A Shotsmag Short Story
A black car was on my ass and though I didnt want to react I found myself pushing the pedal into the floor, jerking the speedometer up higher and higher. As if my heavy foot could actually remedy anything. Like I could ever lose em, ever really escape.
It had been a long day that had started with a strange dream. Carl, who used to be my partner and who I had neglected for months, appeared in the dream as Native American. It was strange because not long after I woke, Carl called me with bad news about a murder. Carl was of German descent and there wasnt anything the least bit Native American about him. But after I finished our phone call I promised myself that I would go see him and make good, somehow. Then unexpectedly, the dream called out to me during the day. My dream life was trying to tell my waking life something. God knew I needed some insight. My soul had shriveled and bordered on non-existence. I couldnt trust the DA and in spite of everything we had been through I couldnt trust my lover, Austin. I knew in my heart that Carl was the only person, the only one, I could trust without reserve. Yet, I couldnt help but choke on unshed tears as I recalled the last time I had seen him.
The shadow of a head with large ears, merely a silhouette seated in a black car, pointed an assault rifle at me. I was standing outside Austins motel room, naked and still wet from a shower. I had my Walther PPK clasped in my hands. I fired several times as the car maneuvered to make an exit but I was out of bullets. Click. Click. Disbelief and a skull-numbing fear seized me.
Ive always possessed an unquestionable knowledge that I was alone in the world. I accepted it, like breathing. When Carl charged to protect me I learned different. His stride became a running leap, his voice, the roar of a king lion.
His thick body floated through the air then dropped, struck by a burst of bullets from the assault rifle. Carl thudded against my stomach. Warm blood spurted across my face and shoulders. The man in the car, the shadow with large ears looked back at me before the car screeched off.
I felt something warm slip between my legs. I followed Carls gaze over his big body and understood. He was in shock, gaping at the end of his right arm. His right hand was gone. Blood spouted from his ragged wrist onto my thighs. I gripped the end of his arm with both hands. The warm blood was slick and smelled of copper.
"Hold on, Carl. Hold on. Stay with me here."
He didnt speak. My fingers ached. I heard sirens, voices. Capable hands came and wrenched Carl away from me. And then it was quiet, still.
My mind whirred with those images as I drove on winding roads through ever growing hills, then forested mountains. The man with the large ears had come to kill Austin, my lover, but I had appeared.
I had to get home, at least what I called home now that I was in hiding, of sorts. Several times on the drive back to the cabin, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw the black car following me. Night fell around me as I turned down a dirt road and felt sure I had left the black car behind. I yearned to be in front of the fire, safe from all harm. I pulled into the gravel driveway and entered the mountain hideaway with two bags of groceries. I was edgy and in my haste one of the bags tore. I adjusted it against my body and carried it into the kitchen.
Austin washed dishes at the sink. I couldnt help but grin at the sight. A gorgeous blond rock idol washing dishes. He was an excellent cook, too. These domestic aspects of his personality struck chords of deep sentiment within me. I had never before been a romantic but the fight we fought against the outside world to protect each other and our love created a powerful cocoon in which I had discovered a demeanor of myself previously unknown.
Austins eyes were exactly the color of blue that is created when the sky meets the ocean. He looked up at me and brightened.
"There you are. I was beginning to worry. Here let me give you a hand with those."
He reached for the bag and moved to kiss me at the same time. The bag burst and groceries crashed to the floor. I jumped. Austin registered my reaction. He picked up the fallen groceries while I put the other bag down.
"So, tell me whats wrong."
"Someone was following me on the road."
"What did they look like?"
"I dont know. A black car, like the night Carl was shot."
Austin registered this with alarm, then quickly recovered his composure.
"An unmarked cop car, probably. Is that a surprise?"
"No, but it pisses me off."
"Theyre trying to frighten you.
He brushed my face with his lips. Softening, I clutched him, breathed in his smell, put my hand in his silky hair and held his strong body close to mine, drinking in his strength.
"We dont need anyone but us. Only us, little one," he said and I agreed with all my being.
His fame had cost him dearly. Wacked-out fans pursued him in sexual frenzy. Vigilante snipers fired from a distance and vanished without a trace. Cops and the DA wanted his head as their trophy. The public outcry and their injunctions had made it impossible for Austin to live within city limits.
We hung onto each other for dear life re-igniting a familiar passion that kept us strong, kept us bonded . The firelight danced our shadows on the walls and ceiling. We gave ourselves to each other and for a short time the outside world didnt matter. Judgments, accusations and the groceries would wait.
Austins breath was soft against my ear.
"You still doubt me, dont you?" He said it simply.
"Dont lie. Dont lie to me. Why?"
"Carl? One call from Carl and Im screwed."
"No, its not like that. I know hes protective of me but "
"Theres been another murder, like the others. I know it cant be you, I know it."
"No, you dont."
He turned away from me and was silent. I feared he would become sullen and withdraw from me forever.
"Its Devors," he said finally.
"Clyde Devors? Your friend? But hes in the state asylum."
"Theres no other explanation. He did it before and hes doing it again. Everyone underestimates him. I tell you what. Check the asylum. Have I left your side for even a moment? Tell the DA I was here with you and have them check the asylum and make sure, absolutely sure, that Clyde is still there. Do it, Joan."
He hadnt left my side. Except for the one morning I awoke as he returned from collecting wood for the fire, he hadnt been out of my sight until that very day when I went to the store for groceries. I decided to check with the asylum and to call Carl.
The asylum confirmed that Clyde Devors had apparently escaped and they couldnt be exact as to when. The last time they could verify, for absolutely sure, that he was there was ten days ago. Carl didnt answer the phone so I called Parker, the DA. I was about to explain to him about Clyde Devors when he interrupted me with another urgent need to identify a man out of the line up. A man they believed was the same one who shot Carl. It was time to make good. Parker listened to my silence for a moment and repeated himself.
"Ill come in immediately."
At this Austins blue eyes registered surprise but I had to go. I couldnt be remiss in my duties to Carl. Not in this matter.
I made the drive into town and worked on my speech to the DA. I would tell him in person that it would be wrong to accuse Austin once again. He had suffered enough and so had I.
Sunlight filtered through window blinds of Parkers office. He handed me a file with crime scene photos. The room was all leather, heavy woods, pretentious certificates and photos of Parker shaking hands with celebrities. After a look at yet another young girl mutilated beyond recognition, I handed the photo file back to Parker. My soul, a tattered flag, hung at half-mast. The photos of the dead girl devastated me. Her stomach had been slashed. The tattoo, on what was left of, her breast was of a little cherub pulling back a bow and arrow poised to shoot. It filled my heart with unspeakable sorrow. The image will be forever etched on my brain. This "Valentine" was the latest in a string of murders. It was number five.
The light from the window made its way through the cloud of cigar smoke around Parker, giving him a strange and disembodied quality.
"Forensics place the murder approximately one week ago."
"So I heard. Carl told me."
"Not very pretty. Neither were the others. In fact, there are remarkable similarities in all respects."
He sighed, waiting for my reply.
"And youre convinced Austin killed all these girls?"
"Weve got a gas station attendant who puts Austin with the girl in the right time frame. Theres footprints."
"Footprints? Very impressive. The two of them were in Austins car?"
Parker shook his head no.
"Austin was at a gas station without his car? Suddenly, Im not convinced. Nor will anyone else be. Youre doing it all over again. Hell sue you. And this time Ill testify on his behalf."
"The guys in forensics found hair. It matches samples we have from your boyfriend." Parker folded his hands and leaned across his desk. He sighed again and continued, "Joan, hes a dangerous man. A vicious killer. Were trying to warn you."
"I stand advised. I was under the impression that I was here to ID a suspect in the Carl Erskin shooting. Or was that poisoned bait?"
"You have a cynical attitude, Joan. Just a half-hour before you arrived, the father of one of the young victims confessed to shooting Carl. Said he was after Austin Mears but you and Carl got in the way."
This derailed my righteousness but I refused to bend.
"You could have easily dialed me on my cell phone. Im here because you want to convince me that Austin in guilty. This is wrong. Do you understand? Wrong."
"We are concerned. Since we originally gave you this assignment we feel responsible for your involvement."
"I believe he is innocent. If anything, at this point, hes a victim. Heres a question for you. One you should consider very carefully. Does anyone know the whereabouts of one Clyde Devors?"
"Hes in the state asylum."
"No. Hes not. Check into it. It fits the time frame."
Parker had stopped breathing.
"How do you know?" he asked.
"Call the asylum and see for yourself. Hes not there, hasnt been there for ten days."
I was satisfied that I had put a decent damper on his most recent attempt to railroad Austin so I walked out, still a little shaken by the photos. The horror of them haunted me. I exited the criminal courts building and made my way across the parking lot. I felt dizzy, my world was spinning. I wondered how long I could continue to live like this. I opened my car door but the heat came at me and I hesitated, stood there for a moment with the door open, reeling from anger and outrage. I dialed Carl but, still, there was no answer. I thought about what Parker had said. It was strange to think of the shooter as a bereaved father of one of the dead girls. I wondered which one. If I hadnt been in that motel room that night, Austin would be dead now. Carl would still have his hand. I recalled the wounded animal in Carls eyes when he realized that I had chosen Austin, the rockstar instead of him.
I heard a young female voice behind me.
"Are you Joan Lambert?"
I turned to face a young beauty with big brown eyes as vulnerable as a fawn. She wore a short T-shirt and low-hung jeans that exposed her belly button. Her stomach had baby-fine wisps of blonde hair across it. My first impulse was to protect her, but from what? The photo of Valentines torn stomach flashed across my mind. Then it hit me. She was the same age as all the previous victims. And in that moment I also realized that this young beauty was a fan. She probably followed the Austin Mears story in the newspapers. Thats how she knew who I was.
"Okay. You got me. Im Joan Lambert."
"Im, well, I was one of Austins music students. I was wondering is he ever coming back? To teach or anything?"
"No, honey. Hes not. Not right now, anyway."
Her shoulders sagged and her face crumpled in anguish.
"Is there anyway I can get in touch with him?"
"I dont think that would be a good idea."
How she picked up on it, I dont know. Women sense these things.
"Oh, so youre with him, right? Figures! Im not even surprised. Well, Congratulations."
The fawn girls eyes filled with tears. She turned in tortured anger and ran away. One moment she was there and the next she was gone. I couldnt understand what would possess her to be so intense about a music teacher. Youd think they had been lovers. Or that she was pregnant with this child. Not that she even looked mature enough to conceive. It was probably just a crush or a fans desperate wish.
I made my way across town to Carls apartment. I hoped that I could talk to the one person that I knew would always be true. Even though I didnt deserve it. Even though I wasnt true. I had betrayed Carl by loving and protecting Austin. I recalled, once again, the dream I had awoken from that morning. In it, I stood before a black oval-shaped obsidian mirror, through which I clearly saw Carl. He was dressed in a loin-cloth and running beside a stag. He called out my name, like he did that night. Both Carl and the stag came toward me in slow motion, their brown eyes large and luminous. Flames were reflected in their irises. Carls face was painted with black stripes and he was smiling. Then, Carl transformed into the stag. They became one. All that was left was the stag, his bright eyes embracing me with love. I knew that it was Carl and I reached out to touch him but then everything went black. Thats when I woke up.
The door to Carls apartment was ajar. I entered and sat on the couch. Carl got me a cold beer from the fridge and I took it, glad to have something to do with my hands. I met his searching gaze with no emotion and noticed his prosthetic hand on the marble coffee table between us. At first we just sat there. I, on the couch and he, at the little breakfast nook. We both sucked on our beers. Finally, he cleared his throat.
"Ive been working out pretty regular. Trying to build up body strength to compensate. I could pick you up with one hand right now if I wanted to."
We shared an uncomfortable silence.
"I thought we were friends, Joan."
"Then how come this is the first time Ive seen you? Dont you care?"
"Couldnt prove it by me."
"Carl, I feel bad, okay? Its killing me."
"You feeling bad serves no purpose. I got no use for it. I decided to act. I live with the consequences."
"Yeah, and I live with them, too. You know? I live with it, too."
"No, you dont. Not really. Maybe on some abstract, intellectual bullshit level."
I downed the rest of my beer and put the empty bottle on the table. It was louder than I intended.
"Be careful, Joanie. Some dont rattle before they strike."
Did he mean Austin or the DA? Probably the DA. DA Parker now accused me of safekeeping a serial killer. He had assigned me to protect Austin in the first place. The city was being sued for false arrest, for endangering Austins life and a few other things the lawyers could think up. I guess Parker didnt figure that Id fall for good looks and poetry. Like I wasnt a woman? Perhaps I had caught a case of guardian syndrome, like the turnkey that fell in love with Patty Hearst.
"I know you," Carl continued. "You take everything personal."
"Austin is innocent. You dont think I should take this personal? Be serious."
"Then you go and do crazy things."
"Crazy like a fox. Clyde Devors escaped from the asylum. Its him. Hes the one who committed all the murders."
Carl looked at me with those eyes, waiting for me to tell him more. I used to tell him everything.
"And what if youre wrong about that?"
"Im not wrong. Its a fact. It has nothing to do with me."
"Dont be crazy. Dont take a risk. Be careful."
"You know me, Carl. I always follow a hunch."
"Sometime feelings can steer you wrong, you know."
I moved to him. His face registered surprise but he put down his beer and opened his arms. It felt good to let him hold me. Everything boiled in confusion inside me. The end of his arm looked tender and I wondered if it hurt. Tears came and I let them. Carl stroked my hair with his good hand. But none of it would solve anything.
"I gotta go."
"Do you love me?"
I pulled away from him. Once I was out of his arms I darted away, but then, hesitated at the doorway, my back to him. I could feel his eyes on my back.
I pushed the limit, driving too fast for the blind curves on the narrow mountain road to the cabin. As I drove, I sifted through every detail of the knotted and bloody events that lead to this moment.
My cell phone rang and I jumped. It was Carl.
"Hey, Joanie. Listen, I looked into that Clyde Devors thing and youre right. Hes not in the asylum."
"See there, I told you."
"Yeah, right. Thing is, hes got an alibi for the Valentine murder."
Sudden static made it hard to hear but I got it.
"Run it by me, why doncha?"
"He was tied to a tree, reclaiming his soul."
"Thats an alibi?"
"It is when 500 Lakota Indians verify it as witnesses. Seems he was participating in a traditional Sundance."
My heart sank. The dream came back to me. Carl in a loincloth.
"Are you serious?"
"Dead serious. Its a form of prayer to the tree people and Great Spirit. A highly-respected ceremony. Thats what they tell me."
"Who told you?"
"A couple of Lakota Chiefs."
"Thats right, two very respected elders are on their way in right now to put Clydes alibi on record. It appears Clyde Devors is out on this one. Supposedly, this ritual unifies one with the truth of nature. Clyde claims his mind is restored and that his soul has been given back to him."
"Good for him."
"Yeah, says he never killed nobody. Ever. Sorry, Joan. Austin is not in the clear. And uh, Clydes restored memory brings up some other issues that you wont like."
There was more static on the line.
"If Clyde never killed anyone ever who killed the groupie in the hotel room, etceteras?"
The line went dead. I clicked my phone shut and threw it on the seat beside me.
So maybe crazy Clyde wasnt so crazy after all. The dead girl with the Cupid tattoo possessed my thoughts. Was there some indication I had missed? I wanted, more than anything, to prove Austin innocent, if only to myself. I had to absolutely know the truth. There had to be some way to be sure. I had worshipped Austin with my body, loved him with an intense loyalty. Was it possible that such passion was misplaced?
I arrived at dusk. The cabin was dark. I rested my head on the steering wheel. My hands still gripped it. Once inside the cabin, my uneasy thoughts came upon the spat and crackle of the fireplace and a table set for a candlelight dinner.
Silence. I looked around and walked into the bedroom, opened the dresser drawer. Old habits drove me as I took out my gun from underneath lingerie, made sure it was loaded. I heard Austin come around the side of the house.
"Joan? Hey. Where are you?
"Ill be right there."
I hid the gun back under the lingerie and went into the front room. Austin dropped an armload of logs on the hearth. He unfastened a sheathed hunting knife from his belt and carefully placed it on the mantle.
Damn, he was handsome. Blond silky hair, blue eyes, a good build. The craving was still strong. But now a detectives intuition besieged me and wouldnt let go. I had to turn off my emotions and tune into the truth. I thought of the obsidian dream. Clydes alibi was a Native American Sundance. What did it mean? I had learned little of factual consequence, except that an unknown girl with a Cupid tattoo had been tormented and killed. I needed to unveil the truth myself, based on what?
Austin threw several logs on the fire and stirred the embers with a poker. A pine cone hissed, popped and burst into blue flame. Sparks exploded, the logs flashed fire. Pine ash floated up the chimney. The red eyes of my being flooded with suspicion. A flame of destruction danced like a blue flame in my heart.
"I missed you," he said. "You look tired. Was it a rough trip?"
"You could say that."
"Let me get you a glass of wine. But first, lets take that jacket off."
"No, Im still chilled."
"Are you okay?"
"Ill be fine in a minute. I just need to relax. You know, not think."
My eyes followed Austin to the kitchen. I sank into the couch in front of the fire. He returned with wine and sat at my feet. I gulped the wine, but didnt taste it. The sun fell behind the mountain. The house darkened.
"The DA insists," I began, "theres a connection between you and another murder, the unidentified girl. They tagged her Valentine. Parker says they have a hair match and a half-assed witness.
"Thats completely bogus. You realize that, I hope."
I nodded and closed my eyes. Austin moved up toward me. I opened my eyes, letting them bore into him.
"They showed me horrible pictures."
He turned his face away, got up from the floor and settled beside me.
"I was overwhelmed when they said they had evidence against you and threw those pictures at me."
"They have no right to do that."
"I told them that Clyde had escaped the asylum."
Austin swirled the wine around in his glass.
"Good. They must have backed off after that, huh?"
"Not really. Carl checked it out. Clyde was at a Sundance."
"Some sacred ritual. The initiate becomes one with the truths of nature and, to make a long story short, Clyde has several hundred people as witness. He claims his mind is clear and he never killed anybody, ever."
A strange guttural sound stuck in Austins throat. My back straightened with anticipation. The hook was in the fishs mouth. Now, let him struggle.
"I, uh, dont know what to think," Austin muttered.
"I know. My brain is completely overloaded. Then this music student of yours cornered me. What did you used to teach?"
"I told her I didnt think youd be teaching anymore. She kind of lost it, seemed broken-hearted."
"Im sure shell survive."
"I wonder who she was."
"Forget it. Sometimes when they claim they were one of my students they mean theyve studied my work. Or theyve heard my music and imagine its all about them. They come out of the woodwork, believe me. Most of them are just looking for a star fuck. Ive learned to shine them on."
A vein popped out on his forehead. I had to be sure. There could no longer be doubt. I had to pull out the truth.
"I meant the girl who was killed. She came from somewhere."
"Oh, yes. Its terrible. Theyll probably never find out. Kids like that fall through the cracks of this world. They dont exist."
How did he know what kind of kid she was?
"Why do you say that?" I asked.
"Because its true."
"Still she was someones child. You know? Someone loved her."
"I doubt it. Lets change the subject, okay?"
"No, I want to know why you doubt anyone ever loved her."
"Ill bet you that the closest concept that girl ever had of love was that Cupid tattoo."
My world shattered. The fault line opened beneath me and I plummeted. He killed the girl. There was no other way he could have known about the Cupid tattoo. I told him they had tagged her "Valentine" but not explained why. It meant he killed the other girls, too. He was responsible for all the murders hed pinned on his friend, crazy Clyde. All were the same MO.
"Look," he said, "this has nothing to do with us.
"Right, lets just relax. I need to go to the bathroom. Ill be right back."
I slipped into the bedroom and stumbled toward the dresser drawer. As I reached for my gun the autopsy photos of Valentine flashed before my eyes. The naked stomach of the young beauty seeking Austin, her beloved music teacher, gave me the shivers. Id protected a monster. I had sacrificed Carls hand for a man who tortured and killed little girls. I had to right this thing. Tonight. Now.
Austin was staring into the fire when I returned. I stood a distance from him with my hands in my pockets. The house was dark now, except for the fire and the candles.
His eyes still on the fire, he said, "I didnt mean to sound so hard about that girl. Ill call Jenkins in the morning. Laws protect us from this kind of harassment. We wont let them bother us anymore.
A log shifted and fell onto the hearth. Austin picked up the poker to move it.
"How did you know about the tattoo?"
"Hmm? The tattoo? Oh, you described it to me."
"No, I didnt. I didnt say anything about the tattoo or Cupid. I remember thinking it was too sad a thing to say. But you knew exactly why they tagged her Valentine. You killed all those girls. And then you thought: Now heres prey worthy of my skill and then you went for me."
The hush between us broke when he smirked.
"Ah, but it was you who came to me. They all did."
I yanked the revolver from my pocket.
"Surprise. You lose."
"Are you going to shoot me?"
My eyes dropped to the gun, my hand was trembling. My fingers felt like butter.
"Can you kill you own heart? Hmmm? Besides, you dont have any proof yet. You cant kill me in cold blood. Theyll lock you away for that."
He laid the fire poker on the hearth and stepped toward me with his hand out.
"Youre dead," I said.
He took another step and I squeezed the trigger. Horrified, I pulled it over and over. Click, click, click. I couldnt believe it was happening to me again. Austin put his hand on the gun. I let go in stunned defeat.
"I filed off the firing pin. I admit it wasnt very trusting of me, but then again " He dug his fingers into my arm. "I have some dinner music I want you to listen to."
My body went limp. I allowed myself to be led to the dining room where Austin pulled me toward the stereo and shoved in a cassette. I noticed the tape was the same one he kept in his flute case.
I whirled free of his hold and struck him with an elbow to the neck. I tiger-pawed his face and drew blood. The gold glint of the fire poker winked at me and I lunged for it. Austin leapt on my back and we pitched across the couch and fell, our heads near the roaring fire. The heat bathed our faces with sweat as our bodies thrashed in reptilian struggle.
I managed to get a grasp on the poker. I meant to kill him. I didnt care if they locked me away for good. I uncoiled and attacked. A deep primal cry escaped from me as I struck him repeatedly. I heard a "crunch" when I connected with the side of his head. I fell into the fireplace and my hair singed. Logs rolled off the fire and onto the rug. Austin moaned, then groped his way up the fireplace to the knife hed placed there earlier. Flute music filled my head.
Flames sprang alive around us. Austins blade flashed and sliced me deep on the forearm drawing red. The sensation of my own warm blood on my skin made my hair stand on end. I was shocked when he got me again by my ear. The world became a blur of blood, fire, flesh and metal. I took out the back of his knees with the fire poker.
He fell backward like a drunken puppet. I struck again, thrust the poker into this stomach. Blood gurgled from his mouth and his blue eyes clouded with death. I stood above him, gasping for air. Without any direction from me, my body went limp and I folded onto the floor. I desperately wanted to stop that damn flute music but I couldnt raise my arm to reach the power button on the stereo.
I was sure Id soon be on fire as flames flicked around me. I saw the door open. I tried to move toward it but my body didnt work. The smell of burnt hair and smoke filled my lungs.
The flute music stopped as Carl rushed into the burning room. I heard the machine click, automatically reversing the tape. Carl moved like a big cat across the room.
A girls frightened voice pleaded, "No, no stop! Why are you doing this? Please, dont!" It was the ghost of Valentine, the girl who didnt exist.
Carl pulled me up with his good hand and lifted me into his arms.
"The tape. I need the tape."
"Ill get it, dont worry."
"I gotta have that tape."
Carl carried me out of the fire and laid me down on a gurney.
"You come prepared," I said, but Carl had already left my side and a paramedic, a quietly serious Latina, was inspecting my wounds.
My eyes were riveted to the burning cabin. It was as if I feared that Austin might rise up from the inferno and cut me again with his knife. Instead, Carl emerged from the flames with the cassette tape and Austins knife in an evidence bag.
The paramedic wrapped my arm where Austin got me with the blade. Another paramedic joined her. I couldnt see him very clearly for some reason. He tended the cut on my head and said, "Shes lost a lot of blood."
Carl bent close to me and pushed burnt hair out of my face. I noticed he had black streaks across his cheeks from the fire. It brought to mind the dream I had of him and the deer. I reached out to him and he took my hand.
"Nice backup," I said.
"I had a hunch."
"Just a feeling, huh?"
"Something like that."
"I love you."
His eyes lit up. He nodded and whispered, "Ah, youre just feeling sentimental right now."
"No, really I do. I love you."
"Oh, yeah? Good, glad to hear it."
Joy flowed through me, a healing breeze. My spirit rose and expanded like a mult-colored hot-air balloon.
Carl bent down and kissed me softly on the lips and grinned at me.
Then all was black.