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Chapter 30: Fools Rush In

We didn’t draw a pig to the door, we drew a giant cartoon mouse.

His fingertips are tapping his thighs as he waits for me to say something, and now I’m stuck under his and Jan’s agonizing scrutiny while I decide what nonsense I’m going to try to pass off as truth.

“Good afternoon, fine sir –”

Fine sir? I can’t remember a goddamn thing. What were we selling? Tubs? Doors? Maybe it's a new religion – some sort of progressive movement that frees us all from this pit of despair so we may finally ascend into an otherworldly realm of light and love and forgiveness.

“We’re census takers,” I spit out, and my voice vanishes.

He glances at his watch like its face is embedded with a government calendar. “Is it a census year already? I feel like I just did one of these things.”

I’ve got nothing.

I can’t even look at Jan. This is as far as my brain can function. This is why we needed a solid plan. This was too sudden, and I wasn’t expecting The Music Man to look like a bearded Mickey Mouse dressed like a goddamn swami.

The man looks back up at me, waiting for an explanation, but I guess he decides to come up with his own instead. “Did you two hear about the performance? Because it’s actually a private affair, and I was just about to get the whole thing started.”

What performance? That sounds like a far better cover story than my storm-door-selling census taker spiel.

“We actually are here for the performance,” I say.

“But you just said you were census takers.”

So?

Jan finally pipes up, thank God. “My friend has a very boring and very peculiar sense of humor. An acquaintance divulged this private show and we happened to be in town. We were hoping to have a listen.” His grin is as calm and reassuring as my dripping face is not.

The guy nods and faintly smiles, then leans on the door frame. “I’ll be honest with you,” he says, “I don’t know most of Maestro’s friends, so I apologize for not recognizing you. I don’t really like to spring extra audience members during private shows, but if you’re friends of his, the more the merrier I suppose …”

“We aren’t exactly friends,” says Jan, “more like professional associates.”

“Like from the opera house? You guys don’t really look like musicians, but, hey, I probably don’t look like a cop either.” He snickers and my gut jumps into my throat. “Are you two fans of the Orient?”

Jesus fucking Christ, the swami mouse is a cop and apparently not our intended target. And what the hell is he talking about? Private shows? The Orient?

Jan clears his throat and leans toward the mouse man. God, please don’t let him bite him. “Would you mind if we continued this conversation inside? It’s a tad warm out here.”

The guy quickly stands and fumbles back. “Of course! I’m being rude, rude, rude. Come in! I have snacks and drinks if you’d like to cool off!”

Jan waits for me to follow the cop inside, then brings up the tail, closing the door with a thud that feels like a prison door being slammed and welded shut.

We’re ushered into a huge living room lined with walnut bookshelves filled with awards, encyclopedias, and small wooden masks. Bright open windows look out into the empty street, though the view is partially blocked by that militant bush.

I’m trying to stay calm and go through Jan’s checklist. Learn my environment, he drilled into me – know the layout, look for exits, and locate all the obvious and not-so-obvious weapons.

There’s a doorway into the kitchen – probably an exit in there, too – and a carpeted staircase leading to the upper floor. Dark green couches and leather chairs have been pushed away from the fireplace and a single dining chair has been placed like a throne in front of the hearth. In the far corner sits a piano with a towering palm tree behind it – a pretty fancy sty if I do say so myself.

Judging by the worn oriental rug, garishly framed paintings, and the ostentatious display of exotic instruments cluttering the floor and walls, he has very expensive taste for a pig. The glass coffee table is spread with wooden bowls of breads, crackers, nuts, and sauces, and the cop smiles and waves toward the food which we have no intention of consuming.

“Help yourself to the assortment of appetizers, or as they say in India, chaat. I’ll just refill the paneer, here.” He grabs an empty silver platter and scurries into the kitchen for more cheese.

Then I finally see the other monumental issue we’re about to face. Three loud women – also dressed in gauzy shirts – and a man sporting boat shoes in Idaho, are laughing hysterically at some sort of nude African sculpture on a small end table by the couch.

They are oblivious to us, poking at the giant phallus protruding from the tiny man’s crotch and making vulgar motions toward their mouths.

The crude behavior aside, the issue is that this bizarre crowd of tactless grobians was not supposed to be in here. I have no time or patience to come up with a believable story for our sudden and unexpected appearance here, let alone idle chit-chat to remain unsuspicious.

Jan, of course, is unfazed by all the racket. He just scoops up a toothpick and wanders away to scour The Music Man’s bookshelf like it’s a public library.

In strolls a fresh plate of pan-fried cheese cubes stuck with picks, and our chubby host drops it on the table. He grabs two chunks and shuffles over to offer me one, which I guess I have to graciously accept now.

“I didn’t catch your name,” he says.

Janus obnoxiously scoffs from the bookshelf behind the piano. “That’s because he didn’t throw it …”

I extend an arm – I’m not rude, after all. “Fledge,” I say, and the fat cop squeezes our clammy palms together. He immediately bares his teeth, not with a scowl, but rather an embarrassed grimace. He didn’t hear what I said, but he doesn’t have the balls to ask me to repeat myself. I bet he's going to call me Fletch now.

“And how do you know Maestro?” he wonders, but again, he doesn’t wait for a reply. “I met Maestro two years ago. He was always popping in at work to say hello. He’s just a swell guy. So talented, too, as you know. When I realized how many unusual instruments he could play, I just begged and begged, ‘Please do a private show,’ and he finally caved. Now we have private affairs all the time. I’m such a bad friend.” His grin turns his cheeks an unhealthy shade of red. I hope to God this isn’t how I look to people when I try to make small talk.   

“I’ve never met the man formally,” I think I hear myself say. “I’m only familiar with his more infamous work. We aren’t really ... friendly.”

He cocks his head and studies my eyes for a few too many seconds.

“He’s very likable,” he finally says. “There’s just some quality about him – something exhilarating about being around such raw talent.” His wry smile is unnerving at best. “I’m musically illiterate myself, but Maestro …” He lets out a long, captivated sigh and shakes his head. “He’s a pure, unmitigated genius.”

“Aristotle claimed that there is no great genius without a touch of madness.”

His grin twists into a droll smirk and he huffs a dry, quiet laugh, popping his cheese cube in his mouth. “So you’re familiar with Maestro through the symphony then? What do you play?”

The murderer’s nickname is The Music Man, The Opera House Killer. He exudes all things musical, and yet in all of my and Jan’s long-winded discussions about who was the most underrated librettist, and how much disdain he has for Schoenberg’s 'offensive atonal orgies,' he never thought to prep me for what to expect when I entered the world behind The Music Man’s suburban facade.

I can’t talk music.

I know nothing about orchestras.

I don’t even know what instrument to pretend to play. Would a drummist say “drums”?

No, they aren’t called drummists ...

Could I be a convincing cellist?

Who’s the guy who just crashes symbols? That looks easy enough to fake, and I don’t see any symbols lying around, waiting to prove me wrong …

Jan finally sidles up. “Fledge isn’t really an acquaintance of your Maestro, but I am somewhat.”

“Oh!” The cop’s whole face brightens, and I’m just glad his attention isn’t on me anymore. “Do you play?”

Suddenly Janus, the hotshot, beams. “In fact, I do. Piano, harpsichord, theremin, among other things.”

Since when?

The mouse is taken aback, much like myself. “A theremin!” he gasps. “I’ve never heard a live performance, only on television … you know … Star Trek …”

Jan huffs as though thoroughly insulted by the mouse’s apparent boobery. “What you hear on that program is not a theremin. It’s the voice of Loulie Jean Norman, the sopranista.”

And now I have a whole host of new questions for him. “You–you watch Star Trek?”

He scoffs. “I don’t watch television.”

“And yet you knew exactly what he was talking about and the singer’s name.”

“It’s not the sound of a theremin and it never was, Fledge. Drop it.”

I don’t really want to drop it, but I will if I have to. This is the first time Jan’s seemed almost somewhat normal to me. We will be discussing this later.

The cop suddenly gestures toward the baby grand in the corner. “If you also play the piano, we’d love to hear you while we wait. Please!”

Of course, the humble and respectful pianist declines with a humble and respectful smile.  “This is your Maestro’s performance,” he insists, like the true gentleman that he is, “I’d hate to steal his spotlight.”

The cop nods, feeding Jan’s bulging ego and continues, “I’d be happy to let Maestro know that one of his friends from the symphony is here, but I don’t recall your name.” He holds out his hand, hopeful for a gracious introduction, but is naturally dismissed once again.

Clearly Jan sees his hand – he’s staring at it – but has no interest in making nice. “Tell your Maestro that he and I use strings from the same abattoir,” he says, “and I look forward to hearing him play.”

The cop hums to himself, and that disconcerting cock to his head returns before he nods happily enough, and turns, trudging up the set of stairs behind him.

I have no idea what the hell just transpired, so Jan leans closer, lowering his voice. “An abattoir is a slaughterhouse,” he explains, “I’m implying that we both use the same butcher to string our chordophones.”

“I know what an abattoir is,” I snap. But I’m only vaguely certain that I know what a chordophone is.

The cop returns a few minutes later, his face flushed and mousy gaze now fixed on Jan, and he calmly suggests we all sit.

While Jan sprawls out in an oversized chair like he owns the place, I drop my satchel to the floor and wedge myself between the arm of the couch and Boat Shoe.

The Shoe’s chatty tongue wastes no time jumping into the unnecessary realm of mindless chatter I’m so desperately trying to avoid.

“Have you heard him play before?” he asks.

I shake my head and beg the Holy Spirit to make it stop before it starts, but I’d forgotten that God abandoned me about thirty-seven years ago on a cold January night.

“Oh, he’s wonderful! Just an absolute gem!” the guy gushes. “He had a performance a few months ago and wowed the whole audience with his sitar. Gorgeous sound. It was, honestly, life-changing.” His eyes lock on mine and suddenly squint as he scans my face like he knows me.

Dear God, please don’t let me be seated next to a traveler. I am not the Butcher of Boulder, man. You do not know me.

When he doesn’t seem to recognize me, his eyes drift down my neck and then my ratty clothes.

I know what he’s thinking.

My jeans are dirt-streaked and my mustache matches the greasy mop I’ve been slowly cultivating over the last few months. I look like a panhandler who’s one bad trip away from slaughtering everyone here in the name of the three-headed demon that’s taken up residence inside my anxiety-stricken chest.

Maybe he’s a bit more perceptive than I think.

To this jackass, I must be quite a sight to behold, since he feels compelled to disregard social norms just to have a good goddamn gawk. But he’s definitely not the only person who’s acted like he’s about to whip out a damn camera at the sight of me.

Waitresses and busboys watch me in restaurants like I’m seconds from robbing the place.

Clerks insist on dragging out transactions with meaningless drivel about rain or Russia when I just want to grab a pack of smokes.

People stop me on the street for directions downtown like I know where the hell I’m even going at any given time.

When I sit up on the couch, I straighten my glasses and push back my hair, still avoiding his eyes. I can tell he’s smiling and it makes me sick, until he glances elsewhere and from the corner of my eye, I watch the color drain from his face.

He quickly turns back to his gaggle of birds, finally getting the goddamn message to drop it. Thank you, Holy Spirit. Apparently you are still hanging around.

I start to relax a bit as the cop rushes to clear the table of food and dishes preparing for the moment when we finally get a glimpse of The Music Man himself.

He slowly descends from upstairs: first a set of polished black shoes, then smooth, gray slacks. He’s unbuttoning his white shirt sleeves as he comes into everyone’s view.

He’s tall and fit – a colored man with short-cropped hair. His gaze darts between Jan and me, and if the old bats weren’t bustling on about how beautiful the sitar by the fireplace is, you could probably hear the bastard’s pulse.

Jan stands and my heart stops. Should I stand, too?  Then he extends his hand, which I find odd considering one doesn’t typically shake a pig’s trotter.

“We’ve never met,” says Jan, “but I am Dr. Johannes Silentio.” The name rolls over his tongue like a sweet wine, and I’m astounded by how easily he dons a new suit.

The Music Man cocks his head but takes Jan’s hand anyway. “Good afternoon, Doctor,” he says. “How did you hear of our little gathering?”

“A happy accident. Please forgive our intrusion. My friend and I are simply curious to hear you play.”

The Music Man clears his throat and nods, turning to the other, more formally invited guests. “I fear I’m experiencing some shoulder discomfort; I’m sure you all understand. Perhaps a single demonstration and then we’ll call it a day?” He grits his teeth. “I apologize if the performance seems inadequate.”

The cop, however, emphatically shakes his head. “It will be absolutely adequate! Stellar, in fact! We all know your time is very important, Maestro. Anything you are willing to do would be fantastic, and I’m sure very well-received!” He encourages the others to clap, which they do, then plops into a chair behind the couch.

I suppose we’re about to be treated to a festive musical number before the proverbial shit hits the fan. This situation couldn’t be more unsettling if we were all dressed as clowns.

The Music Man continues scrutinizing Jan as they each take their seats. Our “Maestro,” as the mickey mouse insists on calling him, lowers himself into the dining chair in front of the fireplace and grabs the violin that I hadn’t noticed leaning against the stones.

“No sitar?” mewls one of the gauzy white women.

He ignores her as he slowly twists the screw at the end of his bow, tightening the long white hairs.

“Not today,” he finally replies, eyes still fixed on Jan. The Shoe and his girls groan like children.

If Jan and the Maestro know one another, it’s not evident, but our presence is clearly making him nervous.

He straightens his back and rests the violin under his chin. He then twists the neck of the instrument, not out from his shoulder as one would expect, but down into his lap, resting his arm on his thigh. I’ve never seen someone hold a violin like that. It looks wrong, or at least awkward, and I’m not sure what to make of it.

He readies the bow and sweeps it across the strings.

Thick exotic vibrations drone through the room, and I watch the captivated guests become listless as their minds and faces become engulfed within the vibrancy of the east Indian sun.

Janus studies the Maestro’s fingers sliding up and down the strings. The notes stretch and bow as they climb higher, then dip low with a groan.

After a few moments, Jan closes his eyes, immersing himself in the warmth of that same sun, no doubt dressed in linen and a brimmed white hat as he wanders down a bustling market street, deciding the fate of the men bumping against him as they hurry past.

Never lose sight of the enemy, he said to me, and yet there he is: facing a monster with his eyes closed, while half a world away.

The Shoe and his hens are gone too – heads reclined back and faces relaxed as they rock to the chanting in their own minds. I’ve been left trapped within this grandiose suburban theatre, staring into the eyes of a creature playing a Siren’s song.

With a flick of the bow, quick fluttering trills transport the room to a hollowed boat floating down the lazy waters of the Ganges. While they paddle down the river, swaying with the music, my mind would much rather catalog the stage I’m sat upon.

Pictures framing snapshots of ceremonies and musical performances could be broken or lobbed if need be. The fireplace poker that resides by the Maestro’s shiny black shoe could become a quick and dirty lance. The mantel above him holds a wide mirror, tilted toward the room to reflect the light of the window and the image of the front door. His early warning system can’t do its job when an innocent mouse invites in the wrong sort of guest.

The mirror is flanked by two heavy gold candlesticks – a nice bludgeoner if we were playing Clue – and now I wonder what else this house might hide. A ballroom? A conservatory? A library, perhaps?

Buzzing notes mimic insects flitting past our ears, and the melody swirls around the room, invigorating our skin and noses like a warm, peppery breeze.

Janus shifts and gently nods at the change in pace, and I wonder what dusty street he’s dipped down. What hole-in-the-wall did he just duck into as he hides in the shadows of his own Indian sanctuary?

The Maestro watches him as much as he watches me, his eyes focused not on the violin cradled against his chest, but on the strangers who have violated his den.

If he’s faltering as he plays, no one’s the wiser, though who knows what Jan and his extensive musical knowledge might be noticing.

The exotic, stirring music exudes a permeating sense of life and vitality. As I listen, I see brown-skinned, barefoot children laughing and splashing at the river’s edge. I watch mothers and sisters washing colorful fabric that they scrunch and twist around their arms. I’m taken again by more dull hums, and I hear rinse water drip and splash as the villagers howl and sing in a tongue that sounds like it gleefully bubbles from their chests.

But the reality is that I’m watching a murderer lull his audience into a stupor. I’m watching a warden – in a crisp white shirt that hides the zippers and buttons of his person suit – acting the part of a character whose sole purpose is to bring beauty and joy to his audience.

We know nothing about the men and women who shuffle around our offices and city sidewalks. In public, we hide behind ties and fancy watches, high heels, and show-stopping smiles, because our bruises, scars, and sinister thoughts are far too egregious to flaunt.

Boat Shoe is practically tearing up at the performance. Every few seconds he sniffs, and I want to lean over and say, “Don’t cry for this beauty, for it comes from the thieving hands of a beast,” but I don’t. I let him have his moment of unadulterated joy. It’ll be over soon enough as it is.

On that thought, the music comes to a close with a long melodic moan, and the room, heavy and lethargic, lightens as the Maestro returns his violin to the floor next to the fireplace. This particular show’s over, though an encore might seem in order at this point.

The misty-eyed cop stands and begins a round of applause that causes the hens and Boat Shoe to happily rise and join him. Seeing as Jan has remained seated and is barely tapping his open palm, I’m following his lead, staying put and silent.

The cop rushes around the couch and nods to everyone, a hasty attempt to get us moving along. Apparently, he and the music maker have more important plans to tend to, and we are no longer welcome – not that we’d been invited in the first place.

The Maestro is still staring down Jan, ignoring the audience hastily attempting to thank him for the display. I’m surprised the man has any friends at all considering he’s as dismissive of peons as my good doctor.

The cop eventually kicks the other four out, though the Shoe attempted to get my name before they left. No luck there, obviously. I gave him the name of my old superintendent and the mouse practically shoved them out the door before beginning his futile attempts to pry Jan and me out of our seats.

“Maestro is a bit fatigued, gentleman, and I’m sure his shoulder could use a rest. I hope you both enjoyed yourselves.” He steps back with a large faux smile and motions to the front door.

The Music Man ignores him entirely, his attention only on Jan’s smirk.

“I’m told you use my strings,” he huffs, “Are you a luthier as well, or do you just prefer a more genuine sound? I’m a traditionalist, and I have a workshop downstairs if you’d prefer to speak privately–”

“His workshop is amazing,” interrupts the cop, “Not a detail is overlooked. And he gets all his special stains from uh … where was it? Genoa, Italy?”

“Cremona,” he snaps, glaring at the mouse. “And it’s varnish, not stain."

Jan snickers at the disagreement, and I realize I’ve never seen this particular look. It’s trenchant and fierce, bold and confident, despite the dangerous position we find ourselves in.

He leans back in his chair to get a better view of the Maestro under such duress. His years of rubbing elbows with other doctors are finally surfacing, and his speech has become well-defined and excessively charismatic.

“I’m well acquainted with the butcher who runs your abattoir,” he begins, but the Maestro’s blank stare remains unimpressed. “I feel compelled to compliment you both on what you’ve been able to accomplish. Your strings offer an unmistakably clean sound – something you only hear with authentic gut.” Jan grins and leans forward on his knees, thoroughly enjoying having his target under such a finely focused microscope. “I spent months training that man in my craft,” he continues. “I wonder how long it took you.”

Junkyard dogs have far less penetrating gazes than what I am witnessing. My skin crawls and I don’t even know why. I wholeheartedly trust Janus here. If there is a throwdown, I can’t imagine him not stringing this bastard up before helping himself to the man’s kitchen.

Even the cop is squirming and quickly takes a seat on the couch next to me, clearing his throat before he speaks. “You make special trips for your strings, don’t you, Maestro? Somewhere south of here?”

“Colorado,” says Jan, and his smile is assaulting. “High in the mountains where angels fear to tread. You would have been wise to heed their warning, Maestro.”

The Music Man eyes me now as he speaks. “And what brought you here?”

It’s not fear or dread in the big black pits staring at me. It’s something closer to annoyance. It’s the same look Jan flashes me when he thinks I’m lying. I don’t know why, because I’m not here to taunt this wild animal, but I wink at him, and his lip twitches.

He turns back to Jan, who’s wagging his finger like Santa about to tisk-tisk your naughty behavior. “You brought us here, Music Man. My dear friend Fledge drew your name from a very unlucky hat. So we came to see what sort of music you make. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by our little side trip. You, however, probably won’t be.”

“I assure you,” he says, “I am quite surprised.”

“But is it pleasant?”

The cop hacks another wad of anxiety from his throat and suddenly taps my knee. “Fledge, is it? That’s an unusual name. Is it Dutch?”

I scoff and glance at Jan, but he’s stoic, grinding his teeth, and eyeing my now sullied knee.

“Not Dutch,” I say to the cop, but all my focus is on Jan’s sudden petulance. A moment more eyeing my knee and his attention returns to The Music Man, where it should have remained.

“What drew you to the Carnatic style?” he asks him.

As expected, the cop can’t keep his trap shut. “Maestro’s always been interested in Indian culture. One of his favorite paintings at the museum depicts a woman with a tanpura – you know, the long-necked instrument that, uh … sort of looks like a …” He trails off when The Music Man huffs out a loud sigh.

Jan’s ears perk right up, though. “The museum?”

“Where I work,” the mouse clarifies. “I’m a security guard at an art museum in Salt Lake.”

I can’t hold back the laugh that erupts from under my breath. This jackass is just a goddamn rent-a-cop.

The Maestro’s ignoring the mouse and me, which makes sense. We’re not nearly as interesting as the dolled-up and pompous bastard with the sharp jaw and wicked tongue.

“A virtuoso of the Carnatic style performed with my orchestra several years ago,” he finally explains. “He studied in India for two decades. I was intrigued, so we practiced. I pick up new techniques very quickly.”

“I bet you do,” says Jan. “Are you typically trained by masters, or are you mostly self-taught?”

“Self-taught,” he sneers. “I’m interested in all musical endeavors – instrument construction being particularly intriguing – so I’ve taken up a few of the more exotic instruments to quell my insatiable need to learn.”

“I wonder just how exotic?” asks Jan. I’m wondering that myself.

The Music Man glances at the grimacing idiot next to me before continuing, “Gentlemen, I’m afraid I have a performance this evening which I’d like to prepare for. If you’ll excuse me, my friend can show you out.” He stands, and the mouse man jumps to his feet, scrambling to the door.

We aren’t leaving, obviously. That train sailed the moment the door shut, and I’m a bit curious to learn more about this mysterious Maestro and how he procures his musical ingredients.

I’m finding this an interesting position to be in. I’m not the one being grilled or harassed or stepped on, I have Janus at my side and my back, and I can see on Jan’s beaming face that he feels the same excitement swelling within himself as well.

I hold up my hands to stop this nonsense. This is my dog-and-pony show after all. “I don’t know about Dr … whatever the hell he said his name was, but I think I’d like to see your workshop before we leave.” I don’t know why I say it, I just do. I’m not even that interested.

Jan’s obviously pleased as all hell. He nods and leans back in his chair. “I am also tad curious. That is, if the offer is still on the table.”

“Gentlemen!” laughs the mouse, and he nervously claps his hands. “Let’s not overstay our welcome! The Maestro needs some time to prepare for this evening; I’m sure you don’t mind.” He gestures to the door like a mime bailing water and Jan actually stands.

I can’t imagine him insisting that we leave, so I watch him like a hawk as he ignores the mouse man and returns to the bookcase to finger more leather-bound spines. He finds and opens a small, decorated wooden box, humming to himself as he tips it to inspect the contents.

“You own one of Paganini's medals,” he says and holds up the box for me to see the round, bronze medal set atop a black velvet pillow. It bears the profile of a very Italian face, and I briefly wonder if Mr. Opportunistic isn’t going to swipe it after we’re done here. That face would make a handsome fiancé for the lonely Frenchwoman at the bottom of his pocket.

“Paganini was one of the greats,” says the Maestro. “That medal was a gift when I left my former opera house.”

Janus traces the outline of the medal and nods. “I’m sure you’re well aware of the allegation surrounding Niccolo Paganini.”

“I am,” he replies. “His appearance and expertise with the violin caused an accusation to spread. They said he had a pact with the devil.”

I’m not sure how much I like listening to them discuss shit that’s going right over my head. It feels intentionally patronizing.

Jan slowly nods. “I believe it was the Bishop of Nice who performed his sacrament. But after his death, the church still refused to bury him. Isn’t that right?” He glances over his shoulder at the Music Man. “Such an ungodly fuss over a hooked nose.”

The Maestro has to be tearing his mind apart as he attempts to discern what the hell our plans are in his home. I’m starting to wonder what Jan’s plans are, myself.

When the mouse begins to speak again, the Maestro dismisses him with a wave and continues the conversation himself, “You said you trained my acquaintance in Colorado. I haven’t seen the man in months. Exactly how well do you know him?”

“Far better than you,” says Janus. “And I was unaware that he was taking on new projects. I wasn’t particularly happy to hear that.”

“He is a man of many talents – though his methods are crude and unorthodox. But you seem like a generous man with good taste. You probably know how difficult it is to find a trustworthy craftsman. I’m sure you don’t mind sharing his skill set.”

“I’ve never been one to share,” says Jan, and those are the truest words the man has ever uttered.

“That’s unfortunate to hear. Did you tell him how you felt?”

Jan snickers and thumbs toward me. “Fledge tried to have a few words with him, but the man wasn’t willing to listen – got a little too excited and ended up losing his head. Isn’t that right, Fledge?”

“Had to give him the axe,” I say as my face and neck ignite. “The separation was a little messy, but he’ll get over it, and like the good doctor said, neither of us likes to share things … spotlight included.”

“It’s a shame we couldn’t all work together,” says the Maestro. Yes, it is such a shame. “I’ve not met many others as musically inclined as myself.”

“Now that’s not true, Maestro! The symphony is full of amazing talent!” Nobody looks at the squeaky mouse; he needs to clam up or get out.

The Music Man’s obviously getting a little antsy now. He stands and fixes his sleeves before stepping behind his dining chair like he’s about to tidy up. “What exactly were your intentions when you sought me out?”

“To have a chit-chat,” says Jan, and I wasn’t expecting that. “Maybe compare notes. Fledge though –” He clicks his tongue as he strips me with his eyes. “He’s my wildcard. He’s got his own agenda, and I’m not inclined to touch it with a ten-foot pole.”

Suddenly I’m in the spotlight.

The Music Man turns to me. “And your intentions, Fledge?”

My intentions? I’d forgotten them for a second.

“I came seeking harmony,” I say, “And I’m finding you very harmonious, Music Man. You sing a sweet song – the trill of a Siren – and you dwell in a very interesting cave in your own cozy corner of the world. I just came to take a peek inside – look around a bit.”

“So you’re interested in seeing my other performances, then.”

His other performances? His audacity is staggering.

“Not really. Your music isn’t my style. I like something with a bit more … heart. I just came to share my own performance – something of a grand finale of sorts.”

He doesn’t care for my puns, but he can go fuck himself. Jan and I think they’re funny and that’s all that matters.

Janus suddenly rounds the back of the couch and leans down to my ear, not bothering to keep up appearances or lower his voice. “What’s your plan, gorgeous?”

I don’t know.

We’re past the door – step one complete.

We’ve been introduced – step two.

The Music Man has a nice little pad out here and several foolishly adoring fans. He enjoys the exotic and all things fancy. He has quite interesting tastes – a gourmand like my dear companion, so I’m not certain I know exactly what to do.

I notice the Maestro’s jaw clench and lips purse as he watches Jan cozy up to my cheek.

“What do you think, Fledge? Shall we dine like kings tonight, or feast like the gods?”

Kings, gods, a musical though murderous bard about to be stripped of his distinguished attire and summoned back to whatever savage pit he crawled from ...

“I’m feeling very godly, Doctor. And you know very well that I’m starving.”

He smiles and drags his nose up my cheek, pecking my temple. “Then we shall feast.”

He stands, and I hear him slowly back away from the couch. The Music Man’s pupils dilate and teeth continue to gnash.

What does he think is about to happen? His eyes are anchored on Jan’s moving body, and I turn to see what’s caught his undivided attention.

Jan locks the deadbolt on the front door and turns to the mouse, who’s as confused as ever.

“Would you mind?” he asks him, drawing a circle in the air between them.

The mouse cranes his neck to look at his own back. “What? Is there something on my scarf? I just got this last week for this specific party. Everyone wears them in India.”

Jan’s hand hasn’t stopped twisting mid-air, and when the mouse finally turns as instructed, a dull crack sends a charge up my spine.

Knees smack the floor, then the guard’s body tumbles forward onto its belly.

This was never part of the plan.

“What the hell are you doing?!”

“Cleaning, Fledge, and you’re up.”

Jan points to The Music Man, and I turn back to catch him inching toward the kitchen doorway, the chair still separating him from us.

“You saved me the trouble,” he says to Jan.

“What are new friends for?”

This isn’t funny.

We didn’t come here to set traps and murder innocent men. This is about retribution. This is about rebalancing a cosmic injustice.

“You’re fucking up the count,” I snap.

“I don’t have a count, Fledge.” He suddenly nods towards the kitchen. “He’s about to bolt, Hop. You might want to get off your ass.”

I stand as the Maestro charges through the doorway behind him. I leap over the coffee table and skitter across the floor of the empty kitchen. He’s disappeared.

The kitchen is bare and clean, but there’s something missing from the knife block – a cleaver or a chef’s knife, something big – so I keep my back to the counter as I scan the walls. There’s a doorway into the dining room and two white doors at the far end of the kitchen – a closet or a pantry, but no sign of The Music Man.

“I lost him!”

“He’s going to have hiding spots," he calls from the living room, "And a cache of weapons. But if you flush him out, I’m not helping you. This is your baby, you understand that?”

My baby … sure.

I inch closer to the doors. “What if he kills me?”

“Ye of little faith, son.”

“Ye of no faith …”

“Immobilize him first, and try not to get him in the gut – spoils the meat.”

“Or, you know, you could just help me!” I duck into the dining room and back out when I see it’s empty. He could be waiting behind either door, and now he’s had time to arm himself.

“I plan to watch you, gorgeous, not help.”

“Watch me get stabbed or shot?”

“He won’t shoot you ...”

I scoff and lean against the wall between the doors, raising my voice. “Can’t we all just sit down and talk about this like adults?!”

“We will, Fledge!” yells Jan. “At the dinner table like old friends.”

I pull out my knife and it opens with a snap.

I was fine in the other room, now I’m nothing but a sick ball of nerves with a pointy metal stick.

Jan’s head pops out from around the door casing. “Fledge, son, what are you doing? Put that away.”

No way in hell. I’m not bare-knuckle boxing this asshole.

“You’ll end up stabbing yourself. Put it away, and it stays in your pocket until ...” He tips his head as he thinks and trails off. “Maybe I should help you.”

“Now wait, I’m not stupid.” But I close and pocket the knife anyway. Honestly though, if Jan had said I needed to strip nude and cover myself in baby oil right now I would. I have no idea what I’m doing.

“You’ve given him time to form a plan now, Fledge. So what’s yours?”

“I was going to open a door and then … stab stab. I don’t know.”

“Jesus Christ,” he scoffs.

And what exactly was he expecting? The worst fight I’ve ever been in was when I tried to break up an argument between two ninth-graders who "accidentally" kicked me in the balls.

“As long as we don’t split up. You’ll be fine,” he says. “Remember what we talked about, and I’ll help you if it gets out of hand, but do what you have to do. We don’t fight clean.”

“Something tells me he’s not really going to care how dirty I fight.”

“Whatever you do, Fledge, do not find yourself alone with him. This is his turf and he has the upper hand.”

I’m about to tell him just how reassuring that is, when the door to my right barely cracks. A hand grabs my shirt, wrenches me inside, and I’m thrown down a flight of stairs. I crash and tumble, biting my tongue when my skull cracks against concrete.

A door slams, and I roll to my side, pain shooting up the back of my neck as I move. I’m spitting out a mouthful of blood when I hear a lock twist and keys rattle.

My vision clears just enough to scan the workshop walls before the lights are cut and I’m left in the dark. I scramble forward, smacking my shoulder against a metal workbench before clambering around to hide underneath.

Don’t get separated, he said. Solid fucking advice.

As my ringing ears clear, I hear shoes tap each step, slowly descending the stairs. The taps are muffled by the chaotic booms of a boot slamming the locked door behind him. Jan’s indecipherable swears from above go ignored.

“That door is not coming down,” he says. “It’s just you and me now.” He has to hear my disgusted scoff over Jan’s pounding fists because he continues, “Am I mistaken or are you Dr. Silentio’s pupil?”

Something metallic scrapes against a wall behind me and I peek out from under the bench. I duck back when I realize I can’t see shit.

“You can speak,” he says. “I already know where you are.”

I’d rather not trust this asshole, but it feels like he wants to talk – deliver his great monologue before the kill – talk about egomaniacal.

This is useful though. If he’s talking, he’s thinking, and therefore not stabbing.

“Speak to me, fledgling. Why did you actually come here?”

I don’t have to overpower him, I just have to find his weakness and exploit it. “I told you why – to bring harmony.”

He has an ego like Janus: a balloon – rotund but delicate.

“Then why’d you attack my String Man?”

“String Man was a bit flighty … and he was rude to me.”

“Are you a feral brute then, or just a vigilante?”

“Neither … I’m more like a reckoner.”

“You consider yourself Lady Justice. That makes a bit more sense.”

What the hell’s that supposed to mean?

A hammer whacks the workbench and I jump, smacking my head.

“I know this shop; it’s my home. Did you honestly expect to saunter in and take me by surprise?”

“I sort of did, yeah.”

His chuckle is deep and inherently condescending. “And what have I done to you, fledgling? What are you reckoning exactly? I make beautiful music.”

Whack!

I cover my ears.

“I create magnificent art.”

Whack!

“My hands are skilled and my mind well studied, and you are attempting to destroy all of that. Why?”

He pauses, finally letting me speak. “It’s nothing personal, Music Man. But I’ve seen your magnificent work – one piece of it, anyway. Your String Man kept a nice little file on you.”

Whack!

Jesus! “I was not impressed by ‘Mr. Harpman in a blood drum,’ or whatever you want to call that shameless exhibit.”

Whack!

“I’ve lived nearly forty years!” I snap. “I’ve watched the incredibly cruel take out their hostility on the innocent in the name of science, and now art, and I’m not a fan. I won’t abide it any longer.”

Whack!

He stops to collect his breath. “Sounds like vigilante justice after all.”

When I hear his feet step to the other side of the bench, I quietly scramble toward the back of the workshop. Before the light flicked off I saw tools, something sharp – weapons are everywhere. My hands slide up the front of a cupboard and I stand, groping in the dark, until I find what feels like a chisel or a file, and I turn to face the voice in the darkness.

“What did you find so disturbing about my dealings with String Man?” he wonders. “Surely it wasn’t his process. If Dr. Silentio is who I think he is, you travel with a butcher.”

Now how would he know that?

I back away from his voice, my calf smacking a low table, and I hiss. “It wasn’t his process, but rather your principle. Steel sounds just as pleasant as gut.”

I paw at my throbbing leg as I limp to a cold cinder block wall. “No need to kill men for your pretty little songs,” I say. “That’s the thinking of a madman.”

He dives and a cupboard rips open. I’m not in there.

“What I do and what I play has never been done before,” he claims. “I am giving meaning to wretches who are clueless to what constitutes an ample contribution to society.”

“You think you are the first to do something like this? Adorable. What is it about your special skills that give you the right to play God?”

He stops and I can hear his arms drop to his sides. “Are you attempting irony? Or are you truly that delusional?”

I’m attempting to stay alive, and the delusions ended years ago. The ramifications of my words today will be long forgotten when my adrenaline wears off, no worries there.

“I’m not delusional anymore, but I am a fan of irony as a literary device; it’s entertaining. And I am fully aware of what I preach.”

“Not delusional anymore …,” he repeats, trailing off as he turns towards my voice. “If I am the madman, what exactly are you – a broken little bird? The Doctor’s fawning parasite?”

“I’m a poet!” I shout and quickly wedge myself between a tall cabinet and sheets of wood leaning against the wall. He’s close, so I crouch and hold my breath.

“There’s no difference between a poet and a madman,” he says. “One simply has a better grasp of a pencil.”

I hear him pass in front of me, the smooth soles of his shoes twisting on the concrete floor as he moves. “And we all suffer from madness, little bird. Wouldn’t you agree?”

I crawl from under the wood stack and circle back when I hear him stop near where I think the stairs are.

“I don’t know about you,” I say, “but I was presented with a clean bill of health when I was discharged. Madness be damned.”

He laughs and takes another step. “You’re his patient then. He plucked you from a padded cell. The Doctor’s not mad; he’s just practical.”

Jan’s gone silent upstairs. I wonder if he’s given up on me, or if he’s looking for a wrecking ball.

“Practicality is madness,” I say.

“And to surrender your dreams is madness,” he drones, “to seek treasure where there is only trash is madness, et cetera and so forth.”

“Mad, mad, mad …,” I egg on. “The world is nothing but madness.”

I hear him step toward me, and I back against a post in the middle of the room. I’m not sure anything separates us now, and I can hear his deep, seething breaths.

“Too much sanity could be madness, fledgling, but I’m sure we don’t suffer there.”

“Speak for yourself.”

He snickers and stops. “Do you know what’s the maddest of all?”

I twist away from him, edging to the back of the pole, as I think. “To see life as it is, and not as it should be? Sanity is a but a curse, Maestro. But I’m not sure we should give too much credence to the words of Cervantes, Benengeli, or the Man of La Mancha.”

I drop to a crouch and crawl back to the wall, but the Music Man waits in the wings.

“How long have you been at this, little bird?”

“At what?”

“Hunting.”

“I don’t hunt. I fish.”

“Reckoning, then.”

“Technically? It all started thirty-seven years ago.” I scramble toward the opposing wall, but stop when he suddenly cuts me off. “But only with a purpose for the last two months.”

“Have you always been so gullible, or is the butcher that good in bed?”

A heavy crate crashes to the floor, pummelling my face with glass and splinters. I scramble back to the post and stand again, spitting out a wad of bloody sawdust.

“I’m a bit impressionable, I’ll give you that. But I’d be lying if I said he wasn’t an excellent lay. Were you fucking your buddy up there? If you were, the butcher’s sorry about that.”

His breath hisses and a cabinet smashes to the floor, showering us in glass.

The room falls silent as the dirt and wood settle.

I’m not dead, Butcher. If you’re still in the house, keep working on the goddamn door.

Feet crunch over glass as The Music Man works his way toward the post I’m backed against.

“Whatever he’s doing to you,” he says, “he did the same to String Man. The man was a mess when I found him: a blathering boob with a conspiracy-riddled manifesto and a cache of archaic weapons. He was obsessive, arrogant, and had no grasp on reality. Sound familiar?”

That’s all a lie. Colorado Guy was already crazy when he found him out in the desert. Butch did nothing to that animal but try to turn him into something useful.

He hums when I don’t reply. “I guess the butcher did call you his wildcard. You must be more unpredictable. My String Man was fiercely predictable – king of the cage he locked himself inside.”

“The butcher’s dramatic. I’m not a wildcard, I’m just fickle.”

“So your friendly butcher fed you, bedded you, and led you astray. Were you really a poet in your former life or was that just for my benefit?”

“I was an English teacher.”

His booming laugh fills the workshop – an obnoxious cacophony that feels like a stab to my gut. “Stop me when I’m wrong, fledgling: father trotted off to war and dear mother didn’t love you. You were teased as a child, right? Did the loss of a family pet scar your poor soul?”

I chuck the chisel into the darkness and it smacks him, bouncing off and clattering to the floor.

He seethes through his teeth. “You retaliate like a child.”

“Takes one to know one.”

Debris taps the floor as he brushes his sleeves. “I don’t think you fully appreciate the gravity of the situation you’re currently enjoying. I plan to restring my cello with you.”

I twist around the pole again. “Do you know what fury awaits you at the top of those steps?”

“A madman awaits me … although it sounds like he may have abandoned you.”

“I assure you, he has not abandoned me.”

“Has he pledged his undying love, then? I heard my front door close. I’d imagine he’s out prowling the streets for more disillusioned schoolteachers as we speak.”

This asshole will not shut his goddamn mouth. I scoop up a chunk of wood and chuck it over my shoulder. It taps and bounces across to the floor. “We’re a team.”

“My God, you are gullible … you’re his sweet southern belle who does whatever he orders.”

He must hear my snarl because he snickers before continuing, “What I’m wondering is why a man like your butcher would purposefully saddle himself with a liability. He’s a lone wolf, not a babysitter.”

“And now you’ve trapped and threatened that lone wolf’s southern belle. How do you plan to reason with the wolf when that door swings open?”

“He and I share enough commonalities, and I don’t believe he’s irrational, unlike you. We can traverse the nuances of the world in a way a rube like yourself couldn’t even fathom. You are nothing but a passing toy to him. He’ll get over it.”

“So you plan to snatch a toy from a rabid wolf’s jaws and then ask him not to maul you to death? You are certainly a genius.”

I crouch to the floor with the cold metal pole still at my back and pull out my knife as more glass crunches behind me – don’t rely on your knife, but use it if you have a clear target.

“A mysterious stranger gave you a fresh perspective on your pathetic life, probably springing you from a drunk tank or a madhouse, and you fell for it like a dumb chimp. He licked your wounds and gave you a little affection, and now suddenly you hold all the power. You get to decide who is right and who is wrong – I am cruel and you are just! He taught you how to smith iron into gold apparently.”

I catch his quick inhale and a crack! vibrates through the pole. A hard tool clangs again, just two feet above my head.

He’s right in front of me and testing my resolve.

My knife flicks open and I twist around, stabbing his thigh. He shrieks, and I let go as he clips my arm with a wooden handle. I roll forward, smashing myself under the workbench again.

We both stop, momentarily occupied by pain and adrenaline, and through the silence, I hear his muffled snarls.

Drips tap the floor and my knife clatters across the concrete.

“Not iron to gold,” I say. “I smith iron to steel – nothing magical about that. Butcher guilds the hilt, though, and he’s a far better craftsman than you.”

Glass crunches, then whack! and I jump again.

“Face me like a man, you child!”

No way. He turned off the lights. If he thinks I’m all about honor and integrity, he’s not listening very closely.

“If you’re a man of such grandeur,” I say, “take a moment. Tend to your leg and tell me about your methods. Wow me with your genius, Maestro. I’ll wait.”

He pauses, then stumbles back, a metal stool dragging across the floor with him. He must have sat because he’s quiet now, only a faint hiss escaping him as he fingers the gash in his leg. At least he’s not coming at me now.

“Do you plan to batten down under there? Let me bleed out? It’s cowardly.”

“No. Before things get further out of hand, I’d like to pause. I’m sure you don’t often get the opportunity to talk about your special performances. I’m offering a truce for now, and my ear. Have at it.”

He scoffs, but vanity is such an alluring temptress. “Without music,” he says, “life would be an insufferable mistake.”

“Without life, the ears cannot hear your blissful melodies, so how do you justify murder?”

“I have never needed justification, little bird. I search for an obstacle and I overcome it. I am learning a new art – a new skill. Death comes with the territory. I am playing music that no one has ever heard before. It is hypnotizing. It is historical. It is pioneering. There are always casualties with innovation.”

“Clever.”

“I give purpose. I make beauty out of the wasted.”

“You certainly have an interesting definition of wasted. How do you pick your victims?”

“They pick themselves – through an eloquent voice or an amusing name. Their existence calls to me and I respond.”

“Are they vagrants? The indefensible?”

“That’s more of your butcher’s or String Man’s cup of tea. Mine are educated, sophisticated, often world travelers.”

“Whew,” I sigh. “High-risk. Very interesting.”

“It’s a necessary hazard. Why would I trouble myself to harvest from creatures who don’t deserve my skillful touch?”

“I guess you wouldn’t. How do you find them? Are they opera patrons? Or maybe you use catchy classifieds to trap them.”

“A trustworthy friend delivers my options. You should know that trust is not easy to obtain. He may have been bumbling and unrefined, but he was loyal to a fault, and you can’t buy that. It must be cultivated very slowly.”

A friend – a worthy confidant cultivated over time to deliver the goods. Bumbling but loyal …  

“Mouse man … ?”

No.

Not a mouse … a rat.

“What did you say?”

A rat. A conniving, plague-ridden rat, tempting victims with his rosy cheeks, religious nonsense, and promises of private, prestigious shows.

How did I miss that?

He invited us inside – more options for his master – and I bought it like a fool. I needed more time – a plan, a design. I walked unknowingly into a trap, and worst of all, Butcher let me, that son of a bitch.

I take a deep breath. “So you justify your slaughter for the sake of art.”

“L'art pour l'art,” he says. “Art needs no justification.”

“What you do is not art; it’s murder.”

“Lob another stone, fledgling, and watch your house shatter. You insist I offer my own rationale for what I do, but how exactly did you justify your breakfast this morning?”

“Easily. I had blueberry pancakes served by a waitress named Kitty. They were sweet and warm, as was Kitty. She was an amateur beekeeper and had just bought a pedigreed schnauzer named Magpie Von Shultz, who was born without a tail.”

“And your good doctor?” he scoffs.

“He doesn’t have a tail either. Believe me; I’ve checked.”

“His breakfast,” he sneers. “How did you justify it?”

“He had very spiteful eggs that I oversalted while he was taking a leak ... Wait, you don’t have a soft spot for baby chickens, do you?”

“How did you justify your dinner then? Or your lunch? How do you justify forcing a madman to stay tucked in the woods, feeding him scraps, and letting the voices in his head be his only company while he does your ungodly butchering?”

“He doesn’t have a head anymore, so I don’t have to justify anything.”

He hisses and another gush splashes on the floor. “You’re not worth this trouble.”

“What trouble?”

“You antagonize and distort reality as though you are the keeper of the ultimate truth. Big words – big ideas from a very small man. You’re a waif, little bird: sick and hiding in the dark, scared of your own shadow. I was intending to stretch your vocal cords tomorrow, see if they still hide the drawl of your embarrassing roots, but my patience with you is running thin. You seem hellbent on remaining worthless, and I’m inclined to let you have your wish.”

I am not worthless.

I am not a lost or feeble cretin to be lamented and pitied by the likes of creatures like him. There is nobility in fighting for the weak or vulnerable, no matter how powerful or influential you may not be. There is no humanity in praying upon the defenseless, and since art is not at all a respectable justification for killing, he has no sound argument.

The stool creeks as he stands, and I quickly loosen my boot laces. He steps closer and the workbench tips, crashing to the floor. The exposure is like a punch in the dark. I’m surrounded by empty space and a floor covered in debris. I dive toward the back cabinets, landing hard on the broken shards, where he grabs my jeans and hauls me across the floor, slicing open my shirt and skin.

“You’re a coward,” he barks and falls on me, crushing his knee into my spine. “Of all the men you could cut your teeth on, why would the butcher choose me?”

My back is about to split open. His knee twists, drilling me into the floor.

“He appreciates your work,” I groan. “Thinks you have good taste.”

He bounces on my back, and I yell, my ribs crunching against the glass.

“Then why would he sic you on me?”

I cough a wet snap, spitting across the floor, and he lessens the pressure so I can breathe.

“He wants to see you in action,” I huff. “Test you. Make sure you’re worthy of his praise, but you’ve locked us in your dungeon so I guess he’ll never know.”

“What makes him think I want his praise?”

“You saw what he did to your String Man’s mind. You’ve seen the compound. You’ve heard horror stories about the butcher. He knew nothing of you. His praise would be your greatest accolade and you know it.”

“My String Man made him sound like a mythological beast.” He laughs to himself, and as he shifts his weight on my back, I sweep my hand across the floor, grazing something that feels like stiff wire.

“He called him Nigel the Butcher,” he says. “Said I had similar needs. I asked to meet him once, but the lunatic just howled like a fool.”

“He was right to howl. Moonlighting was not part of his deal with the butcher.”

I stretch just enough to hook the wire – but it’s not wire.

“If the butcher likes what he’s seen of me, he must not think that highly of you. He knows very well you will die down here.”

“I don’t think he expected either of us to die, actually. You just got a little defensive. We all make mistakes.”

His arm shoves my face against the floor. “You barged into my home, uninvited and unwelcome. What did you expect from me?”

“Civility.”

“Your better half left a dead man on my living room floor. That’s quite a mess for me to explain.”

“The body will disappear, no problem there.”

His fingers slide up my scalp, yanking back a handful of hair, and he hisses into my ear. “Answer truthfully: did you kill my String Man?”

“I taught him a lesson in etiquette.”

He jerks my head again. “Does he still have use of his fingers?”

“Some of them.” Another yank and I choke. “I’m not your enemy, Music Man.”

“Well, you certainly aren’t my friend, little bird.”

“What’s stopping you from crushing me right now?”

“Leverage against the bull pacing my kitchen. I’m not stupid.”

“He’s not pacing,” I snap, “He’s cooking.”

His mind seems to wander as he leans back, his fingers loosening their grip on my hair. “You’re lying.”

“Do I seem the type to lie?”

“Like a dog,” he huffs.

“He’s raiding your fridge as we speak, and he roasts one hell of a pig. If you join us for dinner, you won’t regret it, but I will require my ability to swallow.”

When he thinks his mind ticks like Butcher’s, but it’s quicker: a metronome that speeds up right before he speaks. “And if I don’t agree?”

“Your workshop has one exit and the Minotaur waits for you there. If you don’t agree to dinner, or if you ascend those stairs without me, a bloodbath will ensue and he will feast on us both. I am your leverage, as you said, and the longer we scurry around in the dark, the hungrier the beast upstairs is bound to grow.”

That metronome is suspicious. It falters as it ticks, thinking back to every word muttered through the black, varnish-filled air. There are few options at this point, but I’m not sure I’d trust a man I knew was after my hide only twenty minutes ago – but denial is so very tempting to the desperate – I would know.

“You will stay on the floor while I speak to him,” he growls. “If you move an inch, I will impale you.”

A sharp awl jabs the back of my neck before it’s quickly drawn away.

He moans and twists his leg off me, standing just to my left. Glass pops under his feet as he stumbles, his bleeding leg dragging across the floor.

Once he’s a few feet away, I kick off my boots, trying not to scrape the floor. He sounds like an injured deer fumbling through the woods – one step, drag – two steps, drag – a pause and a groan – dripping – another step. He should be at the stairs, but he’s not. He’s far to my left. Too far.

There’s a light wooden scrape, and then another step and drag.

He’s not by the steps – he’s coming back to me.

I scramble to my feet and coil the wire around my hand, softly shuffling backward until I’m against the wall again. I feel turned around, deep into the workshop now.

His crunching steps circle back and I sneak along the wall until I hit the corner.

I think I know where he is: he’s leaning over the floor where I was lying – still dripping, still crushing glass – about twelve feet into the darkness.

My boots skitter across the floor and he growls through his teeth. “I told you not to move, little bird.” His voice whips around as he listens for me. “This will not end well for you or the beast upstairs.”

Empty threats.

While he searches the far wall, I wrap the coil of catgut around the cuffs of my shirt. He has no intention of scaling those steps with me, and since he’s just rearmed, he’s left me no choice but to defend myself.

My shoeless feet take a few tentative steps.

I can hear his labored breaths in front of me and the pulsing drip of his leg as blood pools on the concrete. He’s trying to find me without moving, waiting for me to make a grievous error in footing.

Another step forward, but he doesn’t move.

Another step and I can feel his radiating body heat.

My hands raise, and before he turns, the gut slips over his head and I yank. His skull cracks my cheek, knocking me off balance. I regain my footing and twist the cord behind his neck. He thrashes, bashing my jaw with his head. The last of his defenses clatters to the floor.

He swats, barely missing my face before his hands claw at his collapsing throat. He gurgles like a drowning cat as I tighten my grip, then throws his body into me. We both stumble back, tripping over feet and tools until my skull smacks the wall. I try to push back but I’m pinned, a bright white heat flooding my blinded eyes.

I can’t move – but I don’t need more strength, I need more time. I need to wait this out – keep my grip – hold my own until it's done. This is my shot in the dark.

I grit my teeth and clench the ends of the wire until I feel his clawing slow. Then his weight drops and he drags me down the wall into a pile on the floor.

Barely breathing, I wait until my eyes flash – white, blue, black – then dim again, and his body seems to settle on top of mine.

I think he’s out – or dead – or faking, but I can’t let go of the cord. I twist my wrists again, and his throat gives just slightly, lessening the pressure on my hands as it cuts his flesh.

The gut is embedded in my palms, my wrists, his throat. I want to untwist my hands and scramble away, but I can’t let anything go yet. I have to stay in this moment – alive and panting in the dank, musty corner of this devil's workshop.

This isn't Mississippi where I ascended from my body with venomous rage gushing through my veins. It's not Colorado where I descended into hell, watching and waiting for the grisly crime to end. I’m here, in Idaho: lucid, sober, and somehow still alive. A better man be damned.

My eyes, still wide despite the darkness, twitch with the pulse in my ears, and as my shoulders are warmed by a sudden gush, I realize I don’t get to choose whether I want to stay in this moment or not, wedged between a hard wall and the sweat-soaked body of a madman.

I need relief – a reprieve – to feel a warming of this cold, bitter fear caught inside my chest, so I let my head nod forward, pressing my cheek against a soft, wet neck as the world seems to dull and bubble all around me.

I hear no drumming fists desperate to find me, no raspy breaths teasing air from my lungs, no hollow mutterings of faith or support – just the soft babble of my own inner thoughts telling me to let it all go – that this, in all its perverse beauty, is good enough for now.