Story by Gary Priest
Illustration by Jon Stubbington
I had a bottle of booze, Tammy on the radio and the satisfaction of an uncomplicated heart when the phone started to ring.
It was one in the morning.
I let it ring.
I waited to see just how eager the caller was to speak to me at this time of the night. My nocturnal rates were based on two things: danger and desperation.
Picking up on the fifteenth ring, ‘Who’s this?’
Breathing on the other end of the line.
‘I’m dressed as the Easter Bunny.’ A man, mid-thirties.
I slammed the phone back in its cradle and took another swig. Christ on his cross.
The phone began to ring again. No waiting; snatched it up.
‘She’s dead.’ The same voice. Not desperate. Sad with a confusion chaser.
‘Call the blues,” I told him.
‘I can’t. I don’t know why, but I can’t.’
‘Did you kill her?’
‘No…I don’t know.’
‘Let’s start by telling me your name and if you say the Easter Bunny I’m hanging up.’
‘I can’t tell you my name because I don’t know it. I woke up in this costume with a dead blonde at my feet. Your business card was in her hand.’ The emotional cocktail it shaken and a hint of hysteria added to the voice.
‘OK, where are you?’ I trawled through my memory for blondes who had been given my card to in the last few months. There were too many to make an informed decision on who the corpse might be.
‘ I don’t know where I am. In a big dark house. Why can’t I remember anything?’
‘I need an address. See if you can find some mail.’
The phone clunked down at his end.
He gave me an address a few minutes later when he returned. It was Nob Hill and then some. He told me the name in the letter he found. I said I’d be there in twenty minutes and not to touch anything or call anyone.
I dressed for business. Best grey suit with shoulder and ankle holsters, blackjack in my trouser pocket. I also fished out my mother’s old rosary beads because if the bunny was who that envelope said he might be, I was visiting the devil made flesh.
As a soldier, a cop and a now an eye for hire there had been encounters with many a bad seed. The man I might be going to see, with a dead blonde at his feet, was possessed of the only kind of iniquity that set my teeth on edge.
Drayton Lewiston, the name on the envelope, was the dictionary definition of privileged and the textbook definition of a sociopath. A cruel and vicious man, because it didn’t occur to him not to be so. Tales of his deviance were legendary as was his protection from prosecution. Almost as absolute as his damnation would be in the next life where angels didn’t take kickbacks and the Almighty wasn’t in awe of old money and influence.
The drive from low rent to high class allowed me to review the situation. The cops were out. If I dropped a dime with my card at the crime scene that made me the perfect fall guy for the latest Lewiston cover-up. It was either pure chance that the blonde had my card or the fix was already in. Either way, I needed to tamper the evidence to erase myself from the mix. I hit the gas. Time might well be a factor and if Lewiston regained his memory before I could remove myself from the narrative, he’d have to be killed.
The mansion loomed ahead, a single light burning on the ground floor and be it fix or fate I was meant to be here. To confront this evil man and maybe to kill him. Never exactly devout, but always a believer in the righteous anger of the Maker and the legion of avenging angels. Maybe my card had been put there by a divine hand. Mysterious ways and all that.
Yeah, yeah I know. Those nuns did a job on me at the orphanage. They beat God into me and no amount of lapses would remove his splinter from my heart. Lewiston was a bad man who deserved to die. The chances of my apprehension were high, but maybe that was my penance for all those lapses.
I parked the car and dismissed all thoughts of retribution and switched to detective mode. Observe, investigate and wait. A good sleuth was a bystander, playing no part in the action until the denouement when they delivered the third act monologue that revealed the killer and knotted every loose end into a pretty bow. I knocked on the front door.
A shuffling of feet, a mutter, and the door opened. Drayton Lewiston in a bloodstained bunny suit.
‘His eyes were misty as he rubbed an egg turning purple on his forehead. ‘Right, the shamus.’
‘Take me to the body.’
The urge to pull out my gun and shoot him in the back of the head was strong as he plodded through the huge hallway and into a large reception room. It did not lessen when I saw her.
A woman, face down on the floor in a pink dress. More like chewed up bubblegum than a person. Her hair was a mess of blonde knots and red streaks. I approached the body.
‘Please, let her sleep,’ said Lewiston. His voice was cracked and edgy.
“Have to check,’ I said.
A familiar and sickening click.
I turned expecting to be at the end of the barrel, but it was pressed against Drayton Lewiston’s temple.
‘Did I do this? Am I capable?’ he asked.
I took a step back from the blonde. She looked pretty damn dead and for now, my priority was the bloody rabbit with the gun.
‘Okay, let’s talk about this,’ I said, looking around the room. ‘I’m going to get that decanter and we are going to sit by the fire and talk about this, okay Drayton?’
‘You know who I am?’
I nodded, unsure that my words would not betray my hatred for this evil man. Logic told me to let him do it. Murder-suicide, case closed. I wished my heart was that cold and my mind, less curious.
I poured us both a drink. He sat down and let the gun hang loosely by his side. I sat in the chair opposite.
‘Did I kill her?’ he asked. ‘There was a fight. I remember that.’ He put his non-lethal hand up to his head and winced as he touched the purple bump. ‘Why can’t I remember who I am? Am I the kind of man who could kill another human? ‘ His eyes were soft grey, pleading.
Could there really be such a thing as blunt-force redemption?
There was Saul and the road to Damascus. Damn those nuns drove that dogma marrow-deep. I decided to shoot from the hip.
‘Your name is Drayton Lewiston. You’re an old money sadist. All you have ever known is privilege and protection. You’ve brutalized women, killed children for kicks and part of me thinks you should just use that gun and rid the world of a little of its evil.’
Lewiston raised the gun and pointed it at me, it wavered and then he put it back against his head.
‘Is that true?’
Those grey eyes. Damp, red-flecked, and wide as the mouth to hell or maybe heaven?
‘I remember this kid. One of the servant’s kids, I think. Big for his age.’ Lewiston paused, dredging for the memory.
I slowly undid my jacket and placed my right hand on my lap. My gun was just two movements away from retribution now. A quick look at the blonde. Still as the grave.
‘He used to trap me in the wine cellar when the big parties were going on and everyone was busy. Used to….’
There were a number of blanks that could be filled in, but were any of them reason or excuse enough for the man who sat before me? This pig of perfidy that ruined lives for sport. I thought about the rosary in my jacket pocket. Damn it, there were too many variables, too many roads, and not a single damn revelation to be had.
‘My mother and my palomino pony. I meant to brush it each day.’
It looked as if his memory was slowly decanting back. Did that mean the old venom would soon return? My fingers twitched for the comfort of the trigger.
Lewiston continued, ‘She sold him, bought herself a new hat just because I forgot to brush him a few times. I cried for a week.’ He stood up. ‘If you say I’m bad, then I’m bad. You look like a good man.’ He pressed the barrel to his temple.
I stood and reached into my pocket and took out the rosary, the large cross dulled, the beads untroubled for many years.
‘Lewiston, wait. We need to talk more. Tell me what you are remembering? I held holding out the rosary.
Drayton Lewiston dropped the gun and started to cry. I took a step toward him.
That was when the blonde sneezed.
I turned as she rose and faced us. She wore a scared frown. I lingered too long on her. A laugh, merciless and deep.
This time the barrel was pointed square at my heart.
‘I’m so sorry Drayton, damn dust bunny got up my nose,” said the woman, shedding her bloody wig to reveal dark brunette tresses.
Lewiston didn’t look at her as he spoke. ‘Go cuff yourself to the bed, sugar, I’ll deal with you later.’
The woman shivered and crept from the room.
‘Take a seat, shamus,” said Lewiston, eyes grey as gunmetal.
No choice, no way out. A fistful of rosary beads and a headful of dumb.
We both sat and he let the gun hang loose again. ‘Don’t fret, I’m not going to kill you, or hurt you. Hell, I’m going to pay you for your time.’
‘I’m not for hire.”
‘Of course not. Not by a sadistic scumbag like me. Hence the setup.’
‘Great, so you used me as the horse’s arse in some weird pantomime. Hope it made you happy.’ I stood up. The gun aimed at my crotch put me back in my seat.
‘Not yet, you see I haven’t finished my fun. This isn’t a prank on some down at heel, seen-it-all dick. It’s a test and I passed.’ He showed me almost every tooth in his head with his smile.
I sighed, trying to appear nonchalant when my heart was screaming for vengeance. ‘Ok tell me your tale, but you can keep your money.’
The gun relaxed again. ‘Those stories of the wine cellar and the pony were real, that’s why they hooked you. That’s why you believed me.’
‘That and because I’m a second rate shamus.’
Lewiston shook his head. ‘Oh no, I researched you. You may be low rent, but when it comes to sniffing out frauds you are high class and I beat you. I beat you!’ He slammed his fist on the arm of his chair in triumph.
‘Blame my religious upbringing, makes a sucker out of all us sometimes.’
‘Yes, exactly,” said Lewiston, his voice bubbling with victory. ‘Okay, I have a brunette in my bed so I will conclude our business. You see, Mr. Matthews, you are right. I am protected. I can kill and torture and rape and humiliate and get away with it. But even I have limitations and I hate them. You see there’s a person out there I want to kill and if I did no amount of money or protection will save me from the noose and damn that gets me hard. The thrill of killing with consequences rings my goddamn bell.’
My fist tightened around the beads in my hand, wishing it were a gun or a knife or a blackjack. His eyes shone like gravestones in a thunderstorm. I was here for a reason. To end this man’s life perhaps even at the cost of my own. Mysterious ways and all that.
‘Okay so I’m going to kill this person and get caught and then I’m going to put on a gala performance of what you just saw minus the sneezy fake blonde and with a real dead, real beloved person and I am going to avoid the death penalty and get life with parole and be out in ten and you know what prison means to a man like me?’
I shook my head.
‘Bad room service and a slightly lumpier bed than usual.’ He roared with laughter, spittle, and foam on his lips.
I stood and he rose with me, gun on my heart. ‘No one will ever believe you, so don’t go that road. There’s a grand on the end table, take it and crawl back under your rock.’
One look at him, one at the gun and a smile. The rosary cross now between two fingers of a fist.
‘It’s a great plan, but you need a little of the good book to really get the whole Saul vibe.’
‘You’re a critic now? Get the hell out.’
I didn’t move. ‘I’ve got a good verse for you. Psalms, chapter four, verse eight.’
His eyes were on mine, that was good. The gun barrel was a foot from my chest. Not good.
‘In peace, I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in…’
A bead of sweat on his temple.
I finished the line.
He looked down at the gun. That was all I needed to slam him with a right hook with the assisted power of God. The cross punctured his eyeball. He dropped to the floor, I kicked the gun from his hand, pulled out my .45 and put three in his head.
I didn’t give him time to plead or pray. He deserved neither mercy.
I uncuffed the brunette, gave her the grand and sent her on her way. I should have cleaned up my prints, searched for anything he may have had on his plan and me, but I didn’t. I had this strange feeling that somehow the cops might just overlook me, and his family would see his death as a deliverance. For some reason, I thought I’d be okay.
Mysterious ways and all that.
— ♦♦♦ —
The Broken Queen of Hearts Part 2 By Hamilton Kohl, Art by Carol Wellart
“I’m sorry,” she said, “have we met before… Ace, was it?”
We’d met before and she knew it. Back when Rabbit-holers first learned they could come through to the other side with Alice, I had been one of the first ones in my deck to cut the strings she held us with…so the Card known as Ace Heart and Detective Jack Thompson continue the investigation of murders. If they can keep from killing each other, they just might solve it.