MARK ST. JAMES had the day off. Though it was good to get away from the manufacturing plant for a day, it did not produce feelings of comfort. He had an appointment with his father's attorney to settle some last details, including the paperwork in settling with the bank and his father's estate. The house had been sold, finally; the bank was gracious enough to write off the three thousand that was outstanding on the mortgage, after they took the proceeds from the sale into account. Of his father's estate, there was really nothing left, nothing but paper.
Selling the house where he had grown up was difficult for Mark, but there was no other choice. He could not maintain the mortgage. It would be good to have the whole affair settled, but the prospect of the appointed hour's approach left a leaden weight in his stomach. He still hadn't resolved the issue of his father's demise in the garage, seated at the wheel of the old Buick, engine running, garage door closed, empty bottle of prescription sleeping pills on the seat beside him. That was six months ago, and it made no more sense now than it had then. He still occasionally wondered, why? It was a simple question, one difficult to block out, even though there was no answer.
He stepped out of the shower, dressed, and decided to forgo breakfast. The new apartment didn't feel much like home, and Mark didn't feel much like eating. There wasn't much in the cupboard anyway. He really felt like going right back to bed. The neighbors were noisy at night, as if being in a strange environment weren't enough to keep him awake -- at least for awhile. He hoped he would adjust soon, and the damn neighbors could be persuaded to shut the hell up at night so a taxpaying, working man could get some sleep.
He stepped into the hall, locked the door, and went down the flight of stairs to the street. The sky was gray and heavy, threatening to rain. He turned left and walked to the corner to wait for the bus to take him uptown. He did not notice the nondescript, late-model sedan parked diagonally across the street from the bus stop, nor did he notice the two men sitting inside. Mark had things on his mind.
"THERE HE IS. You are quite sure everything is lined up?"
"Absolutely. He has not eaten, so he will want to stop for coffee within a block of disembarking from the bus. He will not do so. He has still a four block walk to his lawyer's office. Inside he will spend no more than twenty-seven minutes, and then leave, and by that time he will be hungry."
"Once he leaves his lawyer's office we can't afford any mistakes."
"There will be none."
"You are quite sure you can put this together in less than two hours? Don't seem like enough time to me."
"It will be enough."
"What if someone on the police force calls in sick? That could throw the whole script out of whack."
"No one has called in sick today. In the event of an unforeseen occurrence we have several alternative candidates."
"Oh yes. As you are well aware, the entire precinct has been under significant pressure all month, due to the recent upsurge in crime. Your friend the mayor has been instrumental in generating a tremendous furor within the chain of command to get a handle on it. Our selection of candidates in particular have experienced a wide variety of near-death occurrences within the last seventy-two hours. I am perfectly confident that any one of them are edgy enough for what is needed."
THE BUS arrived and Mark got on. As the bus pulled back into traffic the sedan left the curb, following at a discrete distance.
"THE PRESS will have a field day."
"That is what they do."
"And when it's over? We don't want our candidate putting the pieces together."
"We have the Department psychiatrist in our pocket. That will not be a problem."
The passenger in the plain sedan was an inveterate skeptic, and snorted a short breath out his nose. "We'll see."
MARK STEPPED to the pavement amid a blaring of horns, the noise of the city. He turned left and there, leaning against a building, was a man who looked just like his father. It gave his heart a jolt, and made his knees weak. He missed a step and recovered clumsily. As Mark drew closer he could see the man was a bit taller, stooped, and paler than his father had been. The stranger took a drag from a cigarette, and started to choke. Mark passed him by with his head averted, his pace quick. It seemed as if the specter of death stared after him.
The walk to the lawyer's office passed by in a jittery, surreal, and gloomy blur. He arrived early and had to wait about twenty minutes. The time passed by in a haze. The sight of the man on the street had rattled him, and left him with a strange malaise that he could not shake. The dread of the man on the street became the dread of this moment, the utter finality of the separation from all that had been, all he had known, and Mark shrank before the towering formality and impersonality of it all.
The lawyer presented papers to sign and he did so without paying any attention to the documents. The lawyer ascribed his distracted state to the stress of the finality of the change in young Mark's life, and thought no more about it, though he expected that by now some signs of adjustment might normally be expected. He handed Mark a manila envelope of personal papers, explaining that they were a part of his father's personal affairs. Mark paid no attention to the explanation and asked no questions.
Mark left the office unsure of himself, but getting back outside felt better, a little less oppressed. His stomach still felt queasy, but it was perhaps more from hunger now than anything else. He tried to forget the man he had seen earlier leaning against a building, choking on a cigarette.
He walked several blocks almost aimlessly, trying not to think of the upheaval in his life. It was difficult. He considered going to work, but only briefly, for it too was a source of discomfort. His performance had not been up to par lately. He was easily distracted, and tired all the time. If his neighbors didn't make so much noise at night perhaps he could get some rest, and things would begin to take on some semblance of normalcy. He did not know how to make that happen. He considered whether he should move, get another apartment somewhere else, somewhere quieter. That would be nice.
Ahead there was a small restaurant, a little dive of a place. From the outside it appeared to be the kind of place where one could get eggs, toast and coffee fairly cheap. He stepped inside and slid into a booth, placing the unopened manilla envelope on the table top. When the waitress arrived for his order he was turning the envelope slowly in his hands.
He placed his order; his eye followed the waitress as she walked away. He noticed a man sitting diagonally across from him reading a newspaper. The headline blared, "Suicide Ruled Out . . ." He could not see the rest of the headline, the man's hand was in the way. The unsettled feeling he had been carrying became distinctly more noticeable, and he turned his eyes away. They fell to the manilla envelope. In limiting the input of uncomfortable sensory data he created isolation; it did not make it better, just different. He was alone with his emotions, and lack of understanding.
Mark picked at his food, eating slowly, not certain he really was hungry. When he was done, the waitress brought his check. He slid out of the booth and paid at the register. Nearby an older couple were having a quiet conversation. Mark couldn't help but overhear it as he waited to pay his bill. "Doesn't your stomach feel well dear?" the man's wife was asking. Mark left the restaurant with a bizarre feeling of deja vu.
He still didn't notice the nondescript late model sedan, idling at the light. The light changed and the car drove through the intersection.
"YOU ARE SURE he is going to the mall?"
"Quite certain. Are you sure you want to watch?"
"I want to know how you can be so sure."
"You have paid for a service, one which is completely untraceable. If I told you precisely how I know he will go to the mall, the information would be useless to you. However, for a fee, I might be induced to part with such information. You must bear in mind that the cost is prohibitive."
"What does that mean?"
"You are asking for the technology that will make an individual completely predictable. Both the technology, and its means of application, are well beyond your resources."
The man in the passenger seat sat in the dark and did not like it very much.
MARK WALKED the few blocks to the bus stop. The bus soon came and he got on, taking the only seat available, next to a thin man. The thin man stared out the window, not smiling, not saying anything at all. The man smelled like his father, the scent of aftershave hung on the air like a bad dream. Mark stared straight ahead. Diagonally across the aisle, toward the front of the bus, also seated next to the aisle, was an attractive young woman with auburn hair. The resemblance between this young woman, and another who worked at a coffee shop in the mall, was striking. The young lady at the mall was friendly, outgoing; Mark liked to stop by that shop on his days off for a coffee and perhaps a short chat. It helped to dispel the deep loneliness that had oppressed him these past six months. Sometimes he would go over to the cineplex, and catch a matinee, or just walk around the mall and look in shop windows and then sit by the fountain. Sometimes the sound of the falling water helped to clear his mind. Anything was better than going home to an empty apartment in a rundown neighborhood.
The bus arrived at the mall, and the woman a few seats ahead got up to leave. Her vacant seat echoed the emptiness he carried inside, emptiness that lingered on the air in the scent beside him. Mark could not ride the rest of the way home sitting next to a man who smelled so familiar, staring at that vacant seat. He rose abruptly, exiting the bus at the mall, just as the driver of the nondescript late model sedan had predicted.
He entered the mall walking aimlessly, with no point or purpose other than to kill a little time. He passed the coffee shop where the friendly young woman worked. She wasn't there and that was just as well. He didn't feel like putting on a smile; it wasn't in him today. He looked in the music store window, not really seeing anything at first. Slowly his attention was drawn out of himself, beckoned by the cardboard Buick hanging in a corner. It was the same make and model as his father's. He stared, engulfed in sadness, unable to believe his father had taken his own life. The man Mark knew was not that kind of man.
Someone exited the music store beside Mark. He heard a woman's voice as she walked away. "Oh my god, that was murder." Her voice was so quiet he almost did not hear it. Her words wormed deep into his head. It was as if she knew what he had been thinking, and that spooked him.
Abruptly he turned away.
TWO MIDDLE-AGED men passed Mark as he slowly entered the stream of people walking by. "The cops were . . ." a male voice said, voice trailing off, the rest of his words lost in the crowd. Mark's brain had the rest of the sentence ready to hand. "In on it. The cops were in on it."
Mark never really noticed the speakers. They were swallowed up in the crowd. Mark began to sweat profusely. It suddenly felt very hot and close among all of those people in the mall; hot, close, and very confused. As he made his way toward the fountain, he found himself surrounded by kids with earrings in their noses and cheeks, hair dyed in funny colors or cut in mohawks or shaved altogether. They mostly wore black, with chains clinking at ankle and waist. They were a loud and angry bunch, slogans of death emblazoned on the backs of their tee shirts. One on the left seemingly pointed directly at Mark. "Coming to get YOU." Mark looked to his right, and a short distance behind him was another punked out kid. Mark was thoroughly confused. As he turned his head forward again, someone brushed hurriedly past him. Mark jumped. The group of punkers stopped and milled about and then began pushing each other, indifferent to the disruption they caused. He was surrounded with no other choice but to push his way through them. As he did, the bulky manilla envelope slid from under his arm. He walked quickly without noticing its absence. He made for the fountain at the far end of the mall without looking back.
Here the crowd thinned, and he began to breath a little more easily. He sat on a bench and stared at the falling water, breathing deeply. He fought to bring sense and order both to his thoughts, and his emotions, and thereby still the trembling in his limbs. Whatever had just happened must have been a coincidence, he thought. He looked up from the falling water and everything seemed normal. It was his nerves. The uncertainty surrounding his father's death was deeply troubling. His father's death was not a suicide, that did not make sense, it did not fit with Mark's knowledge of the man. If it had not been suicide, then it must have been murder, and that suspicion was gnawing at the back of his mind, creating this tension, this fear that he felt. Mark reasoned further, building on the whispered words that had brought him such discomfort. The cops could not be in on it. Not all of them. That too, would not have made sense. This certainty brought a great deal of relief to Mark, and finally, his hands were steady. Conviction slowly took possession of Mark's heart, providing a glimmer of purpose and direction. Something caught his eye and he looked up from the falling water.
From behind two pillars on the far side of the fountain stepped two men. They looked like bikers, dressed in leather boots and holding leather jackets in their hands. Their arms were huge and tattooed. One wore a muscle shirt, on its front was emblazoned a fist holding a revolver. Bullets gleamed in the chambers of the cylinder. It seemed to be pointing right at him, but it was only a picture. Both men seemed to have dark eyes. The eyes were no picture. They were real. They seemed to bore right into his soul. Both men were staring at him.
"They killed him." Mark never saw who had spoken, two women had passed behind him and were now gone. He got up from his seat and the crowd seemed to get thicker almost instantly. Usually it was quiet by the fountain at the back of the mall. Two men passed by him. "Sorry kid, nothing we can do." He looked at their backs as they walked away. He was alone among all of these people and began to get angry.
Mark decided he would go to the police. Get them to reopen the enquiry into his father's death. A male voice spoke from out of the crowd behind him, "Go ahead. I don't care." Mark turned around and saw nothing but the passing stream of strangers. Again from behind him he heard a different voice. "It's over in about ten minutes." Mark whirled back again, and there were the two bikers. They were coming straight at him. He thrust his hand into his pocket and pulled out a large folding buck knife.
OFFICER ROBBINS arrived at the scene to find a large male, Caucasian, about 25 years old, with dark hair and green eyes, wearing blue jeans, white shirt, white sneakers, backed against a wall in the mall, screaming obscenities, eyes wild, wielding a very large knife, spewing saliva as he ranted. A crowd had gathered around the subject, and as Officer Robbins approached he witnessed the subject lunge several times toward the crowd in an exceedingly dangerous manner. Robbins drew his 9 mm from its holster, pushed his way through the crowd, and ordered the subject to the floor. The crowd drew back. Several tense moments ensued before the subject complied. Once on the floor several voices in the crowd shouted "Don't shoot that man!" At that the subject began to rise from the floor, knife in hand, eyes firmly fixed upon Officer Robbins. Officer Robbins did not hesitate. He fired once, the slide of his 9 mm rechambered another round as the smoke curled up from the end of the barrel, an empty brass shell clattered to the floor in the aftermath of the loud explosion. Robbins did not fire again. It was not necessary. The subject was clearly dead, with half his head missing, grey matter and blood mingling upon the shiny tile floor.
OUT IN THE parking lot of the mall two men walked away from the main entrance. The one on the left was a large man, over six feet, easily 235 lbs., belly going to flab. He wore no jewelry on his huge, ham like hands. His arms swayed easily at his sides. His bald scalp glistened even on such an overcast day as this. The man beside him was also large, hairline receding, greasy and going grey. He carried a bulging yellow manilla envelope.
The bald man stopped in the middle of the parking lot, raised his hand to the other's chest and touched him, only briefly. He withdrew his hand slightly and lowered it, making it more convenient for the other to take it in farewell, which he did. "It has been a pleasure. If you have any more problems, I am sure you know where to reach me."
With that he walked off, climbed into the nondescript late model sedan, and drove away.
© D. Winter 2000