Lightning flickered and flashed in the clouds on the western horizon like an X-ray exposing an outline of bones and a skull with hallow eyes and an empty smile. An electric arm reached out to the east with spindly fingers that curled above a cabin where four men carried a stuffed hockey bag like palm bearers at a funeral.
A man with a gold tooth dropped his end of the bag and stared at the top of the mountain. “Are we safe here? That slope looks like it could turn into a mudslide.”
“You’d rather be a target in the city, Goldie?” A taller, skinnier man named Ankles kicked him from behind. He wore a single handcuff clamped around his leg. The metal dug into Goldie’s skin. Goldie rubbed his backside and gave Ankles a dirty look.
A shorter man with wild, white hair unlocked the door. “Pick up the bag and let’s go.” He sucked in the electric charge that remained in the air and entered. They dumped the hockey bag in the corner by a dusty fireplace.
Saul brushed back his white hair and slumped into a recliner. He had written a check as a deposit for this place. The landlord lived on the property next door. With only one road down the mountain, he’d know when the old man would go into town and try to cash it. A check from an expired account. Owner deceased years ago. Beck, the fourth man, did a little research on the old man. A hermit no one would know had died…if it came to that. The perfect hideout.
The job had gone well. Every hitch and hiccup taken care of. A storage unit with diamonds, bricks of gold, and loose cash. Property of a cautious thief. Saul’s cellmate for three years. The thief had stolen more than he spent and hoarded the rest until his wife got impatient with his promises and turned him in. Saul found ways to gain his trust. When the thief paroled before Saul, he let it slip where he’d hid the stash. Saul hired Beck to take care of the thief.
The cabin had four rollaway beds, a moldy bathroom, kitchen with cabinets doors missing and a living room with a stained sofa, a broken recliner and an old 19-inch tube TV. Beck turned on the crappy, old thing and flipped the dial for channels that displayed fuzzy images through snowy static. He watched a grainy late night talk show and tuned out. It was important to keep Beck tuned out.
Beck worked well as driver and lookout. Anyone passing by kept their noses to the ground. He was a challenge for witnesses in lineups because no one would stare at him long enough to get a decent description. At best you’d get pale olive skin with a single, thick eyebrow and the stare of death in his eyes.
“What kind of food we got in this place?” Goldie rummaged through the cupboards.
“You had dinner, didn’t you?” Saul shouted. “Worry about something else.”
Goldie was too big to push around but too soft to be a threat. The big man sulked over to the window.
It wasn’t the police they were hiding from. Others knew Saul had learned the location of the stash. Others would be following. Isolation is what they needed and a single road to see them coming. They’d be ready up here.
Beck pulled back his lips like the smile of a skull and started laughing hysterically at the TV. “Do I really look like that?” He pointed at a news bulletin with a video of himself. His mask lifted over his face. His hand blurred out but it was obvious he was flipping off the security camera.
“What the hell, Beck!” Ankles stared at the TV. “That was stupid.”
Beck smiled. “What are you worried about? They’re not going to find us.”
“That was reckless, Beck.” Saul sat up. “Now we’ve got everyone’s attention.”
“You worry too much, Saul.”
“Um, guys.” Goldie hunched over the window. His broad, round shoulders blocked the view. “That old man in the cabin down by the creek has his TV on. It’s dark but the lights flicker at the same time the images change on this TV.”
“So?” Beck rolled his eyes.
“The old man ever get a good look at you?” Saul asked.
“I may have talked to him. Yeah.”
“Stupid.” Ankles stood over Beck, like judge and jury. Not a good position to be in with Beck.
“Relax.” Beck waved him away. “We need to keep moving every few days anyway.”
“No.” Saul kept his voice calm. He’d seen what happened to guys who got angry with Beck. “The plan is to stay put, until we find some buyers.”
“The old man doesn’t have a cell phone. Told me himself. No internet either.”
“Unbelievable.” Goldie threw his hands in the air.
“So you talked to him?” Saul kept Beck focused on him.
“Yeah, it was quicker that way instead of all that spying and investigating. Didn’t take long to find out he’s a lonely loser.”
“Saul,” Goldie beckoned him to the window. “I see telephone wires coming off the roof of the old man’s cabin.”
“Well there you go.” Ankles pointed to the window. “He’s probably calling right now.”
The three of them stared at Beck.
“Fine. I’ll take care of it.” Beck got up.
“Just cut the phone wires, right?” Goldie asked the group for confirmation.
“Yeah, sure.” Beck went out the door with his coat slung over his arm. “Just the phone wires.”
Ankles stared at Goldie and whispered to Saul. “This job’s getting complicated.”
Saul shook his head. What could he do?
Rain started to pound the roof and the TV lost its signal, hissing out a gritty static. Ankles stretched out on the couch and flicked the cuff around his leg. The chain clinked with every rotation. Goldie tapped his fingers on the window and hummed a tune. No one spoke but Saul prayed for a little silence. He got his answer with a flash of lightning and a crack-boom of thunder.
“He didn’t cut the phone wires.” Goldie went pale. “Beck went inside.”
“Relax. The old man knows him. Beck’s just checking if he saw the news.” Saul went to the other window.
The lights in the other cabin came on. Beck rushed by a window. A lamp fell over and the cabin went dark. Figures danced in front of the flickering light of the TV and then it too went dark.
“What’s going on? Why’d the lights go out?” Goldie steamed up the window.
A figure crept out of the cabin and got in an old pickup truck. It knocked and whirred then started up. The headlights came on and the pickup drove up the hill, slipping over rocks, splashing in mud. The truck slowed down by their cabin and the interior light came on. Beck ran a finger across his neck.
“Why did he have to do that?” Goldie held a hand over his neck.
The pickup spun its tires on the mountain road and accelerated around the bend.
“He left. I can’t believe it.” Ankles stared at Saul. “What about his share?”
“He’ll show up later.” Saul pulled a gun out of the hockey bag. “He trusts me.”
“And if he gets caught?” Ankles grabbed the other one. “Will he give us away?”
“No. I’m certain of that.” Saul knew Beck wouldn’t give anyone a chance to ask questions. He had a kill or be killed mentality.
“There’s a dead body in there now, isn’t there?” Goldie spoke up. “We should bury it. It’s the right thing to do.”
Saul didn’t budge. That kind of work was for the other guy. The poor sap who believed that hard work and an honest living will get you into heaven. Saul had no intention of leaving this cabin.
Goldie looked from Saul to Ankles. “The old man must have food. We could grab it after we bury him. What do you say?”
Goldie begged until Saul agreed. Goldie wouldn’t go alone but letting him go with Ankles was a bad idea. Ankles would tease him and rile him up. Saul needed calm. He had to keep everyone happy. He agreed they would dump the body in the cellar, cover it up, grab some food and leave. Saul checked the bullets in his gun. It was going to be a long and sleepless night.
He and Goldie slogged over to the other cabin as the rain let up. Saul entered first and warmed his hands on the radiator. Silence. He didn’t turn on the light right away. He wanted to enjoy the peace. He wanted to curl up like a cocoon and remove himself from the chaos of the day. Tempting to just lay down and rest.
The old man had decorated his cabin with useless stuff: a record player, another 19-inch tube TV, a wall full of paperbacks and boring ass books of poetry. At the top of the bookshelf Saul discovered one bottle of wine and two fingers of whiskey left in a dusty bottle. That was coming with him.
Goldie found the body on the kitchen floor. “See? Didn’t even move him. If we came here tomorrow, the old man would have stunk up the place.” Goldie shook his head and whispered, “Disrespectful.”
They dragged the body down to the cellar and left it on the floor. Goldie searched the cabinets for a blanket and turned on a light in the corner. White light flashed and blinked. Goldie screamed. A body lay on a table wrapped in a clear, plastic bag. Long grey hair. A faded red sweater over a floral dress. Blue veins on the calves and low-heeled shoes.
“What the hell.” Saul came closer.
“You think he killed his wife?” Goldie covered his mouth and took deep breaths.
“Looks like it.”
The room smelled of formaldehyde. Jars on the shelves had been filled with body parts: teeth, a foot, fingers, and a heart. Saul backed away. His stomach convulsed but he fought it down. He grabbed Goldie by the jacket and pulled him away. They rushed upstairs and ran back their cabin.
“Where’s the food?” Ankles sat next to the hockey bag with a gun pointed at the door.
Goldie told him what happened, described the other body and the things they saw. Ankles didn’t believe him so Goldie described it in detail. Saul told him to shut up.
“This is perfect. Don’t you see?” Goldie’s eyes lit up. “We can call it in. We’ll be heroes. We’ll say we discovered the woman’s body, the old man attacked us, and we killed him. They might even give us a reward.”
“Brilliant plan, Einstein.” Ankles threw a wad of cash at him. “And how do we explain ourselves? We tell them we came up here for some deer hunting with these hand guns?”
Goldie had his phone out ready to make the call.
“Get your head out of your ass, Goldie.” Saul slapped the phone out of his hands. “The hero will be the cop who catches us and finds the bodies next door. We don’t get to be the good guys here.”
“I was just trying to help.” Goldie lumbered into the bedroom and shut the door.
Ankles pointed his gun at the bedroom. “Where’d you get that guy?”
“He’s strong. Wedged the safe door away from the wall, didn’t he?”
“There’s plenty of strong guys available for a job, Saul.”
“He said he owed me a favor. Insisted on helping me. I’ve no idea what the favor was.”
“Think he’ll call the cops.”
“No. We explained it well enough. Probably should have been a little kinder, though.”
“Right. Kinder.” Ankles spun the cuff around his leg. “In this business?”
The rain had stopped. The only noise outside was the trickle of water from the gutters.
Saul pointed at Ankles. “Why do you wear that thing on your leg. You could pick the lock in seconds.”
Ankles scoffed. “This is a reminder not to put too much faith in my fellow human beings.” He flicked the chain. “Even you, Saul. Nothing personal.”
The door to the bedroom burst open and Goldie grabbed his jacket off a hook on the wall. “I’m leaving. I don’t care what happens to me.”
“You’re not taking the van.” Saul went to the door.
“In this weather?” Ankles chuckled. “You’ll probably end up in a mudslide.”
“I don’t care. I’m going. I won’t say anything to anyone. Not about you guys. Not about the old man. Take my share. I’ve had enough.”
“We will.” Ankles said. “You can be sure of that.”
Goldie left. Ankles whispered ‘good riddance’ but with no one to tease, he paced in silence for fifteen minutes before bursting.
“I’m going back to the other cabin to get some food.”
Saul stretched out on the recliner facing the front door. Pistol on his chest. He closed his eyes and saw images of the day’s events. The storage unit. The dust kicked up in the narrow room when they wedged the safe from the wall. Images of junk while Ankles worked the safe and Goldie held the flashlight. Leaving to get fresh air. Beck smacking the tied up security guard with the butt of his gun. A family portrait on a desk. Beck’s lost eyes when Saul told him to let up. Returning outside for fresh air. A boom that he convinced himself was thunder. That he told the others was thunder. A promise he made that it would be a simple job. And the drive to the mountains as oncoming car after oncoming car passed by with glimpses of eyes that watched from every driver’s side window.
Saul bolted up. A cold sweat had dampened his shirt. Deep sleep would be impossible for many nights to come. First chance he’d get, he’d drink himself into oblivion.
The reception on the TV cleared and the news showed three photos of missing woman. One looked familiar. Flowing gray hair. Faded red sweater over a floral dress. The body in the cellar! Saul sucked in his breath. A serial killer. The old man’s a serial killer. The cops have been searching for several months. They’ll come here for the wrong reasons. Shit.
Someone knocked on the door and then opened it.
“Hello?” A woman’s voice sang out. “Anyone here?”
Saul jumped to his feet, pistol in hand.
“Oh, I’ve startled you.”
She wore a long black raincoat with a hood and knee-high leather boots. Fashionable and practical for both city and woods.
Saul pointed the gun at her.
“You can put that down.” She pointed with her umbrella. “I’m not going to shoot you with this.”
“What do you want?”
“I came to collect the rent. They all said you had it.”
“Well, there was bushy eyebrows, cro-magnon forehead. Somber walk.”
“Beck.” Saul whispered. The others had found them.
“He seemed to be in a hurry, so I gave him a ride to hell. Put his head on the barrel of my shotgun and yelled, ‘Do it. Do it,’ in his best tough guy voice.” She let out a guttural laugh. “Gave himself away in the end. A flinch of fear in the eyes. Some regret? Or task left undone? We’ll never know.”
Saul eased away from the recliner and moved to the kitchen.
“I met your other friend caked in mud along the road. The one with the gold tooth? Nice guy. Very polite.”
Saul moved deeper into the kitchen and she turned to face him, putting her back to the window with the open curtain.
“He apologized profusely. Said he let down his family.”
Outside the window, the figure of a man limped along the path holding his side.
“He just wanted to be forgiven. Not my area, so I sent him to a higher power.”
Ankles approached the window. Held up a bloody hand that rattled the pane. He fell, leaving a bloody streak on the glass.
She never turned around. “That’d be your friend. The one wearing my ankle bracelet.”
She went over to the window, opened it, and fired. A shotgun behind her umbrella. Ankles screamed. “This one is in serious denial. Kept saying it wasn’t possible. I almost believed him. He fired three shots at me and missed. No conviction when he pulled the trigger.” Her voice began to hiss. “You gotta mean it. Eh, Saul?”
“Who are you?” Saul kept his gun pointed at her.
She put her hood over her head. “I have many names. But only one job.”
“And I’m next.”
“That depends. Can you pay the rent?”
“The stash is over there. In the bag.”
“That’s already mine, Saul.”
“You’re Cesarino’s wife.”
“Girlfriend actually. Until he bored me. I moved on. Got into a more serious relationship with old man Gregor down the road. He was crafty.” She purred. “They only know about three missing persons.”
“I’ve got nothing to pay with. No jobs set up.”
“Your money’s no good to me, Saul. What I want is something more precious. A little piece of your soul. Each month. You made a hefty deposit knocking off my thief, the security guard and my favorite old man next door.”
“Those were all Beck.”
“But who ordered it, Saul? Hmm?”
Saul couldn’t argue his innocence. Sleepless nights proved that.
“Then what do you want?”
“You could always work for me. I like a man who wants to stay put. I’d offer steady work, good benefits. Always something fun to do. Endless nights of chaos and mischief.”
Saul backed into the wall.
The woman blinked and her eyes turned red. “What do you say, Saul? Is it a deal?”