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It was the shirts that had first caught my eye. They were each of them wearing pale denim work shirts with some sort of logo above the breast pocket. They didn't actually look like they worked in them, mind you -- they were more decorative. A company, perhaps? A church group?
Never mind. I've always been a sucker for a woman in a man's shirt. I don't know what imprinted me during some tender adolescent year, but I've always just thought it was damned sexy. Not that these women were sexy, at least not that way. But ... it still caught my eye.
Three of them. At first glance, I thought they were sisters. Second glance cleared that up for me, and made me wonder why I'd thought that. They were too widely varied in ages, and appearance.
The one seated closest to me, back turned, was tall, if slightly hunched with age, hair silver-white and long and straight. Her thin, veined hands were pointing at the table, as she argued some point or another with her mates.
The one on the left that I could see more clearly was middle-aged, maybe older -- black hair streaked with silver, maybe even more salt than pepper, cut in a short bob. She was slender, too, though wiry. Her skin was dark, Mediterranean -- Jewish, maybe, looking at her features. She was sipping a drink, looking back at the older woman impassively.
On the right was the youngest. She was plump, stocky, blond hair coming down to her shoulders. She was smiling, and that looked right in the folds of her face. She had a wine glass in front of her, mostly untouched.
A wine glass. That was what I needed. A whole bottle, maybe. It had been a long day's travel, and my trip wasn't finished yet. Though the way the snow was coming down outside, I might have to lay over more than one day.
Not like I was in a hurry. But I hated travelling. I liked getting there.
And not that "there" was anything special. An apartment, new to me and presumably clean and furnished in early 21st Century Rental. My boxes should arrive in a few days, what was left over after Sara picked at the remains of our assets, a big crow tearing off rotten strips from the roadkill of our five years together.
That was all I’d ever get. Those few boxes. The rest ...
I'd heard about this place somewhere, though now I wasn't quite sure where. I knew I wasn't thinking very clearly these days. What was in front of my nose was what was in focus -- the rest was just a blur I was trying to not pay any attention to. A glass of wine would help extend that blur.
This was one of a couple of bars at this place, a ramshackle motel/inn/B&B that tied together a dozen disparate buildings into a hodgepodge of rooms to sleep, rooms to read, rooms to eat and drink. It was in the middle of nowhere, far enough off the Interstate that the sound of the big rigs was barely audible, but close enough to give easy directions to.
I considered a moment, a fleeting thought. Maybe it was that truck driver who'd told me about it, over boilermakers back in Cheyenne. Maybe I'd spotted it on the Internet before Sara took the PC. I'd had reservations, anyway, when I'd pulled up and checked in. At least they knew my name and had given me a room.
I glimpsed snowflakes flickering by the dark windows. This room was as much just a widening of the hall as a distinct chamber. A pair of corridors intersected from two buildings, and extended in a diagonal that bisected the area between the bar and the tables, to lead on to the next building, an old house of some sort that, a floor above, included the restaurant I planned to eat at that night.
If I ate. I was dog tired. Too long of a drive. Maybe just one drink.
The bar was done up in what I called faux lumberjack style. Rustic chic. Lots of knotty pine paneling and timber support beams and things like. Lighting was from small sconces on the wall, diffused and softened through fake horn lenses.
I realized I was leaning on the bar. The guy behind it, a burly blonde in a checked shirt and jeans, bearing a name tag that said, improbably, "Antonio," was handing me a glass of wine.
I stared at him a second, feeling like an idiot.
Antonio nodded over at the table. "The ladies."
I blinked, and looked over at them. Whatever they'd been discussing, or arguing, or involved in had been suspended. They were all returning my gaze, each of them smiling. The young, pudgy one gestured to the chair next to her.
"Uh, thanks," I told Antonio, and wandered over. The rest of the bar's half-dozen tables were empty. The juke box, mercifully, sat dark and unplugged in the corner. And there were several large "No Smoking" signs around.
I circled the table and sat in one of the hard, wooden chairs, nodding. "Hi."
I started to take a sip, then lifted my glass to them. "Cheers."
“Cheers,” said the young one.
“Salud,” said middle one.
The older one said something, too, but I didn’t understand it, unless it was a gargled sneeze
The wine was good. It was quite good. I wondered what he'd poured me. "So, uh ... thanks for the drink. Nice stuff."
The older woman nodded. "It is a stock he keeps for us. A friend of had several cases sent here. I'm Alexis." Her voice was ... not quite musical, but rhythmic, as though she were reciting a poem in free verse. She had an odd accent.
The middle-aged woman continued. "We drink some of it each time we visit." Her voice was slightly haughty, professional, chiding. I felt a bit like when my mom used to scold me, though there was nothing here that I was being scolded about. "I'm Maggie."
Before I could give my name, the blond chimed in. "It will be gone soon, though. Nothing lasts forever. I'm Tissy."
Damn. I had thought I was over this. Everything they said – everything anyone said -- reminded me of Sara. It had been six months and three days since she’d told me she wanted a divorce. It had been eight days since that decree had come in, giving her most of our stuff and all of my soul. It had been four days since I’d made final arrangements for all of the above, just before getting in the car and driving in this direction.
Nothing lasts forever.
I blinked. I’d faded out again. Sometimes I tried to do that, at least facing the big stuff. Too painful to think of what had happened, what Sara had done, what I had done. I just let it blur off to the sides, but it kept creeping back in front of my face, blocking my sight and my ears and my tongue, grabbing my attention like a monster squid in a horror movie, dragging me under …
"Tissy," I said, nodding. "Maggie. Alex. I'm Rob. Rob Leeds."
I kicked myself a little bit. They hadn't used last names. Why had I? Not exactly the suavest kid on the block.
Though, on the other hand, if they could say they’d seen me here, knew me by name – tonight --
They smiled. "You've been traveling," Maggie said. I felt suddenly guilty about it.
"Well, uh, yeah. I'm on my way up north. Got a new job up there."
"And your old job?" That was Alexis. "What old thing have you left behind for a new one?" Her eyes were a piercing blue, her voice slightly wavery.
"I -- quit. I needed to leave town, they didn't want me to, end of story."
"You were mistreated?" Alexis asked. "They abused you?"
I took another sip of wine. It was good. I'd have to ask what it wsa. "Well, yeah, to be honest. They have offices all over the place, but when I asked to move to a different one, they said no. No reason, the job doesn't require it, just, no."
"You don't like being abused, do you?" Tissy. She leaned forward. She was short, like Maggie (and unlike stately, yet age-hunched Alexis), but large and imposing. "You won't let folks take advantage of you."
Like Sara. She'd taken advantage.
I edged away from that thought, let it slip into the blur to either side of me. Instead, I shrugged. "Who would?"
"Not someone like you," Alexis agreed.
"Not someone who's faced abuse," Maggie added.
"Not someone who swore to never let that happen again," Tissy finished.
Another image edged out of the blur. My father, a belt, a dark closet, pain and tears and -- "No!" I said, just a bit too loudly.
Antonio glanced over, then went back to cleaning glasses.
I looked at the women. They looked all different, yet they all looked similar. Was it only their eyes on me, watching as if I were about to do something really, really intersting and they didn't want to miss it? Or was it just the shirts? Jeans, and denim work shirts -- with some sort of elaborate logo on over the breast pocket. Greek letters, vines intertwined about them. A sorority?
“So, in town for a convention?” I asked.
“Family,” Alexis said. “What is most important.”
“Blood ties,” sniffed Maggie. “A sacred bond.”
“Kin,” chuckled Tissy. “Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.” She gestured at her table mates. “We’re the Aarons.”
I tried to meet her chuckle, but it was hard. I felt uncomfortable, as though they were all laughing at me. “Well, nice to meet you, then. So what --"
Tissy reached into a pocket in her jeans. She came back out with a small box. Maggie gave a deep sigh. Alexis nodded.
She pushed the box over toward me. It was wrapped festively in bright yellow paper, small enough that the overall pictures were difficult to discern. It might have been a cartoony birthday cake, or it might have been a bear. Rather than a bow, it was tied with twine, dyed red.
I chuckled, more to hide my nervousness than anything else. “You invite me to your table. You buy me a glass of wine. And now a gift? People might talk.”
“Oh, they’ll talk.” Tissy grinned, mischief in her eyes, Atlanta in her voice, smile lines around her eyes. I remembered Sara’s eyes looking like that, a long time ago. “You’ll see to that.”
“Your actions will speak louder than your words,” said Maggie. Certainty rang in her voice. “The words of others, though, will live longer.”
“Long life is not all it is said to be.” Alexis added. She looked like she would know. Her hands were thin, her fingers long, the veins roping across their backs. She had some sort of foreign accent. “A short life is sometimes better – and oft a necessity.”
“Uh ... right.”
I pulled the twine off. It felt cool, almost damp. The paper was thick and glossy. Inside was a jewelry box, small and maroon velvet, a spring-latched hinge on the back.
I looked around to see if anyone else was watching. Nobody, except the glass-cleaning Antonio. Even as I watched, he put up a small sign that said, “Bar closed. Visit the Hearth Room,” and headed off, whistling. Aside from that, there was nobody. And nobody had passed by since I’d come to the bar
I smiled at them through my confusion. (Sara always thought that smile was one of my less pleasant features. I let that thought slip into the blur to either side..)
I opened the jewelry case.
And dropped it to the table.
Three bullets, set nose-upward in a triangle in the velveteen bottom of the case.
“You know what they are. Bullets for a gun,” said Alexis.
“Bullets which fit your gun,” Maggie chided. “You still have your gun.” It was not a question.
My gun was sitting in my room. I didn’t know if I was glad it was there, or if I really wished it was here. Both.
“Someone like you would still have his gun. Nobody could take that from you.” Tissy grinned at me.
Sara had threatened to ask for it in the settlement, for “protection,” though really just out of spite. Bitch. She knew what it meant to me. I’d had to make a lot of concessions, even though the lawyer said she probably couldn’t have gotten it. I’d had that gun since I’d left home. It meant so much, just for that.
And, of course, I hadn’t had it shipped on. Had to have it with me. The road was dangerous. Lonely stretches through the woods. Crowded cities. Carjackers. Folks out to hurt you.
Just let them try.
Though I hadn’t fired it for weeks. I’d made sure of that. I knew they would check. It wasn’t even loaded. Didn’t even have ammo with me. Just waving it around can scare folks off. It was a talisman.
The bullets in the small box were the right caliber. Bright copper heads, brass casings ... small, metal lozenges of death. Put that way, it seemed almost poetic.
“What are these for?” My voice sounded way too calm.
“You will use them, each of the three,” intoned Alexis. Her words were poetic, too, almost chanted.
“You will use them, for all the right reasons,” added Maggie. Who could deny that voice?
“You’ll use them,” Tissy finished up. “But you’ll agree about it, I promise.”
I stood up, chair sliding back behind me into the wall. “Ladies, thanks for the wine, and I appreciate the thought -- whatever it was. But the guy who checked me in said they had a restaurant with great barbecue on the menu here, and I –“
“Sit down!” Maggie commanded. “Will you not avenge a helpless child?”
“What?” I sat down. I wanted to hear what she had to say. Yeah, that was it.
“In the room atop the stairs of green, two-score and seven,” said Alexis, “rests a man of brutality and pain.”
“He beat his kid every day, and twice on Sunday,” explained Tissy. “Just ‘cause that was the day of worship for his God, and he thought beating a child was the greatest way to serve.”
A darkened room. The closet. I could feel the jackets and coats over me. I could feel the boxes, the vacuum cleaner, behind me. I could feel the shoes beneath me.
And then the door opened, and he was there. Daddy. With a belt, shouting, glaring, drunk, ranting ...
And I pushed it all into the blur to either side of me. I’d left those days behind. I’d escaped. I had a gun. Daddy can never hurt me again.
Which was stupid, because Daddy was dead, had died in prison after killing Mommy, long after I’d run off. Sara had laughed at the story, said I had to get over it, stop living in the past, stop --
I blinked, shook my head. “What kid – what do you mean –“
“He served his dark and terrible Lord,” Alexis explained. “Like Abraham, he offered up the pain of his son.”
“His son died,” Tissy went on. The smile was gone now. “Beaten to death with the guy’s bare fists.”
“He struck his son until the bones broke within him, and fluid filled his brain,” Maggie said. “And then he buried him out in the woods, and said he’d run away.”
I’d run away. If I hadn’t, what would have happened to me? “The police –“
“Don’t know, and don’t care,” Tissy said. There were no twinkles in her eyes. “Nobody was there, nobody knows different.”
“But you could tell –“
“Nobody knows the truth,” said Alexis. “Except you.”
“Only you,” said Maggie. “Only you can avenge the boy.”
“But –“ My protest was weaker. If the guy's really gotten away with murder –
I thought of Daddy, and could feel the rage building in me.
“He travels to a new town, too,” Alexis told me. Her rheumy eyes fixed me, and her hair rippled in silver strands about her shoulders. “He will find a new mate. And she will have a child. And he will begin again.”
“He will begin again,” Maggie said, disapprovingly, her eyes like flames. “And, every night, he’ll smile, righteously certain he acts with virtue.”
“Every night, he’ll smile,” Tissy growled. She didn’t look fat. She looked filled with something dark and powerful. “And he’ll laugh, knowin’ he got away with it.”
I stood up again. “Dammit. Somebody’s got to –“
I grabbed at the jewelry box, but Tissy had pulled it back first. She pulled one of the bullets out and tossed it to me. I caught it in mid-air, and headed for my room.
It was later – I didn’t know how much later – but I was back in the bar. The gun was back in my room, where it belonged. I couldn’t bear the thought of touching it, now, of having it in my pocket.
There was another glass of wine in front of me, and the Aarons were there, too.
I was numb. The blur rose up around me, and I was afraid to even glance at it, even as the flickers of images bubbled out – a knock on Room 47, a man answering the door, the gun raised, the thunder –
“Have another drink,” Tissy said. “You’ll feel better for it.”
“Aren’t you pleased with yourself?” Maggie asked. “Don’t you agree this was justice?”
“Justice must be served,” Alexis said in her wavering tones. “In the end, justice must be served.”
“Yeah. I guess.” I didn’t want to think of it. Killing. To actually see it ...
The jewelry box was on the table. The hole where the bullet had been reminded me of the bullet in the man’s head. The other two –
“But justice remains needy,” Alexis continued. “An even darker crime goes unpunished.”
“Nobody has caught her,” Maggie said. “And she waxes fat on the proceeds of her crime.”
“Her own mom,” Tissy said, angry tears in her eyes. “She didn’t give her the medicine, and let her die.”
“What?” I blinked at them. There was too much on my mind. I couldn’t focus on what they were saying.
“Let her die, and nobody every suspected,” Tissy said. “Cruel, heartless, evil.”
“Let her suffer and choke on lungs that couldn’t breath,” Maggie said. “Faithless, murderous, darkness.”
“Sent her to her grave, knowing her own child would profit from her death,” Alexis said. “Desolate, suffering, unavenged.”
I thought of Sara. She hadn’t cried when her mom passed on at that home. I’d been shocked at her callousness. And now she sat there, with both her own inheritance, and most of my worldly goods. Or would have, if –
Ashes, ashes, we all fall --
“Will you let this go? Theft from one who suffers?”
“Stealing from the dying, heedless of the pain she’s caused?”
“She does not care. But we do.”
They were looking at me, and for a moment, they didn’t look all that different. Shadows wriggled and burned, and I knew that someone who did something like that, betraying her own kin, her own family, really didn’t deserve to live. And I have my gun, and --
Maggie reached from the darkness, through the blur, and handed me the second bullet.
. . .
The table, pine and lacquer and a few burn marks from a pre-“No Smoking” era, filled my vision. The glass of wine, red and cloudy like blood, stood by it. I was staring at the patterns in the wood. If I could just focus on the whorls and grain, I wouldn’t be able to see anything else.
“It was well done,” Maggie said, approval dripping from her words. “She knew fear before she died.”
“Terror for her sins unexpiated,” agreed Alexis. “Then justice was done.”
“Justice for her crimes against kin and family,” added Tissy. “Pity there’s more where that came from.”
"No," I said, softly. "No more, please." I tried not to meet their gaze. Sara’s face came, unbidden. Sneering. I'm leaving you. And I'm taking it all.
Tissy leaned toward me. “One more bullet, one more crime.”
“One more crime, one more punishment,” nodded Maggie.
“One more punishment,” agreed Alexis, “and then you can rest.”
I shook my head. The woman had screamed, but her room had been back somewhere out of the way in this maze of buildings. Nobody had heard her, and, like the first bullet, the second had been a silent whisper. I didn’t know if my ears had lied, or my memory, or –
“A man of wrath,” Alexis intoned. Her eyes, clouded before, were now blue fire, wreathed by the silver strands of her hair which twisted and turned. “A man who killed of his family.”
“A man of wrath,” Maggie pronounced. Disgust dripped from her lip, as shadows covered her face. “A man who murdered rather than be spurned.”
“A man of wrath,” Tissy chanted along. Muscles, not fat, rippled beneath her skin. “Who, unable to let go, killed his wife.”
I started, looked at them. They were the Aarons again.
And what they were saying. How -- “I didn’t –“
“A man of fear,” Alexis said, her voice a-quiver with age, “who couldn’t let go.”
“A man of fear,” Maggie nodded. She wrinkled her dark nose. “Who couldn’t bear the thought of seeing it happen -- or of being caught.”
“A man of fear,” Tissy agreed, shaking her head. “Couldn’t do it himself, so he hired someone to gun her down, then burn the body in her home – once his home – while he was busy traveling to another city, so that he had an alibi.”
“Someone who buys the death of his own wife, flesh of his flesh. Someone like that deserves to die,” Tissy said. She got up, wandered away, still shaking her head.
“Someone driven mad by remorse, who goes on a killing spree at his hotel, murdering strangers in their room. Such deserves to die,” Maggie said. She got up and walked away, back stiff and straight.
“Someone who kills kin, who cannot be brought to the law. A man of this sort, he deserves to die.” Alexis stood up, tall and unbowed now. “Do you not agree, Mr. Leeds?”
She took the last bullet from the case, and placed it on the table before me, balanced on the base of its shell. Then she left.
I stared at it for a long time. Then took it, and headed back to my room.
-- Dave Hill