Sunday, May 4, 2014

Murder by the Book by Jim Bartlett

A gruesome serial killer known as Lumberjack prepares to sacrifice another victim, but the aesthetics must be just right; by Jim Bartlett.

The killer sits with his back to a workbench along the far wall of the basement. He tosses an X-ACTO knife back and forth between hands, the spinning blade sparkling with a quick glint of the harsh fluorescent light.

It catches his eye, but only for a moment, as his focus remains on the young woman at the opposite end of the lengthy room.

Bound at the wrists and ankles, naked except for a strip of duct tape plastered across her mouth, she hangs by her arms from an oily chain attached to an "A" frame - one of the older types normally used to hoist engines from cars. Yellow paint peeling, rusty and dinged from many years of service in its intended trade, its top rail nestles up against one of the thick wood beams spanning the cellar's ceiling.

She's tall, slender, athletic in form. Long dark hair, greasy and matted, drapes limply over her shoulders disappearing down her back. A single hundred watt bulb dangles above and to her right, its incandescent glow painting her pale skin with the yellow tint of jaundice.

He stands, kicks back the chair, and takes a couple strides in her direction. But only a couple, as the flickering glow of the bonfire in the nearby circular pit steals his gaze and pins his feet to the floor. After a moment of indecision, he shifts toward the fire, though he can't resist a longing look over his shoulder at the girl.

The flames lick high at the overhead hood yet he reaches to the side and grabs another small log from the rack. When he bends to add it to the raging blaze, he notices a light fog of smoke lingering over the fire - a suspended cloud wrapping its way up the sides of the round cover, as if reluctant to make the journey through the waiting exhaust.

He taps the log against the duct pipe leading from the hood, producing a dull metallic echo. But the haze stubbornly remains, blurring the both the sharp edges forming the hood's bottom and those that dictate the passage of time.

His eyes glaze over with a primitive wildness; his savage mind slips into a cold dark place from long ago.

It's then he's struck with sharp pang of the familiar headache. He pitches the blade toward a wood shelf hanging on the cement block wall and shoots his hands up to the sides of his head. Eyes clinched tight, fingertips massaging his temple, he struggles to remain standing.

"Make it go away," he says. His voice, low and hoarse, sounds foreign, and it causes him to cast another glance at the woman, but the restraining tape across her mouth remains in place.

As if hurled from a bridge he tumbles back into another time, another place. His fingers push harder, trying to stop the madness, but like so many times before the efforts are futile.

Freshman year, high school. The older boys, poking, shoving, taunting with their unrelenting tease:

"Lumberjack, lumberjack."

Ducking in the bathroom he stands in front of the mirror staring at a tall lanky boy, tears streaking down dirty cheeks. His clothes from the second-hand store: bulky flannel shirts and dark oversized jeans needing suspenders to keep from dropping down.

Another pop from the fire takes him deeper into the crevices of his mind. Tucked behind a tree, he stands at the edge of the street. The rusty carcass of a pickup decays slowly on dirt that was once a front yard. Just beyond, shifted on its foundation, paint chipping, shingles missing, a window cracked - a perfect representation of his life to that point - lies the house.

The girl, maybe nineteen at best, stands on the porch lighting a cigarette. Like the others she's skin and bone, wearing a white t-shirt tied at the waist, cutoffs so short they show the cheeks of her butt.

Using a hand against the wall for support she finds her way down the steps to the gravel driveway. She sucks in a deep drag from the cigarette, taking the moment to gain balance before zigzagging her way to the street.

He waits. And watches. Only when she's faded into the distance does he risk crossing the yard. Feet dragging in the dirt as if encased in concrete, lungs tightening - there's not enough air in the world - he struggles to breathe. His jaw clenches taut and he shakes as if grabbed from behind by winter's icy claws. Yet he cannot stop himself. His legs, on autopilot, march forward to the base of the porch steps.

At the top, just behind the windowless front door, his father lies in wait. Drunk. Seething with anger. The inability to perform has sent the girl on her way... but someone must pay.

The boy hesitates. To enter is nothing more than an invitation for pain. Yet, he sees his hand reach around the crusty knob, turning, pushing until the creak of the hinges announce the door's swing. Through the crack the stench of urine, spilled beer, and stale smoke force him to fight back the bile creeping up his throat. As the door yanks from his hand leaving his fingertips stinging, the old man grabs a fistful of hair, ripping his head back.

Sunshine from the opened door cuts a narrow swath through the dark of the house, the outer edge highlighting the ragged scar of defeat that snakes across the old man's forehead.

His mom died in that crash. All the bastard got out of it was a six-inch reminder of how many beers it takes to run a stop sign.

Terror slams his eyes shut, grits his teeth tight. "Open them eyes, girlie boy. Yer gonna see what'cha got comin'."

He opens them to a balled fist, cocked arm.

Darkness.

His mind clouds with the routine. Days come and go, blending together, becoming one.

And then he turns sixteen.

He once again steps through the door. Just like a thousand times before the enraged drunk takes a swipe at his hair. Lightning quick he reaches across grabbing his old man's wrist. Staring into a face of surprise he realizes for the first time he no longer looks up at his father. The arm that sprouts from his shoulder holding the old man's hand in place now resembles a tree trunk.

All the badgering, cursing of his existence, the attempted swings of fists that no longer landed, faced an expiration date not too long after that.

The sudden clang of metal striking the pit calls him back. He blinks, draws in a deep breath. It's then he notices the poker, its tip tucked into the flames showing the early glow of fiery red. His thoughts fall once again on the young woman, and he smiles.

Later. There will be time later.

He spins toward her, only remembering the X-ACTO impaled in the wood shelf at the last moment. He snatches it up and marches across the room. With the sound of his boots her eyes open and meet his. There's a widening, then they drop to the hand clutching the knife. She squirms, legs flailing, giving him cause to stop - though only momentarily - and enjoy the mask of terror washed across her face.

He takes the last steps slow and deliberate, tongue now hanging from a mouth framing something between a grin and gritted teeth.

Standing just to her side he reaches up with his free hand and glides a single finger down her arm. A sudden air of melancholy engulfs him. The simple act of contact reminds him that all good things must come to an end. She has been a feisty one and he's liked that. A wildcat ready for a fight... in fact better than any he can remember. And there have been plenty.

He looks down at the scratches on the back of his hand. A wildcat indeed.

His gaze returns to her face where he sees the calm hollowness of resignation in cheeks once firm with resolve. The fire in her eyes long since dimmed, leaving behind only a pitiful plea of lost hope.

It is time for her to join the others buried in the nearby woods.

He steps up to her front and places a hand to the flat part of her tiny abdomen. She winces, though a mere shadow of days past. With the other hand he uses the handle side of the X-ACTO to begin tracing small circles around her navel. Tears roll down her cheeks; a scream struggles to escape the tape's tight barricade.

He finds himself smiling yet again. Switching the knife around in his hand, he gently touches the blade to her skin. Holding it in place for a breathtaking moment he finally slides it horizontally no more than a half an inch.

A small bead of blood wells up and begins to trickle -

"Trickle?"

"Trickle? No... dribble. Drip? Seep?"

The man, short with a belly that protrudes to the point suggesting pregnancy, jumps up from his chair knocking the glass of amber liquor, his third since noon, to the floor. He scoops up the cup, saving precious little, and slams it back on the desk before stepping back and spitting at the Smith Corona.

"Dammit!"

Kicking at the chair, he sends it banging against the desk, the impact bowling over an empty bottle of Jack next to the typewriter. He spins around, blood pressure rising, arms flailing. While leaning back, completely engulfed in his tantrum, the top button on his navy-blue blazer breaks loose and shoots across the room ricocheting off the far window.

"Trickle... trickle? I'm freakin' Martin C. Flemington, famed mystery author, thrice winner of the Edgar, thrice nominated for an Agatha, world-renowned for my lumberjack serial-killer series... and the best I can do is trickle?" he shouts, arms still raised.

Spewing a profusion of profanity, each hand filled with a fistful of thinning hair, he spins around again, finding himself against the wall nearest the door staring at the calendar. A thick Sharpie line encircles September 1st, just three weeks away.

"Deadlines... deadlines... deadlines. Damn, damn, damn, damn," he shouts. Another wild kick, this time to the baseboard directly below.

Gasping for breath, he turns back around and leans against the wall. "Settle down, Martin. Settle down."

He lifts his head to find the room - a spacious office with high open-beamed ceilings, the last of the day's sunshine splashing in through a set of three large windows along the far wall - rolling in the waves of an open sea.

With a shake of his head, he closes his eyes and feels his way back to the desk. His foot kicks against a wire mesh trash can, overflowing with crumpled balls of paper, each a reject from a previous attempt at perfect phrasing. Leaning down with both hands atop the desk he stares at the typewriter, its current page now destined for the same trash heap thanks to the hawk of spittle smudging the second paragraph.

His eyes drift upward to the wall behind. There, to the side of the calendar and its Sharpie encircled reminder, hang a group of framed book covers, nineteen in all, one from each of his best-selling series. A bulletin board mounted next to the calendar features several clippings from the New York Times, each highlighting one of his books posted at the top spot. He smirks as he looks at the last one, Killer's Delight, which stayed at number one for ten weeks.

"What Martin needs is another drink," he says, standing with a slight lean. "And what Martin wants, Martin gets."

He uses a swat of his hand to flip the door open and then marches down the hallway to the great room, the clicking of his Santoni Oxfords on the hardwood floor echoing off the walnut paneling. Stepping up to the wet bar he opens a double-door cupboard revealing a vast selection of liquor. With a single finger he begins to caress each of the bottles' necks until it slides across the Jack Daniels. A chill races up his back and he moans with approval.

Grabbing the bottle and a shot glass he next heads out the front door onto the porch, plopping down on a thickly padded chair.

Oblivious to the splendor of a reddening sun low in the west or the cheery song of a group of birds in the nearby trees he fills the glass, spilling some on the arm of the chair. Cursing, he tosses it back. The feel of the whiskey's gentle burn as it rolls down his throat is like shaking hands with an old friend.

Martin looks out across the short yard and over the rolling treed hills that stretch out into the distant horizon. He chose the cabin for its isolation, not for any damn birds or breathtaking scenery. Being thirty miles from anything resembling civilization with nothing but wooded Montana wilderness in between has its perks.

Feeling the liquor's warmth starting to fade he sets the glass down and takes several swigs directly from the bottle, a resounding "ahhhh" after each. He convinces himself that the more intimate the contact the stronger and sooner the buzz. Lord knows he needs his mind to relax. To settle. In twenty years of writing he's never once had writer's block, and damned if he was going to let it happen today.

"Think Martin, think. You've sold 200 million books by being ahead of the game, planning it out. Knowing the next move. No second guessing."

He stands. Knowing the next move. Of course... that's the answer.

He takes one long last gulp of the whiskey and tosses the bottle, still more than half full, in the general direction of the trees. The thick brush and undergrowth rob him of the pleasure of hearing it break.

Martin wobbles his way back into the house passing through first the great room and then the kitchen before arriving at a small corridor that shoots off the backside. He reaches into his pocket pulling out a set of keys selecting one resembling an old skeleton key. Unlocking the door he pushes it in and looks down the stairwell. The sunlight stretches down for the first few steps before it's gobbled up by the darkness.

He flicks two light switches bringing the basement deep below alive, the stark fluorescent lighting providing all the ambience of an airport bathroom.

Stumbling downward the stairs blur, the room spins. He leans onto the handrail for support, knuckles white from his fierce grasp.

At the bottom he stops and stares across the long and narrow room. The two four-foot long shop lights hanging from the old wood ceiling cast sharp shadows across the unpainted concrete block walls and it takes his eyes a minute to adjust. He shuffles across the poured concrete floor, each step as if walking through mud, involuntarily flinching each time the ballast from one of the overhead lamps lets off a loud crack.

Martin makes his way to the desk, one of only three pieces of furniture in the entire room: the desk, a chair to its front, and a large bookshelf on the far wall crammed full with an assortment of dusty hardbacks - autographed gifts from fellow fictioneers. Using the chair to brace himself, he picks up a yellow legal-sized notepad and a #2 pencil.

He rubs his thumb over the tip of the pencil ensuring its sharpness before walking to the book case. Close to seven feet tall, it forces him to stand on tip-toes to reach the top shelf. Holding onto the side for support, he counts over to the fifth book, grabs its lower side, and pulls the bottom out ever so slightly.

The bookcase angles out from the wall with a loud "clunk". Leaning back against the concrete blocks, Martin sticks his hand behind the case and swings it outward. He fumbles through the keys until finding the exact match and unlocks the secret door.

With the click of a switch he brings the lights to life - a set of lanterns mounted high on the walls and spaced equally around the room. Their bulbs simulate the flame of a candle or old-time kerosene lamp.

He lets his gaze trace the length of the room. Twice, if not three times the size of the previous one, it's of similar construction. He shuffles to a small workbench mounted against the far right wall and reaches up behind to another switch-plate. There are two switches. The first lights a small fluorescent directly over the bench, its distinct hum a rub of sandpaper to his whiskey-drenched brain. With the second a spotlight, much higher up the wall, shoots a focused beam across the room behind him.

But his eyes remain on a shallow bin of tools lying on the bench - mostly screwdrivers, pens and pencils, a few assorted wrenches - as he searches and finds the object of his desire at the bottom. Scooping it up, he awkwardly dances across the room in the direction of the spotlight's focus, yellow pad under his arm, pencil and X-ACTO knife now in his hand.

The light's illumination on the woman paints her pale, the bright beam washing out most of the remaining bruises.

He stops midway and stares. Nineteen? Twenty? He can't recall. So gullible at that age. Makes it almost too easy.

Like the others she's tall, completely naked except for the strip of duct tape stretched across her mouth. She's bound at both the wrists and ankles with a type of ski rope - something he found at the WalMart - and hangs via a chain from a thick wood beam in the ceiling. Stringy, shoulder-length dishwater blond hair frames a small tattoo of a butterfly low on the right side of her long neck.

Her eyes are open, dark coals against a sheet-white background. He smiles realizing that she sees him, and even more so as she twists and squirms. It's an unexpected pleasure... he thought for sure she'd nothing left.

The air a little stale, the room seeming to tip, Martin leans against the block wall for balance. Using the wall as a crutch he slides his shoulder along toward the woman.

Exhausted, he finally reaches her front side, noticing only then that the pad and pencil lie on the polished concrete floor ten feet behind.

He waves a dismissing hand. "Screw it."

With his shoulder still to the wall he begins to fumble with the X-ACTO trying to flip the blunt end around. His fingers act as if they belong to someone else, and he nearly drops it several times. Convinced he's finally got it right he looks down to the woman's thin abdomen and leans in with the knife's handle.

Too late he realizes he's misjudged how far she hangs from the wall and, overextending with the X-ACTO, he tumbles to the floor in a heap. The knife bounces from his hand, the metallic ping of each strike echoing throughout the barren room.



Martin awakes, face plastered to the typewriter's keyboard, the early onset of a category five hangover already wreaking havoc along the shoreline of his brain.

Disoriented, he raises his head. Slowly. The G, H, J, F, N, and T keys on the Smith Corona remain smashed down, their associated strikers tangled in something resembling a pile-up on the Interstate. Where they meet, a page, partially typed, sits waiting against the roller.

Soft light trickles in from the windows filtering amber through whiskey remnants in a glass to the right of the machine. Next to it an empty Jack Daniel's bottle lies on its side.

He tries to swallow, clear his throat, but some thick-haired creature wandered into his open mouth during the night and died. He takes a swig, swishes the liquor to the point of a gargle, and spits it back out in the general direction of the stuffed trash can.

Wiping drool from the corner of his mouth he braces a rubbery arm against the desktop in an attempt to stand. Straining, he barely raises his ass from the chair before flopping back down.

He tilts forward, one arm covering his eyes. Headache fully engaged, a drum corps playing in his ears, he pulls open the desk's top drawer and searches by hand for the aspirin.

He tries dry swallowing two, but his throat will have no part of it. Using what little's left of the whiskey he washes them down.

Minutes become an hour, yet the storm rages on in his head. Looking for any sort of distraction he stares at the paper still resting in the Smith Corona. At first the sheet is nothing more than a blur of white with black ants that seem to crawl across in neat rows. Several rubs of the eyes later he finally makes out that the mesh of strikers reside against the "e" at the end of the word "trickle."

He nods in remembering. That damn word.

Freeing the levers he re-opens the drawer, pulling out a red pencil. With considerable effort he marks a line through the offending word, tucks the pencil behind an ear, and types "ooze."

"A... small... bead... of... blood... wells... up" - leaning back for a second Martin fist rubs his eyes before squinting at the text - "and... begins... to ooze," he reads out loud.

He shakes his head, the pencil dropping from his ear into his lap. He scoops it up and tosses it to the side of the typewriter where it clinks up against the X-ACTO knife.

The sound catches Martin's attention and he turns in the chair. Leaning forward, he stares wide-eyed at the knife. It rests against a skeleton key jutting from the mix of others on his key ring. The X-ACTO's crisp metal blade glows in the morning sun, dampened only by a thin crust of crimson along the edge. He reaches to touch it, but stops midway noticing the scratches on the back of his hand.

His hand falls to the desktop and he lets out a long whistling sigh.

"Oh, shit."

2 comments:

  1. had me fooled a couple of times, with a change of direction, brilliantly descriptive and effective especially for the way you hold back, when I was expecting something particularly gruesome.
    These Serial Killers, they don´t have it easy!

    Nice one Jim!

    Michael McCarthy

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Michael! Always appreciate your kind words!

    ReplyDelete