copyright (c) 1994 Kenneth Kittlitz
The cook's forearm was very tough; I wasn't enjoying myself at all.
My knife hit one of the bones -- the ulna or the radius, I'm not sure which -- and a drop of blood splattered on my new white evening dress, bought especially for tonight. It just wasn't fair.
Diana smirked and winked at Franklin. Damn her -- why did she have to act like that? And why did Franklin return her wink? Surely he knew it broke my heart.
"Would you like something lighter, Ann?" I could hear the amusement in Diana's voice. Even James, sweet, gentle James, chuckled softly before taking another mouthful.
I clutched my knife and fork as tears tried to force their way through. No. I would not let Diana ruin it, this one night of the year when we four were together. I would try a bit of the Mercedes man, Norman -- he had been well-padded.
But first.... I looked down at my plate. A few more mouthfuls, to show my determination. I sighed.
"Pass the salt, please."
Nick's Steakhouse was thirty kilometres from the city, strategically near the Mt. Pleasant golf course. Being on Highway 14, it was often open late at night, though most of its business was done at dinner time. Highway 2 was only five km west of Highway 14, and ran in almost the same direction.
We couldn't have asked for anything better.
Even so, I had to marvel at James's efficiency. I once told him he would have shone brightly in Hitler's Germany, and I think he took it as a compliment. All I knew about Nick's was courtesy of his research, of course. Normally, I don't eat at such places.
Everything was already in the van when he picked us up at the prearranged locations; everything, and three highway department sawhorses:
USE HIGHWAY 2
Franklin asked him if he'd bought new batteries for the sawhorses' flashing lights, and James replied quite seriously that he had.
By the time we set them up and arrived at our destination, it was 12:28 a.m. Two minutes ahead of schedule. James tensed as we drove into the parking lot, his eyes flicking back and forth. When he saw the Mercedes, he smiled.
"One customer, at least. Thank God for that."
I nodded, too excited to speak. Still, after all these years. I picked up my weapon for the evening, a pearl-handled .22, and spun the cylinder.
James killed the engine. "Anyone hungry?" It was an old joke.
He got out and headed for the front door, Franklin close behind. I stayed near the van, watching the side door. Diana glanced enviously at me, then hurried around to the back. She knew the rules.
The front door was glass, and I could clearly see the cashier's expression change from surprise to recognition when she saw James. She smiled as she undid the lock.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Michalski, but we were just--"
James pushed her firmly, nearly making her trip, then was inside and out of sight. Franklin stopped just inside the foyer, going into a slight crouch.
"Don't move, please." His voice was rich, deep and authoritative. "Everybody relax. No reason to be scared."
He stood there like an ebony god, the silenced .45 in his left hand. A big gun for a big man. Looking at him, I felt a tingling down below, and knew for the first time that I wanted him.
James came back into view with a scared-looking black cook whose body looked pathetic next to Franklin's, then walked to the door and nodded at me. By the time I got there, Diana had already come in through the back. James frowned at her, but she only shrugged.
"I knew you'd get them all."
I stood near Franklin and looked into the dining room. An older couple sat at a table with coffee cups in front of them, looking confused. Their Mercedes couldn't help them now.
The cashier was staring numbly at James. Her lower lip trembled. "You've shaved your beard off, Mr. Michalski."
James patted her shoulder and smiled. "I have."
Diana giggled, not even bothering to hide it. She was being very unprofessional.
James glanced disapprovingly at her then turned back to the cashier. "I'm sorry I had to push you, Melissa. Are you hurt?" She shook her head.
"Good. Now tell me, where's your car?"
She blinked. "It's in the shop. Randy gave me a ride." She indicated the cook.
"Isn't that sweet?" said Diana. This time both Franklin and I looked at her.
"Mm." James smiled at us, his expression serene. We knew what to do.
Franklin motioned the cook over to where James was standing while Diana and I took Melissa into the dining room. The Mercedes couple hadn't moved at all, but as we approached the man stood.
"What the hell is going on here? What right do you people have to come in here and--"
"Be quiet," I said politely, pointing my gun at his face.
His mouth closed with a snap. He was nearly bald, with a red, sweaty face. His shirt and suit jacket bulged over a prominent belly. I disliked him instantly. His wife looked up at him, and I found I liked her even less. Blue-rinsed hair framing a face of sharp angles and crevasses, she was a fine example of too much money and too little taste. I would rather have died than looked like that.
"Sit down, Norman," she hissed. "Don't be a fool!"
The Mercedes man sat. I looked back into the foyer, where James was talking quietly with the cook. Though I couldn't hear them, I knew what they were saying:
Your parents are home, aren't they -- Ike and Jan? Yes? Well then, we'd better call them, because we're going to be here for awhile. Tell them you've had car trouble. No, it's nothing serious. You've phoned the A.M.A. but it'll be at least a few hours before you get home. Yes, you're perfectly fine. No, there's nothing to worry about.
James was so good at that sort of thing.
He did Melissa next, then walked back with her, looking at Norman and wife. They were the unknowns in tonight's little equation. The excitement.
He reached their table and extended his hand. "Mr. ah--"
"Thornbull. Norm Thornbull," said the Mercedes man. He scowled and kept his hands in his lap.
James merely smiled. "May I see your wallet, please?"
Norman looked like he was going to say something, but his blue-rinsed witch glared at him. He shrugged and tossed over his wallet. James examined it quickly; I saw the flash of a VISA Gold card.
"Who is Mr. Jeffries?"
"The executer of my estate." Norman said, playing absently with his fork. I have always hated people who do that.
"No children?" Norman shook his head. "No one expecting you tonight?" Norman opened his mouth but James quickly raised his hand.
"Please, Mr. Thornbull. I ask only because we may be here for quite some time. I don't want anyone worrying needlessly about you."
Norman looked down at the table. "No," he said. "There's no one."
James nodded gravely. "Why are you here so late?"
Norman flushed. "We were at the club--"
"He drank double scotches," his wife cut in. "Took him hours to sober up." Her face was twisted with spite, her voice dripped with it, and I knew she wouldn't be one to forgive, or forget.
"Dr. Hanover's birthday?" asked James.
"Why yes," said Norman, smiling for the first time. "You know him?"
James smiled back. "Dick's a fine fellow." He turned to Diana. "I think we're ready--"
She was already heading for the door, returning a minute later with the box. Her eyes were bright, like a child's on Christmas morning.
"It is my turn, isn't it?"
Both James and Franklin nodded, and she ran into the kitchen.
The cook looked after her, eyes wide and nervous. Suddenly, he turned and stepped towards Franklin.
"Hey -- brothers got to stick together!"
Franklin's eyes narrowed, he swung his gun to point at the cook's chest. I knew how he must hate the idea of this piece of trash, who probably hadn't even finished high school, trying to associate himself with him.
The cook stopped; his arm dropped. Franklin's face broke into an easy grin. He leisurely scratched his head. "Well, you might just have something there."
The cook's expression changed from fear to cautious optimism so quickly it was almost funny. "Yeah, yeah," he said. "We're in this together, y'know?"
Franklin nodded slowly. "Yes, that's certainly true. Tell you what," he said, smiling again. "Would you like to help with dinner?"
The cook's head nodded so vigorously I thought it would come right off. Franklin clapped him heartily on the shoulder. "Diana, dear, are you ready?"
"And waiting!" Her voice was high with excitement.
James stepped to other side of the cook and the three of them walked towards the kitchen while I moved back to cover the others.
"I know this place inside out, Mr. Michalski," the cook, now out of sight, was saying. We can cook up anything you damn well want--"
A gasp, the sound of a brief struggle. I watched our guests very carefully now -- their reactions never fail to fascinate me. All three were staring at the kitchen doorway; you could almost see their ears pricking forward, like the antennae of insects. But there were only the faintest of sounds, sounds much like those an eavesdropper, loitering near closed bedroom doors in the night, might hear.
James and Franklin reentered the dining room a few minutes later, looking solemn. There were dark stains on James's shirt -- Melissa started sobbing when she saw them. The Mercedes man and his wife started to look frightened. Quite frightened.
"What the hell--" began Norman, but James silenced him with a chilly smile as he patted Melissa's shoulder.
"There, there, dear. Let's just get this over with."
She looked at him, tears streaking her cheeks, and let him guide her into the kitchen. I felt a twinge of pity for her -- of them all, she was the sweetest. But just not a survivor, that much was obvious.
James wouldn't look at us when he came back, and I realized that Melissa had triggered one of his bouts of melancholy. He sat down facing the window.
Franklin glanced quickly at me, sighed, and looked down at Mrs. Thornbull. "Ma'am?"
She cringed and looked at her husband. "Norman! I think they've..." Her hands reached across the table and clutched his arms. Norman flinched and looked wildly at us. "I... uh. I think--" A thin line of spittle ran from his mouth.
Franklin sighed again, smiling tolerantly, and grabbed Mrs. Thornbull under the arms. She yelped and tried to pull away, but there was nowhere to go. I reached across the table and started prying her hands off her husband. Her left index finger, encrusted with a large ruby in a gaudy setting, proved very troublesome, and when I applied pressure something snapped. She screamed then, rather loudly, but after that it was easy. Norman just sat there, mouth open, as Franklin and I dragged her from her seat.
She stopped screaming as we pulled her towards the kitchen, her face freezing into a rigid, glassy stare. It was like pulling a corpse, a corpse with blue-rinsed hair. Her heels skidded and slipped on the kitchen's tiled floor, we almost skated her around the corner.
Diana had put four narrow streaks of blood on her face, like warpaint -- I had to admit the effect was striking. Mrs. Thornbull obviously thought so too, because she started screaming and thrashing again when she saw. For a second I lost my grip, and her flailing hand, the one with the ruby, slapped me before I could grab hold again. We managed to get her in place, but even then she made a horrible scene, thrashing and knocking over the bucket and still trying to scream even after Diana had made the cut. It was all so disgracefi I just had to kick her, though by the time I did I don't think she noticed.
When we came back into the dining room, James and Norman were talking. James was standing now, his gun held loosely at his side, while Norman looked up at him with a peculiar grin on his face. He was sweating heavily, and his complexion had gone an unpleasant shade of yellow.
"Listen," he was saying. "If you're one of O'Toole's people, I can assure you that the land will be free--"
Suddenly James's gun was pointing at Norman's nose. James's eyes looked like black chips behind his glasses, and his voice was low, menacing. "You sorry piece of shit."
Norman stared cross-eyed at the gun. Tears began trickling down his face. "No," he said, voice hitching. "Please don't."
James lowered the gun and looked away. "Get out of here."
I felt as shocked as Norman looked. Beside me, Franklin's hand strayed uneasily to his gun.
"You heard me!" Sudden color had come to James's cheeks. "Get into your Mercedes and get the fuck out of here! You're not fit to eat."
Norman jerked to his feet like a puppet. He started backing out of the dining room, twitching his head to keep us all in view. Franklin and I stared at him, at each other, not knowing what to do. James had turned back to the window.
Norman backed into a table, squealed, and ran for the door. He had actually pushed it open before James turned, brought the gun up smoothly, and shot him through the back of the head. His fingers made little scraping sounds on the glass as he fell.
"There," James said, smiling at us. "I feel much better now."
Remembering that little scene made me smile, too. James's moods could change so quickly! As could mine, I supposed. Now, helping myself to Norman, I had to admit it had all been worthwhile. I was glad to be there, with my friends, enjoying a good meal. I would even forgive Diana her childish ways, as long as she kept away from Franklin. Speaking of whom...
I turned my smile on him, and felt myself blush when he responded in kind. James saw us, and nodded slowly. I knew he approved.
Suddenly, he frowned. "Shhh!" he hissed. No one had been speaking.
I sat up and listened. A faint sound, growing louder now, recognizable. Horribly recognizable.
A car's engine.
"Shit!" James's eyes went wild. "He lied! That bastard Thornbull lied! Someone was expecting them!" He jabbed furiously at a piece of Melissa. "Bastard! Bastard! Bastard!"
Glass shattered. James stopped, mouth open, fork poised above his plate. Franklin looked at him calmly from across the table. His wine glass lay in shards against the wall.
"Get down! Now!"
We all dropped to the floor, and a second later I heard the car turn into the parking lot. Only one of the restaurant's windows had its curtains closed, and now Franklin crawled across the floor and peeked through it. "Oh shit," he said softly. "Mountie."
My stomach lurched. James stared at Franklin in disbelief. His hands were shaking.
"That's impossible. He doesn't come by here for another three hours!"
"Tonight he's early," Franklin said. I could hear the fear in his voice, hear it and understand it. We were brave -- these annual affairs were surely proof of that -- but even so...
Diana giggled then, and we all looked over at her. She was grinning, a straight razor in one hand. "I'll take care of this," she said.
She casually made a cut in her dress, exposing her left breast, and ran a hand vigorously through her hair. Once, when we were on friendlier terms, she had told me that such a look arouses a mixture of protectiveness and lust in men. She smiled at Franklin, and I was horrified to see the eager gleam in his eyes. She knew I wanted him, and she was going to steal him from me. God damn her!
From my position, I was the only who could see her as she crawled along the floor like a snake, still smiling. Then a car door slammed, and for a moment my anger was forgotten. I imagined the gun in the mountie's hand, cocked and ready, and could hear his boots, thudding like doom on the concrete. Closer, now, coming closer... I blinked, and a figure loomed in the doorway.
He was a tall man in his late thirties; he looked honest. His gun was holstered. When he saw Diana, his jaw dropped and he yanked open the door. She was on her knees, trying her best to look vulnerable and desirable.
The mountie leaned over her, reaching out a hand. His face was stretched into lines of concern, his eyes were wide. He opened his mouth to say something and Diana slit his throat with one quick motion.
The jet of blood was sickening; I almost looked away. Diana tilted her face and let it flow over her, standing only when the mountie fell to his knees.
"There," she said, turning. Her face was a red mask. "What could be easier?"
Behind her, the mountie looked very surprised. His hand clutched at the butt of his revolver, slowly pulled it from its holster. I really should have said something.
Diana's eyes narrowed. She turned back just in time.
The shot was loud and crass, making me wince. Diana doubled over, putting both hands to her stomach. She and the mountie stared at each other for a moment, like lovers surprised by the suddenness of a quarrel, then he slumped quietly on his side.
Diana turned around again, mouth opening and closing. Blood, darker than that on her face and breast, worked its way through her interlaced fingers. Beside me, Franklin and James had gotten to their feet.
Diana fell on her face. One high-heeled shoe came off as her legs kicked against the carpet. I stood and stepped closer, feeling calm, wondering if she had soiled herself.
"Diana!" Franklin rushed to her side. She had already stopped moving.
James was leaning on one of the tables, head in his hands. "My fault. My fault."
Diana. Dead. The words went well together. A smile toyed with the corners of my mouth. "James," I said, lightly touching his shoulder. "We have to go. There isn't much time."
He stared at me blankly, then his eyes lost their dazed look. "Oh shit! Time!" He stood, brushed past me, ran for the door. "Get the gasoline! Franklin!"
Franklin was kneeling by Diana's body, but when James shook his shoulder he was up and moving. Within a minute they were back with the jerrycans. I took the one Franklin offered me, feeling myself blush and grin as our hands met. The gasoline made a pleasant sound as I applied it, a counterpart to my growing excitement. Splash, splash, splash. On the walls, on the floor, on the food. There was no time for a proper cleanup -- our dinner guests simply had to stay where they were.
Not Diana. She looked like an obstacle, lying there on the floor, an obstacle my mountie friend had removed. I rushed to open the door as James and Franklin picked her up, feeling as giddy as a girl at the first dance of junior high. I smiled at Franklin as they went by, and tried to catch his eye. He didn't look at me, didn't look up. But I saw the glint of a tear on his cheek, and his lips, forming one silent word.
I stood there, holding the door. Empty, a shell. I had never had a chance.
I was still standing there when James, looking grim and morose, came back, finished the final check, and motioned me outside. He lit the match without ceremony.
A cloud of gloom hovered over us as we drove. Franklin sat beside me, impossibly far. After a few minutes the headlights picked out one of our sawhorses, and James eased the van to a stop. We had completely forgotten about them.
James glared at it for a few moments. "Fuck it," he said, and we drove on.
He was right -- what was the point? The scene at the steakhouse would cause so many problems that our next get-together would have to take place far away, perhaps on another continent. Without Diana, I realized, we might not have one at all. She was still ruining everything, even now that she was--
James swore and yanked the wheel to the left. I looked up and saw a rabbit, standing in the middle of the road, its eyes reflecting our headlights. Oh God -- so close!! I pressed myself against Franklin, expecting a thump, but at the last moment it leapt, leapt up like a rocket and was gone.
And somehow, that changed everything. We laughed, our hearts racing wildly, our bodies shaking, the cloud of gloom vanishing. Franklin and I looked at each other and smiled tentatively; I felt a thrill as his hand settled gently over my own.
We drove in silence for a time, then James cleared his throat and smiled nervously. "About next year -- ah, I know a young lady who might be persuaded to join us." I was amazed to see he was blushing.
Franklin and I looked at each other and smiled again.
"That would be wonderful, James."
James nodded and turned on the radio. Van Morrison came on -- something from Astral Weeks, I think. I rested my head against Franklin's shoulder, smelling sweat and dried blood. Outside, trees went by in a dark blur. I closed my eyes and drowsed then, listening to the sound of the tires and thinking of the years to come.