The man lived his final moments in a state of supreme disgrace.
As men of his kind so often did.
By the time the girl’s father put the gun to his head, Mister Howard Semple - family man, proud Christian and card-carrying Rotarian -was a befouled shadow of his former self. I’m not entirely sure how this pillar of the community pictured his last seconds playing out, but I’m confident it was nothing like this: sprawled on hands and knees, sobbing through splintered teeth, pleading with us to extend his miserable life by just a few heartbeats more.
“I gib ooh ebyfing oh ont,” the Corruptor o’ Young mumbles around his dislocated jaw, “ebbyfing ab all.”
Translation: ‘I’ll give you anything you want, anything at all.’
The father turns to me, hope in his eyes. I shake my head. “Nope, nothing of interest, Dave. Just your garden-variety begging, I’m afraid. I’ve heard better.”
Howard frowns, looking offended, and I have to stifle a sudden urge to giggle. Oh what a strange and delicate flower we have here. Good thing I didn’t share my fashion critique. If I told Howie what I really thought of that mustard sweater, and the way it accentuates his middle-aged man boobs, he’d probably be in tears right about now.
“Anything we want?” I ask.
“Ebbyfying ooh ont!”
“Lemme think about it.”
He perks up immediately, which doesn’t surprise me. In his soon-to-be-former life the man was a used car salesman. A reasonably accomplished one at that. I recall him appearing regularly in my local newspaper, heavily re-touched face beaming above rows of Honda Civics, Vespas and battered old family wagons for sale. Dude even had his own ad slogan. A lame one from memory. How’d it go again? Oh yeah: YA’LL COME SEE HOWIE FOR A WHEELY GOOD DEAL!
Writing ad’ copy clearly isn’t one of Howard’s strengths, but a career spent dickering with customers means he’s well versed in one thing: the art of negotiation. The guy’s an expert at reading people’s faces, in striking a good deal, in getting what he wants. And what he’s just detected in my voice is the sound of someone looking to bargain. Except this time, as he’s well aware, the stakes are much higher than conceding a free battery, windscreen replacement or five-year engine warranty.
The man drags himself to his knees -no mean feat considering his left patella has been kissed with an ice pick- and straightens his tie with trembling fingers. That tie’s paisley, by the way. Yep, paisley. If the jury needed any more convincing Howie was indeed a pedophile, the fact he was proudly rocking the ‘paisley tie/mustard sweater combo’ during the trial should’ve put the issue way beyond doubt.
“Ork to be...ee can erk somekin oud.”
Talk to me, we can work something out.
I squat down, careful to keep a distance. The man’s a bleeder, and my jeans are brand new. I place a hand on his shoulder and squeeze, hoping it’s not the one David dislocated with his Wilson 3 iron. The Corruptor offers a tentative smile in return, grateful for the touch. A tear makes its way out of one eye. It rolls down his cheek and falls to the floor. A good sign. Maybe there’s a heart in there after all.
“The girl’s father, he wants to know, Howard...” His eyes drop to the ground. I’ve sprinkled it with saw dust. Super absorbent. Great muffler of acoustics. “What’s done is done. You took the life of the child, the child’s father takes the life from you. I don’t expect you to appreciate this–given the position you’re in – but there’s a beautiful circularity going on here. Truly, The Old Testament never gets the credit it deserves for promoting the karmic wonder of revenge. Ahhhh, sweet revenge. It’s sobering to think, bud, that if it wasn’t for this primal human emotion I’d probably be out of a job. Unemployed! Can you imagine? Now that’s not a situation I’d like to find myself in. The economy being what it is at the moment. China slowing down and all…”
He frowns again
“But this isn’t about me, is it?”
David snaps at me: “Just make him tell us, will you?”
Sensing a distraction, Howard begins knee-walking towards the warehouse doors, grunting each time that broken patella of his bears weight. It looks like a long and painful journey. A pointless one too.
My tools are laid out on a scarred wooden bench behind us. Without asking, my client leans in and helps himself to one of my flensing knives. The F-stick is a delicate, flexible blade you’re likely to find in most butcher shops or weekend fishermen’s tackle boxes. Good for close-range work; able to untether smaller organs with a tidiness you just don’t get from a big, ungainly machete.
Dave, however, grabs the weapon with no finesse whatsoever. He snatches it hurriedly, haphazardly, completely abandoning the calm movements we practiced soooooo many times in rehearsal. The twit actually runs, yes runs, to the door, knife held upwards and blade pointing inwards, risking sudden disembowelment –at the very least a punctured nut sack - should he trip in haste. I tut under my breath, irritated at his showing. No matter how many times you take them through the occupational health and safety spiel, no matter how many charts, videos and diagrams you show them on correct subjugation techniques, it all flies out the window come Game Day.
David gasps, “He’s getting away!”
No, he’s not. Howard poses a marginal escape risk at best. His emancipation relies on reaching those two-hundred kilo doors, unlocking twin chains as thick as his arms, diving into (OMITTED BY HOLY ORDER 1A) Harbour and keeping that shattered body afloat long enough to flag down a passing vessel. Oh, and overpower the two of us in the process. My mind is sufficiently Zen to recognise the improbability of these events. The father’s mind is not. He wedges himself between Howie and the door, knife held aloft, snarling in a very un-accountant like manner.
He stops growling, looks at me.
“You’ve severed both his ACLs, and I think you’ve taken out the left Achilles while you’re were at it. See that weird spaghetti-like bunching behind his ankle? That look like normal, healthy tendon to you, champ?”
He peers over the man’s shoulders. Howard -quite politely under the circumstances -stretches out his rear leg to provide a better view.
“Oh, yes.” David lowers the blade. “I don’t even recall doing that, to be honest. This all seems to be happening so fast.”
“We’ve been tickling him for six and a half hours straight.”
“That long? Goodness, you don’t say.”
“He’s no flight risk, Daddy-o. Relax.”
I slide between them, squatting down again to face The Damned. Time is shorter than short. Howard is bleeding out. The sawdust is proof of that, much of it lying in red clumps on the floor, forming a trail leading straight to his legs. The blood is bright, frothy and well-oxygenated. Arterial spray. David must’ve nicked the femoral while working on the quads with my hacksaw. Bugger. I should’ve spotted that, clamped it, applied some basic triage. Now I’ve only got a minute left, maybe two. After that the only sounds we’ll get out of Howard are the creaks and groans of limbs; stiffening under the relentless command of rigor mortis.
“Tell us where she is. Allow the girl the dignity of a Catholic burial. The pain you’re feeling now? Sarah’s family live with that agony every moment of every day. Their hearts are sick with it, Howard, sick with not knowing where their daughter rests, whether she’s even whole in body. You can end their pain. You have it in you to be merciful. It was once in you to be good, to be God-fearing. Your file told me as much. You can be that man again. For the last time…be that man again.”
His eyes narrow. The car salesman is back, looking to make a deal.
“Bye oog I?”
“Because if you don’t I’ll cut off your di-“
“Not helping, Dave!”
I squeeze Howie’s shoulder, again. “I’ll get him to end you, fast. You’ll leave this Earth in a manner completely of your choosing. Cut throat? No problem. Pick in the heart? Say the word. Slug to the head? I’ll make it so. Tell us what we want to know and the pain ends, now. Not just the physical pain, but the agony of compulsion; of being who you are, of doing what you do. I can end all that, bud. The press, the courts, your own face in the mirror…you need never see any of them again.” I walk to the door and rustle the chains looped around the handles. “Escaping from here means nothing when the world is your prison. What I’m offering is a genuine way out, a chance to flee your demons for good. I can help do it, you have my word.”
“Dee urg og de urk?”
I remove the parchment from my jeans. Taking it from its fluid-proof pouch I unfold the paper, holding it in front of his puffy eyes. They swivel straight to the seal, to the Pontiff’s signature beneath.
“The word of the church.”
He blinks. Another tear descends.
“Suffer no more. Tell us where she rests. Tell us now and go well with God.” Ok, that was a bad choice of words. “Um, maybe not well, I’ve heard He’s pretty unforgiving when it comes to your sort, but go better, at least.”
He beckons me forward with one, weary nod and I lean in quickly, pressing my ear as close as I can against his cracked and bloodied lips. The air is leaking out of the man, both lungs hissing like puncture-riddled tyres. I revise Howard’s life clock estimate down to 55 seconds. He coughs in my face, blood bubble popping from his mouth. A fleck of spittle –coppery and rotten tasting – lands on my lower lip. I resist the urge to wince, not wanting to ruin the gravity of the moment. He coughs again. This time, claret trickles from both ears.
Make that 48 seconds.
His tongue moves sluggishly over his bottom lip, trying to summon the words.
Somehow those four, short words manage to escape Howard’s busted wreck of a mouth perfectly intact. Go figure. His declaration hangs heavily in the air for a moment, as if deciding whether it really wants to go where its master instructed, before slinking into our ears like the foulest of smog. I jerk back, recoiling at the words, knowing they’ll be the last he’ll ever speak. In this world, at least.
That’s also done it for Dave. He’s officially lost whatever restraint he was holding onto. The growl in the back of his throat tells me as much; the sound of a rabid dog who’s forever bucked the leash. I straighten up and pat him on the chest, his heart hammering hard enough to make my hand shake. In my experience, only two things can make a human heart beat just so: love and hate. And I’m pretty sure Dave’s all outta love.
I straighten up, sneakers crunching against the bloodied sawdust.
“Ayre goo owing?”
“Shut it, Beautiful. You had your chance.”
I unchain the doors, genuflect and leave. It’s the father’s show now, no sub-contractors allowed.