View or add comments on this story
Charlie studied the man sat directly in front of him. The man was looking purposefully at the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger. It had not lit all the way around, and the man blew at it gently until it took. It had been so long since Charlie had last spoken he was unsure how his voice would sound.
"Pepper spray? In this heat? Why didn't you just throw a pan of boiling hot water in my face?" he said.
The man regarded him for the first time and smiled. "I don't cook Charlie."
Charlie shifted in his chair, the rope around his wrists was tight, and it made him feel hotter still.
"Did you kill my dog?"
"Dog? I didn't see any dogs Charlie. What kind of dog was it?"
"A guard dog."
The man allowed himself a broad grin. "Hmm," he mused, "no, I didn't see or kill your dog. Maybe he was out back."
"That's some guard dog Charlie."
"Yeah. Maybe I'll kill him myself."
Charlie breathed simultaneously through his mouth and nose, but the air in the room was warm and did nothing to help him. It had been like that for weeks. Sometimes in the day, the air was so hot it would burn the inside of your nose when you inhaled. It was a crazy, uncomfortable heat.
The only light in the room came from the moon outside. For the first time that evening Charlie noticed a second man, stood silently by the corner. The man's features were obscured by the shadow of the window frame like a dark cross splashed over his face.
Charlie noticed the second man was twitching. It was as though he was getting jolts of electricity through his body from time to time. His hands clenched and unclenched, his neck jerked suddenly from side to side. He was an odd sight.
"Is it money?"
"Of course it is Charlie," the first man said, "but not yours."
"I don't understand."
"I know. Just take it easy."
"I am taking it easy."
The man embalmed in shadows chose to speak for the first time. "You're fucking dead you motherfucking cocksucker!" he said. His voice was feverish.
The first man laughed and threw a thumb in the direction of his friend. "He's hilarious," he confided.
"So that's how it is huh?" Charlie said.
"That's how it is."
"I don't have a will."
The man lowered his eyes. "I'm sorry about that Charlie."
Charlie looked away for a moment. "Are you going to do it then?" he asked.
"In a little while."
"Do I get a last meal?"
The man leant his chair back against the wall, and Charlie winced as he thought the chair would break the glass on the picture behind him. The frame held firm.
"I told you already Charlie, I don't cook. Are you hungry?"
"Then it makes no difference whether you get one or not? Right?"
"I guess so. I just wanted to look at it."
The man smiled at him again. Charlie could just about make it out in the dim glow. "You're alright Charlie," the man said. "You really are."
"What about a last request?"
The man sighed. "Jesus Christ Charlie, this isn't death row."
"What's the hold up then?"
"You'll know soon enough." The man moved onto another cigarette. "What is your last request anyway?"
"I don't know. Some music maybe. Say goodbye to my dog."
"That's too bad Charlie. Maybe if it had've been a cigarette I could have helped you out."
"I don't smoke."
"Like I said, too bad." Both men were silent for a few moments. The man contemplated Charlie through the mist from his cigarette. "How come you haven't offered to buy us off Charlie?" he asked.
"Would it help?"
"Then what difference does it make?"
"People always offer us money. Always. Cars, houses, wives even, you name it."
The man paused for Charlie's response. When none came, he said, "Strangest thing."
The man got up from his chair at regular intervals. He never sat still for more than a few minutes at a time. He would stand up slowly with an exaggerated sigh, straighten the sleeves on his simple black suit jacket and pace the wooden floors of the bedroom. Occasionally he would meander over to the far side of the room, by the window, and stare casually out of it. He would be behind Charlie, but Charlie could follow his movements by watching his silhouette on the vast white wall at the rear of the bedroom. It looked like someone screwing around behind a cinema screen.
The man would stand for minutes at a time watching the trees below the house. There were oak and chestnut trees down there. The leaves were brown and exhausted from the sun.
"This heat is really something Charlie. Is it always this hot down here?"
"It gets pretty hot in the summer."
"It's really something," the man said again. "Let me ask you a question Charlie. In this heat, the way that it is down here, how do you manage to maintain such a fantastically large stomach?"
"I'm big boned."
The man moved back round in front of him. "Yep," he said, nodding, "that pot belly bone's a real son of a bitch." He laughed and slapped his own thigh. Charlie smiled back at him so he wouldn't feel uncomfortable laughing at his own joke. It was his dinner party smile and it made him feel suitably ridiculous.
The man sighed to signify the end of his amusement, and stubbed another cigarette out in the base of a nearby plant pot.
"I don't want to keep you all night Charlie. May I please use your phone?"
"It's a local call."
"It's no problem."
The man went over to the telephone that snaked round the bedside table and consulted a small book from his jacket pocket. Rather than turn a light on to read the contents, the man flicked his lighter an inch or so away from the book and punched the number into the phone. He took off his shoes and lay on the bed with the receiver to his ear, as though calling a girlfriend.
There was a wait of several minutes. "It's me," he said to the phone at last. "You know who. From up north. We're here. At Charlie's. Well, he's right here with us. I know but there was a problem. No. No I don't want to get into that, it didn't go through." The man was silent for moment. He nodded as though he could be seen. Charlie looked at the second man, still itching from some unspecified irritant. "Dead," he said to Charlie. "Slit open, right down the middle from the chin to the stomach."
The first man clasped a hand over the mouthpiece. "Quiet Julian, I'm on the phone," he spoke calmly. "Be here in half an hour or we leave." The man hung up.
It was quiet then for a time. The second man, Julian, was almost still. The other, unnamed man, paced the room. The floorboards looked like long piano keys, and they creaked as he walked despite the man's slender build. Charlie wondered if they always creaked that way; if it was just one of those things you never noticed until you heard someone else doing it.
"How far away does your wife live Charlie?" the man asked.
"Your ex-wife, come on how far?" He clicked his figures to spark Charlie's mind alight.
"About twenty minutes' drive."
"Ok. I probably should have asked her that before I told her to be here in half an hour, right Charlie? I mean if she lived three hours away that would have been a pretty stupid request right?"
"I guess that it would."
"Yeah. Well then, we'll wait." The man stood in front of Charlie's chair and sucked on his cigarette. "So what is it you do Charlie? It's a nice place here. I know everyone says that to each other but it really is. A little sparse maybe."
"I'm a photographer."
"No kidding." The man looked over each shoulder in turn, toward the back of the room where his image was still encapsulated on the wall. "Do you have an ash tray Charlie?" He asked this for the first time despite the fact it was at least his third cigarette of the evening.
"Hmmm," the man nodded his head at the cigarette in his hand. "I'd hate to get this on the floor. Do you have a can or something?"
"Some people don't smoke Charlie. No need to be sorry." The man flicked the ash into a plant pot by the door, where the previous cigarettes had been concealed. Without warning the man was back on track; "Photographer huh? What kind of things?"
"Anything I want. Buildings, trees."
The man jerked a thumb at the back wall. "That one yours?" It was one of Charlie's favourite photographs, framed in dark wood. The picture showed a huge forest fire from back in the eighties. Charlie had been in Sydney at the time, purely by chance and had driven out of the city for four hours to take it. It was black and white but lost none of the impact. His favourite picture. The only decoration in the room for two years.
"That's some fire. You take forest fires, things like that?"
"Sure. You want me to take yours?"
The man grinned. "I don't think that would be such a good idea Charlie, but thanks all the same." The man looked down at his watch. "She should be here soon. I'll go wait." He turned easily and left the bedroom. Julian didn't move. Charlie thought he was about to, and his stomach folded, but it turned out just to be another abrupt twitch. "You're a dead man you fat fuck, I'm going to fucking kill your fat ass."
"Alright, alright, I hear you."
The sound of his wife's car pulling up on to his driveway had a strange, reflective effect on Charlie. It took him back a couple of years, and the water in his eyes helped clear the remaining pepper spray.
The next time the bedroom door opened it was Marie. She looked composed even though she had been dragged out of bed at this late hour and driven right across town in a heat wave. She really did look good.
She was wearing a thick coat which must have made her ridiculously hot. She instinctively turned the light on when entering, and the man coming up the stairs turned it off instantly behind her. Charlie saw his face clearly for a flash. Pale, but pleasant and unremarkable. Charlie felt it a shame when someone's face was so bland and characterless. The photographer in him.
The woman looked at the figure of Charlie tied up with thin rope to a chair from the dining room. She nodded acknowledgement to him. "Charlie," she said.
"Marie," Charlie responded. "You must be hot in that coat."
"You were supposed to be dead by now."
"I figured that much."
Marie's car keys bounced nervously in her fist, the jingle noise breaking up the otherwise silent room. The silver looked to spark in her hands as the moonlight caught it. Marie turned to the first man. If she saw Julian at all she didn't acknowledge him.
"So what now?" she asked.
The man appeared embarrassed. "Contrary to the scene before you Marie, I'm not one for dramatic situations. It was a long way we came before we realised the money hadn't gone through. A very long way. I don't ordinarily do business this way, but..." he held his hands up apologetically, "I think the best thing we could do is that you pay us what you owe, we'll put a bullet in Charlie here, and we'll call it a night. It's very late, and its very, very hot; I think we'd all just as soon, well, like I said, call it a night."
"I don't have it."
"I don't think you want us to leave tonight with your ex-husband alive and well and strapped to a chair in his underpants Marie."
"What can I do? I don't have it! If I don't have it I don't have it. I can give you an IOU, I can pay it in instalments, sell my house - whatever it takes, but I just don't have it." She was controlled, but deeply affected and Charlie felt sympathy for her.
"You must be awful hot in that coat Marie," he said again.
"Please Charlie, I'm talking to someone."
The man opened his cigarette pack and placed one deliberately between his lips. "We're leaving Marie."
"I took out five grand. It's all I have." Marie opened her bag and passed it to the man who glanced in and nodded. "Minus our expenses so far, that leaves you with about twenty five hundred for a job," the man looked over at his partner and shrugged. "Twenty-five hundred?"
Julian stepped forward from the position he had remained throughout the evening and into the pale light. Charlie could just about make out his features that were smooth and child like, rounded cheeks and chin, a smooth head and broad eyes. "We'll take a finger or an ear," he said in a soft voice.
Marie spun round, perhaps initially surprised to find anyone behind her at all. "A finger or an ear? What good does that do?" She looked back and forth between the two men, from one to the other, but neither said anything further. "That's it then? A finger or an ear?" she asked.
"That's it," the first man said.
Marie looked at Charlie, his face was red and swollen even in this light. His handsome moustache was covered in a thick red-brown mucus, and his eyes were bloodshot. "What a mess," she said to him.
"Go home Marie," he spoke softly.
Marie, never one to act on impulse, stood and thought for a moment. She wordlessly left the room, making her familiar trip downstairs and out through the back door. None of the men moved until the sound of her car had disappeared.
The first man looked into the bag he was still holding. "Well, she left the money?" he said. "I guess we do it." Julian nodded.
Charlie shuffled as much as he could in the confines of the chair. "How can that be? A finger or an ear? How does that work? How can the two be valued the same?"
The man retrieved a coin from his trouser pocket. "It is a strange one Charlie. Heads or tails?"
"I'd rather lose a finger than an ear."
"Well, you have been a most gracious and patient host. A finger it is." The man pushed back his jacket and retrieved a cleaver from inside. He used it to cut the ropes round Charlie's wrists and pulled his hand firmly to the floor. "Do I need to hold your wrist Charlie?"
"No. I won't move it."
"Because if you move it, you could lose two or three fingers."
"I won't move it."
"Ok. Which hand?"
The man was holding the right to the floor, so moved around Charlie, into position. "Ok," he said when he was ready. The man raised the cleaver up in the air, at full stretch above his head. "Which finger Charlie?"
"You have to ask?"
The man laughed his final laugh of the night. It was a pleasant sounding noise, full and rolling. "You're alright Charlie. You really are," he said, and brought the cleaver down.
View or add comments on this story
Back to top
Back to list of stories