with a flippant shrug. Perversely, it made Mark love her all the more; it was the same breeziness that had hooked him during their speed date two years ago (between that and her correctly pronouncing his last name, he'd known it was meant to be).

She waited a few rings, then cycled the line and hit the next speed-dial button, which also went unanswered. She repeated this three more times, getting either no answer or a "line disconnected" message. After the fifth number, the rest were unprogrammed. The answering machine was next, but it was clear, without so much as an outgoing message.

Shelly sighed, slumping over the table... then her head shot up. "Did you call anybody before throwing it out?" she asked, a seriousness about her.

"No," Mark said. "I was gonna call you but you beat me to it." He gave her a look. "Why?"

She picked up the handset and hit redial, flashing an adventurous smile.

"Oh, come on, Shell," Mark said, now unamused. "This is too much."

"I wanna know where he made his last call," she said. "Is that so weird?"

Before Mark could answer yes, he heard a long string of beeps and boops from the handset - way longer than normal, like someone rolling a hand over the keypad. Then, after a single ring, the line picked up. Shelly silenced him with a black-nailed finger, and there was small speech from the other end; Mark couldn't make it out, but it certainly wasn't hello. As Shelly listened, Mark watched her expression harden, as if insulted. She paled, too, somehow even whiter than before, like paper meeting sunlight.

After a pause, she said "Wrong number," and hung up a little too hard.

"Well," Mark asked. "Who was it?"

Still looking upset, Shelly started a reply - but was cut off by the ringing phone. She jumped in her seat, staring the dead man's phone. Its calm drone was drowned by Old Faithful's BEEEEEE!, screeching from the kitchen extension.

When the phone rang three times and Shelly made no move for it, Mark jogged to the fridge and swiped Old Faithful from the wall, ending its wail. He immediately noticed a low hum in the handset, even before putting it to his ear. He could feel it, too, a faint vibration gloving his hand.

"Hello," he said flatly, and for a moment there was only that hum, loud in his ear. It brought a slight nausea, much like smelling the dead man's phone.

"How did you get this number?" a grating voice asked, more accusation than question.

Mark's brow knitted; the voice stung his brain. "Hello?" he said dumbly, lost for words.

The voice repeated its abrasive question.

Assuming this the recipient of Shelly's redial, Mark started to answer, explaining his trip to Helping Hand and his nutty girlfriend - but he slammed the phone to the receiver instead, repelled by that ugly hum and the equally offensive voice. He looked at it a while before turning away.

He returned to Shelly and the table. "Who the hell..." he said, and sat down, hard. He could still hear that hum - whum-m-m-m-m-m-m-m.

Shelly, still unsettled, didn't answer. Instead, she unplugged the dead man's phone and stormed outside, her black skirt and blouse flowing like wings. From the window, Mark watched her trot purposefully down the driveway and drop the phone to the trash - though in the wrong can, Ms. Marshall's, which was comparatively empty. Mark saw it disappear into the little maw, then Shelly was back inside, clapping her hands as though they were dirty.

"Let's go eat," she said in a feeble voice not her own, and charged back through the door.

As she and Mark backed from the house, Old Faithful again shrieked to life, loud even outside. Shelly didn't stop.



"Name, sin, and coupon number," Shelly said as they drove from the restaurant, an hour later.

Mark jumped a little, squeaking the passenger's seat. She'd been abnormally quiet since the phone incident, and the outburst was kind of spooky, even for her. They'd gone to The Osteria, a local pizza joint that was anything but, and Shelly had pigged out on half their meat-lover's pie, a sure sign she was stressed. Save for placing the order and asking Mark to pass the grated cheese, she hadn't said a word.

Mark said, "Huh?"

"Name, sin, and coupon number," she repeated, fixated on the night road ahead. The passing streetlights blinked over her like camera flashes. "That's what the voice said when I called." She used an exacting tone that said she was truly upset.

"Name, sin, coupon number," Mark said pensively, joining Shelly in her study of the road. "What's it mean?"

"Beats me," she said. She was driving faster than she should've. "And there was a hum, too." Her forearms tensed as she said it, as though touched with ice.

"Yeah, that hum was freaky," Mark said. "Made me feel -"

"Sick," Shelly supplied.

"Yeah..." Mark trailed off, remembering the hum. It was an ambience of some kind, he thought, something in the background of wherever the caller was. Mark pictured a pissed-looking guy beside some giant machine, maybe a generator for a dam. "What do you think it was?" he asked.

"To be honest, Mark," Shelly said, "I don't wanna talk about it." They rounded a bend and she barely braked, the car swaying as though hit.

Mark nodded obediently. Come to think of it, he didn't either.



As they approached Mark's duplex, he saw that his trashcan had been knocked over, its contents spilled artfully over the lawn. He noted it for later, privately cursing the local raccoons.

When they'd parked and Shelly remained seated, belt buckled, Mark frowned: it was clear that, in spite of her enormous meal, there was no lovemaking on the docket - which Mark respected. The disquieting phone call had cooled his fires, also.

They exchanged I-love-you's and a dispassionate kiss, but instead of leaving, Mark froze in his seat, staring at his kitchen window.

"What?" Shelly said after a few seconds, following his eyes.

"Did you leave the kitchen light on?" he asked. The window was lit.

"No..."

"I didn't either," Mark said, and unhinged the door.

Shelly began to follow, but Mark waved her back. Walking on eggshells, he rounded the corner to find his door yawning open, a wedge of light cutting into the night. The door was cracked and splintered, from forced entry. He slowed.

He poked his head through, trying to see everything at once. The little greeting table by the doorway was overturned, across the jamb like a half-assed barrier. He stepped over it and inside, and was met with the greater mess: chairs flipped, the floor carpeted with his things, every light burning bright. He peered past his combo foyer/kitchen, and the entire apartment had been ransacked, everything upset and disheveled, reminding him of a drunk's hair.

He padded into the kitchen, finding every cupboard and drawer open, wooden tongues slid to their limits. He whispered open the closet there and retrieved his trusty baseball bat, keeping a hard eye on the apartment at his back. Gripping the bat with both hands, he then went through the remainder of the little two-bedroom, but there was nobody, only a riot of displaced stuff, anything strewable strewn about. Everything appeared present, as far as he could tell; just disturbed. The bathroom was white with toilet paper, as if visited by a two-year-old. They - or he, or she, or it - had even stopped by the extra bedroom that served as his computer repository, his collection of parts and towers and monitors given the same whirlwind treatment. He quit the computer room and closed the door, and was startled by a black, matronly shape in the doorway - Shelly.

"What happened?" she asked, a glassy look to her. Her eyes were wide and searching, set into her raccoon makeup.

Mark relaxed. "I got robbed, or something," he said vacantly. "Nothing missing, it's just all..." He lowered the baseball bat and returned it to the closet.

"Oh, baby, I'm sorry," Shelly consoled, and gave him one of her patented bear-hugs. When they'd disengaged, Mark sigh-shrugged and started picking things up.

Shelly stopped him. "No," she said sternly, pulling him up. "We need to call the police, then you come home with me. This can wait."

Mark allowed himself to be stopped; he didn't feel like messing with it anyway. He went to make the call, but gave pause as he took Old Faithful from its cradle, thinking of the callback he'd gotten: the incredibly long number, the hum, that sardonic voice...

How did you get this number?

A sour wave rolled over him, like sucking a penny, but he shook it off and dialed 911. Shelly was righting the kitchen chairs as the dispatcher picked up.



The cops arrived in a punctual twenty minutes, a pair, both quietly dignified in the way of police-= and firemen. The one in charge referred to Mark as Mr. Conklin until Mark gave his speech. The cops took a statement, snapped a few Polaroids, then went upstairs to interview Ms. Marshall. The woman, who was pushing eighty, was notoriously hard of hearing, so Mark didn't expect any hot tips, and he wasn't disappointed. When the cops filed back down the rickety stairs, they informed him that Ms. Marshall had been home all night and had neither seen nor heard anything, which may very well have been literal. The bigger of the two informed Mark he would be contacted by a Detective Morgan, and with that, they left Mark and Shelly to the mess.

Afterward, Mark again began cleaning up, and Shelly again corrected him. "Nah, come on, sailor," she said in a sultry voice. The break-in had, apparently, cured her blues. "We're going to my place."

And with that, they left the apartment. He shut the door behind him but it bounced from the stripped jamb. He used a rock to keep it closed.



After retracing the drive they'd made just an hour ago, Mark as somber and withdrawn as Shelly had been, they arrived at Shelly's condo. It was a two-bedroom like Mark's apartment, but of an entirely different pedigree, located in what could be the uppity part of Ford, if the town had an uppity anything. The building had its own landscaping, dumpster, management; lawn lights, a maintenance number, a paved parking lot, a courtyard, a kiosk of vending machines - the works. Instead of renting, Shelly actually owned the place, a college-graduation present from her high-rolling father (the same guy who paid her bills as she got her "painting career" going).

Shelly pulled into her designated parking space - another perk of the complex - but didn't turn off the car. "Mark," she said, and looked suddenly sick, much as she'd been after talking to Mr. Name, Sin, and Coupon Number.

Mark made an absent "Hmmm?" noise. He'd zoned out over the ride there, anguishing about his insurance, and the molested door, and the tipped trashcan, and his pedantic landlord. This was the worst of it all, he thought, the things to be done after the fact.

"My door's open, Mark," Shelly said, sounding like a child telling Daddy she has to pee.

Mark snapped to, forgetting his problems, and the two exchange a foreboding look. "And I assume it was closed?"

"Yes," she said, and looked back to her condo. It was a bottom unit, directly in front of her space, and the door was cracked, the car's headlights carrying far enough to show some kitchen tile.

"Stay here," Mark said, then unbuckled and stepped out without looking from the condo.

He approached the doorway, walking on eggshells - déjà vu. The headlights threw a grotesque double of him over the building's facade, eked to twice his size. Nearing the jamb, he could see it was splintered like his own, a shock of blond whiskers reaching inward. He went back to the car and ducked in the open door.

"Call the police," he said. "Your door's bashed in just like mine."

Shelly's face blanked, and she fished her pocketbook for her cell.

Mark returned to the door and nudged it the rest of the way open. There was no adrenaline now - been there, done that. More than anything, he was perplexed; what were the chances of both him and Shelly being victimized on the same night, and within an hour of each other? He remembered the phone call again, and banished the thought.

Stepping inside, he at once determined the interior askew, in spite of the dark. The familiar topography of furniture was appreciably off, and hitting the lights only confirmed this: the place was trashed, and with the same thoroughness as his apartment.

It was strange, seeing Shelly's condo by aid of electricity; until then, he'd only seen it under her zoo of black candles, which lent a mysterious, grotto-like air. Now, it looked wholly mundane, if a tad bleak. Black leather furniture was capsized at weird angles, her round dining table on its side like a wheel. The refrigerator, also black, gaped open, issuing a draft. Her kaleidoscope of artwork was torn from the walls, some busted through the middle as if punched. The pine rack holding her prized CD collection was toppled, spilling jewel cases in domino lines. And that was the worst, Mark knew, the CDs. The other things, she could deal with, even her suffered-for art; but the music was another story. No one could so much as touch her CDs, not even Mark. It would send her over the edge, cranking her dial from upset to pissed, the equivalent of pushing a Marshall amp to 11.

There were four more rooms to the place, the bedrooms and their respective baths, and he skulked through each, again finding upheaval but no third parties. And, also like his place, everything seemed accounted for. As though the perpetrator had simply been looking for something.

Mark made his way outside just as Shelly was coming in, the two meeting in the doorway.

"Bad?" she asked, her face hoping against hope.

"Yeah, pretty rough," Mark said. "Come on, let's wait out here."

He put an arm around her in an effort to steer her to the car, but she was having none of it. Shelly pushed him off and trudged defiantly inside, and there followed a salvo of angry noises, all with her signature pre-teen squeakiness. Mark waited out the tumult, prudently, by the car: Shelly's tantrums eroded her ability to differentiate friend from foe, he knew. Once she got going, it was best to just step back and let her exhaust herself. He listened as she spit curses to the culprits, no different than if they were present. She detailed the lengths she would go to find them, the cruel and unusual punishments at her disposal, the exquisite dullness of her spoons. It was oddly interesting, seeing Shelly so riled; she was an entirely different person, as though dosed with some profound drug. He thought psychologists would find her fascinating.

Her tirade climaxed after a couple minutes - presumably upon finding the violated CD collection - then tapered into hoarse imprecations, then sobs. She reappeared shortly after - now in the weepy afterclap of her rage, her head and shoulders in a hangdog slump - and waddled over to Mark, who took her in his arms and set her over a nearby stairwell.

"Sorry, Shell," he said, and kissed the side of her head. Blades of mascara bled down her cheeks and over her jaw, making her look like a member of Kiss.

They were still sitting there when the cops arrived. It was the same two who had serviced them earlier.



When Mark and Shelly had once more played the police-report game and sent the officers on their way, they made for a hotel a couple miles away, Ford's only, the Motor Inn. It felt best to just step back from it all. After they had settled into their room, Shelly stopped crying but was still visibly depressed. Observing this, Mark decided to fetch her some ice cream - the kryptonite to her woes, usually. He requested her keys, and when she asked where he was going, he said it was a surprise. As he quit the room, she was better already; Shelly liked surprises, even more than ice cream.

There was a Sav Mart convenience store just down the road, and it had her favorite, Swammy Chocolate Chunk. He bought a tub and some disposable bowls and spoons, but when he got in Shelly's car, he turned opposite the hotel, towards his duplex.

He'd been thinking since finding Shelly's condo vandalized, and the same question kept popping up: What are the odds? Both places, in the same night, in the same searching fashion. The cops had pointed it out, of course, and asked the expected battery of questions: Any enemies? Any threats? Any thoughts on why someone would riffle through their places? He'd answered unanimously no, but the last question had set his wheels spinning, and that had led back to the spooky phone calls. The whole thing had been weird enough - Name, sin, and coupon number, and that mind-bending hum - but what rubbed Mark wrong was the callback, that disparaging voice asking where he'd gotten the number. There had been venom in that voice, something spoken through black teeth with a forked tongue, and he could see its owner invading another's home to get an answer. Very easily.

So that's why Mark went to his mailbox and its twin trashcans, looking for the dead man's phone. If it had something to do with this business, he thought he should have it. As the cans arrived in his headlights, however, he remembered how his had been overturned - and, presumably, searched by the same creeps who'd been in his apartment. He cursed aloud: if they had been looking for the phone, they would've found it.

Then he remembered Shelly: she'd thrown the phone in the wrong trashcan, Ms. Marshall's.

He darted to the other, sealed trashcan, opened it with a pop, and there was the dead man's phone. Feeling abruptly criminal, Mark grabbed it and scurried back to the car, setting it beside the ice cream. Then, an unnerving thought: the ransacker had known which can was Mark's, a distinction even he sometimes got wrong. It sent a chilly finger up his spine.

After a frightened look in his mirrors, he quit the driveway and at last returned to the hotel, where he gifted Shelly the ice cream. She brightened instantly and dug in, mmm'ing no small amount. She put away three bowls of the stuff, and Mark matched them all, to keep her from feeling guilty. They made love after, and slept peacefully despite the catastrophic night. Mark did not mention his concerns about the phone calls, nor his retrieval of the phone.



Mark awoke to music. Poppy, upbeat, synth-driven. And small, as though played by a band of amoebas. Stirring from sleep, he distantly recognized it as "Friday I'm In Love," and then as the ringtone of Shelly's cellphone.

Her cell. Ringing.

He opened his eyes, uncoupled from Shelly, and swung from bed, feeling for her purse. It was early morning, dull sunlight poking through the drawn curtains. Her purse - black - lay in one of the table's chairs, and he dug through it. There was a black makeup compact, cosmetics (black), some incongruously pink panty liners, and then, finally, her black and singing cellphone. It had rung long enough for Robert Smith's creamy voice to start in, when Mark flipped it open and answered.

"Hello?" he said quietly, trying not to wake Shelly. His eyes closed on their own, sleep inches away.

A dry voice answered: "Mister Conklin."

Mark rolled his eyes behind their lids. "That's Conk-rin," he said peevishly. "Conklin with an r -"

The voice cut him off: "This is the police, Mister Conklin. Where are you?"

He looked at the clock. It scowled 5:59 in glowing red letters. "A little early to be calling, isn't it?" he said, then thought: The police. Who answered the phone like that? It reminded him of the bullhorn announcement from a corny old gangster flick: This is the police, we have you surrounded...

"Where are you?" the voice repeated, now with a note of demand.

"The Motor Inn," Mark said absently, and yawned.

"I have some questions for you, Mister Conklin, in regards to the phone call you placed last night. Where did you get that number?"

Mark was ready to complain about the phone business, when it hit him: he hadn't told the police about the phone calls, even after Shelly's break-in. All the sudden, he felt to be at the edge of a cliff.

His face bunched. "Who is this?" he said instead.

"This is the police, Mister Conklin," the voice reiterated.

Mark flipped the phone shut. He sat looking at it for a second, then it rung in his hand, the first chipper notes of "Friday I'm In Love." He opened the phone, hit END, and slid it disgustedly to the other side of the table. He stood and started to dress, but was stopped by another ring.

He snatched up the phone and struggled out the battery. It quieted.

Still holding the dissected phone, Mark then realized he'd told them where he was.

He woke Shelly. "Babe. We have to go."



Leaving the half-eaten tub of ice cream in the room's fridge, they checked out at a hair past six o'clock, the clerk looking as soupy and disconnected as Mark and Shelly. Shelly waited until the car to ask what in the hell was going on.

Mark answered by pulling the dead man's phone from under the seat, where he'd stashed it last night. "This is what's going on," he said, holding it one-handed like a salver.

Shelly flinched, fixing the phone askance. "What's that doing here?" she asked, not looking away. Then, to Mark: "And what're you talking about?"

"Drive," he said, tucking the phone back under the seat. "I'll tell you on the way."

"On the way where?"

"Anywhere but here," Mark said, looking around the dawning parking lot. "Just drive."

Shelly shifted into D and took to Ford's deserted streets, and Mark divulged everything - the trashcans, the break-ins coinciding with the phone shenanigans, and, finally, the call he'd gotten on her cell that morning that confirmed his suspicions, he said. Speaking it aloud left a funny aftertaste, as if he'd licked the floor.

Shelly was quiet for a full minute, then said, "You're sure you didn't tell the cops about the phone call?"

Mark nodded vehemently. "Hundred percent. And you didn't either, right?"

Shelly shook her head in a wide, earnest arc. "So, what do we do?" she asked, staring at the empty road as if it wasn't.

Mark took a deep breath. "Right now, we go get breakfast."

Shelly didn't need to be told twice. A pancake house was a block away.



Mark and Shelly both got towering stacks of flapjacks, oozing on butter and various syrups until they resembled desserts - more comfort food. Over the meal, the two discussed the obvious: who had they called from the dead man's phone; why name, sin, and coupon number; and, chiefly, why on earth a phone call would incite the invasion of their homes. But there were no answers. Mark knew one thing, though: it was imperative they learn the name of the previous owner of that phone, thus demanding a trip back to Helping Hand.

First, however, he directed Shelly to his computer repair shop in the middle of town.

It was almost eight by the time they reached the strip mall housing his shop, the sun out in full force. Driving over, he almost didn't want to know if it had been roughed up like his and Shelly's homes. Unlike his apartment, he actually had valuables there: computers and components for sale, cash, people's units brought in for repair, some of which housed irreplaceable data. He could see himself developing a spontaneous ulcer in the event of the store's breach.

As they passed, though, it looked undisturbed, the door hung with a crooked CLOSED sign, as he'd left it. The display window advertised CONKRIN COMPUTER MEDIC, intact.

"Satisfied?" Shelly asked, the car idling at the curb. She seemed anxious to be away from the store, almost as much as Mark.

"Pull in," Mark said, looking out the window. When Shelly responded with the evil eye, Mark met it. "I gotta put out a sign saying I'm sick," he pled. "People'll be coming by. It'll just take a second."

"And what if they're in there, waiting for you?" she asked, implacable.

They, Mark thought, disliking the word's paranoid attachments. "There's no one there," he said. "Come on, I have to, it's my job."

Shelly hmmph'd, parked in the morning-empty lot, and said "Be quick about it." Mark wrote a sloppy note on some paper from the glove box. She didn't turn off the engine when he got out.

Close up, the shop was still, ostensibly, unharmed, but as Mark began to unlock, he noticed something in the glass door, below the sign: a handwritten note, much like the one he intended to post. The approximate size of a Post-It, it was only two words long: THIS NEXT, in flourished cursive betraying the brusque message. The note was unsigned. Mark reached out to pull it down, but couldn't - it was on the other side of the glass. He stiffened.

Shelly's car window whirred down. "What is it?" she said from Mark's back.

"Nothing," he said, and resumed digging his keys from his hip pocket. Moving as though the place was on fire, he ducked inside, taped his sick-note on the door, and plucked the other one down. Holding it was mildly uncomfortable, like sitting on a warm toilet seat. He locked up and fled back to the car.

Shelly immediately quit the lot, all but burning rubber, and soon the shop was blocks away. When Mark stayed quiet, she asked: "Really, what's wrong?"

Mark swallowed. "There was a note," he said, as level as he could.

"And?"

"It said, this next."

Shelly passed him a quick look and then snapped back to the road, fanning hair. "Oh, Mark," she said. She chewed her lip. "We gotta go to the police."

"And tell them what?" Mark said testily, anticipating this. "That we made a crank call on a dead guy's phone and now people are stalking us?"

Shelly looked wounded. "Okay... then we, what, give them what they want?"

Them, Mark thought again. He considered her proposal, and shook his head. "I don't think that's a good idea. Guys who bust into people's homes and threaten their businesses, they don't just leave you alone when you give them what they want. And we don't even know what they want."

"They just wanna know how we got the number," Shelly offered. "And the phone too, probably. The dead guy's phone." She pointed under the seat. "That's what they asked for, right?"

How did you get this number?

"Yeah, I guess..." Mark conceded. "But right now, let's go to Helping Hand. I wanna know who had this phone."



The thrift store proved a dead end. Shelly found a veiled black hat that might've belonged to Stevie Nicks, but there was nothing in the way of leads. The elderly cashier was on duty again - his name was Charlie, according to his tag - and after ringing up Shelly's hat, he explained to Mark that donations were anonymous, by reason of volume. Charlie did, however, suggest Mark try the Remove-All company, since their guy had brought the load. Mark thought that a fine idea.

The company just happened to lie a block from Conkrin Computer Medic. They passed the shop on the way and it remained untouched, to Mark's relief. The Remove-All headquarters was a standalone brick building sharing a lot with a defunct burger joint, the pavement sprouting a map of weeds. Inside, Mark found a small office occupied by a mousy young blonde.

She manned a gigantic black desk, looking smart in glasses and a pants suit. "Help you?" she said affably, smiling a bit too wide to be innocent.

Only then did Mark realize he had no idea how to ask for what he needed. He felt suddenly illicit, and cover stories flickered through his mind: Was he after something donated by mistake? A private eye on a case? James Bond? Caught off guard, he opted for that venerable old fallback, the truth.

"Yes," he said suavely. "I was wondering if you kept records of your pickups."

"Sure do," the woman chirped, Miss Congeniality.

"And how would I go about getting those?"

The woman frowned, but with only half her face. "Oh, I'm sorry, hon, those're private."

Mark smiled and laughed, in lieu of shouting. "Well, Miss -"

"Laura," she said, fluttering pink eyelids.

Mark laughed again, even faker this time. "Laura," he corrected. "It's kind of an emergency. There's no way you could, I don't know, make an exception, is there?"

"Maybe if you were a policeman."

"Well, see..." Mark said, and then everything came out at once: "My girlfriend and I had our places broken into last night, and we think it had something to do with a phone that I bought from Helping Hand - but that came from one of your guys - and we have the police involved but it's kind of a weird situation and it's-really-urgent-I-get-the-records-now." The last came out on fumes. He took a deep breath.

Unfortunately, the speech was for naught: Mark had lost her at girlfriend. "Sorry," Laura droned, now sounding like a different woman. "Not unless you're a cop." Her eyes glared from behind the clever glasses, now cold and cloudy.

Mark shrank in defeat. "Is there any way I could talk to..." He snapped his fingers, trying to remember the name of the Remove-All guy with the dead man's stuff. He could see him in his head, a porky mulatto man in white BibAlls, a hat with an embroidered red logo. His name had started with an M - Mike, or Mitch, or Mallory, or -

"Maury," Mark said, and pointed accusingly at the receptionist. "Maury. You have a guy here by that name?"

"We do," the woman said dryly. "He's out on a call. Should be back any time."

Mark thanked her, and no sooner had he spoken than a white panel truck parked beside Shelly's sedan, visible through the office's single window. Mark marched outside, trained on the truck as though charmed. Laura the receptionist didn't say bye.

Two men were stepping from the truck when Mark got there, and he recognized the passenger as none other than Maury. Mark nodded at the driver, a younger, white man who entered the office, and then collared Maury.

"Hello, Maury?" Mark said to him.

Maury was calm enough at first, but once he got a good look at Mark, he stopped dead, tensing, as though grabbed by the testicles. "Hello," he said, guardedly.

Mark read recognition in the man's eyes. "Remember me? From Helping Hand?"

Instantly, Maury shook his head and said "Huh-ugh," perhaps denying some scandalous accusation.

Mark saw the lie like a blinking sign. "Yeah, come on, you remember me," he said as gently as he could. "It was yesterday afternoon, we were down in the basement, you and the other guy were unloading stuff. I got a phone..."

Maury blinked upon mention of the phone. "Can't say I do," he said, sounding as if Mark held a gun.

He and Mark exchanged a long pause, then Mark shifted his feet. "Listen," he said. "I need to know where you got that phone. It's very, very important. So, if you'd just cut the bullsh-"

With this, Maury went from impassive to seething mad. "No, you listen to me," he spat. "I don't know ya, never seen ya, never had no phone. Now get." He added, quieter, "I got kids, mister. Now... get." His lips trembled slightly.

Mark filled with frustration, and an angry crock of questions - and fear, too, an ugly fear that nibbled at his guts. He almost met the man's hostility, but instead backed slowly into the car and told Shelly to drive.

Maury the Remove-All Man remained over the sidewalk as they left, his head following them until they rounded a corner.



Shelly did not receive this well. Her brow hardened by degrees, compacting every time Mark spoke.

"What do you mean, he wouldn't tell you?" she snarled. Her milky cheek ticced a little.

"He'd been threatened," Mark said. "I told you, he said, 'I have kids.' Would you tell some guy where you got a donation if it meant your kids?"

This struck Shelly quiet. "No..." she said eventually, now just pouty instead of mad.

They drove in silence, aimlessly circling Ford as they had since leaving the Remove-All place. As they waited under one of the town's few stoplights, Mark made a decision.

"I guess it's time to call the cops," he groaned, looking old. "Let's find a payphone. I don't want to use your cell."

"Okay. Need gas anyway," Shelly mumbled.

The Sav Mart was down the road a piece, the same that had yielded Shelly's ice cream. Shelly took a pump and the two got out. Mark made for a chewed-up phone hung around the building, while Shelly set the pump to pumping and went inside.

Feeling like a kidnapper making a ransom demand, Mark bent into the phone carrel and lifted the handset. He started to call 911, but that seemed wrong; this was an emergency, but of a different kind. He instead looked up the office number for the local police department, slotted some change, and dialed. As the phone rang, he was again faced with how to explain the situation, now to the cops, who probably heard enough tall tales to write novels. He all too easily saw himself being written off as a crank, perhaps even deemed delusional and implicated in the break-ins himself. He had to call, though; there was simply nothing else.

The line picked up and a lachrymose voice poured through. "Ford PD," it said, probably for the thousandth time that day. The voice evoked a sad-looking desk sergeant in a lonely station, one step from nodding off.

Mark began to ask for general help, but then remembered the detective who was supposed to be calling him. "I need to talk to Detective Morgan," he said.

"Hold, please," the voice said mechanically.

There was the briefest of pauses, no more than five seconds, then the line came back. "Mister Conklin?" said a coarse male voice, sounding out of breath. There was heavy background noise, presumably a bullpen stuffed with coffee-drinking cops.

"Yes, but that's Conk-rin, with an r," Mark said, weary as the desk sergeant.

"Yeah. Detective Morgan here. Where are you, Mister Conklin?"

Mark started to boil, in the way the mispronunciation did for him, but was distracted by the question: this was too much like his last call. "I'm around town," he said, ambiguously, keeping his suspicion within grabbing distance.

"Okay," the detective said. "It's just that I've been calling your house and business, and you weren't at either." His speech was too even, how one might speak in the presence of a superior. Or under duress.

Mark's eyes narrowed. "Oh, yeah, I've come down with something, went to get some aspirin," he lied. "Anyway, I called because -"

"Sorry to hear that," Morgan broke in, sounding not in the least. "There's something going around. Now, I have some questions regarding the break-in."

Mark said okay, putting his guard up.

The detective went into a round of softball questions, the same the bluesuits had asked last night: what time did it happen, any enemies, anything missing, do you have insurance. Mark answered patiently, waiting to have his say, but then the detective asked another question:

"Any strange phone calls lately?"

Mark almost answered yes, there in fact had been some calls... but something just wasn't right. "You think we could meet in person, Detective?" he asked in reply. "Maybe have coffee?"

"Yeah, sure!" Morgan all but shouted. Then, hardening, "But first answer my question."

Mark's eyes narrowed further. "Yes," he said flatly. "I've had some strange phone calls."

Morgan came back almost without break: "Okay, and just where did you get the number?"

Mark's eyes went to slits. "You gotta be kidding me."

On the other end, the background noise cut away for a second and then returned, as though Morgan had cupped the receiver to speak an aside.

Mark shifted the phone to his other ear, and the gloves came off: "What the hell is this, Detective? Who am I dealing with here?"

Morgan made no response, saying all that needed to be said. The bullpen noise cycled again.

"You still there?" Mark asked.

There was another evil pause, then Morgan asked, "Where'd you get that number, Mister Conklin?"

Mark slammed the phone. His change digested loudly through its works, as if he'd broken something.

He turned the corner of the building, walk-running, and Shelly was just coming out of the store, carrying a bag. "Hey, how'd it go?" she asked.

"Not good, come on," Mark said, and put a hand on her back, herding her to the gassed car.

They piled inside, but instead of starting the car, Shelly pulled a candy bar from the heavy-looking bag, and began undressing it. Mark simmered: she'd gotten stressed and gone for the sugar. Again. Her habit was cute when the warm-fuzzies were flowing - and when he wasn't being pursued by anonymous, violent men - but now it was just plain annoying, and a little sad. He wanted to slap the candy out of her hands.

"Let me drive," Mark said through his teeth, and got out. Unresisting, Shelly bit off a mouthful and gave up her seat.

Mark keyed the ignition, hard, and burned out of the convenience store, shrieking the tires.

"What's the rush?" Shelly said over a wad of chocolate and nougat, suckling. She could prolong a candybar into an hour-long affair.

"We're leaving town," Mark said, and turned west.



The next town over was a dump known as Pemberton, little more than some tobacco farms and a family of disgraced buildings that were old in the '60s. Its claim to fame was a massive hospital that lorded absurdly over the town, as well as a pervasive stench that, as far as Mark knew, had never been identified. There was a Motor Inn there, too, and after Mark had hegira'd Shelly from Ford, they stopped in and rented room number ten from an exhausted-looking man with a French accent.

It was by then going on two in the afternoon, so instead of cooling their heels, they went out for some lunch, at Darla's Deli, a little mom-and-pop they'd passed on the way in. They both got sandwiches made from grocery-store meat and white bread. Their table wobbled when they moved.

Shelly ate greedily, despite having snacked on candy the whole ride over. Mark could see she was taking this hard, and hated it, as well as hating himself for hating her earlier, which made him hate it all even more. He stared at his plate.

"So..." Shelly said when half her sandwich was gone. She looked her question to Mark, peering over her food - What now?

"I don't know, babe," he said, reading her loud and clear. There seemed no right thing to do. Skipping town had been a knee-jerk reaction, and he'd come to regret it; it was just a Band-Aid solution at best, like taking a slug of liquor for a hangover. They couldn't run forever, and even if they could, he didn't know if it would be fast enough. The spooks apparently had leverage over the police - twisting the long arm of the law, as it were. Who were he and Shelly, a computer repair man and a Warhol wannabe, to evade such an animal?

He poked his sandwich with a straw, studying his plate as if it might hold the answer. "We can't go back home, we can't go to the police, we can't find out where the phone came from. My shop could be burning as we speak..." He trailed off, battling a childish urge to cry. "I'm about out of money, too, so unless you wanna pull a Bonnie and Clyde and start jacking liquor stores..."

"I have money," Shelly said softly, but her tone said she knew this was futile.

"I know, but it's just prolonging the imminent," Mark reproved.

"And the imminent is...?"

Mark tore the crusts from his bread, putting real effort into it. He had played with his food as a kid, and kicked the habit in his teens, but now it was back from the grave. He supposed it was his equivalent of nursing a candybar. "You know what it is," he answered, and she did: she'd said it herself. "We have to give them what they want."

"Which is?"

"Us, I guess," he said uneasily. "And the phone, and how we got the number."

"And how do we go about that?"

"Well," Mark sighed. "We still haven't called anyone else on the dead guy's phone..."

Shelly processed this; then nodded gravely and finished her sandwich. Mark's, however, went in the trash.



They spent the day in the dumpy hotel, deliberating the call. Mark paced incessantly, like a new father awaiting the news. The dead man's phone was set out on the room's table; Mark would pace over, contemplate it, then take another lap around the room. Shelly ate candybars until she had to lie down. There was, at one point, a weird ruckus from the room next door, followed by the occupant yelling unintelligibly and leaving, but things were otherwise quiet. The two said nothing, an air of doom about them.

It was nearly six o'clock, darkness falling, when Mark finally picked up the handset. It felt right doing this by night, he thought, like sacrificing a virgin.

Shelly levered up as he did so. "You gonna do it?" she asked in a dopey drawl, suffering the consequences of her binge. She looked miserable.

Mark swallowed. "Yeah, I guess. You ready?"

"No. But let's just get it over with. I wanna go home."

"Yeah, same here," Mark said, and raised the handset. That ghastly smell struck him then, big as ever, and he made a face. "Here goes nothing," and he punched the redial.

The tones beeped and booped... and beeped and booped, going on and on. After no less than thirty numbers, it at last stopped and the line rang. It was answered before the first ring had completed.

That nauseating hum assaulted Mark's ear, making him want to throw the phone away. Then: "Name, sin, and coupon number." The same decrepit voice as before, repulsive in a way Mark couldn't describe.

"This is Mark Conkrin. I want to talk."

"Well, well, well, he wants to talk," the voice said, an octave higher. It strained as it spoke, and there was a harsh squeak and a brittle click; Mark saw the man twisting in his seat and snapping his fingers at a nearby accomplice - It's him.

"I give up," Mark said shamefully. "I'll tell you what you want to know. We haven't done anything wrong -"

"Where are you?"

"Pemberton. Motor Inn, room ten."

The line quieted, hum and all, and Mark envisioned the man muffing the handset as Detective Morgan had that morning, to relay this news. Mark didn't like it; it made him feel like a child.

The hum returned, and the voice said "Don't go anywhere," enunciated into three little sentences.

Mark said okay, and the line went dead. He hung up, looking unwell.

"Well?" Shelly said, slumped against the headboard.

"He said stay here," Mark mumbled, not making her eyes. He leaned forward in his chair, clenching it hard enough to bleach his knuckles.

"So they're coming here?"

"Guess so."

They waited.



The cardboard undertakers arrived in just minutes.

As Shelly and Mark sat dismally in the room, looking like refugees, the sounds of parking cars arose from outside. High-beam headlights poured through the breaks in the curtains, filling the room with white and shadow, and car doors opened and closed without the engines dying. Shelly swallowed with a gun-hammer click.

A belligerent knock came over the door, and Shelly jumped, squawking the bedsprings. Mark stood uncertainly to the door. As he reached for the locks - they'd engaged them, all three - another fusillade of knocks startled him backward. "I'm comin'!" he yelled, and quickly undid the locks.

The door opened to a gang of besuited men in cleft fedora hats, silhouetted in the screaming headlights. They stood in a tight, quincunx formation like a bowling split, stock-still. Blinded, Mark visored a hand over his eyes, seeing only five manshapes, light sunbursting around them. The engines chugged.

"Marcus Conklin," the one in front deadpanned, a jaw moving above square shoulders.

Squinting as though staring at the sun, Mark said yes. He didn't notice the mispronunciation.

The figure's head twisted toward the bed, described only by the course of its hat. "Michelle Carmichael."

Shelly shrunk into herself over the bed, her knees at her chest. She didn't answer.

The head returned to Mark. "Step outside, both of you," it commanded.

"Mark?" Shelly said, afraid.

Mark put out a hand, and it was soon met by Shelly's. He led her onto the walk, and the assembly of faceless men stepped back to accommodate them, not turning away. Mark stopped atop the room's abraded welcome mat, Shelly at his back like a cowering pet.

"Into the car," the same man said, who Mark sensed was in charge. As though sentient, a car door slashed open.

Mark didn't move. "Where're we going?"

After an appalled silence, the man repeated, "Into the car."

Mark's eyes were adjusting, and his visitors gained features. All were white and of average height, with long Anglo faces and chilling blue eyes, their suits and hats intimating importance. Each wore stony, removed expressions, those of a jury with a bad verdict. They looked like undertakers, Mark thought - or, better yet, cardboard cutouts of such.

"Where are we going?" Mark repeated, firmer.

"Mark?" Shelly said from his back. "I don't think we should..." She trailed off, constricting his hand.

"We just want to talk, Mister Conklin," the cardboard undertaker said. The others stood subordinately around him, silent and staring.

Mark thought, Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly, knowing that he'd made a horrible mistake. Taking the Bonnie-and-Clyde route now seemed a sensible alternative.

"We're talking now," Mark said, his voice steel.

At this, the head undertaker looked to one of his associates, and something passed between them. The other man dug in his jacket pocket and came out with something Mark couldn't see.

"Last chance, Mister Conklin," the head honcho said. The other undertaker had his hands at his back in a way Mark didn't like.

"Go back inside, Shell," Mark said from the corner of his mouth.

"But -"

"Go back inside."

Their hands disentangled, and he felt her leave, the way you feel the sun set. Risking a sidelong look, he saw her backing dubiously into the room, her hair and breasts answering each step, caramel eyes fixed on him, unbearably beautiful despite her glaze of fear.

Mark turned back in time to see the one undertaker spring forward, swinging the sap he'd pulled from his coat. Mark heard Shelly scream, then it was cut short, his world going with it.



He awoke to pain. A fortune of pain, starting at his head and trickling down in punitive streams. Then came a smell, ozone with a saline accent reminiscent of tuna, made worse in the way of all radically unfamiliar odor. And then came that hum, which was somehow worse than the rest.

Mark snorted, and opened his eyes. They rolled wildly, unseeing. The world lay in triplicate, blurring and shifting, as though he'd just gone twenty rounds with a roller coaster. The shapes seemed to vibrate with the hum - whum-m-m-m-m-m-m-m.

"Mister Conkrin," said a voice from the surrounding soup, and Mark instantly identified it as the same that had requested his name, sin, and coupon number. Even so, his reaction wasn't shock, or fear, or outrage, but bright surprise: the man had correctly pronounced his name. It scored points with Mark in spite of things.

Mark managed some warbling sound that was supposed to be "Yes."

"Take your time, Mister Conkrin," the voice said gently, and Mark correlated it to a mountainous form just feet away, an overweight man in a suit tailored to disguise such. Mark focused on the shape, using it as his anchor to the world, and it got clearer. The man sat in a beacon of sallow light pouring from a little UFO suspended overhead, behind him a hungry darkness interspersed with men, which eventually resolved into the cardboard undertakers Mark had met at the hotel. There was a clear attitude of interrogation.

"Where...?" Mark said, and righted himself in his chair. He would've stood, but a tightness at his wrists and ankles kept him seated. Hot sweat stung his eyes, and he was forced to let it.

"That is of no importance to you," the man-mountain said. He was older than the others, Mark saw, and lacked a hat, his bald head spangled with liver spots. Untamed white eyebrows dotted wise little eyes, tufted into hedgelike rectangles; Mark thought him a malign Robert Loggia. The man regarded Mark with the calm of one who knows exactly who he is and what he is doing.

Whum-m-m-m-m-m-m-m...

The hum was murder. Mark wanted to massage his temples but couldn't. "Where's Shell?" he asked, looking nowhere in particular. The question spawned images of Shelly, abducted and tied up like this. A rage opened inside him.

"Miss Carmichael is taken care of," the man said. "And in much better condition than you, I might add, thanks to her cooperation."

The news, if it was to be believed, extinguished Mark's anger. He blinked with his whole face, and the trinity of Robert Loggias merged, the world with them. Mark dredged his mouth and spat into the black void at his left. There followed a smack that echoed, suggesting a cement floor and open space.

"Feeling better, Mister Conkrin?" the man asked from his island of light. The other men stood reverently, reposed as soldiers.

"A little, yeah," Mark said, and he was.

"Good," the other man said, and leaned intently forward. "Now, about these most unsettling phone calls you have made."

Mark's dam broke: "The number came from a phone, the dead guy's phone, the redial," he stammered, the words leaping from him. "I bought it at Helping Hand, two bucks. Never knew the donor, I swear." A physical weight seemed to lift from him, as if he'd confessed some grievous sin.

"Oh, we know that," the man said. "We traced the possible leaks in the area, and conjectured just what you said. We even had a powwow with the good fellow who delivered it, a Maury Rogers."

I got kids, mister, Mark thought, and some of the rage came back. And why hadn't he put this together before? If they'd gotten to Maury the Remove-All Man, then they obviously knew where Mark had gotten the number.

Mark's face sucked in. "Then why'd you wanna know where I got the number so bad?" he asked, trying not to shout. "And just what in the hell is all this? The sin and the coupon number - and that hum?" He looked all around, his head swinging furiously, but there was only the interstellar blackness and the watching men.

"Oh, we just wanted to hear it from you," said the Robert Loggia look-alike. "To, you know, make sure. Me and my employees, we like to make sure in our line of work. Have to, really. Our enterprise is intolerant of errors, most dangerously so."

"But what is your 'line of work'?" Mark snapped. "I'm in the gosh darn Twilight Zone here." He'd never said gosh darn in his life; it felt wrong to swear in this man's presence.

The other man darkened. "You ask too many questions, Mister Conkrin." All humanity faded from him, like a light bulb snuffing out, leaving him with the two-dimensional emptiness of his subordinates. "I'll ask the questions from now on."

Mark cast a reproachful look and said nothing.

"Good," the other man said, and lightened a little. "So, moving along: who have you told about the phone and our conversations?"

"No one," Mark said at once. "It was just Shelly and me, and that cop, I guess, Detective Morgan."

The corpulent man laced his hands and propped his elbows, gazing Mark over fatty knuckles - assessing him, trying to extract any rumor of duplicity. But Mark met them, unflinching, at ease in his honesty. The two could've been playing poker.

This lasted for a big minute, then the other man broke his hands and returned them to his lap, nodding. "Okay, Mister Conkrin," he said, and pointed. "I believe you. And I believe you when you say you stumbled onto my number by pure stupid chance. And I also believe that you would not be inclined to mention your troublesome ordeal to any listening ears. Am I right in that assumption?"

Mark told him he was, and meant it. He scented a happy ending to this, and clung to the notion.

"Good, good..." the man said, then darkened again, the benevolence leaving him. "But if you were to, how do you say it, wag your tongue regarding these matters... then you would see me again, Mister Conkrin, and I would not be happy. I don't think you want to see me again, do you?"

Mark did not, ever, and said so. The hum whum'd.

The man gave a ruminative nod, and sat rapping his fingers and admiring the floor, as if making sure he'd gotten everything on his grocery list. "I'm going to let you go, Mister Conkrin," he said, finally. "And Miss Carmichael too. Because me and my employees, we are not animals. We can forgive an indiscretion, whatever its capacity for catastrophe." He flipped two fingers, and one of the statuesque men came forward with a cup of sloshing liquid. "Drink this," the sitting man said to Mark.

Mark went dubious. He started to protest... but choked it back: he would swallow broken glass to be out of here. Plus, the alternative was most likely another sap to the head. He said okay.

The undertaker put the cup to Mark's lips and upended it, as one would gas an engine. A mildly bitter liquid spilled down Mark's throat, tasting of Sprite mixed with aspirin, and he managed to keep it down. Then the cup was taken from him and the undertaker returned to his station, another tenpin in formation.

"Good man," Robert Loggia said. "And remember, Mister Conkrin, you never had any phone."

"What phone?" Mark said dully, and the man surprised him with laughter, the flab of his throat quivering with Jell-O ease. It momentarily drowned the evil hum permeating the place. "Good man," the man said again, and made another flicking motion.

Two of the figures came forward this time, and Mark remained conscious long enough to feel them cut the duct tape from his wrists and ankles. Then reality was leaving him, growing more and more distant, until the black swallowed the hanging light and the undertakers, and the resounding hum, and the man who wasn't Robert Loggia, and, eventually, Mark himself.



BEEEEEEEEEEE...

Mark awoke to the mighty screech, electric in his ears. Semiconscious, he thought it a fantastic bird, or maybe the sound of a dying Transformer. Then his eyes flapped open and he recognized it as Old Faithful, blaring from nearby. He bolted upright where he lay, and the familiar spring beneath him bespoke his own bed.

He was home.

Brooding morning sun bled through his windows, staving darkness, and he stumbled clumsily to his feet, crutching himself on walls and furniture. He stepped on several of the things littering the floor, one crunching unhappily. His head hurt, the sap's footprint a throbbing oval above his right temple, but it was lesser now; it seemed some time had passed since his audience with Robert Loggia and the undertakers (he thought that a good name for a band, and vowed to write it down). After traversing his obstacle-course apartment, he reached the kitchen and snatched up the phone, ending the squelch.

"Hello?" he coughed, still coming to. Last he knew, he was being interrogated in that ozone-smelling dungeon.

Shelly's voice: "Mark!"

"Shell!" he called back, relieved to hear her, along with the wellbeing in her voice. It seemed his captor had kept his word.

"Did you get - ?" Mark started, and Shelly interrupted:

"Taken to a big black humming room - ?"

"With a fat bald guy - ?"

"And goons behind him - ?"

"Asked a bunch of questions - ?"

"And said never tell anyone - ?"

"And that nasty drink -?"

"Tasted like shoe polish -"

"The guy said you were okay but -"

"You couldn't trust him so -"

"Yeah," Mark said.

"Yeah," Shelly said.

When they'd caught their breath, Shelly added, "And what about the note. Creepy, huh?"

"Note?"

"Yeah. You didn't get a note, on your chest?"

Mark looked down, and there was indeed a note, safety-pinned to the tee-shirt he'd been wearing through all this. He tore it free and held it to his face:

Curiosity killed the cat, Mr. Conkrin. There will not be another warning.

It featured the same copper-plate cursive as the note from his shop, all eccentric dashes and curlicues.

"Mark?" Shelly said from the earpiece. "You there?"

"Yeah. Was just looking at the note."

There was a pause, and then Shelly said she was coming over, and hung up.

Mark hung up as well, and realized he was still holding the note. He crumpled it up and made to throw it away, but then tore it into pieces first. He snowed them into his trash bin, then undressed and took a shower that felt like sex.



Shelly arrived not thirty minutes later. Fresh from his shower, Mark met her at her car and kissed her into a swoon, followed by a hug that lasted at least a million years. After the best Corn Flakes of their lives, they spent the day cleaning up their respective disasters. It brought a sense of closure, and it was most welcome.

There was a charge between them throughout the day. Mark thought it the bond of shared hardship, a thing he'd read about but never known personally. While he'd loved Shelly before, it had been a boy/girl love, contingent on brain chemistry and libido; now, however, they had that nameless kinship reserved for lifelong friends, the phone fiasco glue between them. They both sensed this graduation in their relationship, but left it unspoken, along with the phone business. Excepting Shelly's phone call, they said nothing of the experience, instead enjoying a quiet contentment which showed no sign of leaving.

It wasn't until late that night that Shelly broached the topic.

The two lay a tangled One in Mark's bed, the fence of normality closing warmly over them. "Mark?" she said dreamily, her squeaky voice loud in the night hush.

"Yeah," he soughed.

"Who do you think those men were? Like, what do you think they'd do if I called them up and gave them a name and a sin and a coupon number?"

After thinking about it, Mark answered, "I don't know. And I don't want to." He thought of that hum - whum-m-m-m-m-m-m-m - and fought back chills.

Shelly momentarily said nothing, a phantom over his chest. Then she whispered, "Yeah, me either."

After a long, satisfying kiss, they went mutually to sleep. It was the last they spoke of the dead man's phone.



The next day, Mark made his belated trip to Carter's department store, where he bought a brand-new, in-the-box Swammy telephone. It was on special, and the total came to an affordable eleven dollars and twenty-two cents. Before leaving the parking lot, he opened it up and smelled the handset. There was no odor. He smiled.

3 comments:

  1. i think this is a truly great story. descriptive, letting the tension build and the nod to cops & villains of the past.interesting device using the phone.the ending is not at all an anti climax. great.

    michael mccarthy

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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  3. good descriptive writing. i was drawn in, and wanting to keep reading...

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