Sunday, May 9, 2021

Issue #75 -- May 2021

By K. A. Laity

It was him, all right. Somehow he had known it all along. He could blame it on that bloody corner shop. That’s where she met him—the celebrity chef. Or what passed for a ‘celebrity’ in this squalid little seaside town. Calamari King, my arse.

Squid Lord: that was more like it.

The first day she had run into him there, buying the daily wotsits. She always had some reason to go—mostly to see what was going on, get the local gossip, buy the lottery tickets Dan told her not to waste her money on—but that day had been memorable, mostly for how much she irritated him going on about it. Dan liked to think of himself as a tolerant man, but Harley really got up his nose that day.

‘Only guess who I met. He only lives round the corner. Can you believe it? And him such a success. Our neighbourhood. And he says he might have a job for me.’ He hated the way her face glowed with excitement over him. Not like she’d had that glow for himself for some time. Nothing but nags for him. Not his fault he’d been out of work these past few months. That manager had it coming, the whiny little streak of piss.

‘What job?’ he had finally muttered after she went on and on about his stylish look, those grey turnup trousers and his mane of white hair. Mane! She actually called it that like he was a lion or something. Just another sheep shagger in this broken-down ex-mill town, even if he did have aspirations to make a name for himself. Good luck with that. Local celebrity don’t travel down the road much.

‘A hostess!’ Harley giggled and he should have guessed it then.

‘What’s that? Serving cake and coffee?’ He snorted.

‘No, silly. Greeting people at the door, walking them to their tables when it’s not busy or handing the menus to the waitstaff if you are. I’d be the face of the restaurant.’ She preened, actually preened. Harley did have a nice face but right then he wanted nothing more than to push a grapefruit into it and make her pucker up.

‘Face of the restaurant? And what about the arse?’

‘Fuck you, it’s work.’ Harley lost her grin. ‘One of us has got to and it looks like you’ve given up on that front.’

Naturally enough that resulted in another barney that went on and on until it was too late, and he was on the couch yet again because the world made him mad and there was nobody but her to take it out on. He couldn’t afford to go out on the lash with the lads anymore and complain with them.

So he laid off on the matter, hoping to get back into Harley’s good graces and into the marital bed. She wasn’t a woman who could do without for long, so he had hopes that her cold mood would thaw. He needed that second chance to prove he could be supportive.

Dan complimented her on that first night as hostess. She did look smashing. He thought she’d wear a uniform like when she was working at Peg Leg Reg’s café, but Harley dressed like she was going out with those mad gals she’d known since forever who scared him a bit, who careered through the town like a permanent hen party every fortnight or so, their faces made up like fashion dolls.

‘You look fab, Harl.’ Dan gave her a peck on the cheek, hoping the peace offering would be accepted. She was nervous enough to take little notice of it, checking her brows in the little mirror she kept in her handbag and rooting around for the just right shade of lipstick for the downplayed lighting.

‘I’m so nervous. The face of the restaurant! It’s a huge responsibility.’ She looked solemn as a nun taking vows—oh, the irony.

‘You’ll do great,’ Dan had reassured her, giving her a little smack on the bottom as she headed out to catch the bus.

And here he was six weeks later hoping to surprise her at the end of the shift and instead staring through the window of the Squid Lord’s office as he watched the celebrity chef knead his wife’s arse like it was bread. Their tongues were wrapped together like tentacles. Harley was pulling her skirt up. The chef pressed her down on the desktop and then reached up to tear down her knickers. Dan could feel his face hot with fury but damn if there wasn’t something arousing about it too, which only made him more furious.

The damn Squid Lord getting what he wasn’t? And making a meal of it, too: damn, but Harley had nice tits. He could almost taste them. But that fucking chef! Literally, in this case. Look at them! Christ, that couldn’t be comfortable, could it?

At last Dan tore himself away—fuming, horny and resentful. He thought of confronting her when she got home that night, but she looked so damn happy that he was confused and sort of ashamed. Why hadn’t she been that happy for him? Harley pecked him on the cheek and jumped in the shower, saying she had to get the food smell off her. Squid, no doubt. It was the signature dish after all. He wanted to ask her how the squid tasted tonight, but the rage rendered him mute.

Dan lay awake beside her—at least she had warmed up enough to allow him back in the bed—angry, aroused, resentful. He thought of trying to get her interested but her snores suggested he had missed the window of opportunity. At last he got up and went to the bathroom and took care of himself as he had done for many months now.

He couldn’t stop picturing her with the Squid Lord.

Dan sat on the edge of the tub after washing up. He wanted to kill the man—with his mane of white hair and all. Squid Lord: would he bleed ink? He’d have to make it look like an accident, so he wouldn’t end up in the clink himself. Harley would be sorry then. She’d want him back. They’d have a second chance.

But how to do it?

It was late. He didn’t have a lot of ideas. Maybe he needed to sleep on it. In the morning he might feel different anyway. The feelings you had at a sleepless three a.m. didn’t always last in the harsh light of the morning. A grey day though, and he might well think hard on it.

Dan woke up late, feeling hungover though he’d not even had so much as a pint the night before. Harley was away. She often went ‘shopping’ during the day. Now he wondered if she was really at the stores or if she was shagging the Squid Lord somewhere. His anger was pure and cold now. He’d seen enough crime shows to know he had to be careful, but revenge was necessary now. It would make him feel whole again. Harley would respond to that, he was sure.

Dan prepared to be all shifty and quiet like a detective. The truth was most people didn’t give a toss about the world around them and that went double for the Squid Lord. It was a doddle finding his house among the trim buildings on the other side of the dual carriageway. They were a nicer set than the lot they lived in, though not as much nicer as he would have expected for a celebrity like him. Maybe he was salting his money away to keep a whole string of dollies. If he was cheating with Harley, chances were he was cheating with others.

That was how Dan spotted the wife. Of course the Squid Lord was married. His wife didn’t seem to work. She was always about the house with one of those little rat dogs scampering around her feet. He could just peek into their back garden from the bus shelter across the way. Well, he had to stand on the bench to get that peek. Dan didn’t think it drew too much attention though; people seemed to expect daft behaviour in this town.

He was trying to think of some excuse for ringing her doorbell so he could size her up when she popped out to walk the little yapper. Dan casually strolled along like he had nowhere better to be. The wife looked nice in that reality star kind of way, which is to say too much makeup and bizarre-coloured clothes that were probably something fashionable. The little dog had a diamante collar and lead. They made the picture of prosperity.

Dan rehearsed some conversational starters in case the opportunity arose to start something with her. He’d pump her for information like those detectives do if she ever got off her mobile. God, he’d hate to have been on the other end of that conversation. He couldn’t quite hear her, but there was no mistaking the body language of a woman who was angry.

Then he got a break. Well, the dog made a break for it, lunging away from her toward some bright wrapper that wafted by on the pavement. Dan pelted after it and grabbed the lead just before the little bugger would have run into traffic and ended up a pancake under a cab’s wheels.

‘Hey there, little guy, er gal,’ Dan said, reeling the wiggly little creature in. The fat pug was wheezing with the small effort it had made. Horrible little thing but at least it didn’t try to bite. He turned to the dog’s mistress to see her scowling. ‘Caught the little darling just in time.’

‘Thanks,’ she said without any warmth, taking the dog from him and dropping it back on the ground. Her face had the pinched look of someone in a permanent bad mood. Maybe her husband was the reason. ‘Honestly it might be better for all if she had been squashed.’

‘Oh, it can’t be as bad as that, can it?’ Dan said with as much sympathy as he could muster.

‘It’s worse than that,’ she muttered, a dark look across her brow. Her nails were lacquered blood red, as if she were ready to rip someone’s heart out.

‘Fancy a cuppa? You look like you could use a good sit down and a chat.’ He wanted the chance to pump her for information, why not let her think he was attracted. With that dog snorting in her arms it was more of a challenge, but he saw her face move a little away from stormy weather toward the sunny side of the street.

‘You one of those swinger dudes?’ She arched one eyebrow at him and gave him the once over. Dan always wondered how women did that. He could only ever raise both eyebrows and look surprised. That one eyebrow trick made any statement sound dubious.

‘Oh, you think I’m trying to pick you up? I suppose beautiful women have to face that a lot.’ When in doubt, flatter flatter flatter. It was a rule Dan stuck to with some success over the years.

She gave a short bark of laughter then stuck out blood-red tipped claws. ‘I’m BZ.’

Dan took her hand and wondered if he’d misheard. ‘BZ or you saying you’re busy? I’m Dan in any case.’ Belatedly he wondered if he ought to have given a false name. This criminal business didn’t come natural to him.

‘It’s a nickname. Since childhood. Even I don’t remember where it came from.’ Now that was a smile—a genuine one. She looked miles better with it on, even with the snorting dog. ‘Oh, why not. Shall we go to Smith’s?’

They sat in the dingy little café Dan came to know most of her life. It came pouring out of her like a fallen film star to talking to the gutter press. She covered the lot—all about her life in the Midlands and how she hated the north and this town and most of all that she wouldn’t mind someone killing the Squid Lord, who was called Benjy, daft name for an adult.

At least that was Dan’s impression of the situation and he approved of her malice. He also fancied there was a good chance of getting a leg over after she invited him back to the house, so he kept up a stream of compliments and sympathetic sounds. BZ broke out the wine and he knew he was in like Flynn. They adjourned to the bedroom—her bedroom, it turned out. That’s how far south things had gone with them. Dan marveled at the luxury of it. This chef must be loaded.

It wasn’t his best effort, to be truthful. For one thing BZ wasn’t all that exciting. She looked well enough a goer but in bed she wasn’t a patch on Harley, who was even better when she was angry. A little enthusiasm would have helped a lot. Dan had to admit that ol’ Benjy definitely took a step up with his wife. Nevertheless, if it helped seal the deal, it was worth the effort. And having a real woman instead of his own hand was a welcome change even if she did make him wrap it up. ‘Safety first,’ she had slurred at him, opening the nightstand drawer to show off a wide variety of condoms in rainbow colours and a few sexual aids as the magazines called them.

The thought did cross his mind to wonder if he ought to be using them with Harley once he got back in her good graces. Can’t be too careful. Working with squid probably wasn’t all that hygienic and he had seen no sign of protection when they were doing it on the desk that night. Sadly, remembering his window-cleaner lookeeloo had put him over the edge at last when the unhelpful BZ just kind of lay there. He’d never had to resort to fantasizing when he was actually with a woman.

It was a sad state of things he had come to. Murder was the only way back.

In the end it wasn’t difficult to convince her. When he casually suggested that life would be better without the Squid Lord around, BZ said, ‘We could make it look like an accident.’ Apparently she was an even bigger fan of crime tales. She had it all worked out, see? Just waiting to find a willing accomplice. It turned out she knew all about Harley—and where the chef parked his squid these days.

BZ still took care of the banking for the restaurant so Benjy couldn’t hide any cash from her. She also kept the insurance full on and up to date. Not only was the Squid Lord swimming in it—everything he had was fully insured. So all they needed was one of his late night rendezvous, a cosh to the head, the gas ‘leaking’ and a fire lit. Boom, problem over, riches to share. As long as the blow to his noggin didn’t break anything, there was no way the forensics could sniff out a deliberate act. In tedious detail, BZ regaled him with the plot of some novel that hinged on just such a scheme. He would Google it later just to be sure: totally legit.

There might not be enough of him left to forensic anyway.

They picked Friday night. Harley had a habit of working really late on Fridays so he deducted that was their ‘special’ night. Of course he had to do the GBH himself. BZ, as the primary beneficiary as the insurance forms termed it, had to be above suspicion and elsewhere with an air-tight alibi for the whole thing to work.

Dan had a bad night or two thinking about the plan—half nervous to just get to it and a little guilty at ending a life. Then he stared at her back and thought about how the Squid Lord had robbed him of his wife’s attention and favours. Her face turned away from him every night now. And it wasn’t like he was killing him. He was only knocking him on the head. The rest was science. It wasn’t his fault if the Squid Lord was blown up by a chemical reaction.

The night of the crime arrived. Harley went off to work as usual with a smile on her face, while Dan sat flipping channels aimlessly, watching the clock. Would she drop a few tears for the Squid Lord? Miss his tentacles? Probably just a distraction for her, a momentary crush. She was always going on about his intelligence and what was it? His ‘business acumen’—what a laugh. She couldn’t even explain what that was to Dan, just got all snarky, then blamed him for being dim.

We’ll see who has more business acumen, Dan thought with satisfaction as he put on his all-black crime clothes. To avoid any kind of witnesses, he had decided to walk down to the pier. It wasn’t that bad of a distance and the night was relatively balmy for early spring. And the city sloped toward the water’s edge so it was a doddle. He’d catch a cab on the way back maybe, over by the central station.

The walk did him good. He was feeling rather chipper by the time he got to the restaurant. Even the sight of his wife riding the Squid Lord couldn’t dampen his mood too much. Just you wait, mate—we’ll see who gets screwed now. When Harley came out the back door and clacked away on her heels, Dan came out from behind the bins and slipped in the back door. BZ had been right: he didn’t lock up behind her as he planned to be exiting soon himself.

He just didn’t know how he’d be leaving this time.

Dan took the heavy Mag Lite torch out of the inside pocket of his donkey jacket, ready for action. He could hear the Squid Lord humming away, happy as a clam. He wouldn’t be humming for long. Peeking around the end of the corridor, he could see the chef shoving some papers into a filing cabinet. As he rolled the drawer shut, Dan ran into the room and thumped him on the melon and down he went. Just like clockwork.

It wasn’t so easy to drag him back out to the kitchen, though. For one thing, he was solid as bricks. The Squid Lord was a lot taller than he remembered, too. Dan lamented giving up the weekend football league a few years ago. He’d been in better shape back then. So far from fit now that he had to stop twice while dragging the man across the tiles. A sad state to be in for sure, but it was better than being dead, he had to admit. He could buy a home gym to get back in shape soon.

Dan propped the chef up against the industrial-size refrigerator and turned his attention to the stove. Criminy, it had a lot of knobs and whatnot. It took a minute to sort out how to work things. He lit one burner and started turning the knobs of the others to get them pouring out the gas into the room. Then he screamed.

A hand gripped his ankle. Dan shook it off and wheeled around.

‘Wasssgoinon?’ The Squid Lord sounded drunk. He had fallen on his side and was groping about as if he had become blind from the blow. Dan considered whether to hit him again or if that might mess up the forensics if he did it too hard. The chef shook his head like he was just waking up and then lunged at Dan, who backed away quickly. Too quickly—he bumped into the stove. And then he could smell hair burning.

His jacket was on fire!

Dan shuffled the jacket off, dropping his keys, wallet and a handful of change on the tile floor. He tried to shake the fire off, and when that didn’t work, threw it to the ground and stomped on it until the smoldering stopped. The dazed chef was trying to get to his feet, so Dan took a chance and cracked his skull again, hoping it wasn’t actually literally so. The man crumpled to the tiles again, hopefully this time to stay.

His hands were shaking as Dan gathered up his belongings—fuck the change, he wouldn’t need it—stuffed them back in his jacket and headed for the door. He had no idea how long it would take until the place exploded, so he wanted to be sure to be watching it from outside.

His heart was hammering like an alarm bell when he got to the back door. He grabbed the knob and twisted it, then collided with the door. He stared at the handle, twisted it more carefully, then with growing panic turned it this way and that. His heart was in his mouth as he slammed his whole body against the door. Then he stopped.

Out the tiny grimy window he saw Harley and BZ. His own wife held up a key and it twinkled in the moonlight as she swung it back and forth on a chain. The two women had their arms around each other’s shoulders. BZ clutched that little rat dog under one arm. They were both grinning like this was the funniest joke ever.

Dan screamed every rotten word he knew at them as they turned and walked away. Then he stopped. Maybe there was still time to turn off the gas.

K. A. Laity is an award-winning author, scholar, critic, editor, and arcane artist. Her books include Chastity Flame, Lush Situation, A Cut-Throat Business, Love is a Grift, The Mangrove Legacy, Satan’s Sorority, White Rabbit, and many more. She has edited Respectable Horror, Weird Noir, Noir Carnival, Drag Noir, and My Wandering Uterus, plus written many short stories, scholarly essays, songs, and more.

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