Free Story from My Forthcoming Collection: THE WAGES OF CRIME!
Greetings, one and all. As some of you know, I have a collection of crime stories coming out this summer called The Wages of Crime. To celebrate that fact, as well as a recent surge in subscribers to my blog, I thought it would be fun to post one of the stories here for free.
I’ll probably post one or two more samples from the book before its actual release, but we’ll start today with “InPerson,” the story of a woman who exacts revenge against a friend’s captor, but may have misjudged the situation. By the way, "InPerson" made its first appearance in the Dig Two Graves, Vol. II anthology from Death's Head Press a couple of years ago. Maybe that will come in handy on Trivia Night.
One last thing: I'm not ready to share the full cover art for The Wages of Crime yet, but I hope you get a sense from the cropped image above that it's going to be a stunner (thanks to the amazing talents of Dirk Berger).
Now, enjoy ...
© 2019 Pete Mesling
Hemmed in by towering evergreens, the cabin Gerald had inherited felt like a mountain hideout. At night it was almost possible to believe there wasn’t any human activity for miles around. In truth, a driving path—two worn ruts with a berm of leafy spurge in between—wound from the rear of the cabin through a stand of ponderosa pines and led to the small town of Copperton, which lay about two-and-a-half miles downhill. The larger town of Lassiter was another twenty miles along Route 12.
He generally stayed at the cabin from June through the first half of September. Any later than that and the road into town was liable to turn to mud overnight. There was no television set, and despite a Wi-Fi hookup and a reasonable cell signal, he had rarely used any electronic devices there. Doug or Mason might text from the shop to let him know he had to cover a shift, even though they knew damn well he didn’t live in Lassiter during the summer. Or he might get the occasional urge to stream a movie. If a thunderstorm took out the power, he’d sometimes read one of the e-books on his tablet. He had no social-media accounts.
He hadn’t always been such a recluse. When Patricia had been in the picture, things were different. Parties attended, parties thrown. Spontaneous trips to the ocean. Shared dreams. Envious friends. Money had been coming in, too. As his reputation as a service tech at the body shop had grown, more and more business came his way, and Patricia had been promoted into accounts receivable at the escrow company.
Looking back, it almost seemed like someone else’s life.
Watching the last of the day’s sunlight drain out of the sky through a window in the main room, Gerald nearly fell from the sofa bed when his tablet started to hum and vibrate. He ruled out notifications right away. They made a pinging noise. And it wasn’t his phone sending a call to the tablet. That was also a different sound.
Then it hit him: InPerson.
The tablet lay on a stack of blue plastic milk crates that served as a nightstand. He picked it up and flipped open the cover. It took him a moment to realize who he was looking at on the screen. Her hair, cut in a bob and colored pink, obscured much of her face. She was out of breath, trembling. Her eyes darted left and right.
“Holy shit,” Gerald said at last. “Patricia? Is that you?”
She nodded. “Ger, I’m in trouble. Real trouble.”
“My God, what’s going on? You look horrible.” And not only because you’re a decade past being able to pull off a punk look, he wanted to add. He couldn’t make out her response. “Can you speak up?”
She shook her head. “Don’t—want him—to hear.”
“Where are you?” he asked. “Do you need help?”
“Not—sure. Still in Lassiter—I think.”
“What are you saying? You were taken, against your will?” It sounded absurd to say it out loud.
Patricia looked into her camera lens, as if staring directly at him. Goosebumps rose on both of his arms as she gave a single nod. Were there bruises on her face? The lighting was so poor. He glanced away as a thump sounded from the speaker. By the time he looked back at the screen, she was gone. Where she had been, he saw the back of a metal folding chair.
An off-camera groan was the only response. A shadow passed over the setting. Someone had moved in front of a light behind whatever device Patricia was using. He wanted to say more but decided against it.
Jesus, he thought. If this is some kind of nut, he’ll have my name and number.
Should he close the app, shut down his tablet and pretend he hadn’t taken the call? Part of him wanted to. What did he really owe her after all this time? He’d heard that her life had gone downhill since the divorce, that she’d taken up with a peculiar crowd. It wasn’t much to him. The divorce had been her idea, but his thoughts about such things were old-fashioned. Divorce was a severing of ties, a clean break. Not some kind of re-envisioned friendship. She had wanted him out, so he was out.
Still, he thought—as he watched the unchanging scene before him and listened to sounds of movement, as though something was being dragged across the floor of the mystery location on his screen—he had loved her once. That love had eroded. Eventually it dried up, segmented, and fell to pieces. But it had existed.
“Gerald, h—” The syllables came to him as if from the far end of a long tunnel, and ended as abruptly as if the speaker had been run down by a train whose approach she hadn’t seen or heard.
The screen went blank. Someone on the other end had terminated the session.
“Shit,” he said, tossing the tablet onto the sofa bed bedside him. “Shit, shit, shit.”
He wanted to be thinking brave, heroic thoughts. Wanted to be putting a plan together to figure out where the hell Patricia had IP-ed him from. But he sensed he would always remember that his first thought had been, Could I pretend this never happened?
Then he remembered Cameron, and his thoughts charted a more productive course. She was the only one of the old gang he still kept in touch with—the only one who hadn’t taken Patricia’s side in the divorce and foresworn any further interactions with Gerald.
She also knew computers upside down and backwards, which was the real point of interest.
He started to text her but quickly abandoned the idea in favor of a call.
“Gerald?” she answered after a few rings. “What’s this, a booty call?”
Little sex jokes were the hallmark of their friendship; only for Gerald they weren’t so jokey. He’d always longed to fuck her apart. Had half a hard-on now, at the lispy slur of her voice. His ex-wife possibly bleeding to death in an unknown location, and here he was, contemplating a furtive phone wank with Cameron. Yes, Patricia had lost a real prize.
“It’s good to hear from you,” Cameron continued, “but I suppose you just want me for my brains.”
“Well, I could use some computer help. But this isn’t the usual kind of thing. Cam, some weird shit is going down.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m out at the cabin, right? And I get an InPerson call from Patricia.”
“Wow, okay. Been a while, I’m guessing.”
“Uh, yeah. The thing is, she’s in some kind of trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“That’s just it. I don’t know for sure. She fell or got hit or something. Dropped out of view. Then she calls out to me, but the connection cuts off, screen goes blank.”
“Did you try IP-ing her back?”
“No. I called you right away. It’s got me a little spooked, you know?”
“Yeah, it’s weird.”
“And there’s no way to look back at an InPerson session, right?”
“Well, nothing’s impossible, but it’ll take a little time. You have your laptop with you?”
“No, just my phone and tablet.”
“Okay, I’ll bring mine. Look, I’ll get to you as quick as I can. In the meantime try hailing her back. And don’t shut down that tablet. I can only recoup sessions since the last restart.”
“Okay, got it.”
“Text me if anything changes?”
“Yeah, will do. And thanks.”
“No sweat. See ya soon, hot pants.”
“Later on, tube top.”
It was good to have someone in on this. Mistakes and poor judgment came easily to Gerald, especially when he was in distress. And no one would have been a better choice than Cameron, even if he hadn’t wanted to tear every stitch of clothing from her body. She had her shit together, and she was smart enough to help him navigate this mess.
Swapping his phone for the tablet, he pulled up the InPerson app. The top row of his call history showed only the word Hidden. He tapped it.
After four rings he thought it might be a lost cause.
Then the screen flared to life.
The camera on Patricia’s side appeared to be set up in the same position as before. No one was visible. It was as if Patricia’s captor had been waiting for Gerald to call.
“Hello?” Gerald said, his balls roiling.
No response, only a rustling noise, followed by a male figure lurching into view. Whoever it was wore a long duster, hair jet black and cut to look like hell, as he walked away from the camera.
“Where’s Patricia?” Gerald demanded. “What have you done with her?”
The figure stopped before exiting the murky room and turned around. Gerald couldn’t discern any facial details—maybe a beard, perhaps a beetling brow—but what he held up for him to see, Gerald could make out all too clearly: a severed human hand, dangling by its pinky.
Turning away, the figure disappeared with his grisly keepsake through a dimly lit doorway. When he slammed the door shut behind him, the device he and Patricia had been using fell backwards, turning its aim to the ceiling, where a single bulb burned feebly.
“Patricia?” Gerald called out, the tablet shaking in his hands. “Can you hear me?”
If she did, she wasn’t responding, which left Gerald to rage in silence.
A series of rapid knocks at the door of the cabin. Gerald jumped up to let Cameron in. With one arm she lifted her laptop bag, with the other a box of store-bought doughnuts. After setting her cargo down on the floor near the kitchen she returned to Gerald, and they embraced for a long while.
“I’d better get started,” she said. They were the first words either of them had uttered. “Is that the tablet on the couch?”
“I know you’re probably out of your head by now,” she continued, “but you won’t be any use to me while I locate the app I need and convince it to latch onto your InPerson install. You want to put those doughnuts on a plate and pour us a couple glasses of milk?”
“Sure,” Gerald said and took his leave.
“Do me a favor and don’t go all American Pie on them.”
“Ha, ha,” he replied.
Cameron removed her computer from the bag and sat with it on one end of the couch. Once it was up and running she connected Gerald’s tablet and went about her surgical hack.
“Did you try calling back?” she called to Gerald.
“Uh, no,” he said, bringing in a plate of assorted doughnuts and placing it on the coffee table in front of her. “The milk is coming right up.”
“I think we still should,” she said after he’d left again, “once I have everything in ship shape.”
“Fine,” he responded from the kitchen.
We’ll see, he thought.
He had his reasons for not wanting to involve the police, and that’s exactly what Cameron would want to do if he told her all he knew—or worse, showed her the footage. That’s why he’d lied about the second session. She was welcome to help him scan the first session for clues as to Patricia’s whereabouts, but if that didn’t bear some pretty fast fruit, he’d have to insist that she leave him to it. He might even pretend he’d come to the conclusion that everything was all right and they should sleep on it, decide what to do in the morning.
Meanwhile, he’d be scrutinizing the shit out of that second session. There had to be something in the images that would hint at where to begin his search for Patricia.
Glasses of milk in hand, he kicked the fridge door shut and returned to the other room.
“Milk, madame,” he said, placing her glass next to the plate of doughnuts on the coffee table.
“Thanks,” she said without taking her eyes off her screen, or pausing in the rapid sliding and clicking of her fingers on the touchpad. “Just about got you set up.”
If she failed to notice the second IP call in his history he might be home free. It would be the most significant hurdle cleared, anyway.
“Can I give it a shot?” He set his milk next to hers and sat down beside her.
She clunked her laptop closed and untethered Gerald’s tablet with a flourish. “It’s all yours.”
He took the device from her. “What do I do?” he asked.
“Open up InPerson like always. You’ll see a new menu item: Archived Sessions. That’ll show you everything since your last power-up.”
“Did you test it?” he asked, navigating to the app.
“Nope, just set it up.”
The first session took up the whole screen, so he adjusted the angle to allow Cameron to look on. They watched it straight through without either of them saying a word. When it stopped she put two fingers to her mouth and whispered, “Oh my God.”
“What do you think? Does she need help?”
“I take her at her word,” Cameron said. “And she definitely didn’t want her conversation with you overheard. Yeah, Ger, I’d say she needs help. Like police-type help.”
“Yeah, that’s how I’m leaning, too,” he lied. “But look, I really don’t want to tie up your night with this. I mean, keep your phone handy, if you don’t mind. I’ll definitely call or text with any news. But I think I need to sort this out on my own.”
“Are you sure? I’m happy to—”
“Positive. Let’s watch this thing one more time, just in case anything jumps out at us. Then I send you packing. Deal?”
“Love ’em and leave ’em, huh, cowboy?”
“You know it, buttercup.”
Cameron left Gerald with the lion’s share of chocolate-covered cream-filleds. He took a large bite out of one and slammed his last few gulps of milk.
The flow of sugar through his veins, as well as thoughts of humping Cameron blind when this was all over, readied him for another peek at the second IP session.
It was difficult to avert his attention from the man in the duster. Shortly after the device on the other end fell backwards and his view became limited to the ceiling and part of one wall, he replayed the clip from the beginning. This time he was able to abstract the figure in his mind somewhat, but still no clue emerged to give away the location of the atrocity performed there.
Again he viewed the footage from the beginning, and again he came away with no insight into the madman’s whereabouts. He let the end of the session run while he leaned back to think things through, the tablet balanced on his right leg. He folded his hands behind his head.
A chirping sound from the tablet called him from his reverie. Glancing down he saw that the screen had gone blank. He tapped it, but the session had come to an end. Maybe he hadn’t seen it all the way through. Had the chirp been part of the recording?
Sitting forward he grasped the device in both hands and played back the session for a fourth time. He quickly scanned through the displaying of the severed hand and resumed normal playback only after the madman had slammed the door and the camera had fallen back.
A full minute must have passed. No change. But this time he noticed something in the corner of the screen. The edge of something red, maybe a metal sign mounted on the wall. And white lettering. He could make out an S and maybe a c. Why did the writing look familiar?
His view of the sign was upside down, so he craned his neck to one side and turned the tablet partway around. Almost immediately it came to him: Scutter’s. He’d seen the name a hundred times, at least. Signs like the one in the footage could be seen on the walls of an old complex of warehouses on the east side of Lassiter. He usually drove past it on his way to work. Someone must have overseen the place, the way the perimeter was padlocked, razor-wire coiled snakelike along the top of every square inch of chain-link fencing in sight. But that was the extent of any attempt at maintenance, as far as Gerald had ever made out.
A soft rustling noise caught his attention, followed by a shadow passing near where the fallen camera lay. He returned the tablet to its original orientation.
The chirping sound.
Then, Patricia’s face.
She only came into the shot for a moment and must have been giggling as she approached the camera (a sound rendered birdlike by digital compression, Cameron would have pointed out). He could make out a smile as she canceled the IP session.
Bitch, he thought. She’s trying to pull a fast one.
Okay, then. That brought a whole new perspective to the evening. Maybe—just maybe—it was time to finish what he’d started three-and-a-half lonesome years ago.
Behind the wheel of his gray-and-black Jeep Wrangler, Gerald sped through Copperton on his way to Lassiter, wondering if Patricia and her accomplice would stay put, or were they already zooming down the road to whatever love nest or hidey-hole they shared?
Route 12 took him straight into Lassiter about fifteen minutes later, and eventually to the turnoff that led to the alley behind Scutter’s. There stood a gate, chained shut and crowned with razor-wire. Okay, he told himself. No biggie. They got in somehow. There must be another way. So he parked his Jeep in shadow and walked along the fence.
On his way to the next block, he kicked at the fence every few paces, thinking maybe Patricia and company had cut a flap out of it and then crawled through. But when he turned onto McCammon Drive he noticed there was a gap of about three feet in the razor-wire. It was almost certainly how they’d gained access, and it was without a doubt how he planned to.
Scanning the street for late-night strollers, and satisfying himself that Lassiter had shuttered its blinds for the night, he mounted the fence. He’d forgotten how hard it was to gain a foothold in the small diamonds of chain-link fencing, and how the wires pressed into the skin of one’s fingers. Regardless, he gained the top and put his weight on the horizontal bar there, careful to avoid the barbs of wire-ends that poked up an inch or so higher still.
He took a moment to survey a nearby loading dock. Maybe it would offer a way inside. Swinging himself around, he pushed away from the fence, dropping into a roll as soon as he hit the ground. He moved in the direction of a door next to the loading dock, pleased to discover he was uninjured.
As he climbed the steps to the loading dock, he heard the sound of a car in the alley behind him. Probably a cop who would love nothing more than to collar a prowler at the old Scutter property. Headlights washed the alley, but he didn’t wait for a vehicle to emerge before climbing the rest of the stairs and trying the door. Locked, and far too solid to allow a forced entry by anything less powerful than a rabid grizzly.
Moving deeper into the shadows of the loading dock, he noticed a concavity in a corrugated-metal garage door that was otherwise seated in its frame. The work of vandals, maybe. Or possibly the work of Patricia’s accomplice. Inspecting the damage more closely, he saw that the metal had indeed been beaten or kicked in to such an extent that a person of above-average size could have squeezed through. It occurred to him that the act must have required a great deal of strength, but he tried not to let the thought gain a foothold.
He slid one leg through the gap and, once sure of his footing in the interior, pressed his head and upper body through. Dragging his other foot in last, and scraping his calf through his pants in the process, he came face to face with a darkness as unrelenting as that of any primeval cavern, and a smell like urine-dampened old leather assailed him. He fished his phone out of his pocket and tapped on the flashlight app. It didn’t faze the dark very much, but it gave him the means to navigate the large room.
Armed with the simple goal of getting out of that room, he headed for a faded green door in the far wall.
“You’ve given me hope, Keith,” Patricia whispered in the dark. “You really have.”
“How so, love?” he asked with a slight lisp.
“I thought I’d put it behind me, what he did to me. I figured taking the high road made me the better person, so I moved on with my life.”
“Only you didn’t really move on. That’s the bitch of it.”
“My depression. The drugs and alcohol. Hell, I even started smoking again. All related to his … treatment of me.”
“The beatings. You can’t even say it. Well, we’re going to even the score tonight.” Keith spoke in a calm manner that belied the gravity of the situation they’d set in motion. “You’re sure he’ll figure out where we are?”
“He’ll figure it out,” she said. “But look, don’t go to extremes, okay? Just a taste of his own medicine, which is plenty.”
A nearby bang of metal on metal silenced them both: the door at the far end of the hallway outside the small room where they lay in wait. Patricia reached for Keith’s hand, using the very same hand Gerald would by now believe had been severed.
Close to her ear, Keith whispered, “Shhh ...” then she heard him move away from her, toward the door leading to the hallway.
No sound of approaching footsteps. No voice calling out in the dark. The door handle turned and the metal door squawked inward. A thin beam of light punctured the darkness and quickly found Patricia. She did her best to appear fragile and burdened with pain, shivering and convulsing where she sat on an ancient work table.
“Well aren’t you a sight,” Gerald said, holding the light on her.
It wasn’t the reaction she’d expected, but it no longer mattered. The fly had alighted in their web; it just didn’t yet realize it was trapped.
Keith cleared that up with a dull blow to Gerald’s head, probably using the pipe he’d been swinging around earlier as they’d gone over the plan for the hundredth time. The light fell from Gerald’s hand, landing on the cluttered floor. It appeared to be his phone, and from its new position it illuminated the room more effectively than it had as a hand-held flashlight. Patricia could see that Keith’s strike had felled her ex-husband.
She heard the door down the hall bang again. It was impossible to close it silently, which was why they’d chosen this room to hide in; they’d know when someone was coming. But she’d only expected to hear it once. Had Gerald been stupid enough to let himself be tailed by a cop or security guard?
Keith didn’t seem to have heard the door. With a bloodthirsty scowl, he drew back one foot—clad in a steel-toed boot, she knew—and delivered a vicious kick to Gerald’s face.
“Dammit, no!” Patricia screamed, no longer bothering to keep her voice down. “That’s enough.”
He looked over at her, his chest heaving with labored breaths. “What’s your problem?”
“My God, he’s not moving. What if you’ve killed him?” She jumped down from the table.
“So what if I have? You get your thrill, I get mine. Pretty good night’s work, you ask me.”
The door behind Keith inched inward, and suddenly there was a strange woman standing there, holding a finger to her lips to shush Patricia.
But was it a stranger? She felt not, though she couldn’t place the woman.
Keith’s eyes, the color of rusty tin, shot wide open and a gasp leaked out of him like weak steam. He turned, reaching in vain for a spot on his back.
“Who ...” he said to the woman but couldn’t finish the question before stumbling and falling to the floor.
Whoever she was, this familiar stranger, she held a kitchen knife at her side, and from it drooped a slender string of gore.
“It’s okay now,” the woman said. “He won’t hurt you anymore.”
“Cameron?” The name came to Patricia as if it had risen from a pit.
“Yes,” Cameron said. “I’ll explain everything, but right now we’ve got some work to do.” She casually tucked her knife into the back of her waistband.
“Are they ... both ...”
“I don’t know.” Cameron went down on her haunches to examine Gerald. The other one could feed the rats, for all she cared. “He’s breathing, but it’s weak.”
“I don’t understand,” Patricia said. “Why are you here?”
“Later,” Cameron said. Then, to Gerald, “Do you think you can stand, walk out of here if you have me to lean on?”
“I think so,” he said. “Dizzy. But ... What are you ...”
She leaned in closer. “I copied your InPerson sessions to my laptop when I saw there were two. I watched the second video and decided to follow you. It’s okay, we got him.”
“But, the end ... Did you ...”
If his brain was as fucked up as his face, it was a wonder he could still draw breath, she thought. “Save it for later, huh? Let’s stand you up.”
She slid both arms under Gerald’s and began to lift. He proved more useful than she’d expected, steadying himself against the wall with one hand while pushing off the floor with his legs.
“Can I—” Patricia said, her voice uncertain.
“No, you need your strength. Why don’t you go on ahead. We’ll meet you at the end of the hall.”
Patricia gave the man on the floor a quizzical look, almost loving, before picking up Gerald’s phone and using it to guide her way. Stockholm syndrome? Cameron wondered. Kind of an extreme case if it was.
Only when Patricia slipped past her and out into the hall did Cameron realize something was very wrong: Gerald’s ex-wife either had miraculous regenerative capabilities, or her hand had not in fact been cut from her arm.
“Gerald,” Cameron whispered as the two of them began their journey, “something isn’t right.”
“It’s not what you think,” he said, rubbing the side of his head.
A light dawned in Cameron’s mind. It didn’t reveal everything, but enough to suggest that she’d been had. The light grew blinding, fever bright. Her temples pulsed. Was there a way to make what she was contemplating look like the work of the man they were leaving behind? If so, it couldn’t be another stab wound in the back, but surely there’d be a way to stage things believably if she went for a frontal attack and left the blade behind to tell its own tale.
“Patricia,” she called out, the light in her brain fading, “something’s wrong with Ger. Can you give me a hand?”
“What?” Gerald asked. “What are you—”
“Quiet,” Cameron whispered. “Just picture me naked and drool.”
“I’m already droo—”
“What’s the problem?” Patricia asked, retracing her steps to where they stood.
“No problem,” Cameron replied. “Why do you ask?”
She took advantage of Patricia’s puzzlement, drawing the blade from her waistband. The rest was strangely simple, almost utilitarian. Behind them lay a job half finished, and here before her was the means to complete it.
Having to watch as shock claimed Patricia’s features made it more difficult than the other one had been, but Cameron was up to the task. In truth, the whole sorry business felt something like a calling. But it was a call she would resist in the future. Part of the reason she was so open to enjoying the moment was that she vowed never to repeat it.
“What have you done?” Gerald asked when it was over.
“Something that you did absolutely nothing to prevent. Remember that. Now, a clock is ticking and we have work to do before we can leave this place. Can I rely on your help, or do you need to rest up, give yourself a hand job?”
“Good. You’ll feel more invested that way, down the road. After you.” She held out an arm, urging Gerald back in the direction of the room they’d come from. “Now take your phone. Patricia and I will be there in a minute.”
Taking the dead woman by both hands—both fucking hands!—Cameron dragged Gerald’s ex along the hall. She and Gerald would confiscate the device Patricia and her friend had used to communicate, once they found it, but the fake hand, which also had to be lying around somewhere, they would leave behind, she decided: part of a crime scene that was likely to become some poor detective’s greatest puzzle of the year.