One way down

Submitted into Contest #148 in response to: Write about an apartment building being demolished.... view prompt

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Drama Crime Fiction

      

         It was a fitting end to a hostile night.

         Clear skies accompanied by a moderate wind blowing mildly across the rooftops of the old Douglas building in Manhattan, brought a sense of relief to the lone denizen of this night, unemotionally looking straight down the side of the building at the rapidly disappearing human silhouette. With an air of witticism summing up the moment… it was… a view to die for

         Conveniently void of witnesses on the start of the four-day Thanksgiving Weekend, the near-empty building awaiting demolition and conversion to the city’s newest luxury apartments, would hide the splattered addition to its concrete floor - providing the killer ample time to concoct a suitable alibi. The unpremeditated crime turned out to be unexpectedly perfect - an opportune ending to a lengthy dispute. To the killer, it was the most suitable alternative to threatened eviction. Progress should never be hindered, was the echoed whisper trailing through the crisp night air...

         In the city that never sleeps, Merrill Weaver had squirmed his way up the ladder of property developers. Carrying the flag of the eco warrior, he plotted his climb to the summit of self-sufficient living through investing in wind farms, solar energy, and vegan food industries. To those that knew him, Merrill was a shrewd and merciless businessman who would sell his own grandmother for a seat at real estate’s top table. He was a greedy, money-grubbing property developer, unscrupulously crushing all competitors for a stake in Manhattan’s rising skyline. His friends were few. His enemies… ‘Caesared.’

         “Good evening, Mr. Heseltine,” sounded the polite and smiling Merrill.

         Avi Heseltine lived alone in his fifth-floor apartment. A holocaust survivor, Avi lived a reclusive lifestyle since his wife of sixty-three years passed away. He liked it that way; however, having neighbours was always an opportunity for a passing quick hello to keep the art of polite conversation fresh in his aging mind. That civility changed almost overnight when the building’s residents were issued with thirty-day notices to vacate.

         The old building had seen a recent exodus of tenants leaving by car, ambulance, and hearse. Its heyday had indeed passed, providing a goldmine of foundations for the city’s ruthless property developers. Through coercion, influence, and heavy cash, Merrill Weaver secured another piece of his portfolio’s geographic jigsaw in the puzzle of materialistic compulsion, ridding the building of most of its tenants; however, the one holdout, Mr. Avi Heseltine, would not be so easily swayed. He had no living family, descendants, or friends. His apartment was his home, and he was far too old to want to start afresh in unfamiliar surroundings. Nothing short of death would move him.

         “Mr. Weaver,” came the accented reply through the small opening of the chain-guarded apartment door. “What do you want?”

         “I come bearing gifts Avi. It’s Thanksgiving and I thought you might welcome a cooked turkey dinner. It comes with poppy seed challah and some delicious ricotta desserts all the way from Glasserie’s in Brooklyn.”

         Avi could not help but inhale the wafting aroma of the meal creeping into his apartment. He had been living on soup, crackers, eggs, and coffee for days, since the reminder notices of eviction appeared more frequently, pinned to his apartment door. Avi’s fear was that if he left the building to shop, he would return to see all his belongings littering the sidewalk.

         “No thank you,” was the stubborn reply.

         “Aw, come now, Avi. I’ve even brought a nice Australian Shiraz to go with dinner. I’m heading up to my place in the Catskills for Thanksgiving and I wanted to do something nice for you to apologise for the harassment you’ve unnecessarily received from our property management team. Whatd’ya say?”

         Avi’s protective shield lowered enough for a civil conversation.

         “So, the notices will stop then, Mr. Weaver?”

         “Please, my friends call me Merrill.”

         “So, we’re friends now, Mr. Weaver?”

         “Soon to be, Avi. Please let me in and I’ll show you that I have a heart, after all. Can’t let the food go cold…”

         Avi contemplated the inverted invitation, taking a few more uncomfortable moments that Merrill could just barely tolerate, before closing the door in Merrill’s face. A few more impatient moments passed then the sound of the door chain being released, brought a tingling sensation of relief to Merrill. A slightly hunched, elderly Avi, swung the door open, beckoning Merrill into his modestly furnished apartment with an outstretched arm and a shrug of his arthritic shoulders.

         “The kitchen is to your right, Mr. Weaver. I’ll lay the table for us.”

         Avi shuffled off through the next doorway to the right as Merrill laid his several bags of food and wine on the kitchen counter. The large kitchen bordered an open-plan living area on the other side of its counter. Between the two, sat an oak dining table with four pristine dining chairs, and a couple of tall wall cupboards - where Avi was silently extracting several variable-sized plates. Laying them neatly in order on opposite sides of the dining table, Avi opened a drawer and retrieved two sets of ornate, silver cutlery.

         “You will find cutting knives in the wooden block in front of you,” Avi instructed. “Above your head is the dish cupboard. Please feel free to prepare the food into them.”

         “The Turkey is already sliced and still hot in its foil container, so there’s no need to re-heat it,” replied Merrill.

         “No matter, Mr. Weaver. I’m well accustomed to less than hot food.”

         Like an unwilling married couple, the two men fussed over the preparation of both food and dinnerware. Merrill poured some wine into two crystal wine glasses, then laid them gently onto the dining table. When all was ready, Avi invited Merrill to sit opposite him.

         “Are you Jewish, Mr. Weaver?”

         “…Presbyterian, I’m afraid. Although, not practicing.”

         “You are without faith, Mr. Weaver?”

         “Oh, I have faith, Avi. Faith in my success in life.”

         “But you don’t believe in God…”

         “Let’s say I believe in the scripture. A product of youthful indoctrination.”

         “Whatever your religion or scripture, Mr. Weaver. We all worship the one God.”

         “Not in my experience.”

         “How is that Mr. Weaver?”

         “In my business, you deal with people from all walks of life, all kinds of beliefs. Homegrown investors, foreign investors, and sellers alike. Dinner meetings always seem to attract the discussion of religion and usually after a few drinks, people can’t shut-up about their beliefs… There’s two things that should never be discussed at the dinner table and one of them is religion.”

         “What is the other?

         “…Politics…”

         “That I agree with, Mr. Weaver. Although, the two topics share a common fervour.”

         In solidarity, Merrill raised his glass in a toast-like manner; however, Avi did not reciprocate.”

         “Please, Mr. Weaver. It is customary in my religion to recite a short blessing – a Bracha - before we eat…”

         “Sure… This is your home, Avi. You do as you please.”

         “That, we wholeheartedly agree on, Mr. Weaver.”

         Merrill winced a regretful expression of planting the seed of homesteading into their conversation. His primary objective of the evening was to convince Avi that he had no choice but to vacate his warm and comfortable home. He was about to try to rescind the comment when Avi raised his glass of wine, then proceeded with the blessing.

         “Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam shehakol niyah bidvaro… Now we eat, Mr. Weaver, L’chaim.”

         The two men drank, then proceeded to serve themselves from the gourmet meal, cordially passing the serving dishes back and forth to each other.

         “Avi, what was that you recited?”

         “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, at whose word all came to be…

         “That’s the blessing? So simple. When I was growing up, it included thanking everyone at the table, my father’s boss, my mother’s farm animals, and the man upstairs.”

         “It’s always good to thank God.”

         “Ha ha, no Avi. My father had a sick sense of humour. The man upstairs was his own invalid father, who had been incapacitated since World War Two when a Nazi bullet ripped through him. My father lacked either the will or the compassion to carry my grandfather down to family meals, so made my mother take his food up to him.”

         “Your mother was a good woman…”

         “My mother was a slave… to a tyrant. She doted on my father and had nothing left over for me… Unfortunately, I’m very much like my father. Whether I like it or not, he left a lasting lesson on how to deal with life… he taught me that people could be controlled but life can only be reacted to.”

         “It’s how you react that defines you, Mr. Weaver. Take us Jews, for instance. The Torah tells us that we were slaves in Egypt, eventually escaping to Canaan. However, there is no archaeological evidence that we were ever in Egypt to begin with. The Torah clearly states that we were, so we reacted by believing the lie… Our reaction planted the belief in other religions that we Jews were of a lower social class to be ridiculed and persecuted. The result was that we were outcast from God’s global flock and punished.”

         “Like the holocaust… I couldn’t help notice the tattoo on your forearm.”

         “Yes, Mr. Weaver… To my dying day, I will bear the mark of persecution; however, I am a survivor. Something my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins can never attest to… I am a survivor…”

         “That photo on the piano of the boy in the striped pajamas… that’s you?”

         “It is, Mr. Weaver… He had to do whatever was necessary to survive the Nazi horrors. Only ten-years-old and he was already a man… Now all these years later, he is old and one of the few remaining witnesses to the despicable things man can do to one another, still retaining the painful memories of the millions that did not live to see freedom.”

         “I can’t imagine what that was like for you.”

         “That’s where you are mistaken, Mr. Weaver. I’ve done my homework. You are faced with your own fight for survival in the form of insolvency and a toxic loan from some unsavoury sections of our city’s underworld. You, and no doubt your unsuspecting family waiting for you in the Catskills, face an uncertain future, if you fail to secure this building. For many years, I was an accountant. The sale of this building is a matter of public record. I may live like a hermit, Mr. Weaver, but I have the Internet, so information is readily available via the web…”

         Surprised and impressed, Merrill took a moment to assess the situation, before getting straight to the point.

         “How much do you want?”

         “It is not a question of money, Mr. Weaver. It is a question of time, or in your case… lack of it… I can hold out for as long as I want. The courts of law will see to that. You – on the other hand – need to secure my signature by end of Thanksgiving, or you and your family may end up as concrete pillars in the foundation of the inevitable regeneration of this piece of real estate.”

         “If you know all that, then why can’t you help me out?”

         “We all have our crosses to bear, Mr. Weaver. However, for the past sixty years, this has been my home. Where would I go at my age? No, I’m afraid this is where we differ. You must attempt to untangle your crooked business deals and I must stay here to wait for either the wrecking ball or my final journey to reunite me with my wife.”

         Throughout the failed charm offensive, an uncontrollable rage had been slowly building in Merrill’s tense and shaking body. To him, the row upon row of faces in the displayed photographs of holocaust victims adorning every wall in the apartment, enforced a growing resentment for the old Jewish man assaulting him with cold hard truths. The visual library of those that perished around Avi’s survival, only fuelled a simmering hatred threatening to boil-over Merrill’s last remaining sense of decency. His drastic situation needed a drastic solution.

         “You people,” he angrily spat out. “How the Nazis must have hated you… descended from slaves, you allowed yourselves to be persecuted. That shows how weak you all are. You would think that after centuries of being hated, you would rise up and fight, but no, you ended up a bunch of inward-looking tailors, jewellers, and… accountants. Where was your fire? Where was retribution?”

         “God rewards the righteous by granting them prosperity and well-being and punishes the wicked with destruction… It is the basis of the second paragraph of the Shema… Retribution can only be served by divine methods, Mr. Weaver.”

         Acutely aware of time failing him, a red-faced Merrill abruptly stood up from his chair, swiped his plate and wine glass to the floor, breaking both in the process. He was like a man possessed by the ghost of evil past. Not since the year 1944 had Avi witnessed such an emotional display of malevolence. Possessed by a combination of fear and desperation, Merrill swiftly crossed no-man’s land and grabbed Avi by the collar, dragging him towards his apartment door and into the hallway - all the while quoting from the book of Revelations.

         “And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended…”

         “Mr. Weaver! You are making a mistake. Please calm yourself!”

         Avi’s words fell on incensed deaf ears as he was frogmarched up three flights of stairs, out through a fire door and onto the roof of the old building. No longer able to keep up the pace, Avi’s legs gave up trying, forcing Merrill to drag him the final few steps to the knee-sized wall that rimmed the building’s roof. Lifting him up, Merrill slammed him onto the mantle of the wall, then stepped onto it himself before jerking Avi onto his feet.

         “My kingdom is not of your world. We stand at the pinnacle where only one of us can remain, and there is only one way down from it… Progress should never be hindered.

         Unnoticed by Merrill, Avi had remained steady in his weakened state, pensively looking down the face of the eight-storey building.

         “Do you know how I survived the camp, Mr. Weaver?”

         Confident in the power he held over the old man, Merrill indulged him one last time.

         “Tell me, old man.”

         “I did whatever was necessary. Good with figures, I helped the camp’s commandant keep records of the prisoners that came and subsequently vanished. Their photographs hang on my apartment walls… I also repaired holes in every roof of every building, so I quickly got over my fear of heights.”

         “What’s your point?”

         “…I also learned how to balance against unexpected updrafts… Have you noticed the change of air pressure since we’ve been standing here?”

         “Can’t say I have.”

         “An updraft can very easily unbalance you when precariously standing high up on the edge of a roof. Do you feel that sudden warming of air?”

         Before Merrill could answer, a warm gust of wind disturbed his stance, causing an overreactive body response, spinning him 180 degrees, so his back felt nothing but empty air against it. Flapping his arms like a bird, Merrill found himself slowly falling backwards, away from the roof. As if in slow motion, he saw the extended arm of Avi reaching out towards his panicked and outstretched arm. Grasping at Avi’s open palm, he was horrified to see its shape change to a pointed finger. A small prod sent Merrill sailing over the edge, beyond the roof and into oblivion. For a brief moment during Merrill’s impression of a flightless bird, he both admired and envied the old man. If only he possessed one ounce of Avi’s survival instinct, he would not have found himself in the dire situation he now was in. He would not have extended his credit beyond all manageability, nor would he have put his whole portfolio up as collateral on the building rushing past his falling body, and he most definitely would have not got into bed with the devil. For a split-second, Merrill experienced an illuminating moment of clarity, a final comforting epiphany of righteousness before darkness violently snubbed out all his sentient lights.

         Observing from his rooftop position, Avi watched Merrill disappear into the dark abyss, listening for the resulting crunch of 180 pounds of flesh and bone colliding with the cold hard concrete below.

         “…There are many ways up to life’s pinnacle, Mr. Weaver. Agreeably, there is only one way down.”

         Bruised and tired, Avi gingerly returned to his apartment. Meticulously clearing the unfortunate mess of broken ceramics and glass, he retrieved the dessert from the fridge, grabbing a fork to sample the ricotta dessert.

         “Wonderful,” he exclaimed. “…Indeed, a just dessert...”

         The new Douglass building with all its eco-pioneering technology, was finally unveiled at the opening of its regenerated and affordable housing scheme. Plaudits had been given in the mayor’s speech to its design, the project team, and the last resident of its predecessor, Avi Heseltine, who was found permanently asleep in his armchair on Thanksgiving Day, tenderly clutching a photograph of his wife. As a tribute to Avi’s dedicated remembrance of those that perished at the hands of the Nazis, a ground-floor holocaust exhibit was dedicated to him, displaying his collection of remembrance photographs on its foyer walls. Centre stage was the photograph of the 10-year-old Avi, mounted above a copy of a poignant inscription found on the back of the image proclaiming,

         “Amongst my people, may I wander freely, without fear or persecution...

 

 

May 30, 2022 02:48

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12 comments

Michał Przywara
00:05 Jun 09, 2022

This was a very tense story! The dinner was as much a battle as anything else, between two strong-willed characters, and throughout the whole thing I was wondering which one would be doing the killing. Merrill is clearly a guy used to getting his way, but he underestimated Avi. To think all he had to do was wait it out -- but of course, he couldn't have known. Except, now I wonder... what a curious coincidence that Avi happens to die on Thanksgiving Day. Shortly, I imagine, after dessert. The very dessert Merrill brought. Thanks for shar...

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Chris Campbell
01:20 Jun 09, 2022

Michal, thanks for your kind words. I actually didn't correlate the dessert with Avi's death. Perhaps that may have been my subconscious intention. If not, then thank you for reading into that. It added another layer. My conscious thinking was that Avi succumbed to internal injuries sustained during his manhandling onto the rooftop. However, I like your subversive thinking.

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Todd Johnson
08:33 Jun 05, 2022

You clearly have a love of words and the ability to manipulate them in ways that result in vibrant passages , even when the events themselves don’t call for writing of that caliber - this made for very enjoyable reading aesthetically. Some of my favorite were: Avi could not help but inhale the wafting aroma of the meal creeping into his apartment. He had been living on soup, crackers, eggs, and coffee for days, since the reminder notices of eviction appeared more frequently, pinned to his apartment door. Avi’s fear was that if he left the...

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Chris Campbell
08:47 Jun 05, 2022

Todd, thank you for taking so much time to read and comment on my story. I most certainly do like to paint pictures with words and I am glad to be successful in that attempt. This was a story that just wrote itself - and when I say that, I mean to say, I just started typing and it projected itself onto my screen. Much appreciated.

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Piper Ollie
01:58 Jun 05, 2022

Very few people have a way with words like you seem to do! Such a great entry!

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Chris Campbell
08:41 Jun 05, 2022

Thank you, Piper. So kind of you to highlight that. An online Thesaurus goes a long way. 😀

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Desiree Haros
15:24 Jun 04, 2022

Wow! You said a great deal in a limited space. Such powerful images. Well done!

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Chris Campbell
08:48 Jun 05, 2022

Desiree, Thank you for your comments. I'm glad that I can connect with the reader's imagination. Much appreciated.

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07:27 May 30, 2022

Great tension, and some v fun sentences: "Avi contemplated the inverted invitation.." "Through coercion, influence, and heavy cash, Merrill Weaver secured another piece of his portfolio’s geographic jigsaw in the puzzle of materialistic compulsion, and rid the building of its tenants;"

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Chris Campbell
07:34 May 30, 2022

Thanks Scott. Glad you liked it. Hopefully, the words easily rolled off your tongue.

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08:00 May 30, 2022

Yes, especially "inverted invitation" was lol funny, just at the moment of Weaver bringing food and trying to get into the apartment of the tenant he was kicking out, which was already great comedy in itself. think you may have invented a new expression! and yeah, after spending far too many years reading business news, clauses like 'geographic jigsaw in the puzzle of materialistic compulsion' do sort of roll off the tongue.

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Chris Campbell
08:17 May 30, 2022

Excellent!

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