“Two Frogs in the belly of a snake were considering their altered circumstances. ‘This is pretty hard luck,’ said one.”
—Ambrose Bierce, Fantastic Fables
That night, Maxim Nichols—“Maxie” to his friends—could do no wrong.
By leaving his players-club card in machines for others to play on and by strategically buying-in and cashing-out chips at different windows, Maxie managed to fool the casino operators into thinking he was a big spender. A big enough spender to reward with a complimentary hotel room and a steak dinner at the casino’s upscale restaurant.
Not only was he lucky that way, but he also made a hundred bucks at the blackjack table and only lost twenty at the slots.
He was about to carve into his plateful of bloody rib eye, feeling pleasantly buoyed by his good fortune, when a woman at the next table caught his eye.
She sat alone, picking at a salad, looking bored. On the losing side of fifty, her auburn hair newly permed, she wore an embroidered, off-the-shoulders blouse and had the sort of long, boney face that some might indelicately describe as equine. She was no one’s idea of a babe, but something else about the woman drew his attention: he could smell money on her.
What the hell? He’d roll the dice.
“Excuse me, missus,” he said, “but I was wondering if I could join you at your table. I hate to eat alone.”
She dabbed at plump lips with a napkin, appraising him. “Well, I suppose there’s no harm in it,” she said in a deep voice. Before she could say another word, he carried over his plates, silverware, and coffee cup.
“I’m Maxim Nichols,” he said, shaking her hand. “Perhaps you’ve heard of me. My family owns Nichols Jewelry, the diamond stores.” His estranged half-uncle’s family, actually. Maxie’s role in the firm’s operations was limited to supplying it with bargain-priced gems of suspicious origins. Nichols Jewelry listed him as a consultant, but most people would have described his occupation as a fence.
“I’m Enid Frank.”
Her earrings were pearl. She wore a diamond stickpin in her blouse, and on a pinky finger, a cameo ring with an ivory setting. Her nails were French-tipped and manicured.
“You a slot player?” he guessed, sawing into his steak.
“I’m not much of a gambler.” She speared a green olive with her fork. “I just came here with a friend. A girls’ night out.”
It was funny how some women chafed at being called a girl, then applied the term to themselves, perhaps thinking it made them sound younger. Was she trying to sound younger for him?
“Where is your friend?” he asked.
She paused and studied him briefly. Go ahead, he thought. Trust me. She shrugged, deciding some question in her mind. “Marjorie made an early night of it. I stuck around, though I’m not sure why.”
Maxie grinned. “To soak up the atmosphere, perhaps? That’s why I come here. I’m not much of a gambler either, but I find the gaming atmosphere charged. Exciting. People are so hopeful when giving fortune a spin, don’t you think? And so thrilled to win a cupful of quarters or score at the line on a two-dollar pass bet. It’s delightful viewing. It beats watching television at home.” Did that count as two or three lies in a row? Come to think of it, the part about watching TV was the truth.
She nodded and returned his smile.
After dinner, they made small talk, then circled the gaming floor together, amid the flashing lights and the ringing bells. They shared a few drinks at the casino bar, slow danced beneath a strobe-lit disco ball, kissed outside a gift shop, and wound up passing the summer evening in Maxie’s comped hotel room.
Enid Frank was a widow. Her husband, Earl, had been a talented stockbroker who left her well off when his heart imploded six years ago. They’d had no children, and few friends who weren’t colleagues or family of Earl. Since Earl’s death, she saw less and less of these people, though at least she could count on Marjorie for companionship. But most nights, Enid spent alone in her condominium in a coved community on Prior Lake, watching movies or reading mystery novels. Her favorite author was Agatha Christie.
The next morning, they ordered breakfast from room service and ate it in bed: eggs, bagels, and strong coffee.
“I must say, Enid, I certainly enjoy being with you. Do you think we could go out again sometime? Maybe for dinner?”
Was that a blush? She patted her permed hair and adjusted the collar of her fluffy white hotel robe. “Of course, Maxim. Nothing would please me more.”
He offered to drive her home, but, as she’d brought her own car, that was unnecessary. It was a good thing, too, since Maxie’s somber, beige, ten-year-old Chevy Malibu hardly seemed like the sort of vehicle a prestigious diamond merchant should ride around in. She did leave him with her cell-phone number, though, written on the hotel stationery with her name spelled out beside a tiny heart.
When she left, Maxie sat back down on the bed, licking his chops like a lion about to pounce on a tasty wildebeest.
“SO, HOW ARE YOU GOING to play it? Short con or long?”
Leaning over the pool table’s green felt at the Two Stooges hall in Fridley, Fast Benny Santiago snapped his wrist, and the cue ball knocked the solid-yellow one ball into the corner pocket. He chalked the tip of his stick.
“Not sure. This is kind of new territory for me. What would you do, Benny?”
Stepping around the table, Benny—all a hundred and twenty-five pounds of him, his worn tan suit hanging loosely on his frame, his pork-pie hat pulled down over his eyebrows—lined up his next shot and mulled Maxie’s query. “Well,” he said, nudging the cue ball with a little spin toward the orange five. The five dropped into a side pocket. “How rich are we talking?”
“I’m thinking pretty rich. A quarter-mill, maybe more.”
Benny whistled. “She’s a widow, you say? Are you thinking of marrying her?”
“Not if I can help it. She’s not much to look at, and her idea of a fun time is watching a Miss Marple telethon on PBS.”
Benny did some serious chalking of his pool stick. “You could woo her. Make her think you might marry her. At least make her think you’re open to the idea. Get her to let down her guard. Then get her to hand the cash over voluntarily. ‘A foolproof investment.’ Something like that.”
“This is the part where it takes money to make money. I’d have to impress on her that I don’t need her cash. That’s the only way she’d hand hers over to me. Putting on a front like that would cost more than I’d like to spend. It’d take a fancy car, a pricey house, and some wrangling to get her a sham tour of the Nichols Jewelry office. That will mean talking with my uncle.”
Maxie shrugged “It might be necessary to convince Enid of my story.”
Benny had the blue two ball near the far corner pocket, but Maxie’s striped ten was in the way. A banked shot with just enough kiss on it might drop the two, but it meant banking around the eight ball. A tricky shot.
“Take it one step at a time, Maxie. Rent yourself a snazzy car, pick her up at her place and take her out for an expensive meal. And don’t chisel on the tip. You drive back to her place, maybe she lets you in, and you get a better handle on how vulnerable she is.”
He could afford to rent a car.
“I’ll bet you ten bucks I sink the two ball,” Fast Bennie said.
MAXIE PARKED THE MERCEDES-BENZ E-300 in the visitors lot and stood there in the warm night air for a minute admiring it. He’d never before driven as ritzy a car. Metallic blue, tan leather interior, automatic climate control, Bluetooth, heated seats, sunroof. The works. It was four years old, but the dealership was bleeding him over a hundred bucks a day for it. He only hoped the investment paid off.
The condos all looked down on a harbor cleanly lined with speedboats and pontoons. Concrete steps led to the front doors. Enid’s place was toward the middle of a grouping of four-story, newly painted luxury buildings that must have cost half a mill at least. He climbed the stairs to her home and pressed the doorbell, Enid’s estimated net worth having doubled already.
A woman answered. Not Enid, but a mid-fifties brunette, a little on the plump side but athletic, with eyes as cold as January frost on Lake Minnetonka. She smiled, sort of, but like her eyes, her smile held no real joy. “You must be Maxim,” she said. “I’m Enid’s friend Marjorie. She’ll be down in a minute.”
Marjorie held open the door, and Maxie entered.
The place was airy and neat, with all-new or nearly new furniture. There was a lot of leather, chunky wood polished to a shine, and glimmering brass. Stairs led to the second, third and fourth stories, and an open doorway led to the basement.
Marjorie walked across the room and closed the basement door.
“Enid says you’re in the diamond business?”
“My family owns Nichols Jewelry. I’m semi-retired at this point, but I own a half-interest in our store at the Mall of America, and I own a diamond-import business with offices in St. Louis Park and Antwerp.” The lies glided smoothly from his tongue.
Marjorie’s cold eyes narrowed. “That sounds impressive.”
“Nowadays, the businesses just sort of run themselves. I have good people, but I stop in occasionally just to let them know the old man still has a hand in running things.”
“You live in St. Louis Park?”
“Edina. I knock around in a big old house by myself. Not sure why I even have it. I guess you have to do something with your money. Besides vacationing in St. Thomas, that is.” He winked at her.
Her eyes thawed a degree. “I hope you don’t mind me asking you these questions. I feel a bit protective of Enid. Ever since Earl died. There are scoundrels in the world ready to swoop in on a wealthy widow. To flatter her and break her heart, just to get at her money.”
“Shameful,” Maxie said, pulling a troubled face. “I hope you don’t count me in with those characters. I assure you, all I want from Enid is the pleasure of her company. Speaking of which.”
Enid descended the steps in a black evening dress with a cowl neck and a high slit that revealed one nylon-clad leg, and a hat with a black veil.
“You look radiant,” Maxie said. “I hope you brought an appetite.”
“I’m famished. Where are you taking me?”
“I thought we’d grab a burger and a shake at McDonald’s.”
She looked stunned.
“Or,” he said, “we could have surf-and-turf at Mancini’s.”
She laughed. “Oh, Maxim. I’ll have to get used to your sense of humor.”
AFTER DINNER, OVER COCKTAILS, Maxie began tightening the noose.
“I so enjoy your company, Enid.”
“And I yours, Maxim.”
“Do you believe in fate?”
She leaned forward, patting her perm beneath the brim of her hat in a conspiratorial manner. “I believe in hard work and luck. If our destiny is predetermined, then what’s the point of setting goals for ourselves? Of keeping our noses to the grindstone and living upright lives? Fate, it seems to me, is a wretch’s excuse for failure.”
“I see what you mean.” Maxie reached out across the table and took her hand in his. Blue veins snaked beneath her paper-thin skin. “But aren’t we all affected by forces beyond our control? Don’t you sometimes feel the pull of inevitability? Take, for instance, you and I. Was it just luck that has brought us together?”
She smiled slyly. “Perhaps good luck. It’s a bit early to say.”
He feigned being wounded. “You cut me to the quick, dear heart. Am I the only one who feels the attraction?”
She licked her thick lower lip and looked down through her veil at his hand on hers. “No. You’re not the only one.”
A waitress brought their bill in a brown leatherette folder. Maxie examined the charge, opened an overstuffed wallet, and handed a pair of crisp fifties to the waitress.
“I’ll get your change,” the girl said.
“Don’t bother.” Maxie grinned. “You keep the extra.”
IN THE COMING WEEK, they went out for dinner again one night. Then, on Saturday, they had a picnic lunch in shady Centennial Lakes Park in Edina, where they listened to a rousing concert put on by the 1st John Philip Sousa Memorial Band. The musicians skillfully delivered on various marching tunes that sounded familiar, even if Maxie didn’t recognize most of them by name. However, he immediately recognized the closing number. He, Enid, and the rest of the crowd were on their feet and clapping as the orchestra broke into a hardy rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” It soared in all its glory on the cheery summer breeze.
Then, holding hands, Enid and he strolled the park’s leafy greenery.
“Would you like to see my bungalow?” Maxie said.
“Yes. Very much.”
Fast Bennie knew a guy who knew a guy who rented out expensive homes throughout the Twin Cities through an Airbnb-type service. Usually, the rental guy charged $160 a night for the “cabin,” as he called it, but Maxie got him down to $120 a night on a four-day deal. The days didn’t need to be consecutive, as long as they were convenient for the landlord.
Maxie had checked the place out when he picked up the key this morning. It was a hell of a place: two stories; large, open rooms; polished wood floor; tastefully furnished. The master bedroom, which was almost as large as Maxie’s entire apartment, came with a stone fireplace, a king-size bed, and windows that took up most of the wall space. Behind the cabin ran a wooded creek.
He familiarized himself with where everything was; then he laid out a few personal touches: bathroom items, clothing, some dirty laundry for the bathroom hamper, a bag of groceries for the fridge, and Johnny Walker Red and Kentucky Owl Confiscated Bourbon on a counter. He left a diamond catalog from Botswana, and a handful of mail addressed to Maxim Nichols at this Edina address on the kitchen table. He left a cabinet open, moved the chairs around loosely, ruffled the drapes, and just did his best to give the place a lived-in feel.
That afternoon, when Enid stepped through the doorway, Maxie could tell he made the right impression.
“Maxim, it’s gorgeous,” Enid said, her eyes filled with dancing light. “You must think I live in a hovel.”
“Not at all, dear heart. I never judge a person by the size of their wallet.”
They talked about the concert, about Enid’s sister who lived in sunny Florida, about that crazy Trump fellow who was running the country into the ground. Eventually, they got around to discussing Marjorie. Maxie had been to Enid’s condo three times now, and two of those times, Marjorie had been there.
“So, you and Marjorie are very close friends, I take it?”
“Yes. Marjorie has been my rock, through good times and bad. She has her peculiarities, but I couldn’t ask for a more faithful friend. We graduated from Highland Park Senior High together. Some of the other kids shied away from her, said she made them nervous, but I never felt nervous around her. Marjorie is a welder. Isn’t that interesting? Anyway, she was in my wedding party, you know. Maid of honor. She was with me when Earl passed. Marjorie would do anything for me, and I for her.”
Maxie could still feel the iciness of Marjorie’s gaze. He understood why she made people nervous.
He whipped up spaghetti with white sauce for dinner. They talked about politics and movies, and music. She asked him about the diamond business. What was it like? He told her about cut and clarity, about how diamonds were formed and what parts of the world they came from. He touched briefly on conflict diamonds and how Nichols Jewelry couldn’t in good conscience deal in those tainted gems (a lie, of course). He talked about Antwerp and Amsterdam and how she would love a visit to Holland. She’d never been there, but then, in truth, neither had he. The closest he’d ever come to foreign shores was an Asian restaurant called Ping’s on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis.
“You’ve done well for yourself, Maxim.”
“Well, I hate to brag,” he said, blotting white sauce from his chin. “But what about you, Enid? How are you fixed financially?”
He thought he saw her cringe, but he was being careful to make the question appear off the cuff and wasn’t looking directly at her at the time. She went silent.
“I’m sorry if I’ve overstepped,” he said. “Your finances, of course, are your affair. It’s just that in the diamond trade, there are so many opportunities to make money that I would be a poor friend if I didn’t offer you a taste. If you had any interest, that is. And if you could afford it.”
She cleared her throat. “Before he died, Earl converted our stock investments into municipal-bond funds. They provide me with a steady if somewhat frugal income. I also receive monthly social-security payments for Earl. The condominium is paid in full, aside from the association fees and utilities. Earl’s life-insurance money is just sitting in the bank, earning very little in interest but protected by the FDIC. I haven’t touched it.”
Maxie screwed on his concerned face. “Well, you know best. But it seems a shame that the only ones collecting anything of note from that insurance money is your bank.”
He could see the scales of indecision shifting within her.
He let the subject drop, giving her time to think it over.
They made love on the king-size bed, the evening’s stars twinkling down on them through the massive windows. He found her pelvis a bit bony but otherwise enjoyed the pleasant ebb and swell of their merging. Afterward, he fetched them each a bourbon and water. From the kitchen, he heard her talking to someone on her mobile phone in the bedroom, but couldn’t hear what she was saying. By the time he returned, the conversation had ended.
They sat up in bed, sipping and talking quietly. She seemed more distant now, but it could have just been the dreaminess that often comes from lovemaking.
WHEN THE RENTED MERCEDES pulled into the visitors parking lot at Enid’s condominium complex, Maxie helped Enid out of the car. He draped an arm over her shoulders, and they stood looking in wonder at the moonlight shimmering on the bay.
“I’ve really enjoyed our time together, Maxim,” she said.
“As have I, dear heart. As have I.”
The pale moon shined on her forehead. Her eyes turned enchanted for an instant, and they kissed.
Then he felt her draw distant again.
Up the concrete steps to her front door, they climbed. He wasn’t sure if she was going to ask him in, but he hoped not. He wanted to get back to “the cabin” and tidy up before it got too late. He promised the landlord he’d be out by eleven the next morning.
He still needed to bring Enid round to Nichols Jewelry headquarter in St. Louis Park to set the hook firmly. That meant he’d need to line up cooperation from his estranged half-uncle and a few of the employees. Have them call him Mr. Nichols and kowtow to him and so forth. He wasn’t looking forward to speaking with Uncle Jack, who would have written him off years ago if Maxie hadn’t provided him with a pipeline to stolen diamonds. The old devil owed him, and he was sure he could collect. After all, it was such a small favor to ask.
If all went right, Maxie estimated that life-insurance money would be in his hands in a week or two. Three weeks tops.
“Would you like to come in?” Enid asked, hopefully.
“Of course, I would,” he lied.
A table lamp near the door lit the entranceway. The rest of the house was dark, except for a sliver of light shining from beneath the basement door. She moved in the dark, and he followed her into the kitchen, expecting her to turn on another light. But she didn’t. He was about to suggest it when movement disturbed the shadows behind him.
He started to turn toward the source when something unforgiving smacked the back of his head. It felt like a pipe or a solid piece of wood. His knees gave out, and he collapsed to the floor. He started to raise himself with his arms when the second blow fell. Blackness lunged out and grabbed him, yanking him in.
The last thing he remembered was the touch of cool linoleum on his cheek.
HE AWOKE GROGGY, his left eye glued shut with sleep goop. He forced it open and batted his lids until his surroundings began to swim into focus.
A powerful throb gripped the back of his head to the nape of his neck. Pain rattled in his skull like shattered glass, threatening to pulse out from behind his eyes. His stomach lurched but did not empty. When he tried to move his hands, he couldn’t. They were duct taped to the arms of a steel folding chair. Loops of tape also wound tightly around his belly, his shoulders, and his calves.
He sat totally naked.
The room he occupied was clawed from soil—a subbasement of some sort. A dim light bulb hung from an extension cord suspended from a hook in the ceiling’s low rafters. Against one wall was a tall, padlocked, military-style locker of gray metal. About six feet to his right, someone had dug a wide, deep hole. Bags of kitty litter and lye lined the wall just beyond the hole, along with a mound of dirt displaced by the digging. Spiders built extensive funnels of web in the room’s far corners.
A dirty-wood hatch opened overhead, flooding the room with light. A woman’s legs, bare to thigh-length denim, dangled through the opening. When she dropped, he saw who it was. She pulled the hatch door back into place and wiped dirt from her hands. She was too tall for the subbasement’s confines, so she hunched like Quasimodo.
The woman wore jean shorts, a black T-shirt with a skull advertising some horror novel called The Watchful Dead, and a pair of pale pink flip-flops. She walked boldly past Maxie to the locker, dialed a combination, and popped open the lock. The overhead bulb cast just enough light to leave the contents of the locker largely in shadow.
Holding open the locker door and looking back at him over her shoulder, she said, “You remember me?” Her cold eyes glowed in her plump face.
His first attempts to speak were unsuccessful. Finally, he got it out: “Marjorie, Enid’s friend.”
She kicked away the flip-flops. then pulled off the T-shirt, stripping to bare skin. She worked the shirt onto a wire hanger and suspended it from the venting on one of the metal doors. She’d recently been tanning, and the strap of her bathing suit had left a white stripe across her back. Dark hair sprang from her armpits.
“What are you going to do to me?” he asked.
She turned from the locker and faced him. Despite her slight chunkiness, her appearance was remarkably sexy, the swell of her breasts shining and firm; the brown waves of her medium-length hair pinned up in the back, revealing a surprisingly long and slender neck; even her frosty eyes offered a glimpse of forbidden pleasure. His overwhelming fear now mingled with a tinge of arousal. Under different circumstances, he could imagine bedding her.
Under vastly different circumstances.
“That depends on you, Mr. Nichols. I’m guessing you won’t let things get too unpleasant before you cooperate. But I’ve been wrong before.”
Marjorie snapped open the fly of her shorts, pulled them down over her thick legs, and afforded them a hanger all their own. She was now completely naked, and the dim light gave her skin a surreal glow. She faced him, two yards away—beyond his reach even if his hands had been free—standing hunched, legs spread, one hand on a fleshy hip, the other clutching a pen and notepad of paper. She waved the pad and pen at him.
“Are you a religious man, Mr. Nichols?”
“Yes. Do you go to church? Do you go to a Christian church and pray to God and Jesus? Do you?”
He wasn’t sure if this was some kind of trick question. What if I give the wrong answer? What could this madwoman want from me?
“S-s-sometimes, I guess.”
“Some Christians are so engrossed in the suffering of Jesus that they feel the need to share it. To bring great pain upon themselves in a misguided act of faith. They equate suffering with redemption, you see. With being pious and dutiful. Historians say that even St. Francis succumbed to this line of thinking, pummeling himself mercilessly and encouraging others to do likewise unto themselves.”
She chuckled and shook her head.
“I understand the allure of pain for these people. Pain, you see, holds a deeper truth than the most profound philosophy. Suffering brings us at once into the immediate moment. You cannot reason with it. Words are meaningless to pain. It’s a reality in itself, don’t you agree?”
“Well … to each his own, I guess.”
Her teeth gritted, and she moved her head from side to side.
“Would you like me to flog you, Mr. Nichols? Would that expiate you of your sins?”
“Sins? What do you mean?”
“Oh, come now. I imagine you’ve done your share of sinning in this world. Maybe taken advantage of certain people. Lying. Maybe telling lies to those who trusted you? Or are you guiltless as the babe in a manger?”
Maxie struggled against his bindings. “Look, I don’t know what this is about, but I’ll do whatever you say. Don’t hurt me. Please.”
She studied him as if he were a fly in one of the spiders’ corner nests.
“Alright. Let’s start with your PIN numbers,” she said.
“Your personal identification numbers. From all your accounts.”
“My PIN numbers? Is this a robbery? Is that what this is all about?”
“You’re a little slow to catch on, Mr. Nichols. Let me make your situation clear. You are duct-taped to a chair in a hole in the ground where no one could possibly hear your screams. You have the misfortune of being in said hole with a woman who would relish nothing more than to flay your skin from your bones if you fail to answer any of her questions. Is that clear enough for you?”
“But what about Enid? What have you done with her?”
“How sweet. He worries about Enid. About his little dear heart. Rest your mind, Sir Galahad. Enid is upstairs, probably watching the late news. Enid is my friend. I wouldn’t harm a hair on her head.”
“But I don’t understand. Has she any idea what you’re doing to me?”
“To say she’s been apprised would be an understatement. Now, let’s have those PINs.”
“Then what?” he demanded excitedly, trying to force himself up from the chair. “Is that hole in the ground meant for me?”
She set down her pad and pen on the earthen floor, went to the locker, and removed a cat-o’-nine-tails. She snapped it in the air so suddenly that he recoiled.
He ceased his struggling. “Listen, Marjorie. I may have given you and Enid a false impression. The truth is I’m not really rich. I don’t own diamond exchanges in Antwerp or anywhere else. I fence stolen rocks. It’s a living but—”
The whip flashed down on his thigh, each tendril biting into his skin with white-hot intensity. He yowled.
“You live a pretty good life for someone who’s just getting by. A Mercedes, which, by the way, has already been sold. Then there’s the house in Edina. Quite the digs, from what Enid said. And we spent some time researching you and your family. You’re listed on the website as a special consultant. That’s all we needed to know.”
Again the cords of leather crashed down on him, this time on the opposite thigh. The explosion of savage punishment brought tears to his eyes.
“Stop it! Stop it! I’ll tell you whatever you want.”
Another blow, piping hot on his naked chest, threatening to rip him open, talons of torment sinking into his muscle and bones.
“Aaah!” he shrieked in the primal language of the tortured. “Aaah! Aaah! Aaaaaaahhhhh!”
In the end, he gave up everything: the numbers, the institutions, the accounts. He even volunteered the information on an account the government didn’t even know about. Anything to stop the pain. All told, it didn’t really amount to much. Fifty thousand dollars, maybe, spread out over a half dozen financial firms—the savings of a lifetime from a small-time fence and wannabe con man.
As she jotted the last of the details in her notepad, all the fight had been taken out of Maxie. His flesh swarmed with burning welts, dark bruises, and pinprick ridges of blood. The sweat dripped from his chin. His bladder had given out at some point during his ordeal, and the air was heavy with the smell of urine.
“Please let me go,” Maxie said in a voice barren of strength and dignity. “I promise I won’t tell anyone about this.”
She stood over him for a minute like a demon-possessed peasant woman, breathing heavily from her exertions. She smiled widely, not a hint of compassion in those cold eyes.
“But, we’re just getting to the good part,” she hissed.
Marjorie returned the cat-o’-nine-tails and the notepad and the pen to the locker. She fumbled with something in the deep shadows. She pulled free a casing on wheels and rolled it out before him. A metal sheath housed two tanks with pressure gauges, coiled red and yellow tubing, and a shiny brass nozzle.
She uncoiled the tubing. “Do you know what this is, Mr. Nichols?”
He nodded vigorously, his face awash in sheer terror. He floundered in the metal chair, pleading with her to let him free.
“This is an oxy-acetylene torch,” she said. “See, I’ve attached a braising tip to it. That will give me a nice, slender flame, which is the best for this kind of usage. Here, I’ll show you.”
“Please don’t do this. Please let me go.”
She opened the oxygen valve all the way and just cracked the acetylene one. “To start, you only want a little flame.” She held a striker to the tip and squeezed out a spark. It lit at once.
“Please. I’m begging you.”
“Next, you want to lengthen the flame out, like this.” The fiery plume shot out in a great whoosh. “Your oxygen gets regulated here.” She pointed to the relevant knob, then twisted it. The flame narrowed and turned to a concentrated stream of purest white.
“Now,” she said. “Let’s have some real fun.”
Copyright 2021 by Joe Pawlowski
Joe Pawlowski has written three dark novels (most recently, The Cannibal Gardener), as well as the short-story collection from which this tale is drawn. He is a retired journalist, a U.S. Army veteran, a secular Buddhist, a Beatles fan, a vegan, and a lifelong student of classic horror and supernatural literature.