The Way It Was, Pt. 1

Three empty glasses sit on the table in front of me. They were filled with beer earlier. The dark wooden table hides the stains of spilled booze well, but the stickiness gives it away. Sticky tables, sticky floors. I really hope it’s just dried booze. Then again, I don’t care much right now. It’s Saturday night at Donaghan’s and I have at least three more beers to get through before closing time.

The place is pretty full. Lots of people standing around near the bar, waiting for someone to leave or just pass out. It’s a good thing I got here early. Not like I have many other place to go. I haven’t been working for the past two months and it’s been about a year since my last semi-serious relationship. My apartment is a cage, tiny and rectangular. There’s just enough space for me to breathe, but my thoughts get stifled there. Donaghan’s is a much better place to think. And nobody judges you for drinking by yourself in a bar. That’s kinda why it exists in the first place.

I suppose I could approach some of the people here, attempt to make new friends. Who knows, we might even hit it off and have a fun night. But then they would leave, going back to their lives and their jobs. And it would just be me again. As it always is. There are a few regulars around here, but I’m the goddamn customer of the month. And I probably will be for a while.

Another beer lands up on my table. It won’t last long.

As I take a swig, savoring the smooth bitterness of it running down my throat, I see two women head to the bar. Tall brunette and her redhead friend, both dressed to kill. And I’m a dead man. Under better circumstances, ones that didn’t involve being unshaven and walking around in a greasy hoodie, I would put on my most charming face, strut over to those two beauties and chat them up. Oh who am I kidding? I’d probably still be nursing an empty beer glass.

Still, they’re a welcome sight in this dingy rathole. And of course, they’re not by themselves. A man joins them soon enough. Dark tailored suit, looking so sharp it almost slices through the smoky air. Hair cut short and gelled. Clean-shaven, the scent of his aftershave filling the room. I’ll bet his teeth sparkle too. Typical Mr. Perfect, probably an investment banker or financial advisor or something that keeps your pockets full.

I can’t stop looking at him, though. There’s something familiar about him. In fact, as I push back the bleariness clouding my vision and really pay attention to his face for the first time, I realize he looks a bit too familiar. Is he an old high school friend? Or a former co-worker? No, that’s not it.

I sit up, eyes wide.

I know why his face looks so familiar. If he had a scraggly beard and bloodshot eyes, I would have recognized it right away.

It’s my face.

WEP February Challenge: Heart’s Desire

A new year of challenges hosted by the wonderful Yolanda and Renee of Write, Edit, Publish! The first theme of the year: Back of the Drawer.

As the name suggests, the prompt is all about what a character finds at the back of a drawer. Love? Riches? Horror? Who can say?

Presented for your reading pleasure, here’s the tale of a thief called Len, who once stole the biggest prize of all: the love of his life.


 

“Whatever you do, don’t open the top drawer.”

Mal had been very insistent about that. The top drawer was to remain untouched. She wouldn’t say why, and Len knew better than to badger her for answers. She kissed him before he left, holding her lips to his a second longer than usual. If she said to leave that drawer alone, he’d damn well leave it alone.

It was a simple job: break into Mal’s old apartment and retrieve a few items from her bureau. Dob, her drunken pig of an ex-husband and former partner, would probably be out with his floozy of the week, so there was little chance of running into him. Of course, he’d probably have a few people posted around the roofs and balconies, just in case. Still, it was no big deal for Len; getting past security was his specialty. Some reconnaissance, a little sneaking around rooftops and a couple of chokeholds took care of Dob’s crew. No sweat. All he had to do was hop onto an adjacent balcony to get to Mal’s building, then find the right window. But before he could jump, there were footsteps. He’d missed one. The guard emerged from the stairwell to find his partner knocked out and Len standing at the edge of the roof.

The guard pulled out a gun. Len broke off part of an antenna. A bullet shot through the air, missing Len’s neck by inches as he twisted and dove to the ground, flinging the antenna piece. It hit the guard square between the eyes, knocking him off balance. A running jump, a flying kick, some punches, some blocks and one karate chop (not necessary, but fun). It was over. All clear. Len hopped over to the next building and found his window.

Breaking into the actual apartment would be a lot easier. Dob was paranoid but sloppy: his locks and latches didn’t put up much resistance against Len’s deft fingers. He opened the window as quietly as he could and slipped inside. Len was standing in Mal’s study, which Dob had converted into some sort of gaudy trophy room. Many of Mal’s things were untouched, though, including her bureau, pressed up against one corner of the room. Len went over to it and unlocked the drawers. All except the top one, just as instructed. He took out some papers, all stapled together. There were also some folders, Old photographs. One very particular photograph that Mal definitely wouldn’t want Dob to keep. A journal. And her favorite knife, thin curved blade and an intricately carved bone hilt. Her name had been engraved on it, in a language that many had forgotten. That was all. Job done.

As he was getting up, a voice in the back of his mind asked why Mal had told him to leave the top drawer. What was the big secret, and why did she want it to stay with Dob? It didn’t matter. None of Len’s business. He would take Mal’s things back to her and then they could start their new life together. Simple as that.

The voice wouldn’t let up, though. What was the deal with that drawer? Len grunted impatiently and looked at it, really looked for the first time. It was different from the other drawers. Same faded green wood, but an elaborate golden border. Even the knob was different, molded to look like the head of some weird animal. Len could feel the hairs standing on the back of his neck, like they were trying to pull him away. Whatever was in that drawer was bad news, that much he could tell.

But what if he just got a peek? He wouldn’t take what was in there. Just look and lock it up again. Dob wouldn’t know. Neither would Mal. The job was still done and Len would still get paid. What was the big deal? He was standing over the desk, thumb tapping a frantic rhythm on its weathered surface. Just one peek. For curiosity’s sake. Len smiled. Curiosity. It killed cats. But Len was no cat.

He put his tools to work, picking at the lock of the top drawer, but nothing happened. He couldn’t get the damn thing to open. He couldn’t find a latch or a bolt or a way to make that lock go click under his fingers. A voice in his head again, but a different one. A woman’s voice. Soft. Sultry. Soothing. And click. The drawer was unlocked. Len was surprised, but relieved. One little peek. That’s all he wanted. He grabbed the drawer handle. It felt so warm in that cold, cold room. Like it was alive. Len hesitated. And then he pulled. The drawer slid open with a groan. Len peered into it, holding his breath, then letting it all out in one little whoosh. Empty. The drawer was empty.

Len laughed. Mal had made an ass out of him. All that spooky junk about locked drawers and it was empty. He was about to close it when he saw a shadow near the back. There was something there. The drawer wouldn’t open any further. Len craned his neck to get a better look but he couldn’t see anything except shadows. He reached inside and felt around. Felt something small, squishy. It was a heart. Mal’s heart. It glowed bright red, pulsating slowly under his palm. Somewhere across town, Len knew Mal felt her chest tighten. Why was she leaving her heart with Dob? She hated the bastard. Unless she didn’t.

Len closed the drawer and locked it again. He could still feel its pulsing rhythm along his hand. So that was it. Mal belonged to him now, mind, body and soul. But he knew where her heart truly lay. Len climbed back out the window and made his way to his car. He wished he’d never opened that damn drawer.

Word Count: 986

Case Closed

Not every mystery has a satisfying solution.

Sometimes the answer is stupidly simple, or so bizarre that even Sherlock Holmes would be thrown for a loop.

Detective Mason knew that quite well.

Still, getting ingested by a homicidal space butterfly didn’t seem like a particularly good ending to this case.

Slipping Away

The room was silent, except for the sound of ticking. Martin wished it would stop. It only served to remind him how much time he had lost, and how precious little he had left.

He picked up the ornate silver pen on his desk and let it rest on his finger tips. It had been a gift from an old friend whose face he could no longer remember. Martin’s name was etched onto the lid. Someone truly special must have given it to him, but whoever it was had been swallowed up by time.

Memories no longer existed in Martin’s mind. All he had were objects. Gifts and souvenirs that served as empty reminders of a forgotten past. And then there was the damned ticking.

It had been years since Martin owned a clock or a timepiece of any kind. His walls and his wrist were bare, yet the ticking persisted. It would drive him to madness soon, if it hadn’t already. He couldn’t recall a day without the ticking, or even any time that he had spent outside the room. Was it his sanctuary, or his prison? There was hardly a difference between the two anymore.

Growing ever restless, Martin opened up the notebook sitting in front of him and began to write, letting the weight of the pen guide his fingers across the page. The sound of metal scratching against paper was a welcome respite from the ticking. He savored the sound, reveled in it.

After what could have been hours or mere minutes, Martin put the pen down and leaned back in his chair. It was done. His mind would not survive the room, he knew that much. But whatever thoughts he had, whatever fleeting memories blinked dimly in the darkening expanses of his mind, would live on. He could ensure that much at least.

Sighing with relief, Martin closed his eyes.

The ticking stopped.

20 Tales of Terror – Day 13: Misdirection


“You’re an assistant! Your job is just to assist and look pretty!”

Carmen cringed. She hated it when Ernesto went off on her like that.

“You smile, wave at the crowd and flash your legs, but at the end of the day, they’re coming to see me! Ernesto the Magnificent! Don’t ever forget that!”

Ernesto jabbed a finger at her. His lean face was contorted into a scowl unlike the dapper smile that beamed from the poster behind him.

“Y-yes, Ernesto,” she whispered.

“I’m the star of the show! It’s my face on all the billboards, not yours! Try to steal my limelight again, and you’ll end up doing a permanent vanishing act!”

With that last word, he picked up one of the swords that he used in his act and threw it at Carmen, missing her face by mere inches as it embedded itself into the wall behind her. It wasn’t a prop. She screamed and shrank farther back.

Having satisfied his rage, Ernesto relaxed, adopting the sly charming smile that Carmen had first fallen in love with. He picked up his top hat and placed it on his head at a slight angle.

“Now wipe those tears and fix your makeup. We need to prep everything for the show and I can’t have you looking like a mess.”

With a flourish, he turned and walked out of the green room, leaving Carmen quivering.


As she always did, Carmen set up all the props for the evening’s performance, including the ones used in Ernesto’s greatest trick, The Resurrection.

Ernesto would step inside a large trunk. Carmen would lock it and demonstrate the strength of the lock by attempting and failing to pry the trunk open. She would then bring out a table lined with a row of swords. An audience member would be called on stage to verify that the swords were real. Carmen would repeatedly stab the trunk, running the swords all the way through, causing jets of blood to spurt from the holes, and drawing gasps and screams from the crowd. In reality, there was only one real sword, which the audience volunteer examined. The rest were all props. Carmen would remove the swords and open the trunk, revealing traces of blood but no body inside. More gasps would follow, and the audience would break out into an uneasy murmur.

That was when a completely unharmed Ernesto made his grand appearance from the back of the auditorium, to thunderous applause and cheers of delight. It was a true showstopper.

Carmen finished inspecting the trunk and was satisfied. Everything was ready for the show.


“Ladies and gentlemen! We have a most spectacular performance for you tonight! An astounding sorcerer who has honed his craft among the mystical monks of the Himalayas and the shamans of the African jungles – I give you, Ernesto the Magnificent!”

The crowd erupted into applause as Ernesto stepped onto the stage, dressed in a dark silk tuxedo with a flowing cape. He was never short on showmanship. More applause followed as he ran through his usual tricks: producing a flock of doves from his hat, making Carmen levitate and seemingly changing outfits in the blink of an eye.

At last, it was time for the main event, the trick that everyone had anxiously been waiting for since the curtains parted.

Carmen wheeled in the trunk, which was stood upright, while Ernesto started on his usual patter. He warned the audience about the heart-stopping nature of what they were about to see, and trotted out the old line about the Himalayan monks and what they had taught him. Then he proceeded to show off the trunk, its mundane and non-mystical nature. He gestured to the prop swords lying on the table next to it and demonstrated, using the real sword they mixed in with the group, the sharpness of the blades. Carmen stood off to the side and smiled, hands on her hips and bosom thrust out.

As the crowd watched, their breath collectively catching in their throats, Ernesto stepped into the trunk and gave Carmen the signal to close it. She shut the lid, locked it, and turned to face the crowd again. She walked over to the table with a big smile on her face and picked up one of the swords. With an exaggerated show of force, she plunged it through the upper part of the trunk, where Ernesto’s head would be. The blade came out the other side, slick with blood. The audience was already squirming.

She bowed, smile frozen in place, and went to fetch another sword. In total, sixteen swords were stuck into the trunk. After taking a moment to show off her handiwork, Carmen set about removing the swords, one by one. They slid out with a soft squelch, drawing at least one scream from the audience.

Now came the moment of revelation. With a big theatrical gesture, Carmen flung the trunk open. It was covered in blood, but otherwise empty. Everyone gasped in amazement. There was a small smattering of applause and Carmen took a bow.

Some of the audience members who had seen the show before immediately turned to face the back door. Others followed suit, and soon the entire auditorium was facing the back, waiting. Nothing happened.

The crowd grew uneasy. Where was he? This was the big finish, where he would show up again, unharmed. But he never came. Nobody saw him again after he stepped into the trunk that night.

Carmen was interrogated about his disappearance by the police, but they had to let her go. There was no evidence of any wrongdoing and since disappearing was a part of Ernesto’s trick, they couldn’t charge her with anything. Carmen walked away, sobbing into a large silk handkerchief.

Later that night, when the auditorium was empty, Carmen snuck in and opened the carefully concealed trapdoor on the stage. It led to a small chamber that she and Ernesto had installed months before the show; they were the only ones that knew about it. She pressed her handkerchief against her nose tightly as the smell hit her. Lying on the floor of the chamber was the body of Ernesto the Magnificent, covered in stab wounds and rusty, caked blood. Carmen would use the stage riggings to lift his body out and deposit it in the trunk, which she would dispose of some place far off. After that she would rigorously clean the entire stage area until no trace of blood was left. She would also get rid of the real swords that she had used in place of the props (and that she had carefully switched before the police investigation).

Fastidious as ever, Carmen had taken care of every detail. No one would ever know that shedding genuine tears over the disappearance of Ernesto the Magnificent was the greatest trick she’d ever pulled.

Story A Day Challenge – Day 29: Dust to Dust

For the first prompt of the challenge, I’d written the beginning of a story. For the penultimate prompt, we were tasked with writing an ending, so I did just that. Filling in the middle will be a task for another time.

Murphy’s Bar was mostly empty. Only a small handful of regulars were sitting around, drinking away their sorrows. Sam poured herself another glass of whisky, wincing slightly as a fresh jolt of pain shot through her shoulder. That wasn’t going away any time soon.

The small TV at the corner of the bar was showing a news report on the Cahill case. Lieutenant Jeffries was being commended for his part in bringing the killer to justice, while Sam wasn’t even mentioned as a footnote. It was just the way she wanted it, really. The less people came knocking at her door asking for help the better off she’d be.

Her thoughts turned to Jessica. The poor girl had never had a chance to grow up. The one adult decision she’d made in her life ended up costing her more than even a rich girl could afford. Gordon and Lilian Cahill would have a lot to answer for in the coming weeks and months. Whether they’d face any true justice or not was another matter.

Sam stared at her bruised knuckles. After all that had happened, what she really needed was a good night’s sleep. But she knew that wouldn’t be possible. There were too many ghosts in her past, and they always haunted her dreams. The best she could hope for was a drunken blackout.

As the afternoon faded into dusk, Sam made her way out of the bar and walked to the cemetery. She was still more sober than she would have liked, but it gave her a chance to appreciate the beauty of the town. And it was beautiful, despite the ugliness that lurked underneath its skin.

Sam walked through the arched black gates and up the hill until she was standing in front of Jessica’s gravestone. Tomorrow, the town would be torn apart once the Cahill family’s darkest secrets were dug up. But for now, Sam watched the light of the fading sun glint off the rooftops in the distance and hoped that Jessica had found some measure of peace.

Story A Day Challenge – Day 26: The Keeper

“You’re eager to know what’s in the box, aren’t you?”

“I am.”

“But you know you can’t look inside.”

“I do.”

“Inside this box is something so powerful, the world would be devastated if it were unleashed. That is why we’ve entrusted you with its protection. It must remain sealed at all costs. Will you be able to control your curiosity?”

“You have my word. I will guard the box’s secrets with my life. You can depend on me.”

“Let us hope so, Pandora.”