A Thousand Miles Away - Uncharted

A Thousand Miles Away

By Joseph Walker

Game six of the 1982 World Series had been a damp affair, and the skies in St. Louis were opening again as the tarp came out for yet another rain delay.

In his basement workshop, Kevin Watts grimaced but did not actually look up at the small TV in the corner as the announcers settled into a recap of the series.  The Cardinals were up by ten runs.  The game probably should have just been called, but, with the sour taste of the 1981 strike-broken season still lingering, the league needed to deliver every single inning this time around.  It didn’t matter.  The game was just a noise to fill the room while Kevin worked, something to listen to aside from the occasional creak of Lois moving around upstairs.

He was at a delicate point, using an ultrafine brush to apply chrome details to the chassis of a model truck half the length of his middle finger.  The tip of the brush consisted of about three whisper-thin hairs.  He looked at it through a powerful desk-mounted glass, timing tiny, careful strokes around his shallow breaths and the beating of his heart.  

A silver door handle, smaller than a staple, appeared against the dark blue body of the truck.

Kevin grunted in satisfaction and set the truck down.  He picked up another car that had been drying for a couple of hours and swiveled his chair to find a place to put it.

His model town sprawled across five eight-by-four plywood sheets, mounted on sawhorses, painted green, and filling most of the stark cinderblock basement.  Kevin had been down here nearly every night for six years working on it.  His eye wandered with pride over two hundred buildings and houses, twice that many cars, countless trees, and minuscule people.  And, of course, the trains, one a sleek modern-day liner and the other an Old West steam engine, winding around the tiny landscape on their separate but intricately intertwined tracks. 

Lois, on the rare occasions, when she came down to see the model or said anything about it, called it Wattsville in a withering tone that made it impossible for Kevin to think of it by that name, though he badly wanted to.  Lately, she’d been muttering darkly about how much money he’d spent on it over the years, giving him side-eyed looks every time another package turned up from one of the mail-order hobby shops.

Did he ever ask what her damn perm cost?  A single pair of shoes?  It was his money, anyway.  If he decided to flush it down the toilet that was his damn business.

He was almost looking forward to a real showdown when the big boxes showed up next week, with the fiberglass mountains he’d ordered to break up the monotonous flatness of the miniature town.  Then she’d really have something to throw a fit about, but it would be worth it.  To add the new features, he was going to have to break down part of the workbench that ran along the basement walls, but once it was done the whole display would be more spectacular and realistic.  He was still trying to decide which of his two trains would get the new route through mountain tunnels.  Once the mountains were in place he’d bring down some strong lamps and take photos to send to the modeling magazines.  If they ran, he’d get the pages framed, a set for down here and a set to hang at the diner.

Kevin found a place for the cherry-red ’57 Chevy at an automatic crossing gate where the old train crossed one of the roads.  As he eased it into the spot, he became aware that for the last few minutes he had been hearing, around the edges of the murmuring baseball announcers, new noises from upstairs, more than Lois’s usual shuffling gait.  People moving around, voices.  RD must be home, though it seemed early for his shift to be over.  His little brother might be due for another lecture.

The door up at the top of the stairs opened.  Kevin started, knocking the car askew.  Lois and RD both avoided the basement, knowing it was where he went to be alone.  Why would one of them come down now?  His lips curled back from his teeth.  Damn.  The car hadn’t been completely dry after all, and now there was a smudge all along the driver’s side.  He was going to have to redo the whole thing.

“Kevin,” Lois’s voice said behind him.  She sounded strange, urgent, but he was too annoyed to really register it.

“What the hell is it?” he snapped over his shoulder, not turning.  “Goddammit, Lois, I’m going to have to repaint this whole car.  You can’t sneak up on me like that.”

“Kevin,” said RD, his voice weak.  “I’m sorry, okay?”

Kevin was used to hearing his little brother whine and make excuses, usually with a blustering insistence on his own importance.  This edge of panic was something new.  Kevin put the car down carefully and spun his chair to look.

Lois and RD were standing at the bottom of the stairs.  Lois was wearing the plush blue robe Kevin hated.  She was flushed and breathing shallowly, clutching the neck closed.  RD was in the black slacks and white shirt that served as his uniform when he worked at the diner.  Kevin had never seen his little brother so pale, but he barely registered the signs of distress.  His attention was on the man sitting casually on the stairs behind Lois and RD, someone he had never seen before in his life.  He was a big man, in jeans and a plain black t-shirt.  The muscles of his arms stretched the sleeves out tight.  His sandy hair reached almost to his shirt collar, and he hadn’t shaved in a couple of days.  He was looking past Kevin at the model town, grinning, completely at ease.

“Who the hell are you?” Kevin said.  “RD, why are you bringing people here in the middle of the night?”  He started to stand from his chair.

He’d only gotten a couple of inches out of the seat when the stranger’s focus snapped to him, giving him a sensation like being dropped into cold water.  The stranger’s grin vanished, and his gray eyes were absolutely blank as he lifted his right hand.  He was holding a switchblade and he popped the knife out, looking Kevin dead in the eye.  The blade was at least six inches long and glinted in the light from the bare bulbs hanging over the model.

Kevin froze.

“Why don’t you just ease back into that chair and be comfy while we talk, Kev,” the man said.  His voice was deep, with the faintest hint of a southern drawl.  He poked RD in the back of the shoulder with the tip of the knife, and RD’s eyes screwed closed as his fists balled up at his sides.  “You were right, RD.  He’s not very hospitable.”

Kevin fell back into the chair.  “What’s that mean?” he said.  “You’ve been talking to people about me, RD?”

“Now, that’s interesting,” the man said.  “I’ve been in situations like this before, Kev, and you know, most people in your position, they’re concerned first about their wife.  Not so much with whether people been talking about them.”

Kevin looked at Lois.  Her mouth was pursed and he could see her thinking about what the man was saying even behind her fear.  He held out a hand.  “Lois, come over here.”

“You’re fine right where you are for the moment, Lois,” the man said.

Lois closed her eyes and stayed fixed in place.

“This is a hell of a setup down here, Kev,” the man said.  “I gotta tell you, RD said some pretty snide things about it.  Made fun, you know?  Made it sound like you were down here playing with dolls.  But I can see you’ve built something here.  Put time into it.”

He paused, like Kevin was supposed to thank him or something.  When Kevin stayed silent, he shrugged.

“Listen, John,” RD said.  “We won’t none of us say anything to anybody if you just leave now.”

The man on the stairs smiled more broadly.

“So your name is John,” Kevin said.

“Sure, we’ll go with that,” the man said.  “John Smith.  Sound good?”

“You want money,” Kevin said.  Not a question.

“You meet many people who don’t?” John said.  “But I’m no thief, man.  I work for a living.  This is a business meeting.”  He seemed to find the thought amusing.  “What do they call it?  A sales pitch.”

Kevin was only half listening.  Mostly he was thinking about his father’s old hunting rifle, tucked away at the back of the upper shelf in the bedroom closet.  Utterly hopeless.  Even if he could get to it, he had no idea when he had last cleaned it or where the ammunition was. 

What did he have down here?  Tools.  Hobby knives and razors.  Paint thinner to burn the eyes.  Nothing to match the naked menace of the man’s switchblade, which he held with such nonchalant assurance.  It was hanging down by his side now, the flat side of the blade tapping idly against the edge of one of the steps. The steps that were the only way out of this concrete box of a room.

“Tell your big brother what I do for a living, RD,” John said.

RD was still pale.  “I think I’m going to be sick,” he said.

“Get over it.  Tell him.”

RD closed his eyes.  “He’s a hitman.”

Kevin couldn’t help it.  He barked out a laugh.

John laughed too, then nodded.  “Yeah,” he said.  “RD didn’t believe me at first either.”

“Kevin,” RD said.  “He’s got a dead woman in his trunk.  He showed me.”

Lois moaned.

“Well,” John said, “most of a dead woman, anyway.”

RD’s knees buckled.  He fell forward onto his hands and threw up.  Kevin couldn’t see him on the other side of the town setup, but he could hear it and, after a moment, smell it.

Lois shrank into herself.   She leaned back against the post at the foot of the stairs and slid down it into an awkward half crouch, her bony knees in front of her.

John looked at Kevin and shook his head, rolling his eyes a bit, like the two of them were sharing something.  A moment of disdain.  He leaned forward and put his left hand in Lois’s hair and pulled her back up to her feet, keeping eye contact with Kevin.  He didn’t bring the knife closer to her, but he let the hand holding it wave a little, like a conductor with a baton.  She gasped, but she didn’t fight.

“Lois,” John said.  “I see some electrical tape on that counter over to your left.  I want you to go get a roll and wrap the whole thing around Kevin and that chair he’s in.  I think he’s having ideas we don’t want him having.”

“Go ahead, Lois,” Kevin said, but his wife hadn’t waited.  She was already moving toward him with the tape.  He tried to catch her eye, to project a thought into her mind, an image of loose loops of tape hanging behind him.  She paid no attention.  She stuck the end of the roll to the back of the chair and began to walk around him, making tight bands of the rubbery black tape.  She worked her way from his shoulders down. 

She wouldn’t meet his eye.  The whole time she worked, the man on the stairs was talking. 

“It’s an interesting job I’m on right now, Kev.  A woman from Virginia.  Client didn’t just want this woman dead, he wanted her vanished, you know?  Who knows why?  I usually don’t know why, to be honest with you.  Anyway, I got her this morning, no problem, but he wants the body dumped at least a thousand miles away from her home, plus unidentifiable, which always costs extra.”

RD was crying, somewhere on the floor on the other side of the table.  Kevin resisted the urge to yell at him to stop sniveling.

“So I been driving since nine this morning.  Every time I pass a big river I stop and drop in a couple of her fingers, maybe some teeth.  Pretty good, huh?”

“You’re a sick bastard,” Kevin said.

Lois finished with the roll of tape.  She stepped away from her husband and set the empty cardboard ring on the plywood, not looking.  It knocked askew three trees and several cars in a church parking lot. 

“Damn it, Lois, watch what you’re doing,” he snapped.

John laughed.  “Sure, I’m the sick bastard,” he said.  “Look at you, yelling at your wife for touching your little toys.”  He rubbed his thumb along the handle of the knife.  “Maybe your little brother’s right.  Maybe there’s something off about a guy who spends his life in a basement pushing Hot Wheels around.”

Kevin clamped his mouth shut.  He wriggled in the chair, testing the tape.  Lois had made it tight.  He couldn’t get up.

“So after twelve hours of driving, as you’d guess, I’m pretty wiped, not to mention starving,” John said, resuming his story.  “Still got a way to go before I hit a thousand miles, though.  So I’m driving through your little piss-ant town here—.”  He broke off.  “You know, I honestly didn’t notice.  What the hell is the name of this little backwater?”

“Bradford,” Lois said.  “Bradford, Vermont.”  She was leaning against the workbench now, still clutching at the neck of the robe, her eyes fixed on the floor.

“Okay, Bradford.  I’m driving through Bradford and I see an open diner.  I guess it’s yours, from what your brother says.”

“Yes,” Kevin said.  “I own the diner.”

“Always good to meet the town mogul,” John said.  “So I go in and it’s just RD there, no customers, no other workers or anything.”

“There’s not much business this late,” Kevin said, wondering what he was trying to justify.  “He does the last two hours of the shift himself.”

“Cause you’re too cheap to get me help,” RD said.

Astonishing.  A fix like this and the lazy little bastard was still whining.

“What do you need help for?” Kevin snapped, unable to resist the bait.  “Hell, he just said there was nobody else in the place.”

RD was visible again now, sitting propped up against the wall.  His face was wet, his nose running.  “Makes his own brother work the late shift,” he said, holding his hands out to John in appeal.

“Jesus wept,” Kevin said.

“Yeah,” John said, speaking to Kevin.  “I gather you’ve heard all this a million times.  Took him no time at all to get started on it once I sat down and ordered.  I try to make a little small talk and next thing I know he’s off on some tale of woe about you ripping him off even while he’s flipping my burgers.”

“This again, RD?” Kevin said.  “I didn’t rip anybody off.  They left the estate to me.  That included the diner.”

“Only because I was in California,” RD said.  “They expected you’d take care of me.”

“Take care of you,” Kevin sneered.  “All we heard for years was how you didn’t need us.  You were going to make it big out there.  What was it?  A record company exec?  Or no, how about the time you were going to produce TV commercials?”

“That almost worked,” RD said.  “At least I wasn’t back here in this nothing town, living in terror of somebody opening a McDonald’s.”

“It was good enough for you to come crawling back here expecting me to give you half of everything,” Kevin said.  “For what?  Running out on us?  Beating your head against a wall for ten years while I’m back here working my ass off?”

“How about for being your goddamn brother?”  RD turned back to John.  Kevin had almost forgotten the third man was there, leaning back on his elbows, his head going back and forth like he was watching a tennis match.  “The SOB charges me rent to live in my old bedroom upstairs.”

“Yeah, you mentioned that,” John said.  “Three or four times before I was done eating, as I recall.”  He looked back at Kevin.  “No wonder you got no business.  Listening to this guy prattle is hard on the digestion.”

“I just want what’s mine,” RD said.

“So finally,” John said, “I asked him what he’d pay to get what he figures is his, and I told him I was the man for the job.  I’ll admit that wasn’t bright, but it’s been a long day and I was tired of listening to him.  I thought it might shut him up for a minute.”

RD looked at his feet.

“Two hundred,” John said.  “Two hundred bucks he offers me to come home with him and kill you.”  He shook his head in wonder.  “I’m getting ten thousand for the job I’m on now.  Plus expenses.”

“I don’t have money like that,” RD said.  He looked at his brother.  “I was kidding, Kevin.  I swear it.  I didn’t think he was serious.  Who goes around telling people they’re a hitman?  Some kind of goof, right?”

“So I took him out to my car,” John said, “and showed him I was serious.”

RD started crying again.  “He laughed at me, Kev,” he said.  “When I saw there was a woman in his trunk.”

“Everybody laughs at you, you stupid asshole,” Kevin said.  He looked at John.  “So, what, you’re going to kill me?  For two hundred dollars he probably doesn’t have?”

“Well, I couldn’t let him just run around loose after we played show and tell,” John said.  “I know how talkative he is.  So I had him bring me here.  We cut your phone line on the way in, by the by.”  He put the knife between his palms and rolled it back and forth, holding it upright, the blade making flashing reflections move along the gray walls.  “I figured we’d come in and have ourselves a little bidding war.”

“What?” RD said.

“You heard me,” John said.  “Current bid is two hundred to kill big bro.”  He pointed at the man bound to the chair.  “What am I bid to kill little bro?”

“Now wait a minute,” RD said.

“Two hundred and one,” Kevin said.

“Funny, Kev, but this isn’t The Price is Right,” John said.  He leaned forward, something new in his voice.  “Now I don’t usually take a job until the last one is over, but what happened, happened, and I’m here, and I’m gonna get paid for doing someone.  So don’t play with me, train boy.”

Kevin looked in his eyes and saw not a trace of humor or patience or humanity.  John was smiling, but the smile was confined entirely to the bottom half of his face.

“So now you tell me,” he said.  “What will you pay me to get this cockroach out of your life forever?”

Kevin swallowed.  “Five hundred,” he said, almost whispering.

RD’s mouth fell open.  “Kevin!”

Kevin didn’t look at him.  “You made the first bid,” he said.

“As a joke,” RD said.  “John, listen.  You can take whatever cash is in the house, okay?  Just leave us all down here.  Tie us up.  You’ll be long gone before we can say anything.  We won’t say anything.”

“The bid is five hundred,” John said.  “Cash, by the way.  You got that in the house?”

Kevin closed his eyes and nodded.

“Your bid, RD,” John said. 

RD was hyperventilating.  “I don’t have that,” he said.  “I can’t—I have a watch, a nice watch, upstairs, in my room.  You can have that.  It’s worth five hundred easy.  Plus the two in cash.”

John scratched his chin thoughtfully with the tip of his knife.  “I don’t usually do barter,” he said.  “Can you top seven hundred, Kev?”

“Two thousand,” Lois said, quietly but firmly.

Kevin’s eyes snapped open.  He stared at his wife.

“Hey, a new player takes the field,” John said.  “Two thousand for which?”

“Both of them,” Lois said.  “Kill them both.”

“Lois,” Kevin said.  “What the hell are you doing?”

“This is serious, Lois,” RD added.

“You got that in cash?” John asked.

“Yes,” she said.  She looked at Kevin.  “I’ve been hiding money.  For years.”

“Why?” Kevin demanded.

It surprised him more than anything else had tonight when she laughed in his face.

“Why?” she blurted out around her choking laughs.  “Why do you think?  So I can get away from you, you miserable son of a bitch.”  She turned to John.  “You’ve had them for half an hour.  I’ve had years of this, the two of them back and forth, the same stupid fights over and over again until I want to scream, and then him down here every night with this damned toy.”  Her hands came away from holding her robe and it fell open, showing the nightgown she was wearing underneath.  She put her hands against the edge of the workbench and glared at her husband.  “We haven’t taken a trip in five years.  He won’t let me work.  He promised me children but he—.”  She broke off, trembling.

“Well,” John said after a long moment.  “I guess the bid on the table is a thousand each.”

Kevin stared at his wife.  “You’re lucky to have me,” he said.

He had barely gotten the last word out when Lois’s right hand came off the workbench with a hammer and brought it down so hard on the crown of his head that the whole town display shook.  There was a sound like an egg cracking and she brought the hammer back up, bloodied, and sent it down again, just as hard, on the same spot.  She didn’t scream or curse or cry or laugh.  She just brought it down, twice more, like she was tenderizing meat for one of the endless thankless dinners she’d made, and she watched the shock go through him and his eyes go dark.

“Holy shit,” said John, with something like admiration.

RD gave a high, wordless wail.  He pushed himself to his feet and, scrambling madly, ran for the stairs, aiming to shove John aside and get past, but the professional was ready for him.  Without rising from the stair he was sitting on, he kicked RD’s leg out from under him.  RD fell into him, spinning, his arms pinwheeling, and John twisted him around so they were facing the same direction, RD almost sitting in his lap, and brought the knife up and cut his throat.  There was a spray of blood that went halfway across the miniature town, and John shoved RD aside off the edge of the stairs and watched him twitching into stillness.

It had all taken about ten seconds.

The man and woman looked at each other.  Lois still held the hammer.  John reached down and wiped the knife on RD’s pantleg.  His eyes drifted to the diminutive landscape.

“I guess that’s what they call painting the town red,” he said.

“Are you going to kill me now?” Lois asked.

“What for?” he said.  He stood up.  “Way I figure, you owe me a thousand dollars.  I can’t really charge you for your husband, since you did that.  I’ve got professional standards.”

“I’ll give you all of it,” she said.  “If you take me with you.”

He cocked his head.  “What?”

“You’ve been driving all day,” she said.  “I can drive all night.”

“Fair enough,” he said.  “What happens tomorrow?”

“I don’t care,” she said.  “It won’t be happening here.”

He scratched his chin again, considering.  “You planning to bring the hammer?”

“Unless you’ve got something better for me.”

He grinned at that, folded the knife, and put it back in his pocket.  “I’ll give you ten minutes to get the money and get dressed.”

“All right,” she said.  She started toward the stairs, hesitated, and turned back toward the town.  At the edge of the plywood was a control box the size of a deck of cards.  She pushed the master switch and dozens of tiny electric lights came on in the houses and restaurants and office buildings.  The two trains started moving.  John and Lois watched for a few minutes as they chugged around the town, rolling through pools of RD’s blood, the clicking sound blending with the soft murmur of the baseball game.

“All right,” she said again.  “Let’s go.”

About the Author

Joseph Walker lives in Indiana and teaches college literature and composition courses. His short fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, Tough, and a number of other magazines and anthologies. He has been nominated for the Edgar Award and the Derringer Award and has won the Bill Crider Prize for Short Fiction I also won the Al Blanchard Award in 2019 and 2021. Follow him on Twitter @JSWalkerAuthor and visit his website at https://jsw47408.wixsite.com/website.

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