No Good Deed – Excerpt
I can barely shove one foot in front of the other and I have no idea which way I’m going, but I can’t stop.
Down every hall is a gruesome tangle of impossible creatures, and every one of them is split open or strung with barbs or dragging their insides after them, flailing along on shattered limbs or shredded wings or blasted stumps.
I’ve got the pistol, half a can of spray and a handful of useless shotgun slugs.
What looks like half a demon grabs at me as I pass another corridor, knocking me into the wall, but not getting a hold. Several other things in the corridor behind start keening horribly.
“Umber!” I can barely croak his name. Where the hell is he? What the hell am I doing here?
I push around the corner ahead, running on I-don’t-know-what energy.
But they’re everywhere: things with tentacles, with too many eyes, with slime and claws and fangs and wings. The hall is clogged with them, ahead and behind.
There’s no way out.
The sheer simplicity of this fact hits me like a punch to the gut, shoving the last scraps of wind from my lungs. I sag to a defeated stop.
It’s not terror that washes over me, though, but guilt. I was completely wrong.
Shawn, Cora, Patrick . . . .
I feel sick and hollow while the last two weeks burn across my mind.
“They let you go?”
Jen and I are sitting on a playground bench at Memorial Field, watching the twins race up and down the slide under a beautiful blue August sky. It’s just after eleven on a Thursday morning. Normally, I’d be at the office taking calls and making appointments, while Jen watched the kids.
“They let half of us go, Jen. It wasn’t personal.” To tell the truth, I’m terrified about what this means for me and Shawn and the kids, but there’s no point advertising it.
“But to just show up and get a pink slip?”
I shrug. “It’s been around the office for a while. We haven’t had a new client since March, the economy still sucks and nobody’s advertising. It wasn’t exactly a surprise.” The words are almost automatic to me at this point; they’ve been running loops in my brain all morning.
“Still . . .”
I put my hand on her leg. She’s my half-sister and she looks it; which is to say, she looks almost nothing like me. We’ve both got Mom’s auburn hair, but that’s about it. Jen got her father’s slim height, paler skin, black eyes, and fine bones. I’m stuck with my size 14 squashed onto a 5’4″ frame. I was thinner for a while, but that was before the twins, and the result of some seriously confused perceptions of reality.
Jen is also 26 to my 38, single, and not much on socialization, which is another reason I like her to take care of the kids. I worry about her spending all that time in front of a computer. Granted, her web design work makes great money, but she’s always been a quiet kid, and I just worry. It makes it easier not to be jealous of her looks, anyway.
“I know,” I say. “Thanks. Shawn and I have talked about it, though. I’ll find something.”
“Mom!” Patrick waves quickly from the top of the slide, then shoots down, shrieking with glee, before his sister can reach him from the ladder. Cora cries out, laughing, and lunges to the top herself, her eyes sparkling.
I have to smile. When they’re grouchy, they’re still my babies, but when they’re like this, when it’s laughter instead of name-calling, they’re more precious than I deserve.
“So what’s the plan?”
I laugh. “Jen, I’ve been unemployed for about an hour and a half.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
“But you’re right. I can’t just sit around.” I offer her the last half of the over-sized scone I picked up on the way over from the office.
She shakes her head. “I’m trying to cut out snacks.”
I roll my eyes. “Jen. You are _not_ dieting.”
“No, no. I just tend to snack when I’m working and then I’m not hungry for lunch or dinner.”
“Hm.” I could do with not being hungry for a few lunches or dinners, but the scone is ginger and white chocolate, and it really is delicious. “Well, for four dollars, I’m not wasting it.”
“Mom!” Cora waves from her position upside down on the monkey bars, and her pink Red Sox baseball cap shakes loose.
“Hey, monkey,” I wave back and she grins. “Don’t forget to pick up your hat.”
My mother’s always on me for not being more careful with the twins, but I’m a firm believer in the educational value of falling down. Besides, compared to me, the twins walk on eggshells.
“Have you told Mom, yet?”
“No.” I take another bite. “And don’t you tell her either.”
“I won’t.” She hesitates. “Are you still okay for Mom’s party? I can probably still get the rec room at the condo, if you want.”
Damn, I’d forgotten about that. After we flubbed Mom’s sixtieth by doing as she said and not having a party for her, Jen’s been trying to figure out a way to make up for it. Thus, the surprise 65th next week at our house. Of course, the only way to surprise Mom is to do it three months in advance.
“No, I’m fine. Besides,” I force a light tone, “I’ll have plenty of time for once.”
Jen gives me an uncertain smile, then we watch Patrick and Cora play tag with some of the other kids.
Life’s strange. I was twelve when Jen was born and I moved out when she was still in pre-school, but now I spend more time with her than with the rest of my family combined.
“If there’s anything I can do,” she says quietly.
I swallow the last of the scone and give her the grin Shawn uses when he’s trying to force himself to be happier. “We’ll figure it out. We’ve got COBRA for now and I’ll check the classifieds and start revising my resume when we get home.” I stand up and brush the last crumbs off my pants. “We’ll figure it out.”
The angry growl of a double-exhaust motorcycle rumbles over the playground, drowning out the children’s shouts and laughter. I look over Jen’s shoulder as a beast of a machine stops at the light by the entrance to the field.
It looks like a Harley frame, but it’s obviously a custom build, solid black with streaks of polished chrome and sparkling steel in the wheels and chassis. My brother Pete would be jealous.
The rider looks like a Hell’s Angel wannabe, of course, dressed in all black with a black bandana instead of a helmet. He lifts a cell phone to his ear as the light turns green. Still talking, he rumbles out of view, only one hand on the bike.
“Isn’t there a law against that?”
Jen shrugs. “There’s a new cycle shop near my condo that does that kind of work.” Her voice lowers. “Other stuff, too, I think.”
I shake my head. Jen lives by herself on the far side of Memorial Field, in the old bleaching warehouse they converted into high-class condo units. Her condo is nearly the size of our entire house, except with new plumbing, electrical and appliances, and 12 foot ceilings with enormous windows — like I said, her job pays very well — but she also has wire fences, floodlights, keypad entry, and rent-a-cops.
During the day, it’s no big deal here, but nights are another thing. It was totally different when we were growing up here. It used to be just idiot kids with nothing better to do — including me — roaming around and knocking out windows with rocks or BB guns, or crawling inside and drinking or making out. There was a bad fire the Fouchard boys started accidentally, and one kid fell through a rotted floor and split his head open, but now it’s drugs and even gangs, if you can believe it. In Lewiston, Maine of all places.
It’s still idiot kids with nothing better to do, but now they have guns, and it’s a lot easier to get messed up over drugs in an alley, than with a six-pack of stolen beer shared among guilty friends.
Patrick pulls on my pant leg. “I need a Band-Aid.” His pink face is scrunched up, determined not to cry.
“Oh, sweetie.” I crouch down. “Let me see.”
He lifts his knee so I can see the gravel-covered scrapes and the blood seeping from the pale cuts.
“Oh!” I say, grinning along with his bravado. “That’s a good one.” I brush off the loose pebbles, then pick out the few embedded in his skin.
He sucks air in through clenched teeth, but doesn’t cry. I automatically wince at the sound. Being a softie is a mother thing, I’ve learned. Makes hypocrites of us all.
I’m generally okay with them running around. I’ve got scars from bike-riding, tree-climbing, fence-walking, racing along the train tracks, just about everything. Grace was never an issue for me, and Mom gave up on raising me like a girl by the time I was 5 or 6. Having three older brothers can do that.
“Ow!” His face tightens up like a prune, but he holds himself still.
“Here.” Jen hands me a wet nap and a tube of antibiotic from the mommy bag, then peels open a Band-Aid. Sun block, bug spray, and extra tissues are on the bench from her rummaging. I may not mind if they get scraped up, but being a mother also means being prepared.
I am so glad diapers are over with, though.
Patrick whimpers and pulls back as I rub the lemon-scented wet nap over the scrapes.
“He jumped off the swing set when that other boy dared him to do it.” Cora points vaguely behind her.
“Well, Patrick,” I say, using my disappointed-adult voice, “I’ve told you before how silly it is to do things just because everyone else is doing them, so I won’t repeat myself.” Except I just did. It still amazes me when my mother’s voice comes out of my mouth.
Patrick rolls his head lamely and looks at the ground. Just like I used to.
Part of me wants to ask how far he went when he jumped, but today I’ll be the proper mother, so I put on the bandage and kiss his knee. “Better?”
He nods sheepishly and I straighten up. “Good. Then who wants lunch?”
“Fluffernutters!” The kids say in unison.
I lift my eyebrows in surprise. “What?”
Jen smiles a little embarrassedly as she stands. “I sometimes give them Fluffernutters, but they split a sandwich between them,” she adds quickly. She turns to the kids. “And what else do you have to eat?”
“Carrots,” groans Cora with a face. Patrick, my vegetable lover, grins at his sister’s discomfort.
“Oh, well then,” I ruffle both their heads. “In that case, Fluffernutters, here we come!”
Jen picks up the mommy bag, scooping the kid’s snack containers and water bottles in, as well. “Where’s your car?”
“Back in the garage.”
I can see what she’s thinking, but she stops herself from saying anything. She’s the best of us, that way. I give her a wry smile. “Yes, I walked. It was good. Got my mind off things a bit.”
“That’s great, Kelly.” She nods her head, genuinely happy for me. She’s probably hoping I’ll get back into an exercise routine, though she’d never say it out loud.
“Alright, team,” I say, giving the kids a salute. “Let’s move out!”
Jen’s place is only a few blocks from Memorial. The kids run ahead, kicking pebbles along the sidewalk. Small one- or two-bay garages line the small street, and the noise of power wrenches, banging metal, and air compressors punctuates the air as we walk.
“If you need help with anything,” Jen says between bursts of noise.
I take a breath, trying not to get angry. She’s not trying to be pushy, just helpful. “We’re good, Jen. Really.”
“Well, if you need help with Shawn’s bills or something-”
“Gotcha!” “No you didn’t!” “Yeah-huh!”
Cora slips between us, dodging Patrick’s hand. “Not it!”
Patrick runs around Jen, but Cora swings the other way, and they circle us, taunting and giggling.
I smile, but I catch sight of Patrick’s bandaged knee and sober up immediately. Jen’s right. What if he’d twisted his ankle badly, or fractured a wrist? COBRA is fine, but I have to pay up front, and we barely have a month’s mortgage in savings. What about Shawn’s bills? What if he gets worse? Why am I being so unreasonable about Jen’s offer? Just because my little sister has all this money from playing with computers-
I stifle the thought. Stop being a martyr. She’s just trying to help.
I touch her arm. “Thanks, Jen. I’ll let you know-oof!”
Cora bumps into me, ricocheting away as Patrick lunges after her.
“Watch it, you two,” I scold half-heartedly.
Jen looks around for a moment, searching.
“Cora’s hat.” She rummages through the mommy bag.
Up ahead, Cora’s dodging around a car parked half up on the sidewalk. Her short hair is free.
“Cora! Where’s your hat?”
She actually stops and puts a hand to her head, confused. “I dunno.”
“Gotcha!” Patrick hits her in the arm and then races away, laughing.
“No fair! I wasn’t ready!”
“Nyah, nyah!” Patrick sticks out his tongue from the other side of the car.
“It must be back at the playground,” Jen says, handing me the bag and her keys. “Here. You remember my code, right?”
I push them back to her. “No, you go on. I’m on a roll with this walking thing, anyway, right? Back in a sec.”
Jen tries to refuse, but I’m already moving.
“Kids! Behave for Jen! I’ll be right back!”
Distracted half-waves are all the acknowledgement I get as they keep chasing each other.
The shops continue to whine and blast and bang as I walk back up the road. A couple young guys in overalls, grease on their forearms and cheeks, share a smoke out in front of one of the garages as I pass by.
I turn up an alley shortcut back to the field. The buildings here are mostly boarded up. One has the blackened brick of a fire, but through a broken basement window I see the edge of a dingy mattress and a disheveled man sitting on it, smoking a cigarette and looking right back at me.
I walk faster, tapping my pocket with the combination rape whistle, flashlight, and pepper spray key-chain. There’s no-one here, and it’s been a very long time since these alleys were familiar to me. Back then, looking in the wrong window might get you yelled at, but it wouldn’t get you shot.
Turning up onto the intersecting road, though, the hiss and thrum of traffic up on the main road is almost musical, and the rusted, graffitied Memorial Field entrance is almost beautiful.
I stop and clench my fists. What is wrong with me? I see a wino in an abandoned building and suddenly I’m worried about getting shot in the middle of the day? This isn’t New York City, for crying out loud. Oh, wouldn’t Tammi Kimmler love to see me now, all Mrs. Scaredy-Mom.
A mischievous grin grows on my face as I start walking again. Talk about stubborn. I had to beat that girl up twice in ninth grade before she stopped with the trash talk. Okay, so she was more stupid than stubborn.
Of course, that probably went for both of us, actually.
I’m a full two steps past a narrow gap between buildings when two things happen.
First, a strangled voice shouts, “Help!”
Second, my mind registers what was on the edge of my vision. A large man dressed all in black looming over a smaller figure in overalls. That, plus a metallic glint between them.
“Hel-” chokes the voice again, but it’s cut off by a thud, a guttural snarl of pain and then silence.
In the flash of a moment, I think of a hundred reasons not to stop. It’s probably drugs or money or something worse. The traffic is only a hundred yards away. I can keep walking. The alley is made up of the backs of low warehouses; a few chained metal doors, a couple trash dumpsters, nothing – and no-one – else. Nobody to see me not turn around. It’s not my problem. I can keep walking.
Slowly, I lean my head around the corner. Maybe twenty feet away, the two figures are as still as statues.
It’s the motorcycle rider from earlier, except he’s down to a plain black tank top and there’s no bike in sight. Black and silver tattoos run down the back of his thick, muscled neck, out over his exposed shoulders and arms, right down to his black fingerless gloves. He’s got the front of the other man’s overalls in one hand and a black and silver pistol-grip shotgun in the other, pressing the man’s head sideways against the wall.
This other man looks Somali, dark and thin, and smaller at least by half. He’s probably fifty years old, with short grey hair and a drawn, pointed face on a head that looks too big for his scrawny body. He can’t weigh more than 150 or 160 pounds. The overalls hang loosely off his bony frame and he looks like a stiff wind could knock him over.
“Shit,” Mr. Black mutters.
“Help!” croaks Mr. Overalls.
Mr. Black presses the gun into Mr. Overalls’ temple. “Shut up.”
I stare, dumbstruck, as he looks over at me. Something between my shoulder blades tightens reflexively and I can feel the sweat running down my back.
“Appreciate the concern, lady,” Mr. Black says, releasing the little man’s overalls but keeping the gun pressed to the man’s head. Reaching to a rear pocket, he brings out a flip wallet and holds it open towards me. I can’t read it, but I can see a badge and an ID card with a U.S. flag in the background. “But this is a police matter.”
Black pushes the gun again and the little man’s head scrapes along the wall. Then Black looks back at me sharply. “Go on about your business, lady. I’ve got-”
Overalls starts to struggle beneath him, upsetting his balance.
“You son of a-” Black wrestles for a few moments before flipping Overalls face-first to the ground with a grunt and pinning him with a knee. He leans forward, pressing his gun to the old man’s head. “Don’t,” he growls.
Overalls stops, breathing heavily.
Black glances up and looks surprised when he sees me. “Lady!” His face clouds over. “Look, this guy’s a rapist, okay? Now get out of here.”
“Not a policeman!” Overalls hisses in a strange accent.
Black yanks his arms back and snaps a pair of bright steel cuffs on him. Overalls cries out as Black stands quickly, hauling him to his feet.
Overalls’ large eyes plead with mine. “Not a police-”
Black kicks the old man’s legs apart and shoves him against the wall.
“Hey!” I snap my cell phone out and hold it up just as Black squares the shotgun against the side of Overall’s pinned head. Of course, the first thing I think of is the stupidest I could think of, but even though my three-year-old ‘el cheapo’ model doesn’t have a camera, most do, and I can’t just watch this.
Black looks at me in disbelief, then his eyes register the phone and his face hardens immediately. “What is wrong with you people?”
“I’m sending this to my . . . web site,” I say loudly, brandishing the phone at them both. I’m about as full of crap as I can be, but I’m sure it’s something Jen would know how to do.
Black’s eyes narrow. He pulls Overalls away from the wall and shoves him down the narrow space toward me. “Give me the phone, lady.”
I step back a bit, but keep the ‘camera’ on him while my other hand reaches for my key-chain. “I don’t think so.” The bravado is entirely in my voice, but I’m committed now. “If this is legitimate, and you really are the police, then there’s nothing wrong with me capturing it. If this isn’t, though, then I’m afraid you’re screwed.”
He pushes the little man closer and I back up again, toward the street. And the traffic. And the witnesses.
“Look,” he says, lifting the ID again. “Here’s my badge.” They’re ten feet away when he leans forward, squinting.
“Lady,” he says with a dark smile, “that ain’t even got a camera.”
My stomach drops.
“Ballsy, though,” he says, pushing Overalls forward. “I’ll give you that.” He shakes his head. “But now I’m gonna have to-”
I lunge forward, bringing up the key-chain and jamming the pepper spray button. His eyes and mouth go wide in surprise, and he gets a face full of the hissing spray. He reels back immediately, clawing at his face and gagging.
Overalls slams against me, spinning me around and knocking me down.
I scramble up to the sound of yelling and a horrid tearing and crunching noise. The screaming is Black, on his back and choking out a blue streak, with Overalls hunched on top of him on all fours, back to me.
A muffled bang I can feel in the air sends Overalls up and back, flying past me in a spray of blood and torn clothes and dark chunks.
Black coughs some more as he tries to sit up, but his stomach is flayed open in wide red gashes and his right arm ends in a disgusting bloody pulp. Tears and snot streak his cheeks and chin as he fumbles back against the corner of a dumpster.
“Thanks,” rasps a voice behind me.
My stomach goes from sickened disgust to icy terror.
At the base of the far wall, Overalls is pulling himself up onto his knees and cuffed hands. A burst of holes have shredded the overalls, and a purplish, syrupy blood smears the front, mixing with bright red. But it’s his head that freezes me solid.
The rest of him is still the scrawny little older man, but someone swapped his head with a wolf’s: dark grey hair, pointed ears, wide eyes that practically glow in the daylight, and yellowed teeth in a mouth big enough to put my head inside. Or Black’s forearm.
What the -?
But whatever it is wobbles slightly, then rights itself. A bright pink tongue lolls to the side as it pants once in slow motion, grinning loosely at me.
My brain is off, but I squeeze the spray nozzle.
The can eventually gives an empty hiss as the thing stumbles to the ground, gagging and hunched over, running streams of noxious liquid through the impossible animal-hair.
Almost immediately, though, it starts pushing itself up, drooling and glaring at me with a fury I can actually feel. I stagger back. Black is motionless on the ground, flat eyes staring at nothing and his body a disgusting mess, but his hand still grips the shotgun.
I’ve never been hunting or anything, but back in high school my brothers and some of their friends would go down to the quarry at night and set up some targets for fun and to show off to their girlfriends. Being me, I tagged along, but I never just sat around and watched with the other girls.
The pistol-grip feels strange, but it’s cocked and loaded. I aim for the creature’s giant head and fire from three feet away.
The bang is louder than I remember, ringing my ears. The kickback is harder, too, driving back into my shoulder socket like I just got punched.
When I look again, there’s only the scrawny little old man’s body laid out on the ground. His head is in too many pieces to identify. His hands are still cuffed, though, and I suddenly remember images of terrorist killings from the news.
I feel nauseous and throw the gun away like it was a poisonous snake. I look up and down the alley quickly, but nobody’s around. Traffic continues up at the main street, oblivious.
A bitter, acidic odor wafts around me, making my eyes water and my nose burn. It smells like someone soaked a pile of coals in gasoline before lighting it. A few feet away, the scrawny body smolders with a greasy-looking smoke so heavy it just pools along the ground.