by Ryan Everett Felton
The place even felt like death, Heck Daniels thought – or at least some form of limbo. The office stood smack in the middle of an otherwise-abandoned strip mall, so desolate that Heck had seen an actual tumbleweed bounce past when he arrived.
And like purgatory, the office was unfurnished and smelled of eggs. Nothing but a picnic table with a crate on either side greeted Heck upon arrival for his scheduled appointment. He sat on a Borden’s carton sweating in the absence of central air, checking his watch until the makeshift sliding door (really a curtain) on the far end of the office opened, and through it came the woman called Gladys.
Through strained breaths she said, “Sorry, sweetie. Time just runs away from me back there.” Dressed for a day at the casino in a tracksuit and visor, she dropped a purse full of what Heck assumed were bricks onto the table, which buckled and creaked with the weight. “I’m Gladys,” she said. “You’re Hector. This, we know. Now – to business.”
“Uh-huh.” Heck fumbled around in his jacket until his hand emerged from it holding a slip of paper folded into the size, if not the shape, of a dime. With a nail he flicked it across the desk where the woman now stood. She didn’t touch it, though it was well within her grasp.
“I— I wrote the name down, like you said,” he said. “Wired the money to the account number you gave me. So, that’s it, right? You’ll text me the code-word when it’s done?”
“Not quite,” said Gladys, currently up to her neck in the purse. Loose Altoids and wadded-up tissues flew fast and loose from its floral-pattern bowels. When she reappeared, it was with a plastic baggie full of nuts in tow, her glasses at a 45-degree tilt. “There are still formalities, there’s still an honor and decorum to all this, y’know. Pistachio?” Her hand extended, brimming with the nuts.
Her fingers cracking open little shells, the woman said, “I never ate pistachios before. I was always a peanut gal.” She pushed a handful into her mouth, chewing and talking. “Really, I just bought whatever nut I thought had the funniest commercial. For thirty years that was Planter’s peanuts – no contest! But now…” Gulp. “Those pistachio ads really do it for me.”
There was a lull in which the young man and the elder woman considered one another: she, peering into his soul; he, staring at the bit of nutshell on her lip.
“Funny how things change, isn’t it?” she said.
Heck shifted on the crate. “I guess.” The room, it seemed, grew warmer by the second.
Her mouth full, the woman set about lining up a row of pistachios arranged from smallest to largest. “So why don’t you tell me what’s eating you, hon’?”
“What’s ‘eating me?’”
She paused, stumped by two nuts almost identical in size, and tapped the wadded-up note on the table. “The name you brought. Why don’t you tell old Gladys why you want this person eighty-sixed?”
“You really need to know that?” Heck asked and lifted his necktie to daub his forehead. “I don’t see how that’s relevant.”
Gladys smiled without kindness. “It’s relevant,” she said, and pounded a pistachio with her fist, rattling the table on its wobbly legs. “Because once you do this, there’s no take-backs. No changes of heart. You do this, the guy’s dead.” She blew on the resulting shell dust. “Or gal. So let’s talk this out. Let’s be sure you’re sure. All right, sweetie?”
Heck sighed, pushed palms into his eyes. “All right,” he said. “His name’s D—”
But Gladys stopped him with a cry of Dat, dat, dat! – like scolding a puppy. “No names. I don’t wanna know any names.”
So Heck pressed on, only without any name-dropping. He told Gladys of how this man (whose name began with a “D”) had wronged him, of why he deserved to die – why Heck needed him to die. This person was a hanger-on of mythological proportions, treating himself to extended stays in Heck’s apartment, eating his food and downloading unbelievable smut onto his computer. This man talked openly during movies – even in the theater – and had spoiled the ending of LOST for Heck. The laundry list of the man’s crimes went on: he set arbitrary alarms on his digital watch because he enjoyed the sound; he put ketchup on everything; he had a pet chinchilla. Worst of all, he clung to Heck – could not be shaken. The night prior had even ended in another of a series of emotional eruptions in which Heck had proclaimed he never wanted to see this person again, and just this morning, he had awakened to find the man known so far only as “D” playing video games on his couch, getting Cheeto dust into the crevices of the controller. As his verbal catalog of the man’s affronts to decent social mores amounted, Heck grew ever more convinced that the cretin no longer deserved to walk the Earth.
When he finished, Gladys pushed up on her visor cap and took a deep breath. “Now,” she said, “after everything you just said to me, are you still positive you want to go through with this?”
In the telling of his woes, Heck had found himself so worked up he’d almost needed to excuse himself to get some air. There was no other recourse, for now it was clear that his extended association with this individual was hazardous to his well-being. It was the only way. He nodded.
The lady tugged on her lip, her chin pointed up and her downward gaze affixed to the young man before her. Gladys clucked her tongue and said, “Well, I can’t say my services haven’t been requested for far less.” She pushed the slip of paper bearing the mystery agitator’s name back to Heck. “I want you to take that,” she said, “and step through the curtain into the back room.” She pointed at the door-sized hole in the far wall from which she’d emerged earlier. “In there, you’ll find a mail slot.”
“A mail slot?”
“Yes. You know, like a slot. For mail. There will be one in the next room. Keep up, Hector.” The contents of her enormous purse clanged and clattered as she went searching for a tissue, which she found and swirled around her nose. “Take the name. Drop it into the mail slot. Then leave, and our transaction is complete. Got it?”
Rubbing his arm, Heck grabbed the slip. “But then what? Somebody comes and picks up the name later, is that it?”
Between sniffles, Gladys said, “No, nobody picks it up. Not exactly.”
“So how do I know this gets done? What’s my assurance? I mean, I paid good money.”
Sniff, sniff. “It’ll get done.” Gladys shrugged. “Listen, hon’. I’m sure they told you, the way I do business is unusual. When my husband – rest his soul – left me this place, he was too busy being dead to give me the run-down on how the jobs get done.” She swept up the crushed nuts with her tissue and wadded the whole mess up into one hand. “All I know is, the clients drop a name in the slot, and presto-bingo-bango: nothin’ but good news in tomorrow’s obituaries.”
Heck’s mouth strayed to one side. “But how?”
Her hands found one another, as if in prayer, and looking at them, the woman said in a quiet rasp: “There’s something in there.”
Heck stood up. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “I’m calling my bank to cancel that wire. Thanks for nothing, lady.”
“Just do it, you ingrate,” Gladys said, dropping her matronly demeanor in total. “What do you have to lose? Just do it.”
In his periphery, the curtain partition flapped, though he felt no breeze. Heck’s hand balled up, squeezing the tiny paper into his clammy palm. Without any further exchange, he huffed and sauntered with some spite through the makeshift door. The room on the other side reminded him of a dungeon, lit as it was by torches drilled into stone walls. On the far end of the space, a bronze mail slot was affixed to the granite; above it, an ornamental lion head bared its metal teeth.
If he was perspiring before, he was positively seeping now. After peeling the note from his damp hand, he took a knee before the metal aperture, not unlike the one he slipped business mail into every day at work. He repeated the name on the slip in his head like a Gregorian chant and in this way wound up his temper. With a trembling finger he lifted the creaky flap of the mail slot and fell back, amazed.
The horizontal slit in the stone emitted a bizarre, bluish, powerful light that cast a swirling glow on the wall opposite. Heck heard a distant, constant sort-of whistle coming from within, like a teakettle gone haywire. Something in him turned, clutching at his guts, threatening to fling his breakfast overboard. In terms of leaving this place, sooner would be better.
With difficulty he pried apart the note and flattened it against his leg. Then, looking at the name there, he said, “Asshole.” And he dropped the paper in.
The subsequent panic was instantaneous, the regret painful. Desperate, as though drowning, he gasped for air. “Oh, no,” he said. “No, no. Heck, Heck. What did you do?” Without thought, his arms sprang for the mail slot, flipped it open, and jammed a hand inside up to wrist, twisting it around in a futile grasp for the death sentence that by now had to be well out of reach. Biting down on his lip, he contorted his arm to force it through the opening as far as physics would allow – which amounted to little more than another inch – and managed to pop his shoulder out of place in the process. Tears welled up in his eyes, pooling into the plentiful sweat on his cheeks, and he whispered, “Heck, you monster. Heck, you moron.”
The blue light and the distant wailing from inside the slot washed over him, and again he felt physically sickened by both sensations. The slip was gone, and he knew it was gone, but the horror of what he had done trumped logic. He continued to grab at the otherworldly void.
“Sweetie, you okay in there?” Gladys called from the main office. Heck ignored her, saying a mental prayer that his actions could yet be undone.
Then he felt it, a jolt of agony as sudden as a gunshot. A powerful set of fangs, pincers, or something less definable latched onto his fumbling hand and clamped down – hard. Heck screamed and cursed, tugged and wrestled with it, but no use. The thing held on, trapping him there on his knees, one hand in the mail slot, face pressed against stone. In a span of seconds, an interior monologue the length of a Shakespeare work ran through his mind, wondering simultaneously what was on the other side of that wall, if he would bleed out and die here, and why Gladys wasn’t coming to his aid.
At some point she did, but by then whatever had attacked him had been satisfied and Heck lay on the floor, one finger lighter.
“Well, what’d you stick your hand in for?” Gladys said. She would not dial 911, for obvious reasons. Instead she ordered a cab and sat with Heck outside on the curb as he waited for it. Pressed between blood-soaked knees dangled his hand, wrapped in a slipshod tourniquet of paper towels and rubber bands. The woman offered him a cigarette, and when he refused it, she lit two anyway and alternated puffing on them with both hands.
“Can’t believe you stuck your hand in,” she said. “Never in my life…” She let out two gruff chuckles – not laughing at Heck’s expense, per se, but not doing much to comfort him, either.
For his part, Heck remained calm. The only giveaway as to his immense distress was the tremor in his bottom lip, which he stifled by tucking under his teeth.
“What have I done?” he said. “Sentenced an innocent man to his death. I don’t want this.” He waggled his fresh knuckle-stump. “I don’t want this anymore.”
The woman put a tiny hand on his back and sighed out cigarette smoke. “Well, it’s done,” she said. “Your buddy coulda’ punched his ticket already, by now.”
Heck leaned back on his good hand, closed his eyes to the sun overhead. “What’s in there?” he said.
“Hell if I know, boy,” said Gladys. “Hell if I’m gonna go stickin’ my hand in there to find out, too.”
A minute later, a taxicab entered the lot and parked before them. Gladys helped Heck up – though, wobbly as she was herself, “helped” may be too generous a term.
“You gonna make it?” she said.
Heck looked at a pebble between his shoes.
“You be good, kid,” said Gladys, and she spat out both of her Pall Malls onto the ground.
By instinct, Heck reached for the cab door with his mangled hand. He stared at the dripping mass of napkins there and called over his shoulder to her: “But I’m right-handed,” he said.
Gladys pulled her green visor lower over her brow, and with her back to Heck Daniels, she called out.
“Up to now,” she said, “I figure you were a lot of things. From here on out, you’re something else.” Then she went back inside.
On the cab ride to the hospital, Heck peeled back the paper rags on his wound and stared into the pulpy hole where his pointer finger had once been. He wondered where in heaven or hell it was now, that finger he’d so taken for granted all his life. When blood began to seep once again from the throbbing nub, he wrapped it back up and forced back tears until his cheeks tingled. As the cabbie peeled into the hospital receiving bay, Heck Daniels took out his cell phone and deleted one name from his contacts list.
The name started with a “D.”