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“You’re up. Fantastic. Now we can begin.”
“What’s going on? Please don’t kill me.”
It was dark as almighty hell. The ropes bit into his wrists, but not in a burning, chafing kind of way. More like tight fat snakes holding his hands palm-together behind his back. Nylon.
There was a twisted kertwang, and then a spotlight’s hot light was on his lids, frying them. His first reaction was nausea, a roiling chunky nausea that had its origins, it felt, in the very interior tip of his sphincter. But before he could puke up all of his fear, he was slapped. Hard. Hard enough to break his glasses off of his face. He heard them skitter across what sounded in the darkness like concrete.
“Open your eyes.”
“No...please...I have money...daughters...you can take them.”
“Open your eyes, please.”
“Look...I haven’t seen you. I can’t identify you. Whatever you need me for, you can just tell me. If I can identify you, you’ll kill me.”
“I said, open your fucking eyes.”
Tiny sausage fingers pried hungrily at his naked eyeballs. Their fingernails were so sharp that trying to shut his eyes on them was like shutting his eyes on a salad fork He screamed. He began to sob. He started spewing up his delicate, gourmet retch, finally. But he kept his eyes open.
A grinning, pockmarked face was there in front of him, besplattered with his vomit. It was pudgy and cruel, with wrinkles made out of jellied lard that seemed to glisten with lubricating grease. Unforgettable. Then the visage receded beyond the glare of the spotlight, and became nothing but a rotund silhouette.
“Excellent. Now leave us, Franklin. Please, clean yourself, and then I will take my afternoon tea.”
The silhouette disappeared, and then there was the noise of hard footsteps in the darkness beyond the agony of the light. The blinding radiance had shrunk Danilovitch’s pupils into vibrating pinpricks, and he tried again to turn his head away. Leather protrusions on either side prevented this. Tears mixed with the taste of bile in his mouth, and, without his glasses, the world more than a foot away from his nose had turned into an unpleasant hallucinogenic blur.
There was the sound of a cigar being lit, followed by an exhalation into his face of bitter, expensive smoke. He didn’t dare flinch. With horror, he recognized the brand. There was only one man in the world who rumor had it smoked James K. Polk’s Real American cigars more than once. He was singlehandedly keeping them in business, rumor had it.
“You know who I am,” began an all-too-familiar gravelly baritone. “Somewhere in your mind is a voice telling you: please, please, don’t let it be him, anyone but him, please god no. That voice needs to shut the fuck up so that we can get to business. I didn’t think we’d have to finally meet like this...but there it is. You know who I am, so you ought to make sure that everything you say right now pleases me, and more importantly, is the truth. ”
Please...anyone but him.
“I could have asked you to come here today on civilized terms, but I chose not to do that for a variety of reasons. Chief among them, my sources tell me you have been planning for some time now to leave the country and abdicate control of your corporation to its primary stockholders. That is unacceptable. I knew you were a pussy, but remember, you came to me for help - I did not seek you out. You owe me, not the other way around. And what good is the promise of a favor if you are not in a position to return it?”
“I wasn’t going anywhere...I didn’t know that was part of the deal...you never said...”
“Stop. Still your tongue or you will lose it. Keep in mind, you will be able to perform what I now require of you with very few of your original body parts. I’ve had men and women accomplish astounding feats of amazing technical derring-do with only their posterior, stumps, and eyelids. Fear for one’s other arm is the greatest motivator there is. My superiors think it will be cost effective if you are kept alive, but I have plenty of mad money in the hopper, and unnecessary interjections on your part make me want to feed you and anyone who shares your DNA to my goldfish.”
Danilovitch was obediently silent. He had now, of course, shit himself. The feces coiled around his thigh, and dripped down his pants leg into his loafer. What once was warm now began to grow cold and itchy.
“I’m going to untie you now and turn this light off so that we can talk business. Don’t assume that my beginning to treat you like a human being signifies that I think any higher of you than I do, say, the hymen of your firstborn daughter. But this is more convenient. Relax. Care for a smoke? Perhaps some tea?”
“No thanks. Just tell me what you want.”
With another thick click the spotlight went off, returning the room’s natural gloom.
Two claps later, and electric candles on each wall gave sparse, but adequate, illumination to the concrete closet. Danilovitch was able to discern that he was seated in some sort of modified leather armchair, with sluices along its side to let fluid run down into drains underneath. On a foot stool in front of him, masked by shadow, sat a man he had never met face to face...a man who he was only allowed to call by his codename...a man who every time Danilovitch thought about him, he had to change his undershirt. The Cook. When you needed something fixed that was beyond the call of normal reason and beyond the scope of the Mafia or the United States Government, you sought out The Cook.
If you were lucky, he let you live. If you were even luckier, he traded you your unconditional freedom for your desire. If you were luckier still, you never saw him again, and were deemed a mistake...un-useful...two in the back of the head while you slept, and that’s that. The trade-off, why he would stoop to grant you your need in the first place, was that someday The Cook might require a favor from someone in a high, important place. If you were in a high and important place, your odds were slightly better that he would agree to the barter. That was, perhaps, what happened to those who were the most luckless of all. Right now, it was happening to Elmer Danilovich.
The Cook snipped Danilovitch’s restraints with a switchblade and returned to his perch. He took another drag, and exhaled smoke once more into Danilovitch’s face.
“You are a pussy. I haven’t even done anything to you yet, and you’ve already soiled your nice new suit. I suppose that means my reputation is growing.”
All Danilovitch could see of The Cook’s facial features were his glowing green eyes.
“Elmer Danilovitch,” The Cook began, “Sole proprietary executive officer of Sweetytang, Ltd., the nation’s foremost confectioner of sour, rolled candies, one of the three highest paid candy company executives in the business. An idiot. Kept in power by our good graces and the occasional merciless crushing of upstart candy company competition, by us, in order that he might prove useful for operations beginning at...hmmm..looks like the end of this month.”
Franklin, the dog-faced manservant, returned carrying a precarious tray filled with cakes and a steaming silver teapot. Underneath his other arm was a folding table. He unfolded the table, spread a checkered tablecloth out on it, and then set the tray down, clicking his heels together to signify the completion of his task.
“Thank you, Franklin,” said The Cook, “Do you remember the last thing we did for Sweetytang, Ltd., those ungrateful, cumslurping candy store bastards?”
Franklin poured a cup full of thick black tea.
“It was necessary for us to eliminate their direct competition in the small delectables market overseas. To keep them on top. I believe, sir, that we were responsible for filling an entire shipment of Uncle Geoffrey’s Creamy Mint Balls with human blood. The shipment was bound for Israel, sir. Judaism contains very strict dietary proscriptions against the consumption of human blood.”
“Huh. What happened to Uncle Geoffrey?”
“I believe he killed himself, sir.”
“Is that a fact?”
“Yes, sir. I believe his note said something about how he couldn’t stand his otherwise flawless reputation being so flagrantly impugned in the public consciousness. Also something about a Jew-run media.”
Danilovich tried to swallow. The acid from his vomit and his lack of saliva made this an exceedingly painful enterprise. He gave it up rather quickly, and instead began to silently pray.
“So, Elmer, it looks like we came through for you when you needed us, doesn’t it?”
“I didn’t know you were going to kill him...”
“Shut up. You’re a big boy now. So take your orders with a little dignity. Tea?”
“Suit yourself. This is a big month for Sweetytang, isn’t it?”
“Yes, of course. It’s October. The biggest candy month there is. Only December comes close to the amount of volume we ship in October.”
There was the sound of papers being rustled.
“And that’s because of Halloween, right? Am I right, Franklin?”
“Hmmm. This is some pretty crazy shit in this memo, Franklin. But I guess a deal is a deal.”
“Look: what is it you want me to do? I’ll do it, I swear. You don’t have to hurt me.”
The Cook, growling, backhanded Danilovitch with a heavy ring-laden paw. “Patience, little man. Patience. I have my superiors, just like you have yours. Namely, me. I don’t have to do anything you tell me. I want to hurt you. And it looks like a certain Senator from the proud state of Texas has paid us more money than almighty Mammon for services only you can provide. That ought to cause your piggly-wiggly little penis to squirm with delight that you can in some way help me.”
Relaxing again into his seat, The Cook bit into a raspberry tart. Filling squirted out onto his lapel.
“Franklin, could you get me a wet towel?”
The Cook leaned in close, and wiped his lapel on Danilovitch’s pants. He grinned.
“Now, Mr. Danilovitch. Here is what you are going to do...”
Murphy was too young to trick-or-treat, his momma said. She didn’t want him out there all by himself, with the big boys and the gangs, and she didn’t have the time nor the inclination to go out there and follow him around. He still dressed up, though. Last year, he was a ghost, and this year he was a damn ghost again. It was better than being a pirate, though - he hated wearing his momma’s clip-on earring all night. It pinched.
So Murphy’s job was to sit in the front hall with a bowl full of candy in his lap and give it out to whoever knocked on the door. The older kids usually left him alone, but, sometimes, they wouldn’t wait for Murphy to give them their two pieces. They would just take a whole handful and run away laughing. Murphy hated that. The more candy the other kids got, the less he would have to himself at the end of the evening.
So far, this year was the worst ever. He’d already given away two bags, and was down to the last half of the third. Kids were thinning out, and it was almost ten o’ clock. But there were still knocks, so he couldn’t start eating the leftovers yet. The TV in the living room where his momma was asleep on the couch, curled up around an empty bottle of McCormicks, had some crazy old white man on it screaming about demons. Murphy recognized him: his momma was always screaming about how he took her job away at the toothpaste factory.
“It is time for a great culling among the unbelievers! The pagans and their demon babies will be thinned by the Lordourjesus, to make way for the Blessed New World Order, and a new instantiation of belief and worship! The Judgement has already taken place, and the heathens and their heathen holiday shall fall, like Satan, once and for all! Once, for eternity! And all, for whomsoever shall stand in the way of the power of the Holy Spirit! The pagans, the papists, and all who celebrate death, lies, and concupiscence shall get what they deserve! Halloween is an abomination - an abomination, I say - and shall never again darken the pure hearts of the faithful!”
“That was, once again, the cryptic message delivered today by Senator Herman Wells in a surprise, afternoon press conference. Senator Wells accepted no questions, retiring to his mansion amid general confusion and shock. Senator Wells’ strong religious convictions have been the subject of much debate these past few weeks, as he has been linked with a growing movement in the southern states of radical, fundamentalist Christianity. Critics have questioned the objectivity of policy-makers with such a profound belief in the coming Armageddon and a commitment to a fatalistic end-of-the-world-ideology.”
Murphy figured it would be okay if he ate just one piece of candy. Just a little one. He started poking around in the bowl, trying to find something that would last. At the very bottom was a roll of Sweetytang tarts. He could suck on those one at a time, and they ought to last for a good long while. Murphy was a sucker, not a chewer. He liked to keep the flavor going.
He opened the package and began to eat them one by one. Why was it there was always only one blue one? Those were his favorite. He always saved it until last.
“In other news, there are still no leads regarding the mysterious death of convenience store clerk Danny Wallaby. Wallaby was found dead in the storeroom of a Seven-Eleven, where he had been in the process of re-stocking the candy counter. Police forensic experts are searching for clues, but as of yet, they remain stumped.”
With a shiver of delight, Murphy put the final blue Sweetytang tart in his mouth and closed his eyes. It didn’t taste right. It wasn’t sweet at all...it was bitter, and burned his tongue.
“Momma...wake up momma...I don’t feel good...”
He spit the Sweetytang tart out onto the ground, but his throat still burned where the juice had run down his gullet. He started to get dizzy...and his legs seemed to be going in all the wrong directions...
“Momma...wake up Momma...I think I ated something wrong...”
With a final convulsive jerk, he fell to the floor, and curled up inside the Persian rug that covered the floor in the front hallway. The rest of the candy in the bowl littered the area around him, and as his body bucked in its final death throes, pieces of chocolate and peanut butter slid around on the wooden slats like candy insects. His mouth began to leak spinal fluid, and his fingers curled so tightly that he poked ten more holes in the bedsheet that comprised his ghost costume, splattering blood all over its sides where his fingers punctured his palms.