Actions

Work Header

Unhitched

Chapter Text

Chapter 29: Mixed Emotions

A thousand miles have rushed under our feet, and we have yet to discuss just how this immoral shit show is supposed to go down. It’s probably my own fault, since I’ve made myself seem complacent over the last several weeks as I’m settling into my new role as best chum to my bite-happy captain. For a while – and I mean a very brief while – we functioned as any good friends would: we woke up, we ate, we shot the shit, we dicked around – another day well spent. But it was the madness tucked within the relative normalcy that began to wear on me. 

Back at the cabin, he spent one afternoon explaining how to properly crack open a ribcage and remove organs without damaging the meat like he was teaching a kid how to fly a kite. Careful not to tangle anything, and be gentle – don’t yank it.

He kept referring to bones and muscles by their anatomical names, intentionally confusing me. I got a little snippy, and he asked if I wanted a refresher in anatomy. When I agreed, he made me strip off all my clothes again, and I realized just how ridiculous his traps were becoming.

After that lesson, I tried to imagine those ribs belonging to a deer, an elk, or a Siberian tiger, but inevitably I’d start to get queasy. My skin crawled as he traced my naked chest while running his other finger down Mr. Moonlighting’s sternum. It was sick. I felt as dissected as the mangled, headless corpse and ended up wandering around the woods for an hour, pretending that the guy I was about to have dinner with was just a really deep-thinking survivalist.

Then he showed me how he uses the butt of his axe to dislodge leg joints. I feigned composure to get through that lesson as best I could, despite his hand digging into my groin to help me identify individual tendons. It was brutal and grotesque, and the crunching pop that followed the axe swing was enough to put me off meat for a couple of days. He didn’t readily accept my decision, and he called me a greenhorn, though it didn’t really feel like an insult. He agreed to let me live on “potato soup” for a few days.

We both knew there was a lot more than just potatoes in it, but I let him serve it up anyway, and he let me pretend that I had any choice in the matter.

Eventually my wounds healed, and we loaded up our gear and took off down the mountain. It was nice to be back inside the cab with its familiar sights and smells: leather and cigarettes, Garm huffing and puffing behind me, and my box of shit that keeps looking less and less filled everytime I see it. Getting back on the road felt less dangerous to me, and I’d missed sleeping on a mattress, even though the quarters now felt more claustrophobic than ever.

We stopped at restaurants and pretended to be humble, law-abiding long-haulers, and I ignored every road sign pointing toward our destination. As far as I was concerned, Idaho didn’t exist.

We hit the Utah border and reality finally slapped me across the face. We were going to make this murderous pilgrimage, and that thought had my voice running terrified from my chain-smoking lips. I think he’s assuming that my silence over the last two days has meant that I’ve been psyching myself up for whatever the hell happens next, but he would be sorely mistaken.

We pulled into an Albertson’s grocery store, and for the last twenty minutes I’ve been staring at a giant sign for chuck steak. It’s only forty-nine cents a pound – not a bad deal – but we’re hauling meat a bit cheaper than that, if you ignore the ethical implications of how we procured it.  

Janus could live in this excruciating silence forever, and I was under the impression I could too, but I suppose it’s now my turn to be mistaken.

After an hour of painful, nerve-wracking reticence, I finally open my mouth. “Do we have a plan?”  

I’m sure he’s pissed that he has to tell me yet again. I’ve asked, but I get the same or similar responses every time: “We meet the music maker, kill the music maker, then eat the music maker – pretty simple. Forgive me if I don’t break out an easel.”

I don’t need pictures. I need something more detailed than my eventual rap sheet. Do I design this kill to be personal to me, or do I keep my emotions out of it? Should I construct a dramatic monologue to recite over his body like the final scene of an action movie? Should I work on my maniacal laugh? Am I the maniacal one now? I feel like I need to write a laundry list of wrongdoings – serve him papers, so to speak – just so he knows why we’ve come. I’d hate to confuse anyone. 

Dear “The Music Man”,  

  1. No matter the assumed quality of sound or artistic significance, the laws of God do not permit you to take the life of another man for the singular purpose of creating more “soulful” or poignantly symbolic musical instruments. They make steel strings now for God’s sake; use them.
  2. The laws of Nature do not permit you to construct elaborate tableaux in which human beings are ritualistically twisted, mutilated, and displayed as some offensive affront to modern art. Leave that shit to Mapplethorpe.
  3. You are not permitted to disregard Common Law and continue illegally abusing your fellow men for your sadistic inclinations, which are probably due to your mother or father’s lack of affection, or because you had a particularly abusive piano tutor. It’s time to get over the tragedies of our lives like the rest of us were forced to.

If you do not wish to cease the above activities – and my associate and I are under the assumption that you do not wish to do so – we will be forced to act accordingly.

Sincerely,

Two concerned citizens and their big black dog

Do I need a decease-and-desist order? What is the proper protocol when dispatching a murderer? After the deed’s done, do I anonymously drop off his fingerprint and a list of his crimes at a police station? I’m not really comfortable showing my face to anyone right now, least of all cops.

“So, we just roll on up and invite ourselves in?” I wonder. “Then what? Shoot him and toss him in a pot?”

Janus blows halos of smoke over our heads and clears the impatience that’s been caught in his throat ever since I spent forty-five minute deciding on this morning’s breakfast: plain old flapjacks and coffee. He was pissed.

“Ideally, we don’t resort to guns, but essentially, yes. After it’s all said and done, I plan to treat you to a meal that will leave you begging for mercy.” A smug-ass grin curls across his face, and his eyes twinkle like a kid who just got an honest-to-God pony for his birthday. “We shall dine like kings tonight, Fledge.”

That’s not a plan, and I don’t give a rat’s ass about our dinner date. My eye won’t stop twitching, and I’m sweating like a whore in church. He finally notes my flustered appearance and lights me a smoke to calm down.

Before he can hand it to me, I snatch the cigarette out of his lips and take a long useless drag. “If we don’t use guns, how do we kill him?”

“We improvise. I’ve got my Buck, and you’ve got your … hands.” He scans my sweaty face and shakes his head, dismissing my appearance with a wave of his own cigarette. “But you can’t be like this. Whatever this is, it’s unacceptable.”

No shit. “Nervousness is a normal human reaction when you’re being forced to do something inherently inhuman.”

There’s no body he can rub my face in this time, but that doesn’t stop him from searching the lot for something he can punish me with. He finally gives up, because my erratic behavior and the pile of vomit outside my door have already drawn too much attention.

“I’m not sure I heard you correctly, Fledge. Care to say again, or should we move on?”

“What do you take issue with: how I feel about this barbarism being foisted on me, or me calling you inhuman? I’d have thought you would’ve enjoyed that.” I quickly suck down the last of my cigarette and poke the butt out the cracked window. When I turn back, he’s already lighting me another. He’d better keep them coming.

“I was being attacked,” I say. “I had a reason to kill the shadow and Mr. Moonlighting. This is not the same. This is premeditated, and I don’t know anything about this jackass.”

“It’s only premeditated if we actually plan it,” he says with a smile. “According to you, that problem is already solved.”

That’s not funny.

We’ve been stuck together in the cab of the truck with me silently freaking out since we left the compound. When we first parked here, I hopped out and ran through the lot, making an ass of myself while trying to calm down. I did a lap around the store, went in and bought a Coke, came out, chugged it, then threw it up right outside the truck door – flapjacks and brown foam everywhere. When I hopped back in, Janus was shaking his head and handed me a rag to wipe the splatter off my glasses.

It’s been four weeks – technically twenty-five days – since I axed Mr. Moonlighting. I started keeping track with tallies on the front door of the cabin. Jan said it was the obsessive and neurotic behavior of a prisoner. I didn’t comment; but when I went outside the next morning to add that day’s tally, I found that he’d carved, with long, deep gashes: He was not a prisoner of fate, but a prisoner of his own mind.

I wasn’t certain who he was referring to, and since I had no intention of mentioning it, I just retaliated by carving underneath it: There is no heavier burden than a great potential.

He retorted: Love feels no burden.

My reply, which took almost three hours to slowly chisel: When no one loves you, you have to pretend everyone loves you.

A couple days passed before he carved right over my marks: Life's greatest happiness is to be convinced we are loved.

So I scrawled: Happiness is a warm puppy, and he didn’t respond.

What a pity.

Other than destroying the front door with our argumentative funny-paper philosophies, things were going what some might consider well. I had a good solid strategy for putting my goddamn life back together, and I was taking his advice to heart: no more thinking – I’m done with thinking. Who needs logic when you have the piecemealed ideology of a Lithuanian cannibal at your disposal? My conscience can finally go fuck itself like its been fucking me over for three decades.

I’m not anxious anymore.

I’m not nervous.

I’m at total peace now, and that’s all bullshit.

I glance across the parking lot, searching for anything to snap me out of the agony of thinking so I can start preparing myself for the harrowing rampage I’m about to embark on.

Factories pepper the landscape: but not the smoke stack variety, more like the kind that process crops or manufacture auto parts.

“So this is Idaho,” I say. “I thought there’d be more potatoes rolling around …”

“Fledge, do you want to wait another day? You aren’t allowed to claim cold feet and take off as soon as we get there. Don’t be embarrassed to say you need more time.”

I don’t need more time. I’ve had a month, and my feet are toasty warm and tired of running. “I think I’d just feel a little better if I had a few steps to follow, like a map, or an instruction book. We shouldn’t have burned all the albums ...”

“We burned the books to cover our tracks. Since you seem to want instructions to follow, I’m assuming premeditation is back on the menu? Can your rattled little brain handle that, Wee Man?”

Yeah ... I think I’m okay with that.

At this point, I think I have to be.

With my own two hands I will be eliminating a bloodthirsty miscreant from the population. This is how I will redeem myself. This is how I will cope. No more people have to die – except the three – but they aren’t really people anyway. I know I can do this, because I have to. And I have no intention of letting Janus dangle another one of my shameful failures over my head.

I’m twitching again, and when I can’t look him in the eye, he tugs my chin to face him.

“It’s easy; look at me.” My gaze finally meets his, but I hate that he feels the need to probe my eyes every time I’m a little shaken. “We’re the same. You and I trained together; we work together now; we’re a team. You see what I see. You touch what I touch. You step where I step, and we’ll be fine. Are you hearing me?”

Yes, I’m hearing him. I’m three inches from his face. But how is this supposed to work? That’s no plan. That’s a list of half-assed rules. “We’re the same?”

“Two halves of the same coin. We’re going into battle, son, we need to be on the same page.”

The same page? “We haven’t opened the goddamn book, Jan. I don’t even know what the hell you’re reading. Are we even in the same library?! You barely speak English!”

He laughs, but that’s not helping!

“Focus,” he says, but it’s not that easy. “How can I help you relax?”

He cocks a smirk and releases my chin so his hand can slide over my thigh. He’s literally cupping my balls, and I’m going to deck him. I going to choke him. I going to cut off his dick and shove it down his own throat.

“Design a plan, Janus! That would help me relax, not your cock! And I hate your new name! What are we – the goddamn Brady Bunch?!”

He grumbles and leans away, clearly insulted.

Good.

“It’s better than the nonsensical shit you picked. And all you have to do is watch me; my methods are sound – always have been.”

Is he serious?! Is this how he functions? Is he a magical wizard who not only disobeys man’s law, but also the laws of physics?!

“Okay, hotshot, if I see what you see, what if you miss something, huh? I guess I miss it too. What if you drop something? I drop it too! And we can’t occupy the same goddamn space, you idiot! I am a second human being! I have mass! I can’t be you!” I shove him and he holds up his hands.

He doesn’t understand this. He’s expecting me to flip some goddamn switch, suddenly fine with trotting around with him and cleaning up after our bloody tangents. But I’m not okay with that. I never have been.

While I’m cradling my eyes, I hear his seat creak and hope to God that he drops out of the cab to let me cool off before I say something I’ll regret.

“You’re nervous and afraid,” he says. “That’s okay. I just don’t suffer from those particular afflictions. There’s no need to.”

“Well, I guess you are God, then.”  

“Not God,” he says. “But close enough.”

Jesus Christ. Those logs that’ve been following us for months are nothing compared to the weight of this bastard’s ego. I swear to God he only keeps the truck because he needs it to haul around his brass balls.

I still don’t understand his motivations for doing anything. Why live like this? Life on the road is not glamorous. It’s not exciting. It’s often terrifying and mind-numbingly oppressive. We have no stable floor, no decent bed, no refrigerator, no comforts of any kind except what happens between our blood-stained sheets every night.

Why can’t we use our goddamn names? I’ve got nothing to hide anymore. I understood the anonymity when we were about to part ways – when the cops were on our tail and I could’ve been scooped up and interrogated – but what’s he afraid of now?

Our conversations about the beauty of death, the absurdity of man, and the hypocrisy of God are as beguiling as they are unscrupulous. Sometimes he grills me so ferociously and with such unnerving excitement that I truly believe he feels close to uncovering the meaning of life. Other times he talks circles around me, comparing French composers to Spanish operas, and I just nod like a good boy until he shuts up and blows me.

In those few weeks we spent preparing to leave, I probably put on ten pounds with all the smoked meat and back fat Jan has been poking down my throat. He said the fat’s been mixed with bear grease, and we’ve been shamelessly enjoying the hell out of it – fucking each other’s brains out and eating it by the case. I spent the better part of a day on the porch, oiling his axe and our new arsenal of knives while he stared at me, damn near creaming in his pants the whole time.

I mean, obviously, we talk a lot and touch each other bodies, but that happens mostly in the dark, and one of us typically ends up bleeding. None of that means I’ve learned anything about him. He knows almost every grisly detail of my body and life now, but I can’t even bring up his family for fear that I’ll end up a blubbering mess when he tells me some sob story about his war-ravaged youth.

A couple of days after Marianne and I decided which pigs we were planning to poke, Jan spread his maps across the table so we could pinpoint each sty and form a route. Then he came out of the bathroom with that big stack of bloody books, and we sat by the fire one night sifting through them.

They were old photo albums filled with pictures and articles that only a beast would feel compelled to gather. Mutilated bodies found strung up and skinless, swaying under bridges. Whole families – even the children – tied up and shot before being left to rot at their own fly-infested dinner tables. Gutted men embedded inside trees and decorated with poisonous flowers like a heinous altar to the wicked. It was the worst pageantry of evil you could imagine. Mr. Moonlighting was an avid collector of Satan’s most vile debauchery.

The books gave me a new, more demoralizing perspective of the deviants’ seedy underbellies. I started questioning Janus’ motives and my commitment to this entire charade. My nerves were shot. Every owl outside was suddenly cooing death rattles in my head, every tapping tree branch was a knife handle waiting for my back to turn. I refused to sleep, so I paced the unhallowed compound and sat by the gorge at night, trying to let the breeze coming off the river open my lungs and clear my head; but the solitude was my enemy. The black sky shrouded the remnants of good in this world, and the wind carried nothing but a gut-wrenching appreciation for humanity’s infinite suffering. How could people do these things? How could you care so little about your fellow man that you’d be willing to carve them up just to suit your ungodly whims?

Janus didn’t show his face for those long, draining nights. I didn’t want him to. He let me dissolve at my own pace, having no intention of righting my upturned conscience. He let me spill – down my face and off the cliff – knowing it was only a matter of time before he’d fill me up himself. It was inevitable and I did nothing to stop it.

We scoured those abominations disguised as books until we found The Music Man’s showpiece: a headless body twisted and posed in a bass drum filled with the curdled blood of at least five or so men. The victim had not just been violated and defiled, but his ribcage had been strung up like a lyre as though his life was an insignificant trifle hiding his true purpose.

Janus was enamored with the display, which I found equally abhorrent.

After much-heated debate and more detestable sifting, we agreed that the man had to be from Idaho, hence our current locale in potato country.

The Muskrat was an interesting, though much less morbid read. His pages held mostly domestic incidents and police reports about a farm in Nevada, but I never got the opportunity to continue my investigation since Janus tossed his book on the fire as soon as he confirmed his identity. He said he knew of the pig’s stomping ground already – a familiar haunt for him – and he seemed eerily excited to be able to fulfill a promise he’d made months prior. The Muskrat apparently built his rat’s nest in the sun-scorched desert outside Las Vegas.

The Minnesota Shrike could be found in Minnesota – imagine that; but there wasn’t a lot of information aside from two small articles and a few handwritten notes about missing college girls. There was, however, something about The Shrike’s behavior that caught Jan’s eye. So while he combed through more albums, I was supposed to burn the rest, which I was more than happy to do.

I never figured out The green Diamond. He wasn’t a criminal according to the book: just an arrogant kid with an assload of money who was a purveyor of unusual parties – the kind of party with perverted face masks, dirty code names, and slop buckets – the sort of gathering that might just destroy a celebrity’s reputation if a couple of nosy photographers stumbled in.

In fact, someone had been keeping an eye on him, and that evidence was tucked throughout the book. Highly explicit and very sticky photographs tore at the pages as I turned them. Mr. Moonlighting had his own agenda with The Diamond and I had no interest in learning more about it.

Other than those well-used and annotated pictures and a copy of a police raid, nothing looked out of sorts. I guess it was the kid’s pretty green eyes after all ... or maybe his round and very picturesque ass. If I had to guess, it was probably both.

I had one book in my hand and was about to light it up when I peeked inside the cover just for gruesome kicks. There I saw his name, clear as day: N-i-g-e-l. I slowly closed it and set it aside, trying not to draw attention while he was at the table studying the notes on The Shrike by the lantern. There’d been a newspaper protecting the bottom books, so while my nose was buried in a story about our old commander-in-chief’s last day in Dallas, I tucked the album under my shirt, grabbed a flashlight, and excused myself to the outhouse. I felt like a kid sneaking away with my dad’s nudie mags.

Out in the pitch black john, I closed the rickety door and flicked on the flashlight, standing there as I prepared myself. Whatever was inside had to divulge something worthwhile about the bastard – shit I knew he’d never tell me willingly.

I held my breath – for several reasons – and flipped through the album, stopping at his page. Would there be a kill list, disturbing photographs, schizophrenic commentary by Mr. Moonlighting himself? I was prepared for it all and scanned the blank page before coming to a stop at the bottom. In flowery script, next to a disturbingly realistic sketch of my sleeping face, it read: Better luck next time, Hopper.

I swore so ferociously that I dropped the flashlight, sending it skittering across the outhouse floor just as the door ripped open. Janus stood there in the darkness shaking his head. Then he yanked the book out of my hands and tossed it into the shithole before turning on his heels and heading back inside.

Since he’s never let me go to the shitter in peace, I should have expected that. He watches me like a hawk circling rabbits. He even studies the way I eat – surprise, surprise. When he thinks I’m asleep, he traces my lips and runs his fingers through my hair, like at any moment my heart could stop and I’d immediately turn to dust.

I can feel him sniffing my neck and clothes when he sneaks up behind me. In all honesty, I want to find his infatuation with me creepy, because it is. I want to tell him to stop groping me when we spar in the woods. He turns our matches into dances so he can lead me around, then tackle me when I let my guard down.

Always know your enemy’s location, he called out.

Never let him get behind you.

Keep your face protected.

Don’t rely on your knife. Then he shouldered me in the chest, spun me around, grabbed my hair, and kissed me. Of course I dropped my knife; and no, I wasn’t guarding my face, though I should have stabbed his.

When he let go, he kicked me in the mud and called me too horny to stay focused. Apparently the real lesson was to not bother trying to overpower anyone. Instead, find your enemy’s weakness and exploit it.

The next time we trained, I circled him and retold the story of slaughtering my shadow. Pennies dropped from my stained lips and I traced on my body where they fell. My stomach growled with every pulsing gush of wine, and I recounted the bouquet and mouth-feel of my very first sip. I recalled the cicadas humming through the woods and the huffing moans of my own panting breath as I stared down at the body growing cold between my thighs.

Then I rushed him, kneed him in the gut, and cracked the back of his skull with a rock – because someone wasn’t paying attention. He said exploit weaknesses, and that’s what I did. Somebody was too horny to stay focused.

It isn’t just his obsession with manhandling me or strengthening my resolve. He enjoys it when I look or feel vulnerable. He insists on watching me complete personal tasks, like washing my hands and feet, shaving my beard, or tending to the cuts all over my skin. He likes it when I lean on him when I take a leak, or shiver so he can wrap a blanket around me. When I let him touch me at night, he waits until I’m right on the edge of total relaxation to start questioning me on my knowledge of Italian poetry, like it’s supposed to help me think clearer. I shouldn’t have to tell him that reminding someone which layer of hell they’ll end up in does nothing but nullify their pleasure.

However, because I’m lonely and a complete piece of shit, after a couple weeks I found myself enjoying his obsessive attention. I started expecting hot food that I no longer questioned, but rather fawned over. I started letting him hold me at night when I’d startle awake, tear-streaked for some nightmarish reason. I let him ogle my half-naked body while I cooked over an open fire and allowed him to feed me my dinner, only to watch his eyes glaze over and the spoon drop so he could stroke my face instead.

I am aware that his fascination with me is unfounded, and that my enjoyment of it is equally fucked up. I am a nobody. I’m a twitchy, scrawny, useless bastard who hitched his horse to a job he learned to hate, then to a woman who grew to hate him just as much. There is no magical insight in my brain. There is no amazing perspective for him or me to gain. I’m not well-educated, I’m an unpleasant conversationalist, and we’ve established that I am a terrible lay. What the hell he wants with me is still the $64,000 question.

Though he insists otherwise, I feel kidnapped from my own life. My world is being pilfered right out of my hands, and it’s like I’m watching him dim the lights with an oblivious smile on my face. I’m not wondering what his plans are for me when the lights go out. I’m wondering how he will recognize me in that darkness.

No matter what he claims or how he acts, he is still a thief. He calls himself opportunistic, but his charm steals more than just the glances of waitresses. His wit and ingenuity steal the spotlight wherever we go, and he literally stole my dad’s motorcycle, tying and tarping it to the back of the goddamn truck. We had words about that particular offense. He said that since my dad was dead, technically it was my bike now, and he was making sure I didn’t lose it. I called foul, and he ignored me like always.

The only reason I bring it up is because he spent the last two days riding it around while scoping out whatever small town this is on the outskirts of Boise. I stayed parked on the side of the road with Garm, which was fine by me, and got some much-needed rest without him poking and prodding me. By the end of the second day, he was practically giddy, his hands all over me again, because he’d found The Music Man’s huge suburban house. He snagged his address, we parked behind the grocery store closest to his neighborhood, and set in motion the nonexistent plan we are now currently designing.  

“First order of business,” I say. “Entry to the house.”

“I’m partial to doors.”

Janus is partial to doors.

I really don’t want to deal with his body after I stab him over his blatant antagonism. But if I take a twenty-minute break, I could dig a hole in the dumpster behind the store so when I do cut his obnoxious throat, I can toss him in the trash and fly off into the sunset, happy as a goddamn lark. “I guess we just invite ourselves in then? Seems a little rude.”

“We’ll say we’re selling storm doors or bathtubs; who cares? Once the door’s open, fair game.”

“He might care … just a thought. And we’re dressed like Old Macdonald and his big ugly wife. We don’t have a storm door, Jan, or a catalog. And you better not tell me there’s a tub in this truck, or I’m going to be pissed.”

“Insignificant details. It won’t matter in the end. But you are definitely the wife, just to clarify.” He smiles and pokes my chest. “Be aware that once we’re inside, you’re taking the lead, do you understand? This is your kill, not mine. I’m not holding your hand.”

My kill?

Not his.

What would he do if I stopped this whole thing right now?

“And by lead, you mean you want me to jump him? Just like that? Shoot him, stab him, chop off his head?”

“Leave as little mess as possible. And I said avoid your gun; it’s a small neighborhood.” He eyes me for a second, sizing up his ability to trust me. He can’t, and we both know it. He shoves me forward and reaches down the back of my pants, stealing my father’s gun for the second time, tosses it in the glovebox, and continues, “Leave the head attached. I have a plan for the body.”

I bet that’s a wonderful plan. Can’t wait to hear it.

My scoff makes him pause. “You need to allow your mind to rest,” he says. “Clear your thoughts of the negativity holding you hostage. Tell me what’s fueling your hesitation, and I can help.”

He can help, he says.

It’s easy for Janus to sugarcoat shit. This is simple, he tells me. Follow my lead. This is just. This is right, and I know what I’m doing. He can make this situation sweet and sparkly – so much more palatable for me when he prys open my mouth. But what isn’t easy is what comes next. I have to take a big bite of that sugar-coated shit and swallow it.

What’s making me hesitate? Everything.

What if The Music Man’s expecting our little visit? Jan’s lack of nerve makes him a little less than subtle. For all I know, the two had dinner last night.

What if the pig’s not even home when we arrive? Do we come back later? How much later? As it stands, the anticipation is already eating away at me.

The sun seethes overhead, and I’m wondering why we’re doing this during the day. Isn’t that unnecessarily dangerous, even by Jan’s standards?

What if the pig recognizes me? It’s not like my face isn’t tacked up in every shop window in the tristate area.

And my final worry – the one that still keeps me up at night: what if this is all a trap? Jan was a little too excited when he discovered that I’d picked this pig, and he spent days studying the articles about the mysterious Opera House Killer. What if they know each other? This is exactly like meeting Colorado Guy all over again. I could be willingly walking into another trap.

Do I know enough about Janus to trust him with my life? He tells me not to think – to clear my mind of such negative thoughts – but isn’t that a rather convenient way to blind me? If he can convince me to stop trusting myself, that puts him in quite a position of control.

“Fledge.”

My head snaps up, and though he’s wary of my silence, there is still optimism in his eyes as he continues, “When the conscious mind meets the unconscious need, when good aligns with evil, when the earthly forces and the spiritual world synchronize, a noble soul is no longer divided. Remember why you’re doing this, and that will give you strength.”

Those flowery words of encouragement are a band-aid to my woes, but he’s right to remind me why we’re here. This is my purpose, whether he intends to trick me or not. If it’s the end of my line, so be it.

I grab my bag, rip open my door, and we finally ditch the truck behind the store. He keeps telling me it’ll be fine – that I’ll get into the swing of things once we get there – but this all feels too sudden to me. There is a pressure building in my head, making me forget stupid shit like how to walk, because I’m trying to remember how to get out of a choke-hold, while Jan’s blathering on about staying calm and feeding off the moment – whatever the hell that means.

We cut through yards and hop fences, slinking into the neighborhood like a couple of burglars: one well-dressed boss and the other obviously a yes man. My clothes are nothing but translucent plaid rags at this point, and my jeans are frayed and covered in fatty slicks from me wiping my hands on them every damn night. I am not an unkempt man under normal circumstances. I try to hide my inner turmoil with a tucked-in shirt and a clean pair of jeans, but since I met God’s meat man, all that’s gone to shit.

Now Janus looks as dapper as ever in his blood-red shirt and black leather belt, like the bastard’s off to church, which I guess isn’t that far from the truth. Three of us are about to gather in The Music Man’s chapel. I suppose Jan’s expecting God to pop in for the show. I wouldn’t be surprised if the bastard stayed for dinner after, too.

With every gut-wrenching step closer to the house, my satchel clanks and bounces against my thigh, a nice musical reminder that all this is my new reality. I brought it because I feel naked going in there with nothing by my hands as weapons. My switchblade is in my pocket of course, but I’ve never gone after someone who wasn’t temporarily incapacitated and sprawled out on the ground. I have no idea why I wanted to bring all this shit, but I now have one of Mr. Moonlighting’s fillet knives, a coil of catgut, and Sirens at my hip like I’m about to spend a lazy Sunday with my murderous husband out by the lake.

The illogical is welcome now, and it doesn’t even need to wipe its feet anymore. Dirt and grime, shits and giggles, time and space are meaningless. Every time I look over at Jan, I feel like I’m seeing a different person. When he’s smirking at nothing he looks like a sweet old man who has stories about his army buddies getting caught with trannies in Thailand. I glance away and then back to find his smoke-filled eyes scrutinizing our surroundings while he tongues his cigarette, and I’m reminded that the devil still lurks in his details. I collect myself again and when I turn back, he winks, and I want to throw him down and fuck him right here in some asshole’s backyard.

When we stumble out of the bushes, he points out the house far up the tree-lined sidewalk. It’s a nice looking place on a quiet street – an old two-story brick number. Next to the ominous front door is a picture window covered by a big bush that’s been buzzed at the top like the head of a military man. The house looks nice though, like the home of a retired cop and his wife, not really the den of a sicko like I was expecting. I guess I was hoping to find him in the basement of a whorehouse, but this guy has money, which makes me see at him less as a cretin and more like an abuser of poor souls – a warden, not a dreg.

There are a couple of abandoned bikes in the yard across the street. He’s made himself a pretty little sheep suit to hide among the lambs. I wonder if it was his suit that Jan found so intriguing. Maybe they don’t just share a butcher, but a tailor as well.

The quiet street feels deserted though it’s mid-day.

About thirty yards away from the wrought-iron fence separating us from the killer, the angry sun still at our backs, Jan stops and grabs my arm. “You can train and talk yourself into this; you can pretend to know what this is going to feel like, but if you need more time, Fledge, I will give it in spades. There is no shame in delaying a fight to gain the upper hand, but you have to ask for it right now. I cannot give you time to think once that door has been opened. So I will ask you again: are you ready for this?”

So now he’s worried. Suddenly he’s noticing my shaking hands and sweat-soaked hair. When his ass is on the line, his eyes are finally wide open, and I wonder what he sees.

What kind of question is that anyway? I could have a million years and never be ready for this. Does he even understand what he’s asking?

I’m not crazy. I’m not cruel.

I’m not a violent hoodlum hoping to rough up some old lady for a couple of bucks.

I’m not a lunatic on the warpath, looking for my next victim to slay for fun.

I’m not a psychopath who gets his jollies from watching life drain from some unlucky bastard’s eyes. That’s not me. I am not the villain here. And while I know I’m not the hero, I must have some value to some victim somewhere.

Within the ivy-covered house just down the street lives something akin to a man. He may have been a person at one point, and there is no doubt that many still believe that’s what he is right now. They may see him as ethical, moral, perhaps even polite, but that facade is what I am looking past; that barrier is what I am stepping through. I am useless on this side of it – watching these creatures flourish as they prey on innocent wretches just trying to live their lives in peace.

I have watched babies die and children scream and mothers weep into their hands, and I have done nothing. I can’t save the ones I already let die, and I cannot live any longer knowing that I am failing every victim who these sick sons of bitches take from this earth when I know their killer’s names.

I may not know what I’m expected to do, only that I have to do something. In my head, I see the door slowly open. I see The Music Man, tall with brown hair, brown eyes, medium build – able to slip in and out of society undetected. I hear him ask who we are. I watch Jan’s hand refuse to the let the door slam in our faces. I see myself slip inside. I hear protests and shouting. Get out! What are you doing?! I hear muffled pleas and feet running to a back door. I feel warm fabric in my hands and my muscles tighten. I yank, and his body slams into my chest. My knife clicks, my mind clicks, and with a warm gush, it’s over.

A sharp voice snaps in my ear. “Put it away.”

My eyes clear and I look down at my knife, cradled across the red scar running down my palm. I close it quickly and pocket it again.

Now he’s really worried, and he probably should be. He steps in front of me, stopping my feet and cutting off my view of the house. “I’ll ask again, and this is it: are you ready for this?”

I feel stronger; I do.

I feel the pull of excitement in my bouncing feet.

My joints are loose and my cuts are healed. No more bandages hide the slices and stabs from shadows and beasts. My stitches are gone and my belly’s full. I am aching to put an end to this, but I can’t stop my own unwanted thoughts from giving me pause.

“My body is ready …” I say. My mind, no so much.

He hears my hesitation, and I can see him questioning everything – our last two months flipping through his brain like a film reel about to burst into flames. Did we talk enough? Did we train enough? Did he properly convey the importance of keeping my back guarded? Did he steady my trigger finger enough to make it count? Did he drill it into me to keep both eyes open always? Did he teach me how to hear around corners? How to ignore the chaff and zero in on the target? Did he convince me to do this, or am I going in on my own terms?

He wants to trust me. He needs to. He wants me to be ready for this. He wants me to want this just as badly as he does, and when his head barely nods – a lie he’s telling himself – he says, “Good enough.”

He turns, and we head through the iron gate and up the cracked walkway until we come to a stop and stare down a brass pineapple. Welcome, friends.

My hand raises, hovering over the door. Should I use the knocker, or are my knuckles good enough? It’s the last thing this guy might hear. Does that matter? What matters anymore?

I’m not supposed to be thinking.

Jan’s biting his lip and staring at my fist as though my knock is about to recite sweet poetry. There is no going back after this. If I draw the pig to the door, I’m going to have to kill it, whether I want to or not.

My knuckles have barely rapped against the door when it rushes from my hand and I gasp like I’ve just been sucker punched.

A stocky, pale, brown-bearded man steps into the doorway. He smiles, brings his hands together, and drops his head in an unexpected bow. He’s wearing some kind of gauzy white shirt with a bright orange scarf and a cheesy grin.

“Namaste, brothers,” he enthusiastically says, “What can I do you for?”

Notes:

My chapter 29 rant.