Wish Me Luck

"Flashes of darkness ... moments of the macabre captured like the snapshots of a scream … or an impaling. Short, fast, and deadly moments of discovery!"—John Everson, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of Covenant and Sacrificing Virgins


There were two things that Donovan Hempel feared above all others, but he had arrived at the Platinum Building, where Dr. Lena Mather had her office, to discuss none of them. Standing in the elevator lobby, he loosened his tie and ran a finger between his collar and throat. It came back damp with sweat. A short, fat, balding man with a briefcase walked briskly to the elevator and pressed one of the buttons with an up arrow on it before glaring at Donovan for not having pushed it already. More people gathered, and Donovan could feel sweat beading up on his forehead.
The elevator announced its arrival with a ding, and the small crowd stepped forward en masse. Two young women had to squeeze out through the flesh that piled in around them, stuffing the small conveyance with humanity. Not a single black soul among them. He was the only nigger in the punch bowl, as his father would have said.
“Plenty of room,” the short man with the briefcase said to Donovan.
“No, thanks,” he said back.
People whispered and shrugged as the doors slid shut.
Alone again, Donovan unlocked the screen of his phone and navigated to his folder of social media apps. Opening one, he quickly tapped in a status update: “Wish me luck.” He locked the screen again and tossed the phone into the nearest garbage can without ceremony or hesitation.
What kind of psychiatrist had her office on the twenty-eighth floor? He couldn’t have been her only potential client with an intense dread of tight spaces—elevators in particular—and heights. Maybe it was a sign from the cosmos that he was on his own in this after all.
He opted for the push door instead of the revolving one and blended into the crush of pedestrians outside.
His psychologist, Dr. Harold Wagner, had thought he no longer needed counseling. Donovan couldn’t convince him that he was still haunted by the events that had changed his view of the world forever. Nonetheless, Dr. Wagner had referred him to Dr. Mather to further discuss the issue, and a possible course of medications.
And so he’d reached out to Dr. Mather but didn’t realize until he arrived at the Platinum Building and read the office directory that she was located so high up in the building.
Fine, no more delay, then. He had a job to do, and there were no longer any obstacles in his way.
Someone had left a paperback copy of The Stones of Summer on the bench at the bus stop, but the number forty-two came rolling up before he could finish reading the back cover. It didn’t seem like he was missing much, so he left it behind.
The bus dropped him off fifteen minutes later on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill. After a six-block walk he stood in the backyard of the man he’d come to kill. Ricky didn’t own a car, so it was impossible to tell whether he was home or not.
A large cloud bank drifted in front of the sun, creating the illusion of a rapid sunset. It reminded Donovan of the sunsets in some of the old horror movies he used to enjoy, especially those featuring vampires. Other kids used to laugh at such effects, but he always knew they were meant to be expressionistic, not literal.
Today he was the vampire. He would use his bare hands, not hollow fangs, but it amounted to the same thing.
The wooden steps to the back porch groaned as he climbed them. To him their protests sounded loud enough to rouse the dead. A stranger would have checked for a key under the rough mat in front of the door to Ricky’s half of the rental, but Donovan was no stranger. He knew that Ricky left his spare under the small rug nearby, on which a tall lamp stood.
The key procured, he wasted no time slipping inside the house, away from prying eyes.
His balls tingled with the thrill of transgression, mingled with fear of the coming encounter. He hadn’t planned this out in minute detail. When he’d woken up that morning he had fully expected to be talked out of it by Dr. Mather.
Should he call out to Ricky, or was the element of surprise in order? Announcing his presence would alleviate some of the suspense and dread he harbored, but it would also diminish the thrill. He continued through the house. Pictures adorned the hall leading to the front rooms. The brightness of the kitchen drew him to it, but it was only bright because the curtains had been thrown wide. It was empty and clean.
The steps leading upstairs were carpeted in shag, lending the house an outdated aspect. He climbed with care, checking over his shoulder as soon as his head popped above floor level of the second story. The upstairs hallway was open on the stairway side, with only a two-foot railing to prevent a dreadful tumble. All doors on this level hung open, and there appeared to be no artificial light pouring from the rooms.
Sitting on the top step he called out, “Ricky!”
Not a sound. Nobody home. So be it.
Donovan climbed back downstairs and briefly peered into the dark basement before locking up, returning the key to its hiding place beneath the lamp and heading down the alley, determined to return home and think through his next steps.
The high was only supposed to be in the low seventies, but he sweated as he walked. Life had been such an easy, happy thing several years ago. His wife had been as beautiful as she was smart, driven and loving. He had shot to the top of the marketing firm he worked at then, taking the reins of his own team in what everyone assured him was record time. The house, the luxury car, the picturesque neighborhood … All gone. He and Tara had just begun to talk seriously about starting a family. That, too, was gone. Now he rented a small house for himself that he wouldn’t be able to afford much longer, as steady work had eluded him ever since the Avalanche.
It was nearly impossible to believe that the terrorist attack in New York had really been the cause of his ruin, but it had been. Terrorism’s most lasting scars often showed on hidden flesh, on skin that no suicide bomber had the imagination to target. He couldn’t have known, of course, that the Quwwat Khariqa, literally Super Power, would use his video as a virtual blueprint for their devastating strike against the West. He’d posted the damn thing about a year-and-a-half before meeting Tara, when he was single and had more time on his hands than dreams in his head. So he decided it would be fun to take video of just about every square inch of the Statue of Liberty’s interior. He had been living in the city at the time, and shortly after moving there from Houston he developed a fascination with the famous landmark that went beyond its symbolic significance as a gift from the people of France and a hopeful beacon to immigrants. In short, he had fallen in love with the old girl. He narrated as he recorded, unknowingly providing the terrorists with all the information they needed in order to pull off the most horrific terror plot on American soil since 9/11. The body count had not compared to that tragic event, but the symbolic power of the destruction of Lady Liberty was immense and profound.
With only cameras allowed on the climb to the crown, the terrorists had entered with 3D-printed fakes, which were in fact explosives. It was prototype technology at the time, but they’d had help from inside a tech firm in the UK. They had booked their tickets nearly two years earlier. Donovan’s video had been up since well before that time. The Quwwat Khariqa had planned each detonation point based on his footage.
It all felt like events in the life of a stranger. He lived in Seattle now. The country had moved on, too. But a sense of futility still gripped people like a choking noose. The events of September 11, 2001, had done similar lasting damage to the national psyche, but now it was more obvious. People were more open about their apathy and lack of hope for the future of the world. There was more good in the world than bad. He still wanted to believe that. Yet it wasn’t enough. The bad seemed stronger. Suicides were up. The economy was down. Violent crime was out of control. America wasn’t supposed to let the terrorists win, but they seemed to be holding their own, the goddamn sons of bitches.
The distance between his house and Ricky’s was more than he would have covered on foot ordinarily, but today the minutes and city blocks had passed in a fog of despondency. He walked through the front door and went straight for the couch, not even bothering to get a glass of water, which he desperately needed. He was on the verge of nodding off when the noise of something falling upstairs startled him into a stiff, upright position.
The front door. He hadn’t needed to unlock it. That meant someone else had.
Bounding down the steps two and three at a time, Ricky bolted for the front door but stopped cold with his hand on the knob. It was obvious he could sense Donovan at his periphery.
“So the mountain has come to Mohammed, has it?” Donovan said.
Ricky turned to him and walked into the living room with the casual ease of an invited guest. His hair hung long and wavy, and a manicured hipster beard sat on his narrow chin. His tight black shirt and worn jeans gave him the look of an undercover cop trying to blend in with the drug crowd. But no, he was the real McCoy. That was even his name: Ricky McCoy.
Donovan should have killed the sonofabitch long ago just for taking advantage of him in his vulnerable condition during the Avalanche. He never would have gotten tangled up with such a character if he’d had his wits about him. But he’d needed a way to escape reality, and Ricky had been able to provide. A little coke at first, just enough to take the edge off. Soon it was a lot of coke, and a little H here and there, just to keep him balanced. Quitting that shit would have been the hardest job he’d ever tackled, if he hadn’t already lived through the Avalanche. Compared to the loss of his entire life as he had envisioned it, the horrors of withdrawal had been a mere inconvenience.
“You fucker,” Ricky said. “I thought I could count on you.”
“You didn’t call me asking to borrow a couple hundred bucks. You wanted me to help you kill someone.”
“Yeah, and that’s not the kind of thing you say no to. Do you dig the gravity of this, motherfucker? I mean, you don’t exactly seem shaken up to find me in your goddamn house.”
Donovan stood up and gestured to an end table.
“You see this lamp?” he asked. Ricky glanced at the ornate lamp on the table, a relic from the pre-Avalanche days of yore, then back at Donovan. “I’d like you to read the inscription on its base.”
“Listen, I didn’t come here to—”
“Please, humor me. Read the goddamn inscription.”
Ricky crossed to where Donovan stood.
“I don’t see an inscription.”
“It’s from my ex-wife. It’s small, but it’s there.”
Ricky bent over and squinted.
“I still don’t see it.”
He moved in close, and Donovan caught the drowsy scent of patchouli oil.
Knitting both hands together, Donovan raised them high, like a deadly club, which he brought down on the back of Ricky’s head with great force. The forehead cracked against the end table like a boiled egg. It had probably been enough to do the job, but Donovan didn’t take that chance. Up went the fist-club again, and down it came in a vicious blur. He brought his hands up a third time, but before he could lower the boom, Ricky’s lifeless body slumped to the floor in an ugly heap. Sometimes there was no need to check for a pulse or a faint breath. Sometimes death was as obvious as a loved one’s name.
“That’s because there isn’t one, you stupid fuck!” he yelled.
One of his pinkies hurt like hell, but there was no blood on him. Ricky was a different story. The red stuff gurgled from a gash that ran from his right eyebrow to his left cheek. The second blow must have raked his face along the edge of the table, which was old and rough to begin with.
Good, the thing was done. Ricky never should have told Donovan that he’d kill him for not helping with the murder of a drug dealer he’d short-changed. Donovan knew how to keep a secret. Everything would have been cool. He just hadn’t wanted any part in it.
But there was no use crying over spilled blood. He had work to do. They’d find him out eventually, and that was okay, too. But it didn’t mean he was going to give himself up quietly. He would take what shallow joy he could eke out from the remainder of his days as a free man. At the first whiff of their being on to him … Endsville, baby. Suicide beat incarceration every goddamn time. But even capture he was prepared to deal with if he fucked something up and it came to that. For the time being, the unique experience of life after death was enough. Not his own death, of course, but life after taking a life. How many people knew what that felt like? He would revel in his rare state for as long as he could. As with all good things, its allure would come to an end. That was the way of the world. Who was he to wrestle with fate?
The blood from Ricky’s forehead slowed but continued to seep into the carpet. Ricky had gone through his own unique experience here today. Maybe he was going through it still. This, too, was a mystery that would reveal itself to Donovan in time.
Still ignoring his parched throat, he lay across the couch and shut his eyes against the capricious ways of the world. The messy business of cleanup would have to wait.


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Contents

Crisscross Purposes

Foreword