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NaNoWriMo 2008 (take two)

My one losing year! I loved the story, but I got started late (this was actually my second story - the first petered out much faster!) and lost momentum. I mean to go back and finish it, one of these days...


Chapter One
A completely normal, ordinary morning takes a swift left turn towards bizarre right after breakfast.

Getting out of bed in the morning is the single greatest feat I accomplish most days.  This is not to say my days are easy – it’s more a commentary on how hard it is to get myself out from under the covers.  It’s amazing the rationalizations your brain can make at 6 am.  Things that usually seem vitally important, like showering and brushing your teeth, can be rationalized away.  I mean, I showered yesterday, and brushed my teeth before I went to bed.  I can just wet my hair down and the coffee will certainly cover the morning breath, right?  And what’s the big deal about being exactly on time to work?  It’s not like it’s ever won me an employee of the year award, or anything like that.  I’m not even sure it’s responsible for my continued employment.  I think that has a lot more to do with the fact that I know where all the bodies are buried.  And I don’t mean that figuratively.

This particular Monday morning I weighed the merits of calling in sick versus the chances that they’ll believe I’m sick on a Monday.  I was a bit congested, thanks to some dehydration and the onset of allergy season.  I could probably rustle up a decent sounding cough, and no one likes a coughing employee.  But then, it is a Monday.  And even though, statistically speaking, it would be perfectly normal to take twenty percent of your sick days on a Monday, no one seems to.  I haven’t called in on a Monday since 1997.  Even when I do have a fever, or am puking up my spleen, I drag myself in on Mondays.  It’s the unwritten rule of business.  Still, this might be the time to break out of the mold.  I really, really, really did not want to go to work today.

The alarm bleated again and I smacked the snooze button.  It’s now 6:30, and I needed to be half and hour away in half an hour.  Chances of being on time were dwindling rapidly.  Chances of showing up at all, though, were rising.  I’d finally completed my usual half-hour debate with myself and managed (barely) to convince myself it’s in my own best interest to get out of bed.  My last-ditch effort on behalf of my laziness was the extreme crazy thought that my subconscious was trying to save my life.  You know, like the people who miss their exit to the highway and curse their bad luck and end up late to work, only to find out that if they had made it onto the highway, they’d have been smack dab in the middle of a twenty-car pileup and probably would have burned to death?  The only problem is that my mind tells me this every morning, and every morning I make it in to work un-singed.  Plus, you know, the whole ‘not believing in psychic predictions’ thing.  Even if one day it does come true, and I end up flame-broiled, it’s not like it was a one-off feeling.  I couldn’t even really tell myself ‘I told you so’.  Even if, you know, I could tell my own dead self anything…

Before my train of thought got any more weird and depressing, I tossed back the covers and lazily stretched, then padded into the bathroom.  The countertop is a cluttered mess of bottles and hair clips and… I’m not sure I want to know what that is.  My brain made one last effort to get my body back into bed by promising that if I call in sick I can spend all day cleaning.  It’s a futile attempt, and I know it.  If I call in sick I’ll spend all day in bed eating ice cream and watching TV.  Which, come to think of it, is a more compelling argument than cleaning.  I stared at my reflection in the mirror and scowled.  I look like crap.  I looked back at the bed.  It looks warm and cozy.  I looked back at the mirror.

“You’ve lost the battle,” I told my reflection.  “The only thing to do now is admit it to yourself.”

With a resigned sigh I walked over to the phone and made the call.  I dredged up as much phlegm as I could, and threw in a few chest-deep coughs for good measure.  And, of course, the coup de grace of ‘and I can *cough* come in if you *hack* really need me to.  *cough cough*  Just give me a call if you *hack* need me…’ which trailed off weakly as I hung up the phone, just as I started another bone-jarring coughing spasm.  It’s an art form, I tell you.  I’m willing to be that when Jason plays that message he’ll make a face of disgust and wipe the answering machine down with an antibacterial wipe.  As if germs could travel through the phone.  But at least I’ll probably get an undisturbed day out of his irrational quirks.

I looked around the room after I’ve set the phone down.  Now that it’s done, I’m wide awake.  And a little bit crappy feeling.  That’s the problem with acting sick.  In order to put on a believable performance, you have to believe you are sick.  And when you do that, I’m convinced you actually make yourself a little bit sick.  I considered the bed again.  I know if I lay down I’ll fall asleep, that this awake feeling is very fleeting and temporary.  I could also feel the beginning of a headache.  A combination of dehydration and a lack of caffeine starting to take the inevitable toll.

With one last, longing look at the bed I headed down to the kitchen to start the coffee maker.  I brewed a pot and had a cup as I ate a bowl of cereal, flipping aimlessly through the television channels.  There’s only news on this early, and I flipped past scenes of murder, car accidents, murder, building explosion, murder, house fire, murder, car accident, before turning the television off in disgust.  Something about those scenes keeps flickering in my mind, something familiar…  but I can’t put my finger on it, so I poured myself another cup of coffee, turned off the pot, and headed back upstairs.  The momentary awake feeling was fading, and I’m more than willing to concede productivity and wallow in laziness for the day.  Isn’t that what ‘mental health care’ days are all about, anyway?

I chugged half the cup of coffee and snuggled down under the covers.  With my tummy full and caffeine once again coursing through my veins, I fell asleep quickly.  But it’s a fitful sleep.  Images of fire keep racing around my head.  Snippets of overheard conversations at work mingle with images of clients and business meeting.  And it all keeps coming back to the fire.  Explosions.  That news broadcast…  As I struggled awake, I could feel the pieces of the puzzle slipping away.  It was right on the tip of my brain, I was about to figure it out, but I couldn’t hold on. 

Then there was a pounding on the door, and it all snapped into place.  The building the exploded, the one on the news this morning, that was the office.  The house that was on fire, that was Jason’s house.  And the murder victim… I never saw a name, but the location was very near the house of a recent client.  It wasn’t all a coincidence, and neither was that pounding on my door.  They’d know I wasn’t in the office this morning, my car was still in my garage.  It’s not as if I could walk to work.  I could walk to the bus station, though, if I could get out of the house undetected.

The deadbolt on the front door flipping open crushed any hope I had of that.  I slid soundlessly out of bed and tip-toed over to my closet.  Heart hammering, I realized hiding would be my only chance, and only if they didn’t torch this house, too.  The thought of being burned alive was terrifying, but so was staying out in the open to face whatever was going to come up those stairs.  I crawled along the bottom of the closet until I found the little hatch that led to the small attic space.  It wasn’t masterfully concealed – you’d see it if you really looked for it – but it was my best hope.  I huddled in the cold, unfinished space and looked through the vent to the rising sun.  It was late November, and the sun was just making a full appearance.  It was also really freaking cold.  I was basically standing outside in my pajamas.  Good thing I’d worn a set of long-sleeved pant pajamas, or the chattering of my teeth would probably have given away my position.  As it was, I kept it down to violent shivers.  I slid the panel open a crack and reached out and snagged a pair of socks that were lying crumpled on the closet floor.  Then I also grabbed a sweatshirt.  I was about to reach back out when I heard the voiced coming towards the bedroom.  I shut the panel as quickly and quietly as I thought I could, then hurriedly slid into the sweatshirt and slipped the socks on.  It wasn’t comfortable, but it was better than it had been.  I hugged my knees to my chest and listened intently to the snatches of conversation.

“…the place looks … it’s been tossed already, boss,” a deep voice said.

“Who… gotten here before us?” a familiar voice replied.

My breath caught in my throat at the sound of that voice.  It was Mark, the new construction manager Jason had hired a month ago.  This is where I’d like to say I’d had a bad feeling about him, or that I knew all along he was a bad seed, but it wouldn’t be true.  Sure, I didn’t like him, but I chalked it up to him being another run-of-the-mill macho construction creep.  The kind that treated woman like crap and expected them to thank him for it.  I certainly didn’t see him as the ‘burn the house down’ loony.  But then, maybe he wasn’t here to kill me.  I was jumping to conclusions.  Maybe he was here to try to protect me, because Jason sent him after the fires.

“Maybe Jason’s already been here and grabbed her,” the deeper voice said.  “The coffee pot downstairs is cold, she could have left hours ago.  I don’t see a suitcase, and this place certainly looks like it’s either been searched or someone packed in a hurry.”

So much for that theory, I though, and the voices became clearer.  The sounds of them digging through the closet made me hold my breath.  Please don’t see the little door, please don’t see it, I chanted in my head.

“You’re probably right.  I don’t think he ever told her anything important, though, so I don’t see why he’d come and get her.”  Mark’s voice took on an even more oily quality.  “Unless he was banging her.  Maybe he just took her along for a little sport.”

The voices started to trail off as the men wandered out of the bedroom.  I could here them laughing, and a few snippets of conversation.  “Mexico… check the airport… catch the bastard…”  I heard the front door close, and I scrambled over to the vent.  I was glad that it overlooked the driveway, and I could clearly see the two men getting into the car and driving away.  They hadn’t set fire to the house, and they thought I was already gone.  So, basically, I could just hole up in my house until I found out what was going on.  I crept out of the closet and was just about to stand up when I realized something was wrong.  The curtains were all wide open.  Staying close to the floor, I crept out into the hallway and down the stairs.  All the curtains were open on that floor, too.  Obviously, they were going to keep an eye on the house and see if I came back.  Great.  At least my bathroom didn’t have a window.  I crawled into the bathroom and curled up on the plush rug, glad I’d splurged on it.  I felt exhausted, but was no where near being able to fall asleep.  What was I supposed to do now?  I rolled over on my back and looked up at the ceiling.  If I was going to stay in the house I’d have to make some preparations for the evening.  They were probably watching from a distance, and as long as it was bright and sunny out they wouldn’t be able to see me unless I got very close to the windows.

I crawled out of the bathroom and opened up the cedar chest at the foot of the bed, pulling out the extra blankets and pillows.  I dragged those over to the closet and shoved the shoes out of the way, forming a comfortable nest.  Then I crept down to the kitchen and gathered up a bunch of food (okay, mostly cans of soda, crackers, and pop-tarts, because I needed things that wouldn’t go bad) which I stuck at the other end of the closet.  Last, but not least, I grabbed my hand-held television, a stack of books, and my knitting project and crawled back into the closet.  I tuned the television to the local news station and waited until they showed the story on the exploding building and house fire.

They didn’t have much in the way of information.  It seemed they hadn’t even made the link that the person who owned the house was the same as the person who ran the company.  Not surprising, since Jason had set up everything to run through several dummy corporations.  This is a wise move when you’re dealing in a business that is not strictly – okay, not remotely – legal.  For now all they could say is they had no leads but investigators were looking into it, blah, blah, blah.  I switched off the set and picked up the book on the top of the stack.  It held my interest for all of two pages before I found myself once again staring off into space, mind racing.  Mark was sort of right when he said Jason never told me anything important, but he was wrong in assuming that meant I didn’t know anything at all.  I was grateful for his erroneous leap in logic, though, since it was probably what was keeping me alive.  If he’d thought I had information, he’d have certainly torched the house.

What I did know was that Jason’s construction business was only part of the company.  A small part.  From what I’d been able to piece together, the company also dabbled in money laundering, illegal gambling dens and prostitution houses, and as a general disposal service.  It was the last that was the source of some friction lately, as one of the things that was supposed to have been ‘disposed’ of had surfaced.  Not, I have to admit, that it was Jason’s fault.  It was a freak sinkhole that had ruptured that house’s basement slab and exposed the bones.  On the up side, the company that had constructed that house had been a spin-off of the main corporation, with no financial ties (I believe, at the time, it was a charitable tax shelter for some freshly laundered money), so the feds still weren’t on to him.  They hadn’t even identified the body, but the people who’d paid him to dispose of it knew.  And they were a little angry that there might even be the slightest chance of its identity being discovered, even some 30-odd years later.

Now, of course, Jason has much better methods of disposing of bodies, but back then the old ‘buried in concrete’ was a classic.  They couldn’t afford the fancy machines that could efficiently reduce a corpse to dust.  But over the years, as business and profits grew, they found better and better ways of disposing of things… and more importantly, they also had legitimate uses for all of their equipment.  Nothing screams ‘I’m getting rid of a body’ more that an apartment dweller renting a chipper-shredder.  But a landscaping company that owns one, well, no one looks twice.  And once they’d found the perfect company front for the freeze-drying and sonic equipment, they were able to reduce a corpse to nothing but a pile of dust with no visible evidence (and no smoke to explain, as is the case with incinerators, plus the lack of ‘surprise inspections’ from the air quality people – there was a story once…).

I’d been very careful never to write any of my observations down.  No web site, no scrap of paper was safe enough when you’re dealing with information that could cost you your life.  I waffled with the double-edged sword that was ‘tell no one, and if you die, there are no clues’ and the ‘telling someone could cause your death’ and decided to come down on the side of ignorant, ditzy broad.  No one suspected I knew anything, and that was fine with me.  And I kept all of my information stored in my noggin.  Neatly filed away in the ‘need to know’ section.  My faked hearing loss and the perception that I barely knew how to operate a computer helped a lot, too.  The truth was I had annoyingly acute hearing, but a lack of attention.  And once people started to believe the fact that I had to say ‘huh?’ whenever they spoke to me was due to me not being able to hear them, I just rolled with it.  Plausible deniability, and the number of times I was able to say, ‘did I hear what?’ made up for people talking loudly and slowly.

I rested my head against the closet wall and picked up my knitting.  There was no way I was going to be able to concentrate on a book right now, even though escape would be welcome.  I needed to formulate a plan to get myself out of this mess.  First, though, I needed to find out if Jason was still alive.  That bit of information would make a world of difference.  He was the only one I felt any loyalty to, and if he was gone I’d have no problem spilling everything I knew about the company.  Okay, I’d have a little bit of a problem, because I really wasn’t sure the feds could protect me.   But all in all it was probably a better bet than trying to make a go of it on my own.  And if I could manage to leave the country, I might actually feel somewhat safe.

I spent the rest of the afternoon alternately musing about what country I’d like to move to and watching the television to see if there was any news.  As the sun set, I turned off all the lights and laid there in the darkness, listening for any sound that meant I had to hide.  every creak of the house made me jump, and once, as I was crawling to the bathroom, I saw a beam of light sweep across the front of the house.  I froze, suddenly realizing there was one thing I didn’t think of – what if they had planted cameras in the house?  Certainly they’d seen me crawling about, then, and knew I was here.  What were they waiting for?  I tried to placate myself by saying they weren’t in the house long enough to set up anything but the most obvious cameras, and I hadn’t seen anything.  Nothing looked out of place, and there were no new object that might be hiding a nanny cam. 

Still, I crawled back into the cold attic space, pulling my blankets with me, before I fell asleep.

 

Chapter Two
It’s a little known fact of physics that things can, indeed, suck and blow at the same time.

The next few days were both the most boring and the most stressful of my life.  Boring because there’s only so much sitting in a closet knitting that you can do before you start to go insane.  Stressful because I still expected the front door to fly open at any minute.  I tried not to let my imagination go too far as to what would happen after that, but once or twice it wandered too far.  Mostly it had to do with things like giant steel spikes, huge vats of boiling oil, and other known instruments of torture.  Once there was a scenario involving an espresso machine and a length of tulle, but it’s too horrible to recount.  On the up side, I did also finish four scarves, an afghan, and an assortment of socks.  If I survived this, I was in good shape for Christmas presents.  

The one question I couldn’t decide on a good answer to was the most important: how long were they likely to watch my house?  I hadn’t seen any more suspicious beams of light since that first night, but you never know.  And I needed to have some sort of plan for if I did flee.  I couldn’t very well just waltz down to the police station, could I?  Would they believe me?  Or would I run into the one rotten cop who’d turn me over to Mark and his cohorts?  Is that a chance I was willing to take?  I spent a good hour contemplating what my plan of attack would be as I soaked in the bathtub.  I finally decided on the path of least resistance.  I would tuck tail and run.  At least until things settled down and I could safely come back for my stuff.  If I ever could.  I sighed as I looked around the cozy little house.  I’d miss it, that’s for sure.  It was so perfectly me.  Sure, it was small, but how much room did I need?  All the mismatched furniture I’d collected at garage sales and thrift shops over the years added character.  Nothing matched, but that was okay.  It almost looked intentional.  Shabby Chic was all the rage, anyway.

I gathered up a collection of clothes and stuffed them into a cloth bag.  Contrary to what the deep voice had speculated, the lack of a suitcase in my closet didn’t mean I’d fled (well, obviously).  It meant I didn’t own a suitcase.  And the house hadn’t been tossed, I was neatness challenged – a condition I have never been so grateful for in my life.  When I needed it most, almost all of my essentials were scattered on the floor.  How’s that for justification?  I vowed to never beat myself up again for being a messy housekeeper.  If I survived this, the pessimistic part of my mind piped up.  I told it to go stuff itself and finished gathering up the things I’d need to…

That made me pause.  I’d decided that ‘getting the hell out’ was the correct course of action… the problem was, I still didn’t have a destination.  Where was I supposed to run to?  Who was I supposed to run to… when it all falls down?  Who’s going to pick my world up off of the ground?  Who… wait, now I was channeling song lyrics.  I was officially going batty, but what could I expect?  I had to be going a little stir-crazy, and I hadn’t had any fresh air in days.  I wonder if I had any interesting mail out in the mailbox…  I wondered if I could manage to sneak out and grab it, and then I needed to put in a stop mail order at the post office.  They could hold my mail until I came back.  I mentally shook myself.  This wasn’t a vacation.  Things like mail weren’t important.  Except I was waiting for that order from – no, even that wasn’t as important as my life.  I needed to prioritize.

I was lost in thought and chastising myself when I walked into the kitchen and stopped dead in my tracks.  There was a man I’d never seen before sitting casually at the kitchen table.  He smiled at me as I stood there, gaping at him.  Now, I know what you’re thinking.  He was gorgeous, and he’d come to save me, and even if he was a bad guy we’d live happily ever after, me in a mansion oblivious to the nefarious dealings of my man.  Sure, there would be some trouble and some misunderstanding, but we’d work it out.  And in a perfect world, maybe that would have happened.  Or maybe just if I was the perfect heroine it would have happened.  But as it was, not so much.  This is not to say I’m as ugly as the guy sitting at my table.  Frankly, I’ve seen moldy pork chops more appetizing than him.  I’m average and ordinary, trim and athletic but not model-slim.  Decent shoulder-length hair that tends to wave when it’s humid.  A decent package, but nothing stunning.  He, on the other hand, was truly amazing.  His squashed-in nose was lumpy and asymmetric, his ears looked like tufts of cauliflower, and his skin looked as if someone had shot him with a pellet gun and he’d never bothered to have the pellets removed.  His hair was lank and thinning, and from what I could tell he looked to be a bit short and portly.

“We thought you’d come back,” he said.  Then he smiled, and my stomach flipped over.  It wasn’t just the nasty yellow teeth he exposed, but the pure malice that oozed from that smile.  I backed up involuntarily, bumping into the counter and almost sending last week’s breakfast dishes crashing to the floor.  I put my hand out to steady them, and groped around.  No knife, but…

“Who are you?  What do you want?” I stammered, trying to buy myself some time.  My hand skittered over the piles of dishes, looking for something, anything, to defend myself.  Where’s a pot of scalding hot coffee when you need it?

“Don’t you no never mind, missy,” he growled.  He stood up slowly, pulling a snub-nosed revolver out of a shoulder holster.   “Shut up and let’s get in the car like a good girl.  You wouldn’t want me to get nasty, would you?”  He looked like he’d enjoy that.

“I just want to know who sent you, and where you’re taking me,” I said, hoping I sounded much braver than I felt.  “I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

“Why, are you going to leave a note?  Stop wasting my time, and let’s go.”

“Did Mark send you?”  I took a shot.  If I was wrong, it would be bad, really, really bad.  If I was right… well, it was still bad.

He considered for a moment.  “If it’ll make you cooperate, I’ll tell you.  Yes, Mark sent me, and no, I won’t tell you were we’re going.  Now, for the last time, let’s go.”  He motioned with the gun and stepped forward to grab my arm.  As he yanked, a pile of dishes tipped over and crashed to the floor.  He was momentarily distracted, his eyes shifting down to the shattered mess.  My hand found the handle of my grandma’s old cast-iron skillet and I swung it with all my might.  It connected with his head with a sickening thump and he crumpled to the ground.  I stood there, panting and shaking, still holding the skillet.  He didn’t move, and after a moment I reached down and gingerly extracted the revolver from his loosened grip.

He still appeared to be breathing, but a huge knot was rising on his head.  There wasn’t any blood, and for that I was thankful.  I’m not horridly squeamish, but I have white kitchen tiles and they’re a bitch to get clean.  I’d have been scrubbing microscopic specks of blood out of them for years.  The question was – now what?  He wasn’t dead, and I couldn’t bring myself to shoot him in cold blood.  On the other hand, he might be dying of a hemorrhage right now, and my not calling an ambulance would end up killing him.  An ambulance meant police, though, and I still wasn’t sure where I stood on that front.  And, honestly, besides the identity of that one long-dead corpse, I didn’t know enough to be of any interest.  The old expression ‘knowing just enough to be dangerous’ floated through my head.  I was just enough of a danger I had to be disposed of.

Suddenly I had a thought.  He’d said he was on his way to take me to Mark.  Who’s to say there wasn’t an accident along the way?  Or, preferably, maybe he had that accident on the way to find me…  Could I convincingly fake an accident?  I glanced out the window and saw his car in the drive – an old American muscle car, pre-airbag.  Perfect.  If I could pull this off, all those hours of watching ‘forensic detectives’ would be worth it.  I ran out to the garage and pulled out the Tyvex suit I’d bought to re-insulate the attic.  I pulled it on over my clothes, then added a shower cap (pilfered from a hotel) and some latex gloves.  I gingerly pulled the keys out of his pocket, grabbed my own keys, and ran out to switch his car with mine, so I could drag his body to the car in the privacy of the garage.  I made a carful note of how far I moved the seat in order to drive it, and the falling dusk shielded me from curious neighborhood eyes.  Not that we had much in the way of nosey neighbors, honestly.  Edith, who’d lived three doors down, had been dead for a month before anyone realized we hadn’t seen her in awhile.  Depressing under most circumstances, but rather heartening at the moment.

Pulling his body from the kitchen floor to the car was a Herculean task.  I winced as I stretched strained back muscles.  I was certainly going to pay for this later, but at least he was in the car, though listing lifelessly in the passenger’s seat.  I momentarily thought about tying his hands, but that would leave forensic evidence, and I couldn’t afford that.  I sent up a prayer to the iron-skillet gods that the hit had been hard enough, then drove his car up a small, steep side road that led from town to my small subdivision.  It’s not the most common way for people to enter the area, but it’s plausible that he either desired the winding road for the muscle car or just missed the first exit, and decided on this route rather than turning around.  I reached the top of the hill and faced the next hurdle.  How did I manage this?

I was thankful the car was an automatic, at least.  Had Plug Face been a purist, and had a stick-shift, it would have been much more difficult.  I popped the trunk and rummaged around, finding tools, some chunks of cinderblock, a bag on cement, and several lengths of rope.  These boys were certainly old-school.  I sighed and set to work.  Of course, this whole operation would go south if anyone drove by, but it was late enough that everyone was home from work, so there was a chance the road would remain deserted.  I heaved him into the driver’s seat and positioned him in a pseudo-driving position.  Using one of the ropes I positioned a cinderblock over the gas and one over the brake.  I started the car, letting the brake rope go slack.  The car stayed put.  I reached through the open window and aimed the steering wheel in a way that I was hopeful it’d hit the big oak tree.  Then, frowning, I readjusted it to crash into the headwall of the pipe leading out of the drainage ditch, tying off the ropes holding it in place.  The tree hadn’t hurt anyone, and I didn’t want to risk damaging it.  Holding my breath, I untied the rope holding the block over the gas and eased it down.  The motor revved and the car strained against the brake.  I yanked on the rope holding the cinderblock on the brake, and the car took off.  It sped down the road and crashed right into the concrete wall.  I caught myself jumping up and down squealing in delight – not at the fact that I might have just killed a man (again) but just out of joy that my plan had actually worked.

I hurried down the road and removed the ropes and cinderblock from the car, careful not to disturb the body.  This time there was a fair amount of blood, as his head had cracked the windshield.  I popped the trunk and replaced them.  I almost turned off the car, but caught myself in time.  An unconscious man wouldn’t be able to turn off the car.  If he was just unconscious and not dead.  There was a lot of blood, and I hadn’t seen him move.  But I couldn’t risk shifting him to check.  He was perfectly positioned as if he’d crashed.  Well, he had, actually.  Just not-

My musing was cut short by the sound of a car engine.  I sprinted off the road and into the woods, scrambling down a small embankment.  I crouched there for a minute, listening to the sounds of a car stopping and someone getting out.  Suddenly the night was filled with red and blue flashing lights.  My legs trembled as I realized that, by some weird quirk, coincidence, or because the universe conspired against me, the first car to come down that road was a cop car.  Suddenly I wished I’d done things differently.  Maybe I should have stayed in the car, pretended like he’d picked me up and then we’d had the accident.  And I could have had amnesia!  Not that I could have convincingly faked being in the accident, and I hadn’t been about to actually run into the culvert for real.  Besides, I reasoned, they’d still come after me, because the doctors would say the amnesia could be temporary and I might remember at any time.

I shifted my position, trying to not make any noise.  I strained to hear the officer talking into his radio, but I couldn’t make out any of the individual words.  Just a low rumbling sound, and periodic high-pitched squawks coming from the other side.  Peering into the darkness around me, I could make out a dry ravine that ran parallel to the road.  If I was careful and quiet, I could work my way down it and get back home in a few hours.   And then what?

I considered my next move as I worked my way in the direction of my house.  It was slow going.  The night was cloudless, but the moon was only half-full and very little light filtered down through the trees.  As much as I wanted to climb out of the brush and walk along the road, I figured it wasn’t the smarted move to be seen walking away from a car accident on a lonely stretch of road.  It wouldn’t take even the dumbest cop a second to put that together.  And there was no way I could explain it now.  I slipped in a patch of mud and went down hard on my tailbone.  I winced, and as I rolled over I felt my Tyvex suit rip along the butt seam.  Nothing was well-made, anymore.  Ah well, at least it kept most of the mud and gunk off of me.  And hopefully kept all of my cells neatly contained away from the crime scene.  I pulled off the gloves, the suit, and the shower cap, shivering in the cool night air.  I rolled them into a neat bundle and considered ditching them, but thought better of it.  If – no, when – someone found them, it’d be easy enough to link them to me and the car.  Best to dispose of them properly.  No one will think of looking though my trash for evidence to connect me to some random car accident I have nothing to do with.  Except maybe Mark.  Okay, my neighbor’s trash can, then.

By the time I reached the edge of the subdivision, I was exhausted.  It was only a three or four mile walk, but most of it had been through the trees on very uneven ground, and my nerves were strung tighter than piano wire.  I’d heard several cop cars, and presumably an ambulance, go by and each time I’d stopped and held my breath, as if they would suddenly plunge into the undergrowth to find me.  There couldn’t be any way I’d actually get away with it, I told myself.  I’m sure there was something I missed, something a seasoned investigator would see and say ‘ah, but it is not an accident!’  Or, perhaps, I watch too much Agatha Christie.  Maybe, just maybe, the overworked police force would see that a not-so-fine, not-so-upstanding citizen rammed his car into a ditch and call it a day.  Maybe.

I clung to that hope as I hopped a low row of hedges and plunged the crumpled suit, gloves, and shower cap into my neighbor’s trash can.  The garbage pickup was an automated affair, the kind where a mechanical arm reaches out from a truck and dumps the entire can into the open side of the truck.  The driver never even gets out unless there’s a problem.  And I couldn’t imagine my neighbors, with their new baby and garbage can full of delightful-smelling diapers, ever digging through their own trash can. 

Everything was as I’d left it in the house, which was a heartening sign.  I put the car back in the garage and closed it up, then cleaned up the broken dishes in the kitchen.  Barely able to stay awake, I made sure the house was locked up (though obviously, they had a way to get in if they wanted), took a quick shower, and crawled into my attic space to sleep.

Chapter Three
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again

I didn’t sleep well that night.  I’d like to think it might have been that my conscience was bothering me over the fact that I might have killed a man, but to be honest, I think I was more worried that I hadn’t.  If I hadn’t killed him, and he told Mark what happened…  would they assume I would have run by now, or would they be back?  I’d love to run and hide, if I had anywhere to go.  Where was the batty old uncle who died and left me a deserted cabin in the woods when I needed him?  Why didn’t I have any crackpot survivalist no-ties-to-the-outside-world relatives I could stay with?  Where was that wardrobe that led to Narnia?

By the time I dragged myself out of my hidey-hole I was hungry, cranky, and stiff.  I was too old to sleep on the floor, no matter how many blankets I piled under me.  Stretching and groaning, I made my way down to the kitchen and set about making myself some breakfast.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a clean pan anywhere.  With a sigh, I set about cleaning up the pit that was my kitchen.  As I worked, I found my tension easing somewhat.  I resisted the urge to turn on the television and see if there was any news about the car crash.  There wasn’t anything I could do about it, and concentrating on the small, trivial tasks at hand managed to distract my mind from the bigger problems.  I washed all of the dishes, made myself breakfast, washed dishes again, wiped down the counter, and ran a load of kitchen towels and rags in the washer.  I sorted through a stack of mail, throwing away ninety percent of it and setting the rest into two piles: pay and file.  Then I decided to tackle the dreaded junk drawer.  Why not?  I was on a roll.  I pulled it out and upended it on the countertop.  A mishmash of pens, coins, paper, and weird plastic bits rolled and bounced around the counter.  I started by sorting the like objects and trying to weed out as much as I could to toss.  Ancient superglue tube?  Toss.  Cash receipt from Clucker’s Chicken dated five years ago?  Toss.  Twenty-five pens that no longer write?  Toss.  Weird piece of plastic that looks like it might be important but I don’t have the faintest clue what it is?  Set it on the counter and stare at it, willing it to tell me what it is.

An hour later I had a mostly empty, neatly organized junk drawer, if I could even call it that now.  I was feeling proud of myself, but also somewhat weird.  Neat was just not me.  Maybe I should stick to things that even I think should be clean, like laundry, bathrooms, and… oh, the refrigerator.   I eased over to it and opened the door.  Piles of half-filed plastic storage containers stared back at me.  I cringed as I tried to remember what might be in each one.  I mentally weighed the option of just tossing them and buying new, remembered that I may no longer have a job, and filled the sink with hot, soapy bleach water.  I double-bagged the kitchen garbage can and set to work emptying the contents of the refrigerator.  Something that looked like moldy brains was surprisingly pleasant smelling, though I had no idea what it had been.  The lumps I thought had once been cantaloupe, on the other hand, made my eyes water.  And so on.  It was pretty much what I expected, until I came to the vegetable drawer.  The liquefied cucumber was less of a surprise than the pair of knitting needles I found there.

I started at them, trying to conjure up any circumstance or reason I would have had to set that short, pink pair of size 11 needles in the vegetable drawer.  I’ve been accused of being a little scatter-brained at times, but this went beyond that.  This was truly bizarre.  With a shrug, I twisted my hair up into a bun and shoved the knitting needles through it to hold it in place.  I dragged myself over to the pile of foul-smelling and stained plastic containers and set to work.  By the time I’d scrubbed, bleached, washed, dried and put away all of the containers my fingers had gone all pruney.  And they had that weird slippery feeling you get when you work with bleach for a long time.  I should wear gloves, I know, but I never feel like I have a good grip on the dishes when I wear rubber gloves.  And while dropping and breaking plastic containers isn’t an issue, you can’t really feel how squeaky clean they are through rubber gloves.  I sighed over the state of my poor nails, then went back to scrubbing out the inside of the refrigerator, including all of the drawers and shelves, and in an hour I had a sparking, fresh, and almost completely empty fridge.  Once I’d gotten rid of all the moldy leftovers and things past their expiration date, there wasn’t much left.  It looked like a bachelor’s refrigerator, only I didn’t have any beer.  I was still standing by the open door of the fridge when the back door flew open.

I jumped and cursed myself for not paying attention.  Why hadn’t I heard the car pull up outside?  I tried to run but a burly man dressed all in black managed to snag my arm and yank me back.  He pulled me away from the kitchen knives, I noticed, and then for some reason my brain fixated on the fact that he was wearing all black, and yet it was the middle of the day.  It wasn’t like he’d blend in.  What would you wear to creep around in broad daylight?  Floral prints?  Grass-colored clothing?  Yellow?  My mind spun on that absurd fact before it settled into the rationalization that all bad guys wear black, and that was that.  If it wasn’t to creep around in the dark ninja-style, it must be for the intimidation factor.  And, I had to admit, it worked.  I was intimidated as all hell, and there wasn’t a frying pan in sight.  That’s what I get for cleaning, I told myself.

He pulled me towards the back door, which I noticed had not been forced.  So they had keys to my place.  Time to change the locks, if I got out of this alive.  I grabbed onto the doorframe in the kitchen and a frantic game of tug-of-war commenced.  He, trying to drag me through the back room and out the door, and me, clinging to the doorframe for dear life.  This went on for several moments, and I could feel the ends of my fingers starting to go numb.  My arms started to shake with the strain.  Suddenly, he let go, and I overcompensated and flung myself into the kitchen.  I stumbled, and went down.  He was on me in a flash, straddling me and pinning me to the floor.  I did the only thing I could – I went limp.

He grinned down at me.  “There’s a good girl, it’s no use struggling.  You’ll only make it more painful.” 

I looked at him closely.  He was completely non-descript.  Not ugly, not good-looking, just… completely bland.  The kind of face you could pass a million times and never notice.  The perfect face for an assassin.  My stomach flipped and I had to quickly reason with myself.  If they wanted me dead, they’d have killed me already.  They wanted something else, but what?  There was only one way to find out, and I might as well go for it.  “What the hell do you guys want?”

The minute the words were out of my mouth I realized I’d made a mistake.  I’d just as much admitted knowing about the other guy.  The guy who was never supposed to have gotten to my house.  I could only hope he wasn’t bright enough to pick up on my faux pas.  But it seems I got sent the bright assassin, because I saw the shift behind his eyes as he realized what I’d unwittingly said.  I tried not to, but I started squirming uncomfortably.  His hand closed about my throat and he squeezed gently.  Not enough pressure to choke me, but hard enough that it was clear he could hurt me if he really wanted to.

“I told them it was too coincidental that Frank was conveniently killed in a car accident.  You’re good.  Did you work on the assassin team and just use the brainless office bimbo role as a cover?  Is that why Mark is so eager to talk to you?”  His eyes were cold, emotionless, but there was a slight tremor in his voice.  Was he afraid I was being brought in to take his job?  Seriously?

“No!  No!  Nothing like that.  I’ve never killed anyone,” I protested.

“Except Frank,” he said coldly.  Well, that answered that question.  At least I didn’t have to worry about him blabbing.  “How did you manage to make him wreck and escape unscathed?”

Ah, so mister know-it-all hadn’t figured out everything.  And if he didn’t, with his suspicions, maybe the police would just chalk it up to an accident.  Maybe I’d gotten away with murder after all.  I wasn’t sure if I should be horrified or pleased, but I was pretty sure both emotions should take a back seat to the panic that was rising as I realized the pressure on my throat was increasing ever so slightly.

“Professional secret.”  It was out of my mouth before I could stop myself.  What kind of an idiot eggs on a professional killer?  Me, apparently.  Every time I think I can’t get more stupid, I manage to surprise myself.

“You bitch,” he snarled.  Any pretense at a cool demeanor was long gone.  I’m guessing Frank was a friend of his, or at least the closest thing that passes for a friend when you work in that business.  “I don’t care what Mark wants, this ends now.  Put up a bit of a struggle, would you, so it looks like I didn’t have a choice.”

Suddenly his hands were crushing my throat, and I couldn’t breathe.  I tried to pry his hands away from my neck, but it was a futile effort.  In my flailing, one hand hit the floor next to my head and I felt something poke me.  The knitting needles.  In a swift motion I yanked one out of my hair, flipped it around in my hand, and stabbed it into his left eye.  Under normal circumstances, there probably would have been a moment in there where I steadied myself and took a deep breath, but current circumstances prevented that.  He howled and lurched back, releasing my neck.  I gulped in sweet, sweet air.  I kicked at him, and he flopped about, grabbing for the needle still sticking out of his eye.  I kicked again, and he rose to his knees, pivoted and crashed into the wall.  Then he crumpled and was still.

Shaking, I crawled over to him and poked his shoulder.  He didn’t move.  I heaved him over and saw that the needle was now buried all the way into his head, with just the wide metal disk at the bottom showing in his eye socket.  He must have driven it all the way through his brain when he hit the wall.  I checked for a pulse, but there was none.  The angle of the needle probably meant it went right into his brain stem, killing him instantly.  And yet, again, there was surprisingly little mess.  Well, other than a body that needed to be disposed of.  And there was no way to make this look like an accident.  You don’t find that ‘knitting needle fatalities’ have their own section in the morbidity and mortality report by the CDC.  I’m guessing they are fairly uncommon.

That left me with hiding the body.  Thanks to my eavesdropping skills, I knew of quite a few ways.  Unfortunately, most of them required specialized equipment or an open construction site.  I have neither of those.  This would take some creativity.  I rolled the corpse onto his back and placed a plastic garbage bag under his head to catch any leakage.  I gingerly tugged the knitting needle out of his eye socket and carried it over to the sink.  I rinsed off the debris – I refused to think about what it was – and then filled the sink with more hot, soapy bleach water.  I dropped the knitting needle in to soak, thankful it was an aluminum one and not a bamboo set.  Then I went to the front of the house and peered out at the driveway.  There was a motorcycle up near my garage.  He must have cut the motor further down the street and wheeled it up to the house, and that’s why I didn’t hear him.  I went out, opened the garage, and stowed the motorcycle.  Then I went back into the house to think of a way out of this.

By mid-afternoon I was still clueless as to the disposal of the body, but all of my laundry was clean and folded, and the bathroom counter was spotless.  People trying to kill you might be stressful, but it was at least getting me a clean house.  Still, I needed to stop ignoring the body in the kitchen and come up with a plan.  And, being exactly the kind of stereotypical girl that people hate, this meant I needed to go shopping.  Just walking into a craft or book story and breathing in the atmosphere would inspire me, I was sure.  I dragged the body out to the trunk of my car (I didn’t want to risk another hit man being sent and find him there!) and drove off to my local craft center.  Since I’d spent several days knitting I was low on yarn, anyway.

The parking lot was packed, and by the time I found a parking space my nerves were shot.  Well, more than they already were with the whole death hanging over my head deal.  I pushed my way through a crowd on the sidewalk to try to reach the front door, but a voice called out to me to stop.  I turned, and there stood a short, disheveled man with a clipboard waving wildly at me.

“You!  You in the purple shirt!  With the long red hair!  Yes, you!”  He waved his hands in the universal ‘come here’ motion, so with a sigh I gave up trying to push my way through the throng and walked over to him.

“Yes?” I said frostily.  All I wanted was to surround myself in yarn, glorious, yarn, right now.  I could feel it calling to me from inside the store.

“Look, how would you like to make a few hundred bucks this evening?”  He looked at me earnestly, but without leering, so I made a guess this wasn’t about being an ‘escort’.

“Doing…?”  I let the question trail off and raised an eyebrow.  My fingers began to itch, and the tug of the nearby yarn grew stronger.

He frowned.  “Movie shoot,” he said, as if it was so perfectly obvious.  He waved a hand at the crowd, and for the first time I looked past them and saw the lighting, cameras, and actors.  No wonder people were sneaking up on me left and right.  Observant am I.

“And I would…?”  Again I let the question trail off.  It seemed too much of an effort to finish a sentence.  I needed retail therapy, and I needed it now.  I think two kills entitles me to a few skeins of yarn – and not jus the bargain-bin stuff, but the luxurious expensive stuff that I can never justify buying.

“Sorry, sorry, I’m so frazzled right now.  We just had a minor character quit, and you look just like her – at least from the back.  We just need to shoot one more quick scene, and it’s not even a close-up, so you’d be perfect.  It’s…”  Here he paused for a moment, considering.  “Do you like horror movies?”

I shrugged.  “They’re okay.  Probably not my favorite genre, but some of them are pretty good.”

“Well, we’re shooting an action-horror-spy-thriller, and the part we need you to play… well, it won’t be pretty.  I just need to know if you’d object to some blood-and-guts.”

I thought back over the last two day.  “No, can’t say I would.”

“Great.  Look, this is the scene in a nutshell.  You’ll be a pizza delivery person who’s disposing of a body.  We’ve dug a whopping great bit ‘mine shaft’ out in the field, and you’ll drag the body from the trunk of your car and toss it over the edge.  Then you toss in a bomb – not a real one – and we detonate some minor explosives as you’re walking away.  There’s a chance you’ll get sprayed with some blood and guts, because we’re using some animal carcasses to make it more realistic.”  He looked hopeful.  “Since we’re just filming from a distance, I don’t think the audience will be able to tell you from the girl we filmed in the close-up kill scenes.  And I won’t lose my job for losing her and making us re-film all those parts with a new actress.  What do you say?  A thousand bucks, two, maybe three hours of work tops.”

I considered, my heart pounding hard.  If I could pull this off…  “Cash, and my name is nowhere on the movie, and you have a deal.”

He grinned, obviously very relieved.  “Deal.”  He stuck out his hand, we shook, and he gave me the time and directions to the shoot that evening.  I went into the yarn store and spent $100 on the most luxurious yarn they had.

Chapter Four
Never look a gift horse in the mouth (unless you’re a gift horse dentist) – they bite!

I drove past the movie site on my way home, but there was far too much activity to sneak the body down to the shaft now.  They were still busy landscaping the area to make it look like an abandoned mine.  A little barbed wire here, a sign there, and plenty of nasty, jagged rocks.  I’d have to go with plan B, which was risky as all hell but probably my best shot.  I’d just have to hope luck stayed on my side.  If I had a personal lady luck, I thought, she certainly had a twisted sense of humor.

There was one other stop I made on the way home, and that was the hardware store.  I picked up some new locks, and the first thing I did when I got home was replaced the locks on the front door, the back door, and the door leading out to the garage.  Sure, they’d know I did it once they tried their key, but I was betting that having a second person not able to retrieve me would be tip-off enough.  Even Mark wasn’t stupid enough to write that off as a coincidence, especially after guy number two tried to convince him that guy number one didn’t really have an accident. 

Once I got home and changed all the locks, I settled in for an afternoon of TV and knitting.  The yarn was heaven, and I found myself relaxing with each stitch.  I almost dozed off, but caught myself.  It wouldn’t due to be late for the shoot, especially since I’d already spent part of the money!  Oh, and it might be the one chance I have to get rid of the dead guy in my trunk.  My stomach twisted as I thought about all that could go wrong tonight, but I firmly refused to think about it.  I’d make it work.

And, believe it or not, it was much easier than I’d dared to hope it would be.  When I got to the set, I pulled my car into the lot next to a beat-up Crown Victoria.  It was getting very dark, and this part of the lot wasn’t well lit.  I wandered over to the guy I’d met earlier in the day to check in.

“Substitute actress, reporting for duty!” I said cheerily.

He let out a huge sigh of relief.  “Thank goodness.  Look, we’re a little short-handed right now, the other scene is running over and we really need to get this shot tonight.  We only have permission to have that hole open today, so we need to film it fast and get the construction people to fill it back in.  Evidently they consider it too much of a hazard, you know, kid falls in and sues.  So if you could run over to wardrobe, then props, and put the dummy in the trunk of the car?”  He handed me a set of keys.  “It’s the old rusty Crown Vic in the parking lot.  Can’t miss it.” 

I took the keys from him and nodded.  This really couldn’t get any better.  Yes, I was extremely lucky, I suppose, but I was only in this situation because someone was trying to kidnap or kill me, which isn’t particularly lucky.  So maybe it was just a wash, and this was the universe’s way of leveling the playing field.  I certainly wasn’t going to question it.

I trotted over to the wardrobe tent, where they outfitted me with some generic-looking pizza deliver garb.  The pants were a little tight in the thighs, but overall the fit wasn’t too bad.  They brushed and styled my hair and applied nine billion tons of make-up to my face.  I questioned this, since there wasn’t supposed to be any real shots of my face, but the stylist just shrugged.  “We always do it,” she said.  I sighed and sat back, letting her put the twentieth coat of mascara on my eyelashes.  At this rate, no one would recognize me even if they did have a close-up of my face.

After getting all dolled up, I made my way over to the prop tent.  The guy working there looked incredibly frazzled and out of sorts, and snapped at me when I requested the dummy.  “I don’t have time to put it in the trunk right now, we’re still working on the signs for the car.”

“What signs?” I asked.

“The pizza delivery signs,” he said in a snotty tone, as if I should have known.  Then he took a second look.  “Oh, you’re the stand-in.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Look, I can-”

He cut me off.  “The signs they originally had with the made-up pizza chain name turned out not to be so made up,” he hurriedly explained.  As if I cared who was to blame for the hold-up.  “So we needed to change them at the last minute, and we’re still working on it.  They should be done in ten or fifteen minutes, at least, done enough.  We’re going to have to re-film a few of the scenes with the car, but that’s no big deal.  We can have anyone drive it then, and CGI any times where it shows up in the background, if we have to.”

“Look, I can put the dummy in the trunk.  I’d like to practice pulling it out a few times, anyway, to make sure I don’t mess up the shoot.”  I thought it sounded like a perfectly plausible explanation, and, come to think of it, was probably a really good idea.  I couldn’t have someone coming up to me during the shoot and notice that the dummy was startlingly life-like.  Or, rather, dead-like.  And I’d like to make sure I could heave a dead body out of the trunk gracefully.  I winced as I remembered my clumsy attempts to get him into the trunk.  That wouldn’t do.  This plan wasn’t going to work if I couldn’t muster up the strength.

“Don’t make it look too easy,” a voice said behind me.  I turned to see a small woman holding a clipboard.  She had a pair or reading glasses perched on top of an unruly mass of hair, and looked very tired.

“What?”  I asked stupidly.

“Don’t make it look too easy.  This isn’t a superhero movie, your character is a normal person.  She should struggle with it a bit.  And the dummy is a good deal lighter than a real person, so make sure you act like it’s pretty heavy.”

This was getting better and better.  “Will do.”  I nodded my thanks and she wandered off.  The prop guy nodded towards the trailer, and I wandered over to pick up my dummy.  He was easy enough to find, propped up in a corner on a stool.  I grabbed him by the waist and hoisted him up to my shoulder.  The woman was right, he was light.  I would have had a hard time pretending he was as heavy as a real body.  But I was glad he was light as I made the long trek out to the car.  It’d been a long day, and I wasn’t used to being that busy.  All that cleaning had worn me out, especially on top of all the stress I’d been under for the last week.

Once I got to the back of the car it was quick work to switch out the clothes on the dummy.  Quick, but not easy or stress-free.  I was acutely aware that at any second someone could come up and see what I was doing.  And really, there would be no way of talking my way out of that.  But everyone was so busy with the last-minute changes that they left me alone.  The clothes didn’t really fit the dead guy, but I figured no one would notice since I was going to be manhandling him and they’d be all bunched up.  The shoes were the only part I was worried about.  Everything was too big, which made it easy to get on, but I was worried the shoes were too loose and would come off.  The shoe laces were too short to tie around his ankles, so I just cinched them down as tightly as I could and hoped for the best.   I dumped the naked dummy and the dead guy’s clothes in my trunk, then heaved the dead guy into the trunk of the movie car.  Hands shaking, I got in and drove to the movie set.

Mr. Clip Board was there to meet me, and gave me the same set of instructions Ms. Clip Board had – don’t make it look too easy, struggle a bit, all that good stuff.  Got to make it look real, blah blah blah.  I was only half listening, my eyes fixed on the giant hole in the ground, and the distance between where I was supposed to park the car and where I needed to heave the body.  It looked to be about 20 feet.  But I was willing to bet it’d be the longest, most nerve-wracking 20 feet I’d ever dragged a body.  Since this time, it was going to be in front of an audience.  Not only that, it was being recorded.  There was going to be a record of it.  I started to panic, and I took deep breaths.  They didn’t know my name.  I doubt they’d recognize me.  I was probably going to have to move to New Zealand, anyway, since I doubted Mark would ever give up.  It would be okay.

A megaphone-enhanced voice squawked, telling us they were ready to start filming.  I got in the car and started it.  My hands were still shaking.  Taking a deep breath, I drove to the mark and put the car in park.  I popped the trunk and got out of the car with what I hoped was nonchalance.  I lifted the lid of the trunk and reached inside, sliding my hands under the body, bunching up the clothes.  I heaved once, and he came up and out of the trunk.  Unfortunately, I lost my grip and he tumbled to the ground.  Luckily, he at least landed face-down.  I hadn’t thought about the consequences of the camera catching his face.  But then, I wasn’t supposed to have dropped him.  I quickly struck what I hoped was an exasperated pose and reached under his arms to drag him, his face pressing rather uncomfortably into my boobs.  It was slow going, and at any minute I expected to hear a voice yelling ‘cut!’  But it never came.  I dragged him to the edge of the pit and dropped him.  Then, with what I hoped was poise, I used one foot to shove him over the edge.  As I turned, I noticed one of the shoes had pulled off and was snagged on a piece of barbed wire.  I wandered over to it, leaned down and picked it up, and chucked it into the hole after the body.  Then I strolled back over to the car, pulled the fake flare out of the trunk, lit it, and chucked it into the hole.  There was a giant ‘whoosh’ as I got into the car, and blood rained down on the windshield.  I drove off the set, then heard a voice yell ‘cut!’.

I hopped out of the car as Mr. Clip Board ran over to me, his face shining.  “Perfect!  That was perfect!  You are a natural.  Ever thought of being a stunt person?  I can’t believe how realistic and heavy you made him look!  How did you manage that?”

I thought quickly.  “Well, I did a whole bunch of quick exercises as I was putting him into the trunk.  I did push-ups until my arms felt like they were going to fall off, and then some lunges and crunches.  My whole body felt all weak and wobbly.  So, in essence, dragging the dummy felt just like dragging a real body, because I was exhausted.”  It sounded plausible to me, and he seemed to agree.

“Brilliant!  That was good thinking.  If you want to return the clothes to wardrobe and get cleaned up, then come see me and I’ll give you your money.  I need to go get it from Melinda.”  Without waiting for an answer from me, he turned and scurried off. 

I returned the car to the parking lot, took a quick shower and changed back into my clothes.  Then I returned the clothes and car keys to the prop trailer and went in search of Mr. Clip Board.  In the back of my mind was the worry that he’d try to stiff me, but it turned out that this once, my fears were in vain.  He pressed an envelope full of cash into my hand along with his business card, telling me to call him if I wanted to work again.  They always had to have stand-ins, and I was perfect for most of them, especially since I hadn’t been at all squeamish.  I thanked him, and got in my car and to drive home.  I was looking forward to a nice, long night’s sleep.  As I drove off the set, the construction equipment was already moving in and filling in the hole.  I breathed a sigh of relief as the first bucket of dirt covered the corpse.

My relief was short-lived, though, because as I drove up my street I noticed a car parked outside my house.  There was a darkened figure on my front porch, trying to blend back into the bushes.  Without slowing, I drove down to the end of the street and turned, parking one street over.  I dug into my purse and pulled out my cell phone.  I’d never called the police before, but a paranoid friend of mine had put the local police department’s phone number in my phone after I admitted I might have a hard time calling nine-one-one unless someone was on fire or bleeding to death.  I always figured they’d scoff and yell at me if it wasn’t a big enough emergency.  I silently thanked her for her foresight as I scrolled down the list of numbers and called the police department.

“Hi, yes, I was out walking my dog and there’s a suspicious man hanging around my neighbor’s front porch,” I told the officer who answered the phone.  “I think she’s out-of-town, I haven’t seen her in a few days, and it’s creepy that he’s just sitting there.  The car doesn’t look familiar, not like any of her friends I’ve met.  Maybe I’m just over-reacting, but it just feels wrong, you know?”  I gave him the address, and he agreed to send someone to talk to the guy. 

I got out of the car and crept between the houses until I could see my front porch.  There was a bit of irony in the fact that I was now lurking, as well, but I dismissed it because my intentions were not nefarious.  I didn’t mean anyone harm.  Or, at least, I didn’t mean anyone who was innocent harm.  I’m sure if I got my hands on Mark there would be some harm done.  I let my mind drift to the last day I spent at the office, trying to figure out if there had been some indicator, something that had gone wrong or seemed off.  Something my subconscious was aware of when it told me to call in that Monday morning.  There had to be something… but I couldn’t think of a single thing.  It had been business as usual, at least for a Friday.  The office had been slow, we were all laid-back and joking, talking about the weekend.  Everything had seemed perfectly normal.

My attention was drawn back to the present when a cop car pulled up to my front porch.  I strained to hear the exchange in the quiet evening air, but could only make out fragments.

“Sir!” the cop said loudly as he got out of the car.  “We got a report …suspicious… so what… explain…”  His voice trailed off as he approached the porch.

The man stood up and walked out to meet the cop.  In the illumination from the street lights I could see that he was in his mid-30s, tall, dark… and, yes, I sighed, handsome.  This is a villain I didn’t want to kill.  All bad men should be ugly.  That’s the rule.  The hero has to be handsome.  But then, I mused, there were plenty of good-looking bad guys, and girls fell for them all the time.  Maybe he wasn’t that bad of a bad guy.  I mean, technically, I worked for bad guys, and I didn’t really think of them as bad, not really.  And, now that I’d killed two people, didn’t that make me a bad guy?  Do two villains ever get together?  Because…  my attention broke off as the man and the cop headed towards the cop car.  I could pick up fragments of the conversation again.

“…worried about… you heard… explosion…,” the man was saying.

The cop nodded.  “Neighbor hadn’t… vacation… we’ll check.”

“Thanks, I’m just… call me if…”  The man handed the cop a card, and stood back as the cop got in the car and drove off.  He stared out into the darkness, searching.  But he never looked quite far enough to see me, if he could have, crouched as I was in the bushes.  I scooted further back into the shadows, though, just in case.  He finally walked back to the porch and settled back down to wait.  I stifled a yawn.  Now what was I supposed to do?  I was tired and I wanted to go to sleep.  I crept back to my car and gathered up my stuff.  Then I walked around the block and slipped over my neighbor’s fence and into my back yard, carefully and quietly unlocking and opening the back door.  I slipped inside, relocked the door, and, without turning on any lights, made my way upstairs.  I quickly changed into my nightgown (in my case, an old oversized t-shirt) and slipped into bed.  I chuckled as I thought of the man freezing out on the porch and then I fell fast asleep.

Chapter Five
Is that a .45 semi-automatic in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

The first thing that struck me the next morning was how warm it was.  Sure, I’d put on the down comforter, but it shouldn’t be this warm… or heavy.  So very, very heavy.  Or smell so funny.  Kind of… coppery.  Like…

“Oh my god!” I screeched as I bolted upright, sending the body tumbling off me.  It rolled over and oozed on the bed next to me, a kitchen knife sticking out of its back.  I scurried off the bed and stood looking down at my ruined comforter.  Oddly, I was almost more upset about that than I was about the corpse on the bed.  That comforter had cost me $300, and it’d taken me months to find a duvet cover I liked.  At least the killer had left the knife in the guy, so he hadn’t bled out enough to go through the comforter and into the sheets, but to be on the safe side I went down to the kitchen and gathered up some trash bags and tape, made a tarp, and rolled the body off the bed and onto the plastic.  There was no doubt there’d be forensic evidence on this body, and the chances of me landing another convenient pizza delivery spy role were slim.  Figures I’d have the most problems with the body I didn’t kill.

That sent a chill through me.  I didn’t kill him, so whoever did had access to my house.  Even with the changed locks.  Of course, this guy got in too, so…  I squatted down to study his face.  He didn’t look familiar at all.  He was bland in the same way as corpse number two was, nothing really striking about him.  There was an empty gun holster under his left arm.  I fished around in his pants pockets and came up with a wallet and keys.  The address on the driver’s license was only a few blocks from my own.  I peeked out the window, but there was no car in my driveway and I didn’t see anyone lurking around the front door.  Still, can’t be too careful.  I wrapped the dead guy – Steve, his license said – in the plastic and taped it up, then carefully shoved him into the hidden attic space.  I put the comforter and duvet into the washer, loaded it with soap, and set it on the white cycle.  I’d dry it with some tennis balls in the dryer, and, sure, the feathers would never be the same, but since I was just going to dump it at the Goodwill, I didn’t care.  The kitchen knife I’d pulled out I set to soak in some soapy bleach water in the sink.  Another thing that would find its way to a charity shop, though not the same one and not on the same day.  Can’t be too careful.

I took a shower and dressed in some bulky clothes, glad it was winter and I wouldn’t look out of place with the scarf wrapped around my face, concealing my identity.  I walked the few blocks over to the house on the license and knocked on the door.  No answer.  I tried the keys, and the second one opened the door.  I didn’t know what I expected to see, but I wasn’t surprised by the sparse interior.  There was hardly any furniture at all, just a desk and chair in the living room, and a bed and nightstand in the bedroom.  A few articles of clothing hung in the closet, and there were a few toiletries in the bathroom, but nothing personal.  The kitchen contained only a few dishes and a smattering of food.  It was obvious that it was either not the main place of residence, or the person who lived here didn’t care about comforts of any kind.  The garage contained a non-descript four-door sedan, again, nothing memorable or interesting.  I closed and locked the house, walked to my car, and drove it home.  I still needed to finish cleaning up.

I washed the sheets, because even though they hadn’t gotten bloody I still felt creepy about it.  I also fished out an old comforter, washed it and re-made the bed.  Standing and looking at the bedroom you’d never guess there was a dead guy in the attic.  I also finished cleaning the knife, and put it and the rest of the set in a box to donate.  Then I went around the kitchen and tossed in other bits and pieces I never used.  In the end, I easily filled that box and another.  On the up side, even though I was being stalked and someone wanted me dead, my house was going to be in tip-top shape.  I took those two boxes, plus a box with the comforter and some old sheets and towels, up into the main attic.  I labeled them ‘for charity’ in black Sharpie.  Then I decided I might as well keep going, and went through the other rooms of my house, gathering up old clothing, knick-knacks I no longer liked, and all sorts of miscellaneous junk.  In the end I’d filled a dozen assorted sized boxes, and felt the little pile in my attic looked like it belonged.  Just a bunch of stuff gathered over time that I no longer wanted, but hadn’t gotten around to donating.  Now, I just had to get rid of body number three.

My mind sorted through the myriad body disposal scenarios, and I rejected each one.  Landfill?  Too risky.  I couldn’t bring in my own truck of stuff, because I didn’t have enough other refuse or, for that matter, a truck.  And I’d be gambling a lot if I tried to use a dumpster.  I’d have to chop the body up to get it to fit into bags, and hope that no one noticed me chucking them in, then hope the bags didn’t break at any point to reveal the bits.  Way too much forensic evidence for the body to ever be found.  Burial?  If I could fake a death certificate for a fictitious relative and get him buried in a cemetery… but no, too many problems with the chain-of custody of the body, too many pieces of paperwork to forge, too much of a trail.  I didn’t have the expertise or time to do it properly.  And burial in the woods… he’d eventually be found, and, again, linked to me.  There was no way I was burying him on my property, either.  Though no one would stumble upon the body by accident, I couldn’t live with a dead guy in my backyard.  Fire?  That seemed the only reasonable option, but it’d have to be big enough to consume the body completely.  And that doesn’t happen that often.  Or would it?  As long as it burned away the evidence linking it to me, did I care there was a skeleton left?  It’s not like the people who sent him after me would point in my direction.  What could they say?  “Oh, right, we sent him to kidnap and/or kill her, maybe she did it”?  Yeah, I don’t think so.

That gave me an idea.  Because of my mad eavesdropping skills, I knew of a warehouse in a deserted section of town that had been home to some criminal enterprises.  Meth production, if I recalled correctly.  The company had been called in when the powers that be had eliminated that competition, but I think they’d left the warehouse intact.  I suppose in case they decided to use it, or at least salvage the equipment.  Maybe, just maybe, if the equipment was still there I could make it look like an accident.  A knock on the door interrupted my musing.  I froze.  Did bad guys ever knock?

A peek out the front window revealed a cop car sitting at the curb.  I took a deep breath and cautiously opened the door, pasting a smile on my face.

“Can I help you?” I asked, hoping I looked composed enough. 

“Yes, ma’am, a neighbor called yesterday because they saw a suspicious man lurking around your house, and when we investigated, he said he worked with you and your employers were concerned that you hadn’t been in to work,” he said.  There was plenty of question and suspicion in his voice.  Whether it was directed at me, I wasn’t sure.  I decided that honesty, at least as much as was possible, was the best bet.

“Work?  I haven’t heard or seen anything from anyone at work since the office blew up!”  I chewed on my lip for the ‘worried employee’ look.  At least now looking slightly nervous didn’t seem out of place.

“Blew up, ma’am?”  He looked bewildered.

“I work as a secretary for the construction firm at Oak and Vine.  The office exploded last Monday, and I haven’t heard a thing since.  I’ve stayed away, figured people would contact me if they needed, though there isn’t anything I could tell them.  I didn’t deal with clients, not really, I only put through calls or routed them to voicemail, picked up the mail and signed for packages.  And nothing ever seemed weird, but…”  I let my voice trail off.  He remained silent, so I went on.  “I suppose I should have contacted the police by now, but what can I tell them?  To be honest, I’m feeling kind of guilty because I was planning on quitting that job, anyway, and it’s been… like a mini-vacation, in a way.  The news said no one was killed, so they obviously don’t think much of me, either, or they would have called.”

“The neighbor thought you were away,” he said slowly.

“I was sick the first few days, so I wasn’t out and about.  And we all usually get home about the same time, so they probably assumed that.  I don’t know my neighbors well, just enough to say hi at the mailbox.  But I’ve been here, mostly, though yesterday I finally went out and did some shopping.  You say a man was lurking outside my house?  What time was this?”  Belatedly, I realized that I probably should have said something earlier about this.  I decided I’d play up the slow-witted bimbo reaction, and hope it flew.  I let the ‘realization’ dawn slowly on my face.  “Was I home and some creep was just sitting on my porch?”  A delicate shudder finished the effect.

Sure, it’s bad to play up to stereotypes.  I’m not doing my gender any favors, and part of me feels bad about this.  But the other part of me, the one very cognizant of the dead body in my attic, realizes I have to do anything and everything to make this guy believe my story.  If that means acting the ditz, I will do it in a heartbeat.  Things are already pretty weird, and I can’t afford for him to become any more suspicious.  On the up side, it seemed he was a bit of a chauvinist, and my dog-and-pony show went over like Cats on Broadway.

“I don’t think he was dangerous, ma’am, but we’ll keep an eye out, okay?”  He smiled condescendingly.

No, not okay, my brain screamed.  I still had a body to dispose of.  But I bit my lip.  “If you’re sure.  Maybe… maybe I should just go to my friend’s house for a few days.  If my employers need to contact me they have my cell number, and what with the office blowing up and the strange guy lurking…  What if someone comes after me?  What if, like, my boss owed someone money?  What if they think they can get to him through me?”

A look I couldn’t identify passed over his face.  Unease flickered in me, and for the first time I began to question why he was really here.  Sure, he looked like a real police officer, but… even if he was, there were bad police officers.  On the other hand, he could just be irritated at a seemingly hysterical and hyper-excitable ditz.  You never knew.

“I don’t know about the explosion, but it’s highly unlikely they’d come after you after all this time.  Maybe the guy was just a jilted ex.”  He looked me up and down, saying with his eyes that he figured I was the type that went through men like Kleenex.  I bristled at the implication, but let it pass.

“You’re right, I’m sure.  Still, I could use a break.”  I smiled brightly at him.  “And she’s always up for a party.”

He smiled awkwardly, turned, and left.  I shut the door and sagged against it.  The whole scene replaying in my head like some badly written piece of fanfiction, and I winced.  Seriously, who would buy that?  My brain had spit out things piecemeal and randomly.  I sounded like a loon.  Come to think of it, he didn’t sound too convincing, either.  My paranoia ratcheted up another notch.  Just what I needed, more conspiracy theories and weirdness.  As if my nerves weren’t shot enough.

I watched the cop car pull away from the curb, then ran upstairs to drag the body out of the attic.  I looked at the garbage bag-wrapped body, trying to decide if the plastic was sturdy enough to contain any squishy bits as I dragged it down the stairs.  After some consideration, I decided it was a chance I was willing to take.  The fewer things that came in contact with the body, the fewer things I had to find a way to dispose of.  And I would have to unwrap the body before I set the place on fire, since there would probably be traces left if it melted to his skin.  I bumped the body carefully down the stairs, the thick carpet muffling the thuds. Then I dragged him out to the garage and opened the truck. 

My heart stopped, then fluttered weakly as I realized it wasn’t a fourth body in the trunk.  I’d completely forgotten about the dummy from the movie shoot.  What was I supposed to do with it?  Did they have tracking numbers?  Would it be possible for someone to say that it should have been destroyed and wonder how I could have gotten a hold of it?  Or could I just say I used to have a friend in the special effects industry, and they gave it too me?  The dummy was pretty beaten up, undoubtedly that’s why it was chosen to be blown to smithereens.  It looked ready for retirement.  Maybe I could say the friend rescued it from the dumpster and gave it to me to use as a Halloween decoration.  Come to think of it, it would make a pretty sweet Halloween prop.

I dragged the body out of the trunk, leaving dead man number two’s clothes in there.  For the time being, I propped the dummy up in the corner of the garage next to the lawnmower.  I’d shove him up in the attic later.  Next Halloween I’d do something creative with it, I told myself.  Maybe I’d even half-bury him in the ground, like a corpse clawing his way out of the grave.  That would be pretty awesome.  I brushed aside the thoughts of next Halloween and tried to focus on the task at hand.  Disposal of the real corpse.  I hauled him up and tipped him into the trunk, then slammed the lid.  It was already pretty dark, and was probably a good time to get going.  I rummaged around in the cabinet in the front of the garage until I found what I had hoped was still there – a small string of firecrackers, left over from a pyromaniac ex of mine.  I never liked the things, and preferred my fireworks displays to be big and professional, and viewed from a distance, but for once I was glad they were there.  I had just the sketchiest idea of a plan…

I grabbed my purse and hopped in the car.  Just as I was pulling away from the house (after waiting to make sure the garage door closed and stayed down, another weird quirk of mine) a car turned onto my road and slowed as it passed my house.  I hunched down in the driver’s seat, hoping I looked as if I’d just been driving by and lived further down the block.  I couldn’t be positive, but it looked like the same car that had been parked outside my house last night.   A quick look at the clock on the dashboard confirmed that it was right before I got home last night – so if it was the same man, he was showing up just as it was getting dark to… to what?  Try to catch me at home?  Watch my house?  Protect me?  The last thought brought me up short.  After all, someone had killed the man in my trunk and left me unharmed.  I could only assume (I know, I know, never assume) the dead guy meant me harm.  But why would you save a damsel in distress only to stick her with the clean-up?  That seemed downright un-chivalrous.

I returned my attention to the road and the task of finding the (hopefully still) abandoned warehouse.  But first, I made one quick stop at the grocery store.  I picked up a deli sandwich, a bottle of club soda, a cigarette lighter, and a small bag of flour.  Then I drove over to a section of town I’d never been to, and hoped to never be again.  It wasn’t that it felt dangerous, that there were gang members brandishing guns on every corner or crazed drug addicts slumped in every alley.  No, it was the complete lack of people that made it so creepy.  Combined with the run-down look of the buildings it felt almost post-apocalyptic.  There weren’t any people to stare at me, but the faint moonlight gave the broken-out windows and sagging, boarded-up doorways an almost alive feeling.  I suppressed a shudder and pressed on, finally finding the warehouse down a small alley.  I re-traced my route in my head, mentally planning my escape route.  I’d need to get out of there before the police and fire arrived, but I’d taken so many turns I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find my way.  Why oh why hadn’t I broken down and gotten a GPS unit like my friends told me to?

I got out of the car and shoved open the massive steel doors of the building, then drove the car inside.  The last thing I wanted to do was to have to haul the body too far.  I was tired enough already, having done more exercise slinging corpses about in the last few days than I had in months.  Maybe now was time to revisit the idea of joining a gym…

 

Chapter Six
Reason 1648935 it was a good idea to have a rudimentary understanding of Chemistry.  And remember pranks you heard about on radio shows.

My car fit right alongside the metal shells of cars stolen long ago, then stripped down for parts.  In fact, it looked like there was the same make and model parked in the back next to the wall.  In the eerie glow from my headlights, I could see if it still had its sun visors, and replace the ones in my car that kept falling down.  I duct-taped them into place, but the tape only lasted so long and it’d be more convenient to have ones that actually functioned.  The fact that I was thinking about stealing stolen merchandise brought me up short.  Never before would such an idea have seemed okay, and normally I would have been calling the police to report all of the stolen cars – not that they’d do their old owners much good in their current conditions.  But then, normally I didn’t drive around with a corpse in my trunk.  I hesitated, and as if the universe was telling me something, the tape on the driver’s side slowly let go and the visor drifted gently down.

Since you can’t mess with the universe, and obviously this was a sign, I hopped out of the car, leaving the headlights on so I could find a light switch.  Hopefully the place still had electricity, otherwise I’d have to risk my car battery in order to find my way around.  I found a low-hanging lamp over a worktable that had a reachable pull-cord and gave it a tug.  The light flicked on, bathing the area in an unpleasant fluorescent glow.  At least it wasn’t so bright that it would attract attention from the outside, but it was enough for me to see.  I went back to my car and switched off the lights, then walked over to the identical, stolen one.  It did, indeed, still have both sun visors.  I walked back over to my car, then paused.  I should probably shut the warehouse doors.  Nobody had driven by, and it would be a pain because I’d have to open them again to get out, but better safe than sorry.  I wrestled the doors closed again, popped the trunk of my car, and rustled around for the tool kit I kept in there.  I found it under the corpse’s left butt cheek.  Amazingly, this didn’t even make me pause.  I was getting far to cavalier about the handling of dead bodies.

A quick rifle in the tool kit and I pulled out both a Philips head and a flat head screwdriver.  I couldn’t remember which kind held on my sun visors, and there was no guarantee it was the same in the other car, anyway.  Though it was an identical make and model, I thought it looked a year or two newer.  And you never know what silly little changes they made between model years, probably to ensure that the parts weren’t interchangeable.  On second though, I ducked back inside my car and took a good look at the screw configuration holding the visor on.  If they holes weren’t going to line up, there was no point.  Thankfully, the holes were in the right place and it took but a second to unscrew the visors out of the stolen car, glad I was wearing gloves and wouldn’t leave fingerprints, and then replace the ones in mine.  The color was a little off, but the spring mechanism worked perfectly.  I pushed them up… and they stayed up.  I tossed my old, broken ones in the back seat.  It was time to deal with the body.

While most of the warehouse was taken up with the chop-shop, I knew the small back office had been used to make meth.  And that was where I needed to stage the explosion.  I dragged the body to the office and cautiously opened the door.  My nose wrinkled involuntarily at the smell.  Obviously, since the previous occupants had been disposed of, no one had bothered to clean up at all.  My hand hesitated over the light switch.  The fumes surely must have dissipated, but I was still wary of turning on the light.  There wasn’t any way around it, though, because with my luck the fire investigators would notice that the light had been off, and who cooks up drugs in the dark?  I held my breath and flicked the switch.  The room was bathed in a pale yellow glow, and nothing blew up.  I let my breath out and looked around.  All the equipment was still set up on the counter.  This was good for me, since although I had a rudimentary knowledge of meth labs gleaned from many hours of cable tv drug specials, I had no idea how to go about setting up a working meth lab.  At least, not one that would convince the experts.  But now I didn’t have to worry, it was done for me.  And better yet… there was a Bunsen burner that hissed and release a cloud of rotten-egg-smelling gas when I flipped the switch.  An easy thing to have accidentally ignite, and I wouldn’t have to monkey around with the meth chemicals and hope I came up with something explosive.

There was a duct that snaked up and out the small, high window with a fan attached to the end.  I carefully unscrewed the fan and tossed it in the corner.  Then I propped the body up on the stool, slumped over the table with the hand lying next to the Bunsen burner.  I stepped back to admire my handy work.  It looked realistic enough to me.  I went back out into the warehouse and opened the doors.  I drove my car back out onto the street and around the block, parking next to another abandoned warehouse.  I pulled the flour, firecrackers, and a lighter out of my trunk.  This was the tricky part. I walked back in through the warehouse and turned on the Bunsen burner.  I closed the office door, then left through the warehouse, being sure to pull the big doors closed behind me.  I walked around to the side of the building with the window, locating the exhaust pipe in the darkness.  I scanned the alley and found a dumpster not too far away.  I only hoped I could make it.  There was a moment I thought about scrapping the whole plan, it was too dangerous and foolhardy, but it was all I had to obliterate the evidence and not hurt other people in the process.

I ripped a small hole in the bag of flour and stuck the string of firecrackers in it.  Then I reached up and balanced the bag on the edge of the protruding exhaust pipe.  It was a stretch, but standing on my tip-toes I was able to do it.  With my other hand, I reached up and lit the fuse.  Then I dropped the bag down the duct and ran like hell.

I was almost to the dumpster when I heard the first crack.  I dived behind it just as the firecrackers blew apart the flour bag, lighting the fine powder on fire.  The resulting fireball was more than enough to cause the gas to catch, and the office went up with a resounding boom.  Brick debris slammed into the metal side of the dumpster and rained down all over the alley.  I felt little shards of debris pummel me, but I was up and running for my car as soon as the initial shock wave had passed.  I didn’t stop running, despite my cramping legs and wheezing, until I reached my car and sank down in the driver’s seat.  I tried to start the car, but my hands were shaking too badly.