Gwinnett

A woman sat alone at a hotel bar in the middle of the afternoon. She wore a skinny red dress and sipped a gin and tonic. This was where she said to meet, even though she wasn’t a guest at the hotel. Pleased with her decision, she traced a fingernail across the smooth, cherry-stained wood bar. This wasn’t a seedy motel, or a cookie cutter chain where each lobby looked exactly the same, down to the inoffensive landscapes hung in cheap IKEA frames behind the counter.

No, this place was sexy, renovated from an old prison half a dozen years back. The woman studied the bar menu. Every drink was cleverly named to fit the theme of the hotel: Clink, Paddy Wagon, Lights Out, Solitary. The drinks they represented had little to do with their names, but she thought it was a nice touch. Even the bartender dressed the part in a chic jacket that mimicked the uniforms of the guards in “The Green Mile.” Thankfully, the managers saw fit to ditch the hats, which would have pushed the theme from tasteful to tacky. After pouring her drink, he gave her a wide berth.

He was tidying the already immaculate bar, clearly uncomfortable in her presence, an “older” woman in full charge of her sexuality. She watched him shuffle back and forth, looking for something around the bar even thinking about being out of order to quickly correct. He was a kid, hardly old enough to drink. She remembered being that young. She didn’t look back on it wistfully like other women her age. In fact, she felt sorry for people that recalled with rose-tinted glasses the awkward and unsure days of college where guys wanted you to throw yourselves at them lest you be called a prude. No, she much preferred to be in charge of her needs, making men, not boys, come to her. Speaking of which…

He was fifteen minutes late. She wasn’t worried. In fact his tardiness only exhilarated her more. After seeing his pictures, she told him exactly what she wanted to do to him, in blush-inducing detail. It was easier to put it in writing, crafting each word to elicit the desired response. Speaking those acts out loud would have the opposite effect; they would sound stupid and off-putting. Written down, though, her “correspondent” could fill in the blanks and get lost in the fantasy of it all. Anyone that wouldn’t take her up on an offer like that was crazy, or at least suitably intimidated, and she found that got her off even more than the sex. One in three would chicken out at the last minute, opting not to let their lust spill out from their own heads and into the real world. She expected to be disappointed, but found the anticipation alarmingly hot. So if he showed up, great. If not, then she at least had something to work with when she went home alone.

She perched on her seat facing away from the bar doing her best to look at nothing in particular but present herself in the best possible pose for when he did show up. Her lips lingered on the cool glass as she sipped slowly, intentionally. She stretched a tight, gently muscled arm out over the chair next to her and arched her shoulders back, presenting herself to the room as best she could. Even though it was just past three in the afternoon, the bar itself was dimly lit by hints of sunlight leaking through the tiny cell windows high above. A few businessmen slurped oysters and smoked cigars as they closed deals or agreed on who to downsize when they went back to the office. The woman felt them stealing glances at her, taking in the siren with the low-cut red dress and long, bronzed legs. She made a point to meet their gaze and force eye contact, causing them to quickly avert their stares. She loved it. She sipped and waited.

She was two deep by the time he showed up. She was about to order a third from the bartender who couldn’t bring himself to bus her glasses in fear of conversation or accidentally letting his eyes wander about the body of the woman that maybe reminded him of his mother. She leaned even farther forward, making it impossible not to notice the rabbit hole that descended past her breasts into the depths of her dress. Might as well have some fun.

When he turned the corner into the bar she felt a twinge of disappointment. Not only did he show up, but the pictures were of a man who was three years younger, at least. He’d lost weight and his mouth had sunk behind his hard cheekbones. He wasn’t handsome by any standard conventions, but still she stood to greet him with a passionate kiss and a soft hand draped around his neck. They parted and he coolly asked, “Cindy?”

“Thomas. It’s nice to meet you.” She pulled him by the hand toward the bar and the businessmen shook their heads in disbelief.

They sat and she ordered another gin and tonic for herself and a Paddy Wagon for him because she wanted to try it but would not order an entire cocktail without knowing how it tasted. When the bartender turned away to make their drinks, relieved not to be the focus of her attention, she turned to Thomas and said, “I figured you were a no-show.”

If he detected the note of disappointment he didn’t react to it, lost in settling into his own seat. He slipped off his canvas messenger bag and took off his well-worn leather jacket to reveal a vintage-looking, but probably brand new. T-shirt. Underneath that his wiry arms sported faded tattoos all the way to the wrists, which danced as he brought both hands to his head and pulled his longer hair back from his brow, slicking it across his scalp. “Missed the bus” was all he said.

“No car?”

“No need.” That was all the explanation he gave, and it infuriated her and drew her to him at the same time. He pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes and lit up, spinning the fluorescent Bic lighter on the marble bar. The bartender appeared with their drinks and a slid a perfectly timed ashtray as the man flicked the cigarette, dropping white flakes into the dirty glass bowl. “So what’s your story?”

She made up something about working in finance, hoping it would bore him to the point of changing the topic, which he did happily. He talked about his band, at least the band he was hoping to start. He played the bass, and went off on a tangent about how the bassist always got overlooked even though it was the backbone of the ensemble.

She ordered him another two drinks — a shot of whiskey and a Budweiser — so he’d catch up with her. She was feeling looser now, getting into a rhythm, waiting for the right moment to suggest they blow and get down to it. He didn’t seem in any hurry though, sipping his shot and nursing his beer, content to question and flirt and show off how little the idea of meeting someone online for a casual hookup seemed to faze him.

So they sat and drank and the quiet energy between them blossomed into laughter and slurred sexual innuendo. Even as it was happening she admonished herself for drinking so much. Control turned her on, control kept her in charge. But the gin tickled her out to her fingers and toes, electrifying her every thought. Her hands were all over him now; every time she laughed she lunged forward to put a hand anywhere he’d let her, his chest, his knee, his thigh. Several times throughout the afternoon, when he looked away, she would quickly readjust her skirt so it sat a few centimeters higher up her thigh.

It was getting later, and the happy-hour crowd was funneling into the bar, finding a well-dressed woman and a gaunt man well ahead of the lawyers and bankers and other nine-to-fivers. Everyone gave the pair a little extra space for their wild hand gestures and distracting laughs. The crowd loosened their ties and actively ignored them while secretly trying to make heads or tails of this odd couple with nothing better to do than drink the day away on over-priced well liquor. They didn’t even notice the bar filling up — they were so focused on each other.

“Want to see a magic trick?” he asked.

She tried to make fun of him for such a corny question, but he was already reaching for the full, sweaty glass of water she’d neglected all afternoon. He lunged over the bar and snatched a coaster from the pile, knocking a few over in the process, making her giggle. He exaggerated his motions now like a children’s magician waving his arms around before stopping them just above the glass to carefully place the coaster on the rim. Then in a swift motion he turned both upside down and stamped them on the bar.

“What are you doing?” She asked worriedly, but with a spark of excitement.

Without answering, he slid the coaster out from under the glass, leaving just an upturned cup of water sitting on the bar, filled but not spilling a drop.

“Ta-da,” he said.

“How did you?” She asked incredulously and snatched the cup up in disbelief. Water instantly exploded all over the bar, making both of them laugh; her at the mess and him at her. The bartender didn’t laugh, and told them it was time to pay out and take off. She tried to protest, drawing on the sexual heat that so discomfited the boy earlier. Her words came out slurred and rather than intimidating and they merely worked to embolden the boy.

He crossed his arms and looked at her date, who threw up his hands, then reached into his jacket pocket and slipped a few twenties from his billfold and stamped them on the bar. She hoped he would stiff the bartender on the tip, but he didn’t bother waiting for change. He firmly grabbed her by the arm and they sauntered through the throng of people waiting to take their seats and into the hotel lobby.

While he re-dressed himself, she took a moment to compose her thoughts. It was time. This is what they had met for. She willed her swimming thoughts away and readied herself.

“How about a room?” he asked.

“I’ve got a better idea.” She said and grabbed him by the hand, pulling him toward the valet. This was the plan she had concocted days ago, and wasted no time in putting it into motion.

“Where we going?”

“My place.”

“Fantastic.”

The valet pulled her car around, a beautiful silver German sedan, and hesitated to give them the keys, but then shrugged and forked them over when she gave him a fifty dollar bill as a tip. She took the wheel and her date hopped in the passenger seat, taking his time to adjust his chair to his exact specifications. She slipped two pieces of gum from the center console and offered him a stick. They both peeled away the foil and filled the car with the scent of mint mixed with sugary alcohol. She bolted her hands at ten and two on the wheel, gracefully tapped on the gas, and pulled out of the garage into the tangle of late-afternoon traffic on the freeway.

The city gave way to the suburbs and the exit she took led them past a procession of strip malls and fast-casual chain restaurants. They didn’t talk as much now, both their minds on what was about to come. The tension between the two buoyed the car with an anxious energy, allowing the woman to fluidly weave through traffic and catch lights just before they turned red. They drove farther still and the concrete corridor morphed into a quiet, wooded community. She pulled into a driveway in front of a house that looked the same as its neighbors save for a dry Christmas wreath on the front door that had outlived its relevance by more than a month. She had already kicked off her heels in the car to better manage the clutch, so when she stepped out she hopped back and forth on the cold cement and then tiptoed up the walkway to the door, shoes in hand. Out of habit she reached into the mailbox while she slipped the key into the lock. Behind her the man looked around casually at the other houses.

“Nice neighborhood,” he tossed out.

“You’d be surprised.” She shoved open the door with her bare foot and tossed everything in her arms on a hutch just inside the hallway. The man shut the door and then she was on him. They knocked around the hallway in a fit of lust as they stumbled toward the stairs and her bedroom. He bumped her into the hutch and knocked the mail onto the floor. Neither stopped to pick up the Xfinity bill addressed to Marie and Heath Murphy at 673 Timber Lane, Gwinnett, GA. Even if the man did notice the envelope he wouldn’t have cared that she used a fake name. He also didn’t notice the pictures of the woman and a smiling man hanging on the walls as they tore each other’s clothes off while climbing up the stairs. He wouldn’t have cared, either.

II

It was late, and Heath was exhausted. He had spent all day in the international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson airport trying to catch a plane to Shanghai to meet with the new factory owners. They were going to be manufacturing the plastics for Heath’s company, and with everything going on with the tech factories over there, he wanted to make sure they were on the up-and-up. The last thing his bosses wanted was pictures of suicide nets hanging from the top of the buildings. They didn’t have as much of a problem with how little they were going to pay the factory and, in turn, its workers. That was the price of a profitable business, and consumers didn’t really get up in arms about people making ten bucks a week, so long as they had gone through puberty and weren’t launching themselves off the roof of the factory.

But a bad engine and worse weather kept him on the tarmac for hours, milling about in the Duty-Free shop while they tried to find another plane. He finally said fuck it and booked a flight for next week. It could wait. After some stern cajoling, he convinced the ground crew to rummage around the cargo hold of the plane to find his bag. He watched from the window as they tossed his small roller bag that used to fit in the overhead just fine but he now had to check because the airline wasn’t posting a big enough profit.

It felt strange going through customs having not flown anywhere, and stranger still weaving through the Asian families and German exchange students bubbling with excitement as they met their friends on the opposite side of the frosted glass doors. He kept his head down all the way out to his car. He pulled out his corporate Amex and slipped it into the pay machine to charge $6 for parking. It would be the shortest expense sheet he would ever have to fill out. He considered just tossing the receipt and eating the cost, but then thought better of it and neatly folded it into his wallet . He pulled out of the deck into the cold, still cloudy night and made his way home.

He didn’t bother to call Marie on the way back. Not that his early homecoming would be treated as a welcome surprise. They’d been cool to each other the past few months, and his travel schedule didn’t help matters. He gave it another year, at best. Hopefully he’d get to keep the house. Maybe she’d grow so bored of their marriage that she would simply go and leave him with both halves of his possessions intact. He knew Marie better than that, though. Still, a man could dream.

Given the time of night, you’d think it’d be smooth sailing all the way home, but traffic was backed up all down 75. He tuned his satellite radio to Howard Stern and laughed as Howard made some increasingly embarrassed actress describe what it was like having sex with her husband, a little person. Heath always laughed at how Howard could get people to talk about the weirdest shit. Marie hated Howard; she thought he was crass. Heath tried to explain that that was the point. Just to spite him Marie would forward links to articles accusing Stern of scripting all his interviews, claiming that he wasn’t as clever or quick as Heath liked to say. Sensing her disapproving presence, he clicked a button on the wheel a few times to raise the volume and drown her out. He felt the length of the previous day catch up to him and buried the back of his head into the supple leather headrest, rolling his neck around to stay limber and awake. He turned up the heat and cracked a window to let the cold January air keep him alert without freezing him to death.

By the time he reached the Indian Trail exit, the strip malls were all dark and his stomach grumbled. The only place that was still open was a Taco Bell, so he went through the drive-thru, which was inexplicably three cars deep. He threw the car into park and leaned his head back, allowing himself a few seconds with his eyes closed. When he opened them again the line hadn’t moved. How long did it take to make a goddamn taco? He lay on the horn and threw his hands up. The car in front of him was filled with some stoner kids and they all looked back in amusement. One of them shouted something out the window but Heath didn’t hear, which was probably for the best. He was in no mood. Finally the line snaked around the corner, and he put in his order without any pleasantries. After another ten infuriating minutes he made it to the window and a young kid popped it open and, without looking at Heath, stuck his hand out. “$4.96.”

Heath held black Amex card just out of reach of the kid, making him lurch out the window for it. “How long does it take to make a goddamn taco?” he repeated, this time out loud.

“It’s past midnight, dude. There’s only two of us working.” He swiped the card and shoved it back at Heath, who tried to argue the point further, but then a bag of tacos flew out the window and into his lap, the window closed, and the kid was gone. He considered parking out front and giving a kid a real lesson, but he was too hungry and too tired to bother. He flicked his hand disdainfully at the empty window then roared out of the drive-thru lane into a parking spot twenty feet away. He pulled out the crushed tacos and ate greedily. It tasted like shit, but he still slurped the scraps off salty beef off the wax paper before tossing the empty bag onto the pavement. He took joy in thinking about the kid having to come out and pick it up. Serves him right. Stomach full, he sped home.

Marie’s car wasn’t in the garage like he’d said a thousand times to do, so he had to park on the street. He pulled the spare keys to the Mercedes from his glove box and slumped into her car to put in the garage. The interior lights blinked on when he turned the key. He looked into the passenger seat and saw a pack of cigarettes. Figures. He snatched up the pack and smiled because this was another thing he could hold over her head with fake concern. “How could you do something so terrible to your body?” he said to the empty car, imagining the argument. “Especially after your father’s lung transplant. What would he think?” That’d do just fine.

He rolled the car into the garage as close to the left wall as he could, knowing Marie’d be pissed at having to squeeze in. He climbed over the center console and exited out the passenger side, got back in his car, and backed it into the driveway. Then he grabbed the cloth tarp and covered it up. Marie insisted her car would depreciate less, so she wanted to keep it in the garage. The day after, he went out and bought the bespoke, wool-lined tarp to keep his car pristine. It was less than a week before her laziness caught up with her and she all but stopped parking in the garage. The one time he zipped around her car and parked his own in the garage she pitched a fit. That argument was a blowout, but he looked back on it with a sick sense of joy. He wrapped his hands around the elastic band at the bottom of the tarp and tugged it so it fit snug and then realized his laptop was in the trunk along with his briefcase. He swore at himself and flipped up the cloth to pop the trunk before replacing the tarp just so.

The front porch light was solar-powered, but the bulb had burned out weeks ago. It was another one of their silent battles. In her mind it was a man’s job to screw in the light bulb. But she spent all day shifting aimlessly around the house. Would it kill her to take two seconds to fix the damn light? Without a word spoken about it, they had both dug in their heels, waiting for the other to finally trip on a cobblestone and twist their ankle. The first to hurt themselves would be the one to fix it. He walked gingerly up the walkway and slipped his key in the door, feeling around the empty mailbox as he did so. The house was dark when he entered, and he felt the crunch of paper beneath his shoe — an envelope that had fallen off the hutch. His heart hardened further toward his wife as he picked it up. So lazy. He flipped on the hall light and leafed through the mail, tossing the junk into the shredder next to the hutch and filing anything important in the letter holder on the hutch like she was supposed to do, like she said she’d do a hundred times.

He needed a beer.

He walked to the kitchen and opened the fridge, which was stocked fresh with dozens of Amstels. At least she remembered that. He popped a bottle and downed half of it in a single take, belching loudly. He popped on the kitchen television and caught the tail end of the Late Show. On screen, some kids were screaming and jumping around barely playing their guitars. He shook his head and finished the beer, quickly grabbing another. Foam rose from the top of the second bottle as he shut off the TV. He sipped it and took the rest of the beer upstairs with him and opened the door to their bedroom. He expected Marie to be fast asleep, conked out after half a bottle of gin and whatever she could find to mix with it. It was pitch dark in the bedroom, so he couldn’t see her in bed, nor did he hear her bear growl of a snore. He did hear something make a noise just to his right in the dark corner of the room and it startled him so much he dropped the bottle, spilling foamy suds on the carpet.

“Jesus, fuck!” He flipped the light on to see what the hell made that noise. Tied to the radiator was his wife, stripped to her lingerie. Her mouth was covered in duct tape and she was moaning and screeching through the silver strip. “What the hell?” He ran over to her and gingerly peeled the tape off, leaving a perfect red rectangle stretching from cheek to cheek. Under the tape, her mouth was stuffed with a sock and Heath felt guilty that for a brief second he thought it suited her. He pulled it out of her mouth and she gagged, then took a deep breath, and the words came pouring out.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! He…”

“Marie, what happened?” He said over her torrent of words.

“There was a man… He, he broke in.” She started to babble incoherently in between heavy, ugly sobs. Heath untied her. He checked her face and arms; the only marks on her were bruises around her neck.

“Did he hurt you?”

Her hands free, she collapsed on the floor and curled up into a ball.

“He came in and choked me and I passed out. When I woke up I was tied up. I don’t know what happened while I was out.” He pulled her up, sat her on the bed, and handed her his cell phone.

“Call the police. Tell them what happened. Don’t leave this room.” He stood and made for the door.

“Where are you going?”

“See if he took anything.”

“Don’t leave m — ”

“Just.” He held out a hand for her to stop. “Just call the cops and tell them what happened. I’ll be right back. Stay right there.” He shut the door behind him and rubbed his face, scratching his palms on the stubble that had grown since this morning. Broke in. Sure he did. Never mind the fact it reeked like sex in their bedroom and she was wearing lingerie she hadn’t worn in five years. Heath forgot he’d even bought it for her, back when things weren’t the way they are now. Hopefully her fuck buddy didn’t take anything too important. He’d let her get away with her story till the insurance check cleared. Maybe he could even get her to admit her infidelity, trick her into a clean divorce without her getting anything. So long as there were still valuables in their house to keep.

He checked all the rooms upstairs and then the main floor. Everything was in its place save some rifled-through books and documents. The televisions, the Blu-Ray player, Marie’s iPhone, even their laptops were untouched. Nothing was gone. That was g —

The safe.

He tore off down the hallway to the small door leading to the unfinished basement. God dammit, the fucking safe.

III

Tom’s shirt was completely soaked through. This fucking safe was proving tough to crack. Still, he was glad he checked the basement. He was ready to call it a night with a few diamond necklaces and tennis bracelets that his boss could have flipped for a couple hundred bucks. Not to mention the woman was one hell of a lay. He could have gone home empty-handed and still called tonight a success. The shit she was saying to him, he chuckled still. Making him choke her, begging him to slap her around. Tom was happy to learn he was into that sort of thing.

Still, his boss wouldn’t have been too keen on him coming back with nothing but a story. And that’s why he’d spent the past three hours teasing the combination out of the old wrought iron safe. He had the first three numbers, he was pretty certain, but the last pin wouldn’t drop. Thankfully, he had his favorite tool; a jury-rigged physician’s stethoscope soldered to a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. By taping the stethoscope right above the dial he could hear nothing but the clicking of the mechanism. The newer the safe, the cleaner and clearer the sound would be. Everything nowadays was machine-made, so it was easy to learn each type of safe and its quirks. This one, though, was a total bitch.

He’d confirm once he finally got it open, but this girl was hand-made, and poorly at that. The pins were loose and wouldn’t hold if he didn’t spin the dial quickly to the next number, so it was slow going as he went through each combination. While he worked, he even noticed the gold foil letters spelling out ROYAL weren’t even real gold leaf, just spray paint over a poorly affixed stencil. He hoped what he’d find inside was treated with more care than what housed it. He’d long peeled off his jacket and tossed it across the dusty concrete floor next to his tool bag. His knees and his shoulders burned from hunching over the dial, and every time he slipped a pin he’d exhale heavily, blowing sweat off his lip onto the door of the safe.

Despite his current discomfort, he loved his job. Technology only made it easier. It used to be you had to troll bars day in and out finding lonely women who were just happy to be looked at that he would swindle out of their jewels and money. Craigslist helped. His boss helped even more, fielding personals on Tom’s behalf. Before a job the boss would hand him a packet with all the correspondence between “Tom” and the mark. He ribbed his boss about this job, how he talked to this woman. His boss didn’t have a sense of humor like he did, and just told him to stow it and come back with something good. He whittled away the hours sobering up and turning the dial and writing down a number on the door in white chalk, then erasing it and writing a new number until he was sure. 31–14–72 so far. Just one more. He wasn’t worried about time. The lady asked him to stay the night, and she was tied up tight. No one else was coming to see her tonight.

He didn’t hear the garage door open. He didn’t hear the front door open. He didn’t hear footsteps on the floor above him. Walking at first, then later, running. He was dialed in on his task. 41, 42, 43… He stopped and cocked his head, straining his ears. Now he heard something. He definitely heard something.

The last pin dropped.

Jackpot. He tried the lever and it gave. He opened the door and —

“Jesus Christ!” He shouted in disgust when he swung the door open. The smell was putrid. He grabbed his jacket and held it over his face, then scuttled forward on his knees to investigate. The usual stuff was in the safe, money, some gold, some old photos, but what the hell was making that smell. He rifled around with his free hand, putting a few stacks of bills into his pants pockets in the process. Underneath a stack of documents was a little parcel wrapped in brown butcher paper.

He knew whatever that ungodly smell was coming from had to be in there, and despite his better judgment, Tom teased the paper off, layer by layer. He put his jacket down, held his breath, and used his other hand to help pull the last layer off. He felt a wave of nausea when, in-between his two hands, was a dried, crooked hand. The withered gray hand was much smaller than his, and had neon purple nail polish on the ends of its fingers. The nail polish looked fresh. It looked like a kid’s han —

The thought brought bile up into his throat and he dropped the parcel, sending the little hand skittering across the ground in a cloud of dust. He scrambled backward on all fours away from the safe.

The duct tape on the stethoscope held and the headphones jerked off his head, the cables ripping skin off the back of his ears. He paid no mind and kept going, falling head-first into a pair of stout, strong legs. He looked up and a scowling man was looking down at him.

“Oh fuck.” And then the man was on him.

Tom struggled to get to his feet, or at least to turn and face the man. But the guy towered over him and easily got him in a chokehold. Tom kicked his feet out to try and wriggle away, but all he could manage was to kick up fresh dust with his boots.

“If I had come down here five minutes earlier I’d have been happy to turn you over to the cops, but now…” He finished by grabbing Tom by his temples and smacking his head against the floor. Specks of light exploded all around the room and Tom caught himself with an elbow before the man could send him into the cold concrete again. He shook the pain away from his head and saw the man walk over to a workbench and slip a box-cutter from the wooden table. He flicked it open and wrapped his free arm around Tom’s forehead, pulling it back to expose his neck like a pig at the slaughter. Somewhere he heard a woman scream. The man still held him but relented a bit.

“Marie. God dammit, I told you to stay upstairs,” the man spit at the woman Tom knew as Cindy.

“What are you doing?” she shrieked. “The police are on their way.” She ran over to the workbench and grabbed some electrical cable. “Just tie him up and let them handle it.”

“I’ve got it handled. Just get upstairs,” he growled at her as she tried to tie Tom up. She stepped on something with her barefoot and hopped back. She looked down and dropped the cable.

“Is that a… a hand?” She picked it up and studied the little painted fingernails. “Heath, what the hell is going on? What is this?” She smelled it and gagged, dropping it back to the floor. “What the fuck is a human hand doing in our basement?”

“First off, it’s my basement. I paid for this house, remember?” He let go of Tom and stood to face her, pointing the box-cutter accusingly at her chest. “Secondly, I don’t know what a fucking human hand is doing in our basement” he lied, poorly. “This prick,” he swung the box-cutter around back at Tom, “probably works for one of our competitors. He’s probably trying to sabotage me.”

She shivered and heaved with sobs “Why would he sabotage you?”

The man sighed and threw his hands up. “Marie, I’m not explaining anything to you until get your stupid slut-ass upstairs so I can take care of him.” She growled and shoved him, and the two fell over and he dropped the box-cutter. She picked it up and pointed it at her husband like a gun.

“I’m not a slut!” she shrieked. “Fuck you, Heath!”

He stood, defiant. “Oh really, so you weren’t fucking this guy?” He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and tossed them at her, spilling tobacco and cheap paper across the floor. “So these aren’t his? You like smoking unfiltered cigarettes now?”

“Where did you get those?” She was shaking now, terrified. Tom inched away slowly, trying to avoid catching either of their attention.

“They were in your car, which I had to move into the garage for the thousandth fucking time!” He was spitting all over the place. “Now give me the goddamn knife.”

He lunged for it but she swiped down with both hands and caught him along the length of his forearm. He jumped back and she ran, up the stairs, screaming and sobbing and tripping on each stair. The man, forgetting Tom, chased after her. Tom was left alone in the basement and heard the front door open and slam once, then open a second time. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. He looked at the hand and shuddered. He’d picked the wrong house, that was for fucking sure.

He threw his jacket and the headphones in the bag and tiptoed up the stairs, peering around the corner to make sure no one was waiting to pull a box-cutter across his throat. The two had already left through the front door, and he could still just barely hear the woman screaming bloody murder. He made his way to the back of the house and slipped out the sliding door, into the backyard, and over the fence. The sirens were close, and he waited behind a short granite wall for them to pass. Once they did, he casually slipped away into the night. It was like he was never even there.

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