The Caretakers

Originally this story was meant to sequel a previous short story called “The Cafe” and ended up going in a completely unexpected direction. Since it stands quite well on its own, I’ve edited it a little and offer it to you today as I work on Small Cuts (Yes I’m back to it, so hopefully next Friday I will have it ready).

She took the documents from him and stared at the unusual name “Zzyzx.” She asked, “How does one even pronounce it?”

“I’m not sure. No one speaks the name. I’ve only seen it in writing,” he replied. “But however you say it, the job is mine. And…” he said, leaning in to kiss her softly. “We leave at the end of the week. Everything has been arranged. All we need is to take our personal belongings. The rest of it will be shipped for us.”

“The end of the week?” she gasped. “How on earth can I manage that?”

“Darling, just pack like you were going away for a few days. The movers will take care of what’s left.”

“All right,” she said.

They finished their lunch and kissed goodbye on the sidewalk. She hurried away beneath her red umbrella while he tried futilely to hail a cab. By the time he returned to his office, he was soaked and shivering. The air conditioning did nothing to improve his comfort and by the time he finally dried, he was chilled to the bone and aching.

He spent the afternoon putting his accounts in order to hand over to his replacement. His boss and his coworkers had wanted to take him out for drinks to give him a proper goodbye but his pain, exhaustion and the continuing foul weather dampened everyone’s enthusiasm. By the end of the day, all that was left to do was shake hands, accept hugs and once again brave the rain. He turned up his collar, hunched over his box of personal belongings and began the soggy, slow walk to his apartment.

She waited for him at the door with a towel and a cup of tea, both of which he gratefully accepted. The apartment looked like it had bit hit by a hurricane.

“I see you’ve been busy,” he said.

“Yes, but I just can’t decide what I need immediately and what can wait. As result, I’m afraid I’ve made a mess of things.”

He gazed at her lovingly. Her hair looked like she’d walked through a windstorm and her nose was smudged with dust. But she was beautiful and desirable and he wanted her more than anything in the world. “Come sit with me,” he said, gesturing to the sofa.

She complied. Taking his hand, she said, “Darling, you’re freezing. And you’re shaking!” She placed her warm hands around his and began rubbing them together.

He kissed her deeply, pulling her warm body against his cold chest. She wound her arms around him and sank into the kiss. “Let me…” she murmured against his lips as she pulled his shirt from his trousers.

Later, he lay in her arms, his head resting on her belly, while she stroked his still damp hair. He began to shiver again despite her warmth. “Darling,” she whispered as she curled herself into him, her back to his chest. She pulled his arms around her and the covers over both of them. He buried his face in her hair and inhaled the scent of her shampoo. Lilies. It only took moments for him to fall asleep.

***

The car came for them on Saturday morning. The driver, short, stout and of indeterminate middle age, rapped briskly on the door and then mutely nodded as they directed him toward their luggage. He didn’t speak any English —that was apparent when they tried to make small talk as he loaded their bags. They exchanged a look and got into the back seat. The rain had stopped but the skies remained grey and overcast. The air inside the car smelled as moldy and oppressive as a mausoleum.

The driver drove with purpose and soon left the city streets behind them. They snuggled close in the backseat more for comfort than warmth. She rested her head on his shoulder and soon drifted off to sleep. His own eyes began to grow heavy, and no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t stay awake.

It was dark on the road now. Her steady breathing let him know she slept on. They must have been on the road for hours. How had they both managed to sleep for so long? He kissed her forehead. “Darling. There’s my girl.”

“What time is it?” she asked with a yawn.

He looked at his watch and frowned. “I don’t know. My watch has stopped.” He tapped the driver on the shoulder. “Excuse me… What time is it? Do you know?”

The driver shook his head. He tried again. “Wie spät es?”

The driver held up five fingers.

“Five?” she asked. “But that means we’ve slept for eight hours! How is that possible?”

A finger of anxiety stroked the back of his neck. Could it be that the strange musty odor overcame them? He didn’t want her to worry. “I don’t know, darling. We must have needed it.”

The road was desolate, running alongside miles of empty desert on one side and butting up against a slope on the other. If they were gaining or losing altitude he couldn’t tell. The website and the paperwork he had filled out had indicated that the resort was isolated. His expectations had not met with this reality, however. He began to lose track of the turns as they made them and it now seemed that surely they had driven in a circle once if not twice and yet the landscape was such that he couldn’t have picked out a distinguishing feature to identify even if he’d been able to see in the increasing darkness.

The pavement became dirt. The dirt became ruts and finally the car stopped at two iron gates standing open. A sign in Gothic script read “Zzyzx” on the gatepost to the left. The rutted track disappeared over a rise but a faint light from beyond gave evidence of habitation nearby. The driver unloaded the luggage from the trunk and set it down as the couple climbed from the back seat.

“Gehen,” the driver said, pointing toward the light. “Keine autos.” And he returned to the car, carefully maneuvered on the narrow path and returned the way they had come.

She shuddered. “I don’t like this.”

“It’s all right. The resort isn’t officially open yet, only the old caretakers live here. This is probably the way the construction workers come and go.” He pointed. “Look, it can’t be far. I’ll carry the big bags if you can handle the smaller ones.”

They set off toward the glow on the horizon, the only sounds the crunching of the dirt beneath their shoes. There was no breeze stirring nor animal sounds, not even the hum of insects. It felt wrong to talk so they remained silent as they walked. She kept turning around to look back at the gates until finally they were swallowed up by the night. The only thing to do was press on.

They passed the rusted hulk of an old motor vehicle. A Land Rover. He hadn’t seen one of those in years.

“It can’t be much further, now,” he said more brightly than he felt. Her beautiful eyes were wide with apprehension and she was struggling with the bags. “Here, my love.” He took one of them and tucked it under his arm.

Ahead in the half light, a structure low and squat appeared before them. Windows in the building were brightly lit. “Oh thank god,” she sighed. With signs of human habitation finally before them, they picked up the pace. They were disappointed to see that the structure was a aged mobile home. “Oh no. What is this?”

“Don’t panic, love. This might just be a construction trailer. Perhaps this is where they are waiting to take us on to the hotel.”

He stepped up to the sagging door and knocked. Within, came the sound of heels clicking on a hard surface and the door cracked open with a creak. A dignified elderly woman peeked out.

“Er, hello. I’m Angelo and this is my wife Christine. We’re…”

“The new caretakers,” she said. “Come in and meet my husband, Christopher. We’ve been waiting for you.”

As they stepped through the door, they left the desolation outside and entered the opulent foyer of The Grand Soda Springs Hotel and Resort.

Small Cuts (15) Oliver

To find links to all parts of this story, please visit the Small Cuts Page. Back to Oliver:

Elaine’s hesitation spoke volumes. Still, I had to know. “Lainey, say something.”

She nodded, took a deep breath and… at the very same moment both our phones started to ring. “Don’t answer it,” I said, as she pulled hers from her purse. “If it’s important they’ll leave a message.”

She frowned at the screen and I knew what she thinking. She wanted to answer it, if only to delay a few minutes more. And a delay could only mean one thing: my feelings weren’t returned. The phone stopped ringing and she tucked it back into her bag. I waited. She stared at the ground.

Rubbing my hands over my face, I said, “Just tell me, Elaine. I need you to say it. And we’ll move on. We can pretend I never said a thing…”

The phones which had gone silent both began ringing again. This time Elaine answered. With a muttered curse, I pulled mine out of my pocket and looked at it. It was a number I didn’t recognize, but it was local. Whoever it was had left a voice mail the first time. “Hello,” I said, my frustration bordering on anger.

The caller confirmed my name, told me his, said he was with the Philadelphia Police Department. “Police?” I repeated, my nerves jangling the way they do when you’ve been caught at something. “Is there a problem?”

“Sir, I’m afraid there’s been an accident.”

I was about to ask what kind of accident, when Elaine made a noise —something between a gasp and a shriek. When I glanced over, she looked like she was about to collapse. I reached out a hand to steady her, but she was shaking so badly, I pulled her close. The officer had continued speaking, and I had only caught words and phrases as I tried to comfort Elaine. “…very serious condition …unconscious … lost a lot of blood …Jefferson Hospital ER…”

Accident. Serious. Unconscious. Blood. Hospital. Hospital…

“Sir? Sir?”

I shook my head to clear it. “Yes, I’m sorry. What? Who?”

“Your wife, sir. Genevieve _____.” He paused. “Can you drive? Or can you call a friend to bring you down to the hospital?”

Genevieve. I felt like the temperature dropped by about forty degrees. I said, “I’m in the city. I’ll get a cab. Jefferson, you said?” He said yes. I said, “I’ll be right there.” I disconnected and held a weeping Elaine by her shoulders. “Elaine. I have to go. Gen’s been in a serious accident.” She gave a little cry and covered her mouth. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“James.” She choked through her tears. “James.”

“What about James? Elaine, I need you to pull yourself together.” That sounded harsh, but I didn’t have time to waste. I tried to be gentle, when I added, “Come on, now, honey, I have to go.“

“He’s been in a crash… here in the city. He’s here in the city. Oliver.” She kept repeating herself over and over. “In the city. In the city.” I gave her a little shake to get her attention.

“Was that him on the phone?” Had he he followed her? Or maybe me after I drove past the house? And he knew. He knew what was going on. My mind whirled. We could deal with it. Make an excuse. Elaine and I getting together alone wasn’t all that unusual. But if he’d seen me at the house… I didn’t have time for this. I repeated my question, “Was that James you were talking to?” She shook her head no. “Ok, who was it then?”

“The police.”

An icy finger of dread crept up my spine. “Ok. What did they say? Where is he? Where is James? Was he hurt? Did he have to go the hospital?” I asked.

“He… he… he,” she sobbed. “He’s gone.They couldn’t save him.”

In that moment, I could not define how I felt. My best friend was dead. My wife severely injured. On the same day. At the same time. What were the chances? And I despised myself for the sickening thought that suddenly now Elaine was free. Who thinks something like that at a time like this? Was I a monster? Go to Genevieve. Right. I could self flagellate later. I had to figure out what the hell to do right now. I couldn’t leave Elaine like this, but I had to go to Gen. “Come with me. Gen is at Jefferson.” I put an arm around her shoulder and began moving toward the main entrance. She stiffened and I thought she was going to resist. “Please, Elaine. Just stay with me.”

“Where are we going?” she asked. “Jefferson?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s where they took James, too.”

Roll the Bones – A Short Story

I had a ridiculous week and don’t have Small Cuts – Genevieve’s part ready yet, so in the meantime…. A repost of a short story from last year. I’ve been asked to contribute some of my fiction to a Pennsylvania authors’ anthology (exciting!) and this is one that I selected:

Roll the Bones

Gina wasn’t a gambler. She was a meticulous planner. Thus she was nearly sick with anxiety as she emerged from the airport shuttle in front of the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. This was the last place on earth she would have chosen for this meeting. Actually, that she’d agreed to this meeting at all was unthinkable. Nevertheless, here she was. She told herself that it only made sense, since Las Vegas was halfway for both of them and the airfare and hotel room were more than reasonable.

Taking a deep calming breath, she lifted her rolling suitcase from the shuttle to the sidewalk. She had overpacked for a mere weekend getaway, but she wanted to be prepared for every possible scenario. Her heart skipped a beat when she imagined the inevitable outcome of any of those scenarios —it gave her such a thrill.

After collecting her key card at the reception desk, Gina took the elevator to the forty-second floor. Her hands were shaking as she swiped the key. He said he would leave word. She wasn’t sure what that meant. As nervous as she was, she was also excited. She wanted this badly. Very badly. It had been way too long…

The room faced east, away from the setting sun. It was cool and quiet —the only noise coming from the air conditioning unit beneath the window. She took a moment to marvel at the view, with the lights coming on all over the City of Sin —how appropriate. She turned and for the first time noticed the bouquet of red roses on the dresser. A small white envelope was attached. She opened the note and read, “Meet me in the casino at nine. I’ll be rolling the bones.”

Rolling the bones. A dice game. Gina knew she should’ve done more research on gambling. That would have been the logical thing to do. But nothing about this trip, this rendevouz, was logical. When she got to the casino she would have to ask about the dice games or else she’d be wandering aimlessly all night.

After showering and dressing in the simple but elegant dress she had bought especially for their first meeting, she applied perfume in strategic places, wound her glorious hair into a twist, added her diamond drop earrings and a swipe of burgundy lipstick. Then, with just a little liquid courage enabled by raiding the mini bar, she returned to the ground floor in the elevator.

When the doors opened, it was onto a carnival scene —the lights and sounds of slot machines and roulette wheels. Statuesque cocktail waitresses in impossibly high heels circulated with drinks for the gamblers. Gina spotted one with an empty tray and stopped her to ask about games played with dice. The waitress smiled benignly, amused at her apparent naivety, but directed her to the craps tables on the far side of the vast expanse.

As Gina wound her way through the throng of tipsy revelers, her eyes scanned the faces for one familiar. Familiar to her at least from viewing it in cyberspace. Eventually, she spotted her goal. The craps tables were equally populated with men and women taking their turns at throwing the bones. She knew this much about dice —that they were originally made of bone and possibly were used in some religious or mystical capacity in predicting the future. Seven or eleven. Seven or eleven. A winner, here. A loser, there. Roll again.

She felt him before she heard him. “Gina,” he murmured against her ear. Her spine tingled and she turned slowly to face him. She had to look up. Grey-blue eyes stared back at her. She knew him right away. Just what she’d been hoping for, dreaming of, all these months. He was dressed all in black —black suit, black shirt — no tie, black shoes. Black hair curling over his collar. She smiled and he relaxed. “You look beautiful. Just like your picture.” He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. Charming.

“The roses were beautiful,” she said. “Thank you for them.”

“Shall we go see them?” he asked, still nuzzling her fingers.

“I thought you were playing,” she said, gesturing to the tables.

“I’m not that kind of gambler,” he said with a grin. He ran his thumb over her full lower lip. “Besides, the tables aren’t the only place to roll the bones.”

She swallowed hard. This was going faster than she had anticipated. But no matter. She was ready. She gave him a confident smile. “All right. Follow me.”

He took her hand and let her lead him to the elevators. When the doors closed on them and they were alone, he took her in his arms and said, “You are just as I imagined.”

She braced her hands on his chest and replied, “As are you.”

When the doors opened onto the forty-second floor, he released her and gestured for her to lead the way. She opened her small black clutch and removed the key card from it. Then swiping the lock open, she allowed him to enter before her. Keeping her eyes on his back, she followed him into the darkened room. The door swung shut behind her as she drew a second item from her bag. When he whirled around to face her, the hand holding the gun wavered just a little. The blade of the knife he held glinted in the moonlight shining through the uncovered window. His laugh was low and genuinely mirthful. She gave small chuckle herself.

“What are the odds?” he asked, lowering the knife. “Of two killers finding each other online?”

She kept the gun trained on him as he took one step back. “Apparently they are higher than you would think.”