he following morning, Nick was in the shower when he heard his transmitter buzzing in the next room. Not feeling entirely awake, he decided to deal with whoever it was after he’d had his coffee.
And some booze.
And maybe some pills.
A few seconds later, he heard his own voice say “Hi, you’ve reached Nick Wergild, manhunter extraordinaire. I can’t answer your transmission right now because either I’m asleep, with a client, or someone is trying to kill me. The way my life has been going lately, possibly all three. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you. Maybe.”
“Hi, it’s Jessica. I’m sorry, but I don’t think this is going to work. Don’t get me wrong, it had nothing to do with last night. You were… acceptable. That’s not the problem. I found the blister packs from your ‘medication’ in the trash. I can’t be with someone who takes pills to escape reality. The real world is a beautiful place. Maybe you could see that if you spent some time here.”
Another relationship over. He paused for a moment, expecting to be hit by the usual wave of depression, guilt, and self-loathing, the feeling he always got after being dumped or eating too much cake, but nothing happened. He simply didn’t care about her enough for the rejection to hurt. But with Sophia, things were different. Her opinions mattered. She mattered.
“Ever since we first met, I held her at a distance. I never wanted her to discover the cracks in my facade. But when she came to the hospital, she saw me at my absolute worst, and she stayed with me. I had to be unconscious to stop hiding from her, but I did it. Everything was out in the open, and she didn’t run away.” For the first time in months, he sang in the shower.
Nick spent the next three days finishing collecting the evidence against Gordon, working constantly, with barely enough time to sleep. He had to act quickly. According to Gordon’s contract with the insurance company, he couldn’t be held for more than seven days without a conviction. An arbitrator had already ruled that Gordon was healthy enough to stand trial, even though he was still recovering from his encounter with the window. As soon as Nick was ready, he let Todd know it was safe to call Renée’s parents and inform them about their daughter’s death.
The morning of the trial, Nick smoked some breakfast and watched the local newsfeeds. A lantern-jawed anchor with a facial tic frowned in disapproval at a recent plane crash. “And in entertainment news,” he said, showing the camera a disturbingly white smile, “a new book has reached the top of the sales charts: Supernatural Undead Crazy Killers. Authors Eric Spellman and Stanley Aguirre are currently incarcerated in a work camp, but they have been granted a week’s leave to go on a book tour. The authors had this to say: ‘Our first stop will be Vancouver, where we will brutally murder Nick Wergild.’ What a couple of fun, crazy guys! And now for the weather…”
With an exhausted sigh, Nick put out his last cigarette and headed for the arbitrator’s office. “This,” he thought, “is going to be one hell of a long day.”
Along with the Flockharts, Todd, Margery, and Jessica were there, and also some of Gordon’s neighbors. Near the back of the room was the woman with the shaved head Nick had found sleeping in Gordon’s apartment. She looked to have been crying.
Nick took the stand and reiterated everything he had told Margery. “Dunmore made three attempts to frame other individuals for the murder. He threw a pipe bomb into Sweeney’s office, knowing that I would assume it was Donald Canard, an employee of Scunner Consulting. Dunmore also attempted to frame Clayton West, planting the photographs that I mentioned earlier. I believe Dunmore killed West to keep him from telling me about the fraudulent photos. Finally, Dunmore moved West’s body to the restaurant in an attempt to frame Sweeney for both murders.”
He paused to dig through his notes. “Dunmore’s contract with his insurance company permitted me to investigate his home. In his bedroom, I discovered what was most likely the camera used to take the photos, as well as materials that could be used to build a pipe bomb like the one that set fire to the restaurant. I also found a suspicious-looking substance in Dunmore’s freezer, which DNA testing proved to be the remains of Renée Flockhart. The remains only weighed ten pounds. The rest of the flesh, I would imagine, Dunmore had already consumed.”
After Nick left the stand, several of Gordon’s neighbors testified, saying what a “creepy guy” he was and how he “always smells like death” and “never says hello in the lobby anymore.”
A kendo expert testified next. She said that the wounds to Clayton’s skull were from a katana, a Japanese sword, just like the one in Gordon’s apartment. (Earlier, she had told Nick privately that “men” was the term for a cutting blow to the forehead, shouted during tournaments. However, as Nick didn’t want anyone to know that had broken into Clayton’s house, he kept quiet about that particular detail of the case.)
Finally, it was Gordon’s turn to take the stand. His large frame seemed shrunken, his shoulders stooped in despair. “My lawyer told me I’m certain to be convicted,” he said softly. “The evidence is just too great. He said I’ll have to pay for everything, so I should just cooperate and make the trial less expensive for myself. Or my estate, I guess…” He took a long drink of water and cleared his throat. “I knew about the investigation from the beginning… Jessica heard Mr. Sweeney and Mr. Wergild talking, and she told me what they said. She didn’t know I had done it; she was just gossiping.”
Gordon paused, staring at the water in his glass. “I’ve known Renée since high school. She never noticed me. She was more interested in seniors, guys with money and cars. So I gave up on her and dated other girls. I had a few girlfriends that I loved, but things never quite worked out. Either I didn’t have enough money or I wasn’t good looking enough or I was too emotionally distant or too clingy. Something was always wrong.”
“Once I got this job,” he continued, “I realized that my crush never went away. I wanted to ask Renée out, but Mr. Sweeney doesn’t like his employees dating coworkers. I got so mad at him for that. So damn mad! I wanted to hurt him, so I sold some information to that activist group. I didn’t know it at the time, but they broke into Renée’s place, scared her pretty bad. She didn’t show up to work for a week. I thought she quit… I could finally ask her out! I went to her place, and we talked… I asked her if she would ever consider maybe, possibly, getting involved with me, but she shot me down. She had gotten a job in The Republic of Texas. I’d never see her again. Just like everybody else in my life, she was going to go.”
Tears spilled down his pockmarked cheeks. The arbitrator asked if he needed a break, but he just shook his head. Taking a deep breath, he said, “That’s when I had an idea: I could keep her here! She was so little, and I’m such a big guy. Her neck broke so easily… I dragged her to the restaurant, where I cut her up and stored her in the freezer. I took bits of her home over the next few weeks, until Mr. Sweeney caught me. He thought I was stealing from him. But she belonged to me! She is me, now. I ate every piece of her, and she’s a part of me forever.”
Oddly, Renée’s parents didn’t seem upset. They looked like they were watching golf on television. Something that disturbing, that bizarre, would take days to sink in. The arbitrator stood and stacked his legal papers into a great, towering pile. “Mr. Dunmore has demonstrated that he is an extremely dangerous individual. Therefore, he will spend the rest of his life in a maximum security work camp. As Clayton West has no known heirs, the profits from Mr. Dunmore’s labor will be divided between the Flockharts and Detective Wergild. Mr. Dunmore’s possessions will be sold, as will his internal organs on the event of his death. The money from those sales will be given to the Flockharts.”
A squadron of heavily-armed security patrolmen led Gordon from the office. Todd and Margery waved awkwardly at Nick from across the room and walked out, leaving in opposite directions. Jessica looked at her watch for a few seconds and then trotted after Todd. Finally, the arbitrator grabbed his briefcase and left for another trial.
Nick sighed, exhausted. “At last, it’s over.”
A gloved hand covered his eyes. A woman’s voice said, “Guess who, you stupid piece of shit!”
The hand grabbed his shoulder and turned him around. It was the woman from Gordon Dunmore’s apartment. Her other hand tightly clutched a straight razor. “Recognize me now, asshole?”
“You’re some bald woman. I saw you at Dunmore’s place.”
“Here’s a hint: I wear a wig at work.”
“Oh, holy hell. You’re Faith! You tried to kill me! Well, you’re lucky that I never hit a woman. Technically, it’ll be this folding chair that hits you.”
Faith laughed, toying idly with the razor, swinging it like a butterfly knife. “Go ahead, just try to fight me. I’m wearing these gloves for a reason: I just rubbed so much LSD into your face that you’ll be tripping for a solid year!”
“Because it makes it easier for me to kill you,” she said slowly, as if she were explaining it to a small child.
“I realize that,” he said. “What I meant was why do you want to kill me?”
“You got Don sent to a work camp!”
“No, I didn’t. I got Gordon Dunmore sent to a work camp. Don Canard didn’t kill anyone. That I know of, anyway.”
“I’m talking about Gordon!” she snapped. “Everyone calls him ‘Don.’ He only goes by ‘Gordon’ at work. He told me you were investigating him… He led you to the bar where I work, and I injected you with a speedball. When I left, you were choking on your own vomit.”
But he wasn’t listening. He was staring down at his chest, pawing at his shirt. “Could you do something about these scorpions? What if they get in my pants?”
Faith laughed darkly. “Well, it looks like your time has come.” The razor flashing in her hand, she lunged for his throat. Suddenly, she collapsed on the floor, convulsing violently.
Nick slipped his stunner back into his pocket. “Don’t they teach needle girls anything about their products anymore? LSD takes at least twenty minutes to have any effect. You should have done something to distract me until it was too late. Started a fire, grabbed a hostage, taken your top off…” He snapped his handcuffs on her wrists and, as soon as she was able to stand, he pulled her to her feet.
“I’m never going to see Don again!” she whimpered weakly. “We were going to be married!”
“Weren’t you paying attention? He’s still in love with Renée! Damn. Isn’t that just like a woman? ‘I know he’s a psychotic, cannibal murderer, but I can change him!’”
“I’ll get out eventually, you know. I’ve seen the women’s work camps. Minimal security… I’ll escape and kill you.”
“You’re not going to a work camp,” he explained. “I arrested your fiancée, so I figure you have every right to be mad. I’m not pressing charges.”
“If you’re not taking me in,” she said worriedly, “what are you going to do?”
“We’re going for a drive.”
He threw her over his shoulder and carried her to his car. He grabbed her money pouch, shoved it in his pocket, and dropped her roughly into the trunk. She looked embarrassed and angry, which was very difficult to do at the same time. Not quite as tricky as “terrified and bemused,” but still challenging, as far as facial expressions go. “Get comfortable,” he laughed. “You’re going to be in there for awhile.”
Nick drove for hours, the LSD a nice distraction from the endless wall of billboards. Finally, he arrived at the Canadian boarder. He flashed his manhunter’s badge and was allowed to pass without his car being searched. Normally, the Canadian border guards would have checked the trunk for drugs or illegal aliens or Sasquatch hunting gear. There was no American border patrol, but the Canadians checked people leaving the country as well as entering. It was an attempt to keep Canadian addicts from traveling to the territories to buy the few drugs that were still illegal in their homeland. It also cut down on the number of Canadian entertainers fleeing to Hollywood.
A few miles past the border, he stopped for fuel and supplies. He threw a water jug and a heavy, tan bag in the backseat and continued on. As he traveled north, the temperature dropped, eventually becoming cold enough that the car’s computer switched on the heater.
He parked in the grass at the side of the road and dragged the bag from his backseat. He emptied the bag on the ground, mixing its contents with water. “And now, we wait.”
Nick yanked Faith out of the trunk and placed her on her feet. He pointed to a large, gray lump on the ground. “That’s fifty pounds of cement. Your passport’s in the center. If you want back across the boarder, I suggest looking for a wheelbarrow.”
He hopped back in his car and headed for home. As he passed the Canadian boarder, he wondered if the four hundred mile walk back to Vancouver would give Faith time to rethink her life and her relationship with Gordon, or just make her really, really pissed off. “Either way, I’ll at least have the weekend to myself. Thank god. I’ve had enough of these weirdoes.”
He pulled his transmitter from his jacket pocket and tried to contact Sophia, but there was no answer. His transmission was forwarded to her video mail. “Sophie, hi,” he said awkwardly. “I suppose you could be in the shower, or you could be ignoring me on purpose. I’m not sure which. If you get this message, trans me back. I think I’m finally ready to talk.”
His tolerance level was so high that Faith’s LSD was already wearing off. He fumbled in his glove compartment for a bit, eventually coming up with a tin full of sugar cubes. He placed one in his mouth and felt it dissolve into sweetness and light.
The sky was filled with butterflies.