Over the next weeks I worked furiously on the articles the collectors wanted. But it was not for the readers that the stories would be most enlightening. My investigations led me to a closer look at the underbelly of the dying culture -- a tyranny of entropy. All while the gangrenous putrefaction progressed, the diseased corpse said it was growing. People mistook their death throes for signs of life -- and none knew the difference.
Another call came. This time it was to my home. I recognized the businesslike tone of Raylene on the other end of the line. My paranoia check would not allow me to address her by name over the telephone.
"Yes," I said. "They are ready."
I listened carefully to her instructions about meeting her to drop the articles with her. I noticed she gave directions to another spot where I would be told more. The intrigue tightened in my stomach. I replaced the receiver, picked up my stories in a waterproof container, and left my house.
The place I was instructed to go was a public park that fronted the slough that went through this part of town. An ugly metal sculpture stood rusting in the midst of the grassy slope and beneath it, just as I was told, were further details. I was to go to a laundomat about six blocks away and wait.
I was not in the humid atmosphere of the laundry long before Raylene approached from outside with a basket of clothing. She casually entered the steamy business and dumped the clothing in the washer, plugged it with coins, and started the machine. She came and sat in the plastic chair just the other side of the small table containing ancient copies of popular magazines. I set my envelope atop the stack and picked up a copy of a news magazine.
Raylene leaned over to me and asked, "Would you like to try this one?"
She held a copy of a gossip rag.
"Sure," I said taking it from her. I looked through its pages briefly before standing up and leaving with it in my hand. I walked a roundabout way home and stopped several blocks away to page the magazine again. Inside was an envelope which I plucked out and put in my inside coat pocket. The rest of the magazine I dropped in a nearby trash receptacle.
As I walked the remaining blocks I spotted a strange car in front of my house. It was more than a strange car though, it was a private car. I didn't know anybody with the money to own and fuel one. I approached my door and keyed the lock pad. The door swung open and I quietly stepped across the threshold when a voice came from the living room in the rear.
"Oh, you're here. Good," it said.
The sound was familiar but my conscious mind did not want to acknowledge the whiney sound of Ridley -- Trask's lap-dog assistant. Nevertheless, it was he.
I must have looked shocked when he came into view and I had said nothing so Ridley filled the void.
"You missed group last week and I thought you might need some help or something," he said unconvincingly.
I mumbled that I had just been busy when he launched into a theorization about subconscious reasons for missing therapy and why that foretold possible suicidal tendencies.
"Why don't you give me the grand tour?" he asked with a sweeping gesture. "I've seen the downstairs," he added and headed toward the steps to my second floor. I knew that his first vision at the top would be of my study and all the books. I began to object but he was already half way up. I resigned myself to my fate and followed. By the time I reached the top he was already inspecting the shelves and stacks of books I had collected.
"My, my," he said as if alone.I stood in the doorway. I still wore my damp overcoat. Ridley continued to look over the volumes before him. Slowly, he turned to me.
"Pretty depressing stuff, here, Foster. It seems you've been scamming us about your recovery."
"Not hard to do," I replied flatly.
"And such an attitude. This seems to be a major relapse for you. You're going to need more intensive help than was supposed," he said edging toward the door.
I could see that he was hoping to bolt out of the room. I also knew if this came to the attention of Trask -- or any of his bunch -- that I would be on a one-way trip to the gulags.
"I think the one that needs help here is a young man who has broken into my home -- whom I found ransacking my place," I said evenly.
I was mentally measuring the effects of a struggle with a man so young and healthy. Though he had these advantages, I had one that would assure my victory -- I had learned to fight unfairly, that is to say, to win. I had had my share of rough life in the past. Most of the young pups these days had been brought up in state daycare centers where wimpy teachers sought to teach the fashionable and groundless ideals of a simpering, soft society. They had been spoon-fed "conflict resolution," instead of battle, "interdependence" instead of independence, and "cooperative skills" instead of competition. Their effeminate "male role-models" gave them no vision of physical power. It was unlikely that Ridley was made of sterner stuff and I banked on that assumption.
My mind was instantly made up. I would survive. I stepped up to the young man and pushed him on the chest.
Unprepared for a physical response on my part, he fell back, and landed in a stuffed chair which teetered back against a table bearing a pile of my precious books. The pile fell atop his head and into his lap. My right hand reached to the cluttered desk and found the letter opener. Instantly, I was standing over him. He cleared the books away from his face just in time to see the opener in my hand, look in my eyes, and open his mouth. I drove the point of the knife-like opener into his kidney as he tried to turn to his side. His mouth remained open but no sound emitted. His bladder emptied. His body went limp.
The kidney stab was a maneuver I had learned while covering a guerrilla group in the late 1970s. I had never had occasion to use such things before but, in some of my work, I tried to be aware of them.
I must have stood for several minutes before realizing that I would need to do something serious. A body in one's home is not the ideal situation. Ridley's car out front was sure to draw attention if it remained too long. I rifled Ridley's pockets for the magnetic card to open and start the car. It had been years since I had driven -- I wasn't even sure I could decipher the controls.
I scurried out to the vehicle and found that the basics had not changed much. I started the engine and pulled the vehicle down the street about a mile to a place where it might be overlooked for at least a week.
Walking home, I thrashed around mentally for a solution to my dilemma. It would be nearly impossible to move the body out of the house without being seen -- unless it was inside something. The solution had not appeared by the time I returned.
Suddenly, I recalled the envelope in my inside coat pocket. I pulled the damp paper out and examined the contents. Inside was a UniMed card with my picture and the name, Aaron White. The UniMed card had all but replaced driver's licenses as a universal identification card.
A note told me who to contact in Phoenix, Arizona when I decided to flee and instructed me on how to leave word for Raylene or one of her cohorts before I left. This was important, the note said, because the man in Phoenix would not be expecting Aaron White until they told him to. The final instruction was to destroy the note.
I read the name and contact number aloud to myself several times then walked over to my tobacco humidor where there were matches and lit the paper laying it in the ashtray.
That is when the reality of what I had done hit me. I sat down in my chair and began to shake. This continued for a while and then I fell asleep from exhaustion. It was morning when I awoke. I remembered the previous night's events and still had no plan of action. I knew my best tactic for the moment was to feign normalcy and go to work.
I climbed the stairs averting my eyes from the study where my deceased nemesis lay. I showered, shaved, and dressed, all carefully avoiding the sight of the front room. My plan was to use this day to try to decide how to rid myself of the body and avert any suspicion.
That's not going to be easy, I thought to myself as I boarded the tram for work.
When I arrived at the paper, I checked my assignment file and came up with two relatively drab stories that needed to be knocked out. One gave me an excuse to spend part of the day at the library and other places outside the office. It would provide a cover for my inattention to work. However, when I returned shortly after 2 p.m., a message light blinked on my desk. The note was from Trask -- he wanted a return call.
Hesitantly, I punched his extension.
"H'lo, Trask. Foster. What d'ya need?"
"I've been looking for Ridley. Have you seen him? He didn't come in today -- or even call. There's no answer at his home," Trask said. "It's not like him. He told me he was going to visit you yesterday. Did he?"
I thought of my plan to play normal and answered, "Yeah, as a matter of fact. I was real surprised. He visited for about an hour then left -- oh, I suppose about 8 last night."
"Hm," Trask sounded. "Did he say where he was going afterwards?"
"No, I don't think so," I replied.
The conversation ended but I knew that this ruse would not last long. I was going to have to make a fast break. I left my desk and headed downstairs to the bank machine which inhabited the first floor of the building. There I withdrew the maximum I could in cash and stuffed it in my pocket. I jumped the bus home, packed a small totebag with clothing and a few necessities, and rode another bus downtown and entered the underground economy at the homeless shelter. I had changed into more casual clothing so as to blend in, but they were as yet far too clean to pass as the uniform of the bum corps.
My identity as Foster, newsperson, lay on top of my dresser at home. I had considered setting the house afire and hoping someone would assume the body was mine but I could not bring myself to heap arson -- with the possibility of taking other homes out -- to the killing and its attendant guilt.
I approached the man in the corner who had a transportation network. I slipped him a large bill and said, "I need to get to Phoenix."
"No prob, my man," he said reeking of marijuana.
Go To Chapter Ten