By Garnett Elliot
Stanley met Chas in the waiting room of Dr. Zaleski’s office. Stanley was feeling more than a little conspicuous, what with his level three sex offender ankle bracelet and the fact that his hands were cuffed—in front of him, at least. Chas didn’t seem to mind. He had a big bandage wrapped around his head and looked pretty goofy, too. Zaleski’s waiting room was always full of characters, on account he was the only private shrink in Yuba City.
“What’s Dr. Z going to do for you?” Chas said, leaning close so the rest of the riff-raff couldn’t overhear.
“He’s gonna get this bracelet off of me. And clear my name. Because the truth is, I’m not really a chester.”
Chas grinned like he’d heard this before. “You’re not?”
“Hell no. I like ‘em young, don’t get me wrong, but around sixteen or thereabouts. You know, almost legal.”
“Sixteen’s still a minor.”
“By the letter of the law, maybe. But Dr. Z’s got this big gray book, lays out all the different ways people can be fucked in the head. And the book says, you got to be liking them thirteen or younger, in order to be considered a true ped-o-file. And I like ‘em sixteen.”
“That seems pretty straightforward.”
“Yup. Also, Dr. Z says it’s not my fault I like teenagers, seeing as how my own teenaged years were so screwy. My momma raised me in a tool shed. Kept me separate from all my brothers and sisters.”
Stanley didn’t add that was because his momma had caught him messing in un-Christian ways with his brothers and sisters, but that hardly seemed the point.
“What’s Dr. Z doin’ for you?” he asked.
Chas gestured at the bandage. “I’m going on disability. You read about what happened to me in the paper? At the Pack ‘Em Inn Steakhouse?”
Stanley didn’t read too much, but he did recall hearing something about the restaurant. He snapped his fingers. “You’re that guy, the one got hit by a—what was it? A sled?”
“That’s right. The owners strung a bunch of antiques from the ceiling, trying to make the place look snazzy. Well, my table had a hundred and fifty pound hardwood toboggan suspended over it--”
“That’s a sled. Anyways, one of the wires snapped and the thing hit the side of my skull. And here I am.”
Stanley scratched at his chin. He had to raise both hands to do it, because of the cuffs. “I thought I heard you came out of that fine. That the sled hit at a funny angle and only glanced off your skull.”
“That’s what those idiots in the E.R. told everyone,” Chas said, “but that’s not the truth. I’ve been emotionally traumatized. Dr. Z’s helping me with the specifics. Did you know I can’t sit in a restaurant anymore? No kidding, I’ll freak out if I try it.”
“Worst thing is, ever since the accident, I haven’t been able to get it up. Dr. Z says it’s part of my ‘psychic scarring.’ He says if my lawsuit against the Pack ‘Em Inn fails, I got plenty of ammo for those tight-assed bastards at Social Security.”
“Man, that sounds nice.” Stanley tried not to sigh. All he wanted to do was win his freedom, get some of his self-respect back. But old Chas here had the keys to the Promised Land. It just didn’t seem fair, how some people got punished for their natural urges, while others had the good luck to have a hundred and fifty pound hardwood toboggan fall on their head.
The door to Dr. Z’s office opened. A fat woman in a leg-brace and a crutch under her left armpit came stumping out. She’d looked depressed as hell before she’d gone back for her appointment. All listless and droopy, like maybe she’d shoot herself in the parking lot. But now her eyes blazed with hope. She two-stepped over to the cashier’s window and slapped down her co-pay, beaming at the world.
Dr. Z had that kind of power.
He leaned his handsome face out into the waiting room. Curly black hair shot through with streaks of silver. Long gray sideburns and a strong Pollack’s nose. His gaze wandered over the hopefuls sitting at attention.
“You want to come back now, Stan?”
Did he ever.
Two months later, Chas came over to visit Stanley’s place with a bucket of KFC wings and a case of Coors Light. They gnawed chicken-bones on the dusty back porch, pausing only to guzzle or fart.
“How’s it feel to be a free man?” Chas said, smearing away hot sauce with the back of his hand.
“S’alright.” Stanley pointed to the ankle where the bracelet used to be. “Got busted down to a level one. Unsupervised probation, which is as close to ‘free’ as I’m gonna get. Feels better, though. How about you?”
“Getting a check every month. Dr. Z went toe-to-toe with D.E.S. for me.”
“Man’s a miracle worker.”
Stanley chucked an empty can at an emaciated chicken who’d wandered too close to the porch. It sailed right over the bird’s head. The chicken kept pecking at the ground like nothing had happened. Chas laughed and rooted around in the bucket, but when he looked up at Stanley again his eyes were sad.
“I got to tell you, though, the disabled life ain’t what I thought it’d be,” he said.
“First off, I don’t get that much. Enough for rent and cable TV, a little food. Cheap food. And cheap-ass cable, too. None of the premium channels with naked women and such.” He looked wistful. “I thought having all that time on my hands would be like, you know, the ultimate freedom. Lots of things I could do. But all I end up doing is watching daytime TV and jerking off.”
“I thought you said couldn’t get it up no more?”
“Nah, that’s passed. I guess that psychic wound’s healed over.”
Stanley thought about asking him if he could eat in restaurants again, but held off. When disability was the one thing a man had going for him, you didn’t want to question it too much. “I figure my life ain’t so great, either.”
“You don’t own this double-wide, do you?”
“Nope. Belongs to the old lady that answered the door. Ma Pootie. ‘Cept she’s not really my ma. See, when I moved out here I had to go around to all the neighbors and explain I’m a sex offender. But Ma Pootie, instead of gettin’ mad, offered to take me in. Said I could do handyman’s jobs for her.”
Chas raised his eyebrows. “What kind of ‘handyman’s jobs’?”
“It’s nothing like that.”
“Where the fuck do you sleep here, anyways? When I came in it was all stacked boxes and bird cages.”
Stanley nodded at the battered Tuff Shed on the edge of the property. A dead cottonwood draped its skeletal branches over the roof, which had rusted through in a couple places.
Chas shook his head. “Back in the tool shed again, huh?”
“It’s not so bad, ‘cept for the heat. And the black widows.”
“Jesus, when I start feeling down on myself I know where to come.”
“That why you paid a visit? So you can feel superior?”
“Don’t get bitchy about it. Shit, I come over here with free Coors and chicken--”
“No one told you to come over.”
“—which you wolf down and don’t even offer to pay for, like any goddamn decent person.” He waved at the bucket of bones. “On my income, this is a major purchase. I’ve shot my wad for the month.”
Stanley felt hot blood surge to his temples. “Don’t you be calling me cheap, you goddamn faker.”
Stanley shot up and balled his fists.
The door to the porch rattled open. An old woman wearing a padded housecoat stepped out. Two parakeets perched on the narrow slope of her left shoulder, while an African Gray rode the hump on her right. She glanced at the empty beer cans strewn across the porch and her thin mouth curled down at the corners.
“Thought I heard some hollerin’ out here,” she said.
Stanley un-clenched his fists. “No, Ma Pootie.”
“That’s good. Because there’s an important person wants to talk to you on the phone. Dr. Zaleski.”
The African Gray squawked and shit a fresh white streak down her shoulder.
Dr. Z wanted to meet at the Big Tiki Miniature Golf course. Stanley had no idea why. During the phone conversation he let slip Chas was over on a visit, and Dr. Z said that was a good thing.
“Invite him along,” he said.
“What’s this all about, Doc?”
“An exciting opportunity. I’ll explain later.”
He hung up.
Of course Chas wanted to go. They took his new F-150, as Stanley had been without a vehicle for months.
The Big Tiki itself wasn’t looking so hot. Sun-faded, covered in spots with graffiti, the fifteen foot fiberglass idol cast stern eyes over the clubhouse and the four acres of worn Astroturf behind it. There were a decent number of cars parked for a Tuesday evening.
“I don’t see Dr. Z’s Lexus,” Stanley said, surveying the lot.
“We must be early.”
“We could play a couple holes. I used to come here as a kid, but I don’t remember it being this busy.”
Chas chuckled. “It’s doing business, alright.”
They argued about who was going to pay for clubs and a caddy of balls, until Stanley finally gave in. He saw what Chas had meant about ‘business’ once they got out onto the greens. Cholos were everywhere. Old School gangsters, wearing hair nets and un-tucked Dickies dress shirts with black slacks. The farther out from the clubhouse, the more furtive they got. By the thirteenth hole, plastic baggies were being slipped from pockets, money flashed, and dope changing hands. Stanley watched with disapproval.
“This used to be a family kind of place,” he said.
A big cholo caught them staring and glared back. Stanley and Chas took a sudden interest in knocking their balls through a series of arched flamingo legs.
Dr. Z came strolling up five minutes later.
He wore wrap-around sunglasses, despite the failing light, and a Stetson pulled low over his forehead. T-shirt and jeans. Pale bands of flesh showed where his silver rings and watch should have been. But even with the dressing-down, a presence surrounded him like a giant soap bubble. Several of the cholos recognized him, shook his hand, and he responded with quips of fluid Spanish. It took him awhile to work his way to the thirteenth hole.
“Christ,” he said, removing the hat to scratch his head, “so much for being inconspicuous.”
Stanley offered his putter. “You want to give it a shot, Doc?”
“No thank you, boys. I’ll just watch and talk while you play.” He settled his hands into his pockets. “Now, I don’t want you two to feel like I’m rushing things here, being all business. But time’s a valuable commodity, so I’m not going to waste yours or mine with a lot of small talk.”
“We appreciate that, Dr. Z,” Chas said.
“Well, here it is then. Do either of you gentlemen have criminal records? Beyond those unfair allegations against you, Stanley.”
“I got a DUI, about four years back,” Stanley said. “Plus some credit shit, but that was all handled in civil court.”
“I had a string of B and E’s when I was in my early twenties,” Chas said.
“B and E’s, that’s good.” Dr. Z licked his lips. “That could come in handy.”
The sodium lamps were blinking into life overhead. Smaller floodlights on the ground flicked on, bathing the flamingos, the giant windmills, in cones of red, blue, and green. Dr. Z cast a triple shadow.
“Why you want to know about our records?” Stanley asked. “When you said you had an ‘exciting opportunity,’ I thought you meant selling Amway or something.”
“No, no.” Dr. Z took off his sunglasses. His eyes underneath had lost some of their intensity. He had those puffy little bags going on, and dark circles, too. “I guess you could figure, looking after the emotional needs of an entire community like Yuba City can wear on a man.”
“I don’t know how you do it,” Chas said.
“I’d go off my fucking rocker,” Stanley added.
“Well, it’s not come to that. Yet. Some of my patients, though . . . you familiar with the old widow, Mrs. Groyle? She first saw me about eight years ago, right after her husband died. Bad case of depression. It’s grown worse over time, and I’ve tried everything. Therapy, medication, ECT—that means shock treatments.”
“They still do those?” Chas said.
“Sometimes. Nothing’s worked, though. Mrs. Groyle has lapsed into a vegetative state. She leaves her house to see me, and that’s about it.”
“Why doesn’t she just off herself?” Stanley said.
“That’s the problem. She’s made four attempts already. I’ve taken away her husband’s guns, her knives, and controlled her access to medications, but she’s a diabetic. Insulin-dependent. That means she’s got to inject herself every day, and she knows an overdose of insulin can be lethal.”
Chas snorted. “How’s that a problem? If she kills herself, you don’t have to treat her anymore. Case closed.”
“Not quite. She’s under my care, so her family can sue for malpractice. And they will. You wouldn’t believe how litigious people have become.”
“Oh, I would,” Chas said, “I would.”
“She’ll keep trying until she succeeds. Or she’ll just give up and stop injecting herself. Either way, she dies. I don’t need the legal hassles and I don’t need any more dings against my license.” He spread his broad hands. “So I’m stuck.”
“What you want us to do, Doc?” Stanley said.
The shadows had lengthened under the Stetson’s brim. Zaleski’s face, what was still visible in the lurid glow of the colored lights, grew still.
“I think I know what he’s getting at,” Chas said.
They staked out Mrs. Groyle’s house from the F-150’s roomy cab.
Chas had parked across the street, hidden in the shadows of a plum-tree grove. He wore a black Toby Keith t-shirt and black baseball cap, with crankcase oil smeared over his face. Every now and then he’d lift the old Bushnell scope he’d brought along and peer at the house.
“He didn’t have to threaten us like that,” Stanley said.
“He didn’t threaten so much as give us incentive. Like he said, he’s got to write letters to keep my disability checks coming and the police off your back. He can’t very well do that if he’s been sued out of business.”
Stanley hated to concede the point, but there it was.
They waited another thirty minutes. An over-ripe plum hit the truck’s hood with a soft plop. Birds called. Stanley finished off the last two cans of Silver Bullet from the cooler they’d brought along.
“Fuck it,” Chas said at last, tossing the Bushnell onto the dashboard. “Let’s go and get her done.”
“I thought you said we’d wait ‘til nightfall.”
“How many people you seen? This place’s deserted. Maybe two cars have passed the whole time.”
Chas was already slipping out of the cab, so Stanley did likewise. His shoes squished into the grove’s soft loam. Hunkered over, Chas padded from tree to tree like a rural commando. Stanley followed. Just the other side of the road lay an Okies-era farmhouse in peeling yellow paint. Weeds had overrun the front yard. A huge oleander bush screened the neighbor’s trailer to the left.
Chas pointed and made a twirling motion with his fingers.
They circled around to the rear of the house. The grass had grown even more wooly-bully back here. Stanley checked for dog turds and didn’t find any, which he took as a good sign. There was an enclosed porch with rusted screen mesh and a flimsy-looking door.
“We get through that,” Chas said, pointing, “and I bet you ten bucks the interior door’s not even locked.”
“I’ll try it.”
Stanley wrapped his fingers around the handle and pulled. He’d lost most of his muscle tone since he’d stopped working in the feed lot, but Ma Pootie always had him moving heavy boxes, so he had a little strength left. The door groaned. He slipped another hand over his right, braced his left foot up against the frame, and yanked.
The door came sailing off its hinges. He had to jump backwards to avoid losing his balance.
Inside, the narrow porch had been heaped with bundles of yellowed newspaper. An antique barometer hung askew. Stanley tried the knob on the adjoining door. As predicted, it turned with no resistance.
Warm air and the smell of old mayonnaise came wafting out.
“The fuck’s that?” he whispered to Chas, who had a hand over his nose.
“Maybe she’s already dead.”
The door opened onto a small kitchen. Every available surface was stacked with china plates, paper plates, forks, spoons, cups, mugs, bowls, crusted TV dinners, napkins, soup cans, milk cartons, wrappers, and pieces of rotting fruit. The table had no space to actually eat. Water the color of strong coffee filled both sinks, with an inch of grayish scum riding the surface.
Stanley felt the beer in his stomach turn sour.
“Holy fuck,” Chas said, forgetting to whisper.
The floor was worse. Same stuff as on the counters, but also hair, magazines, and old clothes. A sort of trail had been worn through the debris that wound from the hall, circled the table, and led to the refrigerator.
A part of Stanley’s memory recalled his Aunt Flo’s house, and he instinctively began hopping. Left foot, right foot. Aunt Flo had been a pill-head.
“Why you dancing like that?” Chas said. But just as he said it a two-inch cockroach bolted from a nearby mound and crawled up his pant leg. Chas screamed. He shook his foot and slapped his pants. A mass of feelers seemed to poke from everywhere at once.
“Keep moving,” Stanley said.
They danced down the hall, following the trail. Stanley half-expected Mrs. Groyle to come popping up with a shotgun, what with all this advance warning they were giving her, but it didn’t happen. The trail led through an open doorway and into the bedroom. The first thing Stanley noticed was how clean it was. Clean compared to the Kitchen of Horrors, anyway. No crap on the floor. A nightstand with a syringe and a couple medicine bottles, shoved up against a queen-sized bed—
A woman lay on the bed.
He recognized her from Dr. Z’s waiting room. She rested atop the sheets in a floral-print nightgown, hands folded across her chest. Greasy-gray hair. But she wasn’t asleep. Her eyes were open and regarding the two of them with languid calm.
“Ah--” Stanley said, and looked away. What was he supposed to say? ‘We’re here to do for you, ma’am’? It was awkward. Chas didn’t seem too bothered, though. He snatched the pillow out from under her head and started smothering her with it, just like that. She put up no fight.
“You going to watch,” Chas said, pressing his weight against the pillow with both elbows, “or you going to make yourself useful?”
“I don’t know. Find something to hit her with, just in case.”
The woman moaned a muffled “Thank you” from under the pillow, and continued her non-struggle.
Stanley hunted for a heavy object. He found a porcelain doll on the dresser, but it didn’t have enough heft. It occurred to him they should be wearing gloves. His fingerprints were all over the back doors. Funny, how Chas had thought to bring beer and an old rifle scope, but forgot something as basic as gloves. He figured they better get a rag and wipe everything down.
“You hear that?” Chas said, still hunched over Mrs. Groyle.
“That scratching. From the front of the house.”
Stanley listened. After a moment, he caught it: the unmistakable sound of a key fitting a lock.
“Shit,” he said.
Chas held a finger to his lips. Underneath him, Mrs. Groyle’s chest had stopped moving up and down.
A door creaked open. “Claire?” rasped a man’s voice. “Claire baby, it’s me. The wife’s gone down to Family Dollar.” Footsteps shuffled. “Jesus, you really should pick this place up a little. Ruins the am-biance, you know what I mean?”
Stanley heard the footsteps come closer. He looked at Chas, who had frozen in place next to the bed. His eyes were wide. They should be doing something, he knew. Like hiding behind the door, getting ready to pounce. Anything but just standing there.
“I’ve been waitin’, baby,” called the cigarette-voice. “Your honey-dripper’s all ready to go.” Something swished and hit the floor in the hallway, just outside the door. Stanley tensed. Before he could snatch up the porcelain doll, a scraggly, white-haired old man flounced into the room. He wore only an undershirt and black socks. His erect cock jutted from beneath his paunch.
The old man stopped.
His eyes flicked from Stanley to Chas, then rested on the inert form of his would-be lover. Some of the stiffness left his dick.
“You two ain’t supposed to be here,” he said.
“It’s not--” Stanley began, but all the air whuffed out of him as the old guy’s fist connected with his gut. Stanley doubled over. Mr. Honey-Dripper used the opportunity to wheel and go scrambling from the room.
“Stop him!” screamed Chas, shaking like he’d been the one hit. “He’s going to get the cops.”
Stanley realized his partner wasn’t so good in a pinch.
He ran out into the hallway, his stomach cramping. Reached the front room just in time to see a wrinkled white butt disappear out the door. He leapt after it, almost tripping on a stack of un-opened boxes. Goddamn house was like an obstacle course. Out on the lawn, the old guy veered right and dove into the giant oleander bush. Stanley figured he was making for the trailer next door.
He charged the bush. Leaves parted. His head and upper body broke through, but a stout branch snagged his legs. He fell forward. The ground came up and clipped his teeth. Twisting, he craned his head around to see his right ankle caught in a crotch between two branches.
“Chas,” he hollered. “Get your ass over here.”
He thrashed his foot around, trying to free it. The weathered trailer lay only ten feet away, and the door hung wide open. As he struggled, he heard a frantic scratching noise coming from inside. Then the old man’s voice called out:
Ninety pounds of black-furred German shepherd exploded from the trailer doorway, its muzzle already dripping, yellowed canines bared as it machine-gunned barks. Stanley flailed, threw his forearms up in front of his face. The dog subtracted the distance between them in two bounds, clamped its jaws over his wrist and bit deep. Hot blood spurted. Stanley pounded at the Shepherd’s nose with his good hand. Frenzied, the beast let go his wrist and tore into the veins and soft flesh of his throat.
Stanley’s howls turned to gurgles.
He fought on anyways, for what could have been minutes or just a string of drawn-out seconds. His vision dimmed. The dog smacked and chewed. At some point he heard footfalls echo across the street, and some point later an engine turned over.
He called out for Chas one more time.
The last thing he glimpsed, before the lights went dark: the F-150 roaring out of the plum grove, black-faced Chas hunched over the wheel, not looking back.
Sheriff Joe Strawbridge paid a visit to Dr. Z’s office the next day.
He brought with him two pulled-pork sandwiches on fresh torta rolls, and two tall Styrofoam cups of sweet tea. Dr. Z didn’t waste any time tearing into his half of the lunch.
“You, ah, find out what happened?” he said, between bites.
Strawbridge lowered his cup. “Damndest thing. Dog was actually eating the guy, time we got there.” He belched. “I figure the whole mess was a theft gone bad. Neighbor gave a fair description of Charles Stankworth, also got the first four digits of his truck’s plate when he high-tailed it. Probably in Mexico by now.”
“I never would have pegged Chas for murder.”
“Attempted murder, you mean.”
“She pulled through, yeah. Only unconscious. You should’ve seen the look on her face, when she came ‘round to the paramedics. I swear she was disappointed.”
A vein swelled along Dr. Z’s left temple. He coughed and pounded his chest.
“You okay, Doc?”
“Just pork grease.”
“A weird thing I realized yesterday. Three of these people are, or were, patients of yours. What’s the odds of that?”
“Yuba City’s a small community.”
“Yeah, true.” Strawbridge locked eyes with him. “Other weird coincidence, I got a couple people saying they saw you, Stanley, and Chas over at the Big Tiki Tuesday night, talking.”
“I bumped into them.”
“You did, huh?”
The crystal clock on the desk ticked loud. It had been bestowed to Dr. Z by the Yuba City Chamber of Commerce. The vein bulging along his temple did a snake’s dance.
Strawbridge looked away. “Of course,” he said, flushing. “Sometimes I forget how popular you are. And I hate to bring this up, seeing as how one of your clients just got killed, but I was wondering about that work-related disability claim I put in. You hear anything back from the state?”
“Good news,” Dr. Z said, reaching across the desk to pat his shoulder. “Nothing but good news for you, Joe.”
Mr. Elliott lives and works in Tucson, Arizona. He’s been published in Out of the Gutter #5, Plots with Guns, Thuglit, Beat to a Pulp, Crimefactory, Hardluck Stories, Shred of Evidence, A Twist of Noir, and Darkest Before the Dawn, among others. He’s also got a story in the print anthology Beat to a Pulp: Round 1.
The author would like to thank Mr. Jimmy Callaway for invaluable assistance with re-writing and edits.