Cuento de Mi Id
(This was my first attempt at writing a short story for publication. I would like to think that I have improved a bit since I first wrote this but I guess that's up to you all, the readers, to judge. Anyway, I hope you all like it.
The moment Joe Mesey reentered the old neighborhood, he knew that his coming back was a mistake. Not for any foolish, sentimental reasons -- it’s hard to be nostalgic about growing up in a slum -- but because his return was all too easy. He had expected an all-out attack the minute he entered his old stomping grounds; instead, he was simply ignored.
As a member of mankind’s true oldest profession, a self-styled professional assassin who euphemistically referred to his calling as the “retirement business” and who commanded top dollar for a kill, this was a bit of an insult. He had expected a neighborhood crawling with cops -- or worse; instead, he found an area of deserted streets and neglected tenements -- a place seemingly as devoid of life as the dark side of the moon.
It was an eerie feeling. Had Joe been a lesser man, he might have turned the car around and searched for more populous surroundings. But he was on a mission here -- a personal mission. He had returned to this neighborhood to kill a man. A man whom he had killed a long time ago...
The room was filled with more candles than a religious shrine and their acrid scent and flickering light made Joe uneasy. He kept peering into the shadows of the old man’s living room as if expecting to see something lurking there. Nothing was there, of course, but the way the old man kept bowing his head and peering into his little grey book made Joe uneasy. And he hated being made uneasy. Especially by a little old man who was destined within a matter of minutes to meet the Maker about which he endless prattled.
His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the realization that the old man had said something. He looked up at the white-haired figure and smiled inwardly at the idea of this little man in the black suit and skullcap doing him bodily harm. As powerful as he may have once been, now he could not harm a flea.
“Pardon me, he said. “I didn’t hear that last question.”
“I was asking whether you had considered the consequences of your actions, Mr. Mesey,” the old man said in a voice that was stern yet moderate.
“Of course, I have. I simply waste you and then my boss gives me a lot of money. What’s to consider?”
“Hasn’t the thought of punishment ever entered your mind?”
“Not really. The cops won’t be able to prove a thing, and nothing you can do can change that.”
“I wasn’t talking about earthly justice.”
“Doesn’t it ever bother you, Mr. Mesey -- the number of men you’ve killed?”
“Of course not. Why should it?”
“Fear of the dead is a centuries-old tradition,” said the old man. “Some say it dates back to Neanderthal man.”
“Well, that may be the case with some people, but I’m more like a surgeon. I live with death every day. It doesn’t scare me a bit.”
“If I were you, I would be scared. Murder is the supreme taboo; you have committed it not once, not twice, but times beyond counting.”
“You’re one to talk,” said Joe. “Before you retired, you were in the rackets, too. You know how it is.”
“Yes, I know how it is,” said the old man, gazing at his folded hands. “But I never killed anyone directly. And when the ghosts of those I did kill indirectly began to prey upon my conscience, I knew it was time to leave.”
The old man looked Joe in the eye. “But it’s still not too late for you. The powers that be love a repentant sinner as long as he’s sincere.”
Joe smiled. “That’s nice talk for a dying man but I intend to live a long time.”
“Maybe not as long as you think.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I have taken the liberty of making certain arrangements in case my little talk with you should fail.”
“Oh, I see. Like a sealed letter to the D.A. left in the hands of your attorney?”
“Nothing so crude, I assure you,” said the old man. “Besides, I’m sure a man in your profession has sufficient connections to get such a letter swiftly discredited. No, my arrangements are of a more final and irrevocable nature.”
Joe laughed. “If that’s meant to scare me, it didn’t work.”
“It wasn’t meant to scare you -- now.”
“Listen, old man,” said Joe, pulling out his gun. “I’ve had about enough of this Jewish superstition nonsense you’ve been giving me.”
“Jewish? Who said it was Jewish?” The old man’s voice took on a sepulchral tone. “The faith I follow is older than Judaism.”
That’s when Joe’s gun went off. The first bullet hit the old man in the chest; the two followup shots hit him in the belly and the groin. Joe never knew whether his shots were the result of anger or blind panic, but the results were the same. One dead Jew (or so-called Jew, if his last words were correct) who had time to do little more than glare and mumble an inaudible curse before succumbing to the permanent paralysis of death. Hardly the formidable adversary he had anticipated.
“I hoe you prepared well for the afterlife, old man,” Joe said as he stood up. “Because you’re going to have all eternity to enjoy it.”
He left the house quietly, but not before giving some thought to the arrangements the old man had mentioned. However, search as he did, he could find no trace of any hidden cameras or tape recorders in the old man’s residence...
The old apartment house where he used to live was boarded up now -- a victim of urban renewal. Gazing at the crumbling exterior brought back many memories for Joe. Memories of living with his old man -- an embittered widower with five children to raise. A man who had sought refuge in a whiskey bottle and who used his youngest child -- Joe -- as a punching bag until the day Joe fought back and caved in his father’s skull with a tire iron. Yes, the place did bring back a lot of old memories -- none of them good.
He smiled grimly and attacked the boards on the front door with a tire iron. As the ancient nails reluctantly began to yield, he once more looked around the neighborhood, expecting any minute to see a cop -- or something -- appear around the corner to question him about his activity. But none appeared. Joe seemed to be the only person around in what should have been a crowded slum neighborhood. It was as if he was in the land of the dead.
Joe shuddered. He was normally not an imaginative person -- in his line of business, you couldn’t afford to be -- yet something about that last phrase -- and the way it popped into his mind, unsummoned -- made him uneasy. Especially when he looked back upon certain recent events...
The first clue Joe had that the old man‘s arrangements were not just talk occurred in Chicago. He had heard the old line about being able to meet almost anyone in the world by standing on State Street, but he never expected to see Vinny McCloskey there. And for a very good reason -- Vinny had died six months ago.
When he first confronted Vinny with this information, Vinny seemed as shocked as Joe. His eyes went blank; he appeared to be remembering something.
Then he remembered.
“You!” he screamed. “You’re the one who killed me.”
Within an instant, Vinny’s hands were around Joe’s neck, choking him with the strength of the violently insane and the insanely violent. Vinny was a big man; his hands were the size of steam irons. Killing Joe should have been as easy a task for him as cleaning fish. But it did not work out that way. Joe had been around too long not to be prepared for the unexpected; he freed himself with a blow to the groin -- then pulled his newly-purchased revolver and fired a bullet meant for a prominent state witness into Vinny’s chest.
At this point, Vinny smiled -- the vacant smile customarily associated with the hopelessly insane -- and then he collapsed. For a moment, Joe was aghast. After all, even the most blasé hitman does not meet dead people on the street every day. Then he took Vinny’s pulse. The bullet wound Vinny had just received was not necessarily a mortal one, yet he was already dead.
Needless to say, the witness job was blown. No one had witnessed the confrontation between Joe and Vinny, but that didn’t mean the cops would not be interested if they ever caught wind of it.
And what of the body? Although Joe managed to safely dispose of it without being seen, that still did not account for its presence. Surely he had not just killed the real Vinny; after all, the real Vinny was supposed to be feeding the worms in a South Side cemetery. That meant the man he had killed was an imposter, no doubt made up to look like Vinny with the help of a clever plastic surgeon. But an imposter with Vinny’s height and build? Possible, Joe thought, but not probable. Which meant...
The last board came off with an angry screech. Now the door was open and he could seek shelter from the open street. Yet Joe was not satisfied.
If he was right, the man he came to kill would be lurking inside, safe from the summer heat. It unnerved him to realize how matter-of-fact he was handling the whole situation. Had his own boss told him a similar story, he would not have believed him -- even if his life depended upon it. Yet here he was, standing outside his old apartment house, treating his long-dead father as a potential adversary…
He pushed the door open with his foot, holding the tire iron ready in case of attack. None came. Inside the entrance hall was nothing but dust and silence.
As Joe stepped inside, he again held the tire iron ready to ward off a sudden attack. But -- again -- none came.
Perhaps I only dreamed the first incident, he thought. Perhaps I was wrong and the old man’s curse was only a figment of my imagination.
Then Joe thought again and shook his head. For he remembered Frank Lupesco...
It had happened at a men’s room in the Miami Airport. Joe was combing his hair before boarding a flight to San Juan when he felt himself being seized from behind. Without warning, he was whirled around and thrown against the opposite wall. Before he could recover, a knife was at his throat, and on the nape of his neck, he could feel the hot breath of the man standing directly behind him.
That’s when Joe moved. Stomping down hard where he guessed his assailant’s left foot to be, he reached up at the same time and grabbed the knife-bearing hand. Its skin felt cold and clammy -- like a dead frog -- but he did not let that prevent him from bending the hand back against the waist until the knife dropped. And the bones broke.
Joe’s assailant was curiously silent for a man who should have screaming in agony.
Instead, the only thing Joe heard was “It’s not that easy, kid.”
The voice was familiar, but not the face. When Joe turned around, he found himself staring into a bleached parody of a human face, the type of scarred and tattered face you’d expect to see on a man who had spent the last seven months on the bottom of the Hudson River, not on a living person.
Then the man smiled -- if you could call what he did smiling -- and Joe recognized the familiar lop-sided grin of his former mentor, Frank Lupesco. It had been Lupesco who had gotten Joe his first job in the “retirement business.” Frank had taught Joe everything he knew. Taught him so well that when Frank retired and decided to turn state’s evidence, Joe was the one chosen to bring him down. And he did. Seven months ago.
And here Frank was, standing before him, smiling as if his broken wrist was a mere scratch.
“This one’s for you, kid.”
With frightening suddenness, Frank lunged forward and grabbed Joe by the throat with his other hand. Pressing his other forearm against Joe’s throat as well, he pinned Joe against the wall and started to squeeze. Joe’s face began to turn blue; he was running out of time. In desperation, he punched his opponent in the stomach. His fist went all the way through.
As Frank let go, Joe was too relieved to do anything but stand and watch Frank’s body collapse in upon itself like a punctured balloon. Too late he thought of questioning him; by then, his body was merely a pile of decaying flesh awaiting disposal.
That’s when Joe realized that the plot against him was more than simply an elaborate scheme of vengeance. Even the best plastic surgeon could not have instilled such qualities into a Frank Lupesco lookalike. The man who did had to be a person who had experience dealing with the supernatural. A man who not only had such experience but who also possessed a grudge against him. Somebody like -- like -- the old man!
By then, the old man’s name had faded away from Joe’s memory, but he still remembered that scene in the room full of candles, and he also remembered the old man’s ominous last words.
At first, it seemed ridiculous -- an old-fashioned curse at work in the twentieth century. And yet it was the only explanation which made sense. If only there was some way to break the curse...
Then it came to him. The curse was operating in a pattern: confront Joe with all his previous victims, in the order of their deaths, and have the attacks increase in intensity. Considering the number of people Joe had killed in his lifetime, such a pattern could easily wear him down before it ended. And sooner or later one of the victims was bound to get lucky and kill him.
But suppose he short-circuited the curse. Instead of waiting for the victims to go after him, he would go after the victims. And the most obvious one to pursue would be the first one -- his father. The only one he had killed for free...
The sun was going down now, and there was still no sign of his old man. He smiled at the irony -- the old man had intended to avenge his own death by using Joe’s own old man to kill him. Perhaps he had been counting on the power of nostalgia to prevent Joe from delivering the fatal blow. Well, it won’t work, Joe thought. There was no love lost between him and his father. He killed him before and he could kill him again.
Then it occurred to him -- what if this was exactly what the old man had wanted? For Joe to come up here to New York and face the ultimate challenge? Joe had not been attacked since that day in Miami. The trip up here had been way too easy -- almost as if he was being set up.
He scoffed at this thought. There was nothing to fear. He had a loaded revolver in the highest caliber and absolutely no reason not to use it. Everything he had experienced so far told him that the old man’s walking cadavers were still vulnerable to gunshots. There was nothing to fear.
And then he heard it. A quiet, scraping sound like dead leaves rustling across the sidewalk. No footsteps -- just a quiet, rustling sound. Then the doorknob turned. Joe slowly drew out his revolver and aimed it at the front door. This is going to be easier than I had anticipated, he thought. Then the door opened...
Joe’s first thought was that it was all a trick. That the old man had anticipated his actions and sent a stranger to take him by surprise. After all, Joe might not remember every single man he killed, but he certainly would have remembering icing a woman. Then he looked beyond the woman’s black dress and veil -- recognized a face which he had seen only once before, in a wedding portrait kept by his father because it was the last picture taken of her before she died in childbirth. And suddenly he knew why the old man was so certain that Joe would not be able to kill her.
He had time to say only one word before the first of many blows fell: “Mother.”
Labels: Cuentos de Mi Id III, Cuentos de Miedo