Details

Note: It’s been nearly three years since I tried my hand at a flash fiction. I think about it regularly but haven’t felt any motivation to actually put words down. That changed today after my dear friend Carol expressed her disappointment with the ending of Checked Out (posted yesterday). I told her she could imagine that Arwen is in a 50 gallon drum in Mary’s basement. That made her happier. This story came from that conversation. And a huge “thank you” to Carol for giving me very helpful feedback on Details. Hope you enjoy!

 

“Mary Dean?! You didn’t use your real name or picture!”

“I hope you can forgive me. I hate not being completely honest in my profile but being semi-famous makes it tough to date online. Are you still game for dinner or do you want to call it an evening?” Mary gave her a hopeful grin.

“What else did you lie about?”

“Nothing! I don’t have any pets and I despise being around small children. I love wine and horror films. And I’m looking for a woman to be part of my life, long-term. I was honest about being a writer, and I have had articles published in magazines. Mostly true dating profile!”

Mary waited a few seconds, but Denise said nothing. “Do you want me to hail a cab for you? I wouldn’t blame you, but I truly am sorry and I would love to buy you dinner.”

Denise narrowed her eyes and said, “All right, but I’m ordering something expensive.”

Mary gave her most charming smile. “Wonderful! It’s a nice night; shall we walk?” She put her elbow out for Denise to link arms with. After a scowling glance, she did, and they strolled down the sidewalk.

“How about we start over? Hi, I’m Mary Dean, writer of slasher novels, lover of adult-only venues, and binge watcher of reality TV. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mary. I’m Denise Young, free-lance accountant slash amateur chef. I like quiet walks on the beach, blended cocktails, and documentaries.”

“I’ll try not to hold the blended drinks thing against you.” Mary nudged Denise in the ribs gently.

“I appreciate that. I’ll also let you buy me a few while we wait for our food.” Denise grinned.

Mary abruptly stopped and put her hands to her eyes. “Ow! Something’s in my eye.” She dug into her purse and pulled out a compact. She opened the lid, turned toward Denise, and sneezed. A cloud of dust flew into Denise’s face.

“Oh my God! I’m so sorry.” Mary closed the compact and put it back in her bag.

Denise was bent over, wiping her face with her hands and dabbing at her eyes with her coat sleeve. Eventually, she looked at Mary and said, “It’s okay. I’m fine. Startled me, that’s all.”

“Are you sure?” Mary used her best concerned voice.

They had walked in silence a few minutes when Denise stumbled.

“Are you okay?” Mary turned to face her and held her in a steadying grip.

“I… I’m very light headed. Can we sit down, please?”

“No, we should keep going. We’re nearly there.”

Mary put her arm around Denise’s waist tightly and pulled her along.

“You know, writing horror is harder than people think. It takes work to get details like poisoning effects and blood spatter right. A good research assistant is a must. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to last very long. Maybe I should switch to romance novels…”

Checked Out

Note: A couple years ago, I had been challenged to push myself beyond my standard 500 word flash fiction stories. What follows is the result of that challenge.  It hasn’t been edited or proofread but it’s free and here if you want to give it a shot. This is as close to writing romance as I’m likely to ever get. 

 

“C’mon Charlie, it’s time.” Arwen made her way to the front door.

“Fine. Kick an old man out into the cold. I could help you collect the books and shut down the computers.”

“I appreciate the offer but if Rachel found out, she’d be pissed. You don’t want to get me in hot water, do you?”

“No, you know I wouldn’t want that. You’re a sweet lady. Mostly.” Charlie gave up his protest and joined her at the entry.

“It’s below freezing again tonight. Do you have somewhere to stay?” Arwen asked.

“Nothing for sure. I’ll find some place warm. I know where to look.”

Arwen put one hand on his arm and pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of her front pocket with the other. “Will you please take this and not fight me on it? Get yourself something hot to eat. Or a bottle of something to help keep you warm. Whatever. I don’t care what it is just take it and use it tonight.”

Charlie looked from the money to her eyes. He was a proud man who very rarely accepted her offers of food, clothing, or cash. She was surprised when he reached out, took the twenty, and put it into the pocket of his worn camouflaged field jacket. He took her hand from his arm and held it in his calloused fingers. “Okay but I’m not going to do any kinky favors for it. For forty, maybe, but not for twenty,” he winked at her, turned, and left.

“Tease,” she called after him. He raised his hand without turning around.

She watched him for a few seconds and then went back inside and flipped the deadbolt. Charlie was the last to leave every night, as far as Arwen knew. He kept to himself for the most part, but they’d had some interesting conversations. He was a Desert Storm vet who had been deemed unemployable due to severe PTSD. It took him three years before he finally gave in and got the appropriate meds from the VA. Unfortunately by then he had lost everything that meant anything to him. He learned to live from day to day and had no desire to become a part of the work force again. He seemed content enough to spend his days at the library and his nights wherever he could find a comfortable spot. Arwen felt a touch safer knowing he was somewhere nearby during the winter evenings when it was full dark outside at closing time.

On days like today, she wished the library stayed open past 6 pm. The frigid cold of late January could be deadly for homeless people like Charlie. If he could get a spot in one of the shelters for the night, he’d be warm and dry and safe until morning. If he wasn’t lucky enough to find an opening, he’d end up on the streets or under one of the many bridges around the city. From the many conversations the two of them had shared over the past few years, she knew he was a crafty guy who could take care of himself. She sent positive thoughts his way and focused on her work.

She was the only employee left in the building, so it was up to her to shut everything down, tidy up for Rachel, the branch manager, who would be opening in the morning, and lock up for the night. She pushed the cart used for shelving books as she moved from one room to another on the sprawling first floor. The new library was nothing at all like the one that had been torn down a year or so ago. The old library was a one-story art deco building that had been her favorite hide-out as a child. The new incarnation of the East Branch had four floors of high-rent apartments above the two designated for library space.  During her younger years, the library had been a second home. Among the books and elderly patrons who seemed to occupy at least half of the reading tables, she was able to lose herself in lands and adventures far away. Becoming a librarian was her way of helping new generations of kids discover the joys of reading.

Since she had kept up on re-shelving throughout her shift, there weren’t too many books lying about on tables or haphazardly tossed on the wrong shelves. It only took a few minutes to put everything back in the proper spots. She shut the lights off as she moved through each section until she was facing a research area with computers on two long tables. All but one of the six machines had their desktop graphics showing. She quickly moved from one to next and shut them down. When she got to the last one, she sat down and moved the cursor preparing to close the search window that had been left open. She noticed what had been entered into the Google search box and stopped just before she clicked on the big red “X.”

“What the hell?” Arwen spoke aloud. “Knot tying for restraint and pain?” She quickly scanned the results. Rope Bondage 101 on kinkfriendly.org. Huh. I’m not sure if I should be freaked out or taking notes. There were other search results for patient restraints and cattle handling, but the vast majority were BDSM sites. Her curiosity was piqued and, instead of closing the web page, she clicked the back button to see what else had been looked up during the session. A second later she was on a Yahoo Answers page which provided information about obtaining substances derived from plants and flowers that cause unconsciousness. She clicked the back arrow again and was back to Google with “natural chloroform” in the search field.

She quickly looked around the quiet room. She could swear someone was watching her, but she had been through all the rooms and knew she was alone. She scanned the windows that made up nearly all of the first floor exterior and didn’t see anyone paying attention to her. It was dark outside, but the traffic and street lights made it possible to see passersby. The North Avenue sidewalks were crowded, as they usually were. College students, medical professionals, and more hipsters than she could shake a Pabst Blue Ribbon at moved from one place to another. Nearly everyone had headphones on or was in some other way connected to an electronic device. She didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.

The next click of the back button took her to the standard Milwaukee Public Library home screen and there was no option to move beyond that. This was where the last individual’s search had begun. Arwen looked around once more and then shut the computer down completely. She was uneasy, but people came to the library to research all sorts of things. There could be a perfectly logical explanation for what she had seen. She thought back to the few people she had seen using the machines. She remembered that there were a couple of teenagers who had been there earlier in the afternoon, besides them she’d only seen an elderly man and a young woman. The old man looked like your standard cranky grandpa, she couldn’t imagine him trying to tie anyone up, for pleasure or not. That left the woman. She’d talk with Charlie tomorrow to see if he noticed anyone or anything out of the ordinary. Now it was quitting time and she had a bottle of red and Chinese delivery with her best friend Rita waiting for her.

###

Saturday was a traditionally busy day with lots of families stopping in to let their young children run wild while the parents sat in a quieter section with other grown-ups or hid in the stacks in search of a little peace. The area with the drawing wall was jam-packed with squealing kids chasing after each other with washable markers. In her non-professional life, she was happy to never encounter children and wished parents would leave their offspring at home unless they were gagged or old enough to show restraint. At work, however, they rarely bothered her. This day, especially, she paid them little attention. She was focused on noting each and every person who sat down to use the bank of computers. Her shift had started an hour after opening and the only occupied spot was taken by a woman with dark brown hair wearing a black blazer over a white collared shirt. Her heavy outer coat was slung over the back of the chair in the space to her right.

Arwen casually walked behind the woman picking up a couple of books that had been left behind. She tried to catch a glimpse of what was on the screen but all she could make out was the large Google logo. The words in the search box were impossible for her to read without getting closer. She didn’t want to give herself away, so she held the books to her chest and headed around the computer stations until she was able to see the woman’s face. Arwen thought her features were vaguely familiar. She saw hundreds of people a day so that didn’t really mean anything.

The woman was looking down, quickly scribbling onto a spiral notebook next to the mouse. Arwen saw her eyes were heavily made up with thick black liner and eye shadow in varying shades of gray. She had soft pink gloss on her full lips and there was a ribbon of darker pink holding her hair out of her face. She was nerdy-cute in a librarian’s fantasy sort of way. Which was a bonus since Arwen was a librarian and all. She leaned forward a bit to see what was on the page but the script was incredibly messy. I wonder if she’s a doctor. My mother would be so happy if I hooked up with a doctor… Focus!

The woman stopped writing abruptly, covered the notebook with both hands, and looked at Arwen.

“Hi! I’m looking for books to be put away. Gotta stay on top of it or I’ll be here all night cleaning up,” she said, her voice overly cheerful and a touch too loud.

The woman continued to stare at Arwen but didn’t say a word.

“Um, are you finding everything all right?” Good job, dipshit. Arwen mentally rolled her eyes at herself.

The woman looked down at the keyboard, her notepad, then back at Arwen, and said, “Yep, I’m good.” She raised her eyebrows, smiled tightly, and nodded briefly.

“Ok, great. Just let me know if you need anything. I’ll be over at the checkout counter.”

“Will do.” The woman broke eye contact and resumed her scribbling while using her free hand to block Arwen’s view.

After a few seconds of standing there being ignored, Arwen remembered the books she was holding and moved on to re-shelve them. She had gone only a few steps when she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. She glanced over her shoulder to find the mystery woman staring at her with an unidentifiable look on her face. The woman didn’t look away when her gaze was met which made Arwen feel even more creeped out. She directed her attention back to the front and walked away as quickly as she could.

###

After beating a hasty retreat, Arwen came upon Charlie at one of the listening stations. He had headphones on and was reclined in the chair, feet propped up on the table, boots and head moving to the beat. She gently touched his shoulder and he leapt up, and turned to face her with his fists raised.

“God dammit! Don’t fucking do that!” Charlie yelled at the top of his voice, the loud music still pumping directly into his head. Arwen pointed at her ears and he got the hint.

After Charlie removed the headphones, Arwen said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I should have known better. I won’t do it again.”

Charlie patted his chest as if to calm his racing heart. The heavy metal music could be heard clearly. His hands shook a bit as he turned the CD player off and set the headphones down.

When he turned back to Arwen, his face was less red, and his breathing seemed to have returned to normal. “Did you need something or was making me shit my pants on your to-do list?”

She felt the blood rush to her face and she reached out to touch his arm. “I really am sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Obviously.” She could tell that he was still ticked at her but his body language had relaxed considerably. “So, what was so important that it couldn’t wait?”

“Well, it’s not really urgent or anything.” Charlie glared at her. “Ok, I’m just a little freaked out and I wanted to talk with you. Because you don’t have a problem telling me when I’m overreacting or making a fool of myself.”

“Life is too short for bullshit.”

“Yes, it is. It’s also too short to ignore potentially dangerous situations.”

“Dangerous situations? Do I need a weapon?” He looked hopeful.

“I don’t think that’s necessary. I’m getting a weird vibe from one of the patrons and I was hoping you could casually check out what she’s doing.”

“You want me to spy on some chick?”

“Well, I don’t know that I’d call it spying, really. Just see if you can figure out what she’s doing on the computer and maybe get a look at her notebook. You can casually hang out and maybe she’ll get up to go to the bathroom or something. Or sit really close to her and make her uncomfortable. You could see what she’s doing while she’s twitching or trying to scoot her chair a little farther from you. I don’t know. You’re the one with military experience. Don’t they teach you how to observe the enemy?”

“You watch too many damn movies,” Charlie said dismissively.  “Best I can do is sneak up on her and maybe slit her throat.”

He grabbed the chair he had flown out of and sat back down. He pointed at another one nearby and motioned for Arwen to take it.

“I don’t want you to kill her. I’m sure it’s nothing. Someone’s been doing Internet searches on some really freaky stuff and I’m a little wigged out.”

“What kind of stuff?” He leaned toward her, clearly intrigued.

“Like how to drug and bind people stuff. Not the usual types of searches I come across here.”

“That is sort of freaky, but it doesn’t mean that anyone’s planning anything. Could be a totally non-serial-killer explanation for it.”

“I know. But I’d feel a lot better if I could rule this weirdo out. Would you at least try? I failed miserably.”

“You’re not really the subtle type. Too high-energy and friendly.” He closed his eyes and leaned his head back, and sighed. “Fine. But I want dinner and a bottle of gin out of this.”

When he brought his head back down and met her eyes, Arwen tried for her most fierce scowl. “Fine. We’re not going to Micky D’s though. It’s Taco Bell or nothing. And mid-shelf gin or less. No Hendrick’s or Rangpur.”

Charlie put his hand out toward her. “Deal!”

###

As the afternoon wore on, Arwen had only been able to catch a few glimpses of Charlie’s recon activities. He was surprisingly good at casually lurking and she wondered if maybe he should look into doing some Private Eye work.

It was just after 5:30 when she finished for the day and headed out to the parking lot in search of her personal Sam Spade. She was anxious to get his report and some dinner. When she turned the corner of the building, she could see him anxiously pacing behind her car. She picked up the pace and reached him in a matter of seconds.

“Fuck! I didn’t think you’d ever get here!” Charlie’s voice was strained, and he was tugging on the ear flaps of his hunter’s cap.

“Jesus, Charlie! Calm down. What’s wrong?”

He gave her a wild look and fitted a key into the lock on her trunk.

“Hey! Where did you get that key?”

Arwen wasn’t sure if she was outraged or afraid that he had a copy of her car key. She settled on feeling stupid when he pulled the little black magnetic box from his coat pocket and said, “If you don’t want people in your shit, don’t fucking leave the key just lying around!”

“Oh. Sorry.”

No more words were spoken until the trunk popped open and Arwen saw the wiggling, grunting cargo. She could feel the pop in her neck as she cocked her head and took in the sight before her: a pair of long, denim covered legs, gray snow boots with what appeared to be jumper cables wrapped around them. At the other end of the space, her old backpack moved, and it sounded as if it contained a head with a gagged mouth. Thrown over the middle of these two things was a long black coat that looked suspiciously like the one Scribbler McCreepy had next to her earlier.

Arwen took a step back and said, “Charlie? Is there a bound and gagged woman in my trunk?”

He nodded, looking from her to the car and then back again. “Yes, Arwen, there is.”

Several quiet moments passed before Arwen stomped her foot and yelled, “Why is there a fucking woman in my trunk?!”

Charlie moved quickly to slam the lid down and grabbed Arwen, hustling her over to the passenger’s door. “Shut up! Do you want to announce it to the whole neighborhood? Just give me a damn minute and I’ll tell you what happened.”

She crossed her arms over her chest, glared at him, and said, “Talk.”

“It’s cold out here. Can we at least sit in the damn car?”

“Fine. Do you need me to unlock the door or have you already done that?”

“Don’t be an asshole. Unlock the damn car. I only needed the trunk.”

Arwen unlocked his door and then moved to get in on the other side. Once she was behind the wheel, she started the engine. “Now what the hell happened?”

###

Charlie sat back in the bucket seat and faced the windshield.

“Well, it was fairly uneventful until I was able to snag a computer station two over from her. I pulled up cnn.com and moved from article to article, nice and quiet, just minding my own business. I think she forgot I was there. I can be very unassuming when I try.” He turned to gauge Arwen’s reaction. She nodded, and he went on.

“It was probably an hour or so after I sat down when she got up and headed to the restroom. She minimized the screen but didn’t close out of it. She grabbed her phone and the notebook and pretty much jogged away. I’m guessing from all the squirming she’d been doing that she was close to pissing herself.” He let out a rough sounding chuckle and didn’t say anything for a few seconds.

“And then…” Arwen prompted.

“Oh. Right. I waited until she had been gone long enough to get to the shitter and I brought the screen back up. She had left it on the default Google page but there wasn’t anything typed in box. I hit the back button a few times and all sorts of weird shit started popping up. Like secluded wooded areas in Wisconsin and info on the decomposition rates of various parts of human beings. Fucking shit that no one but a whack-job psycho would want to know.”

Arwen’s heart rate picked up and she felt a little light headed. “Holy fuck-balls! Are you shitting me?”

“I shit you not.” He raised his right hand and crossed his heart with the left. “I hit the forward arrow until I was back to where I started and got the fuck outta Dodge.”

“Then how did she end up hog-tied and in my car?”

“I’m getting to it!” Charlie snapped.

Arwen took a deep, calming breath that didn’t do much calming but did steam up the windows. That reminded her that it was still freezing inside the vehicle. She put the heater on full-blast and turned back to Charlie, giving him a “keep going” motion with her gloved hands.

“I moved to sit on the other side of the info desk where I could have some cover but still keep an eye on her. When she came back, she looked around like maybe she noticed I wasn’t there anymore and then sat down and got back to whatever she had been doing before. She stayed for another hour or so and then she grabbed her coat and put the notebook into a messenger bag and walked away. I waited a few minutes to make sure she wasn’t coming back, and then I went to see if she left anything up on the computer.”

“Did she?”

“She sure as fuck did. It was a picture of you and it had been saved as the desktop wallpaper.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?! What?!” Arwen was shouting, and she knew it but couldn’t seem to gain control of her voice. Or the shaking that had started in her middle and radiated outward.

“I swear, my nads crawled up inside my body. Who does that type of shit?”

Arwen couldn’t utter a word. Her brain had seized up and it was all she could do to sit and listen and not run from the car, screaming.

“I looked around but couldn’t see her anywhere. I turned off the monitor and thought it would be a good idea to take a stroll around the perimeter. She hadn’t been gone long and if she was on foot, I could maybe still find her. And sure as shit, she was across the damn street in Von Trier’s Beer Garden. She was watching the library with binoculars and didn’t seem to notice me at all. Of course, since it’s the fucking dead of winter, no one was sitting out there, and I was able to sneak up behind her and whack her one across the back of the head with the 40 ouncer I was saving for a nightcap. Went down like a ton o’ bricks.” He chuckled again and stopped talking.

“You knocked her out? With a beer bottle? Jesus.”

“I thought it was the best way to go. I didn’t know if she had a weapon on her or mace or if she’d swing those binos at me. I wasn’t going to give her the chance to cut me up into little pieces and drop me in the woods for the fucking bears!”

“No, you’re right,” Arwen said, shaking her head. “Did you drag her across the street by her hair or what?”

“Nah, I put her arm around my shoulder, grabbed her around the waist, and walked on over. We probably just looked drunk. There’s too many bars around here for anyone to be bothered by drunk people stumbling across the street and we’d just come directly from one of them. I got her to your car, found the key, popped the trunk, and secured her with shit you had lying around in there. Easy peasy.”

“Easy peasy. Right. So now what?”

“I’m thinking we drive her ass over to the cops. Then we eat, get shit-faced, and forget this ever happened.”

“I like that plan. Let’s go.”

###

In only a few minutes, the red Toyota Camry pulled into the fifth district police station’s parking lot. Arwen thought it may be best if she went in by herself to explain why there was a woman tied up in her car, so Charlie sat tight with all heater vents pointing at him.

It seemed to be a quiet evening inside the station house. There were two uniformed officers sat behind desks protected by what she assumed was bulletproof glass. Neither looked up when she approached, and Arwen stood quietly until it became apparent that they were going to ignore her. She tapped on the window directly in front of them. They continued to ignore her for another few seconds before the one on the right looked up slowly and said, “Yes?”

“Um, hi.” Arwen let out a nervous laugh and said, “I have sort of an unusual situation.” She paused for a reaction and got nothing. “I work at the East Branch Library. You know, the one by the lake?” Again, nothing from the boys in blue. “Ok, well, see, there’s been someone doing really strange Internet searches and then this woman came in today and looked up some scary stuff and then set a picture of me as the wallpaper.”

The cops looked at each other without showing even the slightest hint of interest. Once their gazes returned to Arwen, she continued.

“So, one of the library patrons, well, a friend of mine, really, went looking for her when she left the building and found her watching with binoculars from across the street.”

The officer on the left finally spoke up, “He followed her?”

“Yes, that’s right. And then he hit her in the head and put her in the trunk of my car.”

The police were on their feet and around the barrier within a heartbeat. “Hands where we can see them!”

Before she understood what was happening, she found herself handcuffed with her face pressed against the wall. Her shoulders were straining, and her wrists were pinched by the metal rings.

“Wait! You don’t understand! I haven’t done anything wrong. We brought her here for you to take care of!”

“Your car’s in the lot? With the body in the trunk?”

“It’s not a body! It’s a woman. She’s alive and moving around. She was looking up stuff on restraints and drugging people and body disposal! I’m a good person!”

“Shut up!” one of the officers yelled. “Where’s your friend the kidnapper?”

“It’s not kidnapping! He made a citizen’s arrest or something.”

“Where is he?” the other cop asked.

“He’s in the car,” she answered.

She was led to a room and shoved into a chair. “Sit here and be quiet.”

###

“Let me get this straight. You observed someone looking things up on a public computer, taking lots of notes, and looking into a building from across the street and you immediately deduce that you’re dealing with a potential murderer?”

She gave that a little thought and said, “well, when you put it like that I suppose it does sound like we may have jumped the gun a little.”

“Maybe just a little.” Officer Shipman, previously known as “The One on the Right” said.

“But she was stalking me!” said Arwen. “Why would she put my picture up on the screen? Why was she researching those things and leaving them for me to find?”

“We’ll have those answers soon. She’s next door with Detective O’Dell,” said Shipman.

“Where’s Charlie? Is he ok?”

“He’s being questioned,” he answered, giving nothing else away.

“What’s going to happen to us?” she asked.

“That depends on who it was you abducted and what she was doing. If she decides to press charges, you and your accomplice could go to jail for a long time. Kidnapping is a serious crime.”

Arwen’s stomach dropped, and her cheeks and lips began to tingle as the blood drained from her face. “Jail? But, but I didn’t do anything. I was scared and asked Charlie to see what she was doing. And he only did what he thought was the best way to protect me! We brought her right here.”

Officer Shipman stood, shook his head, and left the room without another word.

###

It felt like hours had passed. Shipman had removed the cuffs and she was still rubbing her wrists as she paced the small room. Her prison cell would be a small room like this. Probably with an open toilet and a roommate named Big Doreen who would force Arwen to be her prison wife. Maybe BD would be a Mormon and have several wives and would leave Arwen mostly alone. Maybe she’d only have to service BD on a specific day.  Maybe I’ll find a loving and supportive home in the Big House with Big Doreen and my sister-wives.

She was pulled from her thoughts when keys jangled and the door was opened. A plain-clothes detective stood in the doorway looking at her with a bored expression. “I’m Detective O’Dell. Let’s go, Ms. Rosenbaum,” he said as he motioned her out of the room. Arwen walked cautiously past him and waited for further instructions.

“Through that door and into the second office on the right.” He put his hand on the small of her back and she immediately picked up her pace and moved out of his reach.

She crossed the threshold and saw Charlie sitting at one end of a conference room table. He looked up and she couldn’t read his expression. That worried her. She looked at the other person at the table and involuntarily took a step back. It was the woman from the library and she didn’t look happy.

“What’s going on?” said Arwen, looking over her shoulder to O’Dell who had followed her in and closed the door.

“Have a seat and we’ll get this straightened out and then we can all go on with our lives.” He took the chair at the head of the table, opposite Charlie, which left Arwen facing her stalker. “I’d like you to meet the woman you snatched off the street. This is Mary Dean. You may know her as D. E. Martin.”

Arwen looked from the detective to the woman and then to Charlie. She had no idea who the woman was, and it seemed that Charlie didn’t either.

“I’m a writer,” said Mary Dean. “And apparently not as well-known as I’d like to be.”

The detective spoke up again. “We’ve checked out her story with her publisher and her agent.”

“What story?” Arwen said.

“I’ve been researching a new book. A thriller. It’s about a serial killer who watches and abducts her victims, tortures them, and then gets rid of the bodies in a nearby forest,” said Mary.

“Ok, I can understand why you’d be doing those searches but why were you watching me?” Arwen asked. “And why would you purposely try to scare me?” She couldn’t understand what those things had to do with researching a book. Stalking her and scaring the shit out of her didn’t make any sense.

“My character does something similar in the book and I wanted to observe someone’s natural response to discovering that she was being watched. I wanted the victim’s responses to be as authentic as possible. Today was the last time I planned to go to the library. I had enough to move forward and felt confident that I could pull it off and make the reader truly feel what I wanted to get across.”

“And at no time did you think that this was a really shitty thing to do to someone?” Arwen was getting mad.

“Maybe a little shitty,” Mary shrugged and looked embarrassed. “But over quickly and then forgotten. You move on with your life and it becomes a spooky story to tell around the campfire and I get a more complex story.”

She let out a loud breath and hung her head. “Ok, it was a lot shitty. I don’t always think my methods through and you and your friend got caught in the mess.” She looked at Charlie and said, “I’m very sorry I put you in a position where you felt that you needed to do physical harm in order to protect your friend.”

Charlie looked at her in silence for a short while and then nodded his head. “All right. You’re not pressing charges and Arwen’s not in any danger. It was a rotten thing to do but it’s done.”

“That’s it?” Arwen’s anger was growing by the second. She stood up and leaned over the table, putting her only inches from her tormentor’s face. “You’re sorry for making me think my life was in danger and that’s it?”

Mary was obviously uneasy and looked to Detective O’Dell for support, but it seemed none was coming. He remained silent, crossed his arms over his chest, and leaned back in his chair.

“I want to point out that I was physically assaulted and kidnapped and I’m not pressing any charges, which I would be well within my rights to do.” Mary looked at the table and let out a quiet groan. “Look, I honestly feel horrible that I caused you to think that you were in imminent danger. If I could go back and do it again, I’d do it differently. I’m a very hands-on researcher and I’m impulsive. Consequences don’t always figure into my plans.”

“It’s true,” O’Dell broke in. “She has more than one arrest on record for things that have been explained away as research. Some of the charges make me want to take up writing when I retire. Especially the joyriding with the Ferrari. Wow.” He looked like he had drifted away for a few seconds before forcing himself back to the present. “Here’s the bottom line: She’s not pressing charges so, unless you want us to arrest her for stalking, we’re done here.”

Arwen sat back down and put her face in her hands. She was safe, and the danger was never real. Yes, she was angry with the author for her thoughtlessness but, really, there was no permanent harm done. Charlie was okay and willing to move past this so it seemed she should, too.

“Fine. Let’s go Charlie. I owe you dinner and a bottle of booze.” She pushed back from the table, opened the door, and left the room.

###

In the parking lot, Arwen sat in her car keeping warm, waiting for Charlie to join her. She couldn’t bear to be in the building one second longer than she had to. She wanted to get some food, some wine, take a bubble bath, and let the past couple of days fade away.

She was startled by a soft tapping on the window next to her head. Mary Dean was looking at her with a contrite and cautious expression. Against her better judgment, Arwen lowered the window a few inches but didn’t speak.

“I want to apologize again for this whole thing. I’m not a bad person. I tend to get overly involved in my stories and that leads to trouble. Usually, though, I’m the only one who ends up in jail for it.”

She looked pathetic. And cold. “Do you want to sit in the car while we talk? You’re going to get frostbite.”

“Yes, please,” she said and then hustled around the front end and got in. “Oh, heated seats!”

Arwen couldn’t help but laugh at her enthusiasm. Maybe she wasn’t an evil human being after all. She took the time to look at her stalker more closely. She looked normal: No neck tattoos or facial scars. It was hard to tell anything else through the thick layers.

“Where’s Charlie?” Arwen realized that her friend and savior should have joined them by now.

“Oh! He asked me to tell you that he’ll take a rain check on dinner. I thought the least I could do would be to help him out with enough cash for some food and a hotel room for the night.” There was remorse in her tone and Arwen felt the last of her anger melt away.

“Well, the least you could do would be to offer me dinner, too. I have a place to sleep so I don’t need any help with that one.”

Mary looked at her with a cautious expression. “I’d love to take you to dinner if you won’t try to stab me with a butter knife.”

“I promise, no stabbing. I may slap you with a soup spoon though.”

“Not in the face, ok? I have to get new head shots and my agent gets pissy about visible bruising.”

“I think I can work within those parameters,” Arwen said. “You know, have you ever thought of switching to romance? I think the research would be much more fun — for everyone involved.”

“It’s not something I’d considered before,” said Mary. She looked at Arwen and smiled.  “But some new story ideas are coming to me. Ever thought of being a research assistant?”

With a laugh, Arwen put the car in reverse and they drove away.

New Home

I watch from the shadows as he opens his eyes. It takes a few seconds before I’m able to recognize the confusion on his face and a few more before fear takes over. His fingers twitch but he’s unable to move his hands because of the cages I’ve fitted over them.

It doesn’t take long for him to realize that his fingers, eyes, and mouth are the only parts of his body able to move. He can’t see it, but the modular body cage and straps I attached to the padded table keep him completely immobile. It’s not very pretty to look at but it took months to construct and I’m proud of the final result.

“Good morning,” I say cheerfully as I move to the table, next to his head. I lean over so he can more clearly see my face. “I hope you slept well. Are you comfortable? Nothing pinching?”

His eyes grow wide and then narrow. He says a few words but the thick strap of leather covering his face from just under the nostrils to the middle of his chin prevent anything but muffled sound from reaching me.

“I would say I’m sorry about the restraints but that would be a lie. You were always very keen on honesty. ‘Real men always tell the truth.’ You were fairly selective on when you’d follow that maxim but since I’m a real man and it’s what you said you wanted, that’s what I’m going to give you. Here’s the truth: I plan to hurt you very badly. I want you to know what’s coming and I want you to know that I’ll be the one to say when it will stop. You have no control here. You will lie still and wait for me, night after night, day after day. You will be dependent upon me for everything and it will be up to me to decide whether I feel like providing.” I’m surprised by the coldness I hear in my voice.

The unintelligible words have been replaced by whimpers. I lean farther over his face, our noses are touching now. “You may have found God and believe that He’s given you absolution but I certainly haven’t forgiven you. You can dwell in His house after you die, but until then, you’re mine.”

I move away and grab the metal folding chair I had been sitting on while waiting for him to wake and drag it noisily to the head of the table. “I want to show you some of the toys we’ll be using to pass our time together.”

I’ve got an assortment of items that will bring back plenty of old memories for us both. I scan over the cigar, lighter, and dildo before I decide. I double the thick leather belt and bring it down hard against his bare legs. The crack of the leather and the cry of pain bring a smile to my face.

“Welcome to your new home, Dad.”

Coffee Girl

I’m happy to get out of the cold and into my favorite coffee shop. I’m pretty sure the cute woman behind the counter has a little crush on me, which is a nice bonus to the perfect cup of coffee and blueberry muffin she usually has waiting when I arrive. The attention feels nice and I don’t mind admitting that I flirt back a little. It’s all harmless and makes us both feel good. No big deal.

The place is empty and Roxanne is smiling at me when I stand in front of her at the counter. “Good morning,” she says brightly. “The usual today?”

“That sounds great, yes. Not busy this morning, huh?” I ask while she’s putting my muffin into a small bag. She already had the coffee ready for me. I love it when she does that. Like she knows just when I’ll be coming in and what I’ll want. It’s been a long while since anyone took the time to notice my habits. I wonder if she’s single. I bet she’d be an attentive lover.

“No, it’s been sort of slow. I think there are lots of people taking today off to extend the long weekend.”

“Right! I forgot about Monday being a holiday. Well that just made my day a little brighter. Do you have off, too?”

“Yep. I’m only here for a few more minutes and then I’m off through next week. I was only working in case there was an early rush. Charlotte can handle it by herself now. I’ve got some vacation time saved up and I’ve decided it’s time to use it.”

She hands me the muffin and slides the coffee over so I can reach it. I take my wallet out of my bag and offer payment and a nice tip. “Doing anything special?”

She looks me squarely in the eye and the intensity of it straightens my spine. “Oh yes, very special. Something I’ve been planning for a long time. It’s going to be fantastic.”

She holds me with her steady gaze. “Well, I hope you have a great time.” I pick up the coffee, offer a smile, and turn to go. “See you later,” I call over my shoulder.

I hear her say, “Yes you will” but I don’t turn around. I feel better once I’m out the door. I take several large sips of coffee and tell myself that Roxanne is sweet and harmless. And she makes a fantastic cup of coffee. She’s just excited about her time off.

I’m nearly to the end of the block when I feel lightheaded and stumble. I’m vaguely aware of the coffee falling from my hand as I hit the sidewalk, flat on my face. I try to push myself up but can’t make my body move.

“I’ve got you, baby.” I recognize the voice through my mental fog. Roxanne gathers me into her arms and kisses the hair just above my ear. “Roxie’s got you now.”

Roses

The curtains are sheer enough to see their silhouettes but little else. I remember when we picked them out. I only wanted something to cover the large windows but Marla had very specific requirements. They had to go perfectly with the walls and furniture. That’s how she approached every aspect of her life: the perfect accessories to create the perfect image.

I stopped being the perfect accessory a year ago. It took her three months to find my replacement. Her new wife couldn’t be more different from me: tall to my short, fair to my dark, sweet and simple-minded to my direct and intellectual. And, of course, she’s much younger. Our life wasn’t very exciting or perfect after seventeen years. It was time for a change. I only wish I had seen it coming. I could have prepared. Lesson learned. I’m a planner, now.

It’s a cold night but I won’t be here much longer. My spot in the bushes across the street protects me pretty well from the wind and, really, that’s the worst part. The wind and the damp ground that I’m kneeling on seep into my bones. I’ll need to take a long, hot bath when I get home to completely get rid of the chill. Three minutes to show time.

Valentine’s Day was never a big deal for us but I guess the new Mrs. Hughes feels differently. I wonder which one of them had set up the candles and spread the white and red rose petals on the bed in the master suite. I was surprised and, if I’m honest, hurt to think that Marla would have done something so romantic. She was never like that with me. I must not inspire that sort of lust and desire.

I only had a few minutes to get my own surprise set up and check out the rest of the house. Not much had been changed since I moved out. The biggest difference was that all of the photos of me and Marla had been replaced with ones of the new couple. It took an incredible amount of will power not to destroy the large wedding portrait hung over the fireplace in the living room. They do look good together, I’ll give them that.

Their shadows are moving slowly in the flickering light and I imagine there’s a cozy fire burning. As they lean in for a kiss, there’s a flash and a ground-shaking boom. The force of the explosion knocks me onto my behind and I’m momentarily stunned. A few seconds later, neighbors are streaming into the street. As I prepare to escape through the dark yards, I notice a scrap of white against the black ground. As soon as my hand touches it, I know exactly what it is and bring the soft petal to my nose. It still smells sweet. Happy Valentine’s Day, Marla.

Blast

“Thank you for calling. This is Sheila, how can I help you?” I don’t really want to help but that’s what we have to say. Honestly, I don’t want to speak to anyone at all. I had a terrible night and I know that everyone who’s taken a moment to glance at my face would have noticed my swollen, bloodshot eyes.

It’s nearly 9:30 and the noise level in the open workspace has increased considerably. There’s always more chatter on a Monday morning. Everyone catching up with each other about what they did over the weekend. I don’t participate and hope no one asks me to join in. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the occasional small talk with co-workers, it’s that I haven’t got anything I want to share. I spent the past two days arguing and defending myself against claims of infidelity. As if anyone would even want to have an affair with me. I’m 53 years old, overweight, and haven’t been called pretty once in my life. But Jeff would hear none it. A few texts from some stupid man who had the wrong number but wouldn’t stop with the sexually explicit messages – even though it was clear that he had the wrong person – seemed to be all the proof he needed. His paranoia has been growing since being laid off and I’m beginning to fear for my safety. He’s never been violent before but he’s changed so much.

I’m still listening to the caller ramble on about her billing problem when there’s a loud bang near the reception area and the conversation around me ceases immediately. Another booming sound reverberates around the us. Then I see him. Jeff, his eyes wild and his face red, is steadily making his way toward me. He hasn’t said a word but is scanning the room, like he’s looking for someone in particular.

I am completely unable to do anything besides watch as he turns to his left, brings the shotgun to his shoulder, and shoots Paul in the face. The group of women he had been with scream and drop to the floor.

“Was it him, Sheila?!” He’s not looking at me when he shouts but, instead, moves to the right a few steps where Carl is still seated behind his desk. Jeff raises the gun again and I can see the back of Carl’s head explode.

I jump to my feet as he’s reloading, pulling shells from the pocket of his black parka. “It’s no one, Jeff! I told you! There is no one. Please, dear God, please stop!”

And he does stop. He stops, looks me in the eyes, and aims the shotgun at me. “You fucking whore.” He says it quietly, calmly, and I can barely hear him.

Without lowering the weapon, he marches up to the front of my desk and presses the barrel to my forehead. It’s still hot.

“Whore,” the word reaches my ears a split second before the blast.