The Mean Man
By A. Christopher Drown
A. Christopher Drown resides as a Yankee-in-exile in Cordova, Tennessee, just outside of Memphis. He's written several short stories, a collection of poetry, and is currently shopping his first novel whilst slogging away at his second. His work has appeared in three literary anthologies, in regional periodicals both in the Southeast and New England, and has garnered praise from such authors as Joel Rosenberg, creator of The Guardians of the Flame series. A graphic designer by trade, when not writing he spends his time being tolerated by his wife, being pitied by his dog and two pre-school children, and preaching the gospel of the widescreen format to souls in need of enlightenment. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Victory won't come to me unless I go to it.
He'd liked the line ever since hearing it in high school, read aloud by a self-important prude of an English teacher he'd long imagined as being ferocious in bed, from a book by a poet whose name he couldn't recall. He'd always been better at faces than names, anyhow, but he thought it started with an M.
Repeating it to himself had kept a private smile on his face for the last few hundred miles as his scuffed and dented navy Mustang convertible rumbled along the empty desert highway.
Well, not his Mustang. But close enough.
Zero squinted in the amber light of early morning. With a nimble, practiced economy of motion he plucked a cigarette from his coat's inside breast pocket, caught it between his lips, lit it, then snapped closed the lighter with a flick of his wrist. He took a hard drag, letting twin plumes of bluish smoke stream from his nostrils.
Over the next rise was the diner, and he still had plenty of time. He'd score the last of his points, collect the trophies, then head up to Phoenix for his flight to the Home Office. No problem.
Zero smiled again, at himself, at the ridiculous, giddy anticipation creeping in. He hadn't felt anything like it since back when he first started, since his days as an amateur.
Exuberance hardly complemented his reputation, but he just couldn't help it.
This year he was finally, finally going to win.
The Whinin' Diner looked typical of any last-chance greasy spoon on the side of any stretch of abandoned road. Not much bigger than a large bus, a single aisle segregated counter dwellers from those preferring booths. An antique metal fan hummed on a shelf up in the far corner. Beside it, a radio crackled a bland, nasal country tune. Red and chrome had once been the decor, though most of the seats and bolted-down barstools were patched many times over with gummy grey duct tape, and the ribbed, art-deco metal edges on the counter and tables bore such a haze of scratches that they no longer offered reflections.
Inside, only a handful of people. Behind the counter stood a stubbly cook in his stained wife-beater t-shirt. Next to him, a stocky, too-blonde waitress sported a chewed pencil behind her ear and a half-pack cud of gum crammed into her mouth. At the end of the bar a young woman studied want ads in a blouse and skirt meant to be business-like but instead were ill-fitting and at least a decade out of style. Next to her, her daughter, no more than four, poked her tongue from the corner of her mouth in concentration like a Peanuts character, brassy-blonde curls bobbing in time with each stroke as she mashed short, blunted Crayolas into the pages of her coloring book.
And in a booth, by himself, sat Arthur Feishal. The person Zero had come to see.
The waitress grudgingly acknowledged Zero's entrance with an inquiring arch of her eyebrows.
"Coffee," he said.
She sighed and turned to a pair of pots steaming behind her.
Arty was smallish man with an eruption of curly, reddish hair surrounding a bald spot yet to go completely barren; a few sickly, defiant sprigs still staked a claim to its center-most territory. In modest compensation, an untidy thicket of mustache roughly the same color flourished beneath a stubby nose pinched by a pair of thin, wire-framed spectacles. Pen in hand, eyes narrowed, he pored over scattered charts, graphs, and a steno pad crowded with wildly scrawled chemical formulae, equations and the like.
Zero approached the booth. "Arty Feishal?"
He'd been so deep in his work, Arty jerked at the sound of his name. He looked up. "Yes?"
Zero smiled. "Sorry to interrupt, but I have something important you need to know. Something I'm afraid you're not going to like." He pointed at the vacant bench. "May I sit?"
Taken aback, looking as though he'd momentarily forgotten the language, Arty glanced at his notes. "Um, all right," he said. "Sure." He gathered up a few papers that had strayed to the opposite side of the table.
"Thanks." As he sat, the waitress waddled up and set his coffee down too hard, making the spoon rattle on the saucer. She slapped down his ticket and left.
"Do I know you?" Arty asked. His voice was higher-pitched than he'd had expected. Almost girlish.
Zero gingerly turned the hot cup with his fingertips so the handle faced away from him. "No, actually. You don't. My name's Zerofsky. Mike Zerofsky. My colleagues call me Zero."
Arty frowned. "If I don't know you, how do you know me?"
"You could say, Arty, I follow your work."
True, in the most superficial sense. Zero hadn't actually been following Arthur's work, but rather him. And only for the past ten days. However, the notion apparently struck a chord.
Feishal's momentary befuddlement dissipated as he soberly drew up straight in his seat. "It's Arthur, if you don't mind."
"What is it you have to tell me?"
Zero fished three cigarettes and his lighter from his inside breast pocket. He flipped one into his mouth then set the other two beside the saucer in tidy parallel. "Well, the thing is, Arthur, I'm here to kill you. Pass the sugar?"
The range of responses he'd received over the years from that statement varied as widely as the folks to whom he'd offered it. Most often, the person scoffed in disbelief. Some, on the other hand, went instantly ashen. Others trembled and cried, or lashed out in anger as though their credit card had just been declined.
Arthur's was relatively novel. "My," he said with an odd, crooked smile, "I'd say that does qualify as important."
Zero raised an eyebrow. Arty didn't strike him as the sort to attack at the first sign of threat. Nevertheless, best to nip the possibility in the bud. "I think so, too," he said. "So important, in fact, I want you to know something else. See the little girl at the end of the counter there? You cause a scene, and before I kill you, I'll blow the Fruit Loops out of her guts and all over her mommy's nice clean shirt."
Arthur smiled again, nodding. Then he passed the sugar. "Do you mind if I ask how long I have?" He laced his finger in front of him. "Or am I allowed to know?"
Zero didn't look down as he tipped several spoonfuls into his coffee. "I don't mind at all. An hour or so. Unless you're in a hurry."
A shrug. "Not at all. But I am curious as to what or whom I owe the distinction of falling in your sites, as it were."
Zero took a sip from his cup. "Spoken like a true scientist."
"Ah," Arthur said, eyebrows lifted, "so you do know at least a little something of me. How intriguing. But first, my earlier question, if you please."
"Right," Zero said. "Why you. Well, to put it in terms you might appreciate, let's call it random chance."
Arthur shook his head. "The universe too well put together to support so chaotic a phenomenon."
"You be judge. I belong to a small group of, shall we say, enthusiasts. We play a game, put on by a very wealthy, very anonymous sponsor. We call him our Supervisor. Once a year, the players are given lists. On these lists are a couple dozen categories -- places, occupations, times of the day, vehicles. You get the idea. Each item on the lists is worth a certain amount of points. The game is to mix and match the items to get the highest possible combination of points, find a person who fits that description, and ... "
"Record them?" Arthur finished.
Zero tilted his head in appreciation. "Exactly."
He nodded in understanding. "And I assume such a record requires proof?"
"ID, blood, hair. We call them trophies. After each subject is ... recorded, as you put it, the trophies get shipped back to the Home Office and the points are awarded."
"Wherever our Supervisor sets up shop. Changes each game. This year it's London. Before time runs out, the players get together, and there's a banquet of sorts where prizes are awarded. First, second, third place get the lion's share, but everyone takes home something."
"They must be substantial prizes."
Zero took a long pull on his cigarette and exhaled. "An understatement."
Arthur sipped his tea. "You normally do well?"
"I do okay. But this year, thanks to you, I've got a good shot at winning. Should be enough I can retire."
There, again -- the same smile. Unworried. Amused, even. Zero paid closer attention to where Arthur put his hands.
"Nice to know I have value beyond my own self-worth," he said. "It surprises me, though, how openly you talk about your little game. But then, I suppose if you're here to kill me, it doesn't matter how much I know."
"Actually, that's part of the rules. The targets have to know what's going on, and everything has to be face to face. No mail bombs or telescopic lenses. Part of the sport, or so the Supervisor thinks. But yeah, it does sort of remind me of how the bad guys blabbed their master plans to the good guys on a show I watched when I was a kid. The Adventures of Captain Cluster and Rocket Lad. Heard of it?"
"No," replied Arthur, "I'm afraid not."
"Too bad. Good stuff." Zero finished his cigarette and picked up one from the table, carefully replacing it with another from his inside breast pocket before lighting up. "You know, I have to say, you're taking this awfully well."
Arthur dismissed him with a polite toss of the fingers. "I've never been the target of a predator before. It's a brand new experience, and I've always found brand new experiences invigorating. Intellectually speaking, of course."
"Back to my second question. How is it you decided on me?"
"As it happens, the last combination on my list calls for killing a balding red-haired scientist in the desert. I hopped in the car, drove out this way, and started casing college libraries. Made it to Tucson, where you caught my eye. Saw the stacks of books, the notes you left on your table, but I don't know anything about what you're working on."
Arthur leaned forward. "Would you like to?"
A sip of coffee. "Sure. Why not."
"While I like to think myself a student of all sciences, for more years than I care to admit I've been devoted to a personal project in the realm of biochemistry. Tell me, Michael -- I'm sorry, may I call you Michael?"
"Actually, it's Michelangelo. But like I said, Zero will do."
"Michelangelo," Arthur repeated. "I like that very much. Anyway, have you heard of stem cell research?"
"Turning blank cells into other types of cells, right?"
"Indeed. However, my work has revealed the process isn't restricted to merely cells. The material within a cell can be manipulated to manufacture any number of chemicals and compounds."
Zero sniffed. "Afraid I don't see the use."
"Oh, I would think someone of your background would find it most useful. Imagine using a molecular trigger, whose elements occurred naturally within the body, to gather other molecules from the bloodstream, organs, what have you, and form anything you like. Medicinal agents. Or for the ladies, a perfume to be secreted by the sweat glands. And perhaps ... even a slow-acting but very lethal poison."
Zero, about to take a drag, stopped. "Okay, that's interesting."
"And imagine that once the poison had done its work, the trigger molecules lost cohesion. The poison would literally fall apart, rendering it completely untraceable by any known toxicology procedures."
Zero smiled. "Let me guess. You work for the government."
"I used to, but not anymore." He indicated the papers in front of him. "Like I said, this is strictly a personal project." "Well, everyone's got to have something." He took his drag then stubbed out the remainder in the tray. He picked up one of the two cigarettes lying on the table, reached into his inside breast pocket, and replaced it. "So, out of curiosity, how would you go about convincing someone to take this molecular trigger? A pill? Injection?"
"Oh, there'd be no convincing necessary since only a tiny amount of the trigger would be needed to start the process. It could be hidden practically anywhere for someone to ingest. In food. Drink. Condiments." Arthur grinned his strange grin once more. "Like table sugar, for instance."
It took a moment for the gist of Arthur's grin to take hold. But when it did, cold fists clutched Zero's stomach. He glanced down at his half-empty coffee cup.
Arthur leaned back, arms folded confidently. "It takes about forty-eight hours for the trigger to form enough of the toxin to kill. However, within a few hours the steady build-up of poison incapacitates the subject with extraordinarily acute symptoms, similar to influenza."
Toxin. Oh shit.
Zero placed his hands flat on the table and hunched forward, tightening like a tiger about to lunge. "You poisoned me?"
Arthur raised a finger. "Now, now, Michelangelo." His tone was patronizing, like a school marm scolding a noisy child. "There is an antidote. A single dose exists. If you kill me, you too will surely die. And much less swiftly than by a bullet to the head. I would dare say without my help the two days preceding your death will be more horrible than you ever thought possible."
Zero withdrew, forcing himself to settle back into his seat. "You're lying," he said. "You're trying to save your skin."
"True, I'd prefer not to die, but I assure you the poison is real. Of course, ultimately, it's for you to decide. If I'm lying, then killing me here and now will cost you nothing. You'll win your game, collect your money, and live out your days in a Caribbean paradise. If, however, you're wrong -- "
"I wouldn't have to kill you right away," Zero said. "I could start by cutting things off of you until you told me where the antidote is."
"Also true," Arthur replied, "except it happens I'm a severe hemophiliac. Cuts, contusions -- I'd likely soon bleed to death. Plus, the heightened excitedness on your part would speed along the poison spreading through your system."
Zero narrowed his eyes. "You work from home."
Arthur nodded. "Mostly."
"No, not mostly. Since I've been tailing you, you haven't been anywhere except for the library, your house, and here. Meaning the antidote is at home."
"Unless you think it's possible I developed it before I caught your attention. Unless you think it's possible I'd be clever enough not to have hidden it someplace else."
"Then how about this," Zero said, teeth clenched. "You and I go get that antidote of yours where ever it is, or I'll slaughter every person here in front of your fucking eyes. Then feed them to you."
Arthur shrugged. "Your prerogative, but it won't change your circumstance. Besides, I confess it's been awhile since the death of another human being has had much affect on me. More embarrassing to admit, I find the torturous manner in which they die from my experiments rather gratifying -- though I've yet to reason why."
Of course. Experiments.
Zero leaned back against his seat again.
"Oh, yes," Arthur said. "You're not the first person I've used to test my work, you know. Why did you think I made these little trips out to the desert? I can't leave my subjects on the curb with the trash."
He studied Arthur carefully, the little man's expression suddenly becoming all too familiar. So familiar he'd not even recognized it at first.
Arthur's face was a killer's face.
His killer, apparently.
Zero lit another cigarette, neatly replacing it again with another from his inside chest pocket.
He'd stepped into a trap. A big one, like in the cartoons with the pointy steel teeth. For as long as he'd been tracking Arthur, Arthur had been waiting for someone to wander into his web. Hunter becomes prey, all that crap. What was the guy's name who wrote the book about the guy who hunted men on some island?
He took a deep drag of his smoke.
"You said the players of your game gather before time runs out," Arthur said pleasantly. "What would happen if one of you were late?"
"If a player's going to be late," Zero replied through a blue-grey cloud, "best he not show, period. It hardly ever happens, but when someone ditches there's a bounty set for evidence they died. If they're brought back alive, the one who catches them gets both the bounty and all that person's points. Then a ... penalty is enforced."
"My," Arthur said, "if you're as close to winning as you say, you'll be more valuable to them than I was to you."
Zero smirked. "I guess I will."
"When is your next ... meeting?"
"Tomorrow. I'm supposed to catch a flight out of Phoenix tonight and make it to London with a couple hours to spare."
Arthur sighed. "I'm afraid you won't make it."
He smiled. "No, what I mean is it won't be possible for me to get the antidote to you before then."
Zero cocked an eyebrow. "You'll give me the antidote?"
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Well, of course. Why else would I have mentioned it? Here's my offer. You refrain from killing me, I'll leave, fetch the antidote and send it here via overnight delivery. No fair following me -- you can see to the horizon in any direction, so I'll know. You'll have it first thing tomorrow morning, well before the symptoms become unbearable. When you start feeling better, I'll be too far gone for you to worry over tracking me down again. And," he added with a grin that fanned out his mustache, "you'll be too busy making yourself scarce for your playmates."
He chuckled. "If I let you go, what's to prevent you from simply leaving me here to die?"
Arthur's face showed true indignation. "I'm a scientist, sir. I only kill for the sake of furthering the knowledge of mankind. If I'm not around to observe it, to study it, then frankly your death is of little value to me."
Zero exhaled another stream of smoke. "I admire your work ethic."
A thousand times he'd seen the eyes of others who realized they'd lived their last full day. He wished he had a mirror.
He could let Arty go and hope the little man was telling the truth. Then afterward, to survive, he'd begin a life of running that would likely never stop. His colleagues weren't nice people.
Feasible, but ...
But it hardly complemented his reputation.
Victory won't come to me unless I go to it.
No, he had forty-eight hours. He'd drive to the airport and get on his plane. If worse came to worse, better to be somewhere out over the ocean where lost things stay lost. Put enough holes in a fuselage, and adios.
He wouldn't be anyone's trophy.
Victory won't come to me unless I go to it.
A faint smile crept across his face.
"Care to share the thought?" Arthur asked.
"Oh, it's nothing," Zero said. "Just that I have something important you need to know."
He crushed his cigarette, dipped his hand into his inside breast pocket again --
-- and drew his gun, clicking back the hammer and pointing it straight at Arty Feishal's head.
"Something I'm afraid you're not going to like."
A. Christopher Drown ©2005
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